Falling in Love with a Play

Now we have announced that the piece of new writing to be featured in our A Journey with Jonson project is Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie, our Artistic Director shares what attracts her to a play.

A play – be it brand new, a work in progress, or a classic – is something I approach a bit like friendship: immediately, something either clicks, or it doesn’t. By “clicks” I mean that something calls my attention right from the beginning and makes me say either “oh, we’re going to get along fine” or “you know, maybe not.” Nine out of ten times, a “maybe not” just can’t be forced into a comfortable relationship. A play that does click, though, becomes incredibly hard to get out of my head.

I’m sure there is a lot of theory about how to write a play that grabs people, how to create a “hook” that catches people from the beginning. I can – and will – explain some of the things that tend to make me engage with a play. But very often, what catches the eye is something emotional, and often quite random. Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie, part of our A Journey with Jonson project, is a great example of the strange ways this can develop. What first caught me about the play was its location. Bottesford village is, by chance, a place where my ancestors lived in the Middle Ages. It’s purely coincidental, and completely not germane to the play, but it was a personal connection, and while it certainly didn’t guarantee I’d love the play, it was a starting point.

As I went on to really read it and think about the play seriously as a possible production for HIDden, I found that it ticked a lot of my personal boxes as far as what makes me like a play. Unless a play is extremely conceptually driven, I put a lot of stock in characters – their development, the way they are shown to the audience, their consistency and contradictions. I don’t have to “like” all of them – most of us know how intriguing a well-drawn villain can be – but I do have to find them compelling, multi-faceted, nuanced, but consistent within themselves. With some plays I might particularly like the voice that a writer has given then, with others it might be little quirks that make the people of the play seem especially real; whatever it is, having characters I think an audience will be willing to follow for an hour or two is critical. Ben and Steenie has some very interesting fictional characters, but it also includes the intrigue of creating “real” ones, like Ben Jonson, about whom the history books tell us some things but always without the fundamentals of who they were as a person. Some of the answers are supplied in the play script, others will be developed in the rehearsal room by the actors portraying them.

A play that is telling a story (as opposed to a character study or concept piece) needs to have an overall arc that makes sense, is coherent, and has ebbs and flows that give the audience a forward trajectory but also room to process what’s going on. It needs to be consistent within its own stylistic vocabulary. For example, not all plays need to have all threads tied up neatly at the end; in some cases it’s actually more satisfying not to know all the answers, but in other styles of writing and drama, it’s incredibly frustrating if plot threads are just dropped. (My favourite example of “incomplete completion” is Gone with the Wind, where the story is satisfyingly finished by not knowing what happened to three of the protagonists, because the ending is completely in character to them and to everything else that the story is about.) Without giving away the ending, I will mention that Ben and Steenie has a bit of that aspect to it: it’s very tightly put together, but the ending leaves open questions for the audience to think about, and given some of its thematic elements, that choice makes complete sense.

I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how a play is put together, not just because it’s critical to whether or not the whole thing works, but because how it does so often say something about what approach one will be needed to staging it. For Ben and Steenie, which has a pretty traditional structure, the emotional engine of the story is in certain relationships between characters; it would be easy to rely solely on the plot, which is definitely interesting but leans more heavily on the head than the heart in many places. It’s the stuff between the lines – how the characters feel about, and interact with, one another – that brings the two aspects together.

It’s a play with different possible levels of engagement, which is something I tend to like; I’ve never been a big fan of “it’s just for fun”, “fluffy” pieces of theatre. While you can certainly take the play for exactly what it is on the surface, there’s a lot more it gives you to think about, for those who choose look. In this sense, and in its historicity, it’s a very intelligent play.

And of course, that historicity is key for HIDden. Ben and Steenie is a perfect example of the issues we keep discussing and debating: the fine line between fact and fiction, between artistic license and truth, between history and drama – and not just in its own existence, but within the play itself. The research and detail that has gone into the script is incredible. One of the things I really liked when the script arrived on my desk was that it came with a detailed breakdown of what elements had been fictionalised and what chronology had been altered; this, plus a brief list of inspirational source material, told me that it had been written with extraordinary care for the “truth” of the past, and that its variations from absolute fact were written for deliberate purposes, not just to “make it more interesting” or because somebody couldn’t be bothered to do their homework. There are, in fact, parts of Ben and Steenie that you might think are made up, but are documented. One of these examples is a ‘Lunatic’ woman who dips in and out of Jonson’s path as he travels. It might be a bit of a cliché to have the village madwoman as a character, except that in this case she was recorded as an actual person he encountered along his walk to Scotland, and this lets her be used with historical honesty and in a way that helps further the story.

