Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Feats of Activity and the Tragic Stage

by Clare McManus

The skilled boy-actresses of Jacobean England were central to theatrical representation in an era when commercial theatre is often said to be dominated by male performers. But this blog offers new contexts for understanding the boy-actress of Shakespeare, Webster, Jonson and others by contrasting what we can glean about their practice in a specific genre, namely tragedy, against the dynamic, agile, muscular enactment of femininity by women performing ‘feats of activity’, the display of the extraordinarily skilled body. In particular, it deals with the women who danced on the ropes in inn-yards, at court and perhaps also in playhouses.

The King’s Men were chief among the London playing companies of the early seventeenth century, performing at the Globe, court and the Blackfriars, and they are strongly associated with two particular playwrights, Shakespeare and Fletcher. In their first decade, their tragic repertory – from Othello (1602-4) to The Duchess of Malfi (1613) – is packed with feminine corpses, skulls, statues and monuments. Such tropes have long been said to emphasise stasis and present an extreme monumentalisation and spectacular display of the body of the boy-actress who played leading female roles.  This observation may be a commonplace in scholarship, but what if these tropes are not simply a default response to patriarchy – not merely what happens to ideas of femininity and the feminine body under patriarchy – but are in fact reactions to other kinds of femininity enacted by other kinds of players, both elsewhere and inside the playhouses? 

This blog examines very different ‘feats of activity’, exploring female rope dancers across England and Europe. Though these depictions of femininity by different kinds of player exist on a spectrum of skilled physical labour, the insistent monumentalisation of the King’s Men’s tragic boy-actress suggests that, for this company at least, such an emphasis may in part be an act of emulation and opposition, a shaping of what happens on the commercial stages of the playing companies against other kinds of players. 

*          *          *

For early moderns, rope is a cheap, readily available material from which to create a playing space. Dancing on the rope, women enact a vertiginous femininity, occupying the vertical in a way usually reserved for deities in court masques or indoor playhouse performance. For rope-dancers, the slack rope around which they spin, the tight rope on which they jump and walk, the rope on which they screech down from the tops of towers, with fireworks strapped to their bodies is a productively simple kit that can be speedily set up and broken down.

‘A Turkish man walking a tightrope that is stretched between the campanile of St Marks in Venice and a mooring pad with winch’; c.1520-1600 (British Museum 1878,0713.4161) © Trustees of the British Museum.

Like the simple trestle stage with which Italian commedia troupe toured Europe, setting it up and breaking it down when needed, rope offers touring performers a flexible, mobile playing space in partial contrast to the institutionalised, architectural solidity and groundedness of the built or adapted playhouse – though, as Before Shakespeare has shown us, that playhouse is itself contested, often genuinely wobbly and it relied on rope for its construction and workings. Rope is a place of physical spectacle, akin to a ship’s rigging:

Palestra Noribergensis, by Peter Troschel after Johan Andreas Graff (1651): British Museum 1880,0710.512. © Trustees of the British Museum.

This image of feats of activity and rope-dancing in the fechthaus in Nuremburg from the 1650s makes sense to me of Shakespeare’s Ariel as an aerialist who ‘flamed amazement’ around the wrecked ship. Unlike the trestle stage, however, the rope is attenuated, linear and it has a distinct, crucial trajectory. 

The rope fully comes into being as a playing space with the performer’s first step out onto it. This requires not only a crossing, but also – appallingly for those of us with vertigo – a return and a dallying. Stephen Connor writes that

the most characteristic gesture of the wire-walker is, once they have apparently completed their walk, to go back out on the wire  . . .  the wire-walker aims to occupy rather than merely to penetrate space,  . . .  to thicken the infinitesimally thin itinerary of the wire into a habitat.  . . . .  . . . The dallying business of the wire-walker is to insinuate a discourse – from dis-currere, to run back and forth – with the wire.[1]  

The dancer’s return transforms the rope from a site of risk alone into a site of play and a suspension of both time and jeopardy. The rope is a stripped down, attenuated performance space activated by what Evelyn Tribble, via Tim Ingold, calls the ‘animacy’ of the gendered rope-dancing body.[2]

Rope-dancing came in several forms. If the rope was slack, cross-dressed women spun and swung around it: a black female fair booth performer from the very early eighteenth century is described as playing 

at swing-swang with a rope . . . hanging sometimes by a hand, sometimes by a leg, and sometimes by her toes.[3]

If the rope was tight, women walked, danced and leapt across it, either cross-dressed

Marcellus Laroon, The Cryes of the Citie of London (1711) © Trustees of the British Museum.

or

Adriaenvan de Venne, Tafereelvan de Belacchende Werelt(Hague, 1635) © Trustees of the British Museum.

wearing dresses supported in the vertical axis by corsets, sometimes with brays or breeches beneath. The trope of the leering Jack Pudding or simian pointing grossly up at the woman’s body becomes deeply associated with women’s enactment of this agile, flexible, risky and explosively powerful femininity which is always also an erotic exposure. 

