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Getting research into theatre – lockdown – and salvaging ‘Credit’

August 27th, 2020

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By Professor Suzanne Moffatt, Population & Health Sciences, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University UK

The early stages of lockdown were chaotic.  All of us making major adjustments to our lives, frontline workers struggling to get the equipment needed to do their jobs safely, millions working from home, our entire way of life disintegrating.  With the millions forced to move onto Universal Credit, came the wider realisation that this social security system is not fit for purpose.  

Research in North East England published in 2019 led by Dr Mandy Cheetham of Teesside and Northumbria Universities (available to read on BMJ Open) demonstrated the ways in which Universal Credit undermines health and wellbeing and offers neither support nor adequate income.  Getting research findings to a wider audience is a key part of our work as academics. Partnering with theatre company Cap-a-Pie and award winning writer Laura Lindow was an ideal way to do this.  Supported by a series of grants from Newcastle University’s Institute of Social Science, Population & Health Sciences Institute and Catherine Cookson Fund, we developed the project into a fully fledged theatre piece.  Further funding from The National Lottery via Arts Council England and Gateshead Council meant the creative team could go ahead with a week’s further research, produce a script, rehearse the play and four live performances of ‘Credit’ were planned in April 2020.  Each performance had a brilliant post-show expert panel lined up for a discussion with the audience.  The shows sold out in days.

Dismantling our efforts at the start of lockdown was heartbreaking.  Not least because of the impact on the creative team and uncertainties about their future, but also because as a result of COVID-19, Universal Credit impacts on many more individuals and families.  Giving a voice to those affected is needed now more than ever.

Salvaging ‘Credit’ has been an incredible team effort and a huge accomplishment by the creative team. It’s been tricky at times to work out what could be safely achieved, but we’re going ahead in an altered format.  A slightly reduced, but nonetheless hard-hitting and moving script has been completed.  Actors Christina Dawson and Cooper McDonough are being directed by Brad McCormick, produced by Katy Vanden and will be filmed in the theatre performing a rehearsed reading.  Credit will be livestreamed on 16th September at 2pm and 7pm, each performance followed by a virtual live Q & A with an amazing expert panel including Patrick Butler Guardian Newspaper social affairs editor, Alice Wiseman Gateshead Council Director of Public Health, Alison Dunn Chief Executive Gateshead Citizens Advice Bureau, Clive Davis Welfare Rights Officer, Newcastle Council and Laura Lindow, writer.  

Credit is an honest look at how Universal Credit can impact on people’s lives, told through the story of ‘Lisa’.  The play is based on the experiences of many people claiming Universal Credit as well as those supporting people caught up in the system, who helped shape the script. 

I wasn’t surprised that the original theatre performances sold out in a matter of days.  There is now no limit to the number of people who can view the play.  I urge you to share information about Credit, view the performance and take part in the Q&A.  Help us to inspire people to think about the current state of our social security system, how it affects individuals, families, communities and diminishes our society as a whole and how it could be improved.  If the recent months have taught us anything, it’s that things can change, and change quickly. 

Credit: Update & Rehearsing via Zoom!

July 31st, 2020

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In April 2020, theatre company Cap-a-Pie was scheduled to begin rehearsals on their brand new production named ‘Credit’, a show about Universal Credit and how that welfare reform was affecting residents of Gateshead and Newcastle. The show aims to ask questions around how we see the benefits system and to lay bare the situation for many people who claim Universal Credit.

With lockdown and social distancing brought about by Covid-19, in-person rehearsals were cancelled and our scheduled performances at Alphabetti Theatre were postponed until further notice. 

However, the creative team of Katy Vanden (producer), Brad McCormick (director), Laura Lindow (writer), Cooper McDonough and Christina Dawson (actors), Anna Reid (designer), Roma Yagnik (composer), Rachel Glover (production manager), Mandy Cheetham (Teeside University & Gateshead Council) and Suzanne Moffatt (Newcastle University) resolved to continue working on the production virtually and to do as much work as possible to get us ready for the time that we are able to be in a room together again.

