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BCEC Performance

Purely Academic was performed at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre:

Wednesday 18th October: Special performance for 2017 e-Research Conference

Thursday 19th October: Public Performance.

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Photo credits: Rodney Topor



  • Director – Cienda McNamara
  • Production Manager – Sarah Thomasson
  • Set Design – Chancie Jessop
  • Costume Design – Jessica Bennett
  • Lighting Design – Stu Cochrane
  • Sound Design – Lauren Sallaway


Purely academic is a wonderful new play about academic integrity in a computer science department. It will make you simultaneously laugh, cry and wince. The issues, personas and pressures will be familiar to academics worldwide, but are too seldom discussed. This play is a great and fun way to start important conversations about integrity, direction and leadership in modern academic institutions. I thoroughly recommend it to all academics and as a valuable resource for academic units involved in promoting integrity.

Professor Paul Roe, QUT, Professor of Computer Science

A top piece of drama. We’ve all met someone within academia like the lead role. It was good to able to laugh out loud and detest him instead of just having to grind our teeth. The supporting roles snagged a few memories too. Awesome.

Martin Lack, Martin Lack and Associates

Purely Academic, by David Abramson, was performed at Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre on Thursday, 19 October. It had previously been given a staged reading at the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio in October 2016 in which I participated, playing the role of the rather feckless Professor James Holywell. A proper professional performance, as it had this time around, didn’t turn Holywell into a less feckless victim of academic skullduggery at the hands of a PhD student, but it did enhance the audience’s engagement with the text and its ideas, especially through outstanding blocking and an imaginative soundscape.

At the heart of the drama is an interplay between comfortable assumptions about academic proprieties and the ease with which these are stretched and then mutilated by a determine, though in some ways rather clueless, chancer. Whether, as in The Magnificent Ambersons, the chancer gets his comeuppance is not clear at the close of events, but, then , karma, a grace-note in the production, does not always work swiftly or conclusively. Perhaps we might hope for a sequel which traces the subsequent American career of the antagonist.

Professor Fred D’Agostino, Chair of Academic Board, The University of Queensland

Purely Academic, by David Abramson, Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, October 19, 2017.

Purely Academic is an insider’s view of the contemporary university by University of Queensland Professor of Computer Science, David Abramson. The play details the manipulative, self-interested career management of its central character, Charles Mittleman, from PhD student, through to successful university academic. Mittleman is an expert practitioner of the dark arts of academia – taking advantage of more competent female colleagues to get work done, claiming credit for the work of others and overstating his own contributions, manipulating academic networks and performance frameworks to inflate assessments of his own research, and dispensing with ethics and research integrity whenever it suits him – which is always. His PhD supervisor, colleagues and institutions deal with his behaviour in long-established ways, mostly by being completely outmanoeuvred, occasionally by colluding with him, and frequently but unsuccessfully trying to bring him to heel.

This short description might make Purely Academic only seem interesting to other insiders, but that would be a mistake. It is very funny, often uncomfortably familiar if you work in a university, and thought-provoking. But many of the dilemmas Abramson raises are general features of modern life, when naked ambition, perverse incentives and behaviour that is so bad no-one really knows what to do about it, collide. Mittleman is thoroughly unlikeable, and his behaviour does real damage, but if you are outside the fallout zone, he, like the play itself, is extremely entertaining to watch.

In genre, Purely Academic is similar to the novels of David Lodge, updated to reflect newer ways of rorting the system. I saw it at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, where it was expertly directed by Cienda McNamara, with experienced actors Chris Herden, as Mittelman’s PhD supervisor, John Hollywell, and Jackson McGovern as Charles Mittleman. McGovern played Mittleman with a frenetic intensity which softened the darker elements of the story and highlighted the comic ones.

I greatly enjoyed the performance, as did the rest of the audience, if their reactions during the play and the ovation Abramson received afterwards are any indication. The alternative hypothesis is that he just has a large and loyal circle of friends. But I think there’s probably more to it than that. Very strongly recommended.

