Feats of Activity and the Tragic Stage

by Clare McManus

The skilled boy-actresses of Jacobean England were central to theatrical representation in an era when commercial theatre is often said to be dominated by male performers. But this blog offers new contexts for understanding the boy-actress of Shakespeare, Webster, Jonson and others by contrasting what we can glean about their practice in a specific genre, namely tragedy, against the dynamic, agile, muscular enactment of femininity by women performing ‘feats of activity’, the display of the extraordinarily skilled body. In particular, it deals with the women who danced on the ropes in inn-yards, at court and perhaps also in playhouses.

The King’s Men were chief among the London playing companies of the early seventeenth century, performing at the Globe, court and the Blackfriars, and they are strongly associated with two particular playwrights, Shakespeare and Fletcher. In their first decade, their tragic repertory – from Othello (1602-4) to The Duchess of Malfi (1613) – is packed with feminine corpses, skulls, statues and monuments. Such tropes have long been said to emphasise stasis and present an extreme monumentalisation and spectacular display of the body of the boy-actress who played leading female roles.  This observation may be a commonplace in scholarship, but what if these tropes are not simply a default response to patriarchy – not merely what happens to ideas of femininity and the feminine body under patriarchy – but are in fact reactions to other kinds of femininity enacted by other kinds of players, both elsewhere and inside the playhouses? 

This blog examines very different ‘feats of activity’, exploring female rope dancers across England and Europe. Though these depictions of femininity by different kinds of player exist on a spectrum of skilled physical labour, the insistent monumentalisation of the King’s Men’s tragic boy-actress suggests that, for this company at least, such an emphasis may in part be an act of emulation and opposition, a shaping of what happens on the commercial stages of the playing companies against other kinds of players. 

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For early moderns, rope is a cheap, readily available material from which to create a playing space. Dancing on the rope, women enact a vertiginous femininity, occupying the vertical in a way usually reserved for deities in court masques or indoor playhouse performance. For rope-dancers, the slack rope around which they spin, the tight rope on which they jump and walk, the rope on which they screech down from the tops of towers, with fireworks strapped to their bodies is a productively simple kit that can be speedily set up and broken down.

‘A Turkish man walking a tightrope that is stretched between the campanile of St Marks in Venice and a mooring pad with winch’; c.1520-1600 (British Museum 1878,0713.4161) © Trustees of the British Museum.

Like the simple trestle stage with which Italian commedia troupe toured Europe, setting it up and breaking it down when needed, rope offers touring performers a flexible, mobile playing space in partial contrast to the institutionalised, architectural solidity and groundedness of the built or adapted playhouse – though, as Before Shakespeare has shown us, that playhouse is itself contested, often genuinely wobbly and it relied on rope for its construction and workings. Rope is a place of physical spectacle, akin to a ship’s rigging:

Palestra Noribergensis, by Peter Troschel after Johan Andreas Graff (1651): British Museum 1880,0710.512. © Trustees of the British Museum.

This image of feats of activity and rope-dancing in the fechthaus in Nuremburg from the 1650s makes sense to me of Shakespeare’s Ariel as an aerialist who ‘flamed amazement’ around the wrecked ship. Unlike the trestle stage, however, the rope is attenuated, linear and it has a distinct, crucial trajectory. 

The rope fully comes into being as a playing space with the performer’s first step out onto it. This requires not only a crossing, but also – appallingly for those of us with vertigo – a return and a dallying. Stephen Connor writes that

the most characteristic gesture of the wire-walker is, once they have apparently completed their walk, to go back out on the wire  . . .  the wire-walker aims to occupy rather than merely to penetrate space,  . . .  to thicken the infinitesimally thin itinerary of the wire into a habitat.  . . . .  . . . The dallying business of the wire-walker is to insinuate a discourse – from dis-currere, to run back and forth – with the wire.[1]  

The dancer’s return transforms the rope from a site of risk alone into a site of play and a suspension of both time and jeopardy. The rope is a stripped down, attenuated performance space activated by what Evelyn Tribble, via Tim Ingold, calls the ‘animacy’ of the gendered rope-dancing body.[2]

Rope-dancing came in several forms. If the rope was slack, cross-dressed women spun and swung around it: a black female fair booth performer from the very early eighteenth century is described as playing 

at swing-swang with a rope . . . hanging sometimes by a hand, sometimes by a leg, and sometimes by her toes.[3]

If the rope was tight, women walked, danced and leapt across it, either cross-dressed

Marcellus Laroon, The Cryes of the Citie of London (1711) © Trustees of the British Museum.

or

Adriaenvan de Venne, Tafereelvan de Belacchende Werelt(Hague, 1635) © Trustees of the British Museum.

wearing dresses supported in the vertical axis by corsets, sometimes with brays or breeches beneath. The trope of the leering Jack Pudding or simian pointing grossly up at the woman’s body becomes deeply associated with women’s enactment of this agile, flexible, risky and explosively powerful femininity which is always also an erotic exposure. 

Rope-dancing also seemed to be almost everywhere. A Bristol playbill from the early 1630s advertises, alongside a vaulting Irish boy of eight, ‘raredancing on the / Ropes, Acted by his Majesties / servants’ and includes ‘one Mayd / of fifteene years of age, and another / Girl of foure years of age [who] doe dance on / the lowe Rope’ and the younger of the two will go on to ‘turne on the Stage’. John Astington has connected the bill to the troupe led by William Vincent (aka the original Hocus Pocus) and it confidently advertises the presence of these girls – King’s Servants nonetheless and on a ‘stage’.[4]This fits the evidence for the widespread playing of feats of activity inside playhouses, as attested to by R.A. Foakes’ work on the Swan, the Hope contract of 1613 and onwards into the Red Bull during the Commonwealth and Protectorate. So, much as rope-dancing offered cover for stage-plays during the mid-seventeenth century, when plays were effectively outlawed, it could do so not because it came into the playhouses from the cold but precisely because it was already there. Richard Preiss has pointed out that plays were framed and cut across by clowning improvisation, entre-act music or interludes, epilogues and jigs, and he argues that ‘the theatrical program consisted of a medley of interstitial, interactive entertainments’ (9) – this is the play as polyvocal event.[5]In 1636, five years or so after their Bristol performance, Vincent’s troupe is recorded as paying Herbert for a license to perform in the Fortune, so we cannot easily exclude the playhouses from the list of places where the girls of this troupe might have performed. 

Another famous troupe of tumblers and rope-dancers, the Peadles, operated for about forty years from the turn of the seventeenth century and was led during the 1630s by Sisley Peadle. Tumbling troupes were organised around familial structures, and tumblers were also recorded as members of playing companies, from the Elizabethan rope-dancers of the ‘Queenes players’ in Bridgnorth in the 1590s to Abraham Peadle at the Fortune in the 1620s as a member of the Palsgrave’s Men. And, as Abraham’s name, the Irish boy in Bristol and the black rope-dancer in Southwark Fair suggest, this performance mode is deeply intertwined with racialised, othered identities, like the 16th-century Turkish rope-walkers in Venice. Marketable personas are also adopted: there are so-called Turkish rope-dancers who adopt the name but no visual signifiers of ‘Turkishness’ and a Turk –called ‘the Albion Blackamoor’ – dancing on the ropes in the Red Bull in the 1650s turns out not to be a Turk at all but a black Londoner. It’s a moment that reads like The Life of Brianand which undermines an early modern racist commonplace by setting it next to neighbourliness, community and familiarity. An ‘old Matron’ watching the Turk dance on the rope declares, ‘Sure, if he be not the Devil, the Devil begot him’; but she elicits this response: 

no truly Neighbor, quoth another Woman, I knowhim, as well as a Beggar knows his dish; hee is a Black-fryers Water-man, and his Mother is living on the Bank-side, and as I have often heard her say, Her son learnt this Art, when he was a Sea-boy, only was a little since taught some Pretty Tricks by a Jack-pudding neer Long-Lane.[6]

This account may well simply be part of the mid-century discourse of satire and newsprint and may well not be trustworthy. That said, however, the decision to reframe a seemingly exotic performer by claiming his status as a black Londoner as quotidian and unexceptional is a revealing rhetorical move. 

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At this point, it’s probably important to acknowledge that there don’t seem to be any examples of rope-dancing in any pre-Protectorate plays. But if we have to wait for Davenant’s The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru(1658) for the first example of rope-dancing in a scripted performance, then rather than seeking the activity in the playtext, its absence instead pushes us to consider how the activity informs playing itself and the practice of the boy-actress in particular. This, like the fragmentation of the performance event inside the playhouse also breaks down the hierarchy of tragic heroine and rope-dancer. It suggests that the latter is not superfluous to or lower than the other; that she is not straining to become the other but may, in fact, be a condition for the other. 

How are we to make the move from rope-dancing into canonical drama? One way is to take seriously the performance of bodily skill and the risks that it posed to safety and bodily integrity. The text-free performance of the rope-dancer and the histrionics of the early modern player are connected by the skilful overcoming of risk. The jeopardy of the rope-dancer as she walks, leaps or swings from the tight- or slack-rope italicises the jeopardy involved in every display of acting skill, from Emilia labouring to unpin Desdemona within the duration of the Willow song, to Hermione’s virtuoso control of breath and muscle before her coup de thêatrein The Winter’s Tale(5.3). What’s more, the girl of four who ‘doth turn on the Stage’ in Bristol is a tumbler, a child of bodily turning, whose profession retains its association with other feminine turners. Both Shakespeare’s ‘Triple-turned whore’ Cleopatra (4.12.13) and Fletcher’s Quisara who ‘turns, for millions!’ (3.1.239), are protean but, in defining their hypertheatricality, we might also consider the other side of this performative metaphor, the corporeal act of turning.

