York and The Flood in Medieval Drama

Living in York, one becomes accustomed to the rise and fall of the River Ouse, which can burst its banks and retreat several times in the course of a year. The degree to which it, and even more the Foss, rose over the recent Christmas period was horrifying, making a lake of much of the city. It seemed such a catastrophic thing, and yet many people had memories of similar events. This was not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. 2000. 1982. 1968. 1947. Amidst the usual flood-talk (floods are spoken of as being “of biblical proportions”; people comment that “if it gets much higher, it’s time to start building an ark”), it made me think of the medieval plays about Noah. With York’s rivers doing this watery dance throughout history, what extra significance might plays about the most famous flood have held for the city’s people?

All four of the surviving medieval mystery play groups have plays about Noah; it’s one of the standard Old Testament stories. York is the only one to devote two plays to the subject, splitting the story between the Shipwrights’ “Building of the Ark” and the Fishers and Mariners’ “The Flood”. (The connections between these guilds’ daily work and their dramatic subject is somewhat obvious.) The Noah plays are framed in part as marital comedy, with Noah’s wife refusing to get on the boat. Their squabble, which eventually results in either her acquiescence or being bodily hauled aboard, still protesting, is meant to elicit laughs. After all, the audience knows that Noah is literally on a mission from God and in the right; his wife’s stubbornness, therefore, makes her seem both shrewish and foolish.

It strikes me as interesting that the two plays (York and Chester) which are decisively attributable to a specific city, and moreover cities which are river-side and prone to the experience of actual flooding, use Mrs. Noah not just as comedy, but as a way of showing the poignant side of the Flood. She wants to stay with her belongings, work on her spinning, and talk with her friends. Her ‘gossips’ actually appear in the Chester play, and she laments their loss in the York version. After all, the story of the flood is not just to give Noah a pat on the back for being virtuous; it is the story of the death of the entire world. Only Mrs. Noah seems to have a care for the family and friends who are lost, and her wish to stay on her own patch of land, literally come hell or high water, is one that can be seen enacted any time waters rise. Among the hyperbolic canvas of a worldwide flood, messages from God, and a miraculous boat of epic proportions, Mrs. Noah is a moment of absolute reality, and heart-breaking empathy. Is it possible that the writers of these plays created such a character from their observations of their cities’ own high-water traumas?

Although I don’t know of any occasion when the Corpus Christi festival was cancelled due to high water (as it was occasionally for plague), York’s floods are certainly not a 21st century phenomenon. 2000’s flood was the highest “since 1625”, and it was already known to be flood-prone by the fifth century A.D. It seems safe to assume, then, that audiences to the mystery plays would have had some experience of what happens when the Ouse and Foss get out of control; and, in an era before insurance or government disaster aid, there were probably some who could all too vividly relate to Mrs. Noah’s desperate attempts to try to save what she had. Among the many parables and miracles of the Bible being enacted on their streets, the people of York probably had a slightly more intimate empathy with the Noah family’s experience than with many of the other biblical tales.

“The Flood” didn’t make it into the large-scale 1951 production in St Mary’s Abbey, which cut almost all the Old Testament stories, but it was the first chosen to appear on a waggon in the 20th century, as an adjunct event to 1954’s revival. It was repeated in 1966, 1969, 1973, and 1980. I suspect that there are many reasons for why this should be one of the most repeated waggon plays – easily recognised iconography, near-universal familiarity with the story, and the obvious but dramatic waggon-as-boat set (these being chief among the reasons it was chosen for our 2012 production) – but one can’t help wonder if there isn’t at least a subliminal nod to York’s experiences as a frequently-flooded riverside city as well.

One of the biggest documentary gaps in our knowledge of medieval drama is that of eyewitness accounts. We have nothing to tell us if somebody watching the Noah plays suddenly recalled how his own wife scrambled to save a bit of spinning she had been working on, when the Ouse started to invade their plot of land. Perhaps our only clue of their experience will come the next time we see the play, whether in the Minster next summer or on the streets in years ahead. York is an incredibly resilient city, which has been drying itself off and getting on with life for over two thousand years. When we see the play, will we remember watching the rivers rise? Or will we simply have moved on, accepting that this is what happens sometimes in river towns, all the while knowing, a bit like Noah, that someday our streets will again be under water?

