Director’s Notes: Wrapping Up “Mankind”

Finishing up a show is always a mixture of feelings. Accomplishment. Pride. Exhaustion. And the process of looking back and analysing what went well, and what lessons were learned along the way.

Mankind had numerous highlights. A few weeks ago we noted some along the way, as they’d manifested thus far in the rehearsal process. Many of them carried through to the end. The absolute commitment and enthusiasm of the cast comes in first for mention, as it was both unwavering and crucial to the play’s success. Medieval plays can be hard going for actors: the wording is unusual or foreign, there are lots of long monologues, it’s not always evident what is happening. Our cast did a brilliant job of overcoming any confusion, and the progress with which they learned their lines and characters was remarkable. Every single rehearsal we saw improvement, and their best performance was the one in front of an audience- just what you want to have happen! I’m still in awe of how quickly they assimilated changes and adjustments: these were amateur actors and for the most part they did this as well or even better than many professionals. They brought ideas and tried them out, remained flexible in their thinking, and managed to make it look as if they hadn’t been working flat out for weeks. I really couldn’t be more proud of them.

I also just plain liked our cast as people. It often seems to me that the theatre attracts an unusually high number of interesting, intelligent, kind, generous, and dedicated people. Maybe that’s just the nature of the thing. But it makes work that much more enjoyable. Theatre friendships can be funny- because you all go on immediately to other things, people often don’t stay in touch, but whether we do or not, I consider myself fortunate for having had these people’s lives and work collide with mine, even for a short period of time.

We asked the audience for feedback, as we are in a process of determining where to move forward as a company. Their reception of Mankind was beyond my expectations. I’m especially pleased with the comments from those who don’t know medieval drama and who had come along warily, and were surprised by how accessible and engaging it is. That is exactly why we do this: to share the past in ways that surprise and delight. Any time someone says they learned something new- especially if that something is how interesting historic drama is- I feel like we’ve had a success.

In short, Mankind was everything we’d hoped it could be. If you didn’t have a chance to see it… It’s the kind of play I could certainly keep coming back to. Who knows? Maybe someday it will have another incarnation. And if it does, I can only hope it will be as much fun as this version was to create.

Updating the Style, Keeping the Substance

Translating an archaic script, as previously discussed, is time consuming and requires a bit of effort, but it’s not terribly difficult. The translation that does become a challenge is finding modern idioms, of cultural elements, that are analogous to those appearing in a historic script. The meaning needs to be similar, but the issues that resonate in one period often don’t a few centuries later.

Mankind presents this most particularly in the scene where the Vices try to re-style his jacket into something more up-to-date. Making him an absurdly short coat is only mildly funny today: unless you spend a lot of time on historic costume, you probably won’t realise that ultra-short jackets were the cutting edge of trendiness in the late fifteenth century. For men, the more wealthy and ostentatiously stylish you were, the shorter your jacket was. The trend-setters of the day would have been the younger gentlemen of the court, some of whom may not have come from old, well-established families, and who would be anxious to prove that they could fit in- what might snobbishly be referred to as “new money” today. The playwright of Mankind was parodying both the short style of coats, and also the sort of men who might wear them.

Simply cutting up Mankind’s coat doesn’t mean as much today, though, so we looked for an analogous stylistic language. What is considered trendy today, that might also be singled out for a bit of gentle teasing? What symbolises youth and ambition? Thus were born the hipster Vices. “Hipster” may be a bit difficult to define, but it’s written about as a subculture of young, relatively affluent people who consider themselves nonconformists (but are often noted to do so in the same way as one another), and are criticised for being pretentious; they strive to have a down-market, vintage look but have no aversion to the newest technology.

We didn’t choose this style to be critical of those who embrace it, but because it seemed a good, easily identifiable modern analogy to the ostentatiously trend-setting courtiers of the late medieval period, something that is sufficiently established as a culture/style but also comes in for castigation by others. It also seems to be defined from the outside: not many whom others might consider “hipsters” would self-identify as such, rather like Nought, who worries that he “might well be called a fop”, when clearly he is something of a dandy. And because the hipster style is quite identifiable, it seems likely that it will end up being very dated and of our particular era, much like the short jackets of the era in which Mankind was written.

