Another get together for York’s Theatre People – Saturday 12th November 1.00pm

Following the success of our impromptu get together for members of York’s Theatre community last month, we are running the event again – this time with a little more notice!

This is a chance for anyone involved or interested in theatre to chat and network with like-minded people and we are considering making it a regular occurrence.

Check out the event on Facebook – we hope to see you there!

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York Theatre Meet & Greet, Saturday 8th October 2pm

We’ve all come up against obstacles when working on projects.  Many of us have shows and the like that we are working on – be they in production or still at the idea stage – that we would like to either market or ask for help with.  Some people may even want to get a foot in the door of the York theatre scene.

So, we have decided to throw an impromptu get together for the theatre people of York; partly to have the chance to introduce ourselves to some new people but also because we know the theatrical community has a lot of knowledge and willigness to share, but not everyone knows how to approach those in the know.

Check out the event on Facebook – we hope to see you there!

Historic Drama: an invitation or too big a challenge?

Our Artistic Director shares her opinions on the willingness of others to tackle historic drama.

Because we like to take an interest in theatre beyond our own four walls, and be part of the wider York theatre community, we recently attended the AGM for another local theatrical organisation. Among the interesting moments was their discussion of the inclusion of classical (read “historic”) plays in their repertoire. Although some people seemed quite keen on the idea, it was noted that the more recent occasions when a historic play was calendared, finding a director proved unusually difficult. I had seen notices for those plays and, had I not been tied up with academic commitments, would have jumped on the opportunity, so it had never really occurred that other directors didn’t feel the same excitement.

Is there something about historic plays that directors in particular find intimidating or uninspiring? I don’t really know the answer for sure. Inarguably, there are possible aspects to approaching historic plays that might give someone pause – but it’s hard to talk about historic plays as if they are monolithic. Medieval dramas will present an obvious challenge with language… Renaissance, perhaps, with poetry… the Victorians with a sensibility which seems melodramatic and over the top today… but these are different issues, and any director might be intimidated by one set of circumstances while feel totally okay with another.

One thing which might be universal to historic plays is the feeling that you have to do something “innovative” with them. After all, they’ve been done (and in some cases, done and done and overdone) before, so there is an additional pressure to be ‘clever’. There is also the pressure to create ‘relevance’, rather than letting what relevance is present in the play itself pop to the surface and speak to you. And yet there are an awful lot of directors who are thrilled to tackle Shakespeare, whose plays have some of the densest performance history (and therefore really require something special to stand out). They may feel this is mitigated, ironically, by its very familiarity: if you can be reasonably sure the audience already knows the story of Romeo & Juliet, you might think that you can and should push the boat out pretty far, and clarity is less necessary. (I passionately disagree with that theory, by the way, but I’ve seen enough productions which clearly relied on foreknowledge by the audience to know that sometimes, whether deliberately or not, a dependence on audience awareness is taken for granted.) Conversely, I wonder if some directors feel that ‘classic’ plays require a certain degree of reverence, and therefore circumscribe creativity.

Of course, there is also the possibility that directors don’t have an aversion to historic plays, so much as a preference for modern ones. If you’re hooked on contemporary theatre styles, or plays dealing with contemporary matters, then obviously a call to direct a three-hundred-year-old play might not be particularly exciting to you.

I can’t really speak to the motivations of others, only speculate; because I find historic plays fascinating, it’s hard for me to get into the mind-set of avoiding them. Ultimately, however, I wonder if (perhaps ironically, all things considered) categorising plays by the date they were written isn’t missing the point. A story is interesting to you, or it isn’t, and perhaps by emphasizing the date of writing blinds people to that. Naturally directors need some form of filter to decide what projects they wish to pursue and which ones aren’t for them, but I’m not sure if using a date is the best one possible. Do we do a disservice to historic drama by focusing on that aspect, rather than other ways of describing plays? I really don’t know. A feature which I find attractive may be the opposite to someone else, and anyway you couldn’t get rid of the knowledge that an older play had a long history even if you didn’t describe it primarily as ‘historical’.

