“Mrs Yates’s Indisposition” by Professor Elaine McGirr

“Mrs Yates is too grateful for the generous partiality with which she has long been honoured by the public, not to be under the greatest concern for the disappointment the audience met with on Saturday last, by the omission of the Epilogue to Braganza. Mrs Yates was really extremely ill, and the fatigue of having performed for ten nights almost without intermission, with the very great exertion necessary in the last scene, rendered her totally incapable.”[i]

So begins Mary Ann Yates’s letter to the public on the 6th March, 1775.  In it, Yates neatly defuses a brewing public relations disaster for having left the theatre early, explaining that the mental and physical labour of acting to the level the public deserved was so draining that she was physically incapable of also speaking the comic epilogue, a task, she stresses, that had not been advertised and one that she was not contracted to undertake that night.

In this and similar public letters, Yates not only makes the case for the labour of acting,[ii] but also deploys or performs exhaustion strategically to resist overwork and unremunerated labour: her letters are less about educating the public than about getting it onside in her ongoing labour disputes with theatrical management. Her exhaustion is a badge of professionalism, but also a line that cannot be crossed. In her public letters, Yates outlines a position we’ve come to know as ASOS (Action Short Of a Strike) or working to contract.

For instance, in November 1776 she publishes a letter she wrote to her manager R.B. Sheridan reminding him of his contractual obligation to give her 24 hours’ notice of all new roles or changes to programming so that she has time to “think on the part [she] was to play.”[iii]

As it my first wish, whilst I have the honour to appear before the Public, to do all in my power to merit their approbation, I took care to have it stipulated in my articles, that I should always have twenty-four hours notice of the Character the Managers wished I should appear in; I insured myself this little notice, in order to have time to think on the part I was to play; and hoped in some sort to be the better enabled to justify the partiality that Public has honoured me with.[iv]

This letter is a response to the escalation of hostilities between Yates and the management of Drury Lane Theatre. The previous night, Sheridan had  taken the unusual step of announcing to the public that Yates had refused to perform for them and was sulking instead of acting. Sheridan’s strategy in going public was to attempt to attempt to transform a dispute between theatre management and its staff into one between Yates and her audience. Yates was having none of it. Sheridan’s public appeal licensed her public response, and she not only firmly placed the blame for her non-appearance on Sheridan, who, she explained, was trebly at fault for failing to programme efficiently, failing to manage rehearsal schedules, and failing to give due notice to actors to ensure word-perfect performances. Yates then ups the ante, arguing that Sheridan’s slap-dash planning and rehearsal practices are the real insult to audiences and show a lack of respect not just to the actors he is attempting to bully, but also to the audiences who pay for the best theatre and deserve the benefit of better planning, rehearsal strategies and actors who have been given the materials to succeed. Yates reminds the public that her working conditions dictate both the pleasure and the value of their play-going experiences.

In the 1776 letters, as in 1775, Yates emphasises the work of acting; while it is received as a pleasure by audiences, creating that experience is hard, exhausting work.  Yates stresses the physical and emotional toll of performing tragedy night after night. It is “a very great exertion” and causes “fatigue.” She reminds Sheridan of this in 1776, complaining that his last-minute rehearsal changes are impossible to accommodate because they don’t take necessary rest periods into account: ‘I am not sufficiently perfect to play without a rehearsal; and the only one called, was the morning after I had played Medea, when it was highly improbable I should be able to come out; and when as all my family knows, I actually kept my bed that whole day.’[i] Yates’s performances were known for the power of her voice, which soared and screamed with rage, terror and despair. Such performances were physically as well as emotionally taxing and her vocal cords needed time to recover.

Yates’s letter to the public, which frames the publication of her letter to Sheridan, goes on to stress that her work schedule includes regular periods of rest to allow her to study and to recover – the art of acting, her letters make clear, is not just her time on stage, but the time spent preparing roles and recovering from the exertions of performance. Her absence is not evidence that she’s the kind of diva who needs to be bribed to even get out of bed, but proof of how hard she has been working: it is evidence not of laziness or diminishing powers but proof of her whole body-mind commitment to excellence. Thus, her exhaustion is not a liability, but a powerful tool of resisting managerial overreach and the expectation that she perform gratitude rather than professionalism. Yates further reminds us that contractual obligations cut both ways: they not only delineate a worker’s duties, but also management’s duty to provide the time, tools and remuneration necessary to perform those duties. Yates’s successful campaigning and weaponizing of her “indisposition” led to tense relationships with a series of successive theatre managers, but not with her public, who appreciated her efforts, respected her need for rest and followed her whenever her disputes with theatrical management led her to take up a position on a new stage. Mary Ann Yates is an inspiration for us all.

