The Archival Resident in Lockdown

By Jayne Gold

I started my PhD at the University of Bristol at the end of January 2020, just eight weeks or so before the lockdown measures were introduced. The position is funded by the Brecknock Society, in memory of Sister Bonaventure of the Ursuline Convent in Brecon. Sister Bonaventure was a prolific local theatre historian whose extensive body of research of theatre in Brecon from 1699-1870 remains largely unpublished within theatre academia.

Fortunately, before the lockdown measures came into force, I managed to travel to Bristol from my village just outside of Brecon to register and meet my supervisors and to attend my first research meeting at the Theatre Collection with fellow theatre historians from the universities of Bristol and Exeter. I was also able to gather and sort the large amounts of material from Sister Bonaventure’s archive that was contained in outbuildings of houses in the surrounding villages of Brecon. This involved some very cold mornings in sheds and welcome cups of tea in homes meeting key members of the Brecknock Society.

Laura Engel (2019) has coined the term “archival tourist” to describe the process of a researcher immersing oneself in a foreign environment through archival research. However, I have developed an awareness of my somewhat unique position of being an ‘archival resident’, a researcher living amongst the subject of their investigation. This has been emphasised by the lack of regular tourists to my village. The village car park close to my house, normally full of Taff Trail cyclists, and the road to the bridge over the Usk usually filled with people unloading their kayaks and canoes into the water are now empty and quiet.

But I remain surrounded by materials. Whether that be in our hastily adapted office come spare bedroom filled with Sister Bonaventure’s archive placed on a full to the brim Ikea shelf or in the surrounding countryside dotted by grand houses which are the former homes of the gentry who patronised the play performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A recent walk from my home revealed I can see a view of Buckland Hall in all its grandeur from the top of the hill. I have the memory of the nearby house at Penpont where we selected and chopped down our Christmas tree on a rainy day and stopped for a hot chocolate. When I drive into Brecon for grocery shopping, I can see the old building which used to house the town’s Theatre Royal which closed its doors in 1870.

Every day I take my sons for a walk along the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal – a toddler sized fishing net in hand – and can imagine barges full of coal and the Brecon Boat Company whose directors were so key to the financial development of the area. Occasionally I’ll see a neighbour on a walk, and we’ll have a socially distanced chat about Sister Bonaventure who taught her in the convent school, or I’ll chat to my neighbour over the fence about the opera singer Adelina Patti at Craig y Nos.

While I cannot gain access to some of the things I need, to collect the last four boxes of Sister Bonaventure’s material from Y Gaer (the local museum) which I am desperate to see, or to check sources with the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the British Library or indeed the University of Bristol’s own Theatre Collection, being fully immersed in the location of my research helps to focus my thinking, and now increasingly my writing, as I continue my research journey.

Performing The Archive: Our Student Projects

This week’s post is written by second year students on the unit Performing the Archive and give an account of the projects they were working on in their groups shortly before the lockdown. They were developing guided tours, audio installations and performance re-enactments in response to stories discovered in the Bristol Old Vic archive, which is held in the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

These would have been shown to the public at the Bristol Old Vic on March 23, but this was not possible due to the COVID-19 crisis. Here two of the groups have written about the stories from the theatre’s history that they found interesting, their research and creative processes, and what you would have experienced if their showings had been able to go ahead.

Love and Romance at Bristol Old Vic: from love letters to weddings, both on and offstage, exploring the romances of the Old Vic through an interactive audio tour

We are a group of six students from University of Bristol’s Department of Theatre who are currently working on our final project for Performing The Archive. Throughout this unit we have been collaborating closely with the engagement team at Bristol Old Vic to help share the theatre’s history with the city of Bristol. Our group are focusing on a collection of love stories and romances related to the Old Vic.

To us, this theatre represents community and the spirit of Bristol itself. We want to celebrate the love for Bristol Old Vic and the romances that have happened there by creating an audio tour of the building. Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, we weren’t able to show our project to the public, but we hope to be able to as soon as it is safe.

We have spent the past few months trawling through the archival boxes in the Theatre Collection, uncovering forgotten romances from the past and transcribing 19th century love letters. From audience members, staff, actors and everyone in between, we have worked with a wide range of historical evidence, including these letters, interviews and photographs.

