Postgraduate Research Opportunity

CHASE Collaborative Doctoral Studentship


Title: Catalysts for Change and Collaborations in New Writing for the Stage: Theatre Underground, University of Essex and Mercury Theatre 1979-96

Funding: Full time Home/EU and international fees and a stipend at AHRC rates for the current academic year 2023-24, of £19,172

Application deadline: 16 February 2024

Start date: October 2024

Duration: 3 years (full time) Part-time students also accepted.

Location: Colchester Campus

Based in: Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, in collaboration with the Mercury Theatre, Colchester


This project explores the history of Theatre Underground (1979-96), University of Essex campus theatre, and the relationships it forged between ‘town and gown’. New writing for the stage brought to life significant events in local history and new drama in translation brought world theatre to Essex.

The research will focus on the Theatre Underground archive at the University of Essex. At the Mercury Theatre Colchester, interpretations of the production materials will be explored with theatre practitioners; and public engagement workshops, led by the student, will seek interviews with alumni and audience members of Theatre Underground.

Applicants with backgrounds in literature, drama, theatre, modern languages (especially German), experience of interviewing and/or archival research (although training will be provided) will be especially suited to this research.

Studentship funding and eligibility

This collaborative studentship is open to both UK Students and International Students. The award covers PhD fees for the standard period and a stipend at AHRC rates (for the current academic year 2023-24, the stipend rate is £19,172. This includes enhanced stipend to cover additional travel costs relating to the project. Please note: this funding amount typically increases with inflation each academic year.

Deadline for studentship applications: Friday 16 February 2024, 12pm

Overview and Objectives

Studies of theatre in education have tended to overlook university campus theatres. The seven ‘plate glass’ universities of the 1960s, four of which are in the CHASE consortium (the University of Essex, Kent, Sussex, UEA), had missions to extend higher education to a wider constituency and push through the boundaries of traditional disciplines, and in this regard they had the arts and humanities at their heart. Some research on the architectural design of these new university campuses has emerged but the ways in which they foregrounded campus theatres has not yet been considered. At the University of Essex, the campus theatre known as ‘Theatre Underground’, has subsequently been overlooked. The new Theatre Underground archive deposited at the Special Collections, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex, therefore prompts this project’s consideration of the activities of the university’s campus theatre in the 1980s. This project is timely since University of Essex, like several other ‘plate glass’ universities approaches its sixtieth anniversary in 2024.

Research questions

This studentship will focus on the ways in which Theatre Underground was involved in:

  1. the collaboration between ‘town and gown’, the university’s mission for outreach, the university and theatre, how it worked, the challenges and outcome, inclusivity and representation, and legacy
  2. writers in residence, new writing for the stage in translation and/or in English, students and/as theatre practitioners, tensions arising from constraints of funding
  3. place-making through local and regional histories and writing for the stage and how this engaged in an inclusive way with under-represented groups in the university campus and local and regional communities.

Three specific plays were produced at the Mercury Theatre. The first play, by Roger Howard, predated Theatre Underground:

  • Roger Howard, The Great Tide (1976) about the floods of 1953
  • Roger Howard, The Siege (1981) about the English Civil war and the siege of Colchester
  • Michele Roberts, The Journeywoman: A Play for Colchester (1988)

Theatre Underground’s new drama included plays produced in translation and brought insights into world drama, often with a focus on revolutionary politics (in USSR, People’s Republic of China, and German Democratic Republic). The works of East German dramatist, Heine Muller, in particular, could be a potential focus of research for this studentship.

Supervisor information

The student’s approach to archival research, theatre history, and public engagement will be supported especially by Professor Katharine Cockin, University of Essex, who is Principal Investigator of the AHRC Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Database (2006-08). Professor Cockin’s online database scholarly catalogue of this theatre archive of over 20,000 documents has been extensively used internationally, led to an impact case study for REF 2014 and was funded in the follow-on for impact scheme, as AHRC project, Searching for Theatrical Ancestors (2015-17).

The student’s research on writers in residence and the use of interviews in research will greatly benefit from the extensive experience of Dr Annecy Lax, University of Essex, whose Co-Investigator role in the AHRC GCRF project, Ariadne: Women Making Theatre for Social Change project (2017) in the field of theatre and human rights, involved residencies for international women theatre makers working in conflict and post-conflict zones.

