Director’s Notes: Reviving and Revising Expectations

As we return to the rehearsal room with our Mankind cast, the director of the upcoming revival shares some of her thoughts.

Recently we jumped into rehearsals with the Mankind revival cast. It was really nice to get to work, to see where the returning cast are with the parts they already know, and to find out how they and the new folks will work together. Most gratifying is seeing how everyone works together, and starting to learn how everyone works, as individuals and as an ensemble.

This project is hardly unprecedented in the world of theatre. It’s not at all unusual for an actor or a director to return to something they’ve worked on previously. In many cases it will be many years apart, with a different company or group of actors. In those cases, while still a ‘revival’ of a play, it’s essentially a new production. [See my earlier post on Defining our Revival for more on this topic]

Something like what we’re doing with Mankind is quite different. A cast mixed of veterans and newcomers, an attempt not to stray too far from last autumn’s performance while still making improvements (because you can always improve something!), and a familiarity not diluted by time all contribute to an interesting cluster of challenges to face down. The biggest of these is simply reevaluating and redefining expectations to acknowledge that difference is totally acceptable.

The greatest factor is of course the actors. Each person brings not only their own personal quirks, but different strengths and weaknesses, and individual ways of approaching their work. Even if you end up with similar performances in the end, the process to getting there probably won’t be much the same between two people. While this might seem obvious, it means that the returning cast members not only have to re-learn the relationships between their characters, they have to do it in a slightly different way, and the director has to find ways to facilitate this that work for both. Moreover, the director has to be conscious from the beginning that the way to handle situations will be different, and that the methodology used last time might not work at all for this round. Maybe your first actor was spectacularly good at conveying character through voice and your new one demonstrates the character in a more physical manner. Both had a talent to use, and a weakness to work on, but filling in the gaps and refining the initial skills are going to be radically different between them.

In any revival, but especially one with a partially new cast mixed with ‘veterans’, everyone returning has to accept, right off the bat, that it will be a different performance. It’s not fair to expect Actor B to replicate the part precisely to what Actor A did previously. It’s all too easy to get into the habit of remembering how a part was portrayed the first time, and making comparisons, but it’s not at all useful to sit there and think, “But Actor A did it differently.” Of course she did, and that’s okay. As several writers, most of whom had one foot in theatre’s door- Lydgate, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne- have said, “Comparisons are odious”. They’re also a very human thing to do, but it’s something you have to try to nip in the bud before it becomes a problem. Every actor deserves the chance to create a role in the way that works best for them, to achieve the desired end, and that end should be based on the needs of the character as written and the play, not on the portrayal created by someone else. After all, there isn’t one “right” way to do a play, and different interpretations can be equally valid and compelling. This will also make changes to the performances of the returning actors, because they have to adjust to a new dynamic as well.

But, lest this sound problematic, it’s worth pointing out that this is also one of the things which makes theatre fun. Watching the infinite permutations, the different styles and characters of people, finding your way through the thicket of ideas, expectations, practices, outcomes…. That is, surely, a big part of why we do this. Getting to know new people and their work, working with colleagues you’ve known for years, trying new things and revisiting the familiar, it’s all grist to the mill, and keeps us all on our creative toes.

We are off to a good start with this revived production. I hope everyone else is feeling as enthusiastic as I am, and as excited to see where this journey forwards and backwards will take us together.

A Post-Show Event for our ‘Mankind’ Revival

We are pleased to announce that there will be an aftershow talk and discussion following the Friday evening performance of our ‘Mankind’ revival.  It will be facilitated by our Artistic Director, and director of the production, Laura Elizabeth Rice.

There is no need to book for the event itself, simply reserve a seat for the show and then join us after the performance on Friday 15th April.

More details to follow.

Making Mischief – An Interview with a ‘Mankind’ cast member

As we continue to get ready for our upcoming Mankind revival, we sat down to have a chat with one of our actors. Kate Thomas is playing Mischief, one of the demonic, vice characters of the play. She’s worked with HIDden in the past, as well. Kate is also a proper medievalist who studies Anglo-Saxon literature and liturgy, so she has a unique perspective on acting in medieval dramas. (She’s also our go-to person for tricky Latin advice!)

How did you get interested in medieval drama?

I studied English Literature as an undergrad at Durham, and during my second year I got into medieval literature and started going down that path. John McKinnell did ‘Hickscorner’ in my third year, just as I was starting to really focus on medieval lit, and I got interested. So when I came to York to my MA in medieval literature in 2005, I joined the Lords of Misrule, the grad school’s medieval drama group. I was hoping they’d be part of the 2006 Mystery Plays – that was part of why I joined – but they didn’t do it that year. I had to wait until 2010, when I was one of the Lords waggon crew cast.

What sort of roles have you done?

Let’s see… Going way back, I was Sylvius in As You Like It, and I was Starveling the Tailor in Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was a villager in Penumbra Mortis – that was probably my favourite play with Lords, although it wasn’t my favourite role. I was the evil witch, Kalla, in Eyrbyggja Saga. And of course I was an angel in 2014 for The Baptism. Actually, I do really like Mischief, I think it’s been most interesting.

