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.

DIRECTOR’S NOTES: Trusting The Text

Every now and then there is a moment which shifts the way you look at things. Sometimes it’s something you read, or an image, or a conversation. We all have a lot of these, and hopefully they stay with us, so that we don’t lose the wisdom contained in them.

I can’t remember where it was, or even when, but somewhere in the earlier years of my career with medieval drama, I heard a phrase that has stuck with me ever since.  Alexandra Johnston, one of the driving forces behind the Records of Early English Drama (REED) and Toronto’s legendary Poculi Ludique Societas, has on many occasions reiterated a mantra about performance: “Trust the text”. It’s such a simple thing, but in its simplicity, also a “lightbulb” moment.

In approaching a script, there is sometimes a tendency to trim a bit here, to cut a bit there, to rearrange, because of a fundamental belief that there is something wrong, that a section is too long, too boring, misplaced. This tends to be particularly true in medieval drama, the result, I’m sure, of the centuries during which it was reviled and degraded as “uninteresting” and “unplayable”, a naïve dramatic tradition which only served to highlight the brilliance of the drama which subsumed it. But that brilliant drama- Shakespeare’s- is also frequently subject to the pruning shears. (How often does anyone do Hamlet in its entirety?)

I’m not suggesting that you can or should never do any editorial work; and sometimes it’s not even a choice so much as a necessity (if you have to fit a production into 2 ½ hours, you’re stuck with it). But those words still ring true to me. Trust the text. Assume that the person who wrote the play knew what they were doing, and that those words- all of them– are there for a reason. After all, these aren’t Victorian magazine serials; no one is being paid by the word. If they’re there, they’re serving a purpose, and it’s your job as a director or actor to parse out what that purpose is.

That way, even if you do have to alter the script in any way, you know why you’re doing it. You haven’t just dismissed the play as being faulty, a thing waiting around for your adjustments to make it perfect. Not only is that a bit of hubris, it’s also a bit of laziness. It’s your job to work with the play, to serve its needs in a way that presents its story and themes best, using it to bring out points that you find relevant and interesting, but not doing violence to its essence. If you don’t believe that and trust it, why did you choose to work on it in the first place?

Trusting the text can be challenging, especially if you’re working on an unfamiliar genre or within a historic context that is unfamiliar. This is why historically informed drama emphasizes that second word. If you’ve done your homework, the unfamiliar will become less so, and the text will seem less foreign. And sometimes that study can make a play that might, on an initial reading, seem dull or unplayable, take on a whole new and interesting colour. I defy anyone to see “Creation” from the York Mystery Plays in 2014 or 2010 to think it boring, but I can understand why, without that foundational knowledge, anyone who stumbles onto the script would wonder how it could ever be made performable.

Of course, you don’t always have a finished text in front of you. With a project like “The Vital Spark”, it’s not immediately about trusting the text per se, but trusting the writer and the collaborative process, with faith that in the end, the text will be as it ought. The words might not be there yet, but the structure and story and themes and characters will emerge as they do, and the resulting production will require the same belief in it.

In the heel of the hunt, theatre is about communication. It’s about ideas, expressed through words, actions, and images. There are a lot of acts of trust which transpire in any performance- between performers, between the people on and behind the stage, between all of them and the audience. But first you have to believe in the play itself, and give it as much support and opportunity to thrive as possible. If you trust the text, you might not create a brilliant production, but at least you’ll know that you gave it the best foundation you could.


I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.


Laura Rice: Are there a lot of women in music halls at this point? Obviously we’ve mostly talked about Jenny, but you’ve mentioned Vesta Tilley, Bessie Bellwood, Marie Lloyd… are there a fair number of women doing the same thing?

Lola Wingrove: When Jenny Hill started her career, it was still a little bit rarer and she was quite pioneering in her performance style of doing a lot of political performance, but it became a really big thing. In fact, in 1891, there was a report in the Theatre and Music Hall Journal that stated in the run-up week to Christmas, out of all the sketches that were on in London at the time, there were 76 female comics starring in them, and only 74 men. There were actually more women, although not by much, it was pretty much 50-50, but a little bit more women. And when you look through the newspapers (although at that time, the male and female adverts are separated) and you look through the lists of the female comics and serio-comics, it’s huge numbers, really massive numbers. People don’t think [of them], but there actually were an awful lot of women.

LR: We have such an image of Victorians being anti women in general, but on stage in particular. I know there’s a number of really famous “legitimate”, quote, actresses around from the same period, but you don’t think of them as being an equal number, in professional performance, at all.

LW: I think the thing is, there were a lot more legitimate actresses, but they were still always thought of as being a bit loose moralled. But I think the difference with the music hall performers is about class. There are quotes at the time about platform women and suffragettes, about how it was unwomanly to be seen to be speaking in public, and this sort of idea, but a lot of the music hall performers were working class and were very poor when they started off their careers, and so in a weird sort of way, I guess they probably didn’t mind losing their reputations, they made up for it with the ammount of travel, money, and independence they could get from the music hall stage. A report from 1981 says that on average an actress in the legitimate theatre would get about two or three pounds a week, to live off, to buy costumes for the shows they were in, all that sort of thing, whereas around the same time, Jenny Hill would get about 80 pounds for twelve nights’ work, and would get lots of benefits thrown for her. She’d be given diamond jewellery, and be given all sorts of presents and things. I think women started to see that if they went on the hall stage, they could earn a ridiculous amount of money, and they had a really good say in what material they did, so although they were still looked on as being loose moralled, and having that sort of reputation, they were earning so much money and getting to travel around so much, I think they said, ‘well,  screw it.’

