Becoming Elizabeth Blackwell

How can you stage Elizabeth Blackwell’s experiences as a disabled woman and a pioneering doctor? This research project explores embodiment of disability in performance while exploring what we might learn from such life stories.

Biographical performances of real lives have proliferated but the lives of women (particularly those in science or with disabilities) have been neglected.

An impoverished, disabled, marginalised immigrant, Elizabeth Blackwell was also an inspirational doctor who championed women’s education rights and founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Stories of such resilient, pioneering women provide important and aspirational models to others.

What did the project involve? 

This research sought to explore:

  • What in Elizabeth Blackwell’s life story resonates in contemporary communities?
  • How can women with disability live well in their studies, at work and in intellectual environments that are still male dominated?
  • How can trainee medical students, teachers and school children inform the story and what might we all learn from it?

This research set out to analyse and map the processes of actors using the body as a methodological starting point for the process of recreating a real person. How does the performer convey the lived experience of disability? What role does technology play?

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Mary Luckhurst (School of Arts) has expertise in making theatre and analysing processes and performance experience in disability and feminist theatre. Mary will lead the research development, working in collaboration on script collation, scenario planning and dramaturgy.
  • Julia Pascal (Pascal Theatre Company) is a playwright, director and activist for women’s education and empowerment in the arts. She has published many plays about historical women. Julia will work on script development and will direct and collaborate on workshops.
  • Ulrika Maude (English) is an expert in analysing performance, technology and the body, and theories of embodiment. Her knowledge will inform research, script and performance development.
  • Tom Morris (Bristol Old Vic) is an artistic director who will act as a sounding board on script development, concept and future prospects. The Bristol Old Vic will enable a workshop on experimental technical experiments as well as providing studio space.
  • Havi Carel (Philosophy) has expertise in the history and philosophy of medicine and in embodied, lived experience of illness. Havi will inform the development of Elizabeth Blackwell’s character and will share her knowledge of medical history, philosophy and clinical practices between doctors and patients.

What were the results?

The team held workshops with members of the medical school as well as students from various disciplines and age ranges to draw out narratives and life moments that particularly resonate with contemporary audiences.

A script was developed based on these workshops and all development phases of ‘Becoming Elizabeth Blackwell’, including choreographics, light scores and costume prompts were documented. The research project culminated in a staged performance.

The research team also sought to publish an article and present the work at Oxford University Centre for Life Writing.

The research team aim to develop the script for a larger theatrical and educational production in collaboration with medical schools.

Becoming Elizabeth Blackwell later received some funding from Elizabeth Blackwell Institute‘s Medical Humanities strand for some engagement work.