Director’s Notes: New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve always loved the New Year. While I know that it’s a somewhat arbitrary construct, and every day is a new year from that day 365 days ago, it still gives me a pleasant feeling of both a fresh beginning and the satisfaction of completion. It’s a time to give pause for reflection on seasons past, and, for many people, a time when they deliberately contemplate things in their life that they want to change or improve upon.

I don’t go in much for resolutions; I don’t want to lose weight or run a marathon next year. Still, for anyone who works in a creative field, finding ways to keep growing and expanding, keeping the old grey cells humming away in new directions, is sort of a de facto New Year’s resolution, one you renew every year. (Hopefully it’s also one you manage to keep every year, too.)

Most years recently, my chief ambition for a new year has been “do more theatre”. Any fallow period where I’m not actively working on a production (even if I have other things on) is most uncongenial, so I always hope to keep busier with shows. Another one has been to read more plays, especially those outside my usual niche and comfort zones. It’s easy, especially if you have one foot in the academic world, to specialise too much; staying in familiar territory may be comforting, but it’s not really best practice as far as creative and intellectual growth are concerned.

On both fronts, 2015 was a more successful year than the previous one, and I’m hoping that 2016 will continue on that path. This year, though, my “resolution” reaches further: it’s not just do more or read more, but also see more. It’s very easy, when you work on productions frequently, to forget to make time to go to see theatre that isn’t your own – it can also be difficult to schedule. But there is so much out there, so much that’s really good, incredibly inspiring, and one needs those external creative jolts on a periodic basis.

I’ve always thought that one resolution that should be universal is to make an effort to simply keep learning. Maybe that sounds dull, especially if you’re enjoying some non-school time between terms, but new discoveries need never be reduced to something that might appear on a test. I always hope that people come away from our productions, or even from reading these essays, with some new nugget of understanding. I hope that will continue in the year ahead, and I also hope that the incredible amounts of learning that happen behind the scenes will as well. One of the best things about the past year has been seeing how much we have grown, changed, and learned from one another as a team; as we ring in the new year, I resolve to continue to be inspired and challenged by my colleagues at HIDden and our work together, and to do my best to pass that spirit on to you as our audience.

I hope we have the chance to see you at a production in 2016, and whatever your resolutions are, I wish you a joyful beginning to the New Year.

In Memoriam: Remembering Charles Hunt

Theatre can be a strange social world. As often as not, due to the off-kilter hours, the particular demands, and the immense dedication it takes, it becomes one’s life, not just one’s work. Friends within that world matter especially, because they understand it. But friendships within theatre are also sometimes peculiar. It creates intimacy rapidly, but its usually transient nature means that those friendships frequently don’t remain close. The ones that do manage to stick, however, become precious. So the loss of those people is keenly felt.

On the morning when we were waking up for the day of the Mankind performance, we were greeted with the sad news of the death of Charles Hunt, an actor with whom the HIDden team has worked for several shows. We were looking forward to seeing him at the performance, and so it came as quite a shock. Our last communications were his offer to loan us costumes if we needed them, and his good wishes for the show; which he hoped to attend. That, right there, summed up Charles. He was always supportive, always encouraging, and enthusiastic about medieval drama in a way that is somewhat uncommon outside of the academic community.

The comments which poured onto his Facebook page, maintained by his family, all seemed to speak of the two most profound qualities with which we too remember him: Charles was a true gentleman, and a devoted theatre person. It always seemed fitting that, at Christmastime, he annually portrayed Charles Dickens for evenings of dramatic readings; for Charles was the modern-day embodiment of the courtly Victorian Gentleman: a soft-spoken, kindly individual, who carried himself with a quiet grace.

We first met him as an actor who played Joseph in our London debut production. While the Nativity play we had chosen did not include the comical Joseph’s trouble about Mary, there’s no doubt he could have handled it. Charles had a good sense of the comic turn, but was also totally convincing as the protective and devoted Joseph who would be the infant Jesus’ Earthly father figure. When The Baptism came around in 2014, the decision to include God had already been made, and he was really our only choice for the part.