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One of the ideological successes of the first decade or so of Jacobean tragedies is the elision of the enskilled, labouring body required for the representation of femininity – crucially, those bodies are those of both the boy-actress andthe female rope-dancer and player. By looking across early modern performance culture, by considering its intersections and its distribution of skills across gender boundaries, we can begin to rethink this. The tragic boy-actress is one representative of early modern femininity, one who over-goes and resists the enactment of femininity as it was done otherwise and elsewhere.


[1]Steven Connor, ‘Man is a Rope’, in Catherine Yass Highwire, writings by Francis McKee, Steven Connor (ArtAngel: Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art, 2008), no pagination. 

[2]Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (London: Bloomsbury, Arden Shakespeare, 2017), p. 24. 

[3]Edward Ward, The London Spy (4thedition, 1709), p. 185. 

[4]John Astington, ‘Trade, taverns, and Touring Players in Seventeenth-Century Bristol’, Theatre Notebook 71:3 (2017), 161-168. 

[5]Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 9. 

[6]Mercurius Fumigosus (30 August-6 September, 1654), p. 126. 

Futures for Practice, Performance, and Research: A Conversation

Our last post offered reflections upon a week of practice-as-research work at Stratford Festival Laboratory.  This piece follows the same style, of collaging responses and thoughts about the project and its week of work last September [2018], meditating upon potential uses, problems, and future applications with such work. These are issues the project continues to discuss; on 17 March 2018, for example, Melinda Gough will lead a roundtable at the Renaissance Society of America that picks up on some of the issues addressed here.

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MAC TEST: I would love to adapt this sort of thing for my own work—in the classroom, and bring it to whatever conference I might be invited to: “let’s do this!” And I do bring—where I work at Boise State—I’ve brought actors in for week-long workshops putting on plays, and things like that, and now after this experience I feel I can say “hey, let’s do this workshop” and make it research-based. … I think the most amazing thing has been the circle group and people speaking their mind—“checking in,” as Gein identified it. That’s probably been the most impactful moment. It’s been useful as a scholar to hear the actors speak from their point of view; it’s very different to how we speak as scholars. With PaR you have the actors and the scholars together in that same place, speaking about the same issues, but from different perspectives.

ZOE HUDSON AND STEVE PURCELL. We very much valued the opportunity to observe and participate in this workshop.  We were struck by the levels of trust and openness that the week had established between the participants, and the commitment that everyone involved brought to the work.  Participants were thinking and working very deeply, rigorously examining both the texts and their own instincts and interpretations.  The week had also fostered a mutually respectful dialogue between academics and practitioners.  […] We would have been interested to hear a bit more about these rehearsal room shorthands and methods of communication; participants alluded to “Oops, ouch” and “checking in and checking out,” and we wondered whether it might be useful to produce a written summary of these sorts of guidelines which could be circulated to participants in future workshops.  The main insight for us was that it is vital in projects like this that academic participants are seen, and see themselves, as part of the ensemble; it is equally important that the practitioners involved are respected as thinkers and researchers in their own rights and not merely as hired hands putting the academics’ ideas into practice.  This was something […] that could be profitably disseminated to a wider audience.

ELLEN WELCH. I think the really helpful thing [about] thinking with performance is that performance I find very future oriented… One of the things Keira [Loughran] said very early in our session is that if a particular performance fails that’s okay because you learn things to bring to the next one; I think that’s a really helpful way for academics to think about our work too.  I think there’s always this pressure to have a conclusion, at a really basic level, a conclusion to whatever essay or book that you’re writing, and those are the parts that are hardest for me to write, because it feels like closing down—it is a closing down. But that’s always the goal of the genres that we write in, to get to that conclusion. And I wonder if there’s a way we can think about our work more in this future-oriented way in which the ending is an opening towards other things, that you could try at another point in time. So it feels more processual, and less that I’m producing a product. 

NATASHA KORDA. [Responding to Ellen] That’s really helpful. I also think about performance as future-oriented, and as a means of connecting history to the future in the present, which can sometimes involve what we loosely call archives.  But how you construct your archive is itself performative, because you’re always doing it in the present moment: archives are not static things, they’re constantly being made and remade.  There’s something really hopeful—sometimes not, sometimes destructive—but at least there’s the possibilityof something hopeful, in that remaking of the present, which is really exciting, I think.
[…]
It’s not the case that people in the past were simply more repressive or patriarchal or racist than in the present. We still have all those things now, they took different forms in the past.  That’s a real challenge in our present moment, both in performance and in teaching texts about sexuality and gender in the early modern period—there’s a lot of violence in these texts, violence that we often want to avoid in order to focus on the more hopeful aspects of the text. But it’s equally important–and powerful in performance–to connect the violence of the past to the present, to make its ongoing presence felt. I think, it’s better to think carefully about how to do that than simply to say that we shouldn’t perform these texts because they’re violent and they’re misogynist. There’s a lot of violence and misogyny in texts that are written now, in the present, and that are part of our performance culture, so I think it’s all a question of howyou stage them.

COLE ALVIS. One of the things I’ve come to learn… come to know, is that there were trans and non-binary people in Shakespeare and pre-Shakespeare times. And this notion that wherever we are right now is the pinnacle of where we’ve been trying to get is not true—or [because of] the way Canada talks about itself on the world’s stage it is likely to only see stereotypical versions of Indigenous peoples. The “status quo” does not represent everyone—and does not for the past either. And just because I didn’t learn about these worldviews in school, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t there.

PAMELA ALLEN BROWN. This idea of the “art” of playing is something I’ve been thinking about in my scholarship, but it’s great to hear people calling themselves “artist”—it’s a different word to “player” or “actor”, and I think words do matter, obviously, to us, so… […] That’s one thing that’s struck me. Also the division between scholars or academics or whatever we’re called and the players or actors is not really bridged. I take the point that what they [actors] think they’re here for is different from what we think we’re here for… but that can be a creative friction, and I think it has been. I just think we’re here for a very different reason than they are here… Frankly I’d love to call myself an artist too! The PaR model itself makes me envy actors who can justify doing that, and forces us as scholars to be modest and take a back seat. Not sure that’s entirely good in an increasingly anti-intellectual world, however. And while I learned and felt a ton more than at other conferences, I did get the message that working scholars should learn from actors working, but vice versa, not so much.  Among other points, the impact of the Renaissance diva, a woman artist, got lost in the shuffle, ironically enough… How might the group improve actor/scholar interplay in the future?

Emma Frankland and Daren Herbert workshopping The Roaring Girl

ERIN JULIAN. When the question was raised about what we’re trying to do here, I felt a little bit uncomfortable at the fact that the actors seemed to have this idea that they’re doing something for us… and I would like to think more about how we might do things for them. And one of the things we might do is give them tools for doing this work that they’re often trying to do now—trying to explore these questions about gender, trying to explore these questions about race, on a contemporary stage. That can be risky work. So I was just noticing that there were a few moments where the actors were asking ‘what are we doing for you?’—I’d like to see us thinking about what we’re doing for them…

ELIZABETH CRUZ PETERSEN. [I found it really valuable] to have artists like [Gein Wong and Emma Frankland] come and work with us through physical exercises that prepare us to collaborate with the actors, [including] exercises on gender awareness and on embodiment so we can get a sense of what the actors go through, as far as training and warming up before a performance. This is especially important to me since my scholarly work focuses on somaesthetics, which is all about the unified body and mind, its complete embodiment.

CLARE McMANUS. One of the really clear results of this [workshop] is that this work pushes us to articulate our methodologies and to do that responsibly. That is [something] that is shared with other disciplines, editorial disciplines: you know [in] editing, for instance, very clearly, [that] you have to tell the reader what your methodology is. And so this morning we did a call-in/check-in to make sure everybody actually understood where we were all coming from. And actors’ voices around the table have really pushed us to really articulate why it is that we are here. And I think that fundamentally is very, very important. And so one of the direct results of this is sending us back to our methodologies and making sure that we have a clear and appropriate articulation of whatever that may be.

ROBERTA BARKER. One thing that hit me yesterday was what must have been the huge contrast between Richard Burbage and [the actor who] we think [was] his apprentice, Richard Robinson (who I was working on), when they possibly created the roles of Amintor and Aspatia [in The Maid’s Tragedy]—what that working process was between a master actor and his apprentice (who perhaps was 13 or 14 years old), and how Keira [Loughran], as contemporary director, and Marcus [Nance], and Logan [Brideau], as contemporary master actor and 14-year old emerging actor—the process through which the three of them were working on the scene we were working on; what’s shared there and what’s not shared there. And what’s uncomfortable for us that was completely cool in 1611—and perhaps what was uncomfortable in 1611 that we’re totally cool with today. So I think the way that that encounter—that’s not always a comfortable encounter between the early modern text and this history of performance, that we’re trying in some way to recover and figure out (because we don’t have all these documents and all this evidence that we have from later centuries); the relationship between that history and that journey of discovery that a lot of us are on as scholars, and the journey that one goes on with actors with these texts: the way they rub up against each other can be so […] productive.

Reflections on Practice, Performance, and Research: A Conversation

During our week last September working at the Stratford Festival Laboratory with academics, actors, theatremakers, editors, and directors, we had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the nature of practice-as-research, or performance-as-research, as a mode of scholarly enquiry [see our blog summaries here].  We also had the chance to contemplate what it means to bring experts not only from different disciplines but also from different practices into the same room.  Through the course of the week, we spoke with many of the participants about this experience. The excerpted observations, insights, and snippets of this post are drawn from transcribed interviews about bringing scholarship and professional performance together.  In short, we’re asking: What’s it like having a more balanced room of academics and actors, in the context of a process with no final product to work towards?  Please feel free to keep the conversation going in the comments… The next post will build on the comments here, sharing participants’ thoughts on ways forward— possible futures for this form of work, its methodologies and discoveries, in teaching, in theatre practice, and in scholarship.

