How to make your PhD like an R&D

800px-MET_Opera_Rehearsal_Room

Rehearsal room

In January, director Charlotte Vickers, producer Emily Davis and I were lucky enough to get Arts Council funding for a research and development week on my new play Andromeda and Me. Charlotte and I spent a week workshopping a draft of the play and creating new material with actors Rosie Gray and Nigarish Khan. It was probably both the most intense and most enjoyable writing experience I’ve ever had. As I emerged from the cocoon of the imaginary world we’d created together with a far stronger play and a clearer sense of direction, I started to wonder whether I could run my PhD – specifically the writing element – like an R&D.

This post also owes a massive debt to Academic Writing Group, run by Alice Kelly, and the Baillie-Gifford writing partnerships scheme at TORCH Oxford, which have transformed my academic writing habits this year.

Prepare

One of the reasons the R&D was so productive, was that Charlotte and I had spent a year and a half working together on the project and I’d written two drafts of the play. This meant that we knew each other well and trusted each other’s creative judgement. And we knew the play well enough to articulate exactly what we were trying to explore and find out from the R&D. Similarly, when I go to Academic Writing Group or plan a PhD writing session with my writing partner, I like to prepare by doing my reading/ planning in advance, so I’m just writing during that time.

It’s a working draft

Sometimes I feel like I am endlessly redrafting my PhD in response to my supervisor’s comments, and it will never be finished. Which as a perfectionist I have found very hard to adjust to. I went in to the R&D with a draft I wasn’t completely happy with and I was convinced that the actors would think I was a terrible writer because of it. However, not being overly attached to that draft meant that we were a lot freer to experiment with it, to throw out the bits that didn’t work, and to discover new scenes. I’m trying to get better at seeing my writing as something in process.

Be present in the room

There’s something mind focusing about going to a place you associate with a certain activity. For me, Port Meadow is associated with running, the Upper Bod is associated with reading, and the Colin Matthews seminar room is now associated with writing! For the R&D, we had the rehearsal room for 5 days and we made sure we made the most of it. The days were long and, when we were working, we were focused. It also meant that, on the actors’ day off, I could go into the space and have a really productive writing session because it had become associated in my mind with being creative.

Make yourself accountable

The R&D was one of the first times I’d taken myself seriously as a playwright (because I was being paid?! – thanks Arts Council). The week before, I was freaking myself out with imposter syndrome (what if they’d made a mistake and would demand the money back; what if I let everyone down etc etc) and had to have a stern talking to from the director Charlotte. But when we were in the room, we worked as professionals. Working in a team also meant that we were all accountable to each other – if I hadn’t delivered the script on time, then there would have been nothing for the actors to read at the public sharing. One thing that surprised me about taking part in Academic Writing Group was how writing with others in the room focuses my mind (I’d previously had some weird hang-ups about only being able to write alone, in a silent library). Before each writing session, we set goals on our tables, then check in with our partners to see whether we achieved them.

(Try to) turn off the inner critic

I can and will argue for the best criticism being creative. But the critical mindset is to unpick/deconstruct/evaluate, which isn’t helpful when you’re trying to generate something that is fragile and needs space to breathe in order to grow. I’m not sure how to break this intellectual habit – and it’s especially difficult if you spend your days doing this on books not to apply it to your own work. But in the rehearsal room, I gave myself permission to play, whilst suspending judgement. Sometimes when I get stuck with my PhD, I write in forms that wouldn’t normally be accepted in academic writing (a section of my intro was written in dialogue between a dragon and a hedgehog…I kind of want to leave it in there like that). This takes the pressure off but I often find it generates my best ideas.

It’s a collaboration

Sometimes academics are mythologised as intellectuals working in splendid isolation on their magnum opus. And obviously it does need to be primarily your own work because of intellectual property etc. But it is so freeing to challenge the idea of individual authorship – either of a play (which is patently ridiculous – what about the director, producer, actors, set etc?) or a PhD. Adelina Ong gave some great advice to postgraduate students at the TaPRA conference: ‘skate with friends’. Support each other, share work, be generous with your ideas. A PhD can feel isolating at times, but it doesn’t have to be completed in isolation. Post R&D, I’ve decided that my supervisor is like the dramaturg to my thesis (I haven’t asked her how she feels about this yet!). The best dramaturgs help you realise what you’re trying to say and to put them in a shape that best expresses those ideas to other people.

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