We’re back! Things have changed . . .

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.

Screenshot of the ETS team in a Zoom meeting.

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.

Engendering the stage on tour: Hocktide

This is the first of a series of blogs that will spotlight various forms of early modern performance by a range of gendered, classed bodies. Using examples drawn from archival sources such as the Records of Early English Drama project, we hope this is a space that allows (re)discovery of the many energetic and challenging performances and skills exhibited across England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These snapshots of performances and performers, from those on street corners to those who played in noble households, might challenge some of our ideas about early modern music, dance, and drama, and the hierarchies we have constructed around them.

This series will attempt to follow some of the touring routes of the early modern professional playing companies, most of whom originated in London. They toured frequently, not just when the London theatres were closed because of the plague, along routes that were well planned and well-travelled. Their own performances were part of a much wider culture of performance in both rural and urban areas; they were in competition and conversation with dancers, musicians, tumblers, animal trainers, acrobats, fencers, and many others, as well as civic parades, pageantry, and community drama such as the mystery play cycles.

Our first stop is on the road to Oxford: the Berkshire towns of Reading and Windsor for the Hocktide celebrations. 

HOCKTIDE

Hocktide was a raucous and physically robust festival spread over the Monday and Tuesday two weeks after Easter that marked the transition from spring to summer and raised money for the parish. It began as a day for collecting the termly rents, before developing into a larger celebration. The first day, women of the town roamed the streets, playfully tying up unwary men and demanding money for their release. The second day, the gender roles were reversed, with the men ‘hocking’ money from the women. The money collected went to support the parish. Records from Berkshire indicate the women were much more successful than the men in raising money: their total sums were usually double that of the men. The women of St. Laurence parish, Reading, won 10 shillings from the men they bound on 22nd April 1555, while the men only gathered 4 shillings 8 pence from the women the following day. (All figures taken from the Records of Early English Drama Berkshire, ed. Alexandra F. Johnston, 2018.) The women of St Mary’s, Reading, were even more successful that year, collecting a whopping 22 shillings 8 pence. Perhaps this can be attributed to men being more likely to have spare cash they were able to donate to the parish.

Hocktide does seem to have been a more female-focused event, as with many of the pre-Reformation and medieval civic performance traditions; the triumphant women of St Mary’s were treated to a supper paid for by the parish at a cost of 3 shillings 4 pence in 1555, with no comparable record for the men. This communal meal must have had a victory celebration feel to it, as women celebrated their organisation skills, financial savvy, and physical prowess. By banding together and roaming the public spaces of the town, they took up space in the streets and public buildings, exerting dominion over the men of the town. By physically restraining the menfolk and taking control of their bodies and their purses, they performed a reversal of what happened to a woman’s autonomy, body, and possessions upon getting married. Of course, all was righted the following day, as the men playfully revenged themselves upon the townswomen. Hocktide began to fade away across most of England by the end of the sixteenth century, helped along by religious disapproval of the topsy-turvy sexual dynamics and carnivalesque frivolity the games invoked.

It was not just Protestants who disapproved of Hocktide: in a 1450 letter sent by John Lawern, the Bishop of Worcester to the clergy and cathedral almoner, he complains of a ‘noxious corruption tending to reduce persons of either sex to a state of (spiritual) illness’. The symptoms of this ‘illness’ included:

‘women feign[ing] to bind men, and on another (or the next) day men feign to bind women, and to do other things – would that they were not dishonourable or worse! – in full view of passers-by, even pretending to increase church profit but earning a loss (literally, damnation) for the soul under false pretences. Many scandals arise from the occasion of these activities, and adulteries and other outrageous crimes are committed as a clear offence to God, a very serious danger to the souls of those committing them, and a pernicious example to others.’