Rope-dancing also seemed to be almost everywhere. A Bristol playbill from the early 1630s advertises, alongside a vaulting Irish boy of eight, ‘raredancing on the / Ropes, Acted by his Majesties / servants’ and includes ‘one Mayd / of fifteene years of age, and another / Girl of foure years of age [who] doe dance on / the lowe Rope’ and the younger of the two will go on to ‘turne on the Stage’. John Astington has connected the bill to the troupe led by William Vincent (aka the original Hocus Pocus) and it confidently advertises the presence of these girls – King’s Servants nonetheless and on a ‘stage’.[4]This fits the evidence for the widespread playing of feats of activity inside playhouses, as attested to by R.A. Foakes’ work on the Swan, the Hope contract of 1613 and onwards into the Red Bull during the Commonwealth and Protectorate. So, much as rope-dancing offered cover for stage-plays during the mid-seventeenth century, when plays were effectively outlawed, it could do so not because it came into the playhouses from the cold but precisely because it was already there. Richard Preiss has pointed out that plays were framed and cut across by clowning improvisation, entre-act music or interludes, epilogues and jigs, and he argues that ‘the theatrical program consisted of a medley of interstitial, interactive entertainments’ (9) – this is the play as polyvocal event.[5]In 1636, five years or so after their Bristol performance, Vincent’s troupe is recorded as paying Herbert for a license to perform in the Fortune, so we cannot easily exclude the playhouses from the list of places where the girls of this troupe might have performed. 

Another famous troupe of tumblers and rope-dancers, the Peadles, operated for about forty years from the turn of the seventeenth century and was led during the 1630s by Sisley Peadle. Tumbling troupes were organised around familial structures, and tumblers were also recorded as members of playing companies, from the Elizabethan rope-dancers of the ‘Queenes players’ in Bridgnorth in the 1590s to Abraham Peadle at the Fortune in the 1620s as a member of the Palsgrave’s Men. And, as Abraham’s name, the Irish boy in Bristol and the black rope-dancer in Southwark Fair suggest, this performance mode is deeply intertwined with racialised, othered identities, like the 16th-century Turkish rope-walkers in Venice. Marketable personas are also adopted: there are so-called Turkish rope-dancers who adopt the name but no visual signifiers of ‘Turkishness’ and a Turk –called ‘the Albion Blackamoor’ – dancing on the ropes in the Red Bull in the 1650s turns out not to be a Turk at all but a black Londoner. It’s a moment that reads like The Life of Brianand which undermines an early modern racist commonplace by setting it next to neighbourliness, community and familiarity. An ‘old Matron’ watching the Turk dance on the rope declares, ‘Sure, if he be not the Devil, the Devil begot him’; but she elicits this response: 

no truly Neighbor, quoth another Woman, I knowhim, as well as a Beggar knows his dish; hee is a Black-fryers Water-man, and his Mother is living on the Bank-side, and as I have often heard her say, Her son learnt this Art, when he was a Sea-boy, only was a little since taught some Pretty Tricks by a Jack-pudding neer Long-Lane.[6]

This account may well simply be part of the mid-century discourse of satire and newsprint and may well not be trustworthy. That said, however, the decision to reframe a seemingly exotic performer by claiming his status as a black Londoner as quotidian and unexceptional is a revealing rhetorical move. 

*          *          *

At this point, it’s probably important to acknowledge that there don’t seem to be any examples of rope-dancing in any pre-Protectorate plays. But if we have to wait for Davenant’s The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru(1658) for the first example of rope-dancing in a scripted performance, then rather than seeking the activity in the playtext, its absence instead pushes us to consider how the activity informs playing itself and the practice of the boy-actress in particular. This, like the fragmentation of the performance event inside the playhouse also breaks down the hierarchy of tragic heroine and rope-dancer. It suggests that the latter is not superfluous to or lower than the other; that she is not straining to become the other but may, in fact, be a condition for the other. 

