Putting on a show - The University of Sheffield Hub

By Amy Carter, Public Engagement Manager at The University of Sheffield

Read Amy's top tips for achieving high production values with your public engagement and utilising the talents of your university colleagues. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your Being Human hub ‘Myth, Dream, Love’?

Our hub ‘Myth, Dream, Love’ drew 1000 local participants. Events explored the mythological and allegorical journeys depicted in stunning murals at local Bolsover Castle and the magical illustrated Italian Renaissance book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili published in 1499. With musicians and songwriters we also explored the secret world of the selkie – seal people trapped in the human world.

Our headline event ‘Moving Heaven and Earth’ was an immersive experience recreating the sights, sounds and tastes of a royal banquet in the court of Charles I. It was an ambitious three-day pop-up installation at Kelham Island Museum with academics, a professional theatre company creating a promenade experience, live singers, full audio-visual production, set dressing, props and professional costumes, family craft activities, sweet treats, music and song.

A performance of ‘Moving Heaven and Earth’ at Kelham Island Museum © Andy Brown
A performance of ‘Moving Heaven and Earth’ at Kelham Island Museum © Andy Brown

Why did you choose to host several events at Kelham Island Museum?

We chose Kelham Island Museum as a venue because our faculty already had a knowledge exchange partnership with them and it is a popular and well-used community space. Kelham Island Museum is a fascinating venue, full of the industry of the past and the warehouse space had great potential for the elaborate set that we created – we used gazebos, local banqueting props, foliage, fabrics and drapes, glassware and fresh fruit to achieve the banquet experience.

The venue had a variety of smaller spaces that we could use for family craft activities and a green room for actors and crew. It is fully accessible and has a wooden bridge creating the perfect transition experience from one ‘world’ into another as we commenced our promenade experience.

The venue team were very helpful and enabled us to have many planning visits on site prior to the event. We worked closely together to promote the event – all ticketing was done centrally through Eventbrite and they shared our information on their website and socials.

How did you achieve such high production values at your events?

There is significant production expertise in both the public engagement and knowledge exchange teams at the University of Sheffield – enabling us to think big and deliver our ambitions together. One of the reasons that we chose Kelham Island Museum was that it had the right infrastructure for us to bring a big technical set-up including staging, plasma screens, lights and audio-visual equipment. We have an excellent audio-visual team at the University and they helped to design the layout, set up and run the technical production on the day.

As producers we worked closely with our academics to accurately portray the details of the banquet and the ceremonial proceedings for our event ‘Moving Heaven and Earth’. Professor Hobbs provided recipes from the 17th century which were then recreated by our chefs at the University for the participants to sample at the event. Dr Steven’s research provided key details for the costume, glassware, music and imagery. Dead Earnest Theatre, a local professional theatre company with a history of working on productions with the University of Sheffield, cast the performance, scripted the masque and advised on every aspect of the production.

Attendees joining in a performance of ‘Moving Heaven and Earth’ © Andy Brown
Attendees joining in a performance of ‘Moving Heaven and Earth’ © Andy Brown

Did you face any challenges throughout the process? What were the major successes?

We had logistical challenges because Being Human comes at the end of a major autumn programme of academic festivals so there were some time pressures. Due to the size of the venue warehouse space, we also had challenges around creating an outstanding physical production that didn’t get lost in the space. We overcame both of these issues through detailed planning, contributions from many partners, and frequent meetings and communications with all stakeholders.

We were really happy with the outcome of the events. A stand out moment has to be three sell-out performances in one day with audiences all on their feet singing a 17th century canon while doing a round dance and then sampling the sweet treats. This was academic research making a real connection, delivering impact in a very special way.

Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future event organisers?

  • Public engagement with research is your primary goal and the high quality audience experience of this should be the central focus of the event. A fantastic production is the aim, but it must be motivated by the thrust of the research and not just a great creative idea.
  • Seek out local creative partners – a successful academic/creative partnership can create an event which brings new dimensions to public engagement with research and stimulates both partners to think differently about their disciplines. Support these emerging partnerships as they can often be the beginning of many fulfilling future projects together.
  • Be ambitious and think big. Go for the best production values you can afford – make sure your speakers use microphones and that a technical expert operates the AV equipment so that you can focus on the audience experience.
  • In terms of event delivery, at the event assign a liaison person for academics and performers – ensure you have refreshments and a green room.
If you would like to learn more about putting together a public engagement event check out our toolkits on topics such as finding the right venue and working with a partner.
This project was part of Being Human’s 2019 Hub Award pathway. To submit an event idea and be part of the festival please visit our ‘Get involved’ page.