All the world’s a stage…

I’ve been thinking about theatre and performance quite a lot recently.

At the end of September, I was asked to facilitate three days of workshops at Chatsworth for the University of Sheffield by Professor of English, Jane Hodson. Three of her PhD students, now in their third year, are doing AHRC White Rose collaborative doctoral awards there: Hannah Wallace, Lauren Butler, and Fiona Clapperton. These three have been researching the lives of servants on the Chatsworth Estate in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, by delving into largely untapped archives, finding amazing bundles of letters, exploring other found items, meeting with relatives, and wandering through the estate in search of its former inhabitants. Their exciting work has even been featured in national newspapers and on the BBC. They have uncovered some truly wonderful lives and stories as yet untold.

Photo of Chatsworth House


Amongst other aims, the research project seeks to rethink interpretation in country houses by focusing on the whole life of its servants as they go about their daily business in the landscape, and not defining them just by role, as has happened in so much ‘upstairs downstairs’ research. My facilitator role over the three days was to work together creatively with these researchers, with other collaborators from the University of Sheffield including computer scientists, Dr Mark Stevenson and Dr Steve Maddock and theatre academic Professor Frances Babbage, and with staff from across most of the departments at Chatsworth (including collections, exhibitions, engagement, development, archives, interpretation, visitor services) to explore ways to make the research engaging and accessible for Chatsworth’s visitors – particularly those just walking through the landscape. Add into the rich mix the outdoor promenade performance company, Burn the Curtain, and a really exciting set of ideas emerged from the participants during the three days. Not least, and inspired by comments from Chatsworth colleagues, we talked a great deal about the house and its grounds and its staff as performative in and of themselves. Perhaps more on that another time.

Creative workshop using objects

Using the Object Dialogue Box to facilitate ideas
Exploring the archives

Fiona, Lauren and Hannah exploring the archives at Chatsworth

It was certainly a wonderful opportunity to work closely with theatre professionals, Joe Hancock and Fiona Fraser-Smith, to explore what we might mean by place as performance by hearing more about their place-based work. One thing I’ve been pondering ever since, was a comment raised by Frances Babbage. She talked eloquently about the paradox that is performance. As audience, we are both utterly there, in it, immersed within the action on the stage, part of the story. Yet we are also at the same time completely aware that we are not and cannot be there. That we are inhabiting our bodies. Sitting on a seat. In a theatre. (Or wherever). With other audience members. Worrying about shopping lists and dentist appointments and defrosting the dinner. But also that the whole performance is make believe and of another reality. Two worlds. And perhaps the worlds of the imagination and of fact/reality collide and are made stronger because of each other’s existence.

And by sheer coincidence, this piece of work and the ideas it generated have also happened at a time when I’ve been to various performances. Burn the Curtain were playing in Thetford Forest as part of the Forestry Commission’s Forest Art Works programme just a couple of weeks after the workshops. Joe and Fiona invited me along to see The Hunting of the Snark, based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem – a quest through the woods to find the elusive snark. I went alone but was quickly snapped up to be given a suitcase to carry through the woods on the hunt. (We opened it halfway through to reveal some missing bloomers!) Audience numbers were about 100, and everyone had had to choose to identify with a particular group of characters before it started, each with its own characteristics and its own different objects as props: Baker’s cousins, Makers, Twitchers and Scribblers. I was a Baker’s Cousin. The performance took the form of a magical walk, a sensory immersion, encountering people and things – lots of fabulous objects (all beautifully crafted and environmentally friendly), projections, twinkly lights and mysterious sentences gathered along the way as we hunte. At times we split into our different groups, collecting different bits of evidence from new characters for the Captain (a strong female protagonist, I was delighted to see), eventually coming to a wonderful finale after we had walked for at least 3 miles in the dark. I was both immersed, but also wonderfully aware of other audience members, often chatting to them as we walked with wooden forks hanging round our necks, and jam jars full of provisions. I loved it.

People standing in a line, characters from the Hunting of the Snark

The Hunting of the Snark (image from Burn the Curtain)

Since then, I have seen two more plays: a performance about the life of Mary Shelley at the Maddermarket Theatre, and Rufus Norris’ NT production of Macbeth in Norwich. The blurring of truth and fiction, and boundaries between being there and not there were alive in each. For a start, I knew embarrassingly little about the life of Mary Shelley, of her radical parents – feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher father William Godwin, her tragic relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their familial connections with Lord Byron. So hers was a story exciting to learn. Facts. And with a stunning set reminiscent of Blickling’s book project that I’ve written about elsewhere. And with a haunting repetitive melody (think Mozart and Nine Inch Nails ‘Hurt’…) And with really good acting from the amateur cast. I loved it. And I learnt some new things about history and women and poetry and death and motherhood. But I was very aware of myself in the audience. Of it being a too small audience. And of knowing others in that audience. Whereas in Macbeth, I knew no one, but ended up irritated with the person sitting behind me for sniffling and rummaging about too much. And trying to ignore it only made me notice it more. But what a tale. What hideous characters. I’d forgotten how many people end up dead. Based on history, but again, the merger of fact and imagination, and being able to be there but not there. Performance. Is that what it all is?

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