Summaries of Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context

Day 3: Notes on the Day’s Discussions (25 June 2015) by Emily West

Seminar 4: Two 1592 Plays and the Performance of Gender (9:15-11:00 am)

Discussion led by Roslyn Knudson (Arkasas, Little Rock)

After giving a précis of their papers, the panellists discussed the tension between representation and allegory for women characters in Three Ladies of London. Roslyn Knutson saw the characters as primarily allegorical: Conscience’s fall is a fall into commerce, not whoredom. Leslie Thomson agreed that allegory is dominant: Lucre is a woman because Eve is a woman, and Lucre is inevitably a whore.

The discussion turned to casting, and particularly the casting of Lucre: Peter Cockett explained that he had considered casting a male Lucre (which, he believes, would have given the production more range to explore ideas of gender), but a strong audition from the actress playing Lucre (Cathy Huang) changed his mind. In rehearsal, this actress commented, ‘all I’m doing is whoring myself out to these guys – I thought they were supposed to be whoring themselves out to me! Am I the whore?’ Cockett tried to give her the power: she is seducing them, they are reacting to her. While Knutson observes that no sexual acts are represented in the play, Edel Semple noted that Lucre’s whorishness comes out in her performance and in costuming. Regarding casting, Knutson wondered what role the company boy novice played, observing that the part of Love would be idea to groom a novice (with Cockett and Jennifer Roberts-Smith interjecting that we can’t underestimate the skill of skilled boy actors). Thomson suggested that Fame could have been played by the same actor (Matthew Berry) who played Judge Nemo at the end. Roberts-Smith emphasized the importance of defining what we mean by ‘women’ in these conversations, drawing attention to the different contexts in which ‘woman’ signifies in this performance (from contemporary student actors to sixteenth-century representations of femininity) and the dangers of reducing gender and its meanings to a binary. She observed that the play sets a trap for the women, but the play is the women; Cockett suggested that the trap is set by the patriarchal ideologies informing it. Claire Jowitt wonders if this is an ultimately a bleak play – is there another way to understand it? The opening seems to suggest that there has been some kind of past time where the ladies weren’t in conflict (Cockett points out that, in the sequel, the ladies work together). Jowitt is also interested in the question of doubling, particularly for the roles of the ladies themselves. Bryan Nakawaki pointed out that gender is reversed in Wilson's sequel: in The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (see the Purdue production on Youtube), the ladies are redeemed by what is essentially a celebration of a different play construction – romance rather than old-fashioned morality, or dark city comedy, celebrating a way forward, not a collapse of the city and its people.

Jessica Swain wondered about the possibility of having a spiritual life in London: Conscience has to interact with people in the market, has to surround herself with corruption, which ultimately wears away at her very being. Edel Semple noted that the play says that nobody exists in a vacuum; for women in London in the play, it is very hard to remain perfect and moral. Female solidarity is sometimes an answer and sometimes the downfall (though perhaps there was an idyllic prior period when the ladies were all in solidarity).

The conversation transitioned to discuss stage directions and dramaturgy. Thomson emphasized that we should be more humbled in the face of 400 years, and realize how much is lost to us. We resist the idea that a central moral idea can guide a play, but the idea that the love of money is the root of all evil controls all of the action of the play. The distance of time has also made it impossible for us to interpret, for example, the stage direction regarding the vizard. Knutson observed that the part of Simplicity would require a lot of rehearsal (an investment in another kind of theatrical expense), but Cockett noted that many of Simplicity’s lines may have been improvised, and the actors struggled with the innovative, experimental rhythm of the lines in rehearsal as a result.

Discussing the staging of I Henry VI, Roberts-Smith explained that she had tried to make a show that sabotaged the things she is tired of talking about (historical materiality, textual origins/fidelity, cross-gender casting, ‘nice roles for a woman’). Their production was interested in what Shakespeare might have learned from the Queen’s Men – in pedagogy; in what conversations we would have at the conference; and in making some kind of intervention in our habits of discourse as a scholarly community about the relationship between history and performance. As discussion continued about the utility of PAR, someone in the audience observed that the value of PAR is not to answer the question of how the play should be performed, but to create a community of viewers/interlocutors (such as the community at this conference). Sarah Johnson added that theatre is the place that collapses allegory and representation, while Melinda Gough and Jowitt agreed that the play actively constructs (and genders) its audience.

Roundtable: PAR methodologies and Early Theatre: What have we learned? 11:30 am – 1 pm)

Discussion led by Melinda Gough (McMaster) and Chantelle Thauvette (Siena)

The first question posed to the participants asked them what it means, for them, to do PAR. Andy Kesson commented that PAR takes us out of our comfort zone, which is productive and exciting. Jacqueline Jenkins appreciated PAR’s multiplicity of methodologies. Christian Billing wanted to push this multiplicity further, noting that theatre takes in multiple approaches of necessity: in rehearsal, you come to a text and have no idea what you’re doing; by trying it, you put forward a hypothesis that can be developed or not. He wondered how we, as a community of scholars, can bring some of this openness and vulnerability into our practice. Several panellists noted the difficulty of finding an institutional place for PAR work, especially in the space between theatre and literature departments.