I don’t have all of the answers. The only one that I firmly believe to be true is that, if indeed there are people who have an aversion to plays of or about the past, the only way to convince them otherwise is to keep putting them on, continuing to make them as interesting as possible, every chance we get.

So, What Do You Really Think?

As both a theatre director and historian, our Artistic Director has a variety of experience looking at the sincerity and manipulation of beliefs – themes which are present in both parts of A Journey with Jonson. Here are some of her thoughts.

Among the many things that is shared by theatre and studying history is the challenge of getting inside someone else’s head. Both often involve trying to come to terms with the possible reasons why people do certain things. In theatre about the past, there is an extra difficulty: not only is it a matter of trying to make sense of another person’s thinking, but it is about doing so when their entire world view, the matrix of their society and culture, was different. And yet, there are questions about what people actually thought which were probably just as valid in earlier times as now; the difference, perhaps, is that we are more comfortable with articulating them.

One of these unspoken questions is at the heart of Ben and Steenie, and is further explored in The Devil is an Ass: what do people actually believe, when are they putting on the appearance of a belief for their own personal agenda, and when are they using the belief of others for pragmatic reasons? If you’re a political or religious leader, do you truly buy everything you say? Or, with your “behind the scenes” knowledge, is true belief set aside for political reality?

Few occasions in history illustrate the possible views on these questions as well as the issue of witchcraft in the early modern period, and an accusation of witchcraft is one of the significant plot threads of Ben and Steenie. There seems to be a general consensus that many people of the era very sincerely believed in the presence and malevolence of witches among ordinary citizens – including, for at least some of his life, King James I/VI. But those frequently accused of being witches tended to be those (largely women) who in some way didn’t conform to community norms, so their accusations could be either the assumption that this nonconformity in some way truly indicated an evil presence, or was a more cynical attempt at bringing recalcitrant neighbours to heel through fear (without the actual belief that they were dabbling in black magic). Revenge for perceived wrongs – a direct abuse of the system – is another possible reason why someone might be accused, as is the case in Ben and Steenie, although in the play it isn’t entirely clear that this is in opposition to genuine belief; most of these situations aren’t mutually exclusive.

While Ben and Steenie silently posits these questions, and gives the audience different answers, The Devil is an Ass is Jonson’s more overt iteration of the issue. The play rolls its eyes at those who would believe anything and everything, but it also pokes fun at those who would take advantage of that blind belief. The fact that Fitzdotterel’s desire to meet a devil is patently ridiculous is also turned on its ear somewhat by the fact that, in the world of the play, devils are real, and Fitzdotterel’s wish is – unbeknownst to him – granted; Merecraft’s schemes sound absurd but aren’t as far off from real ventures as might be assumed.

One play approaches the questions of belief, sincerity, gullibility, and manipulation from a gleefully comic standpoint and the other from a more serious angle. There are no definite answers, as one can only know the answers within their own personal experiences. From our standpoint in production, the functional question is what an actor makes of these matters, and what answers he or she assigns to the part being played. These are the kind of choices that make acting the craft that it is. And the chance to explore different potential permutations of these questions is one of the great joys of working on plays about past eras. It may never give any definitive answers, but it offers insight into possibility.

Director’s notes: Visiting Bottesford

In preparation for our upcoming production of Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie our Artistic Director took a trip to one of the locations featured in the play.  She reports back and shares her thoughts on the practice of visiting the locations of events when working on dramatised history.

Recently I had the chance to visit the village of Bottesford as research for Ben and Steenie. I’d been there once years before, but this time I was looking with theatrical eyes: the goal this time was not to commune with dead ancestors but to get ideas about the place where the play is set.

There is a lot to be said for seeing the places where a history-based play “really happened”. The obvious assumption might be that this would be to get ideas for how to recreate those locations onstage, and to some extent getting inspiration along those lines does happen at times. This was less at the heart of the Bottesford trip, though, because we had already decided that the play would not benefit from too heavy a hand in terms of design. I am not a big fan of “heavy” designs for productions; “you shouldn’t go home whistling the scenery” is one of my oft-repeated beliefs. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is another. In short, I believe that the design should serve the play, not overtop it.

