Research excellence at the University of Kent

School of Arts

The Research Excellence Framework also assesses the impact that the research has outside academia. The case studies below are a selection of the research submitted by the School of Arts.

Imagining Autism

Professor Nicola Shaughnessey. Dr Melissa Trimingham, Dr Julie Beadle-Brown, Dr David Wilkinson

Research at Kent is helping children with autism to communicate more effectively. Working with children aged seven to 12, the study aimed to encourage language development, empathy and imagination. It did so by exposing the children to a series of imaginary environments and providing drama and play-based activities (puppetry, physical performance techniques and responsive digital technologies).

During the Imagining Autism project the parents offered many compelling testimonies: 'He has gained in his imagination; he is talking more, commenting on everything.' 'He is identifying emotions, and naming them.' 'He gave me a kiss and a cuddle, which is rare.' 'He is reasoning things out - we had a conversation for 15 minutes for the first time.'

Many professionals were also surprised by the project's results. Education and health settings usually focus their efforts on providing children with specific skills such as counting or dressing. In contrast, the project's environments were highly sensory and child-centred, giving the children creative autonomy as 'co-producers' in the activities. And the children displayed significant changes in behaviour.

The national Autistic Society is now training staff in the Imagining Autism approach and the work is being used in health settings including diagnostic services within the NHS.

Imagine Autism project

From Theory to Practice

Professor Elizabeth Cowie

Elizabeth Cowie’s research centres on how documentary films portray reality – not only in narrow factual terms, but also as art ad politically engaged film practice. Documentary film is often referred to as ‘non-fiction’ and yet it shapes our understanding of its recorded reality through specific selections and techniques of editing, camerawork and voiceover. It is a storytelling that engages viewers emotionally, producing a curiosity about the world. However, anxieties about how ‘true’ it can be result in a desire for the real that is always failed by the representation.

Insights gained from Cowie’s research on documentary, aesthetics and spectatorship have been taken up by filmmakers and artists whose own work also seeks to explore complex ideas about art and society, trauma and memory. Her creative dialogues have enriched the work of artist filmmakers Clio Barnard (below), Milica Tomi, Adam Chodzko and Juan delGado.

Grotowski redrawn

Professor Paul Allain, Dr Pablo Pakula, Dr Giullilano Campo

The British Grotowski Project set out to reassess the work of the Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski and his influence on British theatre. For decades, Grotowski’s legacy has been hampered by lack of textual and audio-visual materials, misconceptions about his oeuvre, and limited access to his ‘living tradition’. Led by Paul Allain, the British Grotowski Project sought to overcome these problems by creating a mixture of scholarly research, practical workshops, academic conferences and exhibitions.

The textual research helped to produce seminal writing, such as Grotowski’s Empty Room, edited by Allain. Workshops focused on developing skills in body and voice work, understanding of ritual practices, and directorial montage. A photographic exhibition held at the National Theatre, London reached a broad public audience, and sessions for schoolteachers and pupils improved understanding of Grotowski’s work.

The project was shortlisted for a Times Higher Education Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Arts. Allain was also awarded a medal for Services to Polish Culture from the Polish government.

The Arbor

Clio Barnard

The Arbor

In Clio Barnard’s film The Arbor, actors lip-synched some of the dialogue to the voices of real people – an unusual technique used to raise questions about the aims of documentary film. Can it ever close the gap between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’?

The film explores the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, and Barnard’s research lasted for several years. She spent time with Dunbar’s family, and in the community where she was raised (the Buttershaw estate in Bradford). Richard Dunbar, Andrea’s nephew, describes how the film-making process enabled the community to have a voice ‘by communicating their words through the film’.

The Arbor won 10 national and international awards. The charity Kids Company used it in a presentation to MPs and members of the House of Lords, so the film could reveal, on a visceral level, the effects of abuse, neglect and poverty within communities in the UK. Barnard’s most recent work is the highly-acclaimed film The Selfish Giant.

Breaking comedy taboos

Dr Oliver Double

A widespread assumption about stand-up comedy is that emotional pain is one of the few remaining taboos. Yet Oliver Double's research argues that this need not be the case. In his book Getting the Joke he looked at how a number of comedians (such as Richard Pryor, Andre Vincent and Mark Thomas) tackle traumatic, confessional and disturbing topics. Double showed how this kind of comedy helps to develop rapport, empathy and solidarity between performers and their audiences.

His own show Saint Pancreas put these theoretical ideas into practice. It was a stand-up performance that drew in Double’s own experience of being the parent of two children with type 1 diabetes. The show includes some emotional material, such as the account of his son falling into a coma.

The Guardian described it as ‘a tender and uplifting monologue that’s surprisingly funny’. Feedback from the audience also testified to the success of the show. It increased empathy and enhanced understanding by alluding to the physiological causes of diabetes, its treatment and the impact it has on families.

Since then Double has performed Saint Pancreas at conferences and events aimed at diabetes sufferers, their families and professionals.

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Last Updated: 11/02/2015

Banner photo (c) Simon Tollington, DICE