How are we to make the move from rope-dancing into canonical drama? One way is to take seriously the performance of bodily skill and the risks that it posed to safety and bodily integrity. The text-free performance of the rope-dancer and the histrionics of the early modern player are connected by the skilful overcoming of risk. The jeopardy of the rope-dancer as she walks, leaps or swings from the tight- or slack-rope italicises the jeopardy involved in every display of acting skill, from Emilia labouring to unpin Desdemona within the duration of the Willow song, to Hermione’s virtuoso control of breath and muscle before her coup de thêatrein The Winter’s Tale(5.3). What’s more, the girl of four who ‘doth turn on the Stage’ in Bristol is a tumbler, a child of bodily turning, whose profession retains its association with other feminine turners. Both Shakespeare’s ‘Triple-turned whore’ Cleopatra (4.12.13) and Fletcher’s Quisara who ‘turns, for millions!’ (3.1.239), are protean but, in defining their hypertheatricality, we might also consider the other side of this performative metaphor, the corporeal act of turning.

*          *          *

One of the ideological successes of the first decade or so of Jacobean tragedies is the elision of the enskilled, labouring body required for the representation of femininity – crucially, those bodies are those of both the boy-actress andthe female rope-dancer and player. By looking across early modern performance culture, by considering its intersections and its distribution of skills across gender boundaries, we can begin to rethink this. The tragic boy-actress is one representative of early modern femininity, one who over-goes and resists the enactment of femininity as it was done otherwise and elsewhere.


[1]Steven Connor, ‘Man is a Rope’, in Catherine Yass Highwire, writings by Francis McKee, Steven Connor (ArtAngel: Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art, 2008), no pagination. 

[2]Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (London: Bloomsbury, Arden Shakespeare, 2017), p. 24. 

[3]Edward Ward, The London Spy (4thedition, 1709), p. 185. 

[4]John Astington, ‘Trade, taverns, and Touring Players in Seventeenth-Century Bristol’, Theatre Notebook 71:3 (2017), 161-168. 

[5]Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 9. 

[6]Mercurius Fumigosus (30 August-6 September, 1654), p. 126. 

In Conversation with Keira Loughran

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

Stratford Festival Laboratory Engendering the Stage Performers on the last day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On documentation and dissemination of “process”:

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

On Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA):

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

 

Let Shakespeare Die

by Jamie Milay/Sah Milay

When will we lay Shakespeare to rest.
When he gives his last breath,
maybe then there will be space
For me to offer my own.

Give me.
Literally.
Anything.
Else.

But another director putting me on stage to recite text written for a white male body. Having those words bounce off my queer black feminine body. No significance or alteration just lazily leaving it to the imagination. “The words will do all the work”.

Give me.
Literally.
Anything.
Else.

Other than another adaptation of shakespearean text that believes it’s revolutionary because they’ve reversed the genders.
Because there are only two genders.
Or an all female cast because having women perform the roles of classical kings is more inspiring than writing strong contemporary Queens.

Give me literally anything else.

But another strong female role that includes a handful of scenes and a tragic death after being driven to romantic insanity. Give me anything but queering up that story and giving me a tragic queer death and romantic insanity. Visual representation is not enough.

Give me.
Literally.
Anyone.
Else.

But Shakespeare.

Give me  the work of a Straight Black Quebecois transwoman from the 2010’s.
Give me the work of a  Queer Non-binary Latinx playwright from the 1800’s
Give me the work of an Asexual Genderqueer Egyptian performer from the 60’s.
Give me the work of a Bisexual Transman from the 1500’s.
Give me the work of a Disabled Chinese-Cuban poet from the 70’s.
Give me the work of a Filipina playwright before her country was colonized.
Give me the work of a Blackfoot Woman before her country was colonized.
Give me the work of  Indigenous people around the globe before their countries were colonized.
Before their art forms were deemed lesser. Before performance and community and ritual  had to be defined as theatre.

. . .

Give me a Queer Nonbinary Congolese performer playing a role for a Queer Nonbinary Congolose performer.
Give them a thousand more roles written for a Queer Nonbinary Congolese performer.
Give them a thousand more roles that don’t depend on Queer Nonbinary Congolese suffering or archaic, outsider representations of their identity.
Give them a thousand more roles that don’t ignore their Queer Nonbinary Congolese  existence in favour of “keeping it relatable”.
And then pay them.

. . .

With money.