Our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, notes:

From a director’s standpoint, Charles was delightful to work with because he always had ideas and suggestions, but he wasn’t a backseat driver. He’d mention them after rehearsal, and if you wanted to try them out, he was happy to do so; if they didn’t fit in with a production, he didn’t push the matter. You could also always count on him to try what was asked and to be enthusiastic about any new project. When I remember him it will always be with the gentle smile he bestowed upon Jesus as he blessed him from Heaven in The Baptism.

The sense of history and performance that turned him into a remarkable impersonation of Charles Dickens every winter is probably what made Charles such a good fit with HIDden, but he also seemed to believe in supporting young companies as they found their way forward; in this respect we are not the only ones indebted to his kindness. It meant a lot that someone well established in the local theatre community shared our idea that the past is a rich field to mine for performance in the present.

Charles was that friend in theatre who stayed – a true character of the theatre, a fantastic actor, and an unconditional source of support – we will miss him very much.

How It Translates, Our Artistic Director’s Approach

When people find out that I’m working on a medieval play, almost always the first question is, “Are you doing it in modern or Middle English?” These days the answer is almost always modern, because despite enjoying it myself, I’ve come to recognise that Middle English is really challenging for audiences, and, unfortunately, often cuts them off from really getting to grips with the play they’re seeing. The next question tends, from academics, to be “Which edition did you use?”, and from non-academics, “How did you translate it?”

Despite how different it looks on the page, Middle English is not actually that difficult to get your head or tongue around. In fact, sounding words out aloud, the way kids learn to read, is a good way to make sense of it on occasion; the spellings will be peculiar, but once you hear it spoken, you’ll usually know what it means. So I’m never entirely sure that it’s really a “translation” proper. But, if you’ve been curious, here is how it happens.

First I go through the script and change any archaic letters into their modern equivalent. (For example: something that looks rather like the modern lower-case “y” is actually a “th”- it’s where we get “ye olde” from; it would have been pronounced as “the”.) Then I change all the really obvious words into modern spelling, which will usually be about three quarters of the text. Next come the words that are definitely in Middle English but whose meanings I have come to know over the years of working with it. I usually spend the better part of a day with a thesaurus, trying to find the closest word in meaning and colour, that also keeps any rhyme schemes and meters that might be present. About half the time, I can find a good translation that keeps the poetry and alliteration intact. When I can’t, I have to make some executive decisions. Will the audience make sense of an unfamiliar word from the context? How important is that particular word, or is the primary meaning conveyed elsewhere in the line? In some instances, I’ll leave the Middle English word in, feeling pretty sure that it won’t be detrimental to conveying the story or characters. In others, I’ll have to make the decision to disturb the carefully wrought meter or alliteration for the sake of clarity.

The biggest challenge is tracking down the words that I don’t know. Middle English can be difficult to look up (absent having a university library’s resources at your fingertips, and I usually work at home) because the spellings are so capricious; in some cases the word’s definition might actually be speculative and uncertain, and in others there might have been a clerical error which muddles the picture. There’ll usually be one or two that completely stymie me, which warrants a call to medievalist friends to pick their brains. In the end, it’s pretty rare not to track down some idea of what a word should mean. With that done, I repeat the process of trying to decide if I can keep the ancient word, or wrestling through trying to find an appropriate substitute if I can’t.

Invariably, there will be a bit of Latin. This is one area where I suffer as a medievalist: my Latin is virtually non-existent. That’s more time with dictionaries, Latin translation webpages, and usually some phone calls to colleagues who don’t mind helping me with tricky bits. (The up side to this is that I’ve picked up a bit more of the language than I would probably know otherwise.)

Only when I’ve got it pretty much solidified will I pull the editions off the shelf. My purpose in doing so is simply self-editing: I want to check that I haven’t misunderstood anything, that their glosses on words match my translations. I always look at as many as I have or can get my hands on, because sometimes they don’t agree on specific words, and sometimes one will have a more precise meaning that I need to contemplate. A lot of editions will also have commentary on parts of the play, which might clue me in about why a particular scene is written in a specific way.

