Sheffield postgraduate Cat Evans reports on the lecture, ‘Peculiar Houses: Building public theatres in Elizabethan London’ given by Dr Andy Kesson (University of Roehampton, London) on 5 October 2017, and on the masterclass he gave the following day.
Andy Kesson came to Sheffield for two days at the beginning of October to share some of the work produced by the Before Shakespeare project. This innovative project has combined archival research and performance workshops, bringing the two into conversation to cast light on the early decades of theatre in London from 1565-95. Andy emphasised how what we think we know about early modern theatres is often filtered through a strictly Shakespearean lens, and can get in the way of understanding how public theatres operated. So many of the words we now see as neutral regarding the theatre started life as terms of abuse. A playwright was a craftsman who wrought objects rather than a writer and the term “blank verse” indicated a dire lack of rhyme. Both were classed insults thrown about by arch-master of sass Ben Jonson. Andy’s talk was a challenge to make these “peculiar houses” unfamiliar again.
Andy opened his talk with some rehearsal recordings of songs from John Lyly’s Galatea from recent workshops. Working with non-classically trained performers on these texts has allowed the team to observe how people initially approach these works. Many “forgotten” plays (forgotten at least by present day audiences) often have more diverse characters and stories than the canonical works we’re all familiar with. Galatea focuses on the stories of lower class women, and includes a lesbian couple and a sex change. Andy discussed how the team have actively sought to create a safe space for performance and exploration, with LGBT performers working on play texts grappling with questions of gender from centuries past.
A particularly helpful way of recapturing the conditions of early modern theatre seems to be by thinking about the changes ushered in by the building of permanent playhouses. Theatrical events evolved from being occasional and site specific to long-term, repeatable endeavours. With this the playhouse moved from being a space in which the community met to one which brought together strangers. However, these spaces often had mixed uses. Andy argued that playing spaces in Inns, such as the Bull and the Bell, were likely the most common and well attended in early modern London. Archival records demonstrate that individual inns were often known for a particular type of drama, and had a clear theatrical identity. Playhouses were often established by grocers, who may well have had other business ventures in the same neighbourhood. These theatres therefore became part of a diverse portfolio of investments, new ventures which would capitalise on passers-by and draw footfall towards the area. I was particularly struck by this: at a time when cities are increasingly aware of the importance of cultural spaces to help bolster the local economy and community, it is intriguing to think of how early modern business owners might have prioritised cultural investment to drive up business in urban spaces. Questions following the talk picked up on these ideas of sociability and community, with a discussion of how people from different social classes might have mixed together in these early theatres.
Similar issues would be explored in the workshop the following day. Andy put a group of early modernists through their paces, getting us to act out attacks against and descriptions of the theatres – the fan favourite being an account of a play featuring bear-baiting, a hundred fighting dogs, rockets and a piñata filled with white bread and apples. We also worked on small snippets from Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon, discussing how performing a play throws up different questions to simply reading. The group then spent some time discussing research processes, with Andy offering advice for PhD students and early career researchers about how to develop new projects and ideas, and his own experiences of running a highly collaborative project. We got an insight into both the application and decision-making processes of AHRC funding, with Cathy Shrank contributing her experiences as a member of the Peer Review College. Andy closed the session with sharing some of his plans for the future – more performances and more workshops are in the works! Both sessions gave a really valuable insight into the exciting work of the Before Shakespeare project, and the value of involving performers and performance in research.