Some  thoughts on pageantry, this week, from our Artistic Director.

As I travel, I often find myself trying to define what it is that makes each place unique and individual. I suspect that my answer would have been radically different fifty, or a couple of hundred, years ago. But today, with our mobile society, our global village, and corporate culture, pinning down the differences can be tricky. Most high-streets of a town of reasonable size will have not just the same type of shops, but the exact same brands. There are relatively familiar architectural and city-layout plans. Cities have, of course, attracted different industries, and topography can distinguish one from another plainly. But what really sets places apart are their individual pasts, of place and people. Each one has evolved differently. Disparate groups of people have come and gone, particular businesses and industries have left their marks, and events have transpired which give a fixed geographic space a distinct character unlike the others.

Without getting too far into the vortex of where exactly community and performance meet up, or where one creates the other, this self-definition through the past was manifesting itself across both England and America in the first half of the twentieth century through a unique performance medium: the pageant. Today that word tends to bring up the rather repellent image of Miss America-type competitions, but it used to have another connotation that would have been equally resonant to those who heard it. Pageants were large-scale performances that almost invariably focused on the history of a town or organisation. Louis Napoleon Parker, who is credited with their creation in 1905, defined them thus: “A Pageant is the history of a town from its remotest origins down to a date not too near the present; expressed in dramatic form; that is to say, in spoken dialogue: in action: in song and in dance…. It is divided into episodes corresponding with periods in the town’s history. Each episode is complete in itself, and is performed by a separate and independent cast.” (Several of My Lives, L.N. Parker)

Pageants served to show off the locale’s story to any visitors, and also to reinforce its cohesion through participation by nearly the entire community – some pageants had casts in the hundreds (in rare cases, the thousands), not to mention the work that must have gone on behind the scenes to create such massive events. (In fact, I’ve often wondered who was left in town to be the audience! One suspects that on occasion there may have been more people on the stage.)

What is comical about pageants – unintentionally – is that not every village had the most exciting history to show off, and pageants end up as a hodge-podge of the truly momentous and the absurdly mundane, elevated to “important” status in lieu of any other available anecdotes. Over the past few years, I have somewhat accidentally accumulated a collection of pageant programmes, and they make charming reading. For example, to pull one off the shelf: The Guildford Pageant of 1957 (which is quite late; pageants didn’t survive much longer in popularity or production) includes the following episodes among the 19 it offered up: a ballet of the War of the Roses, “The Grammar Schoolboys play at cricket while a bear-baiting entertains their elders”, and a commemoration of the first time a train arrived in town. Royal visits – even of the most minor scions or limited duration –  are heavily represented. None of the moments included in it would be considered of national importance – some cities obviously had richer mines of history from which to plumb than others – but they were the high-watermark of the 700 years that the town was celebrating that year. And these were the moments that made their town special, different from the one down the road, cementing its civic identity as unique throughout the country. Small differences were their specialness.

And the fact that it was a performance mattered. It wasn’t just a more palatable way to teach the past than in a classroom. It made the past seem real.

The fashion for pageants came and went, and it could be argued that their last hurrah was during the Festival of Britain, when every municipality, trying to find a way to be commemorative, civic, and festive all at the same time, seems to have hit upon them as the perfect solution. Pageants are profuse throughout the Festival’s national catalogue of events, and other cities, like York, started with the idea of a pageant before moving on to other things. Even as you can look through that catalogue and see them all over the place, I have found several news articles discussing what an utter bore pageants are; pageants were starting to be looked on as a massive expenditure of both time and money, which were delighting no one. Cinema was exciting, television was right around the corner for individual homes, and the magic of seeing half the city dressed up in doublet and hose was gone. And these were changes that were coming to the entire nation, bringing places closer together, in character as well as communication.