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EDWARD “MAC” TEST. I knew that we were going to be able to work with actors and see them actually perform a translation that I’ve written—a translation of a play [La monja alférez, or The Lieutenant Nun]. […]  But that said, it was exciting and unnerving for me to come here and do this kind of work, because I’ve never done it before. I’m not a playwright—it’s the first time I’ve done that. So I came in anxious, nervous, and excited—all of those emotions swirling together.  There’s something with scholarship—and of course with theatre—we tend to stick to the text; and while we enjoy going to performances, we don’t usually writethe play, which is what I’ve done; we don’t usually direct anything—and I’ve watched that happen and interacted as a sort-of-director, so that’s all new to me. And it’s going to inform the way I do my scholarship, the way I look at the play, and the language—I’m going to be thinking forever of these actors saying those words and moving around and the deliberations around what appears on a stage. It’s all been very magical.

COLE ALVIS. Having academics in the room is new. I’ve come through Stratford to do the Indigenous Directors Lab on two occasions, so a “laboratory” setting that’s outside of—or perhaps in relation to—the season, but distinct and specifically about exploration… and that’s a real gift to get to be part of this, because my practice tends to be in new work—or new-er work—where it’s easier to place myself and my communities at the centre of that experience.  You don’t often see Indigenous and culturally diverse leadership within the Stratford Festival, but in these Labs, there’s opportunity for that. And then to see how the classical form can shift, when there isn’t the parameters of bums in seats and all of the expectations of what the “Stratford Festival” generally does.  To me, these Labs are forward looking—about where Stratford might be able to go, to include worldviews and lived experiences of the people that make up… this place.

ELIZABETH CRUZ-PETERSEN: I loved working with professional actors and the entire process of making scenes come to life. I came to this workshop with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the difficulty (or not) of staging swordplay scenes and the unique attributes women contribute in the swordfights and dances. However, I wonder, how much the actors understood our goals as scholars in this process. And we of theirs? At times, it felt as if this workshop was for our benefit only. The actors were like tools for us (“I’d like to see you do this” and “can that happen”). Even when I asked, “what do you think of this?” I wonder if they were thinking… “Well, what do you want me to think of this?” What stake did they have in this process? Keira [Loughran] or was it Emma [Frankland] mentioned that there was no production—there’s no end, there’s no investment in it; which makes sense to ask what is the actor’s investment in this? Did they find our contribution useful in enhancing their skills as actors?

ERIN JULIAN. PaR is supposed to be bringing people with different backgrounds and training together, as we both know a lot about this broad subject of theatre, and we both have things we can learn from each other, and we should be training knowledge. And we are embarked on the same project, though […] we don’t have the same language to talk about it yet. I would love to see that division be bridged, as I feel like through this process and through the work I’ve also been doing here [at the Stratford Festival, shadowing Comedy of Errors] it’s changed my whole way of thinking about theatre and what we’re doing, what we’re studying… A question came up this morning—a very heated question—about “why are we doing this? why are we trying to excavate these plays, what are we looking for—are we trying to redeem them?”—and I think these conversations around how our history and the present and future speaking to each other […] is work I have seen here and seen through other work we’ve been doing with Keira [Loughran]…

PAMELA ALLEN BROWN. I was really glad to see the actors with the professional fight captain [Wayne Best], with the way he taught them; it was really fulfilling for me (because I talk about skill so much in my [forthcoming] book) to see his skill and presence and showing by doing—and he really knew how to teach… As he did it, you can imagine how skills might be transferred, and sense […] the effect on the actors. What I noticed is they imitated so much better than mere mortals like me, starting with putting on the sword. Because I assumed wrongly (because I’m not in that world) that if you were doing Shakespeare at all you would know how to wear and use a sword, but they don’t, actually, because a lot of people—particularly women but also men—have never used one or had a role where it depends on one… A lot of people had never put one on. So as they’re total newbies to it, and they’re acquiring this skill slowly and following along, it was wonderful to see the awakening stirred by this weapon [. . .].  This power—which is phallic power, a masculine symbol of power—was taken on by the women and the men too, and each one individually yet with gendered inflections which were not predictable, so that it upsets our whole idea of what’s masculine and what’s feminine—that whole exercise taught me more than tons of words… [Wayne Best] was, to me, so fascinating to watch, when I would move from looking at him to somebody else, they were trying to strike their own sort of control and give some sense of “I know exactly how to use this sword,” and that seemed close to what the divas [of the commedia dell’arte] would do – they’d start off with a few skills acquired as street entertainers or courtesans from low-status families, and in a short time, they could create an entire persona where they coolly use swords, they can wear a mask and be Pantalone, or they can be a great grand lady, they can be a queen. So this confidence and this sense of coming off as poised and cool[as Wayne put it]… there’s something about the coolness (and everybody knows what that means, but it’s something that you need to get in your body) that’s basic to acting and the readiness it demands.  Skill can only go so far, however.  Charisma and imagination are rare in anyone, but the actor who has “It” (as Joseph Roach puts it) can do (almost) no wrong. I was talking to Denise [Oucharek; playing Guzman in The Lieutenant Nun] and she was telling me about she’s always trying to go beyond labels, including gender ones; her career has included a solo act in the persona of a famous singer-comedienne, and a wide variety of plays and roles—hearing that, after seeing her work, is a rare experience.  When you’re a drama scholar trying to think about the first actresses and their roles, evidence shapes your work but your mental theatre, the people you put on it, affects your choices and arguments… So it’s a thrill when you see Denise starring in the Lieutenant Nun and think without any doubt “you’d be a great Duchess of Malfi,” or “I’d love to see your Roaring Girl,” […] because her determined disruption of gender and her embodiment of masculine virtú are so diva-like and so unlike most interpreters who take on these roles today. 


CLARE MCMANUS: I’ve been looking to work in a different way and bring different skills to this training and kinds of expertise in collaboration. Certainly working with Emma Frankland on The Roaring Girl, and watching the other actors respond to what Emma has been suggesting, has been really exciting, in terms of thinking about the complexity of present-day casting. That’s the thing that is really coming up. And one of the really pressing things today was what the use of history is and the use of pastness and our relationship to it. And that seems to be something that’s really pointedly at issue with PaR. And I think in ways that can be dodged a little bit in other disciplines, but you can’t dodge it when you’re dealing with embodied performance and embodied voices—and voices and bodies that want to resist what’s written in the text. So there’ve been some quite uncomfortable moments, and moments where it feels a little bit like you’re asking the actor to sacrifice something, to say something that is unpalatable to them, and then the reality of their experience brings home how terrible the text is, in some ways.  But that sounds more pessimistic than it actually is. I feel more optimistic about this, because I feel like one of the things, just one of the things that’s starting to happen, is this sense of drawing lines and drawing points of resistance against texts where they need to be resisted, where they need to be spoken back to.

LUCY MUNRO: For this workshop, the casting is really, really interesting, and really stimulating for me all sorts of questions, because we have an adult man [Marcus Nance] playing Amintor [in The Maid’s Tragedy], we have a 14-year-old boy playing Evadne [Logan Brideau], and then the actor playing Aspatia [Cole Alvis], who is nonbinary and whose pronouns are “they,” and Cole […] has been incredibly interesting and articulate on that question of what is Aspatia’s gender identity. And so yesterday when we were working with them on the scene, we were actually referring to Aspatia as “they”—and trying to think about what does it mean if Aspatia is a nonbinary characteras well as being played by somebody who uses “they.” So that was really interesting. But the casting of Logan, a 14-year-old boy, as Evadne also does really interesting and strange things with the scene, because it becomes about age as well as being about gender. And one of the things that we talked about is that the fact that the in the play, Aspatia and Amintor were betrothed (which can be as binding as an actual marriage) and then that was derailed by the King insisting that Amintor marry his mistress Evadne. So you have this arranged marriage between Amintor and Evadne. [. . .] And there’s all sorts of interesting power dynamics [. . .] when Evadne comes on (unfortunately we don’t have any stage blood) but comes on with a knife in a white night gown, and says “joy to Amintor, for the King is dead” …

ROBERTA BARKER: Something that’s really interesting for me being involved with this project is that I’ve done quite a bit of performance-as-research before but it’s been almost completely—well in this situation of actors and academics working together—it’s been almost completely working on nineteenth-century theatre. And that’s so deeply different because we have so much. You know if you start out in seventeenth-century theatre and then you go into nineteenth-century theatre it seems like this incredible bonanza of visual images, stage directions, reviews, comments—like you literally know what actors originally did—like where they dropped their hat. So you’re able to say, “Show me exactly what it looks like if you do it how the reviewer describes this whole scene,” which we don’t have for early modern plays.  A huge interest that I’ve always had as far back as beginning to write about the relationship between early modern drama and contemporary performers is this sense that for contemporary performers, especially in terms of gender, performing early modern plays is very complicated and in many cases very uncomfortable. And in some ways there can be a lot of productivity and meaning in embracing the discomfort and exploring the discomfort and seeing what comes out of it. And I think that’s one of the things that’s been really powerful for me, in being in the room and working with the actors, and also with the discussions—is that sense of, as Lucy was just talking about, the complications, the discomforts, the questions, and also these huge possibilities that come in when you bring a body, you bring a lived experience into a role. That’s very different from these early performers that Lucy and I are interested in (discussing the boys who first played roles like Aspatia and Evadne).  Their lives, their training, their assumptions, and how they even worked on the roles are so radically different from what we’re doing in this room.