It’s only after the script has been brought into the twentieth century that I start contemplating any necessary changes or cuts. I know that to some people this is anathema, and it may seem to go against my earlier assertion to trust the text with which I’m working. That trust doesn’t mean a play is perfect, though, or that as it has come down to us it is perfect for what we’re doing. It does mean, however, that I can tell you exactly why I’m changing things, and how I’ve done it; I don’t just go in and start chopping. Our rearrangement of the Vices in our current production of Mankind is a good example of this: it may be unorthodox, but I think that it helps make the play a little bit neater for this production. (If “re-creation” or “authenticity” were our intent, I would not have made that sort of change.)

Translating is a rather tedious and fiddly process, but it has the definite benefit that, while I may not have it memorised, I do know the script really well by the time we get into rehearsals, not just conceptually, but in a structural sense, how it is put together as well as what it is saying. And it’s easier to sort out any confusion the actors have with what is still a pre-modern verse piece. In the end, we have a script I’m happy with, which stays fairly close to the original.

From The Director’s Desk: Auditions From Another Angle

The song “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line is the inner workings of the mind of actors as they approach an audition. Though the characters in that story are hoping to get roles as dancers on Broadway, their thoughts, about how badly they each want the part, and their fears about whether or not they will be good enough for it, are things that flit through any actor’s head as they go into an audition.

The show doesn’t really deal much with what’s going on in the director’s head, however. Perhaps it’s because there are a lot more actors than directors, or because the director is presumed to be coming to an audition from a place of power. After all, they’re the ones who get to decide on the casting. But as we’re getting ready for auditions for Mankind in a few days, I wanted to share some thoughts from the other side of the desk. If you’re thinking about auditioning (and I really hope some of you are!), maybe it will help to know some of the things that might go through a director’s head during the process.

There’s a very fine line between excited and nervous, and I’m probably walking it just as much as you are. I absolutely love seeing the way that different people approach a part, and a lot of ideas get generated in seeing what actors bring to different roles. But I’m also nervous because I want to make sure that the right people end up in the right parts, that the cast will work well together as a group and complement one another’s talents, and that each actor will be challenged throughout the production. It’s possible to get it wrong, and that fact is always in the back of my mind.

I really do want to see every actor who auditions do well. I’m rooting for each one of you. I know that audition nerves can really trip you up, and I know that just because maybe you stumble on a part on that particular day, it’s not necessarily something that will be a problem in the long run. It’s my job to try to see the bigger picture, and the little bobble that you’ll beat yourself up about on the way home is probably not the most important moment of your audition ‘performance’.

I know that auditions are, in many respects, a flawed way of testing people’s acting skills and suitability. There are actors who are horrible in auditions routinely but fantastic throughout rehearsals and performance; there are those in the reverse. It’s one day- one moment- of your life, it’s only a tiny sliver of your abilities on display, and it’s only what you can do at that exact moment. It’s a mirror, but an imperfect one.

There are a couple of things that I hope I get to see from actors. One is a genuine enjoyment of performing. Whether it’s a serious play or part or not, there is an energy to creating a role that makes a difference. Creating theatre is hard work, but it should also have an element of fun, too. I look for creativity, for people who are willing to stretch themselves, rather than being locked into a specific idea of a character or part. I want to know if actors can take a suggestion, run with it, and mold it into something uniquely their own.

The best part of auditions is that it’s our first chance to work with actors in the roles, and seeing the play start to come alive beyond the ideas in our own heads. It’s the first baby steps towards what the full production will become.

So if you’ve had thoughts of getting involved, know that we will be really thrilled to have you along, and that we’ll do everything we can to make it a chance for you to shine. And know that if you’re nervous and excited, you’re not alone.

Bawdy Morality

“Nothing in the canon of English drama sounds more dreary or uninviting than the ‘morality play’.” So writes Ron Tanner. (Humour in Everymand and the Middle English Morality Play’, Philological Quarterly, Spring 1991, p. 149). I’m hard-pressed to argue with him. The word ‘morality’ has all the sparkle and excitement of unsalted porridge. We associate it with something preached at us, generally from a place of judgement rather than suggestion; morality is what your elderly grandmother wanted you to have. On the whole, modern society has come to view the word ‘morality’ as the antithesis of ‘fun’.

