Il Palcoscenico di Carta (Clara Prezzavento)

It was a little more than a year ago that, while browsing the web for Shakespeariana, I chanced across a weblog post by Eoin Price at Aside Notes, telling about The Paper Stage, Canterbury’s public play reading group. I read the post, followed the link, read some more – and by then I was in love with the beauty and simplicity of the idea. People gathering to read aloud seldom Il PdC 1performed plays? Wonderful! So I wrote a glowing post of my own on my English blog, and ended it by wishing very much I could do something like it…

And then Harry Newman, from The Paper Stage, wrote to me, saying basically: Why Not? And indeed, why not do it? Why not copy The Paper Stage in Mantua? So I got in touch with friends at the Accademia Teatrale Campogalliani, Mantua’s theatre school and semi-professional company. They fell in love with the idea as promptly as I had: in fact, we had been lamenting together the near-impossibility of staging anything that veers from the most widely known repertoire – and The Paper Stage offered a welcome chance to explore a little.

And so Il Palcoscenico di Carta (literally “the stage of paper”) was born. We put together a little website [translated here], presented the project at Campogalliani’s annual press conference, and set to work on it.

We felt that we had to make a few adjustments to adapt the project to our needs. Instead of integral readings in one sitting, we chose to split the plays into one-hour chunks, and to have weekly meetings late in the afternoon, rather than after dinner. After some searching, we found a home for the project at the lovely Libreria Einaudi, a bookshop cum art gallery, whose owners Il PdC - May 2015 #1welcomed us with genuine enthusiasm. Finally, following the footsteps of The Paper Stage, we chose to begin with Romeo and Juliet – Romeo e Giulietta, in a beautiful translation by hermetic poet Salvatore Quasimodo.

With everything ready, we began recruiting – and on May 7 we gathered at the Libreria. There were about twenty of us, between readers and listeners. Readers ranged from semi-professionals to amateurs and theatre-lovers who had never played in their lives… What misgivings I might have had about rhythm, disappeared the moment we started. Led by the Campogalliani players, and swept up by Shakespeare and Quasimodo, we all fell in step with Il PdC - May 2015 #2surprising ease, and had a lively and very enjoyable first reading.  The experience was just as pleasant on the following two weeks, as we rotated parts and gathered more members of the audience…

In the end, when our imaginary curtain descended, the feedback was extremely positive. The actors enjoyed the chance to experiment with characters they’d never play otherwise, the neophytes had a taste of the thrill of theatre, the listeners discovered the difference between reading a play and listening to it… Everyone pronounced Il Palcoscenico di Carta a very rewarding experience, and expressed every intention to be there again when we meet next – very likely in September.

We have not yet decided on our next play, but requests are arriving from our readers and listeners. Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and some less known Shakespeare are on the wish list – and in time we mean to stray from the Elizabethan period. We will see, and we will read. Meanwhile, one thing is sure: The Paper Stage/Il Palcoscenico di Carta has landed in Mantua – and it is here to stay.

Il Palcoscenico di Carta, or ‘The Stage of Paper’

Il PdC posterThis month The Paper Stage’s sister society in Mantua, Italy is having its first play-reading, split into three evenings on the 7th, 14th and 21st of May. Inspired by our blog, Clara Prezzavento has set up Il Palcoscenico di Carta (‘The Stage of Paper’), and is collaborating with the Theatre Academy Campogalliani on an exciting new series of readings of early modern plays in Italian translations. Their first play? Romeo e Giulietta! It’s at Libreria Galleria Einaudi, a bookshop-cum-art gallery in the centre of Mantua, and I for one can’t wait to hear how it goes!

Clara will be writing a post for our blog in the near future, so watch this space:

A symphony of voices at The Paper Stage: Reading “The Witch of Edmonton” (Mary Way)

I attended the reading of Lucy Munro’s Arden edition of The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker and Ford as a fun diversion from my studies of Shakespeare both on the page and stage. I had never read nor heard of this play before that week and thought it was a tragedy, my first error. I also assumed I would be a lone American voice striking discordantly in a sea of proper English accents, my second error. What I discovered instead was how unexpectedly hilarious The Witch of Edmonton actually was and how that was amplified by the diversity of voices reading it. The tone, pitch and accent of each voice revealed something I wasn’t expecting to hear. I have grown so accustomed to the highly trained resonant voices you find on stages across the world that I have developed a craving for variety, which was satisfied by The Paper Stage.

The stereotype of the posh English “Shakespearean” actor has become a parody of itself, yet accents that deviate from the “norm” still seem to be reserved as character devices or a tool of class/country differentiation in Early Modern theatre (with a few exceptions e.g. David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing). How refreshing and illuminating it is, in a world of homogenised sound on stage, to hear an Early Modern play read in natural human voices. What happens when we abandon “convention” and embrace the breadth of the human voice? Modern accents are a far cry from the pirate-esque style of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, so why not embrace the complexity of the natural voice to see where that leads us?