Notebook of John Lawern
Bodleian Library: MS Bodley 692 f 163v 6 April 1450

Even accounting for hyperbole, it seems a range of illicit sexual behaviours were conducted under the auspices of Hocktide. We can see traces of this behaviour in the last remaining place to celebrate Hocktide today: Hungerford in Berkshire, a little to the west of Reading. There, the ‘Tutti-men’ visit each household to collect a penny and solicit a kiss from the women of the house, sometimes even going to extreme lengths:

A black and white photo from the 1930s of two women at the first floor window of a brick house with vines. A man is standing on a ladder and kissing one of the women, while the ladder is held by two other men.
Hocktide celebrations, 1930. Photo: Hungerford Virtual Museum

Hungerford continues to celebrate Hocktide today, as this BBC News report shows:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-27214352

The Hocktide of today continues the playful inversion of gender roles that the medieval festival initiated. Hocktide was a space for men and women to lapse from strictly regimented expectations of class and gender and behave in potentially promiscuous ways with members of the opposite sex to whom they were not married. There were plenty of opportunities to speak, flirt, and dance with others, who were able to performatively protest, pointing to the ropes ‘tying’ them up to safeguard reputations. Those who raged against the practice, such as Lawern, may have been reassured by the order in which the events occurred: much like the winter Lord of Misrule games, events began with an upturning of social norms, before the second day which saw the men of the town assert their authority over their wives, sisters, and daughters, reclaiming the public space and their power.

SHAKESPEARE IN THE ROYAL COLLECTION: DOING MATERIAL RESEARCH BY ZOOM (Part 2)

This blog is the second part of Engendering the Stage’s interview with Shakespeare in the Royal Collection (ShaRC). In Part 1 we discussed questions about lockdown closures and archival access. In part 2 we discuss the merits of the “digital archive”.

THE LIMITS OF THE DIGITAL

Lucy Munro: You mentioned earlier that you’ve had to change plans around other parts of the projects and that the exhibition that was planned to be a physical exhibition has moved online. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Sally Barnden: We were at the point of estimating loan requests when the pandemic began and it became apparent, for various reasons, that a physical exhibition just wasn’t going to happen. We had quite a detailed account of what we wanted to be in that exhibition and how it would be structured and what the rationale was for all of those objects. So then we reconceived it for an online space. Which has various effects – one of which was that, when we were thinking beyond the Royal Collection about what objects we might want to contextualize, we were suddenly able to be a lot more ambitious, because the costs of packing up a big painting, shipping it to a location, and insuring it, were no longer a factor. We’re now able to think in terms of contextualizing things with paintings, rather than with small prints after paintings, and that kind of thing.

But it does also change the way that the narrative of the exhibition works, because if you imagine these things in a space, then things like scale and colour have a lot more impact on how the different parts of the exhibition impact the viewer. We were going to have this exhibition which would have a few very big oil paintings and some very small things that we think are very interesting, but maybe were at risk of getting lost in a room. We can now make those objects equal size – for better and worse because you lose the sense of scale, but you can also make the smaller things pop a little more.

LM: Your project – of all the projects we’re talking to – has the most art-historical aspects to it. We’re dealing with archival materials, and we’re interested in the physical objects, but the outputs of the project won’t depend on them in quite the same ways as maybe they will in your project. I wondered whether there was anything else to say about that – the problems of going virtual when you have intellectual investments in the ‘thing’ itself?

SB: I can say it’s certainly been an issue on the cataloguing side because one of our main outputs is a website, which will be effectively a database of all the objects. I mention things like inscriptions and describing bindings but scale is lost when you’re describing everything in a virtual realm, both in the exhibition where it will now seem like a three-metre-high painting and three-inch-high photograph are equivalent objects in some way and while we are asking for dimensions of everything, a small bit of text that says “this is three centimetres high” doesn’t really register in the same way that it would, if you were actually in the same space as the objects.

Kate Retford: Yeah. We’ve got that photograph of Princess Helena Victoria as Ophelia.

SB: She was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter.

