Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 24: My thesis is performance

I should be writing my thesis. Whatever else I am doing, I should be writing my thesis. This is a constant pin pricking my conscience. It’s a long time since I have posted to this performance diary, because I have been concentrating on the thesis. Channelling my ideas in the more formal tone of academic writing.

A thing that I need to remember is that Lines And Ladders is the thesis. The written element of my thesis will be shorter than most, by about 30,000 words, because this practice is the thesis. This public exchange of personal stories enabled through play is the nub of my research. It is an exploration of the principles and methods that guide family historians. Each game is the same and each game is different; each time it is a chapter of my thesis.

By playing a game, participants are a part of the research. They contribute to the thesis not as focus group studies, but as active players who steer the chapter. At Family Tree Live, I played with James Halstead, who at the start stated that he hoped he would land on a particular prompt, but did not reveal which space this was. As the game progressed he mentioned this again, saying it was now looking unlikely. Doing this he built my suspense and shifted the control of the game’s narrative. I was intrigued. The game ended. James won. And as a prize was able to select one more story to tell … perhaps one that we had missed … This new rule, invented to fit this particular game, may well be introduced into future play, but it was only introduced that day because of the way that James had increased the intrigue.

In another game on the same day, I played with Elizabeth Lloyd and her daughter Natalie Pithers. In this game Elizabeth raced ahead. Her dice throws propelling her towards an early win, whilst Natalie and I trailed behind. This led to a game of two halves. In the first part Elizabeth had more opportunities to tell stories, but once she had won it became Natalie’s turn.

At Family Tree Live there were many organisations and companies who would help you to document your family history. Three that stood out were who will help you to create a bright and colourful poster of your family tree, who will interview you then turn it into a book and CD, and who provide an online platform where you can curate your family history to share with your chosen audience. Lines And Ladders is something different. Lines And Ladders is not a way of recording family histories, but it is a way of sharing them. It’s about making time to tell your stories and about being interested in other people’s stories.

In this blog about Family Tree Live, Janet Few points out the importance of making time for the interests of others. Having spent more than 30 hours playing Lines And Ladders in 2018 and 2019, I can verify it’s well worth listening to other people’s family histories because everyone has gems to share.

And sometimes, this will help you with your own research. One player told a story of an ancestor who had changed their name. As she told the story aloud, she raised a question for herself. Had this man’s step-father died, before the son changed his name to his biological father’s name? A new avenue to follow prompted by the conversation.

And James’ story? The one that I had to wait for? Prompted by ‘You find something that you cannot share’, this was a cautionary tale to take care when talking about family histories to those involved. Events that may be common knowledge in one branch of the family may be unknown to another.


Natalie Pithers, Elizabeth Lloyd and I play Lines And Ladders at Family Tree Live last April.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 23: Endgame

This blog post discusses the film Avengers: Endgame; there is no risk of spoilers, as I haven’t seen it yet…

I’ve tried explaining transtextuality here before and I don’t think that it was terribly successful. I love this concept but my enthusiasm for it can get too tangled up in jargon.

At the moment I am grappling with my methodology. This is the bit of the thesis where I have to explain why I have done my research in the way that I have done it. This is the bit where I have to explain why I have chosen transtextuality as a theory, when there are so many other possible options.

Saying, because I’m besotted with it and I don’t understand why you aren’t too, simply doesn’t cut it. I need to be able to explain why I am slightly obsessed.

As this is happening, all around me are discussions of the recently released Avengers: Endgame. This film that promises to bring to a close the multiple storylines generated across more than ten years and twenty films.

A part of the pleasure in watching these films is recognising their interrelationships. Spotting a central character from one film as a bit part in another. Recognising how actions in one film might impact another. Questioning how characters are changed from their comic book originals. This is a franchise wearing its transtextuality on the outside.

This is the fourth Avengers film; the rest of the films focus on individual characters and mostly take their titles from a central protagonist. How many people watching Endgame will have watched only the four Avengers films? Not many I would guess. Does this thread of four Avengers films act as back bone to the rest of the franchise? Or are they more like icing on a cake, the whole thing will hold together fine without them, but they sweeten the experience? Would someone watching Endgame without having seen any of the rest of the films be entertained or simply lost? Understanding how the films function in relation to one another is what transtextuality can help us to do.

I lost track of the films years ago, probably as a result of the demise of Blockbuster films. Once I had missed a few, it suddenly seemed like a lot to keep up with.  If I watch Endgame now, it will be in the light of just seven of the earlier films. This will be a very different experience to a cinema-goer who has watched every film on release and different again to the dedicated fan who has watched every film multiple times.

