For many the image of a woman performing stand-up comedy seems like a fairly modern phenomenon, especially when listening to the constantly reoccurring debate as to whether or not women are funny. With strict ideas about a womans place being ‘in the home’ and backlashes against platform women and the fight for Women’s suffrage, the Victorian music hall would certainly not look like an obvious timeframe in which to begin an exploration of Women’s history in comedy. However, the enormous success, earning power and interesting material of the female serio-comic on the music hall stage gives us a complex insight into our comedy history. Serio-comics were performers who produced a mix of comic and serious songs and sketches, interspersed with patter and audience interaction. They relied heavily on topical and satirical comic songs and their material can be seen as an embryonic form of the stand-up comedy we enjoy today. These serio-comics would perform their material on the music hall stage as part of a variety bill during which acts such as dancers, acrobats, scenes from ballets and operas and animal acts would perform to a largely working class audience.
One of the most famous of these serio-comics was Jenny Hill (1848-1896) – known as “The Vital Spark.” Hill’s career began when she was 7 and played the legs of the goose in mother goose! Her most notable solo serio-comic successes occurred between 1870 and 1894 and it was during this time that she became one of the highest paid performers on the British stage earning as much as £80 for twelve nights work as well as having regular benefits held in her honour. At these benefits she was presented with gifts such as diamond rings and broaches. She performed a rich variety of material, mainly focusing on representing the lives and work of working class women but also including highly political songs (one seeing her perform as a female politician), upper class male personation and drinking songs. Although the press at the time constantly tried to belittle her achievements her reputation, tireless self-promotion though advertising and immense success throughout the country make her an intriguing and exciting lens through which to revaluate music hall and women’s contribution to comedy and performance.
– Lola Wingrove, theatre historian and writer for The Vital Spark
We’ve hinted at new things on the HIDden horizon. One of them is, on the surface, a big departure for us- but it’s very exciting. This is a new piece of drama, tentatively titled The Vital Spark. It’s the story of the life of Jenny Hill, the first woman to be recognised as a “comedienne”. Hill was a star of the late-Victorian music hall, who, like many performers since, combined humour, interesting characters, and a certain degree of social commentary.
Hill is the thesis subject of Lola Wingrove, a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol. I first heard Lola speak about women’s performance in music halls last year, and right away I knew there was a play in there waiting to happen. We chatted after her lecture about the idea of using her work on reviving Hill’s repertoire to create the basis for a play about the life of this remarkable Victorian performer. And now, in collaboration, we’re doing just that.
A new play… Victorians… on the surface, it’s quite different from what HIDden has done thus far. This project goes to the heart of our interests: a fascinating personality, and interesting story, and one that speaks to a specific aspect of the past, one that you might not know very well. Certainly it’s quite new to us! Moreover, it’s taking us all right back to the archives; there are no scripts left of Jenny Hill’s performances, and of course there is no film, so the challenge, to Lola as the writer and to the HIDden team in putting the production together, is to use original material to try to imagine what happened. As with our medieval productions, we know we’re not going to “authentically” “recreate” anything. What we’re hoping to do is to use the evidence that history has left us to create something new, something that will show you a bit of theatre history that you haven’t had the chance to see before.
Although we’re still in the early stages of this project, we’ve already learned quite a lot. In the weeks ahead we’ll have more interesting things to share with you: a bit about Jenny Hill and her life and times; the Victorian theatre; and just how we’re approaching the challenges of creating a new piece from historic documents. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together- it’s going to be an exciting journey!
Over the past year, things at HIDden have changed somewhat. Our co-founder Suzanne Fatta has moved on to new projects (and is doing amazing things in Buffalo, New York). We’ve welcomed new faces- our producer, Ian Murphy, and production manager, Nathan Bargate, came on board following last year’s very successful ‘Baptism’ in York, and their work is helping to move HIDden forward in more ways than I can count.
But the change that will become the most apparent in weeks to come is that we are making an attempt to move out of the Middle Ages. We’ve always intended to look at drama from various time periods, and we’re really starting to do so. We’re also engaging more with newer works about the past.
This may seem like a bit of a departure for a company that has primarily produced medieval plays thus far, but it really isn’t. The HIDden team has always found drama to be an excellent window into stories of times gone by… and what time doesn’t have its interesting stories and characters? We don’t want to limit ourselves, or what we bring to our audiences. It’s a bit of a challenge to me personally, as a medieval drama specialist, because that’s my comfort zone, but I think we’re all enjoying the opportunities that a broader historical and dramatic perspective offers. It’s easy to get into a cosy niche and stay there, but it limits your ability to grow creatively, and that’s a huge part of what the arts are about. Broadening our horizons means we’ll be able to bring fresher eyes to any play we’re working on.
If you’re a medieval enthusiast, don’t worry, we won’t be leaving the Middle Ages entirely. At present, we’re working on some possible medieval merriment with the amazingly talented ladies of Timeline Songs, whose speciality is the music of the times. But we’re also developing a production with Lola Wingrove about late-Victorian working-class theatre, and we’re reading through some interesting new scripts from a variety of places and times. Broadening our horizons… bringing you more interesting productions… it’s all grist to this ever-engaging mill!
Auditions this past weekend were great, but we still have a few parts to cast! We’ll be holding another round of auditions this Thursday, 22 January. They’ll be held in the Arts Complex on Woodland Road in Bristol from 2-6 p.m. Please email us for detailed information, readings, and to book an audition spot: email@example.com and see https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3amvuzl7g4n0qbx/AAAGjjnviSOaFXITUHdryZpja?dl=0 for the auditions information pack.
HIDden Theatre will be staging the medieval morality play Mankind for the Bristol Centre for Medieval Studies Postgraduate Conference, ‘Rule and Recreation’ on 28 February, 2015.
This weekend we will be holding auditions for this upcoming production in Bristol. We’re looking for enthusiastic actors to participate. For details about auditions and readings, please see: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3amvuzl7g4n0qbx/AAAGjjnviSOaFXITUHdryZpja?dl=0