What do you find most challenging and interesting about playing Mischief?

He’s kind of evil, really! It’s a welcome change. It’s fun trying to figure out how to play him, because it’s not always clear. I’m doing it as a sort of seductive, sophisticated, feminine figure – a femme fatale almost. Being a death figure helps it make sense, it really works in some of the more sinister moments, but it doesn’t always go so easily with bits where I get frightened or intimidated or I’m mucking around, but it adds some layers to the scarier bits. I can intimidate the Vices with how I kill people – they’re not on that level.

It’s a chance to be evil in a more complicated way. This is a very enigmatic character, it’s not just “I’ll go around killing people”. In some ways because it’s not realistic drama, that makes it more difficult to interpret. I mean, it’s not Iago, who’s enigmatic, but clearly wants to hurt people, but he’s still a person, he has motivations, whereas with Mischief there’s the question of whether or not this even is a human being. It’s almost cartoonish – not in a silly way, but it’s a type, it’s not subtle. But it’s not simplistic or unmotivated, it’s just that the motive is a bit beyond human, whereas the Vices aren’t evil in the same way.

Do you have a favourite scene?

The one after their initial attempts to lure Mankind have gone wrong, when I’m going off and being frightening, and when we’re putting our heads together and plotting. I like the scheming.

You’ve done a fair bit of both medieval and Shakespearean characters. Do you see a difference between Shakespeare & medieval, from an acting standpoint?

I think the real question is what the continuity is! I find it hard to believe that the Shakespearean era wasn’t influenced by other sorts – but that’s when it started going into theatre, wasn’t it? When it went indoors. I think that’s the big change, moving in to places where people had to pay to watch, rather than public spaces. But as an actress it wouldn’t occur to me to treat them differently!

What do you see as the place of medieval drama in modern theatre repertoire?

Hopefully people like it! I like to see it included as much as possible, I don’t like the idea that it could be “out of date” or impossible for people to appreciate today, I don’t do moving on like that. People’s experience should be as wide as possible, not just with drama but with everything.

You’ve worked with HIDden before, what keeps you coming back?

You never know what the next role is going to be like, there’s always something interesting and different about it.

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.

Mankind’s Latin: A Conundrum

This week our Artistic Director contemplates Mankind’s ability to read and write in Latin.

In the modern (and western) world, we take it more or less as read- pun intended- that people are literate. While I’m sure it’s exciting for parents, to watch their child take first, tentative steps into reading, it’s a normalised step in our learning process. Whether it comes easily or not, there is a presumption that we will acquire literacy at some point in our young lives. Of course, there is still illiteracy in the world, especially if we take a widely global perspective, but for you, reading this, it’s probably something that’s been taken pretty much for granted.

This is a relatively recent development. In the Middle Ages, an ability to read and write was nowhere near as commonplace as it is today. Most people didn’t need to read, and didn’t really have the time to learn. Class status mattered: the more wealth you had, the more powerful you were, the greater the odds you would have at least some degree of literacy. While there is a substantial argument that “literacy” can be auditory as well as actually accessing words off a page, it is the traditional meaning of literacy that matters for this discussion, and agreement seems to remain that most medieval peasants were not, in the usual sense of the term, “literate”.

And yet, Mankind, our eponymous peasant, who is clearly shown to be poor, overworked, and largely powerless in his society, is capable of writing. And not just writing, but writing in Latin, and understanding what he writes. We see him print onto a badge which he wears. These aren’t words we’ve heard him given by Mercy; it’s something he clearly understands on his own. What’s up with that?

There is no indication that Mankind has ever been of a higher station than he is at present- he’s not a down-on-his luck nobleman who might have learned as a child and just happens to find himself in poor circumstances. There was more social mobility by the late fifteenth century than previously: post-plague economic circumstances were to the advantage of the working class, as this labour force had diminished and was therefore more valuable, and a distinct merchant and middle class was rapidly developing. But even so, Mankind’s poverty is one of the central issues of the play, and why the Vices can tempt him away so easily- he is desperate for a life that is not all drudgery for little reward. Even in the late 1400’s, a peasant farmer would not have the resources of either time or money to be learning to read. (The printing press, invented around 1440, predates the play by a few decades, but was still a way from the mass-market-cheap-paperback phase, by a few centuries.)

A casual discussion with a colleague recently ended up with the question of whether he could be a monastic lay-brother. These were members of a monastic community who were not educated, or ordained, as clergy, but who performed the manual labour functions of the community, such as farming, cooking, etc. Although I have never found any academic suggestion of this possibility, I find it a rather intriguing idea. Titivillus suggests that Mankind should take a woman, “and your own wife betray”, which certainly argues against it. But this is the only real hint that Mankind has a spouse, and earlier Nought has offered to find Mankind a wife, which would suggest he might not be married. Of course, marital status is only one potential clue, but it would certainly make the Vices’ temptations more scandalous if the “spouse” they were encouraging Mankind to betray was the church to which he had committed himself. Mankind’s spiritual ignorance and weakness are perhaps the strongest arguments against his having any formal association with a religious order, but the idea, none the less, would be interesting to explore more fully.