Up to a point, the character of Mercy would agree with that. His argument- which Mankind misses or ignores for the majority of the play- is that there are more important things than amusement and instant gratification. But Mercy isn’t really an old fuddy-duddy, intent on making everyone miserable in the name of seeking virtue. “Distemper not your brain with good ale nor wine wine,” he says before adding, “I forbid you not the use. Measure yourself ever.” It’s okay to have a good time, to drink and be merry. Just don’t let that be the thing that drives you. Quite apart from theological implications, Mercy’s recommended pattern of living- moderation in all things- is entirely sensible.

Particularly for those who don’t make a study of history, it can be hard to remember what has come in between the writing of Mankind and today. The writer, performers, and audiences who saw it originally didn’t have the Puritans and the Victorians standing between them and the material. We do. In the Victorian and Puritan worlds, ‘morality’ was a rigid code of behaviour, thou shalts and shalt nots, in a completely different sense than existed for medieval people. Our notions of the dullness of ‘moral’ behaviour have been coloured by those intermediary lenses. So while it’s true that, even by medieval standards, Mankind had its share of bawdiness, that wasn’t at all incompatible with a moral lesson.

Thus we get a play full of the kind of jokes that would today earn it at least a rating of ‘parental guidance suggested’… and it’s still about how a man finds his way to faith and goodness. Perhaps it succeeds even better than a dull sermon (which it parodies in Mercy’s opening speech) because it is willing to embrace the reality that people like a good off-colour joke now and then. By drawing the audience in and engaging them through humour, however “inappropriate”, it entertains us long enough to stick around for the ending.

Mankind is the “unporridgey” morality play. If you’ve never seen one, it’s a very good starting point, and it might just surprise you.

Revisiting Mankind

Programming upcoming shows is often a challenge; there are a lot of factors that go into the decision of what we’ll be working on (and there are always a lot more ideas in the works than you see at any given moment). We want to find plays that will be interesting for our audience, and which give us new challenges. Particularly given this latter consideration, it may seem counterintuitive to revisit old ground, but on occasion it feels like the right decision.

Our autumn production in York, “Mankind”, is one we’ve played with before. Last February we staged a reading of it for an academic conference in Bristol. (You can read some of our thoughts on that in earlier entries on this page.) After completing that project, we agreed that it would be nice to stage it as a full production. We had a lot of fun with it last winter, and we had a terrific cast who really put a lot into it, but the same circumstances which made it a reading rather than a full performance meant that we felt there was a lot more to be got out of the play. “Mankind” is a pretty physical show- after all, the dichotomy between the desires of one’s earthly being and man’s higher ideals is what it’s about. The demons should really get a chance to interact with the audience, to put into physical being the sense of fun that is so seductive to Mankind.

The nice thing about re-exploring a familiar show is that you have the chance to look at different parts of it, to emphasize different things, and to use what you’ve learned previously. I remain convinced that a sympathetic, approachable, and above all human Mercy is really the linchpin of the play. Without that, Mankind’s despair has no remedy, but moreover, he has no concrete reason to return to Mercy’s precepts. A more restrained set of demons, however, allows for a quieter interpretation of Mercy; with the demons really let off the hook to play, Mercy will have to possess a greater strength, and on occasion anger, to balance them. This is not to suggest that any of the characters should tip over into becoming caricatures; on the contrary, their ability to remain real is maybe even more important, particularly if, good or evil, they are making an attempt on the souls of the audience as much as Mankind.

A second look at a show is another chance to tease out new things. After all, with historic drama, every time a show is revived, it’s getting a new life, a new look, and adding a new layer to its own history. And every show comes with a new cast, and each new group of people bring something different to the table. I’m looking forward to taking another look at “Mankind”, and see what turns up. Chances are, it’s something I haven’t even imagined yet.

