An early modern treasure trove

Michael Willis is a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. He reflects on his internship at Shakespeare’s Globe

globe-theatre_michael-willis-blogEvery Tuesday began with a wintery riverside walk from Embankment to Bankside to work with an early modern treasure trove of books and archival material at Shakespeare’s Globe. The vast spectrum of material that I was exposed to fed my intellectual curiosity as an early modern theatre enthusiast!

Each week would be completely different. One week I’d analyse stage movements in Outside In performances, where a production originally performed on outdoor stage at the Globe was performed inside at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. Another week, I’d be researching costume designs, and in another I’d research early modern lighting. Working on the winter season, Wonder Noir, at the Sam Wannamaker I worked quite heavily on Webster’s challenging The White Devil. When it was originally performed in 1612, it was not received well and Webster blamed the ignorance of the audience and the wintery lighting for its poor reception.

Analysing the idea of voyeurism in the play, I traced the sordid and blackened world of a distorted Jacobean reality and wrote press tweets and researched for synopses of the play. One of my projects was to produce a Christmas blog. Working to a set deadline and with a range of archival material, I focused upon the cancellation of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century. The blog proved to be popular through its many re-tweets and re-posts upon social media most likely because it presented a world that is quite the antithesis to modern day Christmas time. I mean, can you imagine being thrown into prison for having a festive tipple whilst putting Christmas decorations up?

The internship allowed – and demanded, in a way – an investigation of very different materials. Whether that would be stage production documents or prop illustrations, each week required that I work to a tight deadline: a challenge but a motivation. I have developed a range of skills that will only serve to steer and inspire my research in my current MA, and as I embark upon a PhD later this year.

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“Lightes lightes now ginnes our play”: Illuminating the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This article was contributed by Rebecca Clossick, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance StudiesAll Posts

This season research at the Globe focused primarily on the experimental platform that is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; the indoor Jacobean theatre archetype.  The first few years of productions have provided enormous research potential for the study of early modern indoor theatre practices and audience reception, and the Education department is now collating and analysing the findings.  As a research intern at this exciting time, many tasks related to gathering evidence for the Indoor Performance Practice project, coordinated by Dr Will Tosh, for the forthcoming publication Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare).

Identifying the strategic way in which the Globe promoted the four major tragedies of the opening season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – drawing on ideas of Jacobean sensationalism and how extensively candlelight was central to sensual appeal – provided insight into how a modern theatre venue specialises in observing historic practice and attempts to imaginatively recreate experiences of past audiences.  Indeed, the candlelit interior is celebrated as its most appealing feature.

Frontispiece to The Wits, or Sport upon Sport, being a curious collection of several drols and farces, etc. (Written by ... Shake-spear, Fletcher, Johnson, Shirley, and others.) (pt. I.), (London: Francis Kirkman, 1673) The British Library, [accessed 05 March 2017]

Frontispiece to The Wits, or Sport upon Sport, being a curious collection of several drols and farces, etc. (Written by … Shake-spear, Fletcher, Johnson, Shirley, and others.) (pt. I.), (London: Francis Kirkman, 1673) The British Library [accessed 05 March 2017]

An indoor Jacobean theatre would have glittered by candlelight, although since critics rarely commented on lighting, there is little contemporary evidence on which to base interpretations of the early modern experience.  Seeking to emulate early modern indoor playing conditions, the Sam Wanamaker productions incorporate live flame emitted from handheld candlesticks, chandeliers suspended from above the stage, and wall brackets housing individual candles.  Investigating the significance of lighting changes on the indoor playhouse experience proved fascinating.  Concentrating focus on one tiny aspect of performance illuminated the potential for new research into the text and reception, as well as the space.

