An Update

Regretfully, our planned production project, ‘A Journey with Jonson’, will no longer be taking place this November.  There is a range of reasons for this, and in conjunction with the decision to initially postpone this project, HIDden Theatre shall be taking a hiatus until the new year.

A factor in this situation has been our limited core team, both in terms of staff numbers and areas of expertise.  We still really believe in our mission statement: HIDden Theatre aims to enrich the lives of audience members and creative participants through stories from and about the past; and will return to working towards it in 2017.  In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas to help us move forward (both practically and creatively) we welcome any contributions, equally if you have no specific thoughts but would like to get involved and bring some new views and enthusiasm to the table please feel free to get in touch via our contact form on the About Us page.

A Binary Curiosity: Historic versus Modern Drama

Following discussions we have often had at some length at HIDden Theatre about what constitutes Historic/Historical or Modern Drama and what we should be focussing on as a company, we came across an article in Durham University’s student newspaper, Palatinate, entitled ‘The Battle of the Eras‘. This inspired our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, to write about some of her views on the issues raised, spurred on by specific points raised in the article. The pros and cons of working with any particular era of drama have been debated repeatedly in our company and we are certain we have not reached a definitively correct answer – we suspect both contributors to the referenced article, as well as our Laura, have some thoughts which are more true than others and hope putting them out in the open will encourage more people to consider their own views and maybe foster further dramatic creativity. We should also clarify that at HIDden we generally use the term ‘historic’ to refer to works from the past and ‘historical’ for drama about the past.

Humans like to see things in opposition. We often view the world in binary terms: black and white, male and female, old and new. We spill crayon on worksheets in grade school showing off our ability to master the concept of opposites. And then we get older, and realise that they almost never exist, that most things are somewhere between; a mixture, a muddle.

This is part of the reason we’ve spent such a long time coming to a solid definition of what we do at HIDden. What defines “historic” theatre, exactly? Surely the obvious answer is, “It’s not modern.” Well, modern is, of course, subject to change (Shakespeare was modern, once), but even if we can agree that modern is “right now”, it’s still not a cut-and-dried answer. This means that we tend to take a flexible attitude toward the plays we do, and the ways we approach them.

All of this is why I was so interested to read an article debating the merits of historic drama versus modern. George Breare, president of Durham University Classical Theatre, argues for the reasons why he finds historic drama particularly compelling; while Alex Prescot, president of Battered Soul Theatre, makes a case for modern theatre. Although their points are not directly parallel to one another, each make points that are entirely valid, as well as some I’d question. Since HIDden is trying to find a path that doesn’t hew to either extreme, I wanted to sit down and consider their arguments, and what they mean from a third perspective.

Curiously, both seem to have the perception that the other type of theatre is the predominant one. I think part of this has to do with the views in and out of academic theatre programmes. As someone attached to a theatre department myself, I will agree that in some universities there does seem to be quite a visible predominance of “the innovative and experimental” that Breare suggests. I’m not sure this same absolute dominance of the modern or ultra-modern is true outside of the academic world, however; it really seems to be a question of how wide you are casting the net: urban spaces with vibrant theatre scenes tend to have a mix, while more rural areas, with fewer theatre options, do often tend towards the “classic” (albeit often modern classic, rather than an entire diet of Shakespeare). But there are entire sections of historic drama – medieval, for example, or, say, ancient Greek – that you don’t see all that often, and there is a lot of historic drama that is still not considered “canonical”, or is just not known very well, that gets neglected.