 

There are always some imperfections in trying to update a concept which is particularly tied to a time and place, but we think that this one makes a lot of sense. It helps ground Mankind in the world of today as much as that of the past, reminding us that people don’t really change that much, and the world of the Middle Ages is not entirely unlike our own.

 

 

Director’s Notes: Mankind: First Rehearsals  

 

Mankind is approaching swiftly, and all of us at HIDden are running about making sure things are in order. The weeks leading up to a production are always exciting, and busy, but I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the more delightful aspects of our process thus far. It’s a snapshot of a bit of our “behind the scenes” life. Here are a few of my favourite moments:

  • While everyone works on Latin pronunciation, during blocking rehearsals we all just shout “Latin!” where a big chunk of it is in the script.
  • Trying out lots of different characterisations for Titivillus- because demons can be just about anyone.
  • Those moments where actors you’ve worked with before manage to take their work to a new level and surprise you with an even better performance than expected.
  • Getting to know and witness the incredible talents of new (and personally very lovely!) people.
  • When, as the director, I’ve read a line so many times and yet an actor comes in and reads it with a totally new delivery, and it brings out extra layers of meaning I hadn’t imagined.
  • Falling back in love with the play. By the time we hit rehearsals I’ve read it so often it’s lost a lot of its freshness, but as soon as it’s in the hands of the actors, I remember all the reasons I loved it in the first place.
  • That instant where I know that an actor understands their character perfectly and is bringing it to life in all the subtle and colourful ways that make it real.
  • Watching the cast bond. You always wonder, “Will this group work well together? Will they be able to support and challenge one another?” It’s always exciting to see that come into being.
  • Being constantly impressed by how quickly the actors weave little adjustments and ideas into their characters, and how it instantly clarifies things.
  • Group enthusiasm. Everyone’s been off learning lines and thinking about their characters; the energy of getting everyone in one room and starting to put it together is always special.
  • The surprise that comes when we hit the somewhat more bawdy parts of the play. Not all the actors had realised that medieval plays could be quite so “colourful”!

There is much left to do, but everyone is working really hard, and I think we’re all enjoying the process. I can’t wait to see what the next week will bring- and I hope you’ll join us at the performance, because all the signs thus far are pointing to a really great production!

Director’s Notes: The Fiction Behind Mankind

On these posts I try to give you some insights into the plays we’re working on- the backstory, the history that informs our work, and the occasional behind the scenes “here’s how we we’re doing it and why” perspective. This might give you the idea that the HIDden approach is a very academic, as well as theatrical one. There’s a fair bit of truth in that, but I don’t want you to think that everything is ultra-erudite or heavy going. Sometimes, the things that inspire us or make things click into place don’t have footnotes, and that’s what I wanted to share today.

Every time I am faced with medieval characters whose primary definition is “being a medieval peasant”, there is a book I grab off the shelf. It’s fiction- well informed, heavily researched fiction, but the point isn’t that it’s true or not, but that it speaks to something evocative that sometimes historical documents can’t reach. The book is called Down the Common, by Anne Baer, and almost twenty years after I first read it, I still absolutely love it for its non-romanticised, down-to-earth story of life in a medieval village. And it’s the first thing I will turn back to when working on the character of Mankind.

The people in the story are ordinary: some are more clever or introspective (Mankind might have understood them) and some are foolish; some are looking for adventures and some never want to leave their patch of earth. All of them are engaged in the everyday struggle to keep body and soul together: getting in the harvest, surviving the cold of winter, bringing up children who know how to behave in ways that won’t be destructive to the community. Their lives are in so many ways completely different from ours, but the getting on with every day is what most of us do today, too.

