Up the Feeder Down the Mouth: Voices and Silences in the Archive

How can researchers create a layered and polyphonic soundscape that voices the process of selection and omission inherent in the creation of historical narratives and archives?

In 2022, the Theatre Collection acquired the archive of Up the Feeder, Down the Mouth, a 2001 production based on interviews with former dockers. First shared at Bristol Old Vic, the show’s success ensured a second run at M Shed on Princes Wharf including a large cast of professional and non-professional performers from a range of community groups. A BBC journalist on secondment filmed more than 50 hours of footage documenting the rehearsal process, which has never been explored.

Bristol’s docks heritage is at the heart of many heritage events and organisations in the city but, as M Shed told the researchers, volunteer engagement is often limited to retired men with professional connections to the city’s industrial heritage. One of the major challenges the museum and the city face is how to engage new audiences and navigate the difficult legacy of Bristol’s trade history. This project responds to these challenges using the unexplored archive to investigate archival voices and silences, and find new ways to contextualise this material and engage new audiences.

What did the project involve? 

This project seeks to bring together one History student and one Theatre student to view, pull apart, and explore this new archival collection under the supervision of two researchers experienced in oral history and verbatim theatre. Drawing on historical and creative methodologies, the students will work towards a layered and polyphonic soundscape that voices the process of selection and omission inherent in the creation of historical narratives and archives. They will frame their investigation around the following questions:

  1. What is in the archive?
  2. Whose voices are missing, and what does that mean for future research projects?
  3. How might we reflect the process of recontextualising historic material in today’s Bristol through a creative soundscape with the potential to engage new audiences?

This will be a first step towards a more concrete partnership with M Shed and Bristol Old Vic, with the ultimate aim of engaging new audiences with Bristol’s dockside heritage. The researchers have already discussed the possibilities of this new archival collection with both partners, and this project will continue those conversations with a more concrete proposal including the soundscape script and a short report produced by the student partners.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jess McCormack (Theatre, University of Bristol) is a researcher with a wide range of interests including choreography, translation and adaptation, applied performance and sited performance.
  • Amy King (Modern European History, University of Bristol) is a researcher interested in the memories of working life on the Bristol City Docks and undertook a public engagement project collecting these memories through oral history interviews. Her primary research focus of secular martyrdom in the construction of Italian national identity involves a focus on transnational memory cultures, commemoration and national identity, oral history, memory studies and public history.

What were the results?

The expected outcomes of the project include:

  1. A taster script of under 5 minutes that layers original audio from the archival footage with new voices and questions raised by the research.
  2. A short report outlining the findings in response to the questions framing the research.
  3. A meeting between Jess and Amy to discuss an interdisciplinary Collaborative Doctoral Award Proposal for a jointly supervised History and Theatre PhD supported by Bristol Old Vic and/or M Shed
  4. A meeting with M Shed and Bristol Old Vic to discuss next steps based on this project