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Writing between times: the double life of a university administrator

Image: Ciarán Owens in Tumulus, © Michael Carlo

By day he is a mild-mannered university administrator and by night, early mornings before work and on the weekends, he is a playwright. Christopher Adams explains how he manages his double life and why a university environment is ideal for pursuing creative projects.

The notebook was heavier than I expected as I lifted it out of the box. I placed it on the reading-room cushion, and carefully opened it to reveal meticulously copied diagrams and formulae, as well as extracts from scientific works – all copied out in a small, neat hand. This was the university notebook of Robert Edward Hart (1878–1946), written during his study at Cambridge for a degree in mechanical engineering.

Hart was the eldest son in a long line of rope makers from Blackburn. His great-grandfather had established a ‘rope walk’ in the late 1700s, but with the industrial revolution, rope was increasingly important for the ‘driving’ of machinery in mills throughout the northwest of England. Cotton driving rope – as Hart demonstrated in his student notebooks – was mechanically efficient, and the Hart family rope became a global brand by the late nineteenth century, generating immense wealth for the family. A deeply private man, Hart spent vast sums amassing one of northwest England’s most impressive book and coin collections, which he donated to the Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery. It was this collection – and the man (and women) – behind it, that interested me: I was scheduled to write a play about it.

For a long time, I have thought of my two working lives as very separate: by day I am the mild-mannered manager of the Institute of English Studies, an administrative post at the School of Advanced Study. By night – or in the mornings before work, or on the weekends – however, I am a (still, mild-mannered) playwright. Generous holiday allowance and flexible working conditions mean that it is possible for me to take time off to attend rehearsals or finish a draft. Senate House Library, with its impressive drama collection as well as comfortable sofas makes an ideal place to write when I finish work in the evenings.

But more recently I see play-writing as an extension of working in and for a university – specifically a humanities institution that values both research and public engagement.

The trip to the Hart archive at the Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery fed into what became Finding Mr Hart, a play performed in both London and Blackburn. The project grew out of a collaboration with my IES colleague Dr Cynthia Johnston, who had been working on Hart, his collection, and his archive for the last five years. Dr Johnston secured funding from the Being Human Festival to create a public engagement piece around her research. She had previously scripted and recorded a podcast about Hart, and she approached me to ask if I would be interested in expanding the script into a full-length play. It was the meeting of my professional and creative selves, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Upon reflection, of course, research and research skills are integral to the production of creative material, and I often incorporate such work into my writing. For my short play A Stronger Arm (Theatre503), I interviewed my mother about her decision to vote for Donald Trump and then crafted the interview into a piece of verbatim theatre. Another short play Workers (Royal Court) was created after spending time in and interviewing people who worked at a north London refugee shelter.

My most recent play, Tumulus (VAULT) is a murder mystery loosely based on the Stephen Port murders and set against the rise of London’s chemsex epidemic (a subject matter that is, admittedly, a far cry from the quaint world of Robert Edward Hart). The background research for the play involved interviewing Stephen Port’s neighbour, combing through news reports and trial transcripts, listening to 999 recordings, as well as conducting interviews with sexual health clinicians and listening to men currently or formerly involved in the chemsex ‘scene’ talk about their experiences. Books such as James Wharton’s Something for the Weekend and countless drug safety websites and even industrial package warnings proved invaluable.

Working full-time while also maintaining a creative life has by no means been easy, but being part of an environment that emphasises the value of research as well as taking that research to an audience makes it an ideal place to pursue creative projects. And there are moments of beauty as well: in a sound recording held at the Lancashire Archives, Joan Proctor, a neighbour living next door to Dora Hart (Robert Hart’s sister), describes Dora as ‘someone who enjoyed the feeling of being enclosed by trees’. An evocative phrase, like something out of a novel, or a play.

Christopher Adams is a British-American playwright and the manager of the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His plays include Tumulus (VAULT), Antigone (UK tour), Finding Mr Hart (Being Human festival), Cooked (Bread and Roses Theatre), and Shelter (Shanghai Repertory Theatre). His short plays have been performed at the Birmingham MAC, Pleasance Theatre, Royal Court Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, St James Theatre, and Theatre503. He attended the Royal Court Young Writers Programme and the Orange Tree Writers’ Collective. He was a 2011–12 US Fulbright Scholar.

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