This would be easy to do with a play set in Jacobean England, because the style of the time, for those with the wherewithal, was ornate and extravagant. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was the word of the day, and this is visible even in death: the chancel of St Mary’s in Bottesford is crammed with glorious examples of sixteenth – and seventeenth – century tombs, multi-levelled and effigied. As much as I’d love to build the tombs of St Mary’s and give audiences the chance to imagine that space, the truth is that there’s not really any reason for it. Quite apart from the fact that at least one of them postdates the events of the play (in fact, some of them are explicitly referenced on it), they simply aren’t important to the drama. What matters is that certain events take place in a church: it could, conceivably, be the most humble local parish church or Westminster Abbey, the moment and meaning in the drama would be the same.

By the same token, there are some stunningly picturesque views of the churchyard from various places around the village, but they would require a West End budget and stage size – and then, too, it would be an act of self-indulgence, for that wouldn’t serve a dramatic purpose either. Beautiful vistas just aren’t what the play is about.

The other location in the play which features prominently is Belvoir Castle. Unfortunately, the Belvoir Castle of Ben and Steenie’s time is long gone, replaced by a crenellated Victorian pile. I didn’t visit it, since nothing of its fabric would be appropriate to the play. Any replication of the castle or its interior would always be of the imagination, although certainly there are other contemporary castles in Great Britain one could turn to for similar inspiration.

What this trip was actually about was just getting a sense of the place: how its various locations are laid out, and how the people of the play would have moved through and related to those spaces. It was very helpful to get a sense of where all these places are in relation to one another. The early scenes of the play have Ben Jonson upon the road toward Belvoir, and I now have a better idea of what that distance and terrain is like, and what sort of countryside he would have encountered that day. The relationship of the castle to the village was one I didn’t have a sense of prior to this trip. Some of the play’s characters who live in the village work as servants in the castle, and it would have been a bit of a walk, albeit over easy, flat terrain. Despite the distance, the castle dominates the landscape, and understanding that juxtaposition helps make sense of its relationship to the Bottesford inhabitants as they transpire in Ben and Steenie. It must have loomed in importance – and must have been an awesome thing to people who were living in one- or two-room cottages.

Getting a sense of the village as it must have stood is more difficult, because much of today’s Bottesford consists of modern developments. The fact that St Mary’s is as big as it is suggests that the village was larger than just a few houses or families. And its distance from the castle might suggest that the majority of its inhabitants weren’t directly dependent on employment there, which helps to make sense of the character Joan Flower in the play and her pride in her relationship as a servant to the local nobility.

Like so much research, it’s difficult to say how any of this will manifest itself once we get into rehearsals. But when approaching historical dramas, one would be remiss in not at least attempting to get a closer look at what remains. After all, although for our purposes they are characters in a play, many of them were real people, and trying to make sense of them and their world just seems a way of respecting that fact. Most of them didn’t leave any physical traces, but in Bottesford (as with Jonson’s visit to York) walking in their footsteps brings them, and the events of the play, just a little bit closer.

Someone in a Tree, History’s Audience

This week our Artistic Director considers the role of those who view and recall or record events in history – an audience of sorts.

In the musical Pacific Overtures (which, I think, is a brilliant piece of theatre about history, though it is not performed often), there’s a song called ‘Someone in a Tree’. It deals with an episode where no records were kept, and writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman had to find a way to both show this gap, and also make sense of it to the audience. Much of it is sung by a character who claims to have been a witness to these lost events, but at a distance, while hiding in a nearby tree, and so he can offer no details. The result is a song which says something incredibly interesting about history and the act of witness:

And there’s someone in a tree

Or the day is incomplete.

Without someone in a tree,

Nothing happened there.

I am hiding in a tree,

I’m a fragment of the day.

If I weren’t, who’s to say

Things would happen here the way

That they happened here?…

In a way, ‘Someone in a Tree’ is a brilliant reiteration of the hoary old question “if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to hear it, would it make a sound?” Of course the obvious answer is yes, because sound waves and physics don’t require participation by outsiders to occur – just as events and lives happen even if no one documents their stories – but then, the question wasn’t really about a tree in the first place.