The more I read a play that I like, such as Ben and Steenie, the more I see it in my mind, on a stage, fully realised, and then it hits a point where I can’t get it out of my head. It has nothing to do with a silly little thing like being set somewhere familiar; it has become a complete entity, intimately familiar and comfortable and something I’ve come to know well and love. I have been falling in love with this play for quite a while and I really can’t tell you how excited I am to finally be getting it onto its feet.  I can’t wait to be able give it to some actors and to see what we can make of it as a team.

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Jonson in York

This week in 1618 Ben Jonson visited the city of York, where today HIDden Theatre is based, so our Artistic Director shares her reflections on this.

One of the great glories of living in York is that we daily walk in the footsteps of the past. While this is true everywhere, the fact that York has kept its medieval street patterns and many of its historic buildings give its past a particularly ‘present’ feeling. Living in York makes the past real in a special way. This fact has never really been lost on the city, and much of its economy is based on the tourists who come to revel in its historic beauty. While we tend to think of tourism as a largely modern phenomenon, visitors have enjoyed stopping in York to see it for centuries. And one of them, in 1618, was Ben Jonson.

This week in that year, he arrived in our beautiful city en route on his walking journey to Edinburgh. York, still the northern capital in Jonson’s day, was a logical stopping-off point in concept, although if you look at the map of his route (as detailed by The University of Edinburgh), you’ll notice that it was actually a bit of a detour. Visiting York was therefore a deliberate thing, a moment of Jonson being a tourist good and proper. Although Jonson’s journey seems to have been rather enjoyable – at least, it doesn’t seem as agonizing or arduous as the simple phrase ‘walking from London to Edinburgh’ would imply to most of us – such a detour would have required a bit more effort then than now, so he must have known that a few days in the city would be worth the mileage.

Given the current character of York, it’s easy enough to imagine Jonson walking among its streets; harder is the realisation that, although we would recognize many features that he saw, it would also have looked quite different. Antiquarian prints from two centuries show many of the features that may have been there in his time but have since disappeared, including the inn on Coney Street where he lodged. Places which today we treasure almost as museums, such as the guild halls, were very much working buildings in his time. We can’t really think that Jonson saw “our” York, and yet some things don’t really change. The city’s highlights remain the same. York Minster, even in the seventeenth century, was not to be missed – and Jonson didn’t. He also saw King’s Manor, which was largely new built just a few years before he was there.

It’s a shame that we don’t have any direct reflections from Jonson about our city, and what he thought of it. Given how much we associate him with London, it would be interesting to know how he felt that the northern capital compared to the national one. He knew he was walking in spaces where events of historical importance had occurred, but we don’t know what that meant to him.

And what does it mean to us, that he came to visit our beautiful city? On the whole, Jonson’s visit isn’t remembered as a major event in York – in a city which has seen so many famous visitors, he is just one among many, and whatever Jonson thought of York, he didn’t use his visit to inspire any of his dramatic writings, so there isn’t much direct impact. At least, it’s nice to imagine that he carried happy memories of a place we love so well. And for those of us working on his plays, it’s a link between our tangible reality and his, and perhaps makes it feel a bit more personal. We get to walk in his footsteps through his dramatic works, but it’s also kind of nice to think that while we are doing this, we are also walking his footsteps throughout the city around us as well.

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.

Is Theatre Always Fiction?

After recent ruminations about historical accuracy in theatre, our Artistic Director now explores fact and fiction and considers if theatrical performance is inherently a form of fiction.

When it comes to books, most of us are used to the idea that there is a clear distinction between fact and fiction. We often divide our libraries up into fiction and non-fiction. People are either fiction writers or not. It seems a clear delineation, one so obvious that I confess I had never really thought about it until I stumbled across some posts online. Before anyone gets there, let me add that I fully acknowledge that there are different ways of interpreting facts, and that there are things in the non-fiction section which include debate and disagreement – but this is in how facts are understood, for the most part, not whether or not they are facts to begin with; and some fiction incorporates elements of fact. But we still tend to, categorically, accept that there is a delineation, and that we know what belongs where.

It sounds daft, but until I started thinking about how much more in-between there is with regard to books, I hadn’t really processed the ways that theatre contradicts this. Theatre is real. It’s live, it’s actually happening in front of you, it is, as a thing itself, non-fiction. But we also accept that theatre – the play – is automatically, inherent fiction to a degree, because it involves people portraying something other than their real lives. (The concept of reality television and even ‘scripted’ reality further complicates these issues but that’s beyond my scope at the moment.)