 

 

References:

[i] ibid.

[i] “News.” Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 6 Mar. 1775. Emphases mine.

[ii] See L. Ritchie, David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity pp. 106-7.

[iii] “News.” Morning Post, 9 Nov. 1776.

[iv] Ibid.

Storyhaven

by Gareth Osborne

I’m a children’s author, teacher and second-year postgraduate researcher here in the Department of Theatre, co-supervised at Cardiff and Bath Spa. I’d like to share with you how my creative repurposing of a Himalayan salt lamp ended up being archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats collection.

My research looks at how reading and theatre engagement can be blended in immersive storytelling experiences for children to give them more voice in their fictions. As a writer of children’s books, a teacher of twenty years classroom experience, and father of two daughters I have seen how children’s books can give young people the power to guide their own formative experiences. I wondered how this mentorship that children’s books provide might be harnessed to drive more participative social experiences, in which children could become active cocreators of their fictions, rather than silently imagining into the words of an adult author.

I was in this happy state of academic pottering when the Covid-19 crisis hit. Suddenly children were isolated at home, struggling for the attention of remote-working parents, cut off from their usual adult mentors of teachers and arts practitioners as schools, theatres and libraries closed.

I realised, with no little horror, that my research might be relevant to this situation. How might a story in children’s private sphere be harnessed to reconstruct some of their social experiences again? How much of the mentorship role that teachers and arts practitioners played could the developing narrative itself assume?

Out of this thinking, emerged the idea for Storyhaven, an immersive storytelling experience for children that blends group roleplaying, lone reading experiences and sessions of immersive theatre with an actor. It centres on the town of Storyhaven, deep in Earth’s next ice-age, where stories have become the fuel for life.

Front cover of Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne
Illustration from Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne.

Now this precious resource is disappearing. Someone is stealing the town´s stories. Deprived of their fuel the town’s fablehearths will go out, the ice will creep back in and families will perish in their beds. In a last roll of the dice, the town’s story shamans develop a perilous means of time travel to allow their most intrepid explorers to journey back into the past to save the town´s tales before they can disappear.

Storyhaven’s main engagement is driven by a reading and roleplaying game that can be played by schoolchildren in virtual or real classrooms. The children design their own characters, then navigate their way through episodes of a branching narrative in teams, talking decisions over together in a way that fosters compromise and social wellbeing.

Illustration from Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne
Illustrations from Storyhaven, Episode 1
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne

Opportunities for children to cocreate the narrative are woven into the storyline through them having to rewrite the stories they save, so that they can send them back to the present through the shaman´s time portal. This device sets up the two immersive theatre sessions, delivered via Zoom, in which the children perform their stories to an actor playing the character of the town shaman, bringing the children’s roleplaying to life as their performances stoke the town´s fablehearths and fight back the encroaching ice. This was where Himalayan salt lamp came in: as the children performed their stories to the shaman he secretly turned up its dimmer switch to simulate them recharging the town’s crystals.

Illustration from Storyhaven
© Brentry Primary School with parental permission obtained to use in research dissemination.
Images of children involved in roleplaying of Storyhaven characters
© Brentry Primary School with parental permission obtained to use in research dissemination

With university outreach funding from the Bristol Temple Quarter Engagement fund I assembled a creative team to deliver a pilot of Storyhaven over two months at a Bristol primary school, firstly in the socially distanced classroom, then transitioning to virtual classrooms and Zoom breakout rooms during the January 2020 UK lockdown.

Images of Storyhaven creative team
© individual practitioners with permission obtained to use in research dissemination.

Inviting other practitioners into my research has enabled me to explore my research questions in ways that respond to current creative industry and public sector demands and has led to further opportunities with The Egg Assembly at Theatre Royal Bath and Seven Stories, the National Centre for children’s books. Storyhaven was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize 2020 and archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats Collection.

After ethics review, the data from the pilot has been recorded via practitioner interviews and the children’s own creativity as they experimented with how to blend reading and theatre themselves as immersed research participants.