Past Performances & Performing the Past

After a recent theatrical visit our Artistic Director started to think about the performance history of dramas and how this can influence an approach to a production. Here are some of her thoughts and ideas.

This week, I had a chance to see the York Minster Mystery Plays. Whilst watching, I inevitably thought of all the other mystery plays I have had the chance to see and work on, in York and elsewhere in the country. I thought about all the mystery plays I have studied; both in the twentieth-century, the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period. I could no more have watched the play “just for fun” – un-analytically – than I could fly to the moon. And, in a way I hadn’t quite thought about it before, it occurred to me what an enormous weight there is on the shoulders of anyone working on historic drama.

In the past, it’s been a general axiom of mine that, if you’re getting ready to work on a play, you should definitely not watch other versions of it. Read the source text, or see the film, if there is such source material, but don’t see other productions of the exact same play you’re preparing for. It’s far too easy to latch onto someone else’s ideas, onto things that have already been done; better to come to the project with fresh eyes, I would think. But I realised, sitting in York Minster, that actually, that isn’t necessarily the best approach to take, because historic plays – have history; and the audience (or actors and others involved) may have a history with them.

When you tackle an historic play, it’s not just another script. It’s not even just a work moored to a particular place and time in the past. It has an entire entourage of heritage in production, and some of those productions may be well-known. How does that change things for your audience, or your actors? They’ll have expectations. They’ll have their own ideas about how things “should” be done, or something they expect the performance to give them. That’s not to say that you are obligated to give them what they expect or think they want; arguably part of what you’re often trying to do is come up with something that presents the play in a new light. But you can’t do new, if you don’t know what’s already been done.

I’m not suggesting that you need to know every production in existence of, say, Hamlet, before working on it. It’s not possible. But it might be a good idea to have some idea of what baggage might be coming into your theatre through the audience or those working on it, beyond the history as presented in the play. Like a snowball rolling downhill, growing larger as it picks up detritus along the way, an historic play will have an entire performance history battened onto it: seminal productions will be remembered, extraordinary performances vividly recalled. And in some ways, this history actually does change the play itself. The 2016 York Minster Mystery Plays would not be what they are if the past sixty years’ large-scale productions hadn’t happened; they were a departure in concept and style, in nearly every sense, from their original form, and have become their own proud tradition, because of that history. People engage with them, as performers and audience, as a direct result of that past. While ninety-five percent of audience members probably aren’t encumbered with in-depth academic knowledge of those earlier productions, and therefore aren’t analysing what they’re seeing with that dancing across the back of their mind, they’re not watching a play which is divorced from that heritage, either. The production history doesn’t have to be conscious baggage. Some of it – or most of it, perhaps – can be subliminal, or simply ambient culture. (Not everyone has seen The Sound of Music but I challenge you to find anyone who has absolutely zero knowledge of it.)

From a purely pragmatic angle, there is also a practical benefit to seeing other productions of a work you’re pondering. Without advocating for the wholesale lifting of any part of another production, seeing a few will give you some idea of broad concepts which work, or don’t. You can look at one and realise that there is an idea you think works very well, or at another and know that you want to do something particular differently because you didn’t think it served the play well in that form. The idea is not to make judgmental comparisons for their own sake (unless, perhaps, you’re in the field of criticism) but to get at why you might think one choice works better than another. In a world of theoretically infinite possibilities, it’s not really a bad thing to do some judicious winnowing of choices, and this is one way of starting to do that.

All of this is broadly true of any drama, of course, not just historic; the historic has just had longer to evolve and has often accrued more cultural baggage, more expectation, or tradition. As much as we’d like to think we come to it with a completely new perspective, we’re part of that wider cultural matrix, and so we should probably approach it intelligently, by being well informed. Besides, as a colleague commented recently, every chance to see theatre is a chance to think about these things, even if it’s a totally different play – you should go any chance you get. There are, as this very situation points out, always chances to try on new ideas.

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Fact versus Fiction, An Historical Quandary

Some thoughts on historical fact and fiction from our Artistic Director.

Thinking about pageants last week, and as I work on my thesis about mid-century productions of medieval plays, I am often faced with the issue of “historical accuracy”. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years, because my historian academic side adamantly dislikes playing free and easy with the past. In David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, a book I highly recommend, he argues that ‘history’ is facts while ‘heritage’ is what we believe to be true of the past. From one perspective, it’s a good distinction to make; but working with historic and historical drama offers a different view.

I always say that history has the best stories. It is absolutely chock full of interesting people and events. You could spend a lifetime just reading true, well-documented historical narratives and, assuming they were well written, never get bored or feel like you were reading something obviously non-fictional. The challenge is that history is almost never simple. It’s made up of people, and their actions, and their ideas, and it’s impossible to address all of those things without complexity. Nor is history as unambiguous as we might like to imagine. It is always subject to interpretation, to the subjectivity and biases of whoever is studying or writing about it. Even if you just go back to original documents, you’re left with questions. Why did these survive? What got lost? Who wrote them, and why, and what were their biases? (For very concrete examples of these questions and how historians address them, the first chapter of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower is great.) None of that is much of a problem if you’re a historian or writing a properly researched, well-documented historical study.

