In 2018, I successfully pitched for the University of Essex to host the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) conference in 2021.

It would be one of the largest theatre conferences of its kind in the UK and the first time TaPRA had come to the east of England.

But as our opportunity to host the event drew closer, the shockwaves of the COVID-19 pandemic altered everything and our plan to bring the conference to Essex was postponed to 2022.

TaPRA22 would be the first opportunity for theatre scholars and researcher-practitioners to meet in-person at the event in 3 years. Given the manifold crises, one question pervaded every aspect of the conference-planning and delivery; how might we stage a major research event caringly, with conviviality embedded in the very design of the event

Creating a ‘caring’ conference

Both the University of Essex’s TaPRA organising committee (which I chaired) and TaPRA’s Executive Committee (chaired by Roberta Mock) had to work hard collectively to reimagine the conference for 2022, delivering it in a hybrid format for the very first time and ensuring that remote participation online was as meaningful for attendees as being there in person.

This presented sizeable technical challenges with 210 speakers presenting research across three days at 13 Working Group Panels simultaneously, both in-person and on Zoom.

‘Caring’ in this context involved providing bespoke technical training for everyone leading research working groups to help them manage blended rooms effectively.. The hybrid format – in addition to widening participation for international researchers who attended from as far away as Australia, the United States, India and the Philippines – enabled attendees to join us amidst various personal barriers to participation such as caring responsibilities, health issues and financial obstacles. Delegates were at the heart of our planning; their willingness to adapt and co-explore new ways to participate enabled us to play a significant part in supporting TaPRA at a difficult and transitional cultural moment.

Haptic Possibilities: Interactive re-embodiments installation by Christina Kapadocha

A sustainable and inclusive approach

We worked closely with Event Essex to find new ways to improve the conference’s sustainability credentials. We co-ordinated an Essex Business School takeover, hosting the event in a zero-carbon building for the very first time in the conference’s history.

A further first was delivering a meat-free conference meal at Wivenhoe House Hotel, with a bring-your-own food barbeque beside the lakes, organised in tandem for those who could not afford the cost of dining at a 4* hotel. LiFTS staff prepared the food and cooked for our guests, reaffirming our emphasis on providing convivial social spaces that dismantled barriers between postgraduate/early-career researchers and senior staff members (with institutional affiliations and prefixes removed from attendee badges to de-hierarchise the event).

Learning what our audience wanted

We listened closely to delegates on social media in the 6-month lead-up to assess their view of mitigating the risks of COVID-19, instating an advisory policy of open-windows and mask-wearing in crowded areas.

We dispensed with printed hard-copy programmes in favour of a digital platform called Sched; a hosting website that gathered full conference information, presenter biographies and zoom hyperlinks for all the panel talks, while Slack provided a means for online delegates to socialise outside of the talk and panel discussions.

Showcasing research

Across ten rooms in the Tony Rich Teaching Centre was TaPRA’s Practice-as-Research Gallery, curated by Christina Kapadocha from East 15 Acting School, where we showcased a diverse array of research artefacts with which visitors could interact, from VR experiences to haptic sensory installations.

An online WordPress website also captured these artefacts and documentation from the research in a digital format to extend participation into the online spaces of the conference. Similarly, in-person publisher stalls in The Hex, co-ordinated by Annecy Lax, were complimented with online drop-in Zoom events, bringing online delegates in contact with publishers to discuss opportunities to publish their research.

Opportunities for students

Essex students were at the heart of our planning, with colleague Nora Williams and I co-ordinating seven Student Assistants, roles which were created to give students a unique opportunity both for CV-building and to gain vital exposure to cutting-edge research in the arts.

Our staff host-rate tickets to the conference were gifted to our PhD contributors on the organising committee to make attending more affordable, while a reading of PhD candidate Andrew Burton’s new play The Twin was staged for the first time at the Lakeside Theatre with a company of professional actors working with theatre director Robert Price. Consistent with our commitment to extend the reach and improve the accessibility of every aspect of the conference, the reading was live-streamed on YouTube and live-captioned both in the theatre and for those viewing remotely online.

Where do we go from here?

Feedback online immediately after the event from both sides of the participatory experience (both online and in-person) were encouraging, with a survey to gather longitudinal information about the research impacts of the event in the planning.

The TaPRA22 conference offered a blueprint for the future, not only for TaPRA but for other major research events in the post-COVID age.

When I revisit the historic pitch document I submitted to host TaPRA, little did I know the extent to which the world was about to change. Nor did I realise quite how far we would exceed the stated aim to ‘extend the reach of the conference’, not only by bringing the event to Essex for the first time, but in its hybrid form to reach beyond our locality as a truly international event.

 I’ve discovered much from colleagues over the past year of intensive planning, but more than anything else I’ve learned that hybrid conference-organising in this difficult climate is inseparable from the enactment of care labour. In designing an event of this kind, at any scale, I’ve learned of the importance of drawing motivation from a commitment to attend to the diverse needs of delegates at all career-stages; to create a safe space to share and work-through our different research challenges and galvanise our community, after so long apart.

At best, at Essex we have created the circumstances to come together again in new ways, across whatever mediums that coming together entails.

Header image: Mapping the Soul VR (demonstration) by Piotr Woycicki, tested by Student Assistant Shalewa Sanni)

Image: Haptic Possibilities: Interactive re-embodiments installation by Christina Kapadocha