Gulbenkian Fest – a Volunteer’s Story: “The bond between former Drama students remains strong; the Hull Mafia really exists!”

“All alumni have what every student craves – experience. Passing that experience on to the current crop of undergraduates gives them a definite advantage in the increasingly competitive world of work. The Gulbenkian Fest works brilliantly for students of Drama and associated subjects. There is no reason why similar events shouldn’t work for any other department. If you fancy a reunion with old mates that can do a lot of good on the side, why don’t you set up something of your own? The Alumni office is there to help.”

Tom Atkinson, Drama and English, 1976
Tom Atkinson at the Gulbenkian Fest in 2018 with Theatre Photographer Ed Denning (BA Drama 2018, MA Theatre Making 2019)

Volunteering on campus and sharing your wealth of experience and knowledge with current students can make a huge difference for students who are looking to take the first steps in their careers. No one knows this better than TV Producer and Director Tom Atkinson, who came up with the idea for the Gulbenkian Careers and Employability Festival (Gulbenkian Fest for short), and who has helped to establish it as an important annual event in the University calendar.

“I owe a lot to Hull University,’ says Tom. “Not least, it showed me I had no talent as an actor, laid the foundations of my career as a television producer, and introduced me to Alison, who has been my wife for the last 42 years.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that Tom thought seriously about coming back on campus, when the Drama Department celebrated its 50th Anniversary.

“A few people from my time turned up and I was astonished at how easily friendships were re-established, despite the passing of nearly 40 years. And you couldn’t help noticing that, no matter when they had been students, everyone felt they shared a great bond of good fortune both with each other and with the department.

“We Drama students had been a very tight group – many of us spent long hours working intensely on each other’s shows – but we had lost touch over the years, as we built our own lives and careers, though most people kept a few particular friends. So those of us from the Class of 76 arranged to meet up again. One lunch turned into a series of gatherings over the next few months.”

It was at one of those meetings, at the National Theatre in February 2015, the year before the 40th Anniversary of their graduation that Tom and seven or eight others decided that they wanted to give something back.

“We got to talking about how lucky we had been to have gone to university, and Hull in particular, when we did. I was the first in my working class family to go to university, and that was only possible because we got our education completely free. Not only that, we were even paid a grant to cover our living expenses. I felt we had an obligation to mark that by giving something back to the department that would benefit current students. Everyone agreed.

“But what? Then the idea hit me. We had all been successful in a wide range of different careers. We should go back to talk to the students about our lives and experiences, to pass on tips and to answer their questions. And if we planned it right, we could have a good old party for ourselves at the same time.

“I worked up a proposal and emailed it to Professor Pavel Drábek. We had never met but Pavel immediately saw the potential and bravely gave the idea his support. We agreed dates for a weekend event in June 2016.”

“The concept was simple, and not only realistic but also beneficial on all sides,’ says Pavel, Professor of Drama and Theatre Practice. “Alumni of Drama would come back for a reunion and offer the wealth of their experience to students and colleagues. We would benefit from a series of talks and classes from a range of industries and disciplines while cultivating what is essential for learning: an awareness of progression, generations and circulation of experience. They offered a range of talks and workshops, from ‘The job of on actor’ and ‘Women in the performing arts’, through ‘Using your skills in education’ and ‘Resilience and looking after yourself’, to ‘How to do job interviews’ and ‘Transferable skills’.”

Pavel Drábek, Professor of Drama and Theatre Practice

Tom started working with Pavel to put the event together, starting with reaching out to his pool of contacts for fellow volunteers.

 “Pavel and I constructed the event as I would a TV show,” says Tom. “First I devised a format, then we marshalled the talent. Pavel chose suitable locations and we put together a running order. Finally on the day we established a relaxed atmosphere that allowed everyone to give their best.”

After overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, staff and alumni, Gulbenkian Fest has gone from strength-to-strength, becoming an annual event. It now coincides with Open Days or Applicant Experience Days, so that those considering studying at Hull have a positive on-campus experience, and learn a little about the profession they may be considering. In addition, the event is now expanding to include Film and English, so that more students can benefit from this valuable careers advice, and more alumni have the opportunity to come back and make a huge difference on campus.

“From student feedback, we learn how reassuring the underlying message is,” says Professor Drabek. “As a Drama graduate you can have a rich and fulfilling professional life in an exceptionally and unexpectedly wide range of jobs, and the Gulbenkian Fest is a much-valued starting point. Also, studying Drama provides you with a unique set of transferable “superpowers”: creativity, communication and team work. And these three faculties are at the heart of modern knowledge society.”

“Gulbenkian Fest gives students the unique chance to meet a range of professionals and learn about their careers at first hand,” Tom agrees. “This helps them to decide which sort of work will suit them best, and, just as important, which is not for them. Whenever possible, alumni run practical workshops which encourage students to gain real insight and experience by actively taking part.

“The range of subjects on offer is extraordinary. As well as the subjects you would expect, like theatre, TV, radio, stage management, teaching and so on, students have also been offered advice on applying for jobs, doing interviews, working abroad, negotiation skills, mindfulness and wellbeing and lots more. It’s pure help and information – there are no jobs on offer, so there is no pressure.”

Rupert Creed (Drama and German, 1978)

We’re delighted to hear Tom’s story of volunteering, of working with staff on campus to bring back dozens of alumni for a highly effective and popular series of events, and what it means to him to make such a huge difference to the next generation of students. And there’s no doubt that the experience is mutally beneficial for all involved – staff, students and alumni.

“Alumni love talking about their work, and at Gulbenkian Fest they do so with complete honesty and openness,” Tom says. “They have taken a break to come to Hull. They are meeting up with old friends and revisit old haunts. They have time on their hands, in which they can chat with students about anything and everything. They expect students to ask them questions and will do their best to give answers that really do help. There is no us-and-them, everyone mingles completely informally. Alumni often go to sessions to learn something new or to try out the latest facilities in the Gulbenkian Centre.

“The bond between former Drama students remains strong; the Hull Mafia really exists!”


If you would like to find out more about volunteering on campus, please contact us on alumni@hull.ac.uk and find out more.

Head of Casting at the Royal Shakespeare Company Hannah Miller, Drama 2018, MA Theatre Making 2019 and Actor Erin Billington, Drama 2015 delivering a workshop at Gulbenkian Fest 2018

One thought on “Gulbenkian Fest – a Volunteer’s Story: “The bond between former Drama students remains strong; the Hull Mafia really exists!”

  1. Thanks so much, Tom and Alison. And congratulations to all members of the Hull Drama Mafia from the first drama graduates and Theatre Lab survivors of 1969 to the Gulbenkian users from October of that year and ever since. With all best wishes, Mike, who knew and remembers so many of you.

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