Tag Archives: Gender

Frances and Judith: Parallel Lives

This is the first in a series of blog-posts that will draw attention to the roles of women in the economic structures that surrounded the early modern stage. These posts derive from our documentary research project, ‘Engendering the Stage: The Records of Early Modern Performance’, funded by a Research Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust, and they are based on our work in the National Archives, the London Metropolitan Archives and other collections.

Future posts will focus on women’s involvement in the ownership and leases of playhouses, but I want to start by looking at the broader network of financial interactions that supported the playhouses, a network that extended far beyond Britain’s shores. This material was first presented at the ‘Theatre Without Borders’ conference in June 2021 as part of a panel on ‘Staging Bodily Technologies’.

In this post I take a close look at the activities of two entrepreneurial women with connections to the seventeenth-century stage: Frances Worth and Judith Merefield. Both were related to actors and both operated within family networks that link theatre finance with colonial exploitation, in particular the colonization of the West Indies between the 1620s and 1650s.

Frances was born in 1602. The daughter of a painter-stainer, Thomas Bartlett, she was married successively to two actors. In 1620, when she was only 18 years old, she married the 19-year-old Thomas Holcombe. Holcombe was probably still an apprentice at the time, playing female and juvenile roles on the stages of the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses. He died only a few years later, in late August or early September 1625, during a virulent outbreak of plague in London. In January 1626 Frances married for a second time. Her new husband was Ellis Worth, whose long career centred on the Red Bull and Fortune playhouses, where he was successively a member of Queen Anna’s Men, the Revels Company and Prince Charles’s Men. 

Ten years older than Frances, Judith was the daughter of John Heminges, a long-time actor with the King’s Men – the company of which Shakespeare was also a member – and the master to whom  Thomas Holcombe was apprenticed in 1618. Judith was one of fourteen children born to John and his wife Rebecca, of whom six daughters and two sons survived to adulthood. In 1613, at the age of 19, Judith married the 21-year-old Ralph Merefield, a member of London’s Weavers’ Company who also appears to have worked as a scrivener. Heminges appears to have had his daughters as well as his sons educated: when Judith made her will in 1645 she signed it in her own hand, and the will also bears the signature of her sister Margaret Sheppard, who was one of the witnesses.

Figure 1: Judith Merefield’s signature and seal, and the signature of her sister, Margaret Sheppard, on the original copy of Judith’s will, dated 7 June 1645. The National Archives (TNA), PROB 10/650. Open in a new tab or window by right-clicking to see larger versions of any of these images.

Frances and Judith must have encountered each other many times in the close-knit communities that surrounded and sustained the seventeenth-century stage, and both of their histories reveal women with an entrepreneurial streak. Frances was unusual by seventeenth-century standards in that she exercised her own profession, independent from that of her husbands. On 26 January 1622, during the life-time of her first husband, she was appointed by St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, London, as a ‘surgeon’ specialising in curing skin disorders such as ‘scald heads’ and, perhaps, venereal disease.[1] The records of the hospital show that this trade provided her with a lucrative income for many years. By the early 1630s her earnings were regularly topping £100 per annum and she was still being paid for her work by the hospital in the mid 1660s. These wages would have meant that she was earning substantially more than a skilled tradesman, and she also appears to have out-earned her male colleagues at the hospital. In 1629, for example, she earned £58, while the physician William Harvey was paid £33 and the apothecary, Richard Glover, was awarded £40.[2]

Figure 2: Cures for scald heads in John Hester’s The Pearl of Practice, or Practicer’s Pearl, for Physic and Chirurgery (London, 1594).

