The Paper Stage: Consulting the Public Voice (Harry Newman)

Hi all! Just thought I’d post a short piece I wrote about The Paper Stage for the newsletter of Kent Uni’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Those walking by the Gulbenkian Café at about 10pm on the mild evening of 19 May were surprised to see a tightly huddled circle of 27 seated bodies all gripping books, reading out-loud the end of Romeo and Juliet in an atmosphere which one passer-by described as ‘strangely intense’. This scene was the finale of the launch of The Paper Stage, Canterbury’s new public Renaissance play-reading society. The group, with some additions, met again in June to read Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, a provocative and disturbing tragedy with distinct comic elements, and they will be getting together at 7pm on 15 September for John Lyly’s Gallathea, a gender-bending transvestite comedy by a playwright who – like Marlowe – was schooled in Canterbury in the late sixteenth century.

The Paper Stage is part of a research project led by two drama specialists from the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Dr Harry Newman and Dr Clare Wright. It began life last year as a weekly play-reading series for Kent undergraduates and postgraduates (set to run with new plays in 2014-5), but since the public launch it has brought together students and members of the wider community for informal yet revealing readings of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It is hoped that the readings will offer insights into issues such as the pedagogical and interpretive value of communal reading, and the public accessibility of non-Shakespearean drama. Early responses from participants suggest that, as well as being a lot of fun, there is indeed much to be learnt for students, academics and the general public alike. The society’s blog and Twitter feed (#paperstage) display comments which demonstrate the deep intellectual engagement facilitated by The Paper Stage. These include reflections on plot, language and characterisation in the plays themselves (‘it struck me that the play can be seen as an experiment with the sonnet form’), original performance conditions (‘some of roles were doubled … allow[ing] us to understand the way in which performers would have been utilised on stage’), and the shifting atmosphere of the readings (‘by act two the group were engulfed into a remote zone’). As a whole, these responses have made it abundantly clear that The Paper Stage offers something new, an experience which sits somewhere between silent reading and live performance, but at the same time enables fresh perspectives on those activities and their relationship to one another.

The Paper Stage continues to grow in size and ambition, and its potential reach is very exciting indeed. Inspired by the blog, the writer Chiara Prezzavento has set up Il Palcoscenico di Carta (‘The Stage of Paper’) in Mantua, which will start with readings of Italian translations of plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster. Anyone from or visiting Kent is welcome to join The Paper Stage for future events and find out what it’s all about. Whether you’d like to participate as a reader or just listen in, send a message to h.r.newman@kent.ac.uk to be added to the email list.

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