Sepia photograph of woman floating on her back in water. the woman's eyes are closed as she pretends to be drowned like Hamlet's Ophelia
“Ophelia”. Photograph attributed to Princess Louise (1848-1939). Royal Collection Trust | © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

KR: I remember when we saw that in the archive and we knew intellectually it was tiny. But the scale of it only really hits you when you see it in person, and that is a real shame for the project, particularly for the exhibition, because, you know we’re losing a lot about the materiality and the individuality of the objects. It’s a particular shame because it’s such an incredibly diverse body of material. I’ve not worked on anything which has such engagement with, you know, print, dec[orative] arts, painting, architecture, sculpture, and what we like to call “chod”! There’s so much to say about material and scale and hierarchies of genre, media. And I think we’re having a particular struggle with the digital exhibition because you know the [web design] company want to have neat identical little square views onto objects before you then click through and I’m saying “no, you’ve got see the whole object straight off.” And then we’ve had discussions about “is there any way we can give people a sense of relative scale? Because they’re going to think this miniature’s the same size as this full-length painting.” And there are various ways you can try and communicate that but none of them are great really. So that, I think, is a particularly big challenge.

18th century painted portrait of a woman. The woman wears a light brown and white dress and is seated next to a small dog on a small cut out piece of ground. She is surrounded by trees and lawn.
Thomas Gainsborough, Mary Robinson as Perdita (ca 1781). Royal Collection Trust |© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Gordon McMullan: Another fundamental difference is that when we were going to have an exhibition at the Globe, we knew we’d have a captive audience of about half a million people who were going to come to the Globe in the course of the three months that the show would have been on. Anyone doing a Globe tour would be offered, for an extra quid or something, the chance to have a look at the exhibition. A proportion of them would have done that, and then we would have got our impact* feedback from those people. Well, it’s a touch more tricky when it’s an online exhibition and zero additional funding to market it!

KR: One of the things that was going to be great about the Globe was that a lot of people would have seen the exhibition who would never have gone to see an exhibition of that sort, normally. So we would have had greater impact. The danger with the online exhibition is that the people who look at it will be the people who think “oh, Shakespeare!” The Globe is so much more on the tourist trail that I think we would have got sort of more surprising reactions from people.

GM: That was always the hope – that we would have audiences who wouldn’t naturally go to a royal palace or a royal exhibition coming to see it anyway.

KR: And it would have been global.

Clare McManus: That’s really interesting, because we’re keen to find out how the pandemic has affected archive projects in terms of questions of access. Not only how we get into things but also in terms of bringing things out of the archives for other people. The universal panacea is often seen as digitization, but your experience is saying something different. It can actually be harder to gather a new, more diverse, and inclusive audience for the kind of things you want to show in the virtual environment. [But] if you have a building that’s already associated with some kind of openness towards Shakespeare and some kind of global audience . . .

GM: Yeah, the Globe exhibition wouldn’t have required anyone deliberately going to see it: they would have just kind of wandered through it while coming to visit the Globe, so it didn’t require any marketing in that sense; it was just “well, while you’re here, why don’t look at this?” So we’re frustrated to have lost that opportunity to reach a really broad audience.

THE ADVANTAGES OF THE DIGITAL

GM: But one particular advantage of the digital exhibition is that it will show objects, most of which are not on public display. Scholars can request to go into the Royal library and see things as long as they’re working on an appropriate project and go through all the security clearances, but the items are not generally visible. It was very much a part of our application to the AHRC that we were seeking to democratize one aspect of this immense collection and to make the holdings more generally visible. The more we show the world the materials that they have, the more subsequent scholars, whether in Shakespeare, whether in art history, will know that those things are there and ask to go and look at them. We don’t think Covid has got in the way of that particular aspiration.

And, of course, the digital exhibition has one advantage over a physical exhibition: it doesn’t conk out after three months. However, we will find out how current such a thing can remain beyond the usual three-month lifespan of an exhibition because it may or it may not.