We, also, should not see “the innovative and experimental” as incompatible with the historic. Breare and I would completely agree that one of the joys of historic drama is, as he says, “unpick[ing] the conditions of a different period” – but you can also look at what isn’t different from that era to today. As he suggests, there is lots of room to be innovative with classic drama – look at the legions of different ways people have approached Shakespeare. Nobody ever said that every historic drama must be set in its own time, staged in a traditional manner (and we could debate what that even means – the early twentieth-century experiments into recreating Elizabethan staging conditions were incredibly innovative after centuries of being trapped in a proscenium). If anything, I think that historic plays invite the challenge of finding new ways to see them, to use what can be found in their times and in ours to create something new and challenging. By the same token, I would agree that there is much to be said for the Prescot’s enthusiasm for innovative staging and alternative venue use, for site-specific theatre, but I don’t think that’s incompatible with historical plays, either. Drama – all drama, any drama – should be an invitation for creative thinking. (As an interesting side note to this, whilst I was writing this, I stumbled upon an interesting piece on a new staging for A Chorus Line, a play which has been somewhat preserved in amber. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s getting some new life infused into it. For the curious, click here)

Where I do disagree is about the financial aspects. It’s true that rights are cheaper (i.e. non-existent) for plays whose authors have been dead for centuries, but if you’re staging them in their original period, you’ll more than make up the cost of performance rights through costume and set expenditures – not, as stated previously, that there the automatic need to stage them thus. There’s really no reason that many historic plays can’t work just as well in the kind of spare (affordable) staging that Prescot advocates as an advantage to modern drama. Conversely, there are a lot of modern productions (I’m thinking particularly of musical theatre, which is modern, and yes, I do count it as “drama”) which require incredibly complex, and expensive, staging. Age is not an indicator of fiscal viability, and I’d very much like to hope that a company’s choice to focus on historic versus modern would be artistic, and not driven by finance. (Let’s face it: theatre is generally not wealth, no matter what kind you do!)

Play for play, Prescot is probably correct that modern plays don’t get as many revivals as some deserve, but I suspect that’s less for financial reasons and more because, well, there are so many. The more finite number of historic plays that have survived means that each one stands out more, and that they get more repetitions because of familiarity, or because there are simply fewer to choose from. The catalogue of modern plays is dismayingly enormous; one hardly knows where to begin, and by sheer statistics, if we assume an even distribution of revivals (which obviously won’t happen, all plays not being equal) there is still much more territory to cover.

Ultimately, I feel about plays the way I do about people: you have to take each one on its own merits, and the categories aren’t the driving fact about why I might want to consider working on one. I’ve specialised in drama connected with history not because there is no merit in other types, but because it happens to combine two of my personal passions. But we keep the door as wide as possible, because, artistically, one needs different challenges, and everyone, especially audiences, can benefit from variety. Historic and modern drama don’t need to be in opposition. Finding connections between them keeps everyone on their toes, and surely the theatre created can only benefit from that.

Playwrights & Poets

Following recent discussions surrounding figures such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) began thinking about the crafts and terminology of ‘poets’ and ‘playwrights’. Here are some of her thoughts.

“[T]he script of a play is intended primarily for the use of professional performers. Unlike the novelist and the poet, the playwright has been counting on other people to mediate between his words and his public.” (Ronald Hayman, How to Read a Play).

The distinction between poet and playwright is particularly interesting in a historical context. Today, we see them as quite discrete things, and if you asked most people if and how they were different, they would likely have a clear answer. In the early modern period, the people who wrote plays saw themselves as poets. Many of them wrote things other than dramas – verse, treatises, musings, etc. – and made their living by the pen in varied contexts; and of course plays were generally written in verse at the time. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the invention of the term “playwright” to Ben Jonson, who used it in his “Epigram 49”… as an insult. Wrights were craftsmen – ploughwrights made ploughs, cartwrights wagons, etc. Their trades may have been highly specialised, but they worked with their hands, and were therefore seen in the time as a cut or two below poets, who, if they were to make a living out of their work, generally had associations with the upper class and nobility through the system of patronage. (This was, after all, an era when the middle class was just beginning to solidify as a level of social stratigraphy.)

While Jonson’s term might have been intended as a snub, it was also percipient. A playwright is a skill of putting things together quite specifically. Beneath the exterior words, there are particular ways plays get built to achieve their desired effect; it doesn’t just happen by accident. There are entire books (such as the one quoted above) dedicated to teaching readers how to understand what’s going on under the skin of a play script, to be conscious of the deliberate decisions the writer has made. (There are even more books dedicated to teaching people how to write plays.) By today’s standards, being a “playwright” indicates the many subtleties and abilities involved, rather than “playwrite”, which would imply merely someone who wrote plays, as if that was quite a simple thing to do. This is not to suggest that poetry is any less deliberate or consciously planned, but that plays do not operate in the same entirely free creative space that poetry does. There are inherent restrictions, in very functional dramatic terms, which don’t usually need to be considered when creating poems.

