Category Archives: Interviews

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”.

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.

Reflections on Practice, Performance, and Research: A Conversation

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

***

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?

In Conversation with Keira Loughran

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

Stratford Festival Laboratory Engendering the Stage Performers on the last day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On documentation and dissemination of “process”:

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

On Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA):

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