Pop professors: Away from campus some academics turn themselves into daredevil performers

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The Independent Online

The funky disco beat chugs along, as the singer cuts in: "Come on, lady, put your make-up on / You know we'll be dancing until dawn." Are these the words of an academic? "I'm quite happy to put my name to those lines," says Dr Stephen Farrier, senior lecturer in drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Academic by day, pop star by night, Farrier, 35, forms part of chart-bound Paleday, a group whose influences include Scissor Sisters and the Bee Gees. In this schizophrenic life – part tutor, part rocker – Farrier is not alone. It might come as a surprise to students used to listening to greying professors in varying shades of tweed, but a host of lecturers lead fascinating second lives as performers.

"Walking out to do the first lecture to people you don't know feels like walking out into a gig," says Farrier. "The way that you run a set is kind of like how I would organise a class. It all seems to hang together like a show."

Farrier is convenor of the drama, applied theatre and education course at Central and teaches theatre history, psychoanalysis and drama, asking his students such philosophical questions as "What is theatre?" and "What is drama?" Students are treated to lectures full of humour, but it's still a far cry from what he calls "prancing around on stage".

"Students come to my gigs, and one or two of them will stand at the front and look like they're in shock. They can't reconcile the person that's in the lecture talking highfalutin, post-structuralist theory and the band member singing about a drag queen."

It's easy to see why. Civilian dress distinguishes Farrier from the suited, bowler-hatted member of Paleday. But it turns out that this shifting of identities is exactly what he teaches in his queer theory classes.

"Queer theory says that the conventional way we think about things, say, gender, creates structures that might be oppressive," says Farrier. "It gives us the opportunity to question assumptions about our own identity."

Queer theory looks at the idea of "fluidity" in drama and literature, the idea of being between things, between different identities. It is particularly pertinent to Farrier's situation as lecturer-cum-rock star.

It's one thing to be a professor who does a bit of pop, but what about Liselle Terret, one of Farrier's colleagues at Central? A lecturer in applied theatre, she moonlights as Doris La Trine, a comedic, neo-burlesque performer who plays a 1950s housewife who dunks herself in a giant pink lavatory bowl.

It sounds wacky, but Terret argues that her work is both postmodern and post-feminist. "It's using the comedy to make a comment," she says. Indeed, her "Birth of a Porn Star" sketch ponders the question of beauty and laments the fact that cosmetic surgery is becoming normal for women.

"My academic work has given me the drive to do this, and I also have a very clear understanding of what I'm doing with my show because my academic work supports it."

Farrier will soon be taking a group of students to see one of Terret's performances and she will also give a lecture to the students entitled Feminism and Neo-Burlesque. Last October, she organised the first feminist neo-burlesque symposium, which featured speakers from academia, theatre and burlesque.

Then there is Jonathan Kemp, 40, a part-time lecturer in literature, creative writing and gender studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, who forms part of the equally absurd Dancing Brodericks, a troupe that performs "shambolic" routines to outrageous cover versions of well-known songs – in masks. A recent performance featured fishnet stockings, Doc Martens and Britney Spears masks.

"It's all about creeping people out really – there's something about erasing the human face," says Kemp, who admits to a deep interest in Dadaism and the irrational. But if it sounds like he is starting to talk about an academic concept, that is the extent of it. For him, performing is more about getting away from academia.

"I could switch on the academic discourse, but at the end of the day, I perform because it's a way of removing myself from an intellectual environment. So I don't intellectualise the process. I just get on with it. It's a bit of silliness really."

Silliness or not, the Dancing Brodericks have performed in a range of settings from Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe to a benefit evening for the Green Party.

Kemp is also a DJ. Last week, he began at the New Vauxhall Tavern playing "hardcore queer rock". "It's to alleviate the boredom," he says. "As an academic, you tend to get caught in an ivory tower. With the DJing, it keeps me engaged and ensures I'm not buried in books all the time."

Another case of split personality is Dr Helen Reddington. A "middle-aged" academic, she lectures in music at the University of Westminster and the University of East London. She is also Helen McCookerybook, one-time singer and bassist for the Seventies and Eighties punk band The Chefs. Now, thanks to one of her students, she has resumed performing as Helen McCookerybook.

"I went along to one of the student's gigs and it was great," she says. The student then asked Helen to play in the band and, when she did, she was offered a gig herself. That was three years ago. Last summer, she toured America and has just finished her second album. That's on top of the book she also published last year, entitled The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era, an academic text putting the phenomenon of girl guitarists into a sociopolitical context.

"I don't feel like an academic as I'm still conscious of the times when I've been in the same situation as my students," she says. But, at heart, Helen is still a punk. "I think anyone who's ever been one will tell you it doesn't leave you. It was a questioning subculture, which actually goes well with being an academic."

She says that returning to performing has helped with lecturing as it allows her to read what the students are feeling and their level of engagement, like reading an audience. "You slip in a lighter reference at the point when they're starting to nod off in the same way you would play a lively, rocky song when the audience is getting bored."

Being a performer also allows these academics to find a niche, and gives the students something unique to relate to. "I think academia can be quite alien for students," says Terret, "and I think you've got to carve your own place within it. My performance has enabled me to find a perspective, a place."

Reddington agrees. "A lot of students think their lecturers were born to be academics and you get this sense that they regard you as an 'other' being. I quite savour the point at which I tell them about my other life."

Paleday's new single, 'Eurotramp', is out on 28 January on Ranggy Tanggy Records and can be downloaded from iTunes; www.myspace.com/dorislatrine; www.myspace.com/helenmccookerybook

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