You are here:

Finding the right format - 'The Remarkable Deliverances of Thornton'

By Dr Cordelia Beattie, senior lecturer in History at the University of Edinburgh

Cordelia discusses the exciting possibilities of using performance in public engagement and collaborating with the theatre world.

Can you tell us a little bit about your event?

For ‘The Remarkable Deliverances of Alice Thornton’ we staged a one-woman storytelling performance based on the writings of a seventeenth-century woman. I had recently traced two of Alice Thornton’s missing manuscripts and this event allowed me to get some of the content into the public domain very quickly. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for this woman’s writings and bring her to life. The intention was to get the audience to think about the Wars of the Three Kingdoms from the perspective of a woman who lived through them and to see how smaller domestic dramas are just as much the stuff of history as big political ones.

I worked closely with my partners to bring the performance into being. The play was based on my research and was written and performed by Debbie Cannon and directed by Flavia D’Avila.

Debbie Cannon performing ‘The Remarkable Deliverances of Alice Thornton’ © Jane Hobson.
Debbie Cannon performing ‘The Remarkable Deliverances of Alice Thornton’ © Jane Hobson

The target audience was drama fans, history enthusiasts and feminists, and we set an age limit of 12+ because of some of the themes in the performance. The play format meant that we attracted people who were interested in hearing a storytelling piece as well as those who liked the idea of history being told from a woman’s perspective.

Turning Alice’s life into a play meant that we attracted a wider audience than we would have done if it had just been a talk. We followed the performance with a Q&A session in which I took part so that the audience could ask about the relationship between my research and the play. The feedback on the evaluation questionnaires indicated that the audience really appreciated this part of the evening.

Left to right: Flavia D’Avila, Debbie Cannon, Dr Cordelia Beattie and Dr Suzanne Trill during Q&A session © Jane Hobson.
Left to right: Flavia D’Avila, Debbie Cannon, Dr Cordelia Beattie and Dr Suzanne Trill during Q&A session © Jane Hobson

The play was more successful than we had anticipated and we sold out our small venue very quickly. We were holding the event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (known for putting on storytelling nights and one-off performances) and they upgraded us to their larger theatre space which we also sold out. The performance format definitely seemed to appeal to the public and it was lovely to see such a great turnout from the local community at both of the performances we put on.

This single public engagement event has resulted in a series of legacy outputs and will mean that Alice Thornton’s story will reach an even wider audience. Debbie Cannon, who wrote and performed the play, is going to take it to the Buxton Fringe Festival in July 2020 and we have plans to take it to Yorkshire, where the play is set, in the future. I also made new contacts and was sent research leads as a result of the publicity that the play generated. It was a lot of work, but I would do it again and would definitely recommend taking part in Being Human to others.

  • Your partners open up new audiences for your research so look after them.
  • Allow time to generate publicity for the event, especially in the month beforehand, as this can be very time-consuming.
  • Enjoy the experience!
If you would like to learn more about choosing a public engagement format check out our toolkit on ‘Finding the right format’.
This project was part of Being Human’s 2019 Small Award pathway. To submit an event idea and be part of the 2020 festival please visit our ‘Get involved’ page.

Photo credits: Jane Hobson