A man with dramatic plot lines to make research work

November 23, 2007

Andrew Lavender dean of research, central school of speech and drama. French academics can rest easy. Despite orchestrating a play in which a family curse causes a man to kill French intellectuals in traffic accidents, Andrew Lavender insists that he harbours no ill-will towards Gallic lecturers.

Professor Lavender's play, Here's What I Did with My Body One Day , is based on the real-life road-traffic deaths of several French luminaries, but he insists that he is a big fan of the postwar existentialist Roland Barthes and other academic victims of Paris's roads.

The newly appointed dean of research at the Central School of Speech and Drama is the first holder of the post. When he is not orchestrating the grisly deaths of French philosophers on stage in his job as a theatre director, Professor Lavender researches the practical side of drama.

It is this interest in the applied side of the theatre that made him a good fit for his new job.

Central created the post as part of its move to become a drama conservatoire with one foot firmly in research and academic work. It joined the University of London in 2005 and became the first drama school in the UK to offer postgraduate research degrees in 2006. It is also the only drama school to be a funding council centre of excellence for training in theatre.

Now, says Professor Lavender, Central brings together academic research, knowledge transfer such as presentation and communication skills for business, practical work and work for the theatre industry.

His new job consists of helping colleagues to spot funding opportunities, bringing together groups from inside and outside Central for research and developing the research direction of the department.

"We have been busy with research over the past few years, and this is an opportunity to consolidate the work and make it more explicitly part of the profile," Professor Lavender says.

He predicts that once the research assessment exercise has been put to bed there will be an opportunity to assess how practice-based research fits into the wider discipline.

"The RAE does not necessarily address the development of the discipline," he says. "There is a distorting aspect to it" because people conceive of research projects in terms of future publications, "rather than feeling they have scope to undertake very experimental research, which might not have outcomes or full dissemination".

"After the RAE, we envisage a flatter landscape where knowledge transfer, disciplinary development and research are more interconnected," he says.

The RAE sub-panel that deals with drama sees the importance of practice- based research, Professor Lavender confirms, but there are fears that the wider RAE establishment may not give it the same weight.

His own research pushes boundaries. His main interests include the use of digital technology and multimedia in performance. For example, his productions are full of projections and film, and communications technology makes its way into many of the plots of his plays.

His books include a study of three famous rewritings of Hamlet and a forthcoming work observing the rehearsal processes of several contemporary theatre companies. He gets into the rehearsal room himself to direct his theatre company, Lightwork. The company's plays, some of which are written by him, include a mix of heavyweight modern themes, such as the Bosnian war crimes tribunal, and contemporary treatments of traditional material, such as Euripides's Hecabe.

There is a thread of quirkiness that runs through much of his output: in addition to the curse of the French intellectuals explored in Here's What I Did with My Body One Day , one of the new plays, You Kill Me, reworks classical mythology and portrays Narcissus as a young man obsessed with MySpace, YouTube and Second Life.

Lightwork includes several of Professor Lavender's Central colleagues, and they make use of the school's equipment, mostly outside term time.

He says he "does not see a divide" between making theatre and researching its practice.

Although he does not remember exactly when his interest in drama began, he recalls inspiring work with Simon Shepherd, who was a lecturer at Nottingham University when he was studying for an English degree there, and who is now, coincidentally, a colleague at Central.

Professor Lavender went on to work as an arts journalist for the now- defunct magazine City Limits , eventually becoming its editor. Throughout, he stayed involved in local theatre but eventually decided he wanted a deeper involvement in drama and took a doctorate at Goldsmiths, University of London.

After lecturing at Goldsmiths, he moved to Central as a senior lecturer in 2000, became head of postgraduate studies in 2002 and was appointed to his new job in September.

"When I came here it felt like a homecoming," he recalls. "It is a wonderfully buzzy place."

And "buzzy" is the way Professor Lavender wants to keep it with his plans to steer Central towards innovation after the RAE: theatrical work with community groups in order to change people's lives or behaviour, new technology in theatre and collaboration with designers, artists and architects are all at the leading edge of drama research, he says.

No mention of on-stage car crashes though. The French must be relieved.

I graduated from Nottingham University.

My first job was as a builder's labourer in the year after A levels and for a while after I graduated.

My main challenge is to keep things simple.

In ten years I want to be continuing to stretch.

I hate laziness.

My favourite joke : I never remember jokes, but "Why does a dog lick its bollocks?" "Because it can."

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