The project received funding from several sources obtained over a period of four months in 2019 – starting with Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Science, then Newcastle University’s Population & Health Sciences Institute, a further grant was obtained from the Catherine Cookson Foundation, Gateshead Council awarded a sum and we then received funds from the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

As the amount of funding increased, so did the scope and ambition of the creative work and the collaboration between the creative team, the researchers and experts in Universal Credit. When the lockdown occurred, only six weeks before the scheduled performances, it was heartbreaking to ‘un-invite’ the audience and panel members and postpone the performance. 

We’re so grateful to our funders and partners for supporting us at this time. With their support we have been able to use our time in lockdown productively and support our freelance artists.

The following report is a summary of our activities that we were able to complete in that time in regards to the text itself; the sound design and music; and the set design. What has occurred have been some incredibly useful conversations, exercises and explorations that will be invaluable to us when we come to rehearse the play in full (and in person).

NEXT STEPS

We’re so excited to get back to working on Credit as soon as possible.

One 16th September you can watch our actors read a section Credit online. We’ll then host 2 live events with some of the most interesting thinkers on welfare reform.


TEXT WORK

Read-throughs

The process began as many rehearsals do, with a read-through of the play. To begin with it was just the director and the actors on Zoom to get used to reading it aloud over the internet. 

The following day a read-through was done for the rest of the creative team.

What was immediately apparent was the challenge of connection between actors when they are not in the same room and how much of a person-to-person medium theatre is. That is not to say that the read-through did not work as the actors did a superb job and it was fantastic to hear the text aloud for the first time.

It also allowed writer Laura Lindow to hear the text aloud in relation to where there may need to be changes and tweaks to the script. 

The play is essentially narrated by the two performers playing versions of themselves. When there are no named characters as such, the team talked about who these narrators are, why they are telling this story and because there is a significant amount of direct address, what is their relationship to the audience?

Part of the rehearsal process was an ‘interview’ with the writer, Laura, where the director and actor could ask questions about the script, the reasons and motivations for making certain choices and clarifying story points. This kind of exercise is invaluable to get further insights into the script from the person who conceived it.

MUSIC

Initial conversations about music were around something that had the flavour of the 80s New Romantics – it has drive and energy and a sharpness to it; there is also a connection to politics as it was primarily around during the Thatcher years.

Composer Roma Yagnik asked Brad McCormick (director) to source some images related to the movement of the piece that would help her with the compositions.

From the read-through Roma was able to start making sketches of possible compositions as well as some sound design ideas. Based on that excellent work there is now a musical palette to work from in rehearsals. Everything that was made felt like it had a place somewhere in the piece.

One of the forms that is considered is ‘live foley’, that is where sound effects will be created live on-stage by the performers. During rehearsals with the actors sections were identified where foley might come into play. 

There have been discussions about having two microphones on-stage to assist in the live foley but to also be used by the actors to deliver text when appropriate.

DESIGN

The design process began with conversations between Brad McCormick and designer Anna Reid a few months ago to get a sense of a starting point.

Anna and Brad found themselves drawn to images which spoke to the larger scale of an urban environment, but could also provide a smaller frame for the more personal aspects of the story.

The initial sketches that Anna has done have all included a backdrop with vertical slats – it’s very corporate and generic but also has the feel of cheap rented accommodation that a lot of claimants are forced into. The structure also has the potential to have light shone through it from behind to create a really strong image. There will be a delineated floor of some kind to mark out the story-telling space and some small box-like structures to create levels and help us to create different environments. 

Freelance Artists Call

July 13th, 2020

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Cap-a-Pie want to meet freelance artists who are keen to build a long-term relationship with the company. 

We want to meet people who are interested in what we do, and have ideas about how they might like to work with us in the future. We hope that we can build long-term collaborative relationships where we work together to plan and deliver projects.

Artists will spend time (remotely) with members of Cap-a-Pie’s staff team. We want to understand more about your practice and give you the opportunity to understand more about what we do. We’d love it if we find we’ve got shared interests and want to work on creating future plans together. However, there are no requirements to produce anything at the end of our time together – we just want to get to know each other.  

