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.