Several plays in the Theatre Underground archive were staged at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester. The student will therefore benefit greatly from supervision by Ryan McBryde, Creative Director at the Mercury Theatre Colchester, who brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the creative and artistic ambitions and business context of theatre-making. Research supervisory meetings, on a monthly basis, will draw on the three supervisors’ combined expertise in archival theatre history and theatre practice to support the student in interpretation, analysis, and contextualization of the research findings.

Following training and guidance in seeking ethical approval, the student will interview former audience members and participants in Theatre Underground. This group will be invited through the first workshop at Mercury Theatre and the University of Essex alumni advertisements. One alumnus has already been involved in an interview about their central role in Theatre Underground conducted by Professor Katharine Cockin, following ethical approval (2019). Oral history and ethnographic methodologies will therefore inform the use of interviews and records of experiences of Theatre Underground’s activities.

Research environment

  • The student will have space and resources available to support the research project at both the University of Essex, Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, and at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.
  • A supportive network of researchers are available at the University of Essex through the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Literary Studies and the Centre for Theatre Research.
  • Cross-university networks of researchers include clusters on digital humanities, medical humanities, and law and literature, which may be relevant at some points in the project.
  • Proficio training resources and funds for postgraduate research students at the University of Essex will be available.
  • The department research seminar series and the postgraduate conference events are regular features of research discussions in the department across its five disciplines (literature, film, theatre, creative writing, and journalism).
  • This breadth of humanities research available in the department provides a unique learning environment. In addition, the University of Essex is well-placed to provide support and guidance on interviewing, data handling (as home to the UKData Service), and the relationship between the arts and humanities and the political domain.
  • The CHASE consortium networking will intersect with these embedded research infrastructures alongside the wealth of research support from the Mercury Theatre, where you will have unique support and guidance in interpreting the archival production documents as well as testing the interpretations and analysis of the playscripts in a performance context.

The candidate

Essential skills/attributes:

  • good first degree and postgraduate qualification in relevant subject areas (or equivalent professional experience)
  • ability to give presentations to public as well as academic audiences
  • ability to work with archival materials
  • ability to work within a team/collaborate with others

Desirable skills/attributes:

  • applicants with backgrounds in literature, drama, theatre, modern languages (especially German)
  • experience of interviewing and/or archival research (although training will be provided) will be especially suited to this research

How to apply

Please email your application to the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre studies PGR Administrator (with a copy to . The title of your email should read CHASE CDA Application – <YOUR NAME>.

Applications should include:

  • an up-to-date CV
  • an academic transcript for your most recent qualification
  • a statement of up to 500 words setting out your reasons for applying and your suitability for the studentship. Please address the assessment criteria below in your application statement
  • two references (academic or vocational)

The deadline for applications is 12pm (midday) on 16 February 2024.

The following three criteria will be used to assess the applications for the CDA studentships:

  • evidence of the candidate’s suitability (“fit”) for this research project (40%) – This will be based on the candidate’s account of their suitability for the research project for which they are applying, as well as their reasons for pursuing doctoral study. Reference will be made to their Supporting Statement, as contained in their application. It will also be based on the information supplied by their referees. The assessors will be looking for evidence of how well the candidate matches or “fits” with the research project, evidence of their understanding of the place of this research project within the current field and its potential impact, and their knowledge of the collaborative partner
  • evidence that the candidate is well-prepared for taking part in this research project, and their future career (40%) – This will be based on the candidate’s description of how their previous experience (academic and professional) has prepared them for doctoral study and research, their referees’ evaluation of their suitability for doctoral research (this will be done through considering evidence both the candidate and their referees have provided about the candidate’s performance at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and of any relevant professional experience), and the candidate’s description of how the programme will contribute to their long-term career aims
  • evidence that the candidate’s training needs have been properly identified and planned for (20%) - in their application, the candidate will be asked to provide information about their prior training and/or equivalent professional experience. In drawing up a shortlist of candidates, the shortlisting panel must assess this information, and must ensure that the candidates create a training plan for each candidate, should one be required. This will be discussed with the candidate at their interview, and will be assessed as part of the final decision on which candidate to nominate for the studentship.

Shortlisting will take place during the week commencing 19 February 2024 and shortlisted candidates will be invited to interview with at least one weeks’ notice. Interviews will be conducted via Zoom and are likely to take place in the week commencing 26 February 2024.

Informal Enquiries

Informal enquiries about this collaborative project can be sent to Professor Katharine Cockin at