ELLEN WELCH.  I didn’t quite know what to expect, and I guess if I had assumptions, it that there was going to be a lot of detailed work with scenes; so I guess what surprised me was the amount of talking and sharing and meta-level discussions that have gone on. And all that is really useful, and it’s made me think about the process of being a researcher in a different way to the way I expected to interrogate my own process and experience… 

NATASHA KORDA. I think this [Lab] has been really focussed on process, in a way that has been transformative for me. I am going to bring away from this experience techniques and exercises, and different ways of thinking about teaching, research, and many other things—including how we present our research. I think we’ve been given a lot of tools, and maybe a way to go forward into the future with them would be to try to have a conversation about, what do we academics do with those tools now? How do we really use them in a way that will lead to something new, such as different forms of knowledge production?

Engendering Before Shakespeare: Women and Early English Playhouse Ownership

This post explores the role of women in early English playhouses, drawing on Before Shakespeare research (and it also appears on the Before Shakespeare blog). Stay tuned for research posts from Engendering the Stage in the coming weeks. 

The crossovers between the research projects Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage were raised several times across the latter’s workshop residency at the Stratford Festival Laboratory in September 2018.  This “mash-up” blog brings the projects directly together.  Indeed, Engendering the Stage is planning a series of blog posts expanding on the broader research topics under its remit—and would also welcome proposals for such posts.  This particular piece gestures, briefly, to some of the cross-pollination between theatre history, performance, and the playing industry by considering just one of the points of overlap between Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage—in this case, land and property ownership related to commercial playhouses.

There are many forms of labour involved in the early modern playing industry in England: some on-stage; some immediately off- and around-stage; and some concerning the land on which stages are situated.  On the latter, much ink has been spent exploring some of the major (male) figures involved with buying land or renting property, building and converting tenements, and pulling together—through a variety of approaches—a playhouse.  

There are reasons why apparent big-hitters in the industry like James Burbage, John Brayne, and Philip Henslowe take centre stage: partly because many are chief movers behind these ambitious and unusual ventures, but also because the above narrative is based on a narrow sense of what a “playhouse” is and on who might be instrumental to its wider development and existence.  Women’s involvement in the transactions and legal exchanges that underpin playhouse ownership has been less discussed, though we are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of a host of figures central to this history. A quick survey of the evidence related to London’s diverse early commercial playing spaces suggests that women occupied a serious and significant presence in early modern playhouses.

***

Both before and after The Theatre—the amphitheatrical structure in Shoreditch—was built, plays took place in inns across London.  Andy Kesson has written on the Before Shakespeare website about these spaces and their relative neglect in theatre history narratives.  Recently, David Kathman’s expansive work on the subject has uncovered new leads, figures, and details that help us understand playhouse inns more clearly.

Map of Early Modern London showing rough locations of the inns (visit https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/agas.htm for an interactive map)

Spaces such as the Bel Savage (Ludgate Hill), the Bull (Bishopsgate), the Bell (Gracechurch St.), and the Cross Keys (Gracechurch St.) were regular venues for playhouse activity—that is, for plays, for fencing prizes, and for extemporal feats and shows. A forthcoming blog on Engendering the Stage from Clare McManus will explore women’s skilled performance in such feats.   Stephen Gosson explains how he enjoyed “two prose books played at the Bel Savage” in the late 1570s (School of Abuse, 1579); in 1577, the Office of the Revels transported a presumably elaborate prop (a “counterfeit well”) from the Bell to St John’s in Clerkenwell for “the play of Cutwell” (TNA AO3/907/5); John Florio’s advice to Italian language learners answers the question, “Where shall we go?” with the appealing answer “To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place” (First Fruits,A1r [1578]); and James Burbage himself is arrested wandering (perhaps from his own playhouse) to see a play at the Cross Keys in the 1590s.

Two entries in the Society of the Masters of Defence book (British Library, Sloane MS 2530): Izake Kennard playing at the Bull (1575) and Willyam Wilkes at the Bell Savage

These were playing spaces owned and/or run by women.  Kathman explains that “three of these four inns were owned or leased by women during their time as playhouses. Margaret Craythorne owned* the Bell Savage from 1568 until her death in 1591 [*or rather likely leased it from the Cutlers’ Company, as Tracey Hill informs us], Alice Layston owned the Cross Keys from 1571 until her death in 1590, and Joan Harrison was the proprietor of the Bull from the death of her husband Matthew in 1584 to her own death in 1589” (“Alice Layston at the Cross Keys,” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 22 (2009): 144; see also Kathman’s other invaluable publications on these subjects).

Female ownership of such spaces is by no means untypical across the capital in this period, partly because widows inherited property from their husbands and thereby gained a degree of independence and business freedom they may not easily come by earlier in life.  There are numerous examples of landladies across the capital, for instance, adapting spaces and converting “alleys” into packed residential quarters.  Margaret Hawkins is repeatedly cited by the Court of Aldermen in the 1570s for having “diverse times tenants dwelling in Alleys & other places…” (REPS 17, 427v; 20 Jan. 1573).  In his misogynsitic sketch of alley owners—who monopolise food and drink sales for their alley-dwellers to create an in-house market—Henry Chettle chooses the landlady rather than the landlord to exemplify these nefarious practices (Kind-Harts Dream, 1593). 

There is a close relationship between domestic alleys and alleys adapted for recreational use—in particular bowling alleys.  Such alleys are themselves influences on the converted buildings that make up the majority of sixteenth-century playhouses. In this regard, landladies like Margaret Hawkins contribute to the development of domestic and recreational space that has significant bearing on the theatre industry.  It is perhaps no surprise, then, that three women operated the highly successful playhouse inns at the Cross Keys, the Bel Savage, and the Bull—spaces that preceded The Theatre and the Blackfriars as playing venues and continued for decades to attract paying audiences as well as diners, tipplers, and guests.  Eliding “inns” from the traditional playhouse narrative not only generates misleading notions about the antitheatrical zealousness of the “City” and limits our understanding of the contexts, architecture, and experience of playhouses, it also eclipses the role played by landladies in London’s leisure ecology.

Women also lay claim to amphitheatrical spaces.  John Brayne, co-founder of the Theatre with James Burbage, died in 1586, from which time his widow Margaret sought to exercise her rights to the building and its profits.  As well as conducting a protracted legal battle that raged on even after her death, Margaret Brayne placed herself at the doors of the Theatre in an attempt to collect playhouse entry prices directly.  A young deponent in one of the law cases, Ralph Miles, explained how he was

requested by Margaret Brayne and [his father] Robert Miles . . . to go with them to the Theater upon a play day to stand at the door that goeth up to the galleries of the said Theater to take and receive for the use of the said Margaret half the money that should be given to come up unto the said Galleries at that door.

(The National Archives, C24/228/10)

In a heated altercation, “Richard Burbage and his mother [Ellen] set upon” Miles, “with a broomstaff calling him murdering knave with other vile and unhonest words” (C24/228/10). The incident shows two women—Margaret Brayne and Ellen Burbage—laying claim to theatrical space and asserting their own agency, ownership, and investment in the playing industry. 

Moreover, The Theatre was in a (somewhat enigmatic) commercial relationship with its neighbouring playhouse, The Curtain, during these years, and Margaret Brayne also laid claim in her lawsuit to half the profits of that space. The extensive documentation arising from these various Theatre-related suits shows Brayne asking the courts to take her seriously as a playhouse proprietor—and a major figure of theatrical Shoreditch; now, these records ask us to do the same.

Leases pertaining to the Curtain in the years before Margaret Brayne’s activity show that Alice German was central to the ownership of the Curtain land, which she secured for her son Mawrice Long in the late 1560s and 1570s—and there is doubtless much more to discover about these figures and their relationship, or otherwise, to the playhouse that appeared there shortly after their occupation.  

In the early 1580s, a little south of Shoreditch in London’s Blackfriars, playhouse proprietor Richard Farrant’s death bequeathed to his widow Anne “the Leaze of my howse in the blacke ffriers in London”—the site of the First Blackfriars Playhouse (1581-2). Anne proceeded to sublet this property and is herself at the centre of a series of correspondence and legal requests pertaining to the property’s use as a playhouse, which Engendering the Stage and Before Shakespeare’s Lucy Munro has been exploring.

These are just a few examples of the evidence related to women’s involvement in the theatre business in sixteenth-century London.  Their influence on the stage itself is notable—and it is noted.  Margaret Brayne theatrically performing her business claims to the Theatre gives us just one clear example of women “acting” in a playhouse.  Similarly, the inn owners who develop models for commercial playhouses in the years before Burbage and Brayne set up The Theatre leave archival traces that help provide some small detail to playhouse ownership. Doubtless, female inn owners were among those targeted by City precepts from as early as the 1540s that sought to regulate “all those in whose houses or other rowmes eny such playes or interludesshalbe made or kepte” (London Metropolitan Archives, REPS 16, Feb. 1569). 