Having learned about the importance of archival practices in the retelling of theatrical history, we have found it truly heart-warming to discover just how many people have romantic stories connected with Bristol Old Vic. We have turned some of these stories from the past into scripts, and then into audio recordings, to create interviews with historical figures such as James Chute and Charlotte Cushman.

For the more recent and first-hand stories, we have been using Bristol Old Vic’s Memory of Theatre recordings. These interviews are part of a heritage project that aims to preserve the public’s memories and experiences of the theatre for future audiences. During this unit we conducted our own Memory of Theatre interviews with regular theatregoers and staff at Bristol Old Vic. We found this medium a lot more personal to work with than some of the information from hundreds of years ago. It was exciting to hear real voices share their stories and we felt it added a lot of charm to our project. It’s even more exciting to think that these people will hear their stories represented in our audio tour when we are able to present it to the public.

We’ll leave you with one of our stories to whet your appetite. In Bristol Old Vic there is a window in Coopers’ Hall lovingly named ‘the proposal window’ and it has a history of romance surrounding it. Duty Manager Andrew Stocker shared with us the story of a proposal that took place there in 1992; it was Valentine’s Day and Bristol Old Vic’s production of Romeo and Juliet was preparing for their evening performance. “Suddenly, as it was coming up to about quarter past seven”, Stocker recalls, “a young man stood up and… went down on one knee to his girlfriend–and out of his pocket pulled a ring and proposed to her!” Stocker continues, “she screamed initially, and then smiled and said yes and everybody clapped. It was very magical and especially on Valentine’s Day!” It later turned out that the young man chose to propose next to this ‘proposal window’ because it was the very spot where his father proposed to his mother in the 1970s.

This is just one of the tales we have discovered, and we can’t wait to share the rest with the public. We hope that these love stories will bring as much joy to you as they have brought to us.

By Stella Parker, on behalf of her Performing the Archive group, Riddhi Bhatt, Kate Bolton, Ed Lyness, Katie Smith, Ruidong Yang.


Dragon’s Den: Theatre Royal edition

Good morning/afternoon/evening, depending on when you’ve decided to read this blog post and learn more about Bristol Old Vic’s history, which we love and hope you will too. We are Theatre students at the University of Bristol and have been exploring the theatre’s archives in the Theatre Collection to learn more about the Old Vic’s past, which we would like to share with you.

Idea

During our research we were particularly gripped by the information regarding the selling of Bristol Old Vic in 1942, and the threat of closure prior to this. We were impacted profoundly by the thought that this theatre, such a part of the heart of Bristol now, was nearly lost for good (and very nearly became a fruit and vegetable warehouse). This information was striking, but in the form of papers and letters it was not particularly accessible or entertaining.

We contemplated how we could make this story relevant to an audience today and decided to re-stage the auction as a pitch on the popular TV show Dragons’ Den. Using the format of this programme allowed us to depict the auction in an inventive way, using the evidence in a manner that a contemporary audience could enjoy and learn from. The challenge of this was staying true to the historical facts while bringing it into our era. We decided to use quotes from the archives so that the language is from the period when the auction occurred, while having modern-day costumes typical of Dragons’ Den suits.

Research

Happy with our idea, we began our research. We needed names. The format required five Dragons and one or two entrepreneurs to pitch. Using Kathleen Barker’s archive material, we were able to find names of the main players involved in the bidding and discovered interesting characters like Milton Bode. Born in Birmingham, he ran away to the circus at 17 and managed touring theatre companies in later life. He was one of the Theatre Royal’s managers just before it was put up for auction and so we decided to have him as our pitcher.

One of the most interesting figures we chose to be a Dragon was Anne Rendall. We found her through the rather aggressive letters between her and Herbert Farjeon (another figure we chose to be a Dragon). Her fierce character and strong language – such as calling someone a “foul shark” – fitted with our re-imagining and was used to create dramatic effect in the den.