Everything Live

It’s a truism of working with historic drama that you can never really recreate the experiences of the past, for performers or audiences. In recent readings for The Vital Spark, I came across a comment about the way that encores used to involve a performer singing a favourite song over and over again, because there were no other chances to hear it. As someone who plays songs on loop for hours, or days, while I’m working on a project, or to learn the lyrics, as someone who used to hit rewind and play on cassettes dozens of times in a row, this struck me as a window into how truly foreign the past is. Leaving aside the philosophical questions of performative ephemerality, this is one of those vastly profound differences between the experience of the modern world and that of the past. I cannot conceive of life without my recordings or videos, yet for most of history, every performance happened once, and never again.

For the actors, this might not have mattered tremendously; if they were performing the same show for several nights or weeks at a run, the experience probably closely resembled that of today: each one is different, but in an ideal world they are as close to identical as possible. Perhaps for musicians it offered a different challenge: every song would have to ‘stick’ from the very beginning; there would be no room for a piece to grow on you over time or through replaying. Certainly for the audience it must have been very different from today. The only chances you ever had to experience a performer’s gifts were right there, for that little space of time. No recording to take home at the end of the night, no album to learn before going to the gig, no television special where you might pick up some familiarity with the material. And if you particularly loved some aspect of a performance, it could only ever live in your memory. Moreover, the experience could only be shared with those who were also there; you couldn’t simply pass over the earphones and say, “you’ve got to hear this.” Maybe you’d take home favourite songs to sing with your family, or some of a comic’s jokes would make it into your own conversation. I have to wonder if this created a different kind of memory- not just of the thing itself, but the actual human mechanism for mental recording, a capability that we, with our ability to record the entire world electronically, have lost. (Could anyone today repeat the feats of Homer, reciting his epics?)

I wonder if it created a secondary, private round of performances. Did people go home to friends and family who hadn’t been there and, in trying to explain what they’d seen, end up acting out their favourite parts of the performance? Did they ever do it as a way of keeping that memory alive? Most recordings, audio or film, are not made as a document for posterity. They are made because we understand that someone who has experienced a performance might like to see or hear it again, or because we know that there are those who would like to be there in person but can’t. But before the twentieth century, to miss a performance was to miss it forever, and to see it again you had to be there again- and could only do so for the length of the run. Surely that must have created a unique emotional connection, for we hold in different value those things which are limited.

And surely, too, something has been lost to us with the illusion, however inaccurate, that we can capture a performance forever, to be replayed as many times as we choose. This is one aspect of historic drama that we can’t even approach recreating, because we know that the world is full of options for ‘capturing’ the event for infinite encores. This is the opposite of the side of me that obsessively records, photographs, and collects. I’m not sure I could give that up. But these thoughts will certainly give me pause the next time a show is about to go up and a find myself setting up the tripod.

DIRECTOR’S NOTES: Making New Things From Old

Lola Wingrove and I recently spent an afternoon checking in with ‘The Vital Spark’, our play about the life of Jenny Hill, comedienne of the late-Victorian music halls. It’s coming along well. Lola really knows her subject, and she’s very capable of bringing Jenny to life for me in description, so it should be exciting to watch Jenny emerge on the page and stage, as well.

One of the particularly exciting things we did during the afternoon was listening to some of the music she’s recorded from sheet music from Hill’s career. I had an idea of what I thought ‘music hall tunes’ would be- and they were nothing like it. There’s a lot more variety than I expected, even some in minor keys (not at all the cheery, vacuous oom-pah sort of ditties I was expecting). Most of the songs are quite narrative in terms of lyrics, but many of them have a final verse or two that turns the entire meaning on its head, and it’s very clear why Lola has pointed out that Jenny Hill’s songs were political in nature. Leave those final verses off and they might be just another story, but when they choose to make a point, they’re not very subtle. I’m trying hard not to picture Jenny as the Victorian theatre’s answer to Saturday Night Live.

A challenge for Lola- a fun one, I hope- is that, while Jenny jumps of the pages of historical documents, the other characters in her story and our play are either just names, or are completely original creations. They are up against some challenging competition, because Jenny comes across so vibrantly, but they will ultimately need to be just as real as she is. It’s easy, when working on a historical character or situation, to get quite reliant on there being material to work from; I think we both found that, initially, at least, it takes a sidestep in thinking to balance that very documented person with characters whose histories must be entirely imagined. Of course, the actors will ultimately have a major hand in their creation, but they all need to have something from which to work, not just the person playing Jenny. That said, I found it really enjoyable to work with Lola to try to imagine a person into being from nothing.