The truth is that there is no immediately obvious, logical explanation for why Mankind is able to write, in Latin. And this is one of the challenges of medieval plays, which we have to keep in mind. Today’s theatre is so much the product of years of “reality” being the goal, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that fifteenth-century playwrights weren’t really interested in writing “characters”, not the sort we think of today, who are fully realised and realistic. Their goals were the ideas of the piece as a whole, the moral lesson, not the individuals inhabiting the drama. As a rather amusing article argues, you certainly can use modern acting methods, including “The Method” itself, to approach medieval drama. (1) But you have to accept that everything won’t weave together with perfect smoothness, and there may be aspects that don’t entirely make sense to logic, either historically or internally to the character. Mankind should not, logically, be able to read and write, and yet he can, and does. These are the moments where medieval drama becomes challenging, and we have to accept that it is a slightly different species than twentieth-century drama. While I’m sure some actors would have a hard time working with the “you just have to accept” attitude that medieval drama occasionally requires of them, the vast majority of people seem to be able to get to the emotional core of the character, regardless of these inconsistencies. And that is exactly what the drama demands, and what it was intended to give its audience.

Our Mankind, of course, is set in the twenty-first century, when it’s entirely probably that Mankind can read and write (though Latin is still beyond the pale for most of us). That discrepancy had nothing to do with our decision to move the play’s setting forward, but it is rather nice that it can help with the difficulty.

 

(1) Tydeman, Bill, ‘Stanislavski in the Garden of Gethsemane’, Medieval English Theatre 5.1, 1983, p. 53-57.

Director’s Notes: Why Revive ‘Mankind’?

This week Laura, our Artistic Director, explains some of the reasons behind our upcoming revival of ‘Mankind’.

Given that there are several pages of “that would be an interesting project” lists in the HIDden files, it might come as a surprise that we’re dusting off Mankind and putting it on again. Although it is one of my favourite medieval English plays, there are a lot of reasons beyond that for why it’s coming back, and we thought it would be nice to let you in on our logic.

Our production last November was something we were really proud of. In our ideal world, it would not have been a one-off performance. Circumstances beyond our control, meant that we had to limit the performance to a single evening. And that was a shame, because we knew that there were lots of people who had wanted to come but could not be there on that one and only night. Moreover, we have a brilliant cast who put a lot of hard work and energy into the play, and they deserved more than one night’s showing of what they’d created. So we were toying with the idea that we might bring it out again, even before that performance happened.

Another major factor was an unexpected opening in our calendar. We had been in discussion with Charles Hunt about putting on the York Fall of Angels this spring, to go along with the Mystery Plays taking part in the Minster during the mid-summer. In 2012 we worked with Charles to produce The Noah Play on a waggon in the streets of York, as an adjunct to the large-scale production in St Mary’s Abbey. It was a nice reminder that the plays have a dual history, and that both forms have come to have a place in York’s heart and history. We were looking forward to doing it again.

Sadly, Charles passed away suddenly in November, on the day that Mankind was performed. We didn’t think that it would be right to continue with The Fall of Angels without him, as it had been his brainchild in the beginning, and so we were suddenly left without a spring project. With the cast still nearby and probably able to remember the production easily, it made sense to use the space for the theoretical revival of Mankind. The production is dedicated to Charles’ memory, not only because of the timing, but because if he had been in better health we felt he would have made a wonderful member of the cast. We knew he wouldn’t be able to take on that project, but one of Charles’s great gifts was for fostering new talent, and we’re sure he would have approved of how the character turned out.

Staging another medieval play in some proximity to the Mystery Plays, which have evolved far beyond their twentieth century status as “medieval revivals” into being a modern phenomenon in their own right, was important to us as a way of continuing to give the community a connection to the historic aspects of the plays of that era. But (without getting into the academic arguments about an evolutionary model of drama development) we are also looking at Mankind as a step forward in theatre, too. We are hoping it will be part of a greater exploration of some of the directions morality plays took as time went along.

Not all decisions are written in moonlight and dreams, some are utterly practical and hard-headed. In most respects, the revival of Mankind comes from that sort of pragmatism. But that’s not to say we aren’t excited about it. It will be nice to get this wonderful group back together, and to share this very funny and occasionally sweet story with more of you! We hope you’ll be there with us to see it!

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.

HIDden Theatre Presents ‘Mankind’, a Revival

We are very excited to be reviving our production of Mankind from last Autumn at Upstage Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York for a run of four performances 14th-16th April 2016, 7.30pm with a Saturday matinée at 2.30pm.  The Friday performance will be followed by a post-show talk and discussion.

Join us for a performance of the funniest of English medieval plays! Mankind is the story of a farmer’s temptation away from his work by a group of Vices and demons, intent on getting him hooked on the pleasures of the modern world at the expense of his higher nature. Will he be saved by the loyal friendship of Mercy, or will he give in to the fashionable whims offered him by Mischief, New-Guise, and Nought?

For further information please see our Current Projects page.

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