During the reading certain aspects of the text took on a different meaning. The Dog character, the Witch’s familiar and devil in disguise, has not an insignificant amount of “bow wows” in the script. Instead of attempting a realistic dog noise, our reader said the lines saucily and suggestively, bringing a sinister yet humorous tilt to the character. The Morris dancers also ran the spectrum of accents. Through the diversity of voices each character took on an individuality and personality, even without any overt attempts at “acting”. And yet the voices filled up the space while avoiding the forceful affectation that befalls too many stage actors when speaking outside their natural range. Even the age range of the actors contributed to this: pairing an older sounding gentleman as the child (Frank Thorney) of a younger voice (Old Thorney) imbued the relationship with unexpected humour. It was also interesting to hear the inevitable cross-gendered casting of women’s voices in “men’s” roles, the opposite to the all male casts of the original Early Modern production.

When you take the plays out of a conventionally dramatic setting, the text and voice become the two most important parts of the “performance”, each one informing the other. The natural voice becomes a tool of illumination: how does the speech flow, where are the lines that might sound odd in a stereotypical Received Pronunciation accent but natural in an American one? It is a rare gift to hear a play read by such an international spectrum in one room. I loved hearing the variety of inflections and pronunciations that would have never come out of my mouth, and I believe that this varied aural experience is extremely valuable. From amateur actors to Early Modern enthusiasts, The Paper Stage has shown me the text will inform the voice and the voice will carry the text. I found the diversity of the vocal instrument particularly essential to the transcendent musicality of the text. In a “risk-free” enjoyable environment like The Paper Stage (amplified by the generous provision of snacks and drinks) we are truly able to explore these dynamics in a way that is overlooked in a theatrical production. I would love for the use of natural voices to become a popular trend on the professional stage, but until then I will just have to relish the unique opportunity The Paper Stage has given me.

Community-making on The Paper Stage (Rosemary Walters)

Over the past two terms the Paper Stage readings have seemed to me to have a growing sense of community, a sort of company of players. “Titus Andronicus” was the only one which I had already seen on stage, and it was fascinating to re-enact this. The pie scenario was just as PS photo - communityrepulsive! although obviously the obscenity of the mutilation didn’t have the same impact – someone near me fainted when I saw it on stage. But it’s always exhilarating to come to a piece of drama for the first time whether on the stage or on paper. In the Paper Stage, without any movement or props the text has to speak for itself even more strongly, which is quite difficult when reading an unseen script for the first time, often without any idea of plot or the complicated relationships existing between the characters before the plot begins. Would some kind of resume of the storyline at the beginning help or detract from the excitement of the reading? Would actors of this time know the stories before they saw the script for the first time?

As someone who knows nothing about the scholarship of early modern drama what fascinates me is the place of the conscious and sub-conscious in all this. To what extent did Webster, Lyly and Co “know” what was going on in their own and their characters’ minds amongst all the violence and often frenzied activity?  Did they have any concept of the sub-conscious? How far can you assume hidden motivation and/or “modern” political or moral significances? Are these stupid questions? I’m sure studying the drama of this period would answer this for me but I’ve come to the plays without this background and still enjoyed them immensely.

In the discussion afterwards I do ask myself if we should be shocked at some of the assumptions, for example about the treatment of women, into which we read our own contemporary concerns or just accept that we’ve been in another place at another time. Is this a cop-out? I enjoy going to the Globe and now the Wanamaker Playhouse and have this vision of contemporary audiences for these plays being there for a good evening out, not sitting respectfully in rapt attention through the whole play, dwelling solemnly on ethical and moral considerations.  And somehow, for me, the Paper Stage evenings get near to what I imagine (perhaps wrongly!) this atmosphere to be. What is so refreshing about the Paper Stage is the informality of the reading, being part of the story over a glass of wine, not worrying about in depth analysis or forgetting words and being able to enjoy the plays as vivid stories of people getting into sometimes impossibly complicated and crisis situations and trying to get themselves out of them! I’ve felt that the growing sense of community has enabled us to take more risks with getting into role as we’ve travelled through war, murder, adultery, witchcraft and various other combinations of tortured characters and their social and domestic power struggles and look forward to more of these to come.

