We are very sorry to say that Ruff Play with Shakespeare, our forthcoming combat event, has been postponed. We will await future advice on public gatherings before announcing a new date, and will refund those who have bought tickets as soon as possible.
We would like to say an enormous thank you to everyone who helped to plan, contribute to and publicise the event, and look forward to making it happen in the near future.
Our project focuses on a time when paid public entertainment was repeatedly in tension with outbreaks of plague, with the playhouses often at the heart of government concerns about social gatherings. We are living through difficult times, but we take some comfort in the thought that generations of people negotiating similar problems retained their commitment to imagination, resistance and play.
We wish all of our readers and collaborators the best in the weeks ahead.
Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage are delighted to announce our next performance workshop, focusing on combat as entertainment—in both Shakespeare’s time and today. Combat, acrobatics and feats of strength were everywhere in the early modern period: wrestling happened on the streets, in the countryside and in plays such as As You Like It, and the most famous male Tudor, Henry VIII, was also a renowned wrestler. Women and men performed strength, sword and rope displays for public audiences. Animal combat was probably an even more popular cultural pursuit than theatre and was watched by all sectors of society across the country and in specially-designed venues in London that were in direct competition with the playhouses. Although modern culture tends to sharply distinguish between theatre and combat as forms of entertainment, the playhouses of Shakespeare’s time were dedicated spaces for play and games of all kinds, and were as much fencing venues as theatres. Likewise, up until the twentieth century music halls and theatres also hosted boxing and wrestling matches, and employed boxers and wrestlers for sparring exhibitions or as actors in plays.
These historical matters have parallels with the contemporary UK wrestling scene. The history of theatre is one of deliberately broken traditions because the London playhouses were closed down in 1642, and boxing and wrestling venues have similarly been controversial spaces subject to control and suppression. In the late-nineteenth century legal changes sent some form of public combat underground, men’s wrestling was banned in London in the 1930s, women’s wrestling in London in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and the decision to stop broadcasting wrestling on television in 1985 drastically affected its audience and popularity. But now the UK wrestling scene is so thriving and exciting that a current research project is actually called Wrestling Resurgence. Just as the work of our two projects has stressed the role of women and marginalised people in early modern performance, including combat and strength displays, so contemporary wrestling is thinking anew about gender, sexuality, race and disability in the ring and in its audiences.
Our hope is to use this event to bring these various ideas together, with a focus on using practice and performance as much as conversation to tease them out. Though we’ve swapped staff, methods, ideas and findings before, this will be the first time that Engendering the Stage and Before Shakespeare are in a room together testing out our ideas in performance. We will bring together combat and theatre historians, fight directors, professional wrestlers, sports scholars and animal archaeologist for a conversation in which no one person is an expert, and look forward to generating new conversations and discoveries between our speakers and our audience. For anyone interested in street performance, popular play, combat as a form of entertainment or the links between theatre, circus and sport, we’d be excited to have you join us.
Sarah Elizabeth Cox (@spookyjulie / @wrestling1880s) is the press officer for Goldsmiths, University of London by day, a postgraduate history student by night, and a trainee pro-wrestler with the London School of Lucha Libre during the hours in-between. Through her research project Grappling With History she is piecing together the biographies of long-forgotten British and Caribbean boxers and wrestlers based in east and south east London in the 1880s and ’90s, focusing on ‘The Most Popular Man in New Cross’, heavyweight champion Jack Wannop. Images of Sarah, Hezekiah Moscow and late nineteenth-century grappling are below.
Broderick Chow is Reader and Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. His research examines the intersections of theatre, performance, sport, and physical culture, and he has published widely on contemporary and historical wrestling, bodybuilding, weightlifting, and strongmen. He is a competitive weightlifter and coach.
Oisin Delaney started training in Knucklelocks School of Wrestling in 2016 under Darrell Allen and Eddie Dennis. He is part of a tag team called The NIC with Charlie Carter and has wrestled for promotions such as Progress, Revolution Pro, Battle Pro, Pro Wrestling Soul and a host of others. The NIC are known for their classic, brawling style.