Given the involvement of women in the commercial development and managing of playhouses, it is perhaps no surprise that the earliest surviving plays from these spaces focus on female characters and their agency and experiences.  The earliest such surviving play, Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1581), is framed from the outset as an unashamedly commercial product: “Then young and old, come and behold our wares, and buy them all” (Prologue).  It explores the power, sexual and social desires, and struggles of its three title characters—Love, Conscience, and Lucre—and conjures an image in which commercial savvy and success (and greed) are embodied by a woman (and in keeping with the Burbages’ favourite theatre item, it also features broomsticks, which Lady Conscience begins to sell for a living: “New broomes, greene broomes, will you buy any…”; she reassures anybody interested in using them as weaponry: “My broomes are not steeped; but very well bound!”):  

LOVE. Tis Lucar now that rules the rout, tis she is all in all: 
Tis she that holds her head so stout, in fine tis she that works our fall [. . .]
For Lucar men come from Italy, Barbary Turky,
From Jewry: nay the Pagan himself,
Indangers his body to gape for her pelf.
They forsake mother, Prince, Country, Religion, kiffe and kin,
Nay men care not what they forsake, so Lady Lucar they win. 

(1.1.3-17)

In light of Margaret Brayne and Ellen and Richard Burbage’s episode at The Theatre, The Three Ladies of London—in which Lucre features as (among other things) a canny and well-connected businesswoman—is not wholly theatrical fantasy or allegory.  Why should it be in a play so heavily textured by realism and the workaday details of the urban world?  It was probably played in The Theatre itself and was revived in 1588 and supplied with a sequel in the years when Margaret Brayne was suing for dividends of the playhouse’s profits.  Wilson’s play should point us both to the diverse representation of female agency and desire in plays from the overlooked period of the 1580s and to the real women who owned, leased, laid claim to, and ran the very spaces in which those plays were performed.

Callan Davies

In Conversation with Keira Loughran

We had the chance to speak with Stratford Festival’s Associate Producer Keira Loughran, who organises the Festival’s Forum and Laboratory—a chance to develop new plays and “to experiment with diverse approaches to staging the classics.”  Keira reflected with us on our week at the Laboratory, where we were exploring gender and representation in early modern European plays. Here, we discuss Canadian theatre, casting, expanding the canon of “classical” texts, and the process and potential involved in combining academia and theatre practice. 

Stratford Festival Laboratory Engendering the Stage Performers on the last day

Callan Davies: What practical next steps do you see coming out of our Engendering the Stage workshop?

Keira Loughran: The really obvious one is that I’m really interested in the canon of early modern English plays that are putting these questions out there, and hearing them read, getting a chance to speak to them, giving them to artists who maybe have these questions around gender identity closer to their own experience, and more connected to our community of gender non-binary and trans people, to see if they should be included in our season. They should be part of an accessible canon to us. And that goes too for the Spanish Golden age and everybody’s various expertise with classical work.  There is nothing that is stopping us from reading [Spanish Golden age plays] in English now—in languages we can understand—and having them in consideration for future productions, as much as the Shakespearean canon currently is.

It’s also really good to know about the scholarship going on [across the world]—to know about the Before Shakespeare project, for instance.  Because we’re a national institution with international impact and scope, so those kinds of partnerships and making use of combining resources is always useful. I feel like Melinda and Peter put together an amazing group of scholars.  And our Artistic Director [Antoni Cimolino] goes to London all the time, and has connections and contacts there, and now we have more.

In terms of scholars and artists coming together, it’s something I definitely continue to be curious about and it’s something that has been growing at the Lab. It’s something that’s happened in the past with Shakespeare scholars, but it’s good to meet new people.  And it’s also good to see how they respond to being in the room, in the process in that way—but I’ve got to say it’s been really positive, overall, that connection.  But it just has to get practised a bit more, so the actors are more comfortable. […] We’re always looking to be able to diversify our canon more… in terms of what we work on, what we consider to be the classical canon.

You need partnerships for people to bring things forward and bring things to your attention, and you also need to be having an eye on who can lead those projects—whether it’s an artist or whether it’s a scholar or whether there’s a synergy between two that can support a production and give it the passion that it needs.  So this week has been great for all of that, for making those connections and giving us some time together.

This week we’ve been collaborating on four plays in the workshops (The Roaring Girl, The Maid’s Tragedy, The Lieutenant Nun, Love’s Cure) by combining scholarly research and performer creativity.  Sharing the room with academics, performers, directors, and theatremakers has allowed us to bring together historical context and artistic invention.  How have you found this method of working in the Lab?

I really enjoy it—particularly for the classical texts, the texts that have specialist scholars working on them.  It’s been interesting [this week] for two reasons.  One is the expertise that academics bring to the room.  [. . .] For me it’s partly been finding out about these plays. I’ve been in the office for ten years now [as Stratford Festival management], and I’ve been in the institution for fifteen years—that’s my Shakespeare knowledge.  I know who Beaumont and Fletcher are, I know they collaborated with Shakespeare on some plays…

So to have the chance to see even the excerpts of some of these plays [that we were working with in our workshop in the Lab] is fascinating, because I was a bit more aware of the complexity of the English stage in the Elizabethan period. I’m really curious about the assumptions that we make versus the time to actually consider what was happening—which is what these scholars have spent a lot of their time doing.  So I’ve found that exciting as a way to understand these texts and make them more fluid, interpretable, or adaptable to our age and time.

How have you found the focus in the workshops on process rather than product, and on the experience of sharing that creative process with academic researchers?

As an artist and particularly as a director, I question sometimes how art works or how theatre works in our contemporary experience. [. . .] For me, and in my experience here [in Stratford], which is a privileged place (where people sort of like culture, generally!) the more you can share an artistic process—like all art—the more it impacts people’s work and lives in ways that they don’t expect and might not even be able to articulate.  When the only thing that people see is a product in a theatre [. . .] I feel that’s very limited: it’s not mining the potential of what art can do.  And so opening up process [ie in rehearsal, through documentation and sharing] for me is a really exciting thing.

But it requires a lot of trust and vulnerability on behalf of performers, and it also takes a certain mentality for scholars to bring to the room, to create the space with us.  But I think it can be really powerful, and that’s what I’ve felt our workshops so far to be—and that’s great.  And I hope, and what I’m curious about, is then how did it impact, what are the unforeseeable impacts of academics being more included in our artistic process?  How does that then impact the scholars’ work within their research, or within their editing of dramatic texts, or within the essays they might write. How will their process change because they’ve had the chance to work with us?

Are these questions relevant outside of the Festival to the wider industry?

I believe there is a gap, in Canada at least, between theatre training institutions and universities and practicing theatre companies (one that perhaps doesn’t exist in the States so much, because those scholars are attached to professional companies, whereas in Canada they’re not)… Because of some of the amazing scholars I’ve met, I keep looking for more opportunity to open up process and allow non-artists, or non-professional artists in the room—and seeing how it all lands.

Something you said earlier in the week really struck me.  You wondered whether there’s room for a shift in practice in the way that scholarship and the arts—in this case theatre—can work together…

I think that’s true, and you have to be really clear about it.  For Comedy [of Errors, Stratford Festival, Apr-Nov. 2018, dir. Keira Loughran], it was my first time doing a Shakespeare at Stratford, so I had these resources of scholarship and doing Shakespeare at my fingertips, which was fantastic.  So I did two things: I had a scholar look at my edits [on the text], and I had a couple of scholars to bounce my ideas off of, to call me on it if there were anything that was really missing.  And one of the things that I found was exciting was that some of the scholars brought me information that was helpful, and allowed a more fluid interpretation.  Their enthusiasm also reinforced that my vision was sound, on an intellectual level. What was also exciting was that my interpretation opened up new possibilities for them in the text; one of the scholars remarked, “Oh, I hadn’t read it like that before!”, so you can discover a text anew. When you have a scholar who’s open-minded like that, that’s an exciting opportunity.

I always say that theatre can transform, and if a scholar can go through that process with the expertise they have, then there’s a degree of authenticity or merit that gives you confidence.

Involving Erin Julian and Kim Solga in my practice—largely in an observing role, although they were the scholars I got to bounce ideas off—that was a bit of a test: how does their presence in the room affect rehearsal.  And it was good! They ended up generating an article, which I read to the cast on opening night—because it took me back to the first day of rehearsal. [The article] showed: letting them [the academics] see you made an impact. So, let this audience see you, so it will make an impact [on them].

So, yes, I think it can affect dramatic practice.  And I think it’s good for it.  I also think it’s good for actors to be more flexible in being in front of an audience… There’s a huge tradition of the privacy and safety of a closed rehearsal hall. And there are absolutely reasons for that. But you also want to see how far you can push or make more common what a safe room is, or what an artistic space is, whether you’re an artist or not. More people who know how to hold that space will be a good thing.

As part of the questions of gender and casting that we’ve been exploring this week, we’ve been thinking a lot about actors bringing themselves to the characters they’re performing.  Is this something you see potential in taking forward, coming out of our workshop?

I feel like, in Canada, within a theatre practice context, it’s absolutely necessary if you’re trying to diversify or include more people in the work.  I still don’t know how I, as a third-generation, Chinese woman, in Canada, can exist in an Elizabethan context.  There were probably Chinese people; I might even be able to find a Chinese person in court somewhere, maybe, but it’s so obscure that if you’re only looking at it from a historical perspective, it’s hard.  […] I think there’s a privilege within the social construct of those plays, when they were written—particularly because racialisation was used as a dramatic device, of othering.  I acted in all sorts of stuff for a long time, but as I get older and as I get more experienced (and the younger generation is coming to it sooner than I did), if you cannot see yourself, if you can’t feel confident just looking the way you look standing on that stage, then… [. . .] As a director, I feel I get the best work from actors when they can see and find themselves in the work.

Then they can also learn from scholarship of history in ways that are useful: in terms of language, in terms of contexts of language, like what certain things would have meant at the time, in terms of what certain relationships would have meant at the time, so that they can understand that and make a choice in relationship to that.  But the other thing is, I feel like if the actors don’t understand the story on a personal level—like how it impacts them as characters and people—then the story won’t be compelling to a modern audience, and then you’re making museum theatre.  And I also think there’s things that make you feel like you’re seeing museum theatre that aren’t necessarily helpful (like, period costume?), and I worry about reinforcing tropes in that way.