We want to increase the diversity of the artists we work with to reflect the communities that we work in. We welcome applications from artists of all backgrounds. If you need help or support with your application, or would like an informal conversation prior to applying please do get in touch. 

Person Specification

Essential

  • Interest in building a long-term relationship with Cap-a-Pie. 
  • Interest in Cap-a-Pie’s approach to creating theatre. 
  • Experience in their own creative practice.*

Desirable

  • Experience of partnership working with schools.
  • Experience of partnership working with universities. 
  • Experience of co-creation or working with non-professionals in a creative way.
  • As this is a remote opportunity, there are no geographical restrictions. However, we are interested in what connections or links you have to Newcastle and the North East.

*We don’t have any restrictions around about what kind of creative practice you have. Cap-a-Pie mostly makes theatre performances, but these are often experimental in form. We’re always keen to explore how we can collaborate with people who aren’t necessarily from a theatre background, although we also welcome applications from people who work in traditional theatre settings. 

Details

  • Cap-a-Pie has opportunities for three artists to work with us. 
  • Each artist will receive £500 for around 2 days of work with us (£250 per day). 
  • All work will be completed remotely.

To apply

Send your CV, a brief statement (max 500 words) of why you would like to work with Cap-a-Pie and a completed equality & diversity monitoring form (download here) to katy@cap-a-pie.co.uk stating ‘Freelance Artist Call’ in the subject line. 

If you would like to have an informal chat before you apply please get in touch with Katy Vanden, Cap-a-Pie’s Producer – katy@cap-a-pie.co.uk

Deadline for applications is 9am 3rd August 2020. Remote interviews for shortlisted candidates will take place on 10th August 2020.

CREDIT and THE FIVE

April 6th, 2020

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It’s become a pretty regular occurrence in the past few days for my friends and I to swap pop culture recommendations. Everyone is looking for something new to read, watch and listen to that will get them through a lockdown at home. I’m going to give you a recommendation of my own, but it’s one that has a lot of parallels to our next scheduled production.

‘Credit’, about Universal Credit and the effects it’s having on people in the North East of England, was going to be performed at the end of April. We’ve had to postpone it due to recent events but we’re committed to having people see it at some point in the future. 

In the meantime, the book I’d like to recommend is ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold which tells the story of the five women killed by ‘Jack the Ripper’. Rubenhold has undertaken pain-staking research into the lives of these women to paint an incredibly detailed and very sad portrait of who they were as people with only small mention how they each came to be in Whitechapel in the late 1880s.

Although set in Victorian times, there are so many connections to be made with today and how people are being treated by the DWP under Universal Credit. One of the main takeaways from ‘The Five’ is that in 19th Century Britain it was a challenging life (to say the least) to be a member of the working poor. And we’re confident that the researchers we have been working with on the show would argue that not a great deal has changed.

There’s one particular section in the book that really struck me. In the early 1860s an American financier named George Peabody resolved to make a gift to his adopted city of London to ‘promote the comfort and happiness’ of the ‘poor and needy’. He ended up giving away the equivalent of £45 million in today’s money for a social housing project that lifted thousands of Londoners out of the slums. It’s something to be applauded but what was interesting was that families had to apply to get a flat in these ‘Peabody Buildings’, it was not something decided by need or even through a lottery:

“The Peabody Trustees took pains to ensure that only the ‘most deserving of the working poor’ who displayed an appropriate moral character and means to meet their rent were admitted as residents”.

The idea of the ‘deserving poor’ is something that has come up repeatedly in our conversations around Universal Credit, especially in relation to the government’s attitude to welfare. It’s one of the big questions we’re trying to ask in the show: what do we want the welfare system to be? Who should be ‘entitled’ to welfare?

As I said earlier, we’re hopeful that you’ll be able to see us ask that and many other questions in ‘Credit’ sometime soon. In the meantime, ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold is available in hardback and paperback now and is a fantastic read.