Development

The final three dragons became: Clarence Davey, Wilfred Leighton, and John Hare. In the real auction Hare placed the first bid of £10,000 and so, translating this into a Dragons’ Den scenario, we had Hare give the first offer of £10,000. There was an anonymous bidder who placed the winning bid of £10,500 and who later turned out to be Davey. He bid on behalf of the Council of the Preservation of Ancient Bristol, so that they could use the theatre for its intended purposes and pay him back when they had the money.

We felt it important that the council be represented in the den, as the theatre building being bought and used for other purposes was a real threat to the city’s history and culture. This is where Leighton came in. Leighton was the president of the council at the time and so we chose him to represent the organisation. Herbert Farjeon was connected to the theatre due to his fiercely held belief (expressed in many letters) that the theatre should be used as a theatre and only a theatre, and that it should be protected at all costs. We decided to include his character as one of the dragons to create some conflict between the Dragons – some whom believe the theatre should be protected, and others want to make use of the building for more profitable business purposes.

We wanted to create the kind of tension found in Dragons’ Den on television. We loved the intimidating aspect of the show, which we channelled in our portrayal of the historical Bristol business figures. Admittedly, some artistic license was taken when developing these characters in the context of the den, but we did stay true to the impressions gained from the documents.

With our chosen historical figures, we planned how we could connect the events of the auction with the structure of Dragons’ Den. Often in the real Dragons’ Den, two or more of the Dragons may decide to split a deal between them. We decide this was a fitting ending (spoiler) for our piece, as Davey and the Council did decide to help one another in order to save the theatre.

The overarching aim throughout the process was to make the piece educational, entertaining and accessible to anyone who comes to the Old Vic. This is why we chose “the Snug” in the corner of the foyer next to the original Theatre Royal wall as our performance space. This is an intimate space where the actors and audience can feel close and passers-by might happen upon our performance. Being in front of the original wall also allowed us to refer to the auditorium itself during the piece, the very theatre that was auctioned and where the auction took place; to stage a historical event right where it happened.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about our process and that you have learnt more about how Bristol Old Vic has stood the test of time – and won, against all the odds.

By Eleanor Motyer Lowndes, Natalya Nielsen, Rhiannon Pearce, Tara Pinto, and Ben Wolverson

How To Be Together

By Dr Kirsty Sedgman

To be together is an act of faith. Imagine reading a book in a steamed-up coffee shop, gazing at the flow of faces outside the window. Think about the press of a crowd in a football stadium, the pleasure of joining in with a wave and getting it exactly in sync with everyone else. About dancing in a cramped hot room or a giant festival field, everyone covered in glitter and someone else’s sweat on your skin. About the comfortable hubbub of a restaurant or the silence of a library; those who stream around us at the train-station, or who sit next to us in hushed pleasure at the theatre, or who manoeuvre their shopping cart around ours – oh, a wonky wheel! No, please, after you.

Festival festival-of-colours-032902 by TLC Johnson, licensed under CC0 1.0

Imagine being together, out there in the world. It’s a quietly radical thought. 

I say radical because, in order to be out in the world with other people, we need to have faith in other people: faith that other people will abide by the same rules as ourselves. Rules of manners, civility, propriety, respect; of morals, ethics, and law. These are just some of the big words we’ve come up with, over the centuries, to describe the necessary boundaries for our successful coexistence.

To be together is, like Blanche in Streetcar, to depend on the kindness of strangers; or if not their kindness, then at least their general lack of antagonism. This begins at the very basic level  the hope that other people, by and large, will not set out to harm us. That our bus to work will be free from explosives. That our classrooms and religious congregations won’t be disrupted by someone wielding an automatic weapon. That no-one will cough on us and spread a deadly virus. 

Less spectacular than these Hollywoodesque acts of cruelty, though, are the small acts of disturbance to which we submit others  or are ourselves submitted  every single day. Here I’m talking firstly about the minor irritations that come from being together in public: about the open-mouthed chomper, the man-spreader, the perfume-overuser, the loud and constant sniff sniff sniff.

Olympic stadium Munich by Markus Spiske, licensed under CC0 1.0

But I’m also talking about the accumulating violence of microaggressions that being-together-in-public can bring. About the dangerous surveillance of bodies whom society has systematically marginalised. The disproportionate policing of those identities and behaviours. The judgments about who does and who does not belong. Our experience of being together in the world differs vastly depending on who we are  or who we are seen to be. 