Hannah O’Regan is an archaeologist with expertise in skeletons. She’s been examining the role of bears in human society, and has become intrigued by the relative lack of research interest in early modern animal baiting and combat – a crucial part of entertainment at the time. She’ll be bringing Bernard the bear with her.
Katrina Marchant is a material and cultural historian, sword fancier and lover of pugilism. She has an extensive performance background in musical theatre, theatre, compering, improvised and stand-up comedy, works as a costumed historical interpreter and educator at various heritage sites and wrote a PhD on trash, trifles and Protestant identity in the early modern period.
Duellorum are Craig Hamblyn and Kiel O’Shea – fight directors, stage combat teachers, and martial arts historians, combining academic research and practical experimentation. They specialise in the adaptation of historic martial arts for performance and spend a great deal of time very carefully and thoughtfully hitting one another.
Location and accessibility
For a map to the theatre, see here. For full Access information, see here. The map below highlights the easier way to get to the George Wood Theatre via step-free doors to the building and theatre, as well as step-free access to two gender-neutral toilets (room 165), one of which is fully accessible.
We are dressed as Diana’s nymphs standing in a circle surrounding Cupid, who sits crouched on the floor in front of us. One nymph rips Cupid’s bow and arrow from their hands. Another unclips Cupid’s wings. We move closer. Diana places a bright red copy of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare on Cupid’s back. The pages are open towards us, barely touched, and in pristine condition.
a moment I stop. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next. This was definitely
not in my Galathea text. I know how
the scene is supposed to play out: the nymphs are instructed by Diana to punish
Cupid for influencing them in acting out. But I don’t know how we are supposed
to actually go about performing this with a heavy copy of Shakespeare’s work in
the middle of us.
of the nymphs reaches down and rips a page from the RSC collection. Then
another. What follows next is a visceral scene: each performer takes a turn
tearing a page from the book. We all forget about that initial hesitation. I
look down at my hands and there are crumpled pages between them. I don’t even
look at what play I just ripped the text from, because it doesn’t matter. I
throw pages on the ground, I step on them, I tear more from the book and begin
ripping the individual pages into pieces. I want the pages to be
unrecognizable. With our nails, we are ripping Shakespeare’s work out of the
centre of the archive.
moment, which took place at the Stratford Festival’s 2019 Theatre Laboratory,
was part of the weeklong workshop “Towards a Trans Canon” led by visiting
artist Emma Frankland. I first met Emma in
September of 2018 when she was one of the invited artists for the “Engendering
the Stage in the Age of Shakespeare and Beyond” conference at the Stratford
Festival and McMaster University. Invited by Emma to come back to the Lab to
attend this day of her “Towards a Trans Canon” workshop, I had the opportunity
to participate in a Performance as Research exploration of the trans
performance canon and its relationship to the early modern canon (with
Shakespeare at the centre).
Emma noted throughout the day, there is no complete works of a trans canon
archived in a single book, the way there is for the Shakespeare canon. We were
being given permission to rip pages from the complete works of Shakespeare both
to decentre his name and to make space for the trans canon. The PaR work led by
Emma at the Stratford Festival Theatre Lab offered a site for contributing to
such a canon through finding queer life within texts such as Galathea, written by Shakespeare’s
immediate predecessor, John Lyly. Although an archived canon of trans work does
not exist so neatly as Shakespeare’s collection, then, Emma’s workshop suggests
that an ongoing repertoire of trans performance (both in early modern and
contemporary performance) is what makes up the trans canon.
Emma was a group of trans, 2 spirit, and non-binary identifying artists from
Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I soon understood how
important it was for Emma to have brought the invited artists with her into the
space. Rather than relying on Emma as the only voice in the room speaking about
trans lives as though her story represented every trans narrative, the workshop
featured multiple voices speaking to their own lives, their own stories, and
their own narratives. It did not become the job of one single trans person to
speak on behalf of all trans lives as a universal narrative for the cisgender
folk present in the room.