I think there’s a lot to be learned from it when it comes to impact. There is a diminution when you don’t have, as it were, the real thing, but in terms of, for example, school materials, having the online exhibition available for anyone to look at if they’re doing an EPQor whatever – so there are gains. But it’s interesting that we won’t quite be able to quantify the gains until long after the project is over. [And p]rojects with digital outputs will require longevity of impact data acquisition, which is not catered for by the duration of a funded project with a fixed end date.

Erin Julian: There’s been a lot of conversation recently about what hybrid conferences, events, performances might look like in the future. It seems to me that your project raises particular challenges to hybrid work. Has the project team been thinking about what your work would look like in this new, post-Covid world?

SB: In terms of hybridity between sort of real-world experiences and digital experiences, Gordon mentioned one of our outputs, which is these 3D interactive visualizations of spaces at Windsor castle. And we were certainly envisioning those when we started as something which would allow you to interact with these spaces in a different way when you were in the space. So we were imagining that hybridity, if you like, between experiencing the space live and experiencing it digitally and that you would be able to think about that overlay between the room as it is now and the room, as it was in the 19th century and how the spatial politics of that room worked for Shakespeare performances. And then because of the huge interest in 3D visualizations and virtual versions of real spaces that’s happened as a result of the pandemic, people will respond differently to those properties and probably more of them will be experiencing them exclusively as virtual properties. We’ll have to think about how that changes what we, what sort of packaging, we need to give them, what textual guides and introductions are necessary when you’re thinking about those spaces as spaces that you’re experiencing exclusively virtually rather than as a comparison with a real space.

KR: Over the last year everyone’s got much more used to online, and I think people’s dexterity, say, with our visualizations is going to be better because everyone’s spent all year looking at and manipulating things online and [paying attention to] which gallery has got the best whizzy digitized version of its collection so, on the one hand, that facilitates that and on the other hand, I worry that it won’t be quite as distinctive as it would have been? So, and I hadn’t really thought about that, actually, before this this conversation, that that’s a real pro and con side to all this.

CMcM: Brilliant. This is all the time we have. Let’s see what Zoom auto transcription does to our conversation!

Notes

*impact under the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, refers to how research affects, changes, or benefits society outside of academia.

EPQ within the UK’s education system, an additional piece of research that students can undertake alongside their A levels – qualifications taken in the last year of secondary school – for additional credit

SHAKESPEARE IN THE ROYAL COLLECTION: DOING MATERIAL RESEARCH BY ZOOM (Part 1)

When the first lockdown was announced in the UK in March 2020, the ETS team was forced to urgently confront questions connected to archival access. Questions about who has been left out of early modern archives, how and why were already built into our project but became much more pressing. With these issues came broader questions of how we might rebuild inclusive archives and libraries after the pandemic – both ones used by scholars and more generally.

We decided to reflect on our pandemic experience in conversation with other archival projects, to share resources and solutions to some of the obstacles that the pandemic created, and to think about the social and cultural roles that libraries and archives play in research, learning, and community building.

Our first interview is with members of the AHRC-funded project, Shakespeare in the Royal Collection. We spoke with Prof Gordon McMullan (King’s College London), Prof Kate Retford (Birkbeck, University of London), and Dr Sally Barnden (King’s College London). The Royal Librarian approached McMullan early in 2016 to ask if he might include the Royal Collection Trust’s exhibition of Shakespeare-related items from the Royal Collection in the publicity for the Shakespeare400 season (which was led by King’s in partnership with twenty-five major London cultural organizations). In due course, this led McMullan and Barnden (the latter employed for six months by King’s to scope the project) to investigate the Shakespeare-related holdings of the Royal Library, which were for the most part acquired from the 18th century onwards (after a period of dissolution following the death of Charles 1). In McMullan’s words, the project explores “the mutual value that Shakespeare the cultural phenomenon and the Royal Family have had for each other over time”, a relationship which “begins with the accession of the George I”.

McMullan is PI and Retford Co-I, and Barnden and Dr Kirsten Tambling are the project’s postdoctoral fellows who, until Covid closures hit, were working in the Library and Archives at Windsor Castle. The project is both literary and art historical, with McMullan and Barnden (broadly) handling literary historical matters and Retford and Tambling the art history side of things.

