Dr Ella Parry-Davies, a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, talks about her research on the historical and social context of performance. She is one of ten 2019 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Tell us about yourself
I’m a researcher in theatre and performance studies, focussing on performance in contexts of transnational migration. Over time, my research has moved across connected areas and methodologies, but its central question has remained: ‘what is performance doing here?’
The importance of the ‘here’ – the historical and social context of performance – means that I’m often working with an expanded definition of ‘performance’ that isn’t limited to something that happens in a theatre building, but could refer to an artistic intervention in public space, or a practice of everyday life. This also means that collaboration with people who don’t identify as professional artists or academics is a key part of my work.
Prior to joining Central as a British Academy fellow, I held a visiting scholarship at De La Salle University in Manila, helping to build a collaborative syllabus on performance and social action in the Philippines through consulting with around 80 students, artists, educators and activists from different parts of the archipelago. My PhD, joint funded by King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, looked at performances of memory in two postcolonial, multi-ethnic and highly migratory cities at opposite extremes of the Asian continent: Beirut and Singapore. My postdoctoral project develops from this interest in the relationships between performance, memory and migration.
What is the area of your current research?
Through my postdoctoral project ‘Home-Makers’, I am working with women domestic and care workers from the Philippines who are based in the UK and in Lebanon. We are collaborating on a series of ‘soundwalks’: these are downloadable audio tracks that guide listeners through places that my collaborators choose as especially significant in creating a sense of ‘home’ overseas. These might be places that are very familiar to the listener – for example, Portobello Market in London, or the Beirut suburb of Dora – but in undertaking the walk I’m hoping that the listener may encounter a different way of relating to it, through hearing about someone else’s experience through headphones as they move through the space.
I’m particularly interested to explore the complex meanings of ‘home’, because I’m working with migrant women who work in other people’s homes, and often have very limited domestic space of their own. In these circumstances, how might you create a sense of home through your relationship to public spaces in a new city? How does the meaning of ‘home’ change through the process of migration, and for balikbayan (returning Filipinos), who have to re-make homes that they may have left for several years? How can we gain insight into these experiences through working creatively with sound?
Despite the undervaluing of their labour, my research is proving that migrant domestic and care workers are highly skilled professional ‘home-makers’. They are also experts at ‘home-making’ in its broader meaning: a creative practice of everyday life, and a body of expertise that is particular to experiences of migration.
What is the importance of this research?
Around 5,000 people currently leave the Philippines every day to find work abroad, contributing enormously to the economic and cultural life of their destination countries. In the UK, for example, the National Health Service employs more Filipinos than any other group, bar British and Indian nationals. Yet these contributions often go unrecognised, and the structural conditions of labour migration and exclusion can be misunderstood, especially given the ‘hostile environment’ that the UK government is trying to create for migrants.
Domestic and care work can be highly exploitative, and often coupled with racialising narratives that seek to justify inequality on the basis of otherness. One UK domestic staff recruitment consultant I interviewed explained that Filipinos are known to be the happiest people on earth, popular with elite employers because ‘they’re not a big personality in the house’.
The narrative that certain people are natural carers, or naturally content and subordinate, allows inequality to pass as devotion. But my work with domestic and care workers tells a different story: one in which organised, informed women are battling against systems of racialised exploitation.
In 2017, an average of two domestic workers in Lebanon died each week, many from suicide or in trying to escape abusive employers. Both in the UK and in Lebanon, campaigns are combatting the legal systems that allow for exploitation, and simultaneously working against the dehumanisation of migrant workers. A goal which I hope my research can contribute to through exploring collaborative modes of self-representation.
Dr Ella Parry-Davies (@EllaParryDavies) is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2019. She co-convenes the Performance Studies international (PSi) working group on Performance and Critical Social Praxis, with other recipients of PSi’s Dwight Conquergood Award. Ella co-founded the research collective, ‘After Performance’, and is an editor of Contemporary Theatre Review Interventions.
Cover image: © Ella Parry-Davies, March 2019, reproduced by permission of the women pictured and GABRIELA London.