Whether they see themselves as poets or craftsmen, people who write plays have an extra burden not put on those who write words that are intended to remain on the page. They also have to be collaborators, in temperament if not in actuality. They know from the beginning that their work, putting words to the page, is actually only the beginning of an entire process; they intend for their words to be read, analysed, dissected, internalised, embodied, and performed. In some cases, of course, the writer is the performer (let’s remember that Shakespeare was also an actor), and in a one-person show, it’s possible to skip the extra layer of input. In most cases, though, and certainly in all historic dramas that I can think of, at the very least there are other actors taking on some of the text. Generally, today, there is also a director, and a whole host of people of various creative disciplines at work in translating the page to the stage. A writer knows that once he’s done putting words to the page, someone else takes over. The play requires him to begin, but it requires others to come to completion. It takes a village to raise a play, and the writer may or may not have any input once he writes a figurative ‘the end’ on the last page.

But, of course, this is all a question of whether a play is only complete when in performance, and it draws a line of distinction between an audience of non-theatre professionals, and that interior to the profession: the first “audience” for a play are the directors and actors who are considering/staging it. No matter how many interpretive layers eventually lie between the playwright and the eventual performance, it begins on paper. Some plays seem to be written with this as the focal aspect (I’m thinking, for example, of the profusion of complicated staging directions in The Glass Menagerie, which are usually summarily ignored by directors, and therefore seem more of use to someone who intends only to read the play and may need help ‘picturing it’), while others may be seen as hard going on the page yet come to life beautifully on stage (an assertion that has been levelled at Jonson’s plays). A playwright, in a sense, is therefore tasked with creating a work for multiple audiences, in different media, with a single work.

Given all of these complexities, it’s ironic that Jonson intended “playwright” to be a demeaning term in comparison to that of “poet”. The multifaceted expectations with which a writer of plays must cope, within the limitations of language and dramatic necessity, make it a craft indeed, in the modern sense: a highly specialised, artisanal skill which requires hard work and learning, of creating something from nothing in a creative manner within a general framework. He got it right, after all.

Remembering Shakespeare, an Historic Dramatist

In reaction to the recent events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on the place of his work in culture and history.

Right now, you can barely turn around without running into a reference to Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of his death this year has made him utterly ubiquitous. But, really, isn’t he always? His language, his writing, is so woven into our everyday speech we don’t even realise it; he is the cultural fabric. Even if you’ve never seen a single one of his plays, I guarantee you know at least something about them.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I really enjoy a good Shakespeare play. Really, the only reason HIDden hasn’t tackled one thus far is because, in the beginning, we were aiming specifically to perform lesser-known historic drama, and if there’s one thing Shakespeare is not, it’s forgotten. At this point, the reason is far less to do with any winnowing down by popularity and more because none of his plays have quite fit into our trajectory, but I expect at some point that will change and he’ll show up in our programming.

But one thing that has always fascinated me about Shakespeare is his singularity. Shakespeare is somehow outside of categorisation – we don’t think of him primarily as a writer of verse plays, although he certainly is that, and we don’t consider him first as an early modern dramatist, although, inarguably, he is that, too. Shakespeare manages to stand alone, and is often used as a yardstick against which other plays and writers are measured, particularly historically. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, some of whom wrote excellent work, are always found wanting when compared to him, if they are remembered at all. They are only ever looked upon as historic drama – and dismissed as such, when compared to the yardstick of Shakespeare.

I’ve seen this question of why posed in various books and articles, and a few solutions thrown out as possibilities, but in the end, no one ever really seems to have a solid answer. Perhaps there is no answer to “why Shakespeare” because there is seldom only one reason for anything. It’s a confluence of circumstances and, once the pattern is established, it tends to keep feeding its own momentum. These days, it would be impossible not to see Shakespeare as the definition of the literary canon, because we have all grown up in a world with educational systems which teach us that he is, and we can’t escape that.

