In summer 2021 the ETS team met up with A Bit Lit’s Emma Whipday to discuss the work of Engendering the Stage. We talked about failed performance, the porousness of theatre, the politics of domestic performance, rope-dancing, tumblers, sword-dancing, performing masculinity, dynamic femininity, androgynous clothing, the famous ‘Jumping Judy’, coconut shies, forbidden students, The Roaring Girl, the Fortune playhouse, female shareholders, archival research in an age of Covid, practice-as-research, and more…
Many thanks to the A Bit Lit team for hosting us! You can check out the work they’re doing to create and share research and creative communities at https://abitlit.co/
As 2021 progresses, Engendering the Stage is reflecting on our past, present, and future, reflecting on the profound difficulties of the last 12 months and some hopeful – even exciting – work the project will be doing as we move forward.
To begin: as we have moved into the Leverhulme-funded arm of the Engendering the Stage project, begun in January 2020, we’re delighted to introduce (at long last!) the new members of our project team. We are thrilled to re-introduce Clare McManus (University of Roehampton) and Lucy Munro (King’s College London), co-investigators of the current project. We are also joined by new team members Mel Harrison (KCL) and Oliver Lewis (Roehampton). Mel’s project considers the intersections of disability and gender roles in representations of femininity in sixteenth-century performance, while Oliver’s research considers the idea of porous masculinity in early modern performance, particularly how dramatic texts experiment with the stability of masculine embodiment, exposing the spectre of immoderate and/or subversive forms of masculine identities that haunt early modern staged subjectivity. Erin Julian joined us as the project’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in March 2020, flying in from Canada only days before the first of the UK’s lockdowns.
In its current formation, the UK branch of ETS has shifted to archival research, working to expand, renew, and revitalise knowledge drawn from original documents connected to early modern theatre and performance – and through that work, opening up wider, more complex, and livelier models of early modern history and performance practice, opening further avenues for early modern women’s, queer, trans, and race studies. ETS of course, continues to be intrinsically connected with Performance as Research (PaR) work: an enriched understanding of the original texts and documents on which PaR is based can only lead to the strengthening of both archival and PaR work. Inevitably, our planned PaR event, a collaboration with Andy Kesson and Box Office Bears, “Ruff Play with Shakespeare”, was cancelled due to the UK’s first lockdown in response to COVID-19. 2020 was a testing time for theatre institutions and, in particular, performers – a test which continues under the present lockdown. With the rollout of vaccines internationally, however, we remain hopeful, and are committed to getting back to this work as soon as safely possible. In the meanwhile, the UK team is occupied looking for materials to bring to PaR scrutiny and to sharing our findings with the rest of the ETS team, Melinda Gough and Peter Cockett in Canada.
While Rome burned? Archival work in 2020
Getting an archival project up and running during a pandemic that closed the archives has been an ongoing challenge, necessitating changes to our working habits, research plan and methodologies (and, sadly, a pause from regular blogging). The obstacles we have faced in reorganising our research in response to shifting rules around on-site work, though, are nothing in comparison to the ongoing traumas of illness and bereavement, and the blighting of lives through racial oppression and economic neglect that came so sharply into view in 2020. But, in a year when the Higher Education sector in the UK seemed close to collapse under the weight of incautious marketisation, our commitment to our students and to the research that fuels university teaching brought the political and the professional emphatically together. We have always known that research-based learning trains students in the skills of critical thinking and the sifting of evidence; we know that it trains them to see their world more clearly, gives them tools of self-expression and expands the horizons of aspiration. But rarely have we understood how necessary those skills are and how much we need our students.
2020 taught us a lot about our students at Roehampton and King’s. Our students are frontline workers, key workers, parents and carers. They have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk from Covid-19 or disabilities that mean that the pandemic restrictions hit them harder than others. They are members of communities that are under-represented in UK Higher Education, who feel the full violence of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and who campaign for BLM and for a clear-sighted teaching of the UK’s history of imperialism and racial violence. Though they may not know it, our students were a constant source of support and sustaining hope for us throughout 2020. It will take a long time for us to forget their remarkable resilience and their commitment to their subjects, regardless of fashion.