In a lawsuit of the mid 1650s, Ellis Worth refers to the income that his family makes through Frances’s ‘great pains and industry in a way of surgery as relating to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, London, and otherwise’, describing himself as ‘having no trade’.[3] His testimony and that of a series of witnesses make clear both Frances’s status as a surgeon and the importance of her work to the family. Charity Earles, for example, declares that there is ‘none in London or elsewhere that can do the like cure besides the defendant Frances’.[4] The witnesses also offer an account of the way in which Frances has trained her 26-year-old son, Ellis Worth junior, in ‘the art of chirurgery as to the curing of scald heads and leprosies’. [5]  Somewhat ungraciously, Ellis junior acknowledges the esteem in which his mother is held but only in the course of complaining that he is ‘hindered and obstructed’ in exercising that ‘art’ for himself because his mother ‘so long as she lives gets that practice which otherwise this deponent might (as he believes) have had’.

Figure 3: Deposition of Ellis Worth junior, 25 August 1654, TNA, C 24/780. In the description of his occupation the word ‘chirurgeon’ (that is, surgeon) is crossed out and ‘gent.’ (for ‘gentleman’) written in above it.

Frances’s earnings as a surgeon probably helped to sustain her family’s other activities, which encompassed not only theatrical investment but also investment in England’s colonization of the West Indies. Her stepdaughter, Jane Worth, married as her first husband Henry Ricroft, who invested in the Fortune playhouse alongside Ellis Worth in the early 1630s. Alongside the Fortune, the Ricrofts also invested in a plantation in Barbados, and after Henry Ricroft’s death Jane married another colonizer, Peter Alsop. In his 1659 will, Ellis Worth mentions ‘my daughter Jane Alsop wife of Peter Alsop in Barbados’ and ‘her eldest son Ellis Ricroft which she had by her former husband Henry Ricroft deceased’; as Jennifer L. Morgan points out, Ellis was to make bequests of enslaved people to his own children two decades later. [6] 

It is likely that Frances’s substantial earnings financed Ellis Worth’s investment in the Fortune in the 1620s and early 1630s, and they may also have supported the theatrical and colonial activities of the Ricrofts and Alsops. In the 1640s and 50s, when the commercial presentation of plays in London was prohibited and the livelihoods of actors were rendered precarious and at times non-existent, Frances’s trade appears to have been the family’s main source of income and prestige.

Judith Merefield’s career connects the theatre with colonial projects even more strongly. Her husband, Ralph Merefield, financed the ships that arrived in early 1624 at the island then known as St Christopher, now better known as St Kitts, and called ‘Liamuiga’ or ‘fertile island’ by the indigenous population that was later massacred by the colonizers. On 13 September 1625, Ralph and his partner, Thomas Warner, were issued with a grant that appointed Warner as the colonial governor of ‘Saint Christopher’s alias Merwarshope’, Nevis, Barbados and Monserrat, which were described as ‘inhabited by savage people and not in the possession or government of any Christian prince or state’. The grant also gave Ralph the authority ‘to traffic to and from the said island … and to transport men and do all such things as tend to settle a colony and advance trade there[in]’.[7]

Figure 4: Grant to Thomas Warner and Ralph Merefield, 13 September 1625. Privy Council Register, 27 March 1625-17 July 1626, TNA, PC 2/33, f. 103r. The name ‘Merwarshope’ combined parts of the names of Merefield and Warner. It did not endure.

Other members of Judith’s family were also involved in colonial schemes. Her father, John Heminges, was not only a major shareholder in the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses, and one of the men who helped to prepare the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, but also an investor in at least two colonial projects. One investment involved his eldest surviving son, also called John; the other was a project that was referred to in a lawsuit after his death in 1630 as ‘a desperate adventure unto the West Indies’.[8] It is highly likely that Heminges invested in Merefield’s expedition, which was being planned and executed at the same time as he was at work on the First Folio, a volume that opens with Shakespeare’s colonial play, The Tempest.[9]

The family’s colonial connections were not limited to Ralph Merefield. The husband of Judith’s sister Rebecca, named as ‘Captain William Smith’ in Heminges’s will, is probably the man of that name who appears to have captained the second ship to St Christopher in 1624 and later travelled there as the captain of another ship, the Hopewell, in October 1627. Two of Judith’s own daughters, Judith and Mary, would go on to marry men involved in colonial trade and exploitation: the privateer and slave-trader William Jackson and Thomas Sparrow, who was governor of Nevis around 1636-7.

