Reporter 450, 3 April 2000

Theatrical heritage steps into the limelight

Foundations have been laid in Leeds for an eventual online academic community of provincial theatre studies, all around the UK and across European borders.

Declaiming to the audience: the archetypal Victorian actor

Researchers in the School of English have completed a year-long project on the theatre in Victorian Leeds, unearthing a wealth of archive material. Dr Gail Marshall, principal investigator on the study, said it had identified a great deal about the theatrical history of Leeds but had also pointed to much broader questions in cultural studies. These are issues which the research team hopes to explore in a much larger programme, currently in the running for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

High drama: Maud Jefferies and Wilson Barrett in the Sign of the Cross which had its premiere in Leeds in 1896

"There are new kinds of work to be done on provincial theatre, looking beyond the physical bounds of the building to look at the role of theatrical culture in society at large," she said.

An interdisciplinary approach was the hallmark of the initial study, backed by Leverhulme funding for the employment of research assistant Helen Townend.

Project co-ordinator Dr Marshall, author of Actresses on the Victorian Stage (Cambridge), looked specifically at the presence of Shakespeare on the Leeds stage at the end of the 19th century. It appears that the somewhat sensationalist stagings common in the earlier part of the century gave way to a more ‘textually respectable’ Bard, associated with the development of the Grand Theatre.

Innovative approach: Gail Marshall

"It wasn’t a question of Shakespeare for the middle classes and music-hall for the workers," said Dr Marshall. "There were Shakespeare readings and lectures in nearly every working men’s institute."

The Grand underwent a major transition in the 1890s when its first manager, Wilson Barrett, was succeeded by the ambitious moderniser John Hart. Barrett’s letters and papers, housed at the University of Austin, Texas, and the Grand’s own archives were major sources for two other parts of the project.

Behind the scenes: Grand Theatre manager Warren Smith was a keen supporter of the research project

Dr Amanda Price, of the Workshop Theatre, took the Grand as her starting point in mapping the theatrical culture of Leeds and the contrasting roles of music-halls like the City Varieties and the Princess’s Palace. A lively magazine of the time, The Yorkshire Owl, featuring star interviews and gossip, provides a vivid picture of the mass-market entertainment scene. The City Varieties have not yet made their archives accessible to researchers.

Tim Skelly, lecturer in technical theatre, looked at the physical environment of the theatre. Company board minutes, cash books, scale plans, tender and quotation documents helped build a picture of the post-1895 changes to the Grand - and revealed that many Yorkshire businesses found a prolific outlet in theatrical building and refurbishment.

Such background information - details of carpeting, upholstery and the adoption of such innovations as electric lighting - provides telling insights into the changes in the social positioning of the theatre, the expectations of audiences and the substantial contribution that the arts and entertainment made to the regional economy.

"Our main frustration was that we actually unearthed much more material than we had expected to find," said Dr Marshall. "There is much more research to be done on the available material - and to develop some of the methodological issues arising from our research.

"This material has a great deal to say about the creation and manipulation of a late-Victorian city’s cultural life and about the interaction between industry and entertainment."

The project culminated in a one-day conference which drew an international audience including academics, practitioners and local theatre fans. Warren Smith, manager of the Grand Theatre and an enthusiastic supporter of the research, was among the speakers.

To add a touch of authentic Victorian drama, the presentations featured re-enactments of some of the historical episodes of the period, and a lecture illustrated with magic-lantern slides.

"Our next priority is to formalise this innovative approach to the study of provincial theatre, creating a methodological model that can serve researchers elsewhere. We would like to find a way of presenting this on the web and creating a resource for a network of scholarship," said Dr Marshall.

Leeds city council’s archivists and librarians were very helpful, and the research team hopes to maintain and develop these links. The initial one-year investigation could lead to the city’s emergence as an international centre of excellence in the study of the social history of theatre, co-operating with comparable projects elsewhere such as those

For more information look at the following page - theatre.htm

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