Colour photograph of a book, a Shakespeare folio, open to the first page of The Tempest.
“Mr William Shakespeare’s comedies, histories & tragedies. Published according to the true original copies.” Royal Collection Trust |© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

The project is hosting an online conference from 17-19 June 2021. Other outputs include a website providing comprehensive details of the RCT’s Shakespeare holdings; a digital exhibition; a set of 3D digital visualizations of three spaces in Windsor castle in which Shakespeare performances have taken place, created by Martin Blazeby in collaboration with Noho, with Globe actors providing voiceovers. Parts of these visualizations will be available to Windsor Castle to use in their visitor experience facilities. The ShaRC team will also release an image- and object-focused collection of essays, developed from the exhibit, of interest to academic and general readerly audiences. 

We present an edited transcript of our conversation in two parts. Part 1 discusses Covid-related lockdown closures and questions of archival access. Part 2 will include our conversation on the advantages and limits of the “digital archive”

WORKING IN LOCKDOWN, ADAPTING TO COVID

Erin Julian: We started this interview series as a way of reflecting on the obstacles to archival work during Covid. Can you tell us a bit about what’s happened to you in the past year?

Sally Barnden: Sure. Our project team is located mostly in London, but the vast majority of the material that we’re working with is at Windsor Castle. The Royal Archives themselves were mostly closed last February for cataloguing and inventory reasons. They briefly reopened during the period when we were on strike [the UCU strikes in February and March 2020], and then Covid hit, and Windsor Castle as a whole had to close. So there was a sort of preamble to the pandemic, as far as Windsor Castle was concerned. We were also making quite a lot of use of other archives: the National Art Library at the V&A, the British Library, and the National Archives. So general archival closures were a problem.

I suppose we were lucky insofar as all of these problems started when we were already 18 months into the project, so we had quite a significant archival base, a backlog to work with.

The Royal Archives’ peculiarities shaped our work here. They have very strict rules: you can’t take photographs, as you can these days in most archives, so we probably had taken more thorough notes than we would have done otherwise. So that was kind of a blessing and a curse insofar as we were probably already expecting that it wouldn’t be easy to just pop back in and check things – but also we didn’t have a vast library of archival photographs to refer back to.

Gordon McMullan: We were very, very fortunate that the timing meant that Sally and Kirsten had done the vast bulk of the archival work that was absolutely essential. I mean we originally budgeted to go to Sandringham and Balmoral and various other places to see what was there, and none of that has happened because visits haven’t been feasible.

It turns out, happily, that as far as we know there aren’t in fact major objects there that we absolutely must see, as it were.

POSITIVES OF ARCHIVAL CLOSURES?

SB: This is probably something we would have had to do anyway, but I think Covid moved forward the point where we had to let go of the idea of completely exhaustive coverage of every possible Shakespeare-related thing in the Royal Collection and Royal Archives. That we had to come to a point where we decided that these are our 2000 objects and we’re going to say as many interesting things as we can about them rather than go on reading a million letters in the hope that somebody in passing quotes The Merchant of Venice in a historically interesting way. Becoming aware of our limits early last year rather than later was probably quite useful in the long run.

Colour photograph of three small wooden boxes, lying open, revealing insides lined with mirrored glass and metal engraved with Shakespeare's name.
Wood toothpick case, “Made of the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare.” Royal Collection Trust |© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

PUBLIC ACCESS AND THE ROYAL COLLECTION

GM: One of the issues we’ve had throughout – which has nothing to do with Covid – is that these buildings are not places where you can go and have a rummage around and see what you can find. The challenge that Sally and Kirsten have had to deal with throughout has been always being asked by an archivist, “What would you like to see and I’ll go and get it?” And, of course, the truthful answer to that is “I’d like to have a rummage in that cupboard, please!” But you’re not allowed to do that. So that has made it much less likely that we would find something startlingly undiscovered because you can’t ask: “Let me see the thing that nobody knows exists yet.” So Sally and Kirsten have been assiduously seeing what we could get to there.