I think about those fictional peasants when I try to imagine Mankind’s life on an ordinary day, when maybe he hasn’t just heard a sermon in church and isn’t quite so anxious about the state of his soul. After all, despite his initial self-abasing monologue, we also see him carrying in with the plowing and planting of his fields, so we can assume that he does not spend all of his time bemoaning the state of his everlasting soul! It’s also easy, though, in reading this tale of the struggle of medieval peasantry, to see why someone like Mankind might yearn to achieve whatever behaviour will earn him a place in a heavenly afterlife. Their bodily existence is not one we modern folk would consider pleasant.

But neither are their lives unrelieved misery, which is something we may forget if we think of the Monty Python mud-peasants when we picture everyday medieval life. The Vices are the extreme end of the spectrum, but to use Mercy’s favourite word, within measure they represent the amusements- singing, dancing, joking, drinking, festivals, celebrations. The other thing I love in Down the Common is the delight people find in little things that today we would probably overlook. A sunny day means more. Freshly baked bread is a genuine treat. Someone like Mankind, clearly of a naturally spiritual turn, might find God in those moments- and perhaps he will value those things more, now that he knows what excess can bring.

I can’t tell you what will be in an actor’s head when playing the character (nor should I try!), but in directing it, the world created in that book is in the back of mine. It’s also just a really good read, and I recommend it to anyone, especially if you’ve ever wondered what’s going on way, way behind the scenes in “director brain” during the process of putting together Mankind.

How Many Vices?

The “imbalance” of good and evil figures in Mankind is something often noted in academic writing about the play. There are five villainous characters to the sole virtuous figure of Mercy, and given that Mercy does tend to embody some of the issues of which the others make fun, the actor playing him has a tough row to hoe, if Mercy is somehow to come out as a balance to the others.

The other difficulty, though, which is also well noted, is that the three N’s are relatively indistinct. It could be argued that they are an inversion of the holy trinity: three bodies with one essential being, and I think this is the likely reason why there are in fact three of them. But not all theological intention translates perfectly to the stage. If, in fact, the Vices were completely indistinguishable, this feature of the play might be more successful. There are, however, three ‘N’s’ but two characters. Nought stands apart as the “lesser” of the group, the one who is mocked by the others, who seems the most bumbling; Nought also says less than his fellows. Meanwhile, New-Guise and Nowadays are almost impossible to tell apart.

We’ve thrown various ideas around for different ways to work on this issue, most of which are concepts added on; the text just doesn’t support much obvious distinction between them. And somewhere along the way, someone asked, “Did these parts used to be one character?”

There is no evidence to suggest that Mankind had a previous incarnation with only two Vices. I want to state that very clearly. But looking beyond Mankind specifically, plays do get changed, often in terms of character numbers. I daresay it’s less common in the professional world (though I recall seeing a production of Hamlet years ago where the character had been split into three, so it does happen), but certainly in amateur theatre, parts are often split up, or new ones created, if there is a desire to have greater participation. The general consensus is that Mankind was not an amateur production, but a product of the early days of professional, touring theatre troupes in England. And yet it is generally understood that the parts of Titivillus and Mercy can be played by the same actor- and, presumably, can be played by different actors, depending on cast numbers. So while the N’s might not be where Mankind has demonstrable flexibility, there is at least some degree of it built into the play.

So… what would happen if the two indistinct characters were simply rolled into one? Having had the question raised, we decided to play with it. As far as the script goes, the answer is “relatively little”. Because of the patterns with which the three Vice characters speak, it’s quite easy to reassign most of Nowadays’ lines to New-Guise. In a few- perhaps five- cases they work better if shifted to Nought. And it ends up strengthening both remaining Vices as discreet individuals. It also cuts down, at least slightly, the numerical opposition to Mercy.