And on a related note, Cap-a-Pie have started a book club and any recommendations would be much appreciated. Any genre accepted, 400 page limit.

Cap-a-Pie has made ‘Credit’ in collaboration with Newcastle University, Teesside University, Gateshead Council, Newcastle Council, Citizens Advice Gateshead, Your Voice Counts, Oasis Community Housing, Women’s Health in South Tyneside, Changing Lives, Larkspur House and Fuse. 

This show has been funded by Newcastle University via the Population and Health Sciences Institute, Institute for Social Science and Catherine Cookson Foundation; Using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England; and Gateshead Council. 

Dr Matt Davies on his experience of Rio and his research

July 30th, 2019

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Dr Matt Davies worked with Cap-a-Pie to create a new audio show The Other City.

Photocredit: www.phyllischristopher.com

Rio has famously, though misleadingly, been described as two cities, as asfalto and favela: pavement and slum. This description is misleading. While you might have the feeling of being in an entirely different world depending on where you find yourself in Rio, these two cities are closely tied together and part of each other. In fact, Rio is multiple cities but also one city. 

Further, its many sides cannot be reduced to these terms. There are over one thousand favelas in Rio, each different to all of the others. Rio’s multiple cities express themselves in all kinds of ways: music and traffic; improvised houses next to airy modernist architecture next to weighty colonial buildings; armoured personnel carriers on the streets and tiny swimming costumes on the beach. Rio is also a city where delicate dreams of the future are inscribed on sometimes vibrant and sometimes decaying constructions of the present, from under which emerge scars of the past. 

My research is about people’s everyday lives and international political economy. I’m interested in finding out how these topics, which at seem at first glance to be very different, are related. We tend to think about our everyday life as “in here”, as we go about our daily business. In contrast our usual perception of international things is that they are remote and distant, “out there”. 

It’s clear that decisions or processes that take place in the international political economy have effects on people’s daily lives. However, for me it has been difficult to say how the everyday and the international affect each other.

In 2015 I was working at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the city was preparing to host the Olympics. It was plainly clear that this international mega-event was having very concrete consequences for people’s everyday lives – for better and for worse. Walking around the city of Rio I saw how encounters and confrontations between the local and the international were all around me. I realised that I could put aside the question of how the international and the local relate, and instead ask where they meet. 

In preparation for the Olympics, the city undertook to renovate the port area. They built the noted “Museum of Tomorrow” designed by Santiago Calatrava. They forcefully removed residents of one of Rio’s oldest favelas. And during construction in the port area, they dug up human remains – Rio’s port was the point of entry for more African slaves than had been taken to all of the United States during the slave trade and many of the pretos novos– “new blacks” – who had died in the transit were simply dumped in unmarked mass graves. The old port facilities where slave ships had been offloaded, Valongo Wharf, was also excavated by archaeologists and is now preserved and recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Rio taught me this: when the plans or designs or fantasies of international investors or planners or bureaucrats come into contact with people in their daily lives, these many cities play themselves out in the streets, in houses, in kitchens and restaurants, in taxis and offices. And there’s no reason to think that these don’t play out in any other city: research is a matter of walking around attentively.

Why we’re not built to live in cities

April 7th, 2019

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Gwilym Lawrence, Director of The Other City

We’ve just launched The Other City, a new piece of audio theatre that audience members can listen to via headphones at any time they choose, in any city in the world.

We worked on the show on and off for around two years, and during the testing stages many audience members said they found the experience to be very mindful. This response really pleased us. The Other City, we hope,opens up an invitation to explore urban spaces in unfamiliar ways, to stop and notice things you wouldn’t normally and to think about the global forces that shape our immediate surroundings.

One recurring idea in the show is that we aren’t, as human beings, meant to live in cities. As the tweet above from Matt Haig neatly sums up, our bodies and brains aren’t kitted out to cope with the enormous amount of stimuli we subject them to every day, just by walking down a busy high street. Without even noticing we’re doing it, we develop techniques to shut out a lot of what’s going on around us. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of noticing a substantial change near where we live – a building gets demolished or changes colour – and we seem to have no recollection of what was there before. Where I live in Sheffield, there have been huge architectural changes recently; the city’s silhouette feels like it’s constantly shifting, with new flats and tower-blocks appearing like mushrooms overnight. Just recently, the iconic Grosvenor House Hotel was demolished, leaving the sky looking starkly naked.