So I might try and watch a few more Avengers films before watching Endgame or it might be the next film that I watch. Either way, I’ll be watching for elements I recognise from other Marvel films, from other films in the superhero genre, I’ll be looking out with sadness for Stan Lee’s final Avengers cameo, and I’ll be wondering how much it shares with its strangest transtextual relation, Samuel Beckett’s play of the same name. I have a feeling that any closure offered by Avengers: Endgame will be about as final as that offered by Beckett. In Marvel’s case it will only hold firm until the next opportunity is seized; these films are part of an ongoing transtextual narrative. This cycle is ending. The next one will come round soon enough.IMG_3133


Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 22: On the village green

Every time that I feel that I must stop play Lines And Ladders and get on with writing the thesis another irresistible opportunity comes up. This time it was Family Tree Live in the Alexandra Palace, London.

Family Tree Live was a massive gathering of family historians and genealogists. I was invited to bring my project to the village green.  In the vast space of Ally Pally, a miniature village green was created with picnic tables, picket fences and the sculpted family tree rooted at its centre.

Across the two days this space provided a place to rest weary feet, to gather thoughts, make quick notes and catch up with friends. #AncestryHour planned tweet-ups at the village green, so that people who had only met via twitter before could chat face to face.

This village green was a space that was performing intimacy and community within the grand splendour of the Alexandra Palace. Set apart from the rest of the show and yet capturing its essence: a space to share stories, experiences, knowledge and understanding with other family historians. A perfect staging for Lines And Ladders.

Most of the people who have played Lines And Ladders are interested in family history, but only a few had done any detailed research. Often when playing, I am cast in the role of expert explaining how discoveries can be made. Family Tree Live was a chance to chat to people about my performance-research, who have an extremely high level of expertise and enthusiasm for family history. I needed to accept my limitations as a family historian and learn from those who played with me. This is something that I love about playing Lines And Ladders. Every time I play, I play with different people and so each game needs to pitched differently. The play must be differentiated. I am sure that I don’t always get it quite right. Sometimes I assume too much is known. Other times, I go overboard explain something familiar. This is part of the challenge for me as the performance maker.

I’ll confess now that I didn’t expect to play many games at Family Tree Live. I thought that lots of people would be interested, that they would be happy to chat about the game, they might even want to take a game with them, but wouldn’t want to spend the time playing it.

I was wrong.

People were happy to take part in this tiny performance. They liked sharing their stories in this playful and informal way. And I think that they liked taking the time to do so. I barely had time to pause, make notes or eat my sandwiches!

Thanks to everyone who took the time to chat on the village green and especially to those who made time to play, including Mike Esbester, Natalie Pithers, Elizabeth Lloyd and James Halstead. Thanks to Shane Surgey, who has supported me throughout, including  supplying me with coffee, taking photographs and sharing the driving – not to mention being responsible for all the design work!

And a big thank you to Helen Tovey and the organisers of Family Tree Live for inviting me and to Debbie Kennett for helping me to get Lines And Ladders to this event.


Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 21: Li Yuan-chia

On a recent visit to Manchester Art Gallery, my friend and I happened upon an exhibition of Li Yuan-chia’s work. We had visited the special exhibition on the top floor and weren’t going to look further into the gallery. We have visited many times before and have seen the permanent exhibits. We were working our way downstairs towards coffee, when I was distracted by a Bridget Riley. This was out of place. We’d had enough; we were ready for refreshment. But the Bridget Riley was a breadcrumb that distracted us and we turned the corner only to be blown away by several giant metallic discs. Each disc adorned with a splattering of magnets, restricted by the palette of gold, black, red and white, Li’s work is distinctive.

A few years ago, the Tate Modern in London displayed three of Li’s original discs. These were delicate, suspended by thin wire from the ceiling. They turned almost imperceptibly and were placed, firmly, wisely, necessarily, out of reach beyond an alarmed wire. They could be admired. They could be watched. They weren’t for play.

Manchester Art Gallery has done something different. They have commissioned new versions of these works. Far more heavy-weight than Li’s originals and with magnets cut from plastic, rather than delicately hand-decorated. This Magnetic Playground recreates the experience of the LYC gallery. Children are invited, they are welcomed and play is possible, but is not just for children.

The LYC Gallery closed before I could possibly remember it, but I remember the house. I remember the garden. I remember Li.