I don’t want to give too much away so early on, when the play is subject to so many potential changes. But I will say that I really can’t wait to get Jenny onto the stage, where you’ll be able to see her in a lot of different roles and situations. I’m starting to feel like she’s a person I actually know, and she keeps challenging my expectations. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future she’ll do the same thing for new audiences.




If you’ve been following us on Twitter (you do that, right?), you may have noticed a lot of recent tweets about “IMC2015” and rather more academic comments on medieval drama. That’s because last week was the Leeds International Medieval Congress, one of the two major international conferences for medievalists. It’s one of the highlights of my year, because one does not often get the chance to spend several days thoroughly buried in one’s pet subject, among like-minded people.


Despite the fact that I’ve mentioned medieval drama, you’d be justified in wondering why I’d go on about this to you. I think of it like this: we go to conferences so you don’t have to.


This is one of the ways we get the “information” that makes our plays “historically informed”. Although some of the issues discussed at a conference like this may seem highly abstruse, and you might never be able to point to a specific moment in a play and say, “There. That is how they used it”, everything that gets learned at a conference- or, maybe even better, every issue that is raised but remains unresolved- goes into the way that I think about the plays that I direct. Dramaturgy and academia are awfully similar, and any responsible director does their homework before tackling a new dramatic project. Of course, this is even more important in our case, because we couldn’t do a very good job of bringing history to the stage if we didn’t know what it was!


The other thing that I love about conferences like Leeds is the fact that they’re a chance to talk over ideas about historic drama with others who work on it, many of whom literally wrote the books on which this field is based. It is an absolutely lovely, incredibly supportive community, full of truly brilliant people. I don’t think I’ve ever left a conversation with any of them without having new insight, new questions, and above all a renewed ethusiasm for historic drama.


One of the issues which came up briefly that I want to explore more is the difference between ‘re-enactment’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘revival’ in terms of staging medieval (or any historic) drama. The terms get used somewhat interchangeably, but I think they’re all very different. At HIDden, I think we live mostly in “revival” camp. We’re not necessarily trying to show you how things were (or may have been) in any of the time periods of our plays. And while we may be asking our own questions about what the demands of the text are, what staging options might work compared to what we know of the techniques and spaces available in the play’s original period, or how various styles of acting may have changed an audience’s understanding and engagement with the play, our ultimate goal is to give our audience something they can enjoy and appreciate. We want them to be able to find echoes of our stories in their own lives and experiences. HIDden always hopes to bring a play to life for the people who are seeing it, which invariably means making some compromises between the times and experiences of the play’s history and its situation in today’s world of performance and reception.


Another topic of discussion, which has been repeatedly cropping up at medieval drama gatherings lately, is what the future of the academic discipline might be. I’ll be talking about this again in the future, but to put on my hat of prognostication, I think that one of the ways forward will be more people looking at these plays who aren’t from the traditional disciplines of history and literature, and who might be from outside the formal academic community altogether. Performances that are divorced from academic institutions seem to be on the rise- like ours! The importance of the audience and its experience, both in academic study and in actual production, will continue to become more and more important. And modern- dare I say ‘revival’- productions will become an increasing focus of study in their own right. Those are just my guesses; we’ll have to wait and see if they come true.


One more “future” prediction which came up was that of interntional dialogue about the medieval dramas beyond Britain. Of course, those on the Continent are- and long have been- quite aware that they have extensive traditions of medieval performance. We here in Britain haven’t always paid as much attention to that, and I admit to being guilty of this myself; being monolingual is very limiting. While I’m not going to turn into a multilinguist, fortunately more and more of these European plays are being translated, and opening up these plays for those of us who are hobbled by language limitations. This makes these plays, many of which sound immensely interesting, potentially playable for British audiences, and I hope that someday we’ll have the chance to produce a few.


Now that the Leeds conference is over, of course, the immediate future, for me at least, is work and study. I’ll be returning to “The Vital Spark” and the Victorians, but I’ll be keeping these thoughts from the conference in my mind for the next medieval project.