History isn’t about what actually happens, because only those who are present in any given moment can know that, and even then an event or experience is interpreted by those individuals, filtered through their perspectives. The reality of history is that it is determined by what is documented and that documentation can build its own story, its own momentum, and effectively become known as “the true history” when there are no surviving witnesses. In essence, if no one records that a tree fell in the forest, it doesn’t make a sound across time, because there will be no way to know that it happened. (I do not, in this instance, mean “document” in a strictly paper sense: archaeology might tell us that this hypothetical tree had fallen; dendrochronology might tell us when; but if no archaeological research was ever conducted on that forest, the fact of the tree’s demise would be lost to us.)

What brought this to mind was reading about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh, which has been a point of inspiration and departure for our A Journey with Jonson, particularly in the play Ben and Steenie. That he went on this journey has been long known; that someone went with him to record the journey is a relatively new discovery (by James Loxley in 2009). It certainly stands to reason that he would have had a companion: not only would such a journey have been much more pleasant, and safer, in company, but if the walk was indeed part of a bet Jonson had made, as has been suggested, he would have needed someone to go along to make sure he did complete it to the terms set down. If Jonson had travelled alone, the lack of record certainly wouldn’t negate the fact that he did walk to Edinburgh, but Loxley’s discovery of his companion’s account means that we now know details of the trip that had, heretofore, been lost – and in being lost, they had effectively not happened to our knowledge. Historical discoveries are like that, a resurrection of sorts; they seem to bring to life events that had “unhappened” by virtue of being unknown.

While Jonson’s travels weren’t technically a performance, his companion acted as an audience. And this is a point where history and drama connect. The metaphorical tree falls whether or not there is witness and record, but it only leaves traces and continues to impact the future if it does in some way have, or creates, an audience. We are conscious of this sort of ephemerality in the performing arts but tend to forget that aspect when considering the past. We know more about Jonson now than we did twenty years ago, because his “audience” was rediscovered.

In Ben and Steenie, writer Brean Hammond has chosen not to include a character as Ben Jonson’s travelling companion. This character isn’t necessary, because the audience, in effect, becomes that extra entity. It stands in as witness to his experiences – and its participants get to see some events that Jonson does not, which adds an important layer to the question of what “really” happened. While there are elements of the play which are fictionalised, putting the audience in that all-important role as witness (as audiences, by definition, always are) becomes a reminder that even if our role in history is only to see it as it happens, that act carries weight. Whether onstage or in real life, we are part of the history happening all around us.

Difficulty with Theatrical Eras

Our Artistic Director gives some of her views on Theatrical Eras, and the idea that William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson are sometimes viewed as from different times.

Many of our brains like labels; box-like systems of organisation. It’s no accident that we usually divide history into defined periods – we have the idea that the years which fall within a certain era have some similar qualities, and are distinct from other periods. In a purely organisational sense, it gives us points of reference – for example, some historic records are organised by the year of a monarch’s reign, rather than the calendrical date. Americans might speak of “the Reagan years” or “the Clinton years” as a shorthand for the 1980s or 90s, and the assumed cultural aspects which are often associated with those times are often thought to have been reflected by those leaders.

Theatre is not exempt from similar concepts, but it is sometimes more complicated. For example, in my PhD thesis I had to argue that The Satire of the Three Estates, which dates from the mid sixteenth century – chronologically quite late to be considered ‘medieval’, should for the purpose be considered a medieval play. Part of my argument was that the people who were staging it in Edinburgh in 1948 considered it to be medieval, and they advertised it as such. This perception (probably due to it containing certain elements which were, and still are, often associated with medieval plays) influenced their decisions about staging, publicity, and probably audience reception.

Which brings me to Ben Jonson. In scholarly circles he would be comfortably considered an ‘early modern’ playwright, which is a nicely wide label. More generally, however, we tend to think of Jonson in two different ways. One is as a Jacobean writer. The other is as a contemporary of Shakespeare – who is generally associated with the Elizabethan period. Which appears to directly contradict that part about Jonson being a Jacobean playwright.

