Friday, 20 October 2017

Figures behind the Figures: Prof Paul Allain

Each term I feature a different Kent award winner in the Research Services newsletter, looking at their research and discussing their career path and funding track record. Earlier in the year I featured Prof John Batchelor. Dr This time the spotlight falls on Prof Paul Allain in the School of Arts.  

Few can say that they cut their research teeth by slipping under the Berlin Wall in the 1980s to join a Polish theatre group travelling to the provinces to perform. But Paul Allain, Professor of Theatre and Performance, did just that.

He had been a jobbing actor in London, but had signed up to do a PhD at Goldsmiths to explore the physical performance styles for which Polish theatre was known at the time. He subsequently worked as a movement director, using knowledge gained from his training with actors such as Jude Law and Simon Russell Beale.

Since coming to Kent in 2000 Paul has applied for more than twenty grants to explore different elements of Polish theatre and actor training, and has been successful on more than 80% of them. It’s an impressive track record, and I asked him what drove him to seek funding.

‘It’s like an itch,’ he suggests. ‘It’s partly self-validation, but it’s also the opportunity to develop interesting and inspiring collaborations. I think I have a desire for activity. I don’t like solitude in research. I come from a theatre background where people work together as a matter of course. I’m used to that sense of community. My funding helps to build communities around research.’

This sense of community has led him to take on additional duties, such as membership of the AHRC’s peer review college, a REF panellist, the Faculty Associate Dean (Research and Innovation) and now Dean of the Graduate School. In these roles he’s seen ‘practice as research’ move from the sidelines to become firmly embedded in the funding environment. However, although now commonplace, it is still widely misunderstood.

‘Some of the REF case studies we saw were poorly presented and badly supported by institutions. The case still needs to be made: for instance the AHRC has withdrawn specific funding for practice-based research, so we need to continue to lobby for it.’ It is not the only issue on which Paul feels the need to make a stand. Whilst he enjoys collaboration, he recognises the importance of uninterrupted time to think.

‘There are so many demands made on staff now. Small things add up, and it’s a real concern. People should be good citizens, and contribute, but it does make it very difficult to withdraw, especially with the pervasiveness of mobile technology.’

Paul’s latest grant is to develop an online resource on actor training for Methuen Bloomsbury. Until recently, research in this area has been heavily text-based, but it is difficult to convey movement, voice and physicality through words. ‘Film can now come first,’’ says Paul.

Funded by Leverhulme, the project had closely missed the funding cut off for an AHRC Leadership Award. ‘It was frustrating, because the decision was based on a misunderstanding of open access by one of the reviewers. I sulked for two weeks, and then took pleasure in reframing it for Leverhulme.’

Looking forward, his new research associate on the project is already exploring the potential for further funded projects leading on from this, just three days into her post. ‘That’s the joy of collaboration,’ he concludes. ‘New ideas, new ways of thinking, and the impetus to move on’.

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