I doubt that pageants stand any chance of making a true comeback. They’ve left a legacy, in large-scale community theatre, such as the Mystery Plays in York or a handful of other cities in England, but the days when a town celebrated its heritage by getting everyone dressed up for another century are gone. In a way it’s a shame. What better way to build the spirit of the community than through performing its own history together? Without such events, it’s easier to forget what makes our communities individual and special… even if all that’s ever happened is that the Queen slept there one night, six hundred years ago.

Why choose ‘The Devil is an Ass’?

Our new production project, A Journey With Jonson, will include two shows – a piece of new writing about Ben Jonson’s life and his own The Devil is an Ass. Below our Artistic Director explains some of her reasoning for choosing this play.

In just about any field, it’s pretty normal for there to be ideas that the academic community has largely rejected, to which the general public still clings. This is especially true if you’re in a niche field that doesn’t get a lot of press through which to reveal developments. Theatre history definitely suffers from this lag, and so the idea that there are fairly hard and fast delineations between one era of drama and another often persist. The notion that it’s an inexorably forward-moving evolution – drama in churches leading to mystery plays giving rise to more secular moralities morphing into classically informed interludes which suddenly give way to the completely public theatre and, poof, suddenly there’s Shakespeare – tends to be a narrative that sticks around. In the context of drama historians, it’s a narrative that is, at best, a vast oversimplification, but it hangs on because it’s neat and tidy.

The reference to medieval drama that most people know – without realising it – is the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, their shorthand title alone telling you how people viewed medieval plays. That stuff was de classe, old hat, only fit for bumblers by Shakespeare’s sophisticated day, right? But not all of his contemporaries had dismissed all things medieval in such a fashion.

When it came to choosing a project to follow Mankind, we knew we wanted to move out of the Middle Ages, but without such a seismic shift that it unsettled everyone. One step at a time. We’d been interested in Jonson for a while, for various reasons, and The Devil Is An Ass was practically made to order.

It’s not a morality play. The majority of it is focused on real – if periodically absurd – people, who aren’t representing humanity as a group but who are decidedly individual. It’s also not divorced from the morality tradition. The first scene opens in Hell, with demons and allegorical vice characters. The actions of the demon Pug influence and affect those of the worldly people throughout the play. It’s impossible to not see the demonic scenes as a connection to the medieval morality plays.

The virtues are missing. Virtue is provided by certain human characters, in differing degree, although none of it is morally unambiguous – which is perhaps the biggest step away from the black-and-white ethics of morality plays. Additionally, the fact that Pug is completely inept – a fairly significant point – undermines reverence for the concept of embodied, allegorical evil. But it’s not the morality play tradition Jonson is mocking, because he’s still using it effectively through these scenes. His commentary is not that the plays were bad; rather, he is pointing out that a world-view which suggests that good or evil is disconnected from human agency is in error, that life is not made up of absolute virtue or inescapable viciousness. Those who start out with questionable motives can change, while those whose intentions are malicious may end up fostering decency – and those groups of people are all one and the same.

The Devil is an Ass gives us a bridge into theatre beyond the medieval period and some of its moral clichés, without kicking over the traces so hard we lose the thread of the plot. It has the extra advantages of being really enjoyable (without which we wouldn’t have considered it, despite its other utilities!), and it’s not exactly played out. Upon reading it, it was in fact quite surprising to realise just how slight its performance history has been, historically – it seems like the sort of early modern play you may expect to be more popular. I suspect that something else it might share with Mankind is a more harsh judgement historically than we might be inclined to give it today, when our minds are (I hope) a bit more open, and when we’re more willing to take a new look at old things.

Ben Jonson: The ‘Other’ Renaissance Playwright

As we begin our project exploring the life and works of Ben Jonson, our Artisitc Director explains some of the reasons behind this decision.

First, a digression: in 1978, Affirmed became the eleventh horse to win the American Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. What was interesting that year was that a horse called Alydar came in second in all three races. Even if Affirmed hadn’t been there, it still would have been a Triple Crown year. And in any other year, Alydar would have been hailed as extraordinary. He just happened to be a three-year-old at exactly the same time as another, only just slightly more extraordinary horse.