Give me a complexity of experiences.
Give me an abundance of narratives and characters to become.
Teach me about more than just shakespeare in school.
Stop making it seem like he is the only one who existed.
I want somebody else’s name on my tongue when asked about classical theatre.
Anyone else’s work on my mind when someone says the word theatre.
I want to see diverse faces on a stage that is telling a diverse story.
Not an unacknowledged rainbow of bodies being stuffed into binaries
Except for when marketing the show.
Casting them is not enough.
Presenting the text as is,  is not enough.
I want to see shakespeare
being torn to bits.
Like actually torn to bits.
Reassembled.
Then destroyed again.
Translated.
Torn.
And then torn again.
I want the language destroyed and made relevant again.
Because no one fucking understands unless they’re an academic.
I want shakespeare to return back to its orgins.
Back to the dirty places where anyone can access him.
Shakespeare was not for the elite
Yet here we are, the elite, discussing.
The privilege of discussing.
I am ready for other voices to be incorporated into the conversation.
Of what is Classic and what is Theatre and who is Worthy of being Included.
and Seen.
Spoken about.
Remembered.
Performed.
Or
I want shakespeare to stop.
shakespeare is dead.
So let him die.
And give us.
Literally.
Anyone.
Else.

SF Day 3: Scenework, Walking, and Sharing

Our third day was a mixture of exploratory discussion and play—in its various forms.  I feel it’s important to reiterate the way that the workshops have been structured so as to enable time and energy for open conversation.  We’ve been beginning (and ending) with “check-ins,” which give everybody space to articulate their thoughts and share what’s on their mind.  Gein Wong has led these processes and their modelling of the practice has helped create a room in which openness and warmth have felt like default views.  This method has been instrumental in creating an open and protected space that enables generosity and allows for vulnerability for everybody in the room, while keeping us all in constant dialogue.  Our opening check-ins then move into open, fluid discussions about the research at hand, the scholarship underpinning and responding to the performance workshops, and the impetus for the afternoon’s work.

This way of “working” might seem like an addendum or “warm-up” to the performance workshopping, but as almost everybody has remarked, it’s in fact integral to the explorative nature of the play that “practice-as-research/PaR” or workshopping generally is about: this is the process; this is the learning.  Here’s a call for more spaces, more default personal and work environments, that are able to bring together personal state of mind, openness, and dialogue as the fundamental basis for what we do and how we do it.

What is it that we’re doing here?

In discussing the prompts for today’s workshopping, discussion moved onto some of the important and often unaddressed questions about work with classical texts.  Do we need to recover plays entrenched with misogyny, homophobia, and racism?  How much should we resist and rewrite or even discard texts that do not work for us today?  These are crucial questions that extend to the whole period Jamie Milay’s call to bury Shakespeare on Day 1.  As some participants observed, these texts and the structures they come out of also contain many of the complexities and oppressions still at work today; our world is also entrenched with misogyny, homophobia, and racism, and thinking about the nuances within the plays we’re looking at this week are also ways of negotiating the present.

The past’s not dead. It’s not even past.

Moreover, as Emma Frankland articulated (better than I can paraphrase here) these texts also offer histories that are often marginalised or erased—trans histories, racial histories, LGBTQ histories, more.  The work we’re doing in these workshops thinks about how these histories can be discovered or represented in combination with contemporary experience—negotiating, in other words, the way texts-in-performance necessarily bring together past and present.  For instance, we thought about what it might mean to have queer or genderqueer characters explicitly assert their identity within a text.  But we also talked about what it means when these individuals in plays are framed as figures of comedic fun.  This sense of tone is crucial to questions of representation.  Pamela Allen Brown pointed out that humour itself can be a powerful form of agency and is not necessarily a sense of ridicule.  Finding a line between pathos and jest is an important ongoing question for exploring the complex identities of these dramatic characters.

I am Aspatia yet.

Thinking further about these ideas of identity and respect for the characters in these texts, Roberta Barker observed how powerful the line “I am Aspatia yet” in The Maid’s Tragedy can be when viewed—as that group has been exploring—from a genderqueer perspective.  The Maid’s Tragedy group has been thinking about the possible gender non-comforming identity of Aspatia, and Roberta noted that the workshopping and the performance research of the actor exploring Aspatia presents a character who has throughout the play had to respond to other people’s manipulation of their selfhood (has Aspatia been gaslit throughout the play?); here, they assert their sense, as Roberta put it, of “I understand who I am”: I am Aspatia yet.

I’d print it in text-letters.

Another thing that came up around the table in the morning was discussion of editing and translating practices.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, Edward “Mac” Test is working on an ongoing translation of The Lieutenant Nun and so his edited scene, excitingly, remains in flux in the room (*live editing klaxon*).  Natasha Korda is also in the midst of editing Twelfth Night.  These plays contain both cross-dressing and trans characters and both deal with the complexity of gender identity.