However, if your goal is to put a story on stage, you simply can’t address every nuance, every wrinkle, every difficulty. Things get “smoothed out”. And this is where, working in theatre, I part company with Lowenthal’s arguments. He suggests that the general attitude to those performing history (in film specifically, but I suspect theatre would be grouped in with it) is “getting things wrong is quicker, simpler, and usually makes a better story than getting them right”. He also suggests that in a lot of cases, the story is tailored to be the one the audience expect: thereby creating a work of heritage but not one of history.

It’s generally quicker – I’ll agree to that. Unless you want to write a play that will last for fifteen hours, you simply cannot address every complexity of a historical issue. (There are a fair number of historical books which took longer to research and write than the events they discuss took to happen.) Nor can all of them be staged effectively. So in one sense this does create a simplification – but it is not simplification for its own sake, or because we automatically assume that the audience needs things to be dumbed down. It’s literally about practicality. There are certainly situations where, by simplifying, we end up also taking a position about an issue or an aspect of the narrative that might be in dispute. For those of us to whom the historical part of theatre is important, though, it’s our job to make sure that we do our best to give the audience the chance to realise what we’ve done. Making up for those necessary excisisms is part of why we at HIDden try to use this space online to share some of the of thoughts behind our work, including a production’s ‘back story’. I also like to believe that our audiences are intelligent enough to know that no play is the gospel truth. I always hope we’re the spark that makes them ask the questions and want to find out more, rather than the end point of their relationship with a topic.

Does “getting things wrong… make a better story”, though? It’s not unilaterally true. For example, it has always amazed me that not a single major film drama about the sinking of the Titanic has felt that it would be easy able to stick completely to historical characters, because I think one of the reasons the world is so fascinated by that event is that there are so many structurally perfect stories attached to it. There is absolutely no need to play fast and loose and make things up. (Of course, film and theatre are quite different, with the latter arguably less reliant on a very strict formula.) It is worth remembering, thought, that writers exert an influence in their choice of what to use and what to ignore. Even verbatim works are subject to the curatorial interference of creators.

In other cases, the “wrong” is often a creative way of covering over parts of a story that are completely unknown, which is less an error and more a speculation. The Vital Spark will be a good example of this: we’re leaning as heavily as possible on documented history, but we know there will be places where an understanding of the characters, their lives, and their time period will have to be a springboard for filling in the holes. It’s also not necessary to limit that approach to gaps in our knowledge. “What if” is not just an interesting historical conundrum (there are entire series of books dedicated to potential alternative endings to historical events based around that question), it can be a good way of putting connected historical issues into juxtaposition to better understand them. This is very much an aspect of our A Journey with Jonson project. In either case, we will be quite clear, here and in other ways, that we are presenting a fiction grounded in history (this is one way we approach being Historically Informed) rather than full reenactments of actual events. For us, the fictional aspect is not about “improving” history or making a better story. It’s about asking different questions, and finding different ways to know the past, not about suggesting that the factual past is flawed as a narrative.

An Update

Regretfully, our planned production project, ‘A Journey with Jonson’, will no longer be taking place this November.  There is a range of reasons for this, and in conjunction with the decision to initially postpone this project, HIDden Theatre shall be taking a hiatus until the new year.

A factor in this situation has been our limited core team, both in terms of staff numbers and areas of expertise.  We still really believe in our mission statement: HIDden Theatre aims to enrich the lives of audience members and creative participants through stories from and about the past; and will return to working towards it in 2017.  In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas to help us move forward (both practically and creatively) we welcome any contributions, equally if you have no specific thoughts but would like to get involved and bring some new views and enthusiasm to the table please feel free to get in touch via our contact form on the About Us page.

A Binary Curiosity: Historic versus Modern Drama

Following discussions we have often had at some length at HIDden Theatre about what constitutes Historic/Historical or Modern Drama and what we should be focussing on as a company, we came across an article in Durham University’s student newspaper, Palatinate, entitled ‘The Battle of the Eras‘. This inspired our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, to write about some of her views on the issues raised, spurred on by specific points raised in the article. The pros and cons of working with any particular era of drama have been debated repeatedly in our company and we are certain we have not reached a definitively correct answer – we suspect both contributors to the referenced article, as well as our Laura, have some thoughts which are more true than others and hope putting them out in the open will encourage more people to consider their own views and maybe foster further dramatic creativity. We should also clarify that at HIDden we generally use the term ‘historic’ to refer to works from the past and ‘historical’ for drama about the past.

