The ghost of Van Emden

Over 20 years ago I sat in a lecture theatre downstairs in the catchily named “Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences” at Reading University – (FoLSS) I was presiding over auditions for Cyrano de Bergerac. With the arrogance of youth I had already cast myself in the lead. I met a young man called James in that room and cast him as Christian. He later trained at The Drama Centre, and now lives in Sussex as a teacher. I’m Godfather to his son.

Today I was working in The Edith Morley building on the same campus, in room G27, facilitating a workshop for quantitative surveyors and construction managers. I’m not even going to bother explaining how the hell that happened. It just did.

I had been told “The Edith Morley was formerly the HumSS building.” Evidently someone realised that it was stupid calling it FoLSS when HumSS is just so much catchier. And then years later someone a little more imaginative said “Shall we name it after an early esteemed female academic?” All this rebranding was particularly confounding for me. I arrived on campus looking for a building I’d never heard of, and ended up finding out it’s a building I’d been to every day for years, and a room I knew. Good they named it for Edith Morley though – I had to Google her.

Upstairs in this newly rebranded humanities building is the theatre where I cut my teeth. Over almost three years as President of the drama society, we put on all the usual student fare. I was sometimes directing, sometimes acting, kicking things around. Learning the basics before training. It was a basic theatre – minimal lighting rig, tabs, a little apron, a trapdoor. There was potential though. We blocked everything to within an inch of its life because we thought that was the only way. Thrashing out zombie-classics. Ambitious sets – we did Noises Off with two levels, and doors, rotating. Challenging parts – I played Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Possibilities. So many of them, limited only by our depressingly limited knowledge of world drama.

One of our most avid audience members was Professor Wolfgang van Emden. A delightful man who would persuade all his undergraduates to come to the shows. He’d always moan that the theatre wasn’t as well equipped as it should be.

Arriving today I noticed that the theatre is now named after him. Another rebrand! In a field as embalmed as academia I suppose superficial changes help add to the sense of progress. I expect he’d given it a bequest in his will. Lucky students! Glorious Wolfgang, making possible the theatre we’d always dreamed of! Maybe a better rig, more room to store costumes. I vowed to have a little look after work before the cab home. I wanted to reconnect with that mawkish entitled kid that thought Stoppard was experimental theatre.

Having finished with the engineers, I bounced up the stairs, camera-phone in hand for nostalgia snaps only to find … a lecture theatre. They’ve ripped the whole thing out and made a modern lecture theatre! I can’t help but think that’s totally counter to Wolfgang’s wishes. But they’ve named it after him. It’s just another flavourless room for idiots like me to stumble into and blither our way through a PowerPoint in exchange for cold hard cash.


I sincerely hope it’s because they’ve built a proper dedicated theatre for kids to make overly worthy learning theatre-things happen in. If not I hope that the ghost of Wolfgang van Emden, scarved and wild haired, will make all the PowerPoints go crazy until they do.

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

4 thoughts on “The ghost of Van Emden”

    1. That’s part of the Bulmersh campus, which is a very cliquey dramadramadrama department for the dedicated drama students. The theatre I’m referring to was the one where people who were not specialising in drama could do plays. Received wisdom is, if you want to be a practitioner avoid studying drama at university level…


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