As a specialist in theatre audiences, I’ve spent my career asking what it means to ‘be together’ in public space. Who decides the rules? Who benefits from those rules, and who loses out? Who gets to define what counts as reasonable, and how do those with alternative definitions (of what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable, appropriate vs. inappropriate) get marked out as unreasonable? 

A couple of years ago I started answering these questions through a study of online guides to ‘theatre etiquette’, the recent deluge of blog posts and articles arguing that theatre audiences are getting increasingly badly behaved – the result of which was my book, The Reasonable AudienceI found that while every etiquette advocate firmly believed that audiences are getting more and more selfish and bad-mannered, in need of ‘retraining’ in better spectatorship, the precise location of that line between good and bad behaviour differed wildly from person to person. 

When it came to mobile phones, for instance, some people said that obviously putting them on silent was okay; others said absolutely not, obviously they had to be turned off entirely. Some people said don’t eat or drink anything in the auditorium; others said that quiet snacks are fine – otherwise you “may as well tape everyone’s mouths shut”. Some people welcomed the demise of the dress code, telling their readers to wear whatever they feel comfortable in – even “rock up in flip flops, if you like”. Meanwhile, others said specifically that “there is no place for flip flops in the theatre”, and that you should buy an outfit that cost “at least as much as the price of your ticket”. 

Flip flops at attention by Joe Strupek, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

If we pay attention, we can see these same discourses of reasonableness playing out in every aspect of public life – from debates about whether or not it’s acceptable to eat on buses, to irritation at children being noisy on aeroplanes, to disabled people getting shamed for sitting down on park benches while taking their one governmentally-mandated walk a day.

You can also see reasonableness fermenting online: in every Twitter storm, every Facebook spat, every online article’s comments section, in every Reddit Real Relationships or AITA (Am I The Asshole?) post. Whether the subject is as big as socialism or as banal as sourdough bread – any native of the internet should be familiar with the furious disagreement even the most throwaway online thought can provoke. 

And what I’ve learned from all this is that everybody  yes, even you  believes that their own opinions are obviously reasonable. Our ideas about right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, acceptable or unacceptable, are obviously common sense. After all, it’s surely just a case of manners and respect  about learning not to be selfish, about being considerate of others… Right? 

The thing is, though, that manners and respect are not neutral. There’s no such thing as a single, reasonable viewpoint. Common sense is actually not that common at all. These things vary from person to person, they land differently on different bodies and different subjectivities, and are absolutely bound up in relations of power. Because as critical race and disability studies scholars have pointed out for decadesit tends to be working-class people, young people, and people of colour (especially where those identities overlap) who get disproportionately  policed and subjected to surveillance even if their behaviour is exactly the same as the older rich white person next to them. 

Busy Streets by Photos By 夏天, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Understanding this is to pay attention to the inequities of being together, out there in the world. Who can walk down the street holding hands and pass unnoticed, and who cannot? Who wheels the shopping trolley aside reflexively, and who stands still? Who disproportionately gets served in that coffee-shop, and who do we expect will be the one to serve?

We’re trying to co-exist in a fundamentally racist, sexist, ableist, classist society – one that’s deliberately working to elevate some existences over others. Our shared social spaces have been built to be shared only by some of us. We are trying to be together in a world designed to pull us apart. 

Right now, of course, we can’t be together  or not most of us, anywayor not in the ways we’re used to. Right now, here in the UK, our government is trying to move us back to business as usual. But that’s not what we need. Instead of going back to ‘normal’, now’s our chance to ask what a new normal might look like. The first step toward that new normal is to learn to interrogate the voice of reasonableness inside ourselves  the voice that tells us our own ideas about how the world should be are common sense, objectively correct, while others’ lived experiences are obviously wrong. It starts by asking why we sometimes feel we have the right to pass judgment on others as selfish, disrespectful, rude  and whose disadvantage that might entrench. It begins by understanding that returning to the status quo means some of us get further ahead, while others are left behind. 

Now iour chance to be together better. Let’s not bottle it, okay?