Apart from the monarchs who give their individual names to these eras, a lot of people naturally straddle two (or more) eras if one understands them in terms of who was sitting on the throne of England. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 – Shakespeare (born in 1564) outlived her by thirteen years; Jonson (born in 1572), by thirty-four. Both men were Elizabethan as well as Jacobean in their timeframe, and in their lived experience. After all, while that change in monarchy was in many ways a significant shift, the world simply did not alter completely overnight; it, and the culture around it, evolutionary processes took place over time.

Over the course of their lives, both men would have seen their world change, and the practices of theatre as well. And yet we (inevitably, but understandably) have popular ideas associated with these eras that colour our thinking about anything connected to them. Elizabeth’s long reign has the patina of success, of ‘Gloriana’, and the forward movements that we tend to call “The Renaissance”. “Jacobean England” seems less familiar (it hasn’t enjoyed the same profusion of exposure through films and novels, for example), harder to define, probably because King James himself was a very different personality, and ruler, than his predecessor. Offhand, Elizabeth’s life might be thought of as the era of the playhouse, where buildings were springing up devoted to performance, and a space where they could be enjoyed by all classes of people. Plays were becoming something you could read and own a copy of, rather than something you could only see once and that was it. By the time James VI/I appeared on the throne, neither the playhouses or the style of plays that had been written for them were quite such a new phenomenon; at court, the masque was the thing. Jonson wrote both plays and a great many masques, so perhaps this is part of why he seems to be more “Jacobean” than Shakespeare, who did not.

In terms of how we view them in the present day, I think how and of when we consider these men and their work to exist colours how we feel about their plays, and perhaps how they are approached. It’s possible that Shakespeare’s association with the Elizabethan era, the apogee of England’s experience of the Renaissance, is one of the reasons he has come down to us as our greatest playwright of all time. Jonson, more connected to James’s era, is associated with a time when the theatre was being questioned, when the Puritans were gaining ascendance, a timeless theatrically celebratory, and perhaps that has helped to keep him somewhat more shadowed: we may appreciate his plays less today because the people of the era could be considered to have appreciated them less. (This is not to suggest that this is the only reason, just a possible one of many.) Shakespeare’s “earlier” era gets the credit for innovation; Jonson’s, merely the carrying on thereof.

The question of eras and periodisation is all, ultimately, so much perception. One of the best descriptions of this I’ve ever found was about the fact that Persia and Iran are the same piece of rock: geographically identical, yet the cultural baggage and perception we often have of each is radically different. Where these early modern dramatists differ, I am inclined to think that, while we may want to assign different eras to them to try to make sense of the ways that Shakespeare and Jonson are different, it has less to do with their time periods, which were after all shared for many years. It was not their times which were so distinct and separate, it was their personalities and individual experiences which made them the playwrights that they were, and gave their voices such distinction.

When Old becomes New

After seeing a touring production of Mankind (a show with which we have quite a recent history) our Artistic Director explains her views on seeing someone else’s take on material with which one has previously worked.

When you work with historic dramas, there’s a fairly good chance that at some point you will have the chance to see another production of a play that you’ve worked on. In such cases, I find it impossible not to make comparisons, to have little voices in your head of the actors you’ve worked with saying the lines, to anticipate the cues that you’re used to.

This weekend I had the chance to see the production of play we have become quite familiar with – Mankind. By now I know that play inside and out, and have three different HIDden variants bouncing around inside my head. Sure enough, that echo was there in my ears, and there were definitely moments where I laughed unexpectedly because it brought back amusing memories. But it was a radically different spin on the play, a completely different style: you’d certainly recognise it as the same play, but it’s like apples and oranges – both fruit, yet very different guises.

This is why I think that the chance to see a play you know and have worked on, when done by someone else, is a chance you should never pass up. The beauty of historic theatre, that makes it so interesting, whether it’s your work or your hobby or just something you go to see occasionally, is that there are so many ways of doing the same piece. As I’ve said before, you can get it completely wrong, but there are also a lot of totally different ways of getting it right.

