Winner: Coventry University
Project: The Immersive Telepresence in Theatre Project
A key comic scene in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night sees Malvolio, a pompous household steward, chastise a group of bawdy revellers for disturbing the peace.
Through the Immersive Telepresence in Theatre Project, an actor playing Malvolio was able to vent his annoyance from a studio at the University of the Arts, Finland, while the noisy revellers were more than 1,000 miles away, at Coventry University.
This was made possible using videoconferencing, large rear projection screens and directional sound, which gave the students in both locations – and a third location in Gothenburg, Sweden – the impression of sharing a single space. This was helped through identical lighting in each location and careful placing of cameras and projectors to allow the participants to feel as if they were making eye contact with each other.
The student groups were able to warm up, rehearse and even have a drink together after their performances.
Twelfth Night was the third time students and staff from Coventry University had used telepresence technologies to collaborate with peers in Finland.
The collaboration started when staff from Coventry and Finland’s Tampere University wanted to develop an online course exploring Shakespeare in performance, giving students the experience of international collaboration without the need for climate-destroying air travel.
The first play they used to explore the idea was Coriolanus. Different virtual rooms were set up offering a rehearsal space and breakout areas where students could work on scenes without tutor supervision and a Facebook group was created for research, supporting materials and verbal and visual feedback on the process, as well as social interactions.
The next play explored was King Lear, and in October 2017 students from the two countries were able to attend a “virtual banquet” together in support of Coventry’s bid to be UK City of Culture 2021.
The Immersive Telepresence in Theatre project grew out of these experiments into a series of annual collaborations with universities and practitioners across the globe, culminating in online, real-time performances of plays by Shakespeare, Brecht and Sam Shepherd.
Coventry has now collaborated with Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań and Purdue University to explore Julius Caesar and the Life of Galileo. Students have also been involved with a performance with New World Symphony Miami.
They have been able to broaden their horizons, contrast theory and practice and see how theatre is created in other countries as well as make friends around the world.
Runner up: University of Plymouth
Project: Jali ardhi – Care for the Land
Over the past ten years, the Maasai landscape of northern Tanzania has experienced a dramatic increase in soil erosion. In many areas used for grazing livestock the soil has been completely destroyed.
One cause of this is the transition of the Maasai, who live in the area, from pastoralism to more settled agriculture-based lifestyles, combined with increased numbers of animals, unpredictable rains and extreme drought caused by climate change. And it is the Maasai whose food and water supplies stand to be most affected.
The University of Plymouth started the collaborative, interdisciplinary project Jali ardhi (Swahili for “care for the land”) to address the socio-economic implications.
It has now progressed to engage directly with the communities affected, presenting evidence through photography, models and infographics developed by a professional designer and documentary photographer in order to explain the causes of soil erosion and reveal erosion hotspots.
The project links geographers from Plymouth to agricultural science researchers at Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) and community groups in the Moduli district of Lake Manyara.
Through workshops and demonstrations, funded by £124,000 from the National Environment Research Council, researchers have been able to give people living in affected areas the knowledge and skills to bring about changes in land management.
With another £50,000 grant from Research England’s Global Challenges Research Fund, a second strand of the project, Ardhi na Kujifunza (Land and Learning), brings masters students from NM-AIST to Plymouth for a month of training in social science theory, methods and practice to help their engagement with community groups.
Technical staff from NM-AIST also come to Plymouth for a month of specialist laboratory training, including sample preparation and analysis. They learn about operating high specification instrumentation to produce high quality data and how to train researchers in the regions.
Demonstration plots of land are also used for longer-term community education, including trailing different vegetation and using diversification, and involves masters students from Plymouth undertaking field projects in Tanzania.
Following one workshop in 2019, villagers in Emaerete, Monduli District, formed an environment committee, which met local government officials to identify areas suitable for soil restoration. The committee agreed to plant 400 trees from selected species in these areas, while people from each of the five sub villages involved assumed responsibility for looking after them and reporting back on progress. They have also received training on using drones to help monitor the land.
Meanwhile, new funding from NERC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in 2020 will enable the work of Jali ardhi to continue.