One thing I’m particularly excited about with this show is the way it plays with scale, inviting you to notice the minutiae of your city as well as the big, sweeping changes: a small fissure in a stretch of tarmac, the way the light catches a particular tree, the reflection of the sky in a tower-block window. One audience member said that whilst experiencing the show, they had the pleasurable sensation of being a tourist on their own doorstep, seeing it in strange new ways. Through this kind of interaction with our lived environments, we can come to see and understand them differently. More broadly, the show is being released as the Brexit drama appears to be reaching its endgame; a time at which we’re all thinking out loud about the movement of people and ideas, and ultimately about our place in the world. In the midst of all this, I hope audience members for The Other City in Newcastle, Sheffield and beyond enjoy this opportunity to experience their city afresh, and to consider the ways in which it might be an arena in which both local and global forces play out.

Check out Matt Haig’s excellent book Notes on a Nervous Planet.

F.A.Qs for The Other City

April 1st, 2019

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  • What is ‘The Other City?’

The Other City is a piece of audio theatre in the form of a podcast. You listen to it through headphones while moving around a city.

  • Can I listen to it at home, in the car or on the bus/train/ferry?

Technically, yes. But ideally you should listen to it outside in an urban environment.

  • So not in a rural or suburban area?

Members of the creative team have experienced the show while walking in quiet streets and it still works, but somewhere busier is better. We made the show in collaboration with a researcher who looks at how global and local things come together specifically in cities, so it’s designed to be experienced in a city.

  • Any particular city you had in mind?

Not at all. You can experience the show anywhere in the world. And we’d love to know where The Other City has been listened to, so please get in touch afterwards and tell us where you are using #TheOtherCity on social media.

  • Where do I have to go?

The show can be started absolutely anywhere you like. During the podcast itself, where you go is totally up to you.

•          What sort of experience is The Other City?

The show is quite relaxed and asks you to think and reflect. You won’t need to run anywhere! Some people have said they found it mindful.

  • How long will it take me?

From start to finish it should take you between 45 and 60 minutes.

  • Do I have to do it by myself?

Again, that’s up to you but we’d recommend it as in individual experience. That said, we have held events where groups of people start in the same place and then come back together again at the end to share their experience, which worked very well.

  • Where can I download ‘The Other City’?

‘The Other City’ is available through all major podcast providers. See www.theothercity.co.uk for details.

•          What are the events in Newcastle & Sheffield?

In April we are holding special meet the team events at Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle (6th April) and at Theatre Deli in Sheffield (13th April). Here you can come and do the show from 2-3pm then return to the theatre and meet members of the creative team plus other people who have just done the show. We’d love to meet you there.

Why we created a piece of audio theatre – Brad McCormick

March 1st, 2019

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On 2nd April we launched our brand new show The Other City. Rather than being live theatre the show is a podcast that you can listen to while walking around any city.

Photos by: www.phyllischristopher.com

Cap-a-Pie has never done a show that’s purely audio before. However, something that was solely listened to rather than watched really fit the themes of what we, and our collaborator Dr Matt Davies were exploring.

Matt works at Newcastle University and looks at how the global and the local come together in urban environments. Primarily Matt is researching Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the effects that world events like the Football World Cup and the Olympics have on local communities. In Rio the effects are quite stark, eg. an entire favela is bulldozed to make way for an Olympic village. 

The aim of our project was for people to think about their own city and how the world outside influences and shapes it. We decided that if we wanted to provoke people to think about that, it would be best for them to experience the show while being outside in the city. 

One of the brilliant things about this piece is that is available for download, for free, anywhere by anyone at anytime. 

We also love the intimacy that the show has. In The Other City you’ll be walking around by yourself, headphones on, and being spoken to directly by our main character. It’s a show that asks you to think (but in a fun way) and the intimate experience really helps this along.