2020 has taught us lessons about our own precariousness, but most of all it has taught us about our privilege. We have worked long hours, but we worked (mostly) at home rather than being forced onto public transport and into risky working practices. When the national lockdown ended in late June, two of the major London archival collections we planned to work with – The National Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives – were able to take measures to re-open their reading room services. We are incredibly grateful to these archives – as well as the Dulwich Archives, where we have located some delightful finds around the Fortune Theatre – for the astonishing efforts they made ensuring their buildings were safe. These archives offered us havens of normality, let us read early modern documents as our masks steamed up our glasses and our scarves kept the chill of the open windows away. We have felt lucky to be based in London and to be able to travel in relative safety to these national holdings, to make full use of our allotted weekly and monthly appointments at these archives despite shortened opening hours (provided, of course, that we won our ‘Tweedy Glastonbury’ tickets in the weekly Monday morning online race for a seat in TNA!). And – if this had to happen – we’re remarkably lucky that this happened when it did, when advances in digitisation and a commitment to open access research meant that we could go online to search through holdings and collections to see us through the see-sawing months of lockdown and shifting tiers.
What’s next for ETS?
While the pandemic has necessitated shifts in some of our research phases, it has also prompted deeper thinking about the methodologies underpinning early modern archival collections, digitisations, and access, refining what feels most urgent to our project. We’re planning three series of blogs over the coming months to share our unfolding reflections on methodology and praxis – as well as some of the delightful, fascinating riches of our archival findings. One series focuses on the problem of archival violence and inclusivity: Oliver and Erin will be thinking through some of the limitations of major manuscript and print documents and resources that have shaped early modern performance studies and our project, questions around digital curation and access, and – in conversation with experts working in and around curatorial and archival industries – how we reshape collections for more inclusive futures. Clare, Lucy, and Erin will be running a series where we speak with researchers at Roehampton and King’s, and colleagues working on collaborative early modern archival and PaR projects around the UK, about the challenges of – and strategies for – researching in a pandemic. Mel will be leading a series sharing moments from our work with REED (and, when archives re-open in future, original documents) that are phenomenologically rich, bringing to life the fascinating, funny, strange, and delightfully wide performance experience available in early modern England.
We hope you’ll continue to follow us in the coming months.
Our last post offered reflections upon a week of practice-as-research work at Stratford Festival Laboratory. This piece follows the same style, of collaging responses and thoughts about the project and its week of work last September , meditating upon potential uses, problems, and future applications with such work. These are issues the project continues to discuss; on 17 March 2018, for example, Melinda Gough will lead a roundtable at the Renaissance Society of America that picks up on some of the issues addressed here.
MAC TEST: I would love to adapt this sort of thing for my own work—in the classroom, and bring it to whatever conference I might be invited to: “let’s do this!” And I do bring—where I work at Boise State—I’ve brought actors in for week-long workshops putting on plays, and things like that, and now after this experience I feel I can say “hey, let’s do this workshop” and make it research-based. … I think the most amazing thing has been the circle group and people speaking their mind—“checking in,” as Gein identified it. That’s probably been the most impactful moment. It’s been useful as a scholar to hear the actors speak from their point of view; it’s very different to how we speak as scholars. With PaR you have the actors and the scholars together in that same place, speaking about the same issues, but from different perspectives.
ZOE HUDSON AND STEVE PURCELL. We very much valued the opportunity to observe and participate in this workshop. We were struck by the levels of trust and openness that the week had established between the participants, and the commitment that everyone involved brought to the work. Participants were thinking and working very deeply, rigorously examining both the texts and their own instincts and interpretations. The week had also fostered a mutually respectful dialogue between academics and practitioners. […] We would have been interested to hear a bit more about these rehearsal room shorthands and methods of communication; participants alluded to “Oops, ouch” and “checking in and checking out,” and we wondered whether it might be useful to produce a written summary of these sorts of guidelines which could be circulated to participants in future workshops. The main insight for us was that it is vital in projects like this that academic participants are seen, and see themselves, as part of the ensemble; it is equally important that the practitioners involved are respected as thinkers and researchers in their own rights and not merely as hired hands putting the academics’ ideas into practice. This was something […] that could be profitably disseminated to a wider audience.