All of this means that I think we sometimes lose sight of Shakespeare as an historic subject. Not merely his “history plays”, but all of his work, is the product of a specific time, and I sometimes wonder what we lose in our eagerness to claim him “for all time”, as Ben Jonson wrote in the preface to the First Folio. This is not an argument that Shakespeare’s plays, or those of his fellows, need always be styled as Elizabethan or Jacobian. Rather, that if we want to understand all of what these plays can say to us today, we need to understand what they were attempting to say to the audiences for whom they were created. This is true of all drama. In this, Shakespeare is anything but singular.

Director’s Notes: Wrapping up ‘Mankind’

This week our Artistic Director reflects on coming to the end of our Mankind revival run.

Although I love the adrenaline rush of opening night, I’ve always been a bit partial to closing night. There is something about the end of a run that brings out the best in everyone. Actors pull out something that they’ve been unconsciously holding in reserve, and of course there is a certain emotional component to the end of something that has dominated your life for a length of time.

One way or another, we’ve spent the better part of half a year with [this production of] Mankind, and after our four-performance run this past weekend, it’s time to put it to bed. Although I’m sure we’ll all enjoy a few more free moments in the week, I for one will miss it. I’ll miss the cast, and the journey we’ve taken together. I’ll miss the planning and the imagining what it will be like.

There are two particularly gratifying aspects to this show as I look back over it. The first is how amazing the cast was. This was a very varied group of people, and they did a great amount in very little time. The amount of work they put in was incredible, and this show, perhaps particularly in that there was such a visible trajectory upwards from our first readings together. I have absolutely loved watching them evolve from rehearsal to rehearsal, or even throughout an individual one. Although I have acted, I’m not really an actress, and I continue to marvel at the way they sink deeper and deeper into a character, making it come to life moment by moment. There is something in their process that defies explanation: you can see it, you know it’s there, but I’m not sure it can be put to words explicitly. But it makes the show. Our Mankind cast really found the ebbs and flows, the different emotional moments and shifts, in the play, and brought them to life.

The second was the audience. Hearing their comments as they left the theatre, and seeing the smiles on their faces, made every moment worthwhile. Some were medieval drama veterans who were enjoying seeing a non-mystery-play in York for a change; many of them commented on how interesting they found the modern spin on the play. I’m always especially happy to see the reactions of those who aren’t as familiar with the genre, because we put a lot of effort into making the play accessible to them, and their comments on how much they had liked it meant a lot. I would love to have more and more people realise just how much fun a play like Mankind can be, and I hope that the next time these folks have a chance, they will see more.

Saying goodbye to Mankind means saying goodbye to our cast and the project, but also, for HIDden, to the Middle Ages for a spell. I’m looking forward to new projects and new eras, but I wonder when this play, or any of its peers, will call us back. After all, even after a revival, there are depths unplumbed. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll come back to it. But for now, Mankind, we bid you a fond farewell, with thanks for all the memories.

Director’s Notes: Space & the Actor

As opening night for our ‘Mankind’ revival run approaches we have moved rehearsals into the performance venue. Our Artistic Director has noticed this take quite an effect on the cast she is directing. Here are her some of her thoughts and reflections.

I’ve written before about space, and the way that it can shape and inform a production. What I’ve been contemplating this week, as we’ve moved from Brackenhill Creative Space (which is sadly now closed) into The Studio Theatre at Upstage Centre, is how space makes a difference to the actors and their characters.

It’s kind of obvious that an actor moves through, in and around the space given to them; they are a part of it, and they react to it in various ways. This means that any change in space requires a certain degree of readjustment and reconsideration; and changes are inevitable (unless one is in the rare, lucky position to have the performance space for rehearsal as well). Actors are pretty good about managing it, but of course it’s a challenge for them, particularly as the space is usually being built and adjusted all around them during the first few days.

