Birkbeck University of London Michael Ross Award 2023 / 2024 Winner: Negin Heidari

The winner of the Birkbeck 2023 / 2024 Michael Ross Award is Negin Heidari.

“I’m truly honoured to receive this award. I wish to convey my sincere thanks to the Ross family for their invaluable support. Michael Ross not only lives eternally through the plays he gifted to the world of theatre but also his prize breathes life into the dreams of those passionately pursuing the art of theatre.

This accolade from the College holds immense significance for me personally. The endorsement by the esteemed name of Michael Ross adds credibility, shaping my future career in script writing. It serves as a validating seal I can proudly showcase wherever recognition is sought. This is the commencement of my professional journey.

The MA in Text and Performance has been my guiding compass, seamlessly integrating critical development, creativity, theory, and practice to align with my aspirations. Navigating uncharted waters was made possible by the incredible support from Birkbeck tutors. Amid exceptional professors, I discovered a realm where theory harmoniously dances with practice. Choosing to step into this new realm with the steadfast support of Birkbeck has proven to be the best decision of my life.

As a Middle Eastern woman with English as a second language, the initial steps were daunting. However, the unwavering support from Birkbeck empowered me to embrace the journey, reinforcing the notion that dreams know no boundaries. My time at Birkbeck also afforded me the opportunity to collaborate on two other projects, “Woman Life Freedom” and “the Old Price Riots”, presented during Arts Week 2023.

I eagerly anticipate the future with a mix of emotions—sadness concluding my transformative experience at Birkbeck, and elation in the view to graduating, ready for the next phase of my personal and professional development.

I wish to extend my special thanks to Professor Fintan Walsh.”

  • Negin Heidari

Michael Ross Award 2022: Xun Huang

The director Xun Huang – Photo courtesy of Birkbeck, University of London.

The winner of the 2022 Michael Ross award is Xun Huang!

“Xun Huang has been studying Chinese opera and Chinese folk dance since he was young. In 2010, he competed with over 12,000 candidates, and won the opportunity to study in the Acting Department of the Shanghai Theatre Academy – one of the top three theatres and drama universities in China, which only admits as few as 25 students each year. During Mr. Huang’s time at the university, he was awarded several scholarships from the academy and national scholarships as well as the titles of Outstanding Graduate and Outstanding Thesis. 

After graduating from the university, Mr. Huang began to engage professionally in the performing arts and theatre. Here is a list of selective works by Mr. Huang between 2014 and 2016, including: 

He played Nasri in ” Guys and Dolls “in Shanghai Academy of Drama Duanjun theatre.

He played the broker in the original musical “The Perfect Work” in Shanghai Commercial Theatre.

He starred in the Beijing Opera “The Covenant of Love.” 

He served as an assistant director at Shanghai Lyceum Theatre. 

He performed the original musical “Hand of Midas” in Shanghai Grand Theatre.

He acted as Co-director of the Mongolian-language musical “Romeo and Juliet.” 

He served as the assistant director of the physical drama “Li Huiniang” at the Shanghai Theatre Arts Centre.

He starred in the body drama “Rage 48” in Costa Crociere. 

In 2017, Mr. Huang set up his own drama and theatre art education institution in Shanghai. Nearly 500 young people were trained by him in musical theatre performance and film and television acting, some of whom are now engaging professionally in the industry having become ‘influencers’ in the field. 

In 2019 Mr. Huang directed the youth versions of the musicals “Les Miserables” and “Cats”, which performed at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. The musical had an amazingly large cast of 300 children, between the ages of 6 and 15. The show was very well received and had a genuine positive impact on the education to the public regarding the musical industry. 

In the same year, Mr. Huang starred in the hit comedy show “Evaporating Brains”. The show initially premiered in Shanghai Theatre in 2016, and was rated as the best-selling small theatre drama of the year and recommended by countless drama critics. Mr. Huang played the leading role as a western medical practitioner, Dr. Huang. The fact he could play the leading role is a demonstration of his acting ability. 

Mr. Huang’s work has also received international recognition. In 2019, he co- directed the children’s play “24 Grandmothers” during the 26th International Children’s Theatre Festival in Subotica of Serbia, and it won the award for being the best performance as a whole (the highest award of the festival). 

Xun Huang never stops learning and exploring the world. In 2021, he decided to pursue his further education in the UK and was accepted at Birkbeck, University of London and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, studying for an MA in Text and Performance. 

A performer in one of Xun Huang’s productions – Photo courtesy of Birkbeck, University of London.

Mr. Huang’s MA text and performance course

I feel highly honoured to receive the award. I would like to show my sincere gratitude to Birkbeck and the RADA exam board for recognising my final project: the one-person musical Blossoming (You Undo Me). I am incredibly thankful to the Ross family for their support. Their recognition has helped me to gain more confidence as a theatre director. Moreover, I will always be grateful to my professors for offering me the utmost support to realise my theatre ideas, for giving me much valuable advice, and – more importantly – for their practical and theoretical way of teaching which has opened up my theatrical mind. To be honest, I was very self-conscious in my first semester and was afraid to speak up in class, but the professors offered timely and sufficient encouragement and replied patiently to every email I sent, answering my questions with much care. In addition, I would like to thank my fellow classmates for believing in me and showing me continuous support. They listened to my challenges, understood them, and motivated me to strive harder in life. 