SB: It’s worth mentioning the Georgian Papers programme (https://gpp.rct.uk/) have helped to cover for the fact that we haven’t had access to so many of these documents. The fact that the Royal Collection Trust had this vast digitization project, which was already well underway, has been really useful. Also the fact that that the Georgian Papers team were engaging with the Royal Archives as a whole meant that there were lists of the kinds of documents that existed, so we were able to slightly break that pattern of the archivist saying “what do you want to see?” and us saying, “well, we don’t know, have you got any of this? No. Have you got any of this? No.” And we were able to go through them slightly more systematically, which did help.

Lucy Munro: Have the Windsor archives actually opened at all since the pandemic began?

SB: No. They closed for Covid, I guess, early March last year, and they haven’t reopened at all. The staff have had access. I think in the first UK lockdown there were very few staff on site at all, and then, more recently, the library and print room staff have been in one day a week, something like that. There have been some staff in the archives, so it’s been possible to check some queries and things.

GM: It’s also worth adding that the Royal Archives and Windsor Castle derive their income from tourists visiting the Castle, which means that during Covid their activities and staffing have necessarily been reduced because they haven’t had the normal income stream from visitors. This has meant that the handful of curators that have been engaged in our project are in fact doing more work to help us than we had anticipated. The senior curators have been photocopying things for us, taking pictures of things for us – which is immensely kind of them!

SB: We’ve been quite lucky in terms of the Royal Collection curators making themselves available by email and by Zoom and putting in a huge number of hours with the objects that we otherwise would have hoped to examine ourselves. We’ve been relying very heavily on impressions of these prints or copies of these books that are in other libraries, where they have been digitized – and obviously that leads to some omissions and misunderstandings. So curators have had to go in and say, “oh no actually this print does have lettering” or “actually our copy has an inscription on the flyleaf that you haven’t mentioned, because you haven’t seen our copy”. It’s been very weird doing this kind of object-based research at so many removes from the objects that were interested in. We’re very grateful to the curators who are doing that work for us right now.

GM:  We are also very, very aware of our good fortune in having an AHRC grant and thus being publicly funded for this project, because the Georgian Papers project, for instance, didn’t have that public funding – they had a combination of funding from the States and the Royal Household – and when Covid and lockdown began they weren’t in a position to sustain the formal relationship, whereas RCT has been able to carry on working with us because the funding was public and thus external. So we’ve been very, very fortunate in that respect.

The first half of our conversation ends here. In the second half of our interview, coming soon, the ShaRC team tells us more about working under Covid conditions, how they adapted their planned exhibition to a digital format, and the advantages and limits of the “digital archive”.

Ruff Play with Shakespeare: Postponed

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.

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Ruff Play with Shakespeare: combat, gender and entertainment

Wrestling Resurgence, @RobBrazierPhoto
Poster advertising combat and performance event on 26 April 2020 at Goldsmiths, University of London

To book, please click here.

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.

Two fencers grappling
Craig Hamblyn and Kiel O’Shea demonstrate fencing at Before Shakespeare’s Raising the Curtain event (July 2018)
Emmaa Frankland at Engendering the Stage’s workshop at Stratford Festival Laborataory
@RobBrazierPhoto 
Mercedez Blaze, @RobBrazierPhoto
Oisin Delaney and Charlie Carter

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.

Andy Kesson

Confirmed participants:

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.

Oisin Delaney and Charlie Carter

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.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Mercedez Blaze, @RobBrazierPhoto

Towards a Trans Canon: Reflections on Emma Frankland’s Workshop at The Stratford Festival, 2019

By Madeleine Krusto

Oyez, oyez, if any maid

Whom leering Cupid has betrayed

To frowns of spite, to eyes of scorn,

And would in madness now see torn

The boy in pieces…

John Lyly, Galathea, 4.2.1-4

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.

For 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.

One 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.

This 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).