Professor Mark Western, Director, Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland

What a pleasant surprise to attend the showing of Purely Academic at the 2017 eResearch Conference in Brisbane.  The play, written by Professor David Abramson of the University of Queensland, uses the vehicle of a highly ambitious but less than scrupulous graduate student (aptly named Charles Mittleman) to explore the darker side of academia and the ethical dilemmas that are faced.

While written by an academic, and performed for an audience of mostly academics, the themes of the play extend far beyond that realm.  As a non-academic (but coming from a family of academics and working with that community for many years), the personalities and situations resonated equally well with my “universe”, with recognizable characters that exist in similar form in the commercial world.

In a humorous and very accessible style, the play drives home issues surrounding the self-aggrandizing character of “Middleman” as well as choices made by those who surround him.

This highly enjoyable play is recommended to all….certainly not just those in the academic community…who want an evening of amusement combined with some thought-provoking themes that carry though long after the final curtain.

Earl B. Beutler, CEO – LabArchives, LLC

I thoroughly enjoyed “Purely Academic”.  It is a very witty and well acted play.  The characters were quite believable, and I particularly liked how things came together at the end. Being in academia, I can definitely relate to the issues of ethical conduct and challenges in supervising students and working with colleagues. However, the ethical and moral issues go beyond just the academic setting so I think many people would enjoy the play and laugh at the funny and sometimes absurd situations.

Professor Ewa Deelman, University of Southern California.

It was a privilege to attend the performance of ‘Purely Academic’. Set in computer science departments, the play raises important ethical questions. The author David Abramson has insightfully portrayed computer science academic behaviour, in the spirit of David Lodge’s descriptions of academics in English departments. As a Computer Science academic, I appreciated the situations, but the dilemmas are much broader than computer science. Indeed they are relevant to all areas of academia and the broader corporate world. The main protagonist is a driven individual who networks ruthlessly and pursues academic publications to elevate his status. He crosses many an ethical line in his drive to succeed, dragging others along with him into situations that they later regret.

Beyond the serious questions being raised, the play was compelling and entertaining. As the main protagonist insidiously moved from PhD applicant to full professor, the background pulsating music built tension and urgency linking the succession of short scenes.  I highly recommend the play, encourage others to see it, and hope ‘Purely Academic’ gets many more performances in the future.

Professor Leon Sterling, Swinburne University of Technology

We all know that special snowflake that like to think they’re exactly that. Special. Typically, these sorts of personalities are not the nicest of boys and girls and their opinions are second to none. Well to them, at the very least. So what happens when you have to deal with this sort of person in real time (not online) and almost everyday?

This is what Professor David Abramson attempts to unpack, and with much success, in his play Purely Academic. This particular trope of the Special Snowflake was perfectly executed in this production with its brilliant and witty script, to the point where I am sure I was not alone in grimacing and gritting my teeth in second-hand shame at the antics of academic wannabe Charles Mittleman played by the hilariously annoying, although I’m sure not in real life, Jackson McGovern.

Of course this show isn’t solely about having to deal with annoying personalities. It’s about life in the academic realm, the people that govern it and those that are more serf-like. Following the story of multiple personalities within the one play, it draws upon each personality being presented and depicts them in a hyper-realistic light. The plot mainly focuses upon the trajectory of Charles as he completes his PhD and his unwilling and set-upon supervisor John Hollywell, as depicted by Chris Herden. The set and costume design was minimalistic and realistic to the point where I thought I was genuinely looking through a window into the lives of the academics on stage. What is fascinating about this production was that it was written by an academic for those who have experienced university life. It was little wonder that the show was so real and hilarious to those who were in the know. As a university student myself, I was able to pick up on most of the jokes and relate to not only the student in Charles but also the staff, as they were reminiscent of those lecturers of mine, past and present. Purely Academic was hilarious from beginning to end, a refreshing look at something that can come across as stale and stuffy some of the time. So next time it comes around, put on your best suit and shoes and buckle in for a hilarious ride. 

Nahima Kern

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