I remember the solid, sticky traybakes that he used to make and share with us. I remember photographs drying, pegged over the bath. I remember his patience telling us an elaborate folk story contained in a single Chinese character. My incredulity that so many complicated details could be contained in the individual brush strokes that combined together to construct the artistry of the character and the incidents of the story.

The LYC Gallery was near Hadrian’s Wall, in the wild, debatable lands between England and Scotland. My parents were friends of Li and we used to visit him in the house that had been a gallery.  My brother and I played in the garden, which rose steeply from the back of the house to what – for us – was a maze of pathways. The garden was full of eggshells. As children it felt as though the garden might crack open to produce new life or perhaps there was some exciting creature buried there. I wonder now, if that was an attempt to ward off slugs!

In Manchester, we sat and watched a short film that has been made by Helen Petts. An exploration of the house in its setting. Capturing some of the lingering sadness that taints the space that Li was unable to escape.

Behind us was the laughter of people enjoying the space. People playing a three way table tennis game. People drawing at the table. People creating new composite shapes with magnets.

There is a sign on the wall taken from the LYC Gallery, which invites visitors to ‘Enjoy yourselves, but don’t waste paper. The paper is free. Please leave the table tidy.’ This gentle exhortation to tidy playfulness resonates with me. I want you to play and I will provide the space for you to do so, but please recognise the parameters of the game. It is those rules that make play possible. Respect the time that you have given to the game by committing and playing whole-heartedly. Playing is most enjoyable when you dedicate yourself fully to it.

For the first time in Manchester, I saw a connection between Li’s work and my own. Work that I have known as long as I can remember. I recognise in my own playful methods, the restrictions that Li placed on his work. The importance of playing for adults, as well as children and, if possible, all playing together.


Photographs taken during visit to Manchester Art Gallery.

This exhibition is on until 22 April 2019. More information can be found here:

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 20: Place Matters

I was born in Carlisle, but growing up in north Cumbria, I didn’t feel particularly local. Neither of my parents had grown up in the area and although my paternal grandparents lived nearby, I don’t think that I really appreciated what that meant. I knew the house where my grandfather was born – his cousins still lived there – and it was just 5 miles away from where I lived as a teenager. But as a kid and a teenager, even one fascinated by history, I wasn’t really interested. History was further away and further back. Perhaps the thought of my Grandfather as a baby was too impossible to comprehend and so I didn’t connect.

When I did become interested, it didn’t take long to dig up roots buried deep in the Cumbrian soil. Knights Lodge, Ivegill, where my Grandfather was born, had been bought by his grandparents in 1903. As a teenager I had been living within a five miles of where my 2x great grandparents lived and farmed 100 years back.

To get to Ivegill, Isabella and William Nichol had moved from north west of Carlisle to the south. Although, as every local will tell you, Carlisle is the largest city in the country, this really isn’t very far. Their lines can be traced further back into the villages of Cargo, Rockcliffe and Bewcastle.

It mattered to me to bring the game to Carlisle. To take my research home.

I was very lucky that the owners of Cakes & Ale were happy to host me for the week. Cakes & Ale is a relatively new café in Carlisle, but it is part of a local chain of bookshops that has been in the county for many years. As a child, I spent hours selecting second hand copies of Nancy Drew paperbacks in Bookcase and just over 20 years ago I started a Saturday job in Bookends. Back then Bookends was in a different building. It had a small front on to the street, but a flight of stairs led to a maze of rooms underground.  On first discovering this people would often re-emerge in wonder at the treasures they found buried in those caverns.

Now Bookends, Bookcase and Cakes & Ale are all in one rambling building. A building bursting with books, corners crammed with delicious volumes and a welcoming café with mismatched crockery where reading is encouraged.

Bringing the game back to Carlisle was important, but even more than in other cities, the venue here mattered. Taking the game to Cakes & Ale was re-visiting part of my own personal history.

This didn’t mean that the games were always easy and, in the end, there weren’t many conversations about Carlisle, but it was an important thing to do and a perfect place for Lines And Ladders.


Clockwise from top left: Rockcliffe Church; Gravestone of Joseph and Sarah Lowry and their grandson Joseph Edward Lowry at Rockcliffe Church, Joseph and Sarah are my 3 x great grandparents; Lines And Ladders in Cakes & Ale; Carlisle Castle; Hot chocolate and traybake in Cakes & Ale; West Walls in Carlisle; Cakes & Ale.