It might be easy to worry that, in seeing another production, you’ll have to face up to it being better than your own. Sometimes that happens. Other times you walk away wondering what on earth another director or actor was thinking. In most cases I’ve found, however, it’s actually not about comparative value judgements at all. Instead, it’s reassuring, a reminder that you don’t have to spend aeons hunting for “The One Best Way”, because it doesn’t exist. Somebody else’s creative choices might inspire something in you for the future; or you might really love a production and think it’s brilliant but also acknowledge that you simply have a completely different style, and there’s room in the world for both. Theatre isn’t a competition. It’s profoundly analytical – no matter what your engagement with it – but it’s not arithmetic, with one fixed answer and a limited way of getting to it; it’s a world of nearly infinite possibility. (People may talk about “definitive productions” but I personally think that’s the wrong end of the stick. Nothing is ever so brilliant and perfect that it could not be equalled under different conditions.)

It’s also possible that, after having spent a lot of time working on a play, you will have lost your ability to see it objectively, or joyfully. It becomes something where you feel that you’ve wrung out of it all that you could. Seeing someone else’s version of it helps restore perspective, helps you see all theatre with clearer eyes if your own are tired. It’s also just healthy to be an audience member, seeing things from their perspective. When you spend all your time on productions of your own, it’s quite refreshing to really laugh about moments that you had no hand in devising.

So here is my suggestion to you. Go out and see a production of a show you know – one you’ve done, or one you’ve seen before. Don’t watch it to pick a favourite – watch it to think about how each company came up with their different versions, and what each one highlights. Enjoy the fact that, whether you work in theatre full-time or see yourself as just an occasional audience member, you’re part of something so amazingly dynamic.

Pondering Historical Accuracy

Inspired by a BBC News article, our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on historical accuracy in drama.

History, theatre and their relationship – we’ve mentioned it here before, and probably will again, because it’s exactly what we do. So we take note when the question about the balance between them is debated in public, as it was recently in an article on BBC News.

The interesting thing is that it always seems to be an either/or discussion. “Artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.” “In one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact… Then there is the second camp.. which is history is always good and what’s really important is to make people excited about history.” The phrase ‘favoured over’ implicitly suggests that one must trump the other, while the division of schools of thought into ‘camps’ posits that there isn’t a possible compromise, not to mention the implication that people won’t get excited about history if it is fact-based. The question “is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate” – with answers given of yes and no – continues to suggest that, really, it’s not possible to responsibly chart a middle course. However, the question that isn’t being asked here is: what do we mean by accuracy? Once you start considering this, some of the either/or begins to break down.

If accuracy means that the costumes, set, and props are period appropriate: yes, that’s achievable, and if one of your production goals is to place a story in a time period, there’s not much excuse for getting that wrong carelessly, even it means that your audience will have to get used to something that looks a little bit different from their imagined ideal of that period. If accuracy means language: it may or may not be achievable. If you wanted to, say, create a play about the Roman Empire, are you going to do it in Latin? (And if you are – do you really know what the local accent sounded like?) If the goal is 100% authenticity, that’s a big hurdle to leap over, one that is automatically going to limit your audience to an extremely small number of people. If accuracy means trying to create the feeling of a period, for example in a play set in the past but made up of fictional characters: we’re moving further away from something achievable, because while you can aim to do so by putting in as many details as possible, most of us would be hard pressed to define the “feeling” of our own time, much less one we didn’t live in. If accuracy means trying to convey an idea from the past, rather than the past itself (for example, the way we approached Mankind), you simply can’t measure accuracy in yards of fabric or verb choice, and the definition of success in achieving it isn’t going to calculated in the same way.

What’s really being questioned in this argument about accuracy is what we do with plays when real historical figures are the central characters, when their lives, which we know from documentary history, are put onto the stage. And most of the argument is about whether the absolute facts are followed, in exact chronological order, in the precise locations where they were known to occur. This is where a degree of ‘dramatic licence’ becomes a point of contention.

But even here there are bigger questions that the debate tends to glide over. Let’s imagine that you’re building a production from primary source documents (such as what we’re trying to do with The Vital Spark). Are you obligated to use all of them? Do you have to depict every single known incident in a character’s known history to achieve accuracy? If the answer is no, then you’re making editorial decisions right away, and while everything might be coming from verifiable historical sources, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve already been “inauthentic”. I don’t think even the so-called purists are actually arguing that a drama need be all inclusive.