A performer in one of Xun Huang’s productions – Photo courtesy of Birkbeck, University of London.

Mr. Huang’s dissertation project 

Blossoming (You Undo Me) is a straightforward, one-person musical about a young Chinese man growing into his queerness and yet it wove several narrative threads and theatrical forms into a singular experience. For example, the production reflected a coming-of-age tale, an immigrant’s journey, a chronicle of one family’s changing dynamics, and a sexual awakening.

With much Chinese opera training and practicing in my childhood and youth, I have been exploring how to move traditional Chinese opera into a modern musical theatre for audiences from different backgrounds. In my final project directorial and production work Blossoming (You Undo Me), I have made an innovative attempt to incorporate Beijing opera singing, Master Mei Lanfang’s gestures, puppet performance and Chinese opera freehand staging into it, hoping to deliver an exceptional musical entertainment with aesthetic expression of the East. At the same time, as a member of the queer Asian community, I have been trying to be an active voice for this group, and I strongly feel that the disapproval and shunning of the LGBTQ community in traditional Asian values can have a huge impact on their individual development. Blossoming (You Undo Me) is a story of Asian queer self-discovery and identification with their particular identity, inspiring all of us to find our true selves – as I sang at the end of my piece: “To love whoever you want to love and be whoever you want to be”. 

Michael Ross Award 2021: Aiden Strickland

Aiden Strickland performing.

Aiden is a theatre maker who grew up in Berkshire, before moving to Bristol to work for Theatre Bristol, an umbrella group that supports performers and producers. He read Performing Arts at Bath Spa University, where he found his voice as a solo performer, and is also an alumnus of both The Watershed’s Future Producers program and Marisa Carnesky’s Radical Cabaret School. As a writer and performer, Aiden has toured shows at UK theatre festivals based on Great Expectations, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and Katie Hopkins.

During his time on Birkbeck’s MA Text and Performance course, Aiden discovered that he can write earnest and personal work that is still provocative and worthwhile. His final dissertation piece, The Sodomite, for which he receives the Michael Ross Award, is both a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and an earnest reflection on Catholicism’s relationship to the LGBTQIA+ community. Aiden is passionate about gender and performance, including how queer aesthetics such as drag and cabaret can tackle cultural accessibility.

Because he tends to make solo performances, Aiden splits his time between producing and writing and devising in the studio. The support and advice Aiden has received from the staff and his peers, both at Birkbeck and RADA, has supported him in these endeavours, but due to the pandemic, his experience of developing The Sodomite has felt solitary at times. With the help of the Michael Ross Award, Aiden will be able to give The Sodomite the attention it deserves, while also exploiting his classmates’ creativity and tenacity more equitably.

Birkbeck, University of London and RADA: Text and Performance MA – Michael Ross Award.

Birkbeck University and RADA have kindly joined forces with the Michael Ross Estate to create a yearly award for aspiring students in the Text and Performance MA course.

The winner of the Michael Ross Award this year is Emma-Louise Howell.

I would like to pass on my sincere thanks to the Ross family for this prize. I really am honoured to be the first recipient of the award which provides invaluable support, not just in the future development of Patterns, but for the initial steps into my directing career. It is an especially difficult time to be breaking into the industry but this award, and the support of RADA, Birkbeck and the Ross family, offers timely and much-appreciated encouragement, hope and confidence for my ongoing development. ” 

– Emma-Louise Howell

 Emma is an emerging writer and director from Lincolnshire. Committed to pursuing a career in the arts, she read English at Durham University and performed regularly in productions with Durham Student Theatre. In her final year, Emma was elected as the society’s President where she was responsible for taking productions to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, National Student Drama Festival and on both national and international tours. 

Upon graduating from Durham, Emma began her studies at RADA and Birkbeck, where she continued to develop her skills and passion for directing on the MA Text and Performance course. As a director, her work aims to investigate the thin line between humour and stark social truths; she enjoys exploring these boundaries in both existing and new writing alike. 

Alongside her studies, Emma has been fortunate to develop her skills by assisting directors at a number of venues such as the Arcola Theatre and VAULT Festival. Her credits include: 

Directing: Patterns (RADA and Birkbeck) The Last Straw (Arcola Theatre), Honest (E-Merge Festival) 

Assistant Directing: 21 for Lunch (Hope Theatre), Days of Significance (Arcola Theatre), Who Cares (VAULT Festival) 

Acting: Jessie in Screen 9 (Pleasance Theatre), Ophelia in The Secret Love Life of Ophelia (Greenwich Theatre), Viola in Twelfth Night (UK/US Tour), Louise in After the End (Durham Student Theatre, Special Commendation for the National Student Drama Festival). 

 Her final dissertation project, Patterns, for which she receives the Michael Ross Award, explores the psychological impact of coercive and controlling behaviour. It was was short-listed for the Royal Court’s Introduction to Playwriting Programme and the award will be fundamental in supporting its future development in 2021.