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Teresa Murjas – University of Reading

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  • Using objects and archival materials

    To tell stories and ask questions about global events

Teresa Murjas

Let's talk about war: creativity and conflict

Dr Teresa MurjasDr Teresa Murjas uses archival materials, artefacts and oral testimony as part of her creative practice. She collaborates with museums and galleries, and theatre and film practitioners, in order to make and publicly show her mixed-media projects.

This strand of Teresa's research originally stems from her decision to share stories about her family history through performance making. Her work is informed by her family's experiences of wartime displacement.

"My family has been shaped by conflict. For example, both my parents were forced to leave Poland when they were children, during World War II. My mum spent about six years in a refugee camp in Africa as a young girl before coming to the UK, where she met my dad, in Derby! She has a few small objects from her time in Africa and has always told me stories about them. During a seminar one day, I was talking with my undergraduate students about the implications of using oral testimony as part of live performance and also about the United Nations' definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage. While we talked, this idea began to emerge; wouldn't it be interesting, especially now that my mum's getting older, to try and translate and edit some of those stories? And to see what happens when objects from her 'personal archive', based in her living room, enter a public performance space? Especially since this aspect of World War II is not very well known or documented...."

War Child: Meditating on an archive

Teresa's performance, 'Surviving Objects', did make use of her family archive, and it led to her next exciting web-based project, entitled 'War Child'. She was invited by the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading to find a creative new way of engaging diverse audiences with MERL's vast Evacuee Archive, which contains materials relating to the experiences of UK-based child evacuees during World War II. It is one of the largest archives of its kind. Teresa met with the archive's originator, Martin Parsons and discovered that much of the material held in the archive was collected through his meetings and interviews with former evacuees.

It turned out that Teresa's conversations with Martin, and with members of his family, were so revealing and intriguing, they eventually led her to come up with the idea for an inter-linked online resource. She audio-recorded and edited these new conversations, making them absolutely central to her storytelling. Importantly, she used a small group of archival objects to act as 'triggers', in order to encourage Martin to tell her his stories. She also threaded information about the many journeys made in her VW Beetle to meet with Martin, to talk about war, throughout the website.

"Through curating audio-recorded material, video, photography and textual narrative, I focused on exploring the boundaries of the Evacuee Archive at MERL, and on extending its reach. The idea is to try and draw people towards the archive itself, and to ask them to consider what 'starting an archive' feels like. If they have a related family history and relevant materials of their own, they might also want to consider depositing some of them at MERL, and making their own connection with the museum."

A strategy that Teresa has used in many of her projects is incorporating macro-lens video footage of objects and archival materials, so that the viewer can encounter them in unexpected ways. This approach to filming can intimately reveal textures and details not visible in the same way to the naked eye. You can find many images like this in 'War Child'. In order to produce this material Teresa has collaborated with undergraduate and PhD students and alumni from the Department of Film, Theatre & Television, including Dr. Reina-Marie Loader and, for the 'War Child' project, Dr. James Rattee, both of whom are now very successful independent filmmakers.

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Make work: make an impact

Teresa strongly believes that creative practitioners working with stage and screen media have a vital role to play in responding to global events and challenging how we think about them. Their work can explore and problematise widely accepted narratives about conflicts that have occurred. It can comment on international events, as well as leading social and political debates. Creative practitioners can also discover and find ways of telling individuals' stories that are perhaps slightly uncomfortable or unusual in order to offer, for example, a new perspective on a particular conflict.

"I think practitioners have a crucial role to play in mediation, in translating experiences, in verification, in helping people to think through problems associated with ideas about factuality and truth. The role of the practitioner is central, we play an important part in trying to understand and explain what is happening, both in our homes and around the world. We can also be very skilled at focusing in on the details - especially ones that may otherwise have been missed."

Research-led teaching

Teresa convenes the first-year undergraduate module 'Making Meaning', and her expertise and experience inform how it is taught. Students on this module have been tasked with creating a film and a performance, both of which engage with the theme of conflict. Students can work collaboratively, debate key issues and present their work to peers and tutors. Visiting theatre and filmmakers have also been involved in delivering the module, giving students expert insights into how they explore similar themes in their work.

'Representing Conflict on Stage and Screen' and 'World Theatres' are third-year modules. Both have focused on, for example, a range of contemporary performances and films that address themes associated with conflict. These have included armed combat, human rights, post-conflict reconciliation, forced migration and war memorialisation.

Both modules can include an optional practical assessment, and many students have incorporated auto/biographical material into their work.

"We've had people bring really personal and family stories to their projects, that they haven't had the opportunity to communicate through creative work before. Having been through this quite challenging process as part of my own research, it's really satisfying to be able to offer advice and guidance from a 'hands-on' perspective."

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