The BBC article does hit one particular point that is easy to forget: knowing the facts doesn’t mean we know the thoughts or feelings behind them. It’s an almost inevitable historical hole, and one that drama by its nature requires to be filled. So ascribing motivations and thought processes to characters, while going beyond documented fact, is unavoidable. It may open the door to charges of “inaccuracy”, but it would in most cases be equally hard to make a watertight case for an “accurate” version (as opposed to simply a different interpretation). Arguably, you can get it entirely wrong by making things up without supporting evidence or blatantly contradicting what the record indicates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to try to fill in the question with educated guesses. Since intention behind action is something historians argue over all the time, I don’t think this is the flashpoint of accuracy arguments in most cases, either.

No, it’s the playing fast-and-loose with chronology and geography that seems to get people truly worked up. “That never happened”, “it didn’t happen like that” – these are the cries of the heart from historians who sit through period drama that has taken artistic licence. And I get it, because I’ve been there and done that. (I’m sure the friend who dragged me to see Titanic remembers being presented with a multi-page list of all its inaccuracies the next day.) Historians don’t want audiences to learn things wrong, to become wedded to an idea of the past that is provably erroneous. However, I also get why following history to the letter isn’t always what a writer or director does. Maybe the point they’re trying to make isn’t about history as a thing unto itself. Setting aside, for the moment, commercialism as a goal unto itself, it’s wrong to suggest that there could never be a valid reason for make some (minor) changes to a story in pursuit of a wider narrative.

So: how important is artistic licence? From the vantage point of sitting right down the binary fence of historian and director, my answer would be twofold.

First, that it varies moment to moment in any given piece, and you have to take each case separately. It’s important in that the lack of one inexhaustible definition of “accurate” means there are many different “accuracies”, and as a theatre creator you need to have the freedom to make those choices. You have to be allowed to fill in gaps, actors have to be able to imagine fully-formed characters where the documents may only give you flat facts. A more purist approach than that would be to suggest that there should be no historical theatre (or historical fiction, or even, perhaps, history with interpretation, rather than just facsimiles of historic documents). As creative people, writers and directors need to be allowed to have room to ask bigger questions – of the world, of life, of human nature – through putting things together and taking them apart, and sometimes that is the goal, not historical fidelity, even if the past is part of the question itself. If you’re honest about it to your audience (and that, to me, is a critical component of being responsible to history), there is nothing wrong with asking, What if?

For my second answer, I’m going to echo Dr Tracy Borman’s statement that “where changes are made to the facts then they should be… for a good and justifiable reason.” Otherwise why on earth are you working on a story about history in the first place? Borman adds that “change for change’s sake is irritating,” but I’d go further and say that it’s also irresponsible, both as a historian and as a director. From a director’s standpoint, “just because” is lazy, and also because it’s blatantly saying that you don’t really care about the historical aspects of your production at all. I’d like to think that HIDden’s approach to historic drama isn’t that unusual, and that other directors who work on it try not to put one aspect of their work above the other but work with them in constantly renegotiated tension. If I didn’t believe that history could stand on its own two feet as inherently dramatic, I couldn’t do my job.

If we take on historical drama as our work, we know that audiences will trust that our productions will contain at least some degree of authenticity, and so we are also taking on some degree of educational responsibility. To advertise a production as “a true story” if we have taken liberties is a disservice to everyone involved, including the people of the past whose lives we’re putting onstage. How we make those distinctions available to audience members can vary, but we should at least try to let them know what they’re getting. We should be allowed our measure of artistic licence, but all licences come with responsibility. Historic drama at its best demands that we respect both.

N.B. It is worth noting that, although the production primarily under discussion in the BBC article is one of live drama, many of the examples given in the actual debate are television series, and the goals, needs, and audiences can be radically different between the two. Neither the article nor this essay attempt to delve into them, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may vary considerably with the change in medium.

