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Speaker Spotlight: Dr Laura Davies

Meet the researchers behind the Cambridge Festival: Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature, Director of Studies in English and Graduate Tutor at King's College, Dr Laura Davies

Dr Laura Davies leads ‘A Good Death?’, a research and impact project based in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge. It uses literature to open up conversations about death and dying and draws on historical death writing to inspire new ways of thinking and talking about life, death and dying. The project has collaborated with the Menagerie Theatre Company for the Cambridge Festival and will premiere the play An Everyday Family Practice on 27th March 4-5pm. It explores the impact on a family of a diagnosis of terminal illness.

 

How did the A Good Death? project come about?

The project emerged from an ongoing conversation between the co-founders, both of whom research eighteenth-century literature and culture. It became apparent to us that the questions we were exploring in our academic work had a pressing relevance today and that in comparison with the historical period we were studying, conversations around death and dying for many people in the twenty first century are unfamiliar and daunting. We realised that this has consequences for the terminally ill, those who support them in their professional practice and their families and friends. So, from this realisation we convened a conference on 'Dying Well' at CRASSH in 2019, bringing together academics from different disciplines with medical and end of life care professionals. This helped us identify how the arts and humanities could have a role to play in starting and deepening conversations, widening vocabularies and building confidence in thinking and talking about death and dying.

How can literature open up questions and ways of thinking about death and dying?

The key feature of literature, including the dramatic arts, is that it provides a space to explore other people's experiences, thoughts, feelings and conflicts, and through this, to gain a new perspective on our own. Unfamiliar literature, especially, can be challenging and provocative - asking us to question what we thought we were sure of and to reflect on our own assumptions. But it doesn't do this by telling us what to think. In a poem, for example, or a song lyric or a dramatic scene, many things can be true at the same time and complex emotions can be captured in a way that we can intuitively understand, even if what we're reading isn't totally logical. This leaves room for thinking, for individual responses and for an acknowledgment of the complexity of human experience. We think this is really valuable.

 

Why is this important, particularly at a time of so much grief?

So much at the moment is in flux and is uncertain, and yet for those who are bereaved or suffering, there are absolute shifts that have taken place in their lives that require acknowledgment. Our project, and this play as our most recent collaborative work, cannot offer solutions or definitive answers to the questions we are facing, in our different ways, at the moment. But what it can do is acknowledge the up-ending power of illness, death and grief. We hope that in its representation of a family struggling with the terminal diagnosis of a loved one, it provides a space for the audience to explore their own thoughts and feelings about a situation that we are all likely to face in some way during our lives. It's important too to note that the play is a work in progress, and one that we are developing for use in our work with local communities and charities, including Arthur Rank Hospice and Cruse Bereavement Care. For this reason, we are very keen to hear feedback, via our website or on twitter. 

Why combine research with theatre?

As researchers, there is a real value in being able to examine what happens when ideas that operate at the level, for example, of grammatical analysis, theological interpretation or historical contextualisation, find expression in living, breathing actors. Seeing this has raised new questions and research directions about the intersection of individual perspectives and wider cultural constructs and discourses. For our 'A Good Death?' project combining research with theatre has enabled us, with the writer Patrick Morris from Menagerie, to create resources that are original and we hope engaging, thought-provoking and accessible for a wide and diverse audience.

What other projects are you collaborating on?

Our collaboration with Menagerie is ongoing. In September 2020 we released three original new audio dramas, which were conceived and recorded during lockdown. They also explore death, dying and bereavement from the perspectives of a mother whose child has died, a hospital consultant questioning their relationship with a patient and a modern-day voicing of a famous death scene, depicted in the painting 'Final Unction' by Poussin, which is part of the Fitzwilliam collection. These are freely available on our website. We hope, when we can, to develop the play being premiered at the Cambridge Festival, 'An Everyday Family Practice', into a work that can be performed live. We will also continue to develop the joint workshops that we are currently trialling, in which we use the audio and filmed plays in workshop settings for the terminally ill, their families, and those who care for them.

*For more information: email good-death@english.cam.ac.uk  or follow the project on twitter @what_death #EverydayDeath