Tag Archives: research

Diverse Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe: Part 1

This is the first of a mini-series of blogs reflecting on the Diverse Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe programme led by myself and Mel in November 2021, which offered training sessions on the diversity of the early modern period to Globe Education Practitioners and volunteer tour guides at Shakespeare’s Globe. With the guidance of our external consultant Dr Onyeka Nubia (University of Nottingham) and Dr Will Tosh (Head of Research at Shakespeare’s Globe) we devised and ran four sessions over two weeks. The sessions aimed to equip staff with the information and skills to educate the public and educational groups that visit the Globe about the diversity of early English modern society. By working with the Globe’s guides and education practitioners, we aim to disseminate our materials with a large audience over a long period of time.

We divided the training workshops into two specific sessions. One session considered the diverse gendered and disabled bodies of early modern performers in the period, while the other session focused on early modern ideas of racemaking (i.e. the creation of ideas of race, ethnicity, and identity), evidence of performers of colour in the period, and how these tropes are embedded in or resisted by popular culture today. Each session was designed to support the organisation’s ‘one Globe’ approach to their anti-racist commitments, which seeks to empower all colleagues to inform the communities visiting the Globe, to counter any misinformation about the period and so to disseminate an inclusive understanding of the diversity present within the Shakespearean period.

In addition to equipping participants with the intersectional knowledge to contextualise early modern performance cultures, the sessions also provided a ‘toolbox’ to support attendees to reappraise the Shakespearean texts that we think we know inside out. We asked participants to rethink how markers of difference were achieved in early modern performance – such as how Black or disabled characters were depicted on the Shakespearean stage – while exploring the pervasive ways in which systems of oppression are so deeply embedded in material from the period that they might be rendered invisible. Drawing on rich fields of scholarship, the sessions dedicated time to identify specific terminology that signposts misogynistic, ableist, and racist attitudes, exploring how these references might be connected to wider networks of early modern culture. There’s nothing harder for an academic than answering a seemingly simple question from a member of the public: these questions send us back to first principles and push us to think and communicate more clearly than any other. Because of this, the training sessions aimed to support Globe staff answer these kinds of open, general questions from the enthusiastic publics who visit their building or take their classes and who are seeking to understand the Shakespearean period more deeply. Some of these overarching questions included:

• Did women perform in early modern England?
• Were there performers of colour on the early modern stage?
• What value is there in producing/performing/studying texts that include problematic content?
• What methods best allow us to negotiate this content in a meaningful way without repeating the violence of the past?
• Was Shakespeare racist?

We found these questions, some intentionally provocative, very useful to draw out conversation, find nuance and demonstrate how complex lived experiences can be rendered (in)visible on both page and stage. While these conversations might be difficult or uncomfortable, they encourage people to reflect not only on their own relationship with these well-known plays but also their position in the present world. We intended to create a safe space for volunteers and education practitioners to build the confidence to contribute and lead these discussions at the Globe. However, in building and running the sessions, we encountered a similar sense of self-reflection. While preparing the sessions, we found questions arising about curation. Providing an overview of any marginalised community in history can be daunting and challenging, with limited time to discuss extant archival records, textual clues, and visual material such as artwork or emblems. While these sources contribute to a rich tapestry of lived experiences and communities, almost inevitably, we would never be able to talk about every account or voice. Building the sessions, we spent time thinking about what materials we include and exclude, as well as how these curatorial decisions might impact the shape of the sessions and thus, the breadth of diversity presented to attendees. How do we ensure we do justice to the lives often rendered invisible through hostile archival practises? How do we recover the humanity that historically has been diminished or queried?

This three-part series will respond to these questions, as we rethink diversity in Shakespeare and beyond. In the following two entries, Mel and I will each detail the content of our respective sessions. This includes the archival evidence demonstrating female, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming performers across a range of cultures of performance in England; how the popular early modern maxim ‘to wash an Ethiop’ has permeated and resurfaced in present-day popular culture; critically appraising a taxonomy of terms that might refer to diverse, and often marginalised identities in the early modern period. In doing so, the series will act as an experiential reflection to consider how notions of diversity operate in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and how we receive or respond to these representations today.

The Diverse Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe project was made possible by funding from the Southlands Methodist Trust (SMT). This public engagement project called on the research findings of Engendering the Stage, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Special thanks must go to Dr Onyeka Nubia at the University of Nottingham and Dr Will Tosh at Shakespeare’s Globe for supporting this project and so generously sharing their time and expertise. Thank you to Shakespeare’s Globe staff and volunteers, whose kind welcome and thoughtful participation made for excellent discussions. We look forward to sharing more about the work from this project on this blog in the coming weeks!

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.

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.

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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?