“Britishness”, a view of culture from a Theatrical Historain

Influenced by some of the thoughts and opinions expressed during, and immediatly following, the UK’s recent referendum on EU membership, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) considers culture and identity in Britain with a particular focus on the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Every time I sit down to write for the HIDden blog, I try to come up with something interesting that’s caught my eye – a bit about a play we’re currently working on, an item out of my studies or an article we’ve found, for example. This week, however, between putting the finishing touches to my PhD thesis and following the recent current events surrounding the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, I have to admit that historic theatre has not been the first thing on my mind in the usual sense. So whilst I try very hard not to mix my personal politics with HIDden’s work, it has been hard to avoid the political developments over the past week.  It has inspired me to reflect, a little, on culture and identity in Britain.

My area of doctoral study is the Festival of Britain in 1951. It’s an interesting time to study because sometimes the period of the early 1950’s seems so present. The Festival was held as a grand national fete, an attempt at cheering up the populace after a costly war and during a continuing period of miserable austerity. It came at a point when Britain was losing its Empire satellites, and immigration from those places was picking up. The country was trying to figure out what it was going to be, and the Festival reflects that: a mixture of forward-looking optimism, especially in the central London event; and an attempt at re-establishing a nostalgic view of itself, particularly in small communities across the land.

Medieval drama might not have featured significantly in terms of frequency of occurrences, but because there were more major revivals in that year than had ever been the case since the early Renaissance, it stands out (and is what I write about in my thesis). Here’s why I think it’s interesting at this particular juncture following the campaign and result of the referendum: whilst the majority of plays performed that summer were from English cycles like York and Chester, it was not without influence from abroad in several ways.

First, due to the way the Reformation happened in Britain, we have a very poor record of surviving dramatic records compared to Continental Europe. They have more plays, and more information about how they were staged. Look at any study of medieval drama from the mid-century or earlier and they will almost invariably invoke Valenciennes, one of the few places to leave illustrations of the intricate, decorated wagons they pulled through the streets for their performances. The design of the York plays in 1951 directly invoked the Valenciennes model. Although we now know that there was a lot of difference in the ways local regions approached their drama in the Middle Ages, in the mid-century period we looked to Europe to understand how our plays might have been staged, and to imagine what kind of plays we might have lost.

Second, there is a fascinating history of cultural exchange at work in the Festival. To backtrack slightly: the explosion of medieval drama in 1951 was in-part owing to the success of morality play productions in Edinburgh in 1948 and 1949. These productions of The Satire of the Three Estates, which appeared yet again in 1951, were often referred to as a “Scottish Jedermann”, a reference to a production which had been a repeated feature at the Salzburg Festival since 1920. Jedermann was a translation of the medieval English Everyman. Everyman is probably the most performed of all English medieval dramas, but it’s not actually English in origin: it’s a translation of the Dutch Elckerlijc.

Third, there is evidence that at least two communities which staged medieval plays in 1951 chose not to use British plays at all, but instead chose Continental ones.

Without even getting into the musical evidence, or the “Festival style” of architecture which came out of 1951 and owed its genesis to Scandinavian developments (both of which would be separate studies well outside my knowledge base), the point is that the Festival of Britain might have advertised itself as a celebration of Britishness, but that Britishness didn’t exist in a geographically and culturally British vacuum. Nothing in the world ever does, and the arts are one of the most amazing form of cultural exchange. We are inspired by the ideas and works of others, from across time and across borders. The amazing thing is that this has always been true, even in eras when travel was hard, when communications were limited, when having the English Channel between Britain and the rest of Europe was a truly formidable thing. Read about the weeks it sometimes took to cross during the Middle Ages, and the ships which sank in the attempt – the modern mind can hardly process how physically cut off we once were; yet these exchanges still happened. Elckerlijc landed on our shores and took root, and then we passed our version on to Austria. So even at our most proudly nationalistic, in the middle of a festival when we announced ourselves proudly to a post-war world, we were celebrating a Britain that was more an international melting pot than we may have realised.

Studying history frequently leaves me feeling extremely cynical. But when I think about the way that the likes of theatre somehow find a way to speak across times and time zones; across borders, cultures and languages, and how the ideas presented in performance become so interwoven into us that we can’t even tell the differences of origin – I feel a little bit hopeful.