Having posed this thought to a friend, she promptly replied, “But what about verbatim work?” And, yes, you can certainly use direct quotes, interviews, transcripts, primary-source documents to create theatre. But it’s still funneled through actors, through a process that removes it from that absolute non-fiction space. If a person is simply talking about their own life live and in person, we might classify it as a lecture, or an interview, but we generally don’t call it theatre, unless they’ve rearranged or stylised it; and, in a sense, removed it from being non-fiction. That extra element of adjustment, mediation, or removal is what makes the difference.

All of which is merely an interesting observation, until you start getting into the boggy questions about historical accuracy, as i discussed a few weeks ago. If theatre by its very definition includes an element of fictionalization, surely that complicates the question of whether we can ever be “accurate”, and moreover if we have the responsibility to attempt it in the first place. Although I don’t believe that audience expectation should dictate art, it does renew the question of whether or not an audience truly expects a theatrical production to be non-fiction, and potentially argues that it not only doesn’t, but can’t.

Practically speaking, none of this alters our basic approach to production development or artistic intention. But it’s good to be reminded, when one’s research reading list contains contradictory accounts and one’s actors are asking questions about characterisation when not everything is known about a historical personage, that theatre can give us that licence, not just “because it’s Art”, but because the nature of the thing can be seen to always occupy a middle ground that allows and even encourages a different perspective on what we see as truth and fiction.

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.

Opening Night Jitters

This week, our Artistic Director shares some of her personal reflections on the theatrical phenomenon of opening night.

To me, “opening night” is one of the most exciting combinations of words in the theatrical vocabulary. It’s the moment when all your hard work (hopefully) pays off, and you get to share it with an audience. The adrenaline rush of that first performance is something that will usually replay itself over and over through an entire career, the addictive high that brings us back show after show.

Some actors are surprisingly Zen-like about it. At least they are outwardly, it’s just another day in the office – which isn’t to say they’re lackadaisical about it, just that they don’t really seem to have any anxiety about their lines, character, or blocking. Others can be really tense about those things and it’s frequently quite visible. Some, though, are just wired up and excited for getting out there and doing the thing they’ve been working towards; a happy sort of tension. None of these is right or wrong, they are just different temperaments and personalities.

When I did act, a number of years ago, I think my reaction was the happy tension sort. It was exciting but not scary. I never quite understood stage fright personally, although it’s certainly pretty normal. At least, I didn’t understand it until I left the stage and started working behind it as a director. Since then, “opening night”, to be brutally honest, absolutely terrifies me.

Opening night (or, more technically, dress rehearsal) is where my job as a director ends. At that point, I entrust the show entirely to the company and show staff. Opening night for a director is sending your kid off to school for the first time. You’ve done your best to get it ready. You hope you’ve given it the proper attention and discipline, that you’ve built up the confidence enough to carry it along, and that you’ve created an environment where the team’s skills and talents can really blossom. But in that moment, you can’t do anything to help anymore. It’s out there on its own, and you have to trust that it will all be okay. I think this is the great irony of directing. People often think you do it because you like to control things, but in reality I find a lot of it is about letting go of control and having faith in others.

I’ve been quite fortunate with the casts for HIDden’s productions so far. Not once have I felt that there was someone who was really, really not ready to go on, but in the position where I had to let them do so anyway. In a sense my nerves are actually for the cast, not about them: I want them to be able to come off the stage feeling like they’ve just nailed it to the wall, and my nerves are the manifestation of cheering them along from a far.

The other, probably even more unnerving aspect is the audience itself. Who will come? What will they be like? Will they enjoy the show? There are few things more demoralising to a cast than having to play to a “dead” audience, especially if you’re doing something high in energy and comic. Having the audience laugh, cry, tense-up, react and give you something back across the footlights is why we work in live performance; and when they are just there, seemingly unresponsive, it can be hard to cope. Audiences are something over which one has absolutely no control whatsoever. Every group of people, each night, is its own entity. So every opening, I hope for a lively, engaged, responsive audience, for that night at least, even if you may not that every night of a run, because it gets everyone off to a positive start. A good opening doesn’t guarantee a brilliant run, but it can help propel everyone along.

Opening night is the beginning, but it’s also an end. Once that curtain goes up, the play is no longer evolving, becoming, developing – it has arrived, and each successive audience should see, essentially, the same thing. It is both a commencement and a completion, risk and reward, all rolled into one. Is it any wonder, then, that it holds such a special place in the hearts of those who love the theatre?

“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.

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.

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.