This has been true with our production of Mankind – while we’re not exactly hanging lights right above their heads as they rehearse, bits and pieces are coming in in dribs and drabs, and we’re all having to adjust accordingly. Stage block number one is too big – bring in a smaller one. The space in front of the audience is much bigger than expected, so use it, but get used to a longer walk if you need to get back to the center. How are the acoustics backstage? How long does it take to cross from entrance three to entrance four [we are performing in thrust by the way]? It all gets worked out, but it takes a bit of work on everyone’s part.

It can also affect characters, to some extent, as well. The Vices in particular are quite mobile and expansive in their motions, and they’re having to adjust to a stage with multiple levels, which means some of the wild flinging-around needs to be tempered for safety’s sake. Mercy’s “congregation’ now surrounds the stage in a totally different manner than was possible in the rehearsal space, and he is having to become accustomed to remembering the people in the far corners, which in some ways seems at odds with a character who is more emotionally and spatially grounded than the helter-skelter demons.

In some medieval plays, space and character were intimately connected. For example, in The Castle of Perseverance, various characters had a performance space (presumably a bit like a small stage on scaffolding) assigned specifically to them, and so moments when they moved outside of it, or into another’s sphere, had very particular meaning. We have, for the most part, chosen to blur the spaces as much as possible: Titivillus and Mercy “own” the same entrance/exit, for example; the actors move freely on and off the raised stage, to be more connected to the audience; the Vices can sit where Mercy leaves his Bible. The point in doing this was the emphasize that good and evil are not the province of particular types of people, that things which we perceive as positive may have a sting in their tail, and evil can easily look charming. By letting the actors use as much space as they can, the characters have an entire world to assign to their own purposes. And they do: Mankind’s patch of land may be the small bit of grass we see, or the entire stage, while the realms of Mercy and the Vices are entirely the same place.

It’s been lovely to get into the proper space and have room for the actors to move about, because it helps them fulfill one of the primary goals of a morality play: highlighting the fact that their story is about everyone. While we’ve asked Mankind to create a specific character and sense of self for our production, the character never the less represents the whole of humanity. (As we often joke: when there is something that needs working on with Mankind, someone inevitably responds, “All of mankind? I don’t think we have time for that!”) His world is also the world of the Vices, and of the forgiveness of Mercy, and of us. In morality plays, all the world really is a stage, and all of these characters can use the space of the theatre to tell us that.

Report From The Field: Performances at the 2016 METh Conference

During the past weekend, our Artistic Director took some leave from working on our revival of ‘Mankind’ to attend the Early English Drama & Performance Network and Medieval English Theatre conferences. Her personal thoughts from the events follow and we will be back with more on ‘Mankind’ next week.

If you follow us on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that I was at a conference this weekend. (Technically, this year, a pair of one-day conferences.) I tend to think of METh (Medieval English Theatre) as the “annual pilgrimage”, when Britain’s medieval drama scholars – and some aficionados from outside formal academia – make their way to a gathering spot, to spend some time sharing new research and discoveries, exchanging ideas, seeing performances, making new contacts, and generally checking in with the current state of the field.

I’ve been going to METh for about eight years now. It has a wonderful way of both changing and staying the same. On the latter front, there is much of the “old home week” about it: most of us only see one another once or twice a year, and it’s a much-appreciated opportunity to catch up with people you not only respect as colleagues, but also consider friends. The papers are always fascinating – and remarkably diverse. You might think that in such a small, specific field, there’d be a limit to the directions study could take, but there seemingly isn’t. Every year you can learn something new. And, in the ‘new’ column is the fact that this was the first year where METh met as an official society. For the most part that doesn’t change the way things function, but it does mean that there is now an organisation that you can join to formally be part of this community and keep up with what’s going on, if you’re interested in medieval drama. The other change I’ve noticed is that, where a few years ago I was the “baby” of the group, there is now a decent percentage of postgraduate scholars and early-career researchers in the field, which is a healthy sign for the future.