Humans like to see things in opposition. We often view the world in binary terms: black and white, male and female, old and new. We spill crayon on worksheets in grade school showing off our ability to master the concept of opposites. And then we get older, and realise that they almost never exist, that most things are somewhere between; a mixture, a muddle.

This is part of the reason we’ve spent such a long time coming to a solid definition of what we do at HIDden. What defines “historic” theatre, exactly? Surely the obvious answer is, “It’s not modern.” Well, modern is, of course, subject to change (Shakespeare was modern, once), but even if we can agree that modern is “right now”, it’s still not a cut-and-dried answer. This means that we tend to take a flexible attitude toward the plays we do, and the ways we approach them.

All of this is why I was so interested to read an article debating the merits of historic drama versus modern. George Breare, president of Durham University Classical Theatre, argues for the reasons why he finds historic drama particularly compelling; while Alex Prescot, president of Battered Soul Theatre, makes a case for modern theatre. Although their points are not directly parallel to one another, each make points that are entirely valid, as well as some I’d question. Since HIDden is trying to find a path that doesn’t hew to either extreme, I wanted to sit down and consider their arguments, and what they mean from a third perspective.

Curiously, both seem to have the perception that the other type of theatre is the predominant one. I think part of this has to do with the views in and out of academic theatre programmes. As someone attached to a theatre department myself, I will agree that in some universities there does seem to be quite a visible predominance of “the innovative and experimental” that Breare suggests. I’m not sure this same absolute dominance of the modern or ultra-modern is true outside of the academic world, however; it really seems to be a question of how wide you are casting the net: urban spaces with vibrant theatre scenes tend to have a mix, while more rural areas, with fewer theatre options, do often tend towards the “classic” (albeit often modern classic, rather than an entire diet of Shakespeare). But there are entire sections of historic drama – medieval, for example, or, say, ancient Greek – that you don’t see all that often, and there is a lot of historic drama that is still not considered “canonical”, or is just not known very well, that gets neglected.

We, also, should not see “the innovative and experimental” as incompatible with the historic. Breare and I would completely agree that one of the joys of historic drama is, as he says, “unpick[ing] the conditions of a different period” – but you can also look at what isn’t different from that era to today. As he suggests, there is lots of room to be innovative with classic drama – look at the legions of different ways people have approached Shakespeare. Nobody ever said that every historic drama must be set in its own time, staged in a traditional manner (and we could debate what that even means – the early twentieth-century experiments into recreating Elizabethan staging conditions were incredibly innovative after centuries of being trapped in a proscenium). If anything, I think that historic plays invite the challenge of finding new ways to see them, to use what can be found in their times and in ours to create something new and challenging. By the same token, I would agree that there is much to be said for the Prescot’s enthusiasm for innovative staging and alternative venue use, for site-specific theatre, but I don’t think that’s incompatible with historical plays, either. Drama – all drama, any drama – should be an invitation for creative thinking. (As an interesting side note to this, whilst I was writing this, I stumbled upon an interesting piece on a new staging for A Chorus Line, a play which has been somewhat preserved in amber. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s getting some new life infused into it. For the curious, click here)

Where I do disagree is about the financial aspects. It’s true that rights are cheaper (i.e. non-existent) for plays whose authors have been dead for centuries, but if you’re staging them in their original period, you’ll more than make up the cost of performance rights through costume and set expenditures – not, as stated previously, that there the automatic need to stage them thus. There’s really no reason that many historic plays can’t work just as well in the kind of spare (affordable) staging that Prescot advocates as an advantage to modern drama. Conversely, there are a lot of modern productions (I’m thinking particularly of musical theatre, which is modern, and yes, I do count it as “drama”) which require incredibly complex, and expensive, staging. Age is not an indicator of fiscal viability, and I’d very much like to hope that a company’s choice to focus on historic versus modern would be artistic, and not driven by finance. (Let’s face it: theatre is generally not wealth, no matter what kind you do!)

Play for play, Prescot is probably correct that modern plays don’t get as many revivals as some deserve, but I suspect that’s less for financial reasons and more because, well, there are so many. The more finite number of historic plays that have survived means that each one stands out more, and that they get more repetitions because of familiarity, or because there are simply fewer to choose from. The catalogue of modern plays is dismayingly enormous; one hardly knows where to begin, and by sheer statistics, if we assume an even distribution of revivals (which obviously won’t happen, all plays not being equal) there is still much more territory to cover.

Ultimately, I feel about plays the way I do about people: you have to take each one on its own merits, and the categories aren’t the driving fact about why I might want to consider working on one. I’ve specialised in drama connected with history not because there is no merit in other types, but because it happens to combine two of my personal passions. But we keep the door as wide as possible, because, artistically, one needs different challenges, and everyone, especially audiences, can benefit from variety. Historic and modern drama don’t need to be in opposition. Finding connections between them keeps everyone on their toes, and surely the theatre created can only benefit from that.