So it’s a balance of welcoming the scholarship but finding artistic, creative ways to subvert them [the texts] often, and remind people that we’re in a theatre in 2018, in this country, with these people, telling a story for this audience, for these reasons, and I think to do that… you have to acknowledge who you are, and where you are, and allow that to be in the space.

And history and scholarship can give licence to personal and contemporary readings of the text—without them feeling like modern impositions or ahistorical rereadings…

In The Maid’s Tragedy (because I was working on this scene), we tried to make space for our actors to look the way they look in these roles, which made us go: “well, what if we did change the text, what if we did change the play and cast it in this way…? What is the narrative, how can it be changed?” But if these are some of the question of the time, historically—these plays are being written at the same time as The Roaring Girl, and these questions of gender are coming up… Trans people have been around in all cultures from time immemorial… And so if those ideas were present to the writers of those plays, to the actors who animated them, then those people who exist in our society now should be part of telling them again. Which is this “nothing about us without us” catchphrase around inclusivity and inclusion.

And it’s been really interesting too for me this week—I’ve got a lot of these ideas in my head and they’re close to my heart artistically. But the way Emma [Frankland] leads something is going to be different to the way I lead something, because I’m cisgendered and she’s not.  And that’s good.  That creates diverse practice.  [. . . ] An ethical way of practicing that is more based in an acknowledgement of an ensemble of artists coming together is a shift in practice that I’d like to see—and one I think this work demands.

On documentation and dissemination of “process”:

I know why the actors feel the pressure that they feel… We’re all anxious about dissemination of image and dissemination of work that’s not really finished, and what’s professional and what’s not professional.  Those are bigger questions that we have to tackle together: what’s process…?  There’s massive overhauls that have to happen to fully open all of this up.

On Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA):

The Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA), which is the standard agreement between all theatres in English Canada and actors, is culturally bias—if I want to be provocative I argue it’s racist—because it assumes a three-and-a-half-week rehearsal process on a script that exists, that has a maximum two-and-a-half hour running time. You can’t do it otherwise.  All of the funding supports that process. If you need something that takes a longer process, you can’t get the funding for it, and if you can’t get the funding for it, you can’t do the work, and if you can’t do the work then nothing changes.  So the more you can get universities and places that fund research stretched out to cross boundaries of industries—scholars to actors—then there is a potential pooling of resources, and then maybe you can actually lobby for more flexible rules around these ideas, because people understand them differently in practice.  So that’s a form of practice that could change: it’s possible to change it, but it is big!

 

Let Shakespeare Die

by Jamie Milay/Sah Milay

When will we lay Shakespeare to rest.
When he gives his last breath,
maybe then there will be space
For me to offer my own.

Give me.
Literally.
Anything.
Else.

But another director putting me on stage to recite text written for a white male body. Having those words bounce off my queer black feminine body. No significance or alteration just lazily leaving it to the imagination. “The words will do all the work”.

Give me.
Literally.
Anything.
Else.

Other than another adaptation of shakespearean text that believes it’s revolutionary because they’ve reversed the genders.
Because there are only two genders.
Or an all female cast because having women perform the roles of classical kings is more inspiring than writing strong contemporary Queens.

Give me literally anything else.

But another strong female role that includes a handful of scenes and a tragic death after being driven to romantic insanity. Give me anything but queering up that story and giving me a tragic queer death and romantic insanity. Visual representation is not enough.

Give me.
Literally.
Anyone.
Else.

But Shakespeare.

Give me  the work of a Straight Black Quebecois transwoman from the 2010’s.
Give me the work of a  Queer Non-binary Latinx playwright from the 1800’s
Give me the work of an Asexual Genderqueer Egyptian performer from the 60’s.
Give me the work of a Bisexual Transman from the 1500’s.
Give me the work of a Disabled Chinese-Cuban poet from the 70’s.
Give me the work of a Filipina playwright before her country was colonized.
Give me the work of a Blackfoot Woman before her country was colonized.
Give me the work of  Indigenous people around the globe before their countries were colonized.
Before their art forms were deemed lesser. Before performance and community and ritual  had to be defined as theatre.

. . .

Give me a Queer Nonbinary Congolese performer playing a role for a Queer Nonbinary Congolose performer.
Give them a thousand more roles written for a Queer Nonbinary Congolese performer.
Give them a thousand more roles that don’t depend on Queer Nonbinary Congolese suffering or archaic, outsider representations of their identity.
Give them a thousand more roles that don’t ignore their Queer Nonbinary Congolese  existence in favour of “keeping it relatable”.
And then pay them.

. . .

With money.

Give me a complexity of experiences.
Give me an abundance of narratives and characters to become.
Teach me about more than just shakespeare in school.
Stop making it seem like he is the only one who existed.
I want somebody else’s name on my tongue when asked about classical theatre.
Anyone else’s work on my mind when someone says the word theatre.
I want to see diverse faces on a stage that is telling a diverse story.
Not an unacknowledged rainbow of bodies being stuffed into binaries
Except for when marketing the show.
Casting them is not enough.
Presenting the text as is,  is not enough.
I want to see shakespeare
being torn to bits.
Like actually torn to bits.
Reassembled.
Then destroyed again.
Translated.
Torn.
And then torn again.
I want the language destroyed and made relevant again.
Because no one fucking understands unless they’re an academic.
I want shakespeare to return back to its orgins.
Back to the dirty places where anyone can access him.
Shakespeare was not for the elite
Yet here we are, the elite, discussing.
The privilege of discussing.
I am ready for other voices to be incorporated into the conversation.
Of what is Classic and what is Theatre and who is Worthy of being Included.
and Seen.
Spoken about.
Remembered.
Performed.
Or
I want shakespeare to stop.
shakespeare is dead.
So let him die.
And give us.
Literally.
Anyone.
Else.

SF Day 5: Going forward

This post is going to be a very brief coda to the week’s blog thoughts (Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4), not least because the emphasis of the week has been about ways forward and absence of final products… So here’s more research-in-process…

On Saturday, reunited with the Company actors, we workshopped scenes in different ways and tried new avenues: switching performers for roles (for instance, Moll and Laxton); moving between an aggressive Clara crying “ran-tan-tan,” to a Clara hampered by a large dress fuming about her vestments…

Oh, I shall no more see those golden days, these clothes will never fadge with me: a O’ this filthy vardingale, this hip hap: brother why are women’s haunches only limited,  confined, hooped in, as it were with these same scurvy vardingales? (EMED)

… to working multiple ways of Evadne, Aspatia, and Amintor moving on stage (for instance, how does physical aggression and reactive horror work between an adult and a younger, teenage actor?).

The group working on The Lieutenant Nun explained how important it can be to return to ground zero on a scene, dialling back from extremes of character portrayal (including in gendered terms) towards a nuanced middle ground.  Their observations about how to negotiate subtlety when working over a period of several days with these characters raises the issue of “types” in the period’s drama (not between extremes of 1 and 10, as they put it, but in the “human middle”).  How might performers find within sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European dramatic characters a more three-dimensional, rounded, and embodied persona—one that allows them to bring their own lived experience into the role—even when the text contains cues for broad or stereotypical extremes?

We finished the day thinking about what we can take forward from the week in future PaR work and its dissemination and wider impacts on the theatre industry in and beyond Stratford and Canada.  These are huge topics that will be the subject of future bulletins from this project, on this site and elsewhere.

We’ll also have coming up video footage, interviews with scholars and actors, and some further material on gender and performance in workshop in the coming days, as well as content arising from Monday’s events at McMaster (24 September 2018)…

Callan

SF Day 4: Licence, Paddling, Equity

Day 4 was a slightly different day for Engendering the Stage at Stratford Festival Laboratory.  Unfortunately, due to unavoidable scheduling, the company actors were not with us on Friday, and so we had a series of talks, shows, and chances for conversation with the remaining participants of the workshops.  This meant not only a tour de force about the power, in multiple senses, of early modern theatre from Emma Frankland on her Galatea project but the chance to reflect and learn about ways to move forward—in the academy and in the arts—on and beyond “diversity.”  Central to this week’s experience for many of us has been learning about how we can all use different forms of privilege and power to discover more about,  work with, and make central the indigenous identities and experiences whose land these buildings occupy.  Today’s conversations provided an opportunity to reflect hard on what action on intersectionality might look like in all our various practices.

What is the duty of care for an artist?

Emma spoke brilliantly about her Galatea project, working on John Lyly’s play with a trans and non-binary, BAME, and British Sign Language cast (see some documentation and discussion of this work here).

We were lucky to see a scene being workshopped in action with the wonderful Denise Oucharek stepping in cold to explore how the exchange between Phyllida and their father could be played in multiple different ways as part of a trans experience or framework, without reading against the text.

Emma’s work is a flagship model for how texts like Galatea do not need “queering” or “transing”—they don’t require the imposition of a modern framework or analysis onto the play—its queerness and transness are already there.

What would you be curious to see?

Between shows and readings, we had a brief chance to discuss—unfortunately without the presence of the company actors—the model of PaR we’re working with and developing ways in which PaR might be sharpened to work for all invested parties in the future.

