In July 2021, Premodern Performance Cultures hosted a two-day online symposium exploring New Directions in Premodern Performance. We heard a range of fascinating papers from scholars and practitioners, and engaged in lots of conversations (still ongoing) that we hope will prompt new thinking in the field. While we plan to support the development of these ideas with future events, we wanted to capture some immediate responses from participants whose contributions throughout made the symposium such a vibrant and thrilling event for academics and practitioners alike.

Lucy Holehouse, Doctoral Researcher, The Shakespeare Institute

One issue that I often find with my research, and one that I imagine most scholars also struggle with, is working out how the different elements of the project tie together to make a cohesive whole. As such, I applied to the Premodern Performance Cultures symposium with the intention of presenting a paper that applies the literary, contextualising work of my thesis onto its practical, performance aspects in an attempt to understand their relationship to one another.

The prioritisation of performance in the Premodern Performance Cultures symposium allowed me the opportunity to look at the practical elements of disguise on the early modern commercial stage alongside the playtexts, and thereby to analyse the demands made by the plays of their actors and audiences.

Seeing the ways in which other delegates – especially those further along in their careers than myself – similarly combine literary studies with theatre history through practise-as-research has been integral in developing my theatre history chapters. Not only did the conference provide potential directions for my own research, such as pursuing practise-as-research, it also helped in developing links between my research and the research of others, thereby allowing me to see exactly where my work fits in the field.

Tony Tambasco, Artistic Director, Bad Quarto Productions

This summer’s Premodern Performance Cultures online symposium was a welcome opportunity to share research and connect with colleagues across the world. As an independent scholar, travel to conferences is often impractical, and virtual conferences like the PPC symposium give me the chance to be an active participant in my community.

During the PPN symposium, I was able to get valuable feedback about my current research, and connect with some of the cutting edge research being done worldwide. I was able to hear from scholars whose work I was unfamiliar with, as well as reconnect with scholars and artists I hadn’t spoken with in over a year. I left the symposium with a better sense of some of the directions our field is growing in, and a deeper connection to the community that is growing it, and with ideas to help take my research and directorial work in new directions.

Perry Mills, Deputy Headmaster at King Edward VI School and Director of Edward’s Boys

For this school teacher, the symposium was stimulating. And a lot of fun. It expanded my knowledge of particular areas about which I know little or literally nothing. It forced me to reflect upon what and how and why I do what I do – which is always healthy. Inevitably, that allowed me to discern patterns and rhythms in the ways in which Edward’s Boys work together with academics. The most important quality, for us, is trust (and it has to work in both directions). That quality was evident throughout the symposium. I have made connections with people I would have otherwise never have met. And people are already making contact to ask for things… and offering support. I look forward to future projects. Thank you.

Clare Egan, Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, University of Lancaster;
Symposium Respondent

The ‘New Directions in Premodern Performance’ symposium brought together a range of fascinating and rich papers covering a diverse range of periods, cultures, genres and methodologies – a huge achievement for all involved considering the significant pressures placed on research and, even more acutely, theatrical practice by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two-day symposium was characterised by a sense of excitement for new connections and possibilities. This atmosphere was made possible by the inclusive, creative, conversation-driven and community-building ethos of all involved, so where do we go from here? 

First and foremost, the vibrancy and variety of papers emphasised the connected nature of research, creative practice, and teaching, clearly stressing the power of collaboration and creativity. Perhaps a vital role for the Premodern Performance Cultures Network moving forward is creating opportunities for continued conversation, collaboration, and mutual support.

A birds-eye view of the symposium’s wonderful ‘wanderings’ reveals some of the possible future directions of travel for the field. Many papers stressed the importance of decentring work, from recentring the early world map as the MEMOs project does, to using digital theatre to deconstruct Shakespeare in order to more clearly recognise a multiplicity of perspectives.

Reassessing the field’s terminology was also a recurring point of discussion. Some coined new terms whilst others delineated new understandings of inherited terms. Collectively, the papers both harnessed the power of blurry or expansive terms, such as ‘premodern’ and ‘performance’ themselves, and effectively deployed the relative precision of others, such as ‘performative’. As we move forward, consideration of how we bring terminology with us is needed both in acknowledging productive limitations and forging new ground.

Many speakers addressed ideas of materiality and embodiment, which seemed more urgent in the context of a move to virtual spaces. Discussion considered the visceral and pedagogical effects of theatre on spectators, as well as the distance between actor and character – between feigning, dissimulation, disguise, and ‘reality’ – and where this distance collapses. Particularly pertinent were discussions around disability, gender, and race, emphasising how choices of casting and directing matter in powerful ways.

The pandemic-induced move to digital theatre raised questions of what is lost or made abstract, sometimes productively, by the lack of material contact accompanying virtual performance. The symposium balanced papers on new source material and the importance of archival work with others on new digital resources, technologies, and practices. Digital theatre is an exciting new direction for the future, but one that needs to be thought about in relation to embodied performance.                                                                                                                                                 

Finally, the value of cross-period and cross-disciplinary work was made clear. Considerations of intertextuality and multimedia approaches are exciting directions for the field of premodern performance, with striking potential parallels to the digital age of hyperlinks and multiple tabs.

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