As 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.

Accompanying 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.

I 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.

It 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.

As 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.

The 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.

So 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.

This 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.

Engendering the Stage in London, May 2019

This post was originally published on King’s English blog, Department of English, King’s College London.

by Hailey Bachrach and Dr Romola Nuttall, King’s College London

An Apology for Actors: Early Modern Playing Then and Now, King’s College London, Friday 10 May 2019

Research in Action: Engendering the Stage, Shakespeare’s Globe, Monday 13 May 2019.

“Engendering the Stage in the Age of Shakespeare and Beyond” brings together scholars, actors and theatre practitioners to analyse the performance of gender in early modern drama and investigate the effects of women’s performance on the skills, techniques and technologies of the performance of femininity in the drama of Shakespeare and his English and European contemporaries. In May, the project held two events in London at King’s and Shakespeare’s Globe.

The workshop at King’s considered children’s companies and female performers at court as well as professional, more typical, “actors”. The Research in Action event at Shakespeare’s Globe used scenes which include gendered expressions of rage for public performance and audience discussion.

The morning of ‘Apology for Actors’ focused on two male, professional actors, Richard Burbage and Nathan Field. Burbage is one of the most famous actors of the early modern period and was a celebrity during his lifetime, as the elegies written at his death demonstrate. He was a member of the King’s Men and brought many of Shakespeare’s leading roles, from Hamlet to King Lear, to life. Field was a pupil at St. Paul’s School and became one of the Children of the Queen’s Revels. He joined the King’s Men around 1615-16 and may have been known for his physical dexterity and charisma. Lucy Munro (King’s College London) and Harry McCarthy (Exeter) called on present-day actors, James Wallace and Mark Hammersely, to read extracts of parts Field and Burbage would have played, allowing the workshop’s audience to see how heavily the actor’s person and specific skill-set would have informed the composition, performance, interpretation of early modern drama.

Richard Burbage, Henry Thew Stephenson [Public domain]

Richard Burbage, Henry Thew Stephenson [Public domain]
Wallace and Hammersely performed a scene from The Knight of Malta– written by Field himself with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger –in which the older, wiser, wily Montferrat, played by Burbage in 1618 and Wallace in this workshop) persuades the younger Miranda (played by Field in 1618 and Ammersely for us) to take his place in a duel. Similar focus on how company dynamics informed performance were foregrounded when our actors were joined by Suzanne Ahmet to perform the first scene of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist which would have been in the King’s Men’s repertoire at the same time as The Knight of Malta. Burbage, who played Subtle, and Field, who played Face, would have performed alongside the much younger George Birch, as Doll Common, who ends the scene by subduing and dominating the two senior players. This workshop was not trying to recover or recreate the experience of early modern playgoing but participants commented on how our actors had done this for us by effectively playing two parts at once, adopting personas of known actors as well as the parts in the plays.
Actors’ identities need to be given more attention when approaching early modern performance

Having established that actors’ identities need to be given more attention when approaching early modern performance, Clare McManus (Roehampton) pulled the rug out from under our feet in the afternoon, challenging what an early modern actor actually is/was. Yes, there were famous stage-clowns of the commercial stage, like Timothy Reade who was praised for just peeping out behind a curtain, but also, court musicians, actors who were also guildsmen and female performers. It was fascinating to implode the term “actor” and consider broader categories of performer which are not limited to stage-plays and text-based performances. This idea was brought to life when participants read two extracts from the marathon eight-hour long court masque, The Shepherds Paradise. The masque was written for a commemorative performance on Charles I’s birthday in 1633 and was performed by an all-female cast lead by Queen Henrietta Maria.

Discussion was led by stage-designer Mallin Parry (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Sarah Grange (Brighton) who reflected on this performance and its resonances with contemporary performance contexts, particularly the drag king scene. They raised compelling parallels between costumes used in both contexts, highlighting their extravagance, their explicit construction of gender, their level of attention to detail and topicality. They encouraged the suggestion that these more radical performance contexts are enabled by their “amateur” nature.