Roberta Barker and others stressed that PaR cannot (and is not here) being used to generate answers about the past and answer: this is how things were, this is how it was.  Rather, they open up more questions and more avenues of possibility.  In a similar vein, Lucy Munro importantly reminded us of the randomness that is at the heart of many moments of discovery and learning in PaR.  Whatever structure we’re working with, it’s often serendipity that leads to the most productive and exciting outcomes.  We can also look to surrounding relevant bodies of research, and Melinda Gough noted the usefulness of Participatory Action Research (a different PAR) in thinking about how research can be put into reciprocal exchange with different constituencies and communities.

We thought about how the stakes involved in PaR can sometimes shift in favour of academic questions and texts; can we find a way to work that does not privilege the academic impetus, without undermining the importance of what academic historical research brings to the theatrical process (both in and beyond performance-as-research)?  It’s also important to recognise the individual working practice of each performer; it can be unhelpful, for instance, to say “do what you want” to an actor trained (as most of us in other industries also are) to work under certain parameters and with certain forms or frames of direction.  Returning again to the question central to Day 3, we need to think “what are we here for, what are we doing?”.  This is a question that needs to be asked of everybody involved in a given PaR process.  On top of all this, I wonder if licence is a useful term for this discussion: to give and be given licence is central.  PaR at its best can enable performers to work within a wider set of parameters, skills, tools, and references informed by historical scholarship,and it gives researchers licence to imagine possibilities for the past and generate further questions about what may have been and what may be.

It’s worth reiterating, continually, that the process of this week is the beginning of a long journey in which all stakeholders are discovering new ways of working and new ways of collaborating.  This may be generating question upon question, and fostering doubts, but it’s about discovering together a future enriched by all our forms of skill and expertise. This week has been inspiring in pointing to so many ways that such work can be taken forward.

Don’t apologise for your privilege, make it your superpower.

Our conversation on Friday finished by thinking about the most urgent issues at stake in this work.  Many of us are used to the language of “diversity,” but Cole Alvis pointed us towards a more productive vocabulary, in which diversity is important in describing a representative plurality in a given room or show, but in which equity is the goal: a structural change, to ensure indigenous, non-white, LGBTQ power and people in institutions themselves, at leadership levels, across the board.

This might not be something achievable through a few weeks of PaR workshops, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not within everybody’s power to work towards this goal by thinking harder and doing more in our own spheres to create institutions that go some way towards this.

We’ve all got to learn to love the paddling

 It’s important to end this week by having in mind that the work we’re interested in doing goes far beyond the walls of the studio we’ve been working in. In Emma Frankland’s surfing analogy, it may feel most rewarding to be riding the wave, but that’s just 5% of the sport: we need to learn to love the paddling.

 

Callan.

 

SF Day 3: Scenework, Walking, and Sharing

Our third day was a mixture of exploratory discussion and play—in its various forms.  I feel it’s important to reiterate the way that the workshops have been structured so as to enable time and energy for open conversation.  We’ve been beginning (and ending) with “check-ins,” which give everybody space to articulate their thoughts and share what’s on their mind.  Gein Wong has led these processes and their modelling of the practice has helped create a room in which openness and warmth have felt like default views.  This method has been instrumental in creating an open and protected space that enables generosity and allows for vulnerability for everybody in the room, while keeping us all in constant dialogue.  Our opening check-ins then move into open, fluid discussions about the research at hand, the scholarship underpinning and responding to the performance workshops, and the impetus for the afternoon’s work.

This way of “working” might seem like an addendum or “warm-up” to the performance workshopping, but as almost everybody has remarked, it’s in fact integral to the explorative nature of the play that “practice-as-research/PaR” or workshopping generally is about: this is the process; this is the learning.  Here’s a call for more spaces, more default personal and work environments, that are able to bring together personal state of mind, openness, and dialogue as the fundamental basis for what we do and how we do it.

What is it that we’re doing here?

In discussing the prompts for today’s workshopping, discussion moved onto some of the important and often unaddressed questions about work with classical texts.  Do we need to recover plays entrenched with misogyny, homophobia, and racism?  How much should we resist and rewrite or even discard texts that do not work for us today?  These are crucial questions that extend to the whole period Jamie Milay’s call to bury Shakespeare on Day 1.  As some participants observed, these texts and the structures they come out of also contain many of the complexities and oppressions still at work today; our world is also entrenched with misogyny, homophobia, and racism, and thinking about the nuances within the plays we’re looking at this week are also ways of negotiating the present.

The past’s not dead. It’s not even past.

Moreover, as Emma Frankland articulated (better than I can paraphrase here) these texts also offer histories that are often marginalised or erased—trans histories, racial histories, LGBTQ histories, more.  The work we’re doing in these workshops thinks about how these histories can be discovered or represented in combination with contemporary experience—negotiating, in other words, the way texts-in-performance necessarily bring together past and present.  For instance, we thought about what it might mean to have queer or genderqueer characters explicitly assert their identity within a text.  But we also talked about what it means when these individuals in plays are framed as figures of comedic fun.  This sense of tone is crucial to questions of representation.  Pamela Allen Brown pointed out that humour itself can be a powerful form of agency and is not necessarily a sense of ridicule.  Finding a line between pathos and jest is an important ongoing question for exploring the complex identities of these dramatic characters.

I am Aspatia yet.

Thinking further about these ideas of identity and respect for the characters in these texts, Roberta Barker observed how powerful the line “I am Aspatia yet” in The Maid’s Tragedy can be when viewed—as that group has been exploring—from a genderqueer perspective.  The Maid’s Tragedy group has been thinking about the possible gender non-comforming identity of Aspatia, and Roberta noted that the workshopping and the performance research of the actor exploring Aspatia presents a character who has throughout the play had to respond to other people’s manipulation of their selfhood (has Aspatia been gaslit throughout the play?); here, they assert their sense, as Roberta put it, of “I understand who I am”: I am Aspatia yet.

I’d print it in text-letters.

Another thing that came up around the table in the morning was discussion of editing and translating practices.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, Edward “Mac” Test is working on an ongoing translation of The Lieutenant Nun and so his edited scene, excitingly, remains in flux in the room (*live editing klaxon*).  Natasha Korda is also in the midst of editing Twelfth Night.  These plays contain both cross-dressing and trans characters and both deal with the complexity of gender identity.

When will we have a trans edition of an early modern play?  

Discussion arose, springing out of questions of feminine/masculine first-person endings in Romance languages such as Spanish, about how to manage gender-identifying speech in translation, as well as how editing texts more broadly can take account of genderqueerness.  As Natasha pointedly observed, there is some history and scholarship on feminist editing practices but almost nothing on trans editing theory.  One important part of this process is to bring trans voices and expertise into the process of editing.  This particular question of editing points more broadly to how scholarship can develop more inclusive methodologies, and beyond collaborative process these issues are yet another example of why a more diverse academy—including trans editors—is urgent and important.

Let this strange thing walk, stand, or sit…
(RG 1.1.254)

When we got onto our feet, we were led in another movement workshop by Peter Cockett.  This involved thinking about descriptions of gendered gait in early modern England, while also being attuned to the fact that such descriptions—as gleaned from plays, conduct manuals, and various other print descriptions—are open and in no way witnesses to early modern walking.  At the same time, we were led to think about different styles of walking: walking on toes or walking on heels.  Natasha Korda explained how shoe technology shifted very quickly in the early modern period and in the period around the late sixteenth century, the time in which the heel became a new standard part of a shoe.  The development of the heel shifted the way that people walked, from walking on toes (with flat-soled, “sock”-style shoes of the medieval period) to walking on heels in more robust shoes…

Rijksmuseum (https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/BK-NM-5580-B)

Medieval Design (http://www.medievaldesign.com/eng-prodotti.asp?form_chiave=24)

We thought about how we moved around the space, on toes, holding carriage smoothly (again channelling the likes of Castiglione’s Courtier and its advice on decorum).  That’s astonishing when considering the chopines that crop up, for instance, in The Lieutenant Nun: as Mac put it, imagine walking in these!:

Chopines (these are platform-style heel shoes that come up in several of the plays in these workshop): https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/04/15/chopines-renaissance-platform-shoes-popularly-worn-in-venice-by-both-courtesans-and-patrician-women/

Chopines (these are platform-style heel shoes that come up in several of the plays in these workshop): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/these-chopines-werent-made-for-walking/

We were also encouraged, as per Clare McManus’s reminder, to be mindful of the fact that there were not strictly gendered ways of walking, comportment, or carriage—particularly when we look at the period’s history not through Castiglione’s court life but through vast and varied performance histories.  These include, for instance, female tightrope walkers and tumblers who do not necessarily wear restrictive clothing that forces a particular gait or a particular way of holding oneself.

Our walking exercise thereby opened up ways of shifting between decorums and between movements that are multigendered.  We went into a catwalk-style “walk-off” in a circle, bringing in two different characters from the plays and asking them to walk at and alongside each other: how do relationships work when viewed through carriage and walk?  This was an astonishing exercise in physical ingenuity and play with power.  Cole Alvis playing (or “walking”) a darting and slinking Aspatia moving around a stately and solid Amintor (Marcus Nance) was a virtuoso double-act in movement that showed how power inheres in both strong, direct, upright stance and gait as well as in shorter-stride, winding, indirect movement.  This extends, too, to technologies involved in walking—not only the shoe but the sword, which can be held as Amintor showed forcefully at one’s side with a hand, or offered like Aspatia in snaking movements to one’s counterpart in a display of comic self-sacrifice that tellingly held equal theatrical force…

These exercises therefore begged the question: what other ways might there be for thinking about character identity beyond verbal articulation?  How can an actor find ways of performing an identity—including working with gestures and walks that are a part of our own way of being in the world—without presenting as an entirely different (and sometimes problematic) identity that might on the surface seem part of characters from classical texts?  How can we find ways to bring oneself into performance while also playing to, with, and against the various historical modes of decorum that helped produce a playtext?  In suggesting that there are multiple decorums available to early modern performers and thinking about how they might translate to performance skills today, this aspect of our workshop struck me as just one particularly powerful example of how theatre history and performance can combine to offer a wealth of performance techniques that are at once true to contemporary subjectivities and in dialogue with historical experience.