So while The Other City is a slight departure from what you might expect from us, it’s one we’re really excited about having people listen to all over the world.


Find out more about The Other City.

Sign up to be one of the first the visit The Other City.

Blog from Brad – Climate Change Catastrophe!

January 9th, 2019

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This could be an accurate descriptor for what is happening in the world right now. But it will also be the working title for the new show that we’ll be making in early 2019 (more on where that title came from later on).

For some time now, we’ve been wanting to do a project around climate change.  It’s one of the biggest issues of our time and feels particularly relevant at the moment when experts are telling us that the clock is ticking to do something about it.

In the past year or so we’ve also been forging relationships with climate scientists and engineers at Newcastle University and this year an opportunity arose with the Royal Academy if Engineering to create a brand new engagement project.

Our pitch was to make the beginnings of a piece of theatre about climate change, that was inspired and created by primary school children, with help from climate scientists and performed by professional actors for an audience of all ages.

Climate change will affect us all, but it’s the younger generation who will bear the brunt and we felt that it would be interesting and useful to get their perspectives and to broaden their understanding of climate science and the engineering solutions from people with real expertise.

After our successful funding application to the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious scheme, we got the ball rolling on the project by facilitating a couple of short sessions with two classes at Hotspur Primary School in Heaton.  We wanted to gauge their knowledge about climate change as well as setting them a couple of creative tasks.  One of those tasks was to come up the title for the piece mentioned at the very top. ‘Climate Change Catastrophe’ won the day but it was a close run thing with other contenders including ‘The Sunbeam Situation’ and ‘Don’t Do Climate Change’.

The project really kicks off in January 2019 when we get the students, the scientists and engineers, the actors and Cap-a-Pie all in a room to start creating.

Can’t wait.

Interview with Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire on creating The Important Man

September 24th, 2018

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THE IMPORTANT MAN

What do you research and why did you want to create a piece of theatre from it?

I work broadly on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, popular medicine, and the supernatural over the last few hundred years. This has included exploring urban and rural fortune-tellers and their clients, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I began to refocus my attention on the popularity of fortune-tellers during the First World War due to be being involved in running the University’s Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre. I was interested in the opportunity to create a piece of theatre out of this research for two reasons. First, I had already worked with the theatre company Out of Joint to inform the creation of a play about Jane Wenham, of Hertfordshire, who, in 1712, was the last person to be found guilty of witchcraft in England. I had much enjoyed working with the actors, playwright, and director, so I thought working with Cap-a-Pie would be an equally stimulating and enjoyable creative opportunity. And it has been. 

What excited you most about The Important Man and what were the challenges?

The world of fortune-tellers and prophets during the First World War is full of potential for drama and comedy, and I hoped that the depiction of this unusual facet of everyday life on the Home Front in the form of a play, would better bring home to people the complex relationship between anxiety and faith in a time of war. The play also explores interesting ideas around the boundaries between science and the supernatural, at a time when spiritualism was popular, and electricity was still a novel force for many people. As the historical advisor, I guess the main challenge was to identify the sort of source materials and objects that might give Cap-a-Pie a real feel for the period and the diverse characters who operated as fortune tellers and prophets. Just giving a load of academic books and articles to a creative team whose time is limited, who need to work fast and intensively to generate narrative and dialogue that give a genuine feel for time and place, is not particularly helpful.

Has creating the show made you think any differently about your research?

Yes, in several ways. I consider writing history as a creative exercise in blending narrative, analysis, and illustrative examples. Working with Cap-a-Pie made me think about how the process of writing for a different medium, a play, can inform the way I approach writing history for a general reader. Every time I was working with Cap-a-Pie we were thinking about the audience and how you can tell a complex story as simply as possible. That is a really valuable exercise. The questions the Cap-a-Pie team asked about the personality and motive of the characters in the play also made me reflect on how I understand the real people that inspired the fictional creations. I am always learning from other disciplines and people with different approaches to presenting history.