When will we have a trans edition of an early modern play?  

Discussion arose, springing out of questions of feminine/masculine first-person endings in Romance languages such as Spanish, about how to manage gender-identifying speech in translation, as well as how editing texts more broadly can take account of genderqueerness.  As Natasha pointedly observed, there is some history and scholarship on feminist editing practices but almost nothing on trans editing theory.  One important part of this process is to bring trans voices and expertise into the process of editing.  This particular question of editing points more broadly to how scholarship can develop more inclusive methodologies, and beyond collaborative process these issues are yet another example of why a more diverse academy—including trans editors—is urgent and important.

Let this strange thing walk, stand, or sit…
(RG 1.1.254)

When we got onto our feet, we were led in another movement workshop by Peter Cockett.  This involved thinking about descriptions of gendered gait in early modern England, while also being attuned to the fact that such descriptions—as gleaned from plays, conduct manuals, and various other print descriptions—are open and in no way witnesses to early modern walking.  At the same time, we were led to think about different styles of walking: walking on toes or walking on heels.  Natasha Korda explained how shoe technology shifted very quickly in the early modern period and in the period around the late sixteenth century, the time in which the heel became a new standard part of a shoe.  The development of the heel shifted the way that people walked, from walking on toes (with flat-soled, “sock”-style shoes of the medieval period) to walking on heels in more robust shoes…

Rijksmuseum (https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/BK-NM-5580-B)

Medieval Design (http://www.medievaldesign.com/eng-prodotti.asp?form_chiave=24)

We thought about how we moved around the space, on toes, holding carriage smoothly (again channelling the likes of Castiglione’s Courtier and its advice on decorum).  That’s astonishing when considering the chopines that crop up, for instance, in The Lieutenant Nun: as Mac put it, imagine walking in these!:

Chopines (these are platform-style heel shoes that come up in several of the plays in these workshop): https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/04/15/chopines-renaissance-platform-shoes-popularly-worn-in-venice-by-both-courtesans-and-patrician-women/

Chopines (these are platform-style heel shoes that come up in several of the plays in these workshop): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/these-chopines-werent-made-for-walking/

We were also encouraged, as per Clare McManus’s reminder, to be mindful of the fact that there were not strictly gendered ways of walking, comportment, or carriage—particularly when we look at the period’s history not through Castiglione’s court life but through vast and varied performance histories.  These include, for instance, female tightrope walkers and tumblers who do not necessarily wear restrictive clothing that forces a particular gait or a particular way of holding oneself.

Our walking exercise thereby opened up ways of shifting between decorums and between movements that are multigendered.  We went into a catwalk-style “walk-off” in a circle, bringing in two different characters from the plays and asking them to walk at and alongside each other: how do relationships work when viewed through carriage and walk?  This was an astonishing exercise in physical ingenuity and play with power.  Cole Alvis playing (or “walking”) a darting and slinking Aspatia moving around a stately and solid Amintor (Marcus Nance) was a virtuoso double-act in movement that showed how power inheres in both strong, direct, upright stance and gait as well as in shorter-stride, winding, indirect movement.  This extends, too, to technologies involved in walking—not only the shoe but the sword, which can be held as Amintor showed forcefully at one’s side with a hand, or offered like Aspatia in snaking movements to one’s counterpart in a display of comic self-sacrifice that tellingly held equal theatrical force…

These exercises therefore begged the question: what other ways might there be for thinking about character identity beyond verbal articulation?  How can an actor find ways of performing an identity—including working with gestures and walks that are a part of our own way of being in the world—without presenting as an entirely different (and sometimes problematic) identity that might on the surface seem part of characters from classical texts?  How can we find ways to bring oneself into performance while also playing to, with, and against the various historical modes of decorum that helped produce a playtext?  In suggesting that there are multiple decorums available to early modern performers and thinking about how they might translate to performance skills today, this aspect of our workshop struck me as just one particularly powerful example of how theatre history and performance can combine to offer a wealth of performance techniques that are at once true to contemporary subjectivities and in dialogue with historical experience.

We finished the day by exploring our scenes further and offering the opportunity for sharing.  It feels important to end this post by underscoring the centrality of process, of ongoing development and experimentation, to these workshops.  It is in discovering and testing that we can find possibilities for future practice and glimpses of both scholarly and performance insights.  Acknowledging the disjunction of finishing a blog for Engendering the Stage with… Shakespeare: the play‘s the thing…

 

Callan Davies

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