 George Wither, 105, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne : Quickened with metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation (London: 1635), Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

George Wither, 105, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne : Quickened with metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation (London: 1635), Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The various forms of artificial lighting used at the Sam Wanamaker – such as lanterns, candelabras, torches, window shutters controlling exterior light, under seat electric house lights – and their choreography was gathered from DVD recordings of performances, and from directors’ prompt books and stage management notes held in the Globe’s archive – some of which contained their own chandelier and candle plot, indicative perhaps of the pivotal efficacy of varied light.  The unanticipated discovery that each director has a vastly different management style, as evidenced in the highly-detailed prompt books for each production, also emphasises the continued creative attempts to interpret and re-enact the practical aspects of early modern theatre, while simultaneously crafting a unique and unforgettable experience for modern audiences.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 037_ pgs 072-073, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 56, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 037_ pgs 072-073, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 56, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The Sam Wanamaker production of John Webster’s macabre tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was the opening show in the space and the first to experiment extensively with lighting changes.  Contrary to what may be perceived as merely ostentatious means of illuminating performance, the nuanced use of candlelight contributed to intricacies within the plot relating to elements such as suspense and character development.  Scenes were shaped by changes in lighting ranging from actors blocking the only source of onstage candlelight, casting shadows about, to the raising and lowering of candelabra, and at one point total darkness descended upon the entire theatre as all light was extinguished.  As research progressed, the function of candlelight proved increasingly to be one of the most significant elements contributing to the psychological intimacy of the play.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 035_ pgs 068-069, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 53, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 035_ pgs 068-069, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 53, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Indeed, R. B. Graves suggests that indoor artificial stage lights were in fact used ‘to indicate darkness, not to increase the sense of brightness in the play or the theater’.[6]  Modern practitioners have often interpreted this with actors entering holding up lanterns on an otherwise unlit stage, signifying attempts to light their way through the black of night.  Certainly, for Jacobean tragedy, the stark contrast between small, flickering flame and the blackness beyond heighten the sense of isolation, vulnerability, and physical and psychological torment.

ete Le May, Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2014), photograph, The Globe Theatre, London.

Copyright: Pete Le May, Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2014), photograph, The Globe Theatre, London.

 

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is an ongoing project that attempts to recreate the early modern indoor playhouse, such as the Blackfriars model, developing theatre practices around it.  Watching a production at the indoor theatre is a thrilling experience, not only due to the early modern design features and elaborate interior around which it was conceived, but also to the splendid artistic effects employed within performance.  As a supporter of the endeavour since its inception, and observing the marvellous production runs rouse many a curious onlooker, it was an honour and a pleasure to be afforded the opportunity to work in the treasure trove that is the Globe’s library and archive, researching the appeal of indoor playing both today and four hundred years ago.  The research internship concluded as the playhouse prepared to run its first indoor production of one of the most complex and sophisticated of revenge dramas, Webster’s The White Devil, a tale of corruption and hypocrisy, where the lighting configuration will undoubtedly complement the sinister plot.

 

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Creating ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ with a team of neuroscientists

Theatre Director Sarah Argent finds out why babies giggle and dance, and that she has more in common with the neuroscientists at Birkbeck’s Babylab than she first thoughthome

As someone who dropped all science subjects aged 14 to focus on the arts, I approached the invitation from Pete Glanville (Polka’s Artistic Director) to develop a theatre piece for babies inspired by the work of neuroscientists with a mixture of trepidation and delight (I always like to challenge myself!)

“We all shared a passion for improving the lives of babies but from very different perspectives”

Having identified the Babylab at Birkbeck as one of the most likely places with which to liaise, we were thrilled at the excitement and generosity with which they welcomed our proposal. We met with Mark Johnson, the Director of the BabyLab, and a number of his colleagues who outlined the fascinating work of the lab and we were thrilled to realise that we all shared a passion for improving the lives of babies but from very different perspectives. Having talked about our respective interest in and engagement with babies and how we might work together, Pete and I were taken down to the labs themselves where we were fascinated to see tiny bonnets of electrodes that can ascertain exactly how a baby’s brain is being stimulated; to hear more about the eye-tracking machines that can monitor exactly where a baby is looking; and to see various familiar toys etc that are used in experiments about object permanence and time intervals, etc.

