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Medical History, Immersive Museum Theatre, and The Last Women

Researcher: Dr Norwood Andrews

This project centres on a collaboration between the Centre for the History of Medicine and the Coventry-based Triangle theatre company. They will work together on Triangle's new production, 'The Last Women', inspired by the histories of Mary Ball, hanged in Coventry in 1849, and Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain in 1955. The Last Women will bring together historical research with improvisational enquiry in a series of formal and informal events and interactions between a company of seven actors, experts, young people, and other members of the public.

This project will utilise Triangle’s innovative ‘Immersive Museum Theatre’ technique, which entails participants’ use of museum collections – archives and artefacts – and historic locations as springboards for the development of character, and in the creation of an environment in which to become ‘immersed’ in the material. Action is devised by participants engaging with the material, and also drawing from their own experience, by playing out and maintaining roles in group dynamics. This devising process is further enhanced by the input of specialists supplying information – specialists who become participants in the process. While projects usually focus on historical moments to provide themes, they also provide scope for the exploration of contemporary issues. Under the artistic direction of Carran Waterfield, Triangle has eighteen years of experience of working within education, professional theatre, and museum settings, and an international reputation in this area of performance.

'The Last Women' will be developed through seven linked, thematic modules, utilising the Immersive Museum Theatre technique described above. The module themes are: Authority; Health, Safety, Creativity; Incarceration; Death and Taboo; Criminality and Personal Power; Language and Politics; and The Underworld. For each module an immersive space is set up in which participants engage with each other and with objects, documents and other artefacts relevant to the module theme. Participants include professional actors, specialists, and young people from the community. On separate occasions (at least two events for each module) members of the public will ‘witness’ the developing activity as audience members, but will also be drawn into the scenario. Triangle’s artistic director will serve as ‘facilitator’ throughout the project. Each module will last four weeks, taking place sequentially between January and July 2008, with a performance at the conclusion of each. Following the last module we will collaborate in the development of a performance that draws on the material produced by all seven modules.

The Centre for the History of Medicine will play a key role in developing a medical history dimension for ‘The Last Women’. Dr Norwood Andrews, Research Assistant in the Centre, will undertake and publish historical research on the theme of medicine and public execution; contribute to ‘The Last Women’ as a specialist-participant, being directly involved in all seven modules; and draw on this experience in evaluating the interaction between historical research and Immersive Museum Theatre as a route for public engagement within the history of medicine.