Ralph Merefield quickly exercised the authority granted to him by setting up tobacco plantations on St Christopher.[10] The Cambridge playwright Peter Hausted refers to the pleasures of ‘a thatch alehouse, and St Kitts Tobacco’ in his 1632 play The Rival Friends, suggesting something of the commercial reach of this project.[11] However, Ralph spent well beyond his means in financing the colonization of St Christopher and soon faced financial disaster. He is described in one of the lawsuits connected with John Heminges’s estate as dying ‘a prisoner in the Fleet of little or no estate at all and many hundred pounds in debt’, and his burial is recorded in the register of St Bride, Fleet Street, on 26 December 1631, as that of ‘a prisoner in the Fleet’.[12]

Figure 5: Record of the burial of ‘Ralphe Meryfielde a prisoner in the ffleete’, 26 December 1631. Parish Register, St Bride, Fleet Street, London Metropolitan Archives, P69/BRI/A/004/MS06538.

Judith did not simply have a family connection with these activities. After Ralph’s death she appears to have both defended his right to property in the West Indies and to have profited from the trade in tobacco that he established. In 1636, Nicholas Burgh, who accompanied Warner and Merefield to St Christopher and was a co-author of the earliest account of the colonization of the island, claimed that 

[Judith] hath received for several parcels of tobacco sent unto her from the Island of Saint Christopher’s by Sir Thomas Warner, governor thereof, as belonging to the estate of the said Ralph Merryfield, several sums of money (that is to say) for tobacco sold to Master Armstrong £9 8s. 6d., for tobacco sent home to her by Captain Paul Thompson £37 15s., for tobacco sent her home in the Adventure £22 10s., for tobacco sent her home by Captain Cork £15 10s., for tobacco brought her home by Sir Thomas Warner £78, amounting in all to the sum of one hundred [and] sixty three pounds or thereabouts[.] [13]

These are substantial sums. According to the National Archives’ historical currency converter, it would have taken a skilled tradesman in the 1630s over six years to earn £163.

The Merefields’ trade in tobacco was indelibly linked to playhouses, where it was sold and consumed. In the early 1630s, the anti-theatrical writer William Prynne decries both actors and playgoers as ‘tavern, alehouse, tobacco-shop, [and] hot-water-house haunters’ (that is, drinkers of strong, distilled spirits), describing a ‘walk’ from ‘a playhouse to a tavern, to an alehouse, a tobacco-shop, or hot-water brothel-house; or from these unto a playhouse’, ‘where the pot, the can, the tobacco-pipe are always walking till the play be ended’. [14] It is not unlikely that some of the tobacco imported by and on behalf of Ralph and Judith Merefield found its way into the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses used by the King’s Men, creating a circuit in which the playhouse investments of men like Heminges fuelled colonial expansion and trade, the products of which were then sold in the playhouse.

Figure 6: Woodcut of a tobacco smoker from the title-page of The Downfall of Temporizing Poets (1641).

The activities of Frances Worth and Judith Merefield bring to the fore a set of transnational networks to which the early modern theatre was connected, pointing not only to London’s developing status as a colonial city but also to the place of its cultural institutions within circuits of colonial trade. Frances’s trade in scald heads would have facilitated her family’s investments in theatre and colonization, while the trade in tobacco from which Judith profited was one of the most tangible signs of theatre’s implication in colonial enterprise and exploitation. Theatre history was shaped not only by generations of assertive and entrepreneurial women but also by the imperialist project of early modern Britain. 

By tracing stories like those of Frances and Judith, Engendering the Stage seeks to expand our understanding of the roles that women have played in the history of the stage and also to acknowledge the sometimes troubling aspects of that history. 