Having agreed with the Babylab that we did, indeed, wish to work together, they arranged for Jo Belloli (Polka’s Associate Producer, Early Years) and me to meet with a range of scientists – undergraduates, PhDs and members of staff – to hear more about their individual and joint areas of research in order to identify which I could most readily see as being the inspiration for the creation of a piece of theatre for babies aged 6-18 months and their parents and carers. Everyone with whom we met did a wonderful job of describing their work in laymen’s terms (neither Jo nor I being a scientist) – although we did still have to ask a few very basic questions! After much discussion and deliberation, we chose three scientists with whom to work: Sinead Rocha, Rosy Edey, and Caspar Addyman (who cut his teeth at Birkbeck and, while there, developed the Baby Laughter project but is now on the teaching staff at the Infant Lab at Goldsmiths).

“You could see the brains of the creative team firing off at the mention of babies’ responses to sound or lights”

We then invited the scientists to visit Polka, to see the Adventure Theatre in which the production will be performed, to meet with Polka staff, and for them to find out more about us and for us to find out more about them. At a wonderfully-attended meeting (Polka staff were so intrigued about and excited by hearing more of the work of the scientists), Caspar, Rosy and Sinead outlined their research areas in more detail. Without the need for bonnets of electrodes, you could see the brains of the creative team firing off at the mention of babies’ responses to sound or lights or what makes them laugh. It was also hugely gratifying to realise that so many of the words and terms we use to describe our creative processes were also used by the scientists – maybe we have even more in common than we thought!

We then spent three wonderfully full and creative days in the Adventure Theatre playing with lights and movement and objects – a mixture of inanimate objects and actor, Maisie!

“The level of scientific clarity took things to a deeper level”

On the second day, we invited a number of babies and their mums to join us to observe how they would respond to our initial ideas. As we suspected, Maisie has a natural affinity with babies with a number of them being mesmerised by her from the moment they first clapped eyes on her. What was so exciting about this project was that, while as makers of baby theatre we are well-versed in close and detailed observation of babies while they are observing rehearsals or performances, the level of scientific clarity with which our scientists could describe the babies’ responses and analyse why the babies’ were responding in a particular way at their particular age took things to a deeper level.

While we’re not asking Maisie to play the character of a baby, we are keen for her movements to mirror or resemble those of a baby – to share some of the characteristics – and so, again, to have the scientists detailing babies’ reasons for moving e.g. the way in which they ‘unlearn’ some of the lessons they’ve learned while crawling or shuffling on their bottoms once they begin toddling on two feet, has played a fascinating role in helping us to develop the movement vocabulary of the piece.

“A wonderful example of science influencing art influencing science”

I have to be honest, the music that Sinead uses in the BabyLab as part of her exploration of rhythm was not music that either myself or Julian Butler (our composer) would have instinctively been drawn to in creating a theatre piece for babies but, in line with the brief of responding to the work of the scientists, we have dutifully explored this – and it has led us to realise that babies respond to much more upbeat and rhythmic music than we had previously imagined! Julian has now created a wonderful track which starts with a heartbeat (evoking the sounds the baby would have heard in the womb) and building to wonderful up-tempo Latin-inspired rhythms – all thanks to Sinead’s research. He has also remixed a track that Sinead had stopped using in her experiments as, while it has the right tempo, it didn’t have a strong enough pulse for the babies to respond to. Sinead is now exploring whether she can use Julian’s remixed track in the BabyLab – a wonderful example of science influencing art influencing science.

Again, confounding our initial instincts, the Adventure Theatre will be transformed into a more aesthetically-pleasing version of the BabyLabs complete with dark curtains and versions of the objects and toys found in the Lab – along with gorgeous carpet and cushions on which the audience can sit.

“Now we have scientists with us who are able to explain WHY the babies’ are responding in this way”

Our scientists will be visiting us regularly throughout rehearsals, observing our material as it develops and observing and commenting on babies’ responses each time they visit. Detailed observation of the moments that make babies’ giggle, the moments that make them move spontaneously be that bouncing or waving their arms, the moments that make their already-large eyes open even more widely is always part of our process, but now we have scientists with us who are able to explain WHY the babies’ are responding in this way.

Further information:

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