Auditions, as the first occasion of seeing actors’ spin on parts, sometimes give you brand new ideas. Sometimes they come in to read for a part and have an interpretation that you haven’t thought of, but that makes so much sense as to make you rethink the character altogether. (And this is the collaborative phenomenon that makes theatre so engaging.) We wanted to take that chance… and we saw really good people read. But we didn’t see New-Guise and Nowadays emerge in great difference, which confirmed the feeling that the two characters are just not unique. That’s not a failing in any of the actors who read the parts; it may be argued that it’s a failure on the part of the writer (though neither he nor contemporary audiences likely didn’t see it as important; these are, after all, broad allegorical types). Actors create a role, but they shouldn’t stray completely out of what the text offers them; if the text doesn’t offer anything, it’s fair to wonder if there isn’t a different way to do things.

The result is that we’re being a bit non-traditional in our Mankind, which was never intended to be an attempt at re-creation anyway. We’re going to try to see how the play changes if the redundant characters are merged, and hope that it gives the actors playing the Vices more to sink their teeth into, which in turn translates into more dynamic performances, and a play that’s just that much more entertaining.

DIRECTOR’S NOTES: REVIVING “THE BAPTISM”

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.

Our Next Production: Revisiting The Baptism

 We have exciting news! To our great delight, we’ve been asked to revive last summer’s production of The Baptism for the York Mystery Plays Conference on 1 August.

HIDden has always had a special connection with the Mystery Plays- it gave us our start. York’s plays are a unique event with a very long history, and it’s always an honour to be part of the community that continues to create new chapters of that story.

We’re also looking forward to reassembling the majority of our very talented cast! Mark Burghagen and Ehren Mierau will be reprising their roles as John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively. Our angels, James Wright and Kate Thomas, are returning. And our God, Charles Hunt, will be back in his heaven- all should be right with our world!

We can’t wait to get back on the waggon!

For more information on the conference, or to register, please visit: http://www.yorkmysteryplays.co.uk/2015-conference-1st-august-book/

In Conversation: The Late Victorian World of the Music Hall

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: I think it’s kind of hard to get one’s head around music halls today, we just don’t have anything like it. We don’t have different theatres for different socio-economic classes. Theatre is generally thought of as a middle and upper class thing now, because of prices, and the theatre of the common, for everybody, is television and film, so we don’t have relationship with the idea that there could actually be separate theatres based on who you are.

 

Lola Wingrove: It’s quite interesting because things like film was basically what killed music halls, film and then television, and television is blamed a lot for the downfall of film nowadays, because if you’ve got it in your front room why would you bother going out. Most people seem to be staying in their houses and aren’t really interacting in the same kind of way. One of the biggest draws in music halls was their sense of community spirit and bringing everyone together and making everyone feel like they’re sort of mucking in together, so to speak. Yes, I think it’s something that’s quite foreign to us now, when we think about it, it doesn’t quite work out. It’s a really interesting theatre format, but people can’t quite understand it so much now.

 

LR: Do we have anything analogous? I feel like there are different programmes that are aimed at different groups, but it’s not quite the same in live performance.

 

LW: No. I know people [have compared] the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” to the variety performance, because it’s the same sort of set-up of having people doing different kinds of performance, and you’ve still got that interactive quality, with people ringing in and voting and people talking about it in the street, and they’ll chat to eachother about it and read about it in the paper, so you’ve got that kind of weird community, in that it draws everybody in to talk about something in common. But one of the really great things that music halls did was actually reflect everyday life, a bit like soap operas do today, only the live format made it all even more immediate. They would have performers on stage that were performing for the people as the people you’d see selling stuff on the markets, or in the coffee shops. So although the kind of classed analogy is sort of there, it doesn’t totally work in that same sort of way. That’s why I think people have a difficulty understanding music hall.

 

LR: And the idea of variety, in a performance, because you don’t go to something where you’re going to see seven or eight different things, on potentially completely different themes in one night, we just don’t really have that anymore.

