As 2021 progresses, Engendering the Stage is reflecting on our past, present, and future, reflecting on the profound difficulties of the last 12 months and some hopeful – even exciting – work the project will be doing as we move forward.
To begin: as we have moved into the Leverhulme-funded arm of the Engendering the Stage project, begun in January 2020, we’re delighted to introduce (at long last!) the new members of our project team. We are thrilled to re-introduce Clare McManus (University of Roehampton) and Lucy Munro (King’s College London), co-investigators of the current project. We are also joined by new team members Mel Harrison (KCL) and Oliver Lewis (Roehampton). Mel’s project considers the intersections of disability and gender roles in representations of femininity in sixteenth-century performance, while Oliver’s research considers the idea of porous masculinity in early modern performance, particularly how dramatic texts experiment with the stability of masculine embodiment, exposing the spectre of immoderate and/or subversive forms of masculine identities that haunt early modern staged subjectivity. Erin Julian joined us as the project’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in March 2020, flying in from Canada only days before the first of the UK’s lockdowns.
In its current formation, the UK branch of ETS has shifted to archival research, working to expand, renew, and revitalise knowledge drawn from original documents connected to early modern theatre and performance – and through that work, opening up wider, more complex, and livelier models of early modern history and performance practice, opening further avenues for early modern women’s, queer, trans, and race studies. ETS of course, continues to be intrinsically connected with Performance as Research (PaR) work: an enriched understanding of the original texts and documents on which PaR is based can only lead to the strengthening of both archival and PaR work. Inevitably, our planned PaR event, a collaboration with Andy Kesson and Box Office Bears, “Ruff Play with Shakespeare”, was cancelled due to the UK’s first lockdown in response to COVID-19. 2020 was a testing time for theatre institutions and, in particular, performers – a test which continues under the present lockdown. With the rollout of vaccines internationally, however, we remain hopeful, and are committed to getting back to this work as soon as safely possible. In the meanwhile, the UK team is occupied looking for materials to bring to PaR scrutiny and to sharing our findings with the rest of the ETS team, Melinda Gough and Peter Cockett in Canada.
While Rome burned? Archival work in 2020
Getting an archival project up and running during a pandemic that closed the archives has been an ongoing challenge, necessitating changes to our working habits, research plan and methodologies (and, sadly, a pause from regular blogging). The obstacles we have faced in reorganising our research in response to shifting rules around on-site work, though, are nothing in comparison to the ongoing traumas of illness and bereavement, and the blighting of lives through racial oppression and economic neglect that came so sharply into view in 2020. But, in a year when the Higher Education sector in the UK seemed close to collapse under the weight of incautious marketisation, our commitment to our students and to the research that fuels university teaching brought the political and the professional emphatically together. We have always known that research-based learning trains students in the skills of critical thinking and the sifting of evidence; we know that it trains them to see their world more clearly, gives them tools of self-expression and expands the horizons of aspiration. But rarely have we understood how necessary those skills are and how much we need our students.
2020 taught us a lot about our students at Roehampton and King’s. Our students are frontline workers, key workers, parents and carers. They have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk from Covid-19 or disabilities that mean that the pandemic restrictions hit them harder than others. They are members of communities that are under-represented in UK Higher Education, who feel the full violence of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and who campaign for BLM and for a clear-sighted teaching of the UK’s history of imperialism and racial violence. Though they may not know it, our students were a constant source of support and sustaining hope for us throughout 2020. It will take a long time for us to forget their remarkable resilience and their commitment to their subjects, regardless of fashion.
2020 has taught us lessons about our own precariousness, but most of all it has taught us about our privilege. We have worked long hours, but we worked (mostly) at home rather than being forced onto public transport and into risky working practices. When the national lockdown ended in late June, two of the major London archival collections we planned to work with – The National Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives – were able to take measures to re-open their reading room services. We are incredibly grateful to these archives – as well as the Dulwich Archives, where we have located some delightful finds around the Fortune Theatre – for the astonishing efforts they made ensuring their buildings were safe. These archives offered us havens of normality, let us read early modern documents as our masks steamed up our glasses and our scarves kept the chill of the open windows away. We have felt lucky to be based in London and to be able to travel in relative safety to these national holdings, to make full use of our allotted weekly and monthly appointments at these archives despite shortened opening hours (provided, of course, that we won our ‘Tweedy Glastonbury’ tickets in the weekly Monday morning online race for a seat in TNA!). And – if this had to happen – we’re remarkably lucky that this happened when it did, when advances in digitisation and a commitment to open access research meant that we could go online to search through holdings and collections to see us through the see-sawing months of lockdown and shifting tiers.
What’s next for ETS?
While the pandemic has necessitated shifts in some of our research phases, it has also prompted deeper thinking about the methodologies underpinning early modern archival collections, digitisations, and access, refining what feels most urgent to our project. We’re planning three series of blogs over the coming months to share our unfolding reflections on methodology and praxis – as well as some of the delightful, fascinating riches of our archival findings. One series focuses on the problem of archival violence and inclusivity: Oliver and Erin will be thinking through some of the limitations of major manuscript and print documents and resources that have shaped early modern performance studies and our project, questions around digital curation and access, and – in conversation with experts working in and around curatorial and archival industries – how we reshape collections for more inclusive futures. Clare, Lucy, and Erin will be running a series where we speak with researchers at Roehampton and King’s, and colleagues working on collaborative early modern archival and PaR projects around the UK, about the challenges of – and strategies for – researching in a pandemic. Mel will be leading a series sharing moments from our work with REED (and, when archives re-open in future, original documents) that are phenomenologically rich, bringing to life the fascinating, funny, strange, and delightfully wide performance experience available in early modern England.
We hope you’ll continue to follow us in the coming months.