ELLEN WELCH. I think the really helpful thing [about] thinking with performance is that performance I find very future oriented… One of the things Keira [Loughran] said very early in our session is that if a particular performance fails that’s okay because you learn things to bring to the next one; I think that’s a really helpful way for academics to think about our work too. I think there’s always this pressure to have a conclusion, at a really basic level, a conclusion to whatever essay or book that you’re writing, and those are the parts that are hardest for me to write, because it feels like closing down—it is a closing down. But that’s always the goal of the genres that we write in, to get to that conclusion. And I wonder if there’s a way we can think about our work more in this future-oriented way in which the ending is an opening towards other things, that you could try at another point in time. So it feels more processual, and less that I’m producing a product.
NATASHA KORDA. [Responding to Ellen] That’s really helpful. I also think about performance as future-oriented, and as a means of connecting history to the future in the present, which can sometimes involve what we loosely call archives. But how you construct your archive is itself performative, because you’re always doing it in the present moment: archives are not static things, they’re constantly being made and remade. There’s something really hopeful—sometimes not, sometimes destructive—but at least there’s the possibilityof something hopeful, in that remaking of the present, which is really exciting, I think. […] It’s not the case that people in the past were simply more repressive or patriarchal or racist than in the present. We still have all those things now, they took different forms in the past. That’s a real challenge in our present moment, both in performance and in teaching texts about sexuality and gender in the early modern period—there’s a lot of violence in these texts, violence that we often want to avoid in order to focus on the more hopeful aspects of the text. But it’s equally important–and powerful in performance–to connect the violence of the past to the present, to make its ongoing presence felt. I think, it’s better to think carefully about how to do that than simply to say that we shouldn’t perform these texts because they’re violent and they’re misogynist. There’s a lot of violence and misogyny in texts that are written now, in the present, and that are part of our performance culture, so I think it’s all a question of howyou stage them.
COLE ALVIS. One of the things I’ve come to learn… come to know, is that there were trans and non-binary people in Shakespeare and pre-Shakespeare times. And this notion that wherever we are right now is the pinnacle of where we’ve been trying to get is not true—or [because of] the way Canada talks about itself on the world’s stage it is likely to only see stereotypical versions of Indigenous peoples. The “status quo” does not represent everyone—and does not for the past either. And just because I didn’t learn about these worldviews in school, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t there.
PAMELA ALLEN BROWN. This idea of the “art” of playing is something I’ve been thinking about in my scholarship, but it’s great to hear people calling themselves “artist”—it’s a different word to “player” or “actor”, and I think words do matter, obviously, to us, so… […] That’s one thing that’s struck me. Also the division between scholars or academics or whatever we’re called and the players or actors is not really bridged. I take the point that what they [actors] think they’re here for is different from what we think we’re here for… but that can be a creative friction, and I think it has been. I just think we’re here for a very different reason than they are here… Frankly I’d love to call myself an artist too! The PaR model itself makes me envy actors who can justify doing that, and forces us as scholars to be modest and take a back seat. Not sure that’s entirely good in an increasingly anti-intellectual world, however. And while I learned and felt a ton more than at other conferences, I did get the message that working scholars should learn from actors working, but vice versa, not so much. Among other points, the impact of the Renaissance diva, a woman artist, got lost in the shuffle, ironically enough… How might the group improve actor/scholar interplay in the future?