As I realise that most of you aren’t medieval academics, I won’t try to give you a précis of every paper given; if you’re curious, do check us out on Twitter for some highlights as they happened. Instead, I want to mention the part of the conference that is probably of most interest to you as theatre fans – the performance. Actually, there were two this year: a one-act play on Friday night, ‘Marge & Jules’, about medieval writers and mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, and on Saturday afternoon, ‘John of Beverley’, a Dutch interlude about a British saint.

‘Marge & Jules’ is a wonderful example of what you can do when creating drama from historical records. Both Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich left their stories to us: Margery’s is considered the first autobiography in English (1430s), and Julian’s is the first book in English by a woman (c. 1395). They’re both interesting as figures, and the obvious parallels and differences in their stories make them a good pairing for study. They did actually meet, and most of the script was taken from their actual writings. It’s less a plot-driven story and more a pair of character studies, but it’s a fantastic example of the way that history almost tells its own stories at times – and the play does a good job of exploiting the gentle humour that we might find in the quirks of these two women, as well as their virtues.

‘John of Beverley’ is less straightforward: an actual English saint who died in the early 8th century, the play is actually early 16th century Dutch, and the METh performance was translated into English. How John made that journey isn’t clear, nor is the way in which his story was transformed into that of the play. And it is a truly bizarre and comic thing. The plot hinges on the pious hermit John being duped by the devil into making the choice to either drink until drunk, or commit more heinous acts, including murder. He decides to get drunk, at which point he commits the other sins anyway, and then repents by becoming a hairy wild man creeping about the forest like an animal, until he is finally given a sign that God forgives him. This description doesn’t even begin to cover what a strange tale it is, and one of the major discussion points after the performance was whether it was intended to be as hilarious as we all found it, or whether it was meant to be taken with a certain degree of genuine piety.

It’s (to me) hard to imagine that any audience could fail to snicker at John’s uncertainty as to whether or not drunkenness was on the same moral par as homicide. I think it’s also worthwhile to consider that, even if the play was, by some chance, meant to be more serious than this production, or our response to it, might suggest, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we, today, have to maintain a serious approach. It was also a good example of the fact that a text which might look merely confusing on paper can be elevated through performance and direction. Little details – the amazing costume for John as the wild man, or the narrator cooing at a baby made from a shawl – made the play utterly hilarious. We don’t often credit medieval or early-modern drama as having a sense of the absurd, but I think that says more about our assumptions about the past and its people than what the evidence shows.

There aren’t all that many opportunities to see medieval plays in action, and METh is one of the rare occasions where I get to do so. It’s also a chance to talk to other people who spend part of their time working on historically informed drama, an equally rare thing. Inevitably there are some interesting debates about approaches: to adapt or translate? To emphasise the medieval or to emphasise the continuity? And there is almost always a point where we acknowledge that, despite all of our efforts in both academic and performative terms, attitudes about ‘medieval drama’ outside of our own specialist enclave seem incredibly hard to shift. These are matters that apply to both medieval drama studies and production. HIDden, in its earliest inception, was our answer: maybe by continuing to force a permeability between those two facets, more people can appreciate and enjoy plays like these, and maybe someday medieval drama can move out of the shadows. Even as HIDden begins to move away itself into a more diverse theatrical path, I still hope we can play a part in that.

For more information on Medieval English Theatre, the organisation and the publication, as well as future events, please visit: medievalenglishtheatre.co.uk

Director’s Notes: On Recasting

Following our recent need to recruit some new cast members for our revival of ‘Mankind’, our Artistic Director shares some of her opinions on the idea and process of recasting.

I’ve always marvelled at the phenomenon of long-running shows, or those which tour multiple companies of the same production simultaneously. A sort of “quality control” aims to make sure that audiences in Beijing, Los Angeles, or Leeds are seeing pretty much the same thing; you can see the production in 1990 and again in 2010 and it looks more or less identical. It’s not so much the degree of planning and oversight it must take to pull this off. It’s the actors. Dozens of individuals, with their own talents and creative processes, somehow manage to inhabit the same character, and in very nearly the same way. I’ve often wondered what it must mean to them, creatively, to not only have to do their basic job of acting, but to do it knowing that there is, effectively, only one “right” result.