I mention this story because it’s one of the things that comes to mind when I think about Ben Jonson, who is at the heart of our next theatrical endeavour. He’s always the “other” early modern writer – the one who isn’t Shakespeare. They are likely the only two Renaissance playwrights that people outside of historic drama have heard of, but he’s always the other one, the afterthought, the one who never quite made it to the top of history’s memory. And I wonder, if they hadn’t both been around at pretty much the same time, how history would look at Jonson. Take Shakespeare out of the period, and Jonson would undoubtedly pop to the surface as the standout of the era. He’s not the “other playwright” because his plays aren’t good; he’s the other because the timings of fate set him up against the writer who generally wins the laurels as the best of all time.

This is one of the reasons we decided on Jonson when it came time to move forward from the Middle Ages. His plays have a lot to recommend them, and deserve more runs than they get. One of HIDden’s original goals was to bring out “forgotten” plays of history, and a lot of Jonson’s work can legitimately be termed such – forgotten, but still compelling. We’ll concede that some of his work would be incredibly challenging to stage these days – masques, for example, being an exercise in allegory coupled with extreme conspicuous consumption make them a real headache for modern production – but many of his plays offer no difficulties more profound than that of his more performed contemporary’s. They make a very good bridge between the morality plays of the Middle Ages and an age more concerned with a good story than a lesson from the pulpit. And some of them are pretty darn funny.

Jonson is also a tremendously interesting figure himself, apart from his work. (How much a writer should be considered as connected to/separate from his work is another discussion altogether.) His life is somewhat better documented than Shakespeare’s, and, in reading biographies of him, one gets the impression that Jonson’s life was one of many vicissitudes, a constant scramble of hard work to make sense of himself, his ambitions, and then to achieve them. Maybe most surprising to those who aren’t very familiar with his career, he was actually very successful in his own life, rather than being someone whose work is only appreciated posthumously. His patronage was aristocratic and, eventually, royal, under James I; Jonson is sometimes considered England’s first Poet Laureate. He managed to live past his own success, and upon his death was buried in Westminster Abbey, which was (and is) no small honour. To his contemporaries, Jonson wasn’t an “also ran”, he was a writer whose work the public and King appreciated in fairly full measure, and it is only in the subsequent centuries that he has been so summarily eclipsed.

There is a lot more to discover about Jonson, his life, and his plays. Jonson will probably continue to be discussed in conjunction and contrast to his contemporary Shakespeare, but we think he deserves to be remembered as someone whose work does stand out as special. We’re looking forward to getting to know Ben Jonson and his work better, and hope you’ll join us on that journey!

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.

Report from the Field: ‘Dare To Tell: Silence and Saying in Ben Jonson’ Conference in St. Andrews

Just before we went into production for our ‘Mankind’ revival run a few of us attended a conference on Ben Jonson with a view to expanding our historic drama horizons. The following is what our Artistic Director took away from the event.

Right now, you can hardly turn around in theatrical England without being reminded that it’s the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s also the four hundred anniversary of the publication of the folio of Ben Jonson’s works, an anniversary that has had much less attention. This is just variation on a longstanding theme: Jonson exists so much in his contemporary’s shadow. Trying to bring him out of this relative obscurity is one of the hopes of Jonson scholars. Since my own specialism suffers a similar fate, I sympathise with them – and, in fact, medieval drama and Jonson do in many ways dovetail together nicely (something I hope to explore further in the future).

The ‘Dare to Tell’ conference in St Andrews was organised in celebration of this Jonsonian anniversary. Like all academic conferences, the papers ranged over quite a lot of territory, from literature to performance to cultural reception. And, like all specialist conferences, it was a reminder that being “reasonably familiar” with Jonson’s works and career is not the faintest patch on the knowledge of true experts, and there is a lot to be learned. Here, then, are some of the ideas introduced at the conference – it is only a skimming of the surface of the depth of study out there!

