Last week it was a real pleasure to participate in the graduation ceremony for our outgoing third year Drama students. It was presided over by none other than poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, the University’s new Chancellor — apparently only the second such ceremony he had taken on. Lemn brought a really infectious sense of enthusiasm and positivity to the whole event. Graduations can often be a rather dryly formal affair — give or take the hooting and cheering of Drama graduands for their classmates as they cross the stage. But Lemn greeted everyone with a beaming smile, a warm handshake, and some variation on “Amazing! You did it!” Which managed not to sound even a tiny bit condescending, because he really seemed to mean it.
Speaking for myself, I was charged with reading out all the names of those processing to shake Lemn’s hand. This meant not just the students on our three Drama programmes, but also a whole bunch of PhD and MA students who came before them on the bill, some of them from completely different departments (most of whom I’d never heard of!). Bit of a challenge that, especially with pronouncing some of the names. Still, nobody has complained so far… There was a brief moment of panic where I realised I had inadvertently skipped over Charlotte Horton’s name on the list (sorry Charlotte!!). Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her quickly swap places with the person waiting behind her in line — so realising the error I called Charlotte’s name next and I’m not sure too many people noticed. (Imagine if she’d been left there waiting until the end of the ceremony. Yikes!) It’s quite tricky reading out that many names off a list without tripping up over them. Wonder if you can get a degree in that…
Anyway, the most memorable moment of the graduation was the moment when outgoing Head of School, Professor Steve Hutchings, read out the names of those students who had been awarded prizes. None of them realised they had won anything in advance, so there were some fantastic intakes of gobsmacked breath (accompanied by stifled shrieks of excitement). Some explanation is perhaps needed…
In previous years, Drama has traditionally awarded three prizes to members of the graduating year. These have gone to the three students with the highest overall grades on our three programmes — Drama, Drama and English, Drama and Screen. But we recently decided to rethink this a little. This was partly because the existing system is not necessarily very fair. What if, one year, the highest-ranked student on one of the programmes had actually achieved a less-stellar standard than a number of mostly non-prize-winning students on the other programmes? Also, we thought it was time we had prizes that recognised something of the diversity of student achievement in Drama. People are good at different things, and some people really excel at certain things, without necessarily being excellent at everything.
One final point was that we thought we should give our prizes names. Every year in our graduation ceremony, we listen to a big list of Music prizes, all of them named after various impressive-sounding people. So we thought it was time to step up our game…
The four prizes awarded this year, initiating a pattern we plan to pursue in future, are as follows:
- Gardner Prize for Outstanding Academic Achievement in Drama. This one goes to the student whose overall graduating grades are the highest across all three of our programmes. We’ve named it after Professor Viv Gardner (pictured right), one of our retired Drama colleagues, who was herself a student in Drama at Manchester – back in the 1970s – and went on to contribute hugely to the department at every level of her career. She seemed the perfect choice after which to name this prize, which this year was awarded to Harriet Duddy. Harriet, of course, performed excellently across a wide range of modules, but I’d like to draw particular attention to her dissertation, which looked at the figure of the child in the plays of Caryl Churchill, and particularly the varying ways in which children seem to represent fear or apprehension about the future.
- Mayer Prize for Outstanding Drama Disssertation (or Research Essay). This one, self-evidently, goes to a student whose final year dissertation was especially remarkable – and this year that was Sophie Fox Davison. Sophie wrote about the portrayal of the body in the cinema of Pedro Almodovar, looking at how questions of Spanish nationality and cultural heritage, post-Franco, are played out on bodies in Almodovar’s films.
The Mayer prize is named after Professor David Mayer (right), another emeritus member of the Drama staff who served here for many years, and whose reputation for scholarly rigour made him the natural choice for this award.
- Meera Syal Prize for Outstanding Practical Work in Drama. Since this is a practical prize, we wanted to name it after a graduate of the department who has excelled as a notable practitioner — and across the fields of stage and screen. Since Meera is a noted novelist as well as actor, she ties together all three of our programmes rather nicely (Drama/English/Screen). When she was approached about our naming this prize after her, she expressed both honour and surprise – and happily agreed. The inaugural Meera (as opposed to Oscar!) goes to James Walker in recognition of a range of outstanding practice, notably his practical dissertation (he made a 30-minute film that serves as a meta-critique of narrative structures in mainstream movies) and his practical coursework on ‘Falstaff & Gandalf Go to the Movies.’
- Jackson Prize for Outstanding Student Citizenship. This final prize is named after Professor Tony Jackson, yet another emeritus professor in Drama here at Manchester, who is remembered especially for his pioneering work connecting theatre, education and (latterly) heritage. His research and teaching connections with partners well beyond the University made him the natural choice for this ‘citizenship’ award. In future, it might be awarded to students who have pursued socially engaged work outside the University, or who have gone above and beyond in their roles as, say, student ambassadors with prospective students. This year, though, it has been awarded to Michael Honnah in recognition of his always-enthusiastic commitment to his role as chairperson of the Drama Society, which has also involved excellent work building relations across the building with Music Society. Michael always involves as many people as possible in his ambitious plans (just look at his multi-medial Directors project!) and has exemplified the positive attitude we look for in all our students.
Very well done indeed to all our prize winners, but beyond that, to all of our graduating students for their achievements during their time with us. We wish you all the very best in the coming months and years, as you plot your various global conquests. We hope you’ll come back and see us from time to time — and don’t forget that we’re always here if you need advice, support, or references.
Onwards and upwards!