“A Woman Killed with Kindness” (Gill Corble)

I found it to be the most thought-provoking play we have read so far.  Anne’s adultery and her husband’s punishment thereof raised several questions about morality, forgiveness, revenge.
How much of her adulterous behaviour came of her own free will, and how much was she coerced into it by her lover?  Was the feeling between them equal or was he an abusive, controlling man? In those days, how much free will did women have and how much were they expected to submit themselves to men? Would the audience then have expected her husband to have condemned or forgiven her? His punishment of her could be viewed either as compassionate or utterly malicious.  She wished only to die of shame but he insisted she live, but in emotional agony. How “kind” was he? Is there irony in the title of the play?
Lover-boy got off scot-free! Does this reflect the social mores of the time? A bit like in severely conservative societies today where only the woman is punished? I think this play raises moral questions that are not irrelevant to our own times, however tolerant our society seems today. There obviously was, and still is, hypocrisy and double standards in this field.  I think the play could well transfer into modern times in order to raise debate about anyone who strays from accepted behavioural norms.
Furthermore, I note that the playwright described eminently credible personalities who functioned entirely by their own actions and beliefs, uninfluenced by, for example, any divine or magical input, such as occurs often in Shakespeare.
It was interesting how this play got us all talking afterwards – more so than any other we’ve read, and I like to think that the contemporary audience would have left the theatre buzzing and arguing over its moral mazes.  The playwright does seem to leave conclusions to us rather than preach his own.

“The Play of Adam” project: Using the Paper Stage for practice-based research (Francisca Stangel and Tamara Haddad)

Our research and performance project of staging the twelfth century Play of Adam [see the blog] sprung from a shared interest in early drama, early performance practices, and practice-based research. With its hands-on approach, practice-based research can generate new types of evidence that traditional research sometimes struggles to produce. By staging a piece of drama we can test the practicalities around the performance of a medieval play and, inversely, test the boundaries of this type of research by asking ourselves where the evidence for a particular type of production ends and where artistic license begins.

The Play of Adam lends itself nicely to this type of project because the manuscript text gives us great insight into early performance practices. Excitingly, this play includes detailed and sometimes quite lengthy stage directions which is something that is very rare in both medieval anPaper Stage photo - Play of Adamd early modern drama.  The stage directions – written in Latin to accompany the Anglo-Norman dialogue – are a great and valuable source for information about original staging practices and expectations of medieval performance. Also accompanying the fast-paced dialogue is a reflective plainchant that focuses the audience’s attention on the theological implications of the Fall through the repetition of lines found in traditional liturgy. These elements of the play as well as the striking visual imagery that was brought out through the reading at the Paper Stage give us a great flavour of how a staging of the Play of Adam might be conceived. Because the surviving text of the play is incomplete, it was important for us to use the table reading as a way to explore how we might build a complete performance from very little evidence.

We were struck by the contrast between the opening speech – a reading of the story of creation found in Genesis – and the colloquial conversation between the characters. The juxtaposition of fun dialogue and the exciting plot combined with the more meditative elements created an interesting tension between entertainment and education, action and contemplation. The humour in the play was discussed extensively following the read-through especially in the very entertaining rendition of the Cain and Abel story, which did not appear to be very funny on the page. Carol Symes’ translation gives us witty dialogue that at times feels very modern even though it is a very close translation of the Anglo-Norman. Something that surprised some of our readers was how easy it was to connect with and appreciate the comedy in the play and it challenged an old preconception that medieval drama is very serious. This is something that we want and hope to challenge even further through the staging of the Play of Adam.

The read-through also articulated the imagery that was created by hearing the various characters’ lines together with the stage directions and music. The final section of the play contains a number of prophets prophesying about the advent of Jesus’ appearance which is quite long and dull on the page. However, when the dialogue and stage directions were read aloud, it was evident that the surviving text ends in a wonderful tableaux of the prophets. Because the manuscript of the play is incomplete, hearing these portions of the text read allowed has given us a number of ideas about how a future performance might make use of the surviving text and where other contemporary material might be inserted in order to smooth the play’s narrative arc.  The question of where evidence ends and artistic license begins was at the fore of the discussion and the reading provided great insight into how we might approach this project as a piece of practice-based research.

Thank you to all that participated in the event and spurred us on in our research project! We will continue to work during the spring and summer terms to inform our performance with research, workshops, and discussions. We hope to see you all at the work in progress performance in June and more importantly at the actual performance in October!

“The Play of Adam”, trans Carol Symes (Kenneth Pickering)

Wonderful to see and hear a new generation discovering the sheer vitality of Medieval Drama at a reading of ‘The Play of Adam’ at the Paper Stage! I’ve directed various Adam and Eves in Cathedrals throughout the UK (including a superb performance by my Drama Dept colleague, Jayne in Canterbury) but this version was new to me. Two complementary events in one week: the reading and a conference to celebrate the 50 anniversary of the publication of Jan Kott’s ‘Shakespeare our Contemporary’ and how contemporary ‘The Play of Adam’ actually is! Corruption and power, evil and knowledge: the lethal mix of our lives! The play needs to flow out of a building and either surround or physically come near to the audience. Characters and music must emerge from the shadows or surrounding space and the flicker of hell fire must never be too far away. Even the exposition of the prophets (massive cuts essential) can still be highly dramatic: the Christian symbols embedded in the dialogue must emerge from that rich language and voices can come from all over the place. But it must all be contemporary in its use of movement and humour and, possibly, costume? The acting needs to be simple and strong: the important thing is not to react but to listen and then react. The freshness and vitality of this translation demands that it is handled with sensitivity and fluid movement.