The meaning of space was the subject of a paper by Laura Swift, particularly with respect to the play The Devil is an Ass. In the play, she argued that the interior of houses was connected with tradition, reliability, inherited wealth, and female chastity (the importance of which was tied to concerns for legitimate inheritance), while the street/exterior was symbolic of change, transgression, and wealth that comes through commerce, at a time when early modern (particularly urban) culture was struggling to adjust to the idea of social and economic mobility. Although the discussion was considering the play from a literary angle, it occurred to me these ideas would also be useful to consider in actually staging a production.

Isabel Karremann discussed the issue of memory with respect to Jonson’s many masques. This dramatic form is probably the least accessible of Jonson’s works, because they were intentionally extravagant, expensive performances, usually one-off, created for events such as a royal visit to a noble house; as conspicuous consumption, they weren’t intended for repeat performance. Jonson’s choice to include them in his folio therefore seems to undermine that intention ephemerality, as he must have had some reason for committing them to paper and therefore posterity. Had he not done so, they would exist only as a series of design sketches, and we would know far less about them. It strikes me that this is not just a historical but very modern question: that of whether performance can/should be pinned down on paper. We’re still trying to make sense of that; but what does it tell us, that in this particular case, Jonson thought it worth trying?

Rachel Horrocks discussed the dual role of audience – particularly royal audiences – as spectator and performer at masques, not in their capacity as dramatic participants, but because, as royalty, they were on display when being seen in public. This ‘reciprocal spectatorship’, she argued, had an effect on the performance and its success or failure: other audience members were likely to follow a monarch’s lead, and if the monarch was seen to be enjoying a performance, others would do the same, but if a bored monarch decided to leave the performance, so did everyone else. One can only imagine how challenging this situation must have been to those trying to put together a performance, and some of Jonson’s masques, she suggested, were created in such a way as to try to find ways that subverted this ‘mutual performance’ phenomenon.

An interesting episode in Jonson’s life, his “foot journey” or very, very long walk from London to Edinburgh, fairly recently discovered, was discussed by Anna Groundwater, who has worked on the project studying the journey. A travelling companion kept something of a diary of the event, but there is still a lot about it which is unknown, including why it happened. Groundwater suggested that Jonson was hoping to get idea material from it for future writing projects, and that he may have strategised his route to curry favour with possible patrons along the way, but that there might have been a diplomatic aspect to it as well, with the King hoping that Jonson would bring back news and information acquired along the way, particularly from Scotland and the ongoing politics within its church.

Martin Butler’s discussion of the many ways in which Jonson has appeared in twentieth and twenty-first century culture was especially interesting to me, because when you’re creating a production, you’re not doing so in a vacuum, but within the context of that play’s own past and baggage. The older the play, the more permutations this may have gone through – how the Georgians or Victorians felt about, or performed, Jonson’s works has influenced opinion of his work down to today. Although Jonson was reasonably prolific, almost all of his visibility in the past century came down to two plays, Volpone and The Alchemist. Butler commented that most reviews of Jonson’s plays, when they are performed, boil down to the ‘surprising’ revelation that his plays aren’t dull and are actually very entertaining – which is promptly forgotten thereafter, until the next review says exactly the same thing. This was particularly interesting because it’s one more way that Jonson seems to be an early-modern parallel to my experiences with medieval drama.

We went to the conference as a chance to spread out drama-historical wings a bit, and it definitely did. Maybe you wouldn’t normally dive into the expert end of the pool as a starting point, but it was nice to get an idea for what’s going on in at least one corner of early modern drama studies, to get a sense of the richness lying within. And it was very much a reminder that the early modern period is not a seismic shift from the medieval but rather a bridge, neither the same thing nor entirely dissimilar either. The same could be said about Renaissance and modern drama, too: theatre history is not so much a direct evolution as a spectrum. I hope we will have the chance to put some of what we learned and have thought about since into practice, and that we will revisit Jonson and his contemporaries in the future.

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.