For most of the day we worked through selected scenes from Lyly’s Galathea. In the morning, all participants explored the text together through music, dance, and non-verbal scenework, under Emma’s direction. After lunch, the artists split into groups and worked through specific scenes, text in hand.
was given the opportunity to observe one of the small groups workshopping – and
I was drawn again, as I had been when Emma presented this scene last year with “Engendering
the Stage,” to one of the scenes near the beginning of the play, where Philida’s
father tells her she must hide in the woods dressed as a boy.
was an extremely exciting experience to watch two artists work with this scene
from Galathea imagining the character
of Philida as gender-fluid. At the same time, though, I felt that I suddenly
changed from a participant in the PaR work to a spectator at a performance.
Although I was still participating in the PaR scholarship, the space of the scenework
had shifted toward becoming more of a performance space.
a cisgender woman invited into this space, a workshop series on the trans
canon, it felt important to take up as little space as possible while also not
sitting on the sidelines and simply watching the PaR work as if I was situating
myself as an expert on transgender lives. When I was a performing participant,
such as performing a nymph and ripping the pages from that RSC collection, I
was still taking up space in some ways, but also sharing the space with the
artists in the room. Together we were unified and working toward something.
Being in such an intimate space, it completely changes the dynamic when I am
invited to participate, but choose not to. If I am situated on the outside, it
feels as though everyone else is performing for my own benefit. When others sit
and watch the exploration process that comes with PaR, scenework and
discussions between participants become performative for the others watching,
whether it be other artists, scholars, or members of the public.
most rewarding aspects of the 2019 “Towards a Trans Canon” workshop, for me,
were the moments of active engagement — where everyone was free to explore,
discover and create. We warmed up together, we dressed in costume together, we
ripped the pages of Shakespeare together. I am an emerging artist, and a young
student just beginning her MA degree and grappling with imposter syndrome. I am
still learning where I belong, whether it is in the community practicing my
art, in academia, or both. For this day at Emma’s workshop, I did not feel any
of these insecurities. Yes, it was incredibly intimidating to be a participant
alongside professional artists, but as soon as this initial fear faded away, I
was just another participant in the space. It did not matter that I was a young
student, a new artist, someone still learning. I was there simply to explore
and create with peers.
there we were together, as participants, ripping the pages of Shakespeare’s
complete works. Even though this was a performance, it was a performance for
ourselves, for the purpose of exploration; and this was so vitally important to
the work and why PaR was being done. Despite the performative element that PaR
suggests in its name, this research is intimate work that requires
participatory roles from each person in the space. It is an active space. To
sit on the sidelines and watch PaR in action is to take more than you are giving
to the work.
research is a constant cycle of placing yourself into the participation,
exploration, and discovery. Perhaps the first step to breaking down barriers
between participants is acknowledging that this learning happens together. You
are allowed to rip the pages too.
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.
* * *
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
If the rope was tight, women walked, danced and leapt across it, either cross-dressed
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’.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.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.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.
Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (London: Bloomsbury, Arden Shakespeare, 2017), p. 24.
Edward Ward, The London Spy (4thedition, 1709), p. 185.
John Astington, ‘Trade, taverns, and Touring Players in Seventeenth-Century Bristol’, Theatre Notebook 71:3 (2017), 161-168.
Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 9.
Mercurius Fumigosus (30 August-6 September, 1654), p. 126.
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 , 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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 ); and James Burbage himself is arrested wandering (perhaps from his own playhouse) to see a play at the Cross Keys in the 1590s.
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.
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: 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!
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.
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”.
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 methe work of a Straight Black Quebecois transwoman from the 2010’s.
Give me the work of aQueer 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 BlackfootWoman before her country was colonized.
Give me the work ofIndigenous people around the globe before their countries were colonized.
Before their art forms were deemed lesser. Before performance and community and ritualhad 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 Congoleseexistence in favour of “keeping it relatable”.
And then pay them.
. . .
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.
Then destroyed again.
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.
I want shakespeare to stop.
shakespeare is dead.
So let him die.
And give us.
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…
… 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)…