***

If you are interested in knowing more about early modern women’s involvement in theatre finance, we recommend the following:

S.P. Cerasano, ‘Women as Theatrical Investors: Three Shareholders and the Second Fortune Playhouse’, in Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance, 1594-1998, ed. S.P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (London: Routledge, 1998), 87-94 [This essay examines the investments of Frances Juby, Margaret Grey and Mary Bryan in the second Fortune playhouse.]

Natasha Korda, Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) {This book discusses the activities of women as investors in theatrical enterprisers, lenders of money within theatrical circles and ‘gatherers’, that is, collectors of money in playhouses.]

The King’s Women 1594-1642 [This new blog by Meryl Faiers, Lucy Holehouse, Héloïse Sénéchal, Jodie Smith and Jennifer Moss Waghorn presents fresh research on the women connected with the King’s Men.]

For further reading on the early modern Caribbean and broader histories of colonization and enslavement, see Vanessa M. Holden and Jessica Parr, ‘Readings on the History of the Atlantic World’, in Black Perspectives.


***

Notes

[1] James Paget, Records of Harvey: in Extracts from the Journals of the Royal Hospital of St. Bartholomew (London: John Churchill, 1846), 36. I have put all quotations from early modern documents into modern spelling.

[2] Norman Moore, The History of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (London: Pearson, 1918), 230.

[3] Zachary Baggs v. Ellis and Frances Worth, Court of Chancery, 1653-4, The National Archives (TNA), C 7/402/32.

[4] Deposition of Charity Earles in Baggs v. Ellis and Worth, 30 July 1654, TNA, C 24/780/110. This document was first drawn to scholars’ attention by C.J. Sisson in ‘Shakespeare’s Helena and Dr William Harvey’, Essays and Studies 13 (1960), 1-20.

[5] Deposition of Ellis Worth, junior, 25 August 1654, TNA, C 24/780/110.

[6] E.A.J. Honigmann and Susan Brock, Playhouse Wills, 1558-1642 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 209; Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 98.

[7] Grant to Thomas Warner and Ralph Merefield, 13 September 1625, Privy Council Register, 27 March 1625-17 July 1626, TNA, PC 2/33, f. 103r.

[8] Joint and Several Answers in Thomas Kirle v. William Heminges, John Atkins and Judith Merefield, Court of Chancery, 1632, TNA, C 2/ChasI/K5/42. I first encountered this document in 2016 in a transcription among the papers of the early twentieth-century theatre historians Charles William Wallace and Hulda Berggren Wallace at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. I would like to thank the Huntington Library for awarding me a Francis Bacon Fellowship to look at these materials.

[9] I will write about this connection at greater length in forthcoming work on John Heminges and Henry Condell, and their role in shaping Shakespeare’s plays on page and stage.

[10] Signet and Other Warrants for the Privy Seal, August-November 1626, TNA, PSO 2/67; Privy Council Registers, 1 June 1627-28 February 1628, TNA, PC 2/36, f. 269.

[11] Peter Hausted, The Rival Friends (London, 1632), sig. C2r.

[12] Bill of complaint in Kirle v. Heminges, Atkins and Merefield; Parish Register, St Bride, Fleet Street, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), P69/BRI/A/004/MS06538.

[13] Answer of Nicholas Burgh in Arthur Knight v. Nicholas Burgh, John Atkins, Judith Merefield, et al., Court of Chancery, 1636-9, TNA, C 2/ChasI/K18/50.

[14] Histrio-Mastix (London, 1633), sig. 2T1v.

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.

SF Day 1: Introductions, Swordplay, and Scenes

We’re here at the end of our first day at the Stratford Festival Laboratory having worked through a variety of questions, possibilities, and avenues—and set up plenty more for the coming week.  This post provides a short reflection on our discussions and provides some background to the Stratford Festival Laboratory, as well as a brief summary of our opening  workshop activities.

Looking at the past tells us about how the future can be.

We began with introductions to the room and an outline of the rationale for this week’s conference and our time at the Stratford Lab.  Engendering the Stage is interested in thinking about diverse casting practices across classical drama—as informed by both historical practice and contemporary performance practice.  Peter Cockett and Melinda Gough laid some background to the intersections between professional performers and academic research that will form the crux of our week here.

