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Performing knowledge exchange

12 May 2006

Knowledge transfer, especially between academic research and the needs of industry, is currently high on the agenda of bodies that fund research in universities.

The Great Western Research (GWR) project is a five-year, £14 million initiative which aims to catalyse and drive research collaboration between south west higher education Institutions and industry partners in five designated areas – one of which is Creative Arts. Martin White – chair of the GWR Creative Arts theme panel – is currently involved in a number of research projects that link to creative industry partners.

White’s research focuses on the drama and theatre produced by the commercial playhouses and acting companies that operated in London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and the presentation of the plays in their time and our own. One recent project involved the creation of a full-scale, candle-lit reconstruction of an indoor playhouse, based on 17th century drawings, held in the Library of Worcester College, Oxford, of an unidentified theatre. White’s collaborators included designer Jennie Norman, professional actors, a film production company (that filmed on high definition cameras from four points in the auditorium) and the Globe in London (which dressed the actors in costumes made using original techniques). The resulting interactive high definition DVD, which also contains interviews with scholars, new essays and web links, will provide new insights into performances lit by candles, torches and lanterns that White anticipates will alter theatre historians’ understanding of these aspects of early modern theatre, as well as creating a unique research and teaching resource.

This project relates directly to his work at the International Shakespeare Globe Centre in London. The reconstruction of an Elizabethan open-air playhouse, which opened in the mid-1990s, was an immense interdisciplinary research project. It involved scholars, architects, archaeologists, builders and theatre artists, and resulted in the largest polygonal timber-framed building to be erected in England since the 17th century. The Globe – which receives no subsidy but is, like its illustrious namesake, a commercial theatre – continues to put research high on its list of priorities. White chairs the international research group, with a remit to advise the Globe’s trustees on the priorities for developing the theatre and to provide the information on which those developments are to be based.

For example, in the light of new research, the group is considering questions related to possible alterations to the structure of the Globe itself and trying to decide on the decorative scheme for the interior of the theatre. In addition, it has to take key decisions on the completion of the indoor playhouse that will stand alongside the Globe, and which is to be based on the Worcester College drawings. The shell is already built, but complex questions remain regarding the interpretation of the drawings, which the work done in Bristol will help to answer. In addressing the issues, the group has to sift the evidence and, from its members’ different points of expertise, conclude a plan.

A recent project involved the creation of a full-scale, candle-lit reconstruction of an indoor playhouse

But while a theatre history book can always be revised or replaced by another book, a theatre, once built, is very expensive, perhaps impossible, to alter. However, the historical evidence for early theatres is limited, and ideas that find physical realisation in any reconstruction can imply a greater certainty than the necessarily speculative scholarship can justify. Nevertheless, the groups needs to try to provide the firm answers that builders and craftspeople rightly demand.

The second area of White’s work relates to how the plays of Shakespeare’s time are presented on the modern stage. In 1827, the essayist and poet Charles Lamb observed that about two-thirds of extant plays from the time of Shakespeare were still generally unknown, and though the number in print has increased, the number of plays performed on the professional stage is still comparatively small. For many years, in the Wickham Theatre in the Department of Drama in Bristol, White has directed a series of less well-known Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, partly to try to expand the narrow range of plays from that period that still form the repertoire as well as the syllabuses of schools and many universities.

In 2002, Greg Doran, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (and a former student of White’s) invited him to help devise a season at the Swan Theatre in Stratford, drawing on the knowledge White had gained from years of directing and writing about early modern plays and assessing their theatrical potential. Among his suggestions White included a 1626 play by Philip Massinger, The Roman Actor, which he had earlier staged in Bristol and was about to edit. It proved one of the hits of the season. In exchange, access to the rehearsal process enabled White to test his own understanding of the play as a play against the company’s engagement with it, with obvious benefits to the published edition.

Believe What You Will

Last year, Doran invited White to act as consultant to the whole 2005-06 Swan season, working to establish the texts for performance, provide contextual information for the different directors and casts, and write or oversee the extensive programme material. His suggestions included another Massinger play, Believe As You List, that White had also directed in Bristol, in 2001, the first known production since the 1630s. Never printed in its own time, it survives in a manuscript in Massinger’s own hand, although some key parts of the play have been destroyed over time. Working with a poet, Ian McHugh,who created new text to replace what was lost, White prepared a new, modernised performance text for the RSC. This text (retitled Believe What You Will), with White’s introduction, was published by Nick Hern Books to coincide with the production.

In these ways, White’s research contributes to and influences the decisions and activities of two major, international theatre companies, while his own work is palpably enhanced by his engagement with those professional practitioners – an exchange of knowledge that is to everyone’s benefit.

Martin White/Drama

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