Again, we don’t tend to think of [women onstage], I think partially because of the fact that these women were belittled quite a bit by the press or weren’t  reported on as much by the press, and theatre historians since then haven’t really looked at them too much. But actually there were huge numbers of them doing really interesting work.

LR: And a woman was actually better off, financially at least, making a career in music hall than as a ‘legitimate’ actress?

LW: If you were good enough- Jenny Hill  got asked to perform as a ‘legitimate’ actress but she always turned those offers down, because the pay wasn’t good enough. That was the main reason she wouldn’t perform in “proper” theatre, it just didn’t meet her pay criteria.

LR: That’s fascinating, because you’d really expect that the kind of theatre higher up the social ladder would come with a better paycheque.

LW: In legitimate theatre, the women were normally just a supporting cast, there weren’t a huge amount of fantastic roles for women at that time, they were normally weak or portrayed as being hysterical. In terms of casting, [music hall] was much better- you could show off your talents. It’s Fanny Lesley, I think, who was talked about how, in the music halls, she actually got to dictate exactly what material she sang, what she did, so if she made any failures she only had herself to blame. But it’s that kind of idea, that the music hall stars didn’t want to go into the legitimate theatre, because they’d just be cast in these plays which didn’t really have any good roles for women in particular. You didn’t have that many options in legitimate theatre, while in music halls they could dictate their own material, get lots of money, and do whatever they wanted.

LR: It’s interesting, given how narrow our usual view of Victorian women and their world is, to realise that it’s both a financial decision and an artistic one, where playing music halls gives women more artistic flexibility and autonomy, and that was definitely something they wanted.

LW: That’s one of the things about Jenny Hill. It’s always made out [in the newspapers] like she had to perform because there was nothing else she could do, and it’s overlooked a lot that, actually, she always wanted to perform and it was her sort of obsession, and it was definitely her talent. She did actively look to do it. And the press tried to undermine her in lots of ways; they kept trying to pretend it was really bad for her health, and they would always call her a ‘clever little thing’, and they tried to imply that her farm in Stretham was bought for her by someone else, a secret male lover, or something like that. And therefore she would counteract it with all these adverts where she would put in exactly how much she was earning, to show people that although she was being framed in this sort of way, she wasn’t really like that, she was earning this money.

LR: So she’s really savvy about PR, and about making this a financially very rewarding career, and she’s also stubborn about having her autonomy and making sure people know about it. Such an interesting person, and she seems to go against so much of what we think is true about Victorian women. I can’t wait to get Jenny ‘back’ on the stage again!







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.



In most cases, a revival production doesn’t mean putting on an identical performance to an earlier one. It’s a chance to reconsider things, to make changes and what those producting it would probably consider “improvements”. After all, almost every show is a series of adjustments and compromises, many for very practical reasons, which hopefully do end up strengthening the finished product… but sometimes you do wonder what else a production could have been.

The Baptism is a rare exception. As we’ve been gearing up to put it on again, looking over old notes, photographs, and film, I’ve been reminded of how unusual that show was. No matter how I look at it, I keep coming back to the same thought: I would not change a thing. Of course there are infinite other ways you could stage it, some of which would work equally well. What made it ‘perfect’ in my eyes was the fact that it came out exactly the way it was intended. There were no compromises. It all just fell into place exactly as hoped, and those intentions were ones which worked.

The most important thing which went right in that production was, of course, our cast. While one tries very hard not to mentally pre-cast a show, I think every director has some idea of what their ideal would be, or at least what qualities they most want their cast to emobdy. Most importantly for The Baptism, I wanted actors who could make Jesus and John real. Medieval dramas are written to be extremely human, not at all the superhuman “plaster saints” that often characterize modern perception of Biblical characters. Moreover, only by making these characters emotionally real can the stories be compelling to audiences who aren’t present for spiritual reasons.

Jesus can be tricky to portray, since we tend to equate ‘holiness’ with ‘stillness’, and static acting makes for dull theatre. John the Baptist vacillates between anger, humility, and sanctity, all of which has to be played without going too far in any direction. Having worked with both Mark and Ehren before, I was thrilled when they were both available for the production, as I knew they would be completely capable of capturing these two characters as real people. Additionally, they have a great dynamic on stage together, which works so nicely for cousins Jesus and John.

The angels get to be a bit more formal and otherworldly, but they also need to be musical. It was so exciting to hear James, Kate, and Stephanie sing together- we realised right away that they would make a beautiful trio, and I don’t think, even after all the rehearsals and performances, I ever got tired of hearing them together. Stephanie, unfortunately, can’t be with us for the revival due to other commitments; she will be very missed! In what is probably the biggest change for this performance, we’re reworking the trio into a duet.

God doesn’t actually appear in the original version of The Baptism– it was the biggest liberty we took with the production. I’ve always liked the idea of using God as a constant character in the plays, even if he doesn’t speak or interact with the rest of the action, as a way of connecting the separate plays. His presence also has the ability to illustrate theological concepts that don’t really translate their meaning easily, which is why we decided to include him in our production. Charles might not have had lots to do during the play, but he was able to create a lovely paternal connection between God and Jesus as his son.

I thought from the beginning that the play didn’t want a lot of ‘showiness’ larded on to it- it should be simple, elegant, and dignified. The set and costumes had a medieval basis but I didn’t want it to be aggressive in its periodisation, and I think it managed to avoid that. Even the River Jordan, which was by far the most time-consuming piece to make, came out with the crazy-quilt effect intended.

If you had the chance to see us perform last year, the performance in August won’t be a big surprise. This is one occasion where it’s not about “how could we do it better”, but about revisiting something well-loved exactly the way it is. It’s nice to create a show with not regrets, and I hope that that affection we have for it is something, beyond the proverbial footlights, that we can share with the audience.



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.


Director’s Note: Changing Times

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!