Fundamentally these explorations are speculative.  Theatre history can sometimes risk giving the impression that scholarship generates evidence, evidence means facts, and facts = This is How Things Were in the Past.  Yet recent approaches have sought to underscore how academic understanding of the theatrical past, while necessarily foregrounding questions of evidence, is always necessarily speculative.  In seeking to erase the division between performance practices, rehearsal, and scholarship, these workshops are one site in which we can model a shared exploration of text, performance, and history: we’re all imagining the past.

In turn, as we settled into the room, our opening conversations about “Practice as Research” opened up a variety of approaches and prompted some queries about what performers in the room, working with pre-selected scenes, might be aiming to do: are we looking to imagine what decisions might have been made in performance historically? Do we want to see what the text would have looked like on a Renaissance stage? Or are we playing less reverently with texts, prioritising contemporary performance, or thinking about what works best for us here today?  Perhaps it’s really about the combination of all of that?  Certainly, many emphasised how thinking about historical practices can help inform the present and help to shape the future; something that came up repeatedly is how the period’s performance and casting practices show the past to be far less conservative than many of today’s popular assumptions about the “Renaissance stage” (and thereby less conservative than many practices in twenty-first century classical theatre).  By rediscovering elements of past performance and workshopping them, it’s possible we can (re)introduce myriad possibilities for constructive, healthy approaches to gender in performance—and rather than being innovations, those approaches are rooted in a long line of theatrical and cultural histories.

For the haudenosaunee on whose land Stratford, Ontario sits, there were 12 to 15 genders.

Our conversations and introductions made clear that these workshops are invested in a two-way, collaborative exchange between everybody in the room: their forms of expertise, their backgrounds, their identities. We’re joined by academics, actors, and actor-academics. We’re thinking about trans identity and female identity; about race and spirituality; about intersectionality.  Dramaturge Gein Wong’s warm-up led us through contemplations about our place in the room, our relationship with the world, and they helped bring to mind the complex histories of Indigenous, knowledge, colonialism, and healing attendant on the very land on which we’re sat.  I was particularly grateful for the optimism that characterised this warm-up: Gein spoke of a burgeoning Indigenous Renaissance occurring in and beyond Canada (celebrating, for instance, Jeremy Dutcher’s recent award of the Polaris prize); in the political climate of 2018, this sense of artistic momentum towards more diverse-positive futures are invaluable and urgent.

If the Laboratory were like a hospital, it would be a teaching hospital.

We’re lucky to be joined by Keira Loughran, the Associate Producer who runs the Lab and whose collaboration has made this week possible, and by our Stage Manager for the week, Renate Hanson.

Keira explained the history of Stratford Festival’s Laboratory and how it aligns with many of the aims of a project such as Engendering the Stage. It started out, at the suggestion of Festival director Antoni Cimolino and under Keira’s guidance, through attempts to diversify the canon of classical drama and to change ways of working in rehearsal and towards production.  Working with the Festival’s repertory actors on small scenes, topics, or themes relevant to classical drama, they provide the chance to workshop and experiment.  In particular, in the early years of the Lab, three central questions emerged: what is it like to be a woman in a classically-motivated company? What is it like to be a diverse actor in a classically-motivated company? What is it like to preserve one’s mental health in a classically-motivated company?

The Lab, in essence, provides the space for artists to be artists and to give time to the voices of performers—to allow questions and experiments in process.

Process not product.

As is central to the Lab, workshops are about process, rehearsal, and experimentation without working towards a final product or production.

This year’s various Lab sessions are designed to think further about how this way of working can be made more central to the Festival as a whole and indeed to the wider Canadian and international theatre industries.   For me, Keira’s descriptions of the Lab, the Festival’s amazing work to date, and their ambitions for its future emphasised how closely current concerns in the theatre industry are aligned with current questions of theatre history: whose history is theatre history?  What identities do the texts and practices of the past represent or offer?  How can different methodologies, working practices, and collaborations help recover erased or forgotten voices, or rediscover historic forms of power or agency—dramatic or extradramatic?