ERIN JULIAN. When the question was raised about what we’re trying to do here, I felt a little bit uncomfortable at the fact that the actors seemed to have this idea that they’re doing something for us… and I would like to think more about how we might do things for them. And one of the things we might do is give them tools for doing this work that they’re often trying to do now—trying to explore these questions about gender, trying to explore these questions about race, on a contemporary stage. That can be risky work. So I was just noticing that there were a few moments where the actors were asking ‘what are we doing for you?’—I’d like to see us thinking about what we’re doing for them…
ELIZABETH CRUZ PETERSEN. [I found it really valuable] to have artists like [Gein Wong and Emma Frankland] come and work with us through physical exercises that prepare us to collaborate with the actors, [including] exercises on gender awareness and on embodiment so we can get a sense of what the actors go through, as far as training and warming up before a performance. This is especially important to me since my scholarly work focuses on somaesthetics, which is all about the unified body and mind, its complete embodiment.
CLARE McMANUS. One of the really clear results of this [workshop] is that this work pushes us to articulate our methodologies and to do that responsibly. That is [something] that is shared with other disciplines, editorial disciplines: you know [in] editing, for instance, very clearly, [that] you have to tell the reader what your methodology is. And so this morning we did a call-in/check-in to make sure everybody actually understood where we were all coming from. And actors’ voices around the table have really pushed us to really articulate why it is that we are here. And I think that fundamentally is very, very important. And so one of the direct results of this is sending us back to our methodologies and making sure that we have a clear and appropriate articulation of whatever that may be.
ROBERTA BARKER. One thing that hit me yesterday was what must have been the huge contrast between Richard Burbage and [the actor who] we think [was] his apprentice, Richard Robinson (who I was working on), when they possibly created the roles of Amintor and Aspatia [in The Maid’s Tragedy]—what that working process was between a master actor and his apprentice (who perhaps was 13 or 14 years old), and how Keira [Loughran], as contemporary director, and Marcus [Nance], and Logan [Brideau], as contemporary master actor and 14-year old emerging actor—the process through which the three of them were working on the scene we were working on; what’s shared there and what’s not shared there. And what’s uncomfortable for us that was completely cool in 1611—and perhaps what was uncomfortable in 1611 that we’re totally cool with today. So I think the way that that encounter—that’s not always a comfortable encounter between the early modern text and this history of performance, that we’re trying in some way to recover and figure out (because we don’t have all these documents and all this evidence that we have from later centuries); the relationship between that history and that journey of discovery that a lot of us are on as scholars, and the journey that one goes on with actors with these texts: the way they rub up against each other can be so […] productive.
This post is going to be a very brief coda to the week’s blog thoughts (Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4), not least because the emphasis of the week has been about ways forward and absence of final products… So here’s more research-in-process…
On Saturday, reunited with the Company actors, we workshopped scenes in different ways and tried new avenues: switching performers for roles (for instance, Moll and Laxton); moving between an aggressive Clara crying “ran-tan-tan,” to a Clara hampered by a large dress fuming about her vestments…
… to working multiple ways of Evadne, Aspatia, and Amintor moving on stage (for instance, how does physical aggression and reactive horror work between an adult and a younger, teenage actor?).
The group working on The Lieutenant Nun explained how important it can be to return to ground zero on a scene, dialling back from extremes of character portrayal (including in gendered terms) towards a nuanced middle ground. Their observations about how to negotiate subtlety when working over a period of several days with these characters raises the issue of “types” in the period’s drama (not between extremes of 1 and 10, as they put it, but in the “human middle”). How might performers find within sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European dramatic characters a more three-dimensional, rounded, and embodied persona—one that allows them to bring their own lived experience into the role—even when the text contains cues for broad or stereotypical extremes?
We finished the day thinking about what we can take forward from the week in future PaR work and its dissemination and wider impacts on the theatre industry in and beyond Stratford and Canada. These are huge topics that will be the subject of future bulletins from this project, on this site and elsewhere.
We’ll also have coming up video footage, interviews with scholars and actors, and some further material on gender and performance in workshop in the coming days, as well as content arising from Monday’s events at McMaster (24 September 2018)…