The second question turned to the challenge of how best to disseminate PAR findings. Eleanor Rycroft highlighted the pressure (from funding bodies) to document PAR with film to prove ‘outcomes’, and noted that film is not the best way to record PAR, since film (like writing) flattens it. She suggested that photography may be a better way to document PAR because it leaves more imaginative room. Kevin Quarmby agreed that there needs to be multiple layers of engagement: we can’t just rely on a filmed version. Billing concurred that this is a real problem, since PAR work is so based in embodiment. He observed that it is likewise difficult to replicate the exchanges that have happened in this conference on paper: the community formed here will retreat back into individuality after the conference. He urged participants to find ways to bring this experience back to their own communities of teaching and learning, noting that if we are driven by funding councils or pressure to publication, these other contexts will get pushed aside.

Jennifer Roberts-Smith pointed out that institutionally, we are accountable to standards: we have to translate into language that the dean understands that this work is up to par, and describe this standard with reference to a theoretical framework and a methodology (which puts pressure on senior colleagues to validate this work institutionally). Jenkins identified peer review as an important tool for this kind of institutional validation.

Kesson highlighted that PAR events are part of the dissemination, and Gough noted the pressure put on the conference organizers to open up more seats for the show in order to engage the community – an engagement at odds with the production’s research experiment regarding spatial intimacy. She wondered how we can effectively demonstrate PAR performance’s ‘impact factors’ institutionally. Billing reflected on UK funding bodies’ detrimental focus on metrics rather than experiential learning.

An audience member asked how to productively discuss PAR with colleagues who don’t understand it. Jenkins suggested presenting research questions and asking for help realizing them; Billing concurred that making someone interested in the (open) question, in the idea, rather than in the practice itself, is most valuable.

The final question posed to the panellists asked them to share one key insight/question/puzzle that the experience of thinking about PAR at this conference has generated for them. Conkie highlighted watching the clowning workshop as a particular surprise for him, and said that one of the exciting things about PAR is that it enables you to work with spectrums rather than binaries, to change your position, and to be open to being surprised (perhaps into something new). Kesson wasn’t sure that we’ve begun talking about PAR and Three Ladies of London, noting that this is a play that worries about its own performance (about PAR); the play’s non-blank-verse lines are permissive like the stage directions: exciting, open. Rycroft was interested in the spatial logic of relationships on the stage in Three Ladies of London, and has taken lots of theatrical moments away to think and write about (in review). Jenkins’s concern has been the relationship between performance and dissemination of knowledge it generates. She has learned about the range of ways that scholarly dissemination is possible, and is taking away models of dissemination that foreground inclusive collaboration (present in the workshop model) and language to use with institutions and collaborators. Further, she has learned to trust the process and acknowledge her own humility within it. Billing highlighted a focus on hospitality and accommodation: PAR is a site for hosting a text and its ideas, and we need to be accommodating and also open to changing our minds. Quarmby reflected on the challenge of translating the power of PAR, in the conference setting, into our pedagogy.

An audience comment raised the problem of process: we haven’t followed the process of the play, and a play is not just its final iteration in performance. Rycroft agreed that rehearsal has been invoked many times as space of exploration that we haven’t had access to. Billing suggested that we need to start documenting rehearsals as diligently as we do productions. Gough countered that, through rehearsal blogs, we do have some archive of this process: it might not be visible, and we need more, but it has been in play. Omar Khafagy added that the conference workshop was very similar to the process of rehearsal. Roberts-Smith wanted to put pressure on the idea of performance as a final iteration: there is no performance without the audience, and the performance is only fixed when it is a memory: in the moment of performance it is a future-generating mode. She noted that for I Henry VI they did not run the play before they met their first audience, and that in performance things happened onstage that the director/other actors didn’t know were coming. She asserted that if we want to talk about impact, we have to get over the idea that we are delivering performances for someone else to receive, and we have to give agency to the voices of people with whom we are communicating: if we can’t give agency to audiences, we are negating the form. Kesson added that Three Ladies of London is itself interested in the audience’s agency, and that the play text is not fixed either: the text is and always was negotiable.

Billing returned to the horror people have of embracing failure, arguing that rehearsal and process-based research teach us that failure is a necessary part of learning. In PAR we are not moving teleologically towards a ‘perfect’ product, but experiencing moments of collaborative interaction that are more powerful because they are not individual. He argued that we need to open ourselves to learning through failure as part of collective, collaborative process. Jenkins suggested that if we could foreground workshops rather than written papers in conference, it would be exciting and productive. Gough concurred that the vulnerability of the rehearsal is exciting, but observed that she has learned this from non-PAR/actor-practitioners: scholars admitting ‘failures’ and changes in perspective, and so modelling humbleness and vulnerability.

An audience comment contested the idea of OP, arguing that nothing is ‘really’ OP, since each version made significant choices that distance it from the original. He suggested that we should work with history/historicity in mind, but not be bound to OP. Conkie countered that he doesn’t think that OP claims to be all or only OP. In some spaces it is closer than others, but it should not be dismissed as a practice because it’s not (and can’t be) 100% perfect.