By way of reference to her own directorial experiences working on the Festival’s production of Comedy of Errors this year (about which there’s a dedicated panel dedicated on Monday’s events at McMaster), Keira noted that this year’s Lab fits in with wider trends towards bringing scholarly expertise into rehearsal rooms and closing the gap between performance and scholarship.

She puts off her cloak and draws her sword (The Roaring Girl, 3.1.65.1)

After these discussions, actors and performers drew their swords.  After all, all of the scenes being workshopped at the Lab involve elements of swordplay.

The Company’s Fight Captain Wayne Best led a masterclass on how to move with swords, how to draw, how to cut and thrust, to parry, to stand en garde.

The fighting workshop drew attention to how the tiniest details of gesture and movement have major significance—for other actors in a scene as well as for audiences.

When two armed actors move towards one another in a stage space, when do they decide to stop, draw, or simply move more cautiously? If one of them moves with a hand on their sword, is that a sign of martial confidence that may stop you in your tracks earlier? The trails of sheathed swords out of the back of an actor’s body affects the spaces you move through and the way you sit down; in turn, the movement of the draw and the placement of the feet—particularly the grounding of the body for balance and quick movement—call for continual readiness.  The ripeness is all.

It affects your whole character, whether you’re good or bad at it.

Pamela Brown mentioned that the presence of so many swords in a large space prompted the question: how would you feel in the middle of so many armed male characters without a sword?  Might this be an aspect of stagework that informs the verbal sparring characteristic of innamorata types from Italian commedia (in turn so influential on English and other European performance traditions)—one that affects stance and physical stature?

Numerous other intriguing questions came out of this brief exercise in swordplay that will no doubt resound and mutate throughout the week.  Wayne Best pointed (literally) to the close relationship between twenty-first-century health and safety concerns for an actor and the principles of self-defence: at the end of the day, you don’t want to get hurt.  These fights are in many ways a combination of historical imagination and material/bodily practicality: the same combination faced by Renaissance actors.  I also wondered how such swordplay might work in much smaller spaces or stages.  And what difference would Renaissance clothing make (for instance, an historically male-dressed character trailing a sword has to manage a turning circle, but so does a character in a wide skirt)?  Might such movements translate to other forms of dramatic exchange, and so might typically unarmed characters be influenced in other ways by the dramaturgy of stage fighting?

This fight workshop raised questions about the relationship between body, stance, gesture, and performance that will be central to questions across the week.  As one actor remarked, it crucially affects your physicality and offers an opportunity physically to embody power: they noted that the experience of workshopping these actions in 2018 provides opportunities for an element of powerful or aggressive physicality not normally afforded “traditional” female roles.

Let Shakespeare die.

Before we moved onto a first read-through of our various scenes for the week, Jamie Milay—a multimedia performance artist—treated us to a blistering provocation about Shakespeare, imploring: let him die. Milay urged us to admit, to allow, to provide voices beyond Shakespeare: genderqueer characters and playwrights from the past, contemporary trans voices, postcolonial perspectives, more.  Casting, cross-casting, and “all-female” productions are not enough.


Their poem raised questions about what exactly we’re doing in this room.  What about the wider forms of representation that might be occasioned by laying Shakespeare to rest and by admitting a much wider range of voices, parts, and pasts?

The day finished with read throughs of our different scenes for the week.

Here, we’re working from scratch and thinking about the basics of what’s going on in a scene: how it might work, what it might look like, what might specific things mean?  It’s a chance to build up and out from exchanges between acting practice, scholarship, history, print, and performance.  Indeed, this part of the afternoon’s work cues the beginning of an in-finite research and rehearsal process raising ideas about character and voice that will doubtless echo, develop, reshape over the next few days…

 

Callan Davies