We finished the day by exploring our scenes further and offering the opportunity for sharing.  It feels important to end this post by underscoring the centrality of process, of ongoing development and experimentation, to these workshops.  It is in discovering and testing that we can find possibilities for future practice and glimpses of both scholarly and performance insights.  Acknowledging the disjunction of finishing a blog for Engendering the Stage with… Shakespeare: the play‘s the thing…

 

Callan Davies

SF Day 2: Movement and Costume

For our second day, we’ve been putting our scenes for Love’s CureThe Lieutenant NunThe Roaring Girl, and Maid’s Tragedy on their feet, beginning with movement in and around space that goes beyond thinking in masculine/feminine binaries and moving towards not only the embodied experienced of characters but their apparel-ed experience…

After checking in, we moved into movement exercises led by Keira Loughran, making sure we were all present in our bodies, aware of our physical place within the room.

Light/Heavy; Direct/Indirect; Sustained/Sudden

Peter Cockett then led us into some of Laban’s movement exercises (Laban Movement), which in this case moved between three different binaries of movement, sometimes in combination: moving light or moving heavy, moving direct or moving indirect, moving sustained or moving sudden.  Peter used Laban’s method to introduce us to a vocabulary and series of movements not articulated by masculine/feminine binaries.  The language of Laban can thereby provide alternatives to describing and/or embodying  character without reference to gendered assumptions or ascriptions—are they going to walk directly in this moment, might their body language be sustained or sudden, and so forth?

This exercise also brought different characters out in each of us, making us conscious of our presence, gait, and posture and aware of the different forms of abstract, presentational, or naturalistic movement we might inhabit.  As different combinations were issued, we were all forced to think about our momentum, the space we take up, and our negotiation of other human bodies.

There’s way more to a “text” than a text.

After working on this movement, we moved into thinking further about the week’s scenes in respective groups.  As groups worked closer with the text, in readiness to thinking about embodying characters, discussions arose about how to negotiate one’s own identity within a text that offers many possible identities for a given character, while also restricting others.  How do twenty-first century individuals approach historically-estranged characters? Are there modern subjectivities already inherent in these texts?

These discussions were particularly acute in moments where the characters themselves are dealing with questions of personal identity, the ways they are read by others and how they might pass as one or another gender, and at moments of identity assertion.  What might it mean for a cisgender woman to play Guzman in The Lieutenant Nun—a character (based on the real-life Catalina de Erauso) who was born as a woman but who spends most of their life dressing, and largely identifying, as a man?

What agency can be found in Moll’s fluidity in The Roaring Girl: she is a title character who can move between gendered identities.  But what is her relationship with her body—and so with the body of the actor playing Moll?  Would that actor cast themselves in this role, and if so, why, and if not, why?

The Maid’s Tragedy too offers possibilities to think about the identity of a (female identified) character like Aspatia, who in the final scenes of the play dresses as a man and confronts her former lover.  Can we find in Aspatia a gender nonconforming identity?  Performers variously remarked how valuable it is to be able to take one’s own identity into a classical part—whether it’s an implicit or explicit part of the play, or not. In working flexibly, for instance, with the pronouns assigned to a character, performers can find moments based on lived experience that can shift ways of thinking about the play; at the same time, it also offers a way to work in perhaps more productive ways with what’s on the page.

Black is thy colour now…

These questions are also pertinent with regard to race. For instance, the language of blackness in Renaissance plays, as the work of Kim Hall and others has taught us, is always fraught with racial politics and, often, an articulation of deep-seated structures of racism and white supremacy. How do we navigate racially charged lines in performance and particularly in process/rehearsal work such as these workshops?  Such lines read and are received differently depending on who they’re spoken by and to whom they’re spoken.  These textual difficulties have no easy answers, but they prompt urgent questions.

These texts are not historically performed things.

These thorny issues raise the subject of “adaptation”—a focus in our closing conversation.  But do changing the pronouns in a text, for example, constitute an adaptation (or, for that matter, leaving them but playing within and against them)?  As Emma Frankland reminded us, early modern texts are notoriously unstable beasts: they are not theatrically sanctified products and they are by nature adaptable.  Why don’t we think of ourselves as players any more, Emma asked, and what have we lost in that shift to “actor”?  In feeling free to play—in a whole host of ways—with text, we are doubtless recovering some of the very theatre history that is at issue in our explorations this week.  For Edward “Mac” Test, who is currently translating The Lieutenant Nun to English from Spanish, these questions of adaptation and play are particularly pertinent, as he has the licence to amend words, phrases, and registers—partly in response to theatrical developments in the workshop.  What might be gained and what might be lost, for instance, in ignoring the gendered word endings in addresses during a scene of dialogue?  In translation, the relationship between playtext, adaptation, and play is always at issue.

Something popped in my head putting on the costume: the weight of clothes, the layers, having the sword or weapon

As actors gradually found their way into costumes, energy levels soared and the scenes began to stretch across further space, scenes overlapping.  Noticeably—as someone moving between groups all afternoon—I was struck (almost literally) by the amount of costumes and clothes flying around the room.  After hours of considering how individuals are variously gendered in different ways, it was curious to see scenes in which garments were shrugged off, tossed away, and launched across the floor in acts of identity assertion.

In The Lieutenant Nun, for instance, Guzman repeatedly refuses to trade man’s apparel with a dress; there was consequently something powerful in seeing a refusal to let the body be defined only by clothing, and Guzman’s flying dresses marked one (very funny) instance of self-identity.  Groups at this stage took to running their scene silently—with actions but no words.  The tussle of movement between Guzman and Sebastian, who was attempting to persuade Guzman into a dress, resembled something of the swordplay or duelling explored in Day 1; a series of parallel lines, stares, thrusts, and retractions.  Running silently also pointed to how powerful gesture, presence, and stance can be beyond the words of the text: something particularly crucial with the servant character in The Lieutenant Nun, who has little to say but is a significant presence in the scene: carrying, as the text explains, the dresses designed for Guzman but also going beyond in moments of physical comedy and intervention to frame and choreograph the scene.

The group working with The Roaring Girl played with the complexity and fluidity of the relationship between gender and costume.   Moll shifts between man, woman, and other gendered and non-gendered possibilities throughout the play.  Might this allow for a range of subjectivities and a variety of embodied experiences? The group remarked how Emma, playing Moll, went through three different gaits in almost as many lines, in the process of removing and replacing a hat, shedding a cloak, drawing a sword.

In turn, the group played with the possibilities of playing gendered clothing “badly” or, perhaps more accurately, against decorum.

The cowardly Laxton (trembling in fear of Moll) could pull his sword’s sheath up over his waist (think Simon Cowell trousers) and struggle to draw his sword (doing so only on a tiptoe stretch) and to sheath it (cue fumbling and puzzlement).

Do you immediately adopt what you’re wearing, or are you fighting it?

The group exploring Love’s Cure were also playing with these questions of clothing, convention, and pistol-and-rapier etiquette.  In this play, the female-born character of Clara was raised as a man and grew up as Lucio—even fighting in wars against the Dutch; her brother—the real Lucio—was raised at home as a girl by his mother.  In the scene explored in the workshops, the siblings are back at home together and under pressure to conform to social convention regarding birth sex and presentation.  The group experimented with what it might be like for Clara to perform martial acts in a dress.

They also experimented with swapping clothes: putting Clara in the man’s clothes and Lucio in the woman’s clothes, and vice versa, to experience the effect of switching apparel and to gauge how donning new or foreign clothes might affect one’s presence in the room and the scene.  These questions also speak to some of the discussions going on in the morning about how “agency” might not necessarily be forms of aggression but, as Ellen Welch observed, could inhere in self-comportment, -composure, decorum.  As Clare McManus notes, there are multiple decorums for bodies in early modern performance, and plays encode different forms of skill and performance that require different bodily comportments.  Can we discover that multiplicity—and with it that agency—in contemporary performance?

Actors observed the different levels of comfort and discomfort attendant on these switches, and in particular how wearing these clothes accords with experiences in their personal life of particular ways of dressing: for instance, it might feel more familiar to be in a larger dress, but feel more empowering and enabling to be wearing doublet with a sword.  Equally, for Clara, the dress and its hidden pistol and swordholder shows how feats of athleticism and martial prowess transcend ostensibly gendered costume.

Liz Cruz Petersen and Pam Allen Brown pointed to how these moments of performance chimed with other developments in the workshop and in the research underpinning it.  The instances variously discussed above where characters can dominate a scene through body language alone point to agency beyond verbal performance.  Equally, agency inheres in moments where verbal sparring like that between Sebastian and Guzman about correct clothing etiquette can move into physical exchanges mirroring duelling.

You’ve gotta make the scene sing.

Moll, too, along with the cocky servant Trapdoor, are able to move between audience address and repartee with each other: physically and verbally.  In these scenes, characters resemble early modern entertainers, able to command respect and attention and generate humour and in turn channel some of the authority of their performing forebears in early modern Europe.

Might we see in these moments contemporary analogues of that broader picture of performance history so well mapped out, for instance, by Clare McManus in her work for the conference on professional female tumblers working in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England?  Are these instances where both verbal and nonverbal physical performance (and its interaction with costume) offer a wider and more empowering complement of skills for actors looking to embody classical characters?

 

Callan Davies