Since we have been faced with the task of recasting a few parts for our revival of Mankind, due to some actors from our November production being unable to return, I’ve been thinking about this a great deal. As we’re trying to keep it quite similar to that earlier performance, we don’t want a significant shakeup in the characterizations. But I also believe firmly that actors have to be allowed to find their own way to a character, to merge what is on the page with what they imagine. Performances aren’t things which roll off a conveyor belt, identical; you can’t just put Actor A into Actor B’s place and expect that everything will stay the same, not if you actually value their work and their contribution to the process.

This is especially true, I think, with medieval drama, where the “character clues” in the text are fewer. With characters drawn to type and non-specificity, their individuality and believability comes largely from what the actors bring to the table. The characters that are built, and their relationships with one another, are open to an awful lot of interpretation. Because we aren’t starting from scratch, in casting we needed to contemplate not only whether an actor would fit well with a part, but how well they might “click” with their opposite – Mercy with Mankind, or the two N’s. After all, while actor chemistry isn’t necessary, it certainly helps!

This was very much held in mind as we were recasting the vacant roles. As always in casting, there’s an element of gambling involved, of trying, instinctively, to imagine how people will work together and how the personality you meet at an audition or interview will translate into a working process and resultant performance. Parameters or pre-existing ideas, born of an earlier run of the production, definitely make this process more challenging.

We were fortunate to have a fantastic cast in November, and I think we’re equally fortunate in our April group. Our new people are talented and enthusiastic, and as always I’m looking forward to get into rehearsals and see where they go with their parts. Helping them find their own path into previously established roles will be an interesting challenge: I want to give them room to discover and create, without the results taking the production in a different direction than the one we’ve already set. Unlike a first performance, the sky isn’t really the limit; at this point, there actually are “wrong” answers. But if creating a performance is a journey, there are many different roads you can take to arrive at similar destinations.

If you had the chance to see our November performance of Mankind, I do hope you’ll come along for the April revival and see what might have come from our experiences on those different “paths”!

‘Mankind’: Defining Our Revival

We have had long discussions about what constitutes a revival and what we hope to achieve in April by returning to ‘Mankind’.  Our Artistic Director sets out some of our conclusions below.

Revival:

  1. The action of reviving something after decline or discontinuance; restoration to general use
  2. The action or an act of staging a new production of an old play, musical, etc.,
  3. Restoration or return to life or consciousness
  4. Restoration to activity or vigour; improvement in condition, strength, etc.

                                             – Oxford English Dictionary

Revival is one of those very tricky words, where everyone thinks they know what it means, but often you end up with different interpretations.

To give one example: during the 1951 productions of the York, Chester, and Coventry mystery play cycles, each one was referred to as a “revival”, because it was bringing back plays that hadn’t been seen for more than four hundred years. Yet none of them was performed in the original Middle English, and all of them were radically reworked. In York entire plays were cut to create one omnibus play; in Chester a few lines were kept from each play so that they could claim they’d performed the “entire” cycle; in Coventry, the two surviving plays were elided together into one. Are these revivals? Re-imaginings? Re-creations? And where does that leave the subsequent half-century of regular performances, most of which have involved a new (reworked) script, new music, new casts, and entirely different staging? Are these the revivals? According to the definitions given by the OED, they are also revivals, in any definition. And yet those other words also feel tempting, and perhaps more accurate.

All historic drama is revival, inherently, but they are always revivals of plays rather than productions. With medieval drama in particular, we simply don’t know enough about their original staging to revive those productions. And, given that the cycle plays, at least, were being performed regularly for multiple centuries, one would be hard-pressed to define any version as “definitive”. They were revivals even in their own – long – period.

When it came to our production of Mankind, we set out to define what we meant by revival very deliberately. Although our production is a revival in the second definition given above when compared to the medieval original, we are not creating a new production from scratch. We are, rather, dusting off the one from last autumn. There will be some changes, but we are keeping it as close to November’s performance as possible. These changes are more in line with what might be expected if a production is on tour: details change as venues do, but the essential aspects of the piece remain the same. Ours is a “return to life” rather than a new production altogether.