The last session of the day continued to challenge both past and present performance of gender. Melinda Gough (McMaster) and Peter Cockett (McMaster) shared their experiences of the Engendering the Stage workshop at the Stratford Festival Laboratory in November 2018, which investigated scenes in which female characters wielded swords on the early modern stage. Just as the previous discussion had found an instability in the term “actor”, this discussion highlighted similarly problematic tensions between scholar and practitioner – who is the expert when the aim is research through practice? These are provocative and productive questions to which the project is highly sensitive and which continued to be explored at the Globe’s Research in Action workshop.

It was fascinating to implode the term “actor” and consider broader categories of performer which are not limited to stage-plays and text-based performances.

Though only the evening portion of the event was livetweeted and open to the public, Research in Action at the Globe is a full day event for the scholars and artists. In the evening, participants present a series of scenes that illustrate different research questions and dilemmas, which we turn over to the audience for discussion and questions. Audience and scholars alike are given the opportunity to make staging and performance suggestions, which the actors then incorporate, trying different parts of the scenes in different ways. As with any practice as research event, the aim is to raise questions rather than to answer them.

But before all this, we gathered in the early afternoon to meet the actors and run through the scenes that we’d be presenting in the evening, establishing some basic staging and highlighting some of the questions about gendered embodiments of onstage rage that we’d probe more deeply during the public workshop.

The first scene, from The Noble Spanish Soldier, raised a variety of practical staging questions. In our most populous scene (cut down from its original cast size!), we had to take our time to break down who went where and when. A sequence involving the passing of a cup for a series of toasts proved particularly complicated, because the extant stage directions were very vague about the nature of toast and the order in which it was taken, plus a lot of business about cup swapping—particularly important because the swap results in the wrong character being poisoned. The mechanics of these prop movements contrasted with the relative simplicity of the emotional cues in the scene: the workshop’s aim was to explore moments of rage, and embedded stage directions and descriptions and reactions by other characters always made it very clear when a character was in a rage, even if we had no indication of what that rage might look like.

Audience and scholars alike are given the opportunity to make staging and performance suggestions, which the actors then incorporate, trying different parts of the scenes in different ways.

Both this and our second scene, from Wit Without Money, raised interesting questions about when rage is unseen or private, performed only for the audience, and when it is a public display that the other characters also see. In The Noble Spanish Soldier, if the other characters noticed the early moments of rage, it would give away the poisoning game before it made sense for them to know it. In Wit Without Money, the visibility of the widow’s rage in the face of a set of persistent, annoying suitors seemed more open for interpretation: playing it as asides to the audience created a comic contrast, but playing it openly to the suitors was also amusing, and emphasized the plot framework of the scene, in which the widow’s sister has set the suitors on her as a joke, and has told the suitors to ignore her sister’s raging and keep pursuing her anyway.

In both of these scenes, other characters’ responses provide a key to understanding the rage, whether they are describing the rage, or seeming to fail to see it. In our third scene, from The Renegado, external responses only further complicated a difficult-to-interpret moment. In this scene, an aristocratic young woman smashes up a merchant’s market stall in an apparent fit of rage… but is it a real loss of control, or a deliberate act to draw attention? The text makes it unclear, and the varied responses of the other characters—ranging from genuine shock to bemused understatement—don’t help clarify the matter. This was a scene particularly enlivened by public performance and discussion, as the audience proffered a variety of interpretations of both versions of the scene, bringing their own personal and artistic experiences to bear on their efforts to explain the character’s thinking.

Unfortunately, we only had a very short time to spend on our final scene, also from The Renegado. But the curtailed discussion served as a good reminder that such events are, unlike a traditional performance, the beginning of a conversation, not the finished product.

Engendering the Stage would like to thank London Shakespeare Centre and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, Roehampton University and the Social Sciences and Research Council, Canada, whose support made these events possible.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

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. 

*          *          *

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. 

*          *          *

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.


[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.

***

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.