A blogpost by Helen Brooks
With the academic year coming to an end it feels like a good moment to take stock and reflect on the varied theatrically-focused activities I've been involved in over the last year as part of the Gateways project. In fact I've been meaning to write a blog post on these events for months now but every time I think I've managed to find space in my schedule to do it I seem to have a new event pop up. I guess that says a lot about the enthusiasm for exploring theatre and performance during the First World War. From the 'Well-Remembered Voices' study day at The Marlowe on 11 November 2014, through to the family open day and talks at the Theatre Royal, Brighton in April 2015, and most recently the rehearsed reading of John Drinkwater's X=0 at the WhitLit Festival last month, there seems to have been a real interest in exploring drama of the First World War.
Well-Remembered Voices study day at The Marlowe
With plays from the period having being long neglected both in literary and theatrical circles and within the wider public history of the war, it has been really wonderful to reintroduce some of these works to new audiences and to hear what people have to say about them. Plays presented this year include:
- John Drinkwater's X=0 (1917)
- Archibald Fenner-Brockway's The Devil's Business (1917)
- John G. Brandon's, There was a King in Flanders (1915)
- J. M. Barrie's A Well-Remembered Voice (1918); and
- J. Hartley Manners's God's Outcasts (1919)
With the success of these stagings and the interest audiences take in them, both from a historical and a theatrical perspective, we're already planning further performances next year, perhaps in collaboration with The National Archives. Watch this Space! And if you have any ideas about staging lost or forgotten First World war plays, or would like to get involved in these performances please do get in touch.
Events this year have not been solely focussed on presenting lost plays however. I've also given a number of talks around the different ways in which theatre 'did its duty' during the war. The crowded Western Front Association meeting back in October last year won the prize for the most informed audience - in fact they often knew much more about the war itself than I did! - and contributed fascinating anecdotes about some of the soldier-actors I mentioned. My two-day trip to Ypres/Ieper, to talk at the brilliant In Flanders Fields Museum was a real joy, and not only because I was so generously hosted by Dominick Dendooven and introduced to the best local beers but also because it was a rare opportunity to talk to Belgian audiences. One thing I really took away from this was around the differences and similarities in Belgian and British theatre during the war. For excitement (as someone who did all her degrees in Drama) the talks I gave at the Theatre Royal Brighton, won out however: I hadn't realised when I'd prepared the talks, that I would be sitting on the stage surrounded by the set of Oh What a Lovely War!
Helen Brooks presenting her research at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres/Ieper
The two days at the Theatre Royal Brighton, were a real highlight of my year. The team at TRB were incredibly welcoming and showed a real interest in what we were offering - in fact it went so well that we hope it will be the start of a long-term collaboration. As well as giving a matinee talk after Oh What a Lovely War!, the following day Sam Carroll and I ran a family open day at the theatre themed around the First World War. This included talks and activities such as:
- A 'fact' treasure hunt where children had to find the answers to questions about theatre during WW1 by searching for pictures hidden around the theatre, and receive various sugary delights as their prize!
- Censoring a play, where audiences learnt about how the Lord Chamberlain licensed and censored play-scripts and tried doing it themselves
- Dressing up and being photographed in costume for a First World War play
- Colouring in a playbill for a real First World War melodrama
- Designing a costume for a play originally staged in Brighton in 1915; and, for older participants
- Writing a review in early 20th century style, and
- Analysing historic sources about theatre from the period.
Above: The Theatre Royal opens for the Oh What A Lovely War open day. Below: First World War style costumes for the Oh What A Lovely War activities.
As it was the first time we'd done anything like this there were certainly lessons learnt (for example, making the treasure hunt a little easier!) but one of the real delights for me was seeing how many people of all ages got stuck into all these activities: although I'd designed them more for children, we had visitors of all ages and I particularly loved seeing elderly couples taking part in the treasure hunt, although I'm not sure they claimed their sweets!
I certainly hope we'll get another chance to run activities like these at other theatres and if you'd like to find out more about what we did at Brighton or would like to explore how we might offer something similar for your organisation, please do get in touch.
So what's ahead in terms of theatre and the First World War? Well, in addition to more talks and events next year, and the continuing touring of the pop-up exhibition ( click here to find out more ) which was launched at The Marlowe in November, I'm now deep into my research in the British Library's Lord Chamberlain's collection of First World War plays and am hoping that this will turn into an AHRC project which will provide open access to these long-lost but fascinating FWW plays. As part of this each day I'm uncovering new plays and am currently as far along as August 1915. I'm also looking for public participants who might be interested in being researchers on the project and looking into the performance histories of their local theatres during the war, as well as venues that might be interested in having performances or rehearsed readings of these plays. So if this sounds like it might be of interest, get in touch. And if you have any other ideas about ways you'd like to build drama into your projects, you know where to come!
30 June 2015
Some of the original sources discussed at the Well-Remembered Voices study day