As a process, then, we have been careful to only change those things which are required of necessity, rather than desire. Just because we could do something differently, doesn’t mean we should in this case. Sure, it might be fun to let Titivillus enter with a fanfare and pyros going off, but that wasn’t part of the original plan, so it won’t be there now, either. The change in venue means we have to reconsider some of the entrances and exits; they will be kept as close to the original intention as possible, although their dramatic impact is more important than actual physical proximity to the November performance. How the relationship with the audience will change, when some of them are in raised seating, remains to be seen; the hope is that the answer is “not terribly much”. We have consciously tried to keep the intimacy of the audience/actor relationship, as we feel that this juxtaposition works particularly well for medieval drama, given that it was written for performance with a physically proximate audience and a lack of the “fourth wall” boundaries that we’re so accustomed to today.

No doubt there will be other challenges as we progress toward the performances in April. What shouldn’t change are the impressive talents and enthusiasm of the cast, or the distinct sense of fun that this most delightful of medieval plays offers.

Director’s Notes: Repeat, Replay

In anticipation of our revival of Mankind our Artistic Director contemplates the revisiting of art.

“That’s one thing that’s always… been a major difference, between the performing arts, to me, and being a painter… A painter does a painting, and he does a painting, that’s it, you know? He’s had the joy of creating it and he hangs it on some wall somewhere, somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it… but nobody ever says to him, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!”-Joni Mitchell

That quote is at the beginning of a recording of a song I’ve listened to over and over again – literally thousands of times, I’m sure, over the past twenty-five years. (“Circle Game”, on Miles of Aisles). I’m that person who will play a song on loop for days, or weeks. So I appreciate the spirit Mitchell is talking about – that some things are so loved, we return to them again and again and again. But it was only last week that I really stopped to think about it, and I came to the conclusion that “finished” art actually isn’t, and that you don’t truly perform the same thing over and over again, even if it may initially seem that way. And it seemed relevant, as we are preparing to return to Mankind again, to share that with you.

In fact, art (by which I mean “fixed” art- painting, sculpting, etc. – something where there is a tangible end product) is reproduced all the time. Today it is also photographed and digitised, but you can still see art students in galleries learning their craft through copying the masters. You’ve probably seen “Starry Night” on coffee mugs, or calendars. Is it the same thing as the original? Of course not, but you’d still recognise what it was – much like seeing two different performances of the same play. Different brush strokes, same overall impression.

Moreover, although we tend to see a painting as simply existing, that is not enough: like performance, it has an audience. There is a viewer who interacts with it in some fashion, even if that is just a glance; they contemplate what it means, or are captivated by its colours. Visual art is exactly that: meant to be seen. And just like a play, a different audience on a different occasion will see different things. Maybe the lighting will be slightly brighter, or the viewer is sleepy. It will change what they see and how they feel about it. The initial act of painting may be singular – it’s true that Van Gogh only really got to do that specific copy of the painting one time – but between varieties of copying and the long life of the physical painting, it is revisited over and over. The difference, then, between the kind of art you hang on the wall in a museum and the kind you see when you go to a performance is largely a question of tangible durability.

So… we’re coming back to Mankind. I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece in any way comparable to a Van Gogh painting. But I am rather fond of the production. It’s one of my favourite medieval plays, and the cast are a lovely group of people who bring it to life delightfully. Unlike the performance in November, which was a further step from our initial staged reading in Bristol, we’re not making major changes: we’re pretty happy with the show we have. Last autumn, circumstances meant that we couldn’t give it the run we would have liked it to have. It deserves a wider audience. And so we decided to do it again.

It won’t be exactly the same production, any more than a photograph of “A Starry Night” is “A Starry Night”. Time changes things, and no two performances are identical anyway. We’re in a different venue, one which will speak more to the modern qualities of the production than the medieval. The cast will be slightly different. We’ll probably have the opportunity to perfect a few minor details. But it’s still our Mankind, brought back to life, and maybe with a few small adjustments. I for one can’t wait.