 

LW: That’s the thing, [there were] professionals going around and doing these different acts, and they would perform all across the country, so you’ve got professionals- animal trainers, acrobats, dancers, singers, comedians. And on the bills, quite often, especially towards the late Victorian period, the music halls would normally include a section from a ballet or an opera or something, so we tend to think of music halls as being these sort of rowdy, working-class kind of thing, and [we often think they were] a suppression, a way of keeping the working class away from the fine arts, but it wasn’t that at all. I mean, they were much better versed in ballet and opera and things like that than a lot of us probably are today, because of the fact that they would see it on a regular basis and get all these different acts. And we tend to think of the halls as being quite xenophobic because of the amount of patriotism and stuff like that, but for a lot of the halls, they actually employed lots of different acts from all over Europe, and there was a cultural exchange happening through the halls, which is quite often neglected and ignored as well, so it was quite a sort of novel and interesting experience. There are some acts that are just a little bit weird. Like, there was one guy and his whole act was just jumping up and down on the spot. No one has quite worked out why that was so popular, but he apparently just jumped up and down and everyone thought it was wonderful. But that’s the problem with performance history and archives, you can’t quite see how he did it in a way that was so hilarious.

 

LR: Where do their performers fit into the bigger arts picture of the times, and into society on the whole? I assume Jenny Hill wasn’t someone Queen Victoria was going to invite over for coffee, but maybe she would, I don’t know!

 

LW: Well, not Hill, but [her contemporary] Bessie Bellwood, she was invited by Princess Louise, by royal appointment, to sing one of her songs, because she’d heard the servants singing it and enjoyed it, so she invited Bessie Bellwood to go and sing to her. That’s how far it could go, if you had a really good, catchy song! Even royalty could invite you to perform.

I think at that particular time, because this is long before the royal command performance occurred, a lot of the middle and upper classes just tended to think of the performers as low and just weren’t particularly interested in them. They’d almost be sort of our idea of the reality show stars today, where if you were middle or upper class you’d probably have heard of Jenny Hill, and there are certain songs that you might even buy to play on your piano by her, but you wouldn’t exactly think of her in particularly high esteem. However, amongst the working classes… That is arguably a much wider base, because most of the classes would go to the halls, that was their main source of entertainment. Especially in the winter time when at home it would be very dark or you wouldn’t have enough money to get a fire going, you could go to these halls which were all beautiful and glittery and well-heated, so people would often go to the halls several times a week.

[With] that kind of audience base, performers like Jenny Hill were exceptionally well known, I mean they were really, really hugely famous, to the extent that when they died, in the funeral procession, they would have ten thousand people lining the street for them, these sorts of amounts. Definitely for Hill. Marie Lloyd was a very famous, she had twenty or thirty thousand lined up, lining the streets for her. So they were hugely popular and influential, with women in particularly. [Women would be] waiting for them backstage to give them presents. They had a lot of groupies, a lot of people were really sort of obsessed with them, and they were the stars who were used the most for advertising. They were the ones who were put onto cigarette cards or used to advertise [other things], in Vesta Tilley’s case it was clothes. And advertising gives you some power as well, so they were enormously famous, probably just because of that wide base, probably even better known that some of the legitimate performers, who arguably had the smaller audience base really.

 

LR: Is there any permeability between those two worlds theatrically?

 

LW: There was. Each year for pantomime the legitimate theatres stole a lot of the music hall and variety performers for their pantomimes, in order to get quite a lot more people in, and so even the middle and upper classes would have seen Jenny Hill in her numerous amounts of pantomime, so they did cross over to the mainstream theatres there, and there’s a lot of evidence of music hall performers being asked to perform, because even the legitimate theatres, they’d have a main play, but they’d quite often have a little bit of variety warm-up stuff before the main event happened, so they’d get performers like Jenny Hill to perform there. So there were definitely cases of that. And also, both amongst opera and ballet stars, there’s a lot of them finishing performing, and then going around to a hall around the corner and deciding to have a sort of knees-up but still perform again, and so there was quite a lot of moving across in that way. I don’t think there were so many legitimate actress who’d want to be seen on the music hall stage, so there’s a bit less in terms of cases of it going that way, but definitely in the other way it did work, and in fact I know they often said with Jenny Hill, that she was good enough and had been invited to perform in legitimate theatres as an actress.

 

 

The Vital Spark: A New Project

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!