Contagions, Historical Phenomenology and the Globe…

Contagions, Historical Phenomenology and the Globe audience

Delivered in partnership with King’s College London, our MA in Shakespeare Studies offers exciting and unparalleled opportunities for Shakespeare students. Drawing on the joint expertise of Shakespeare’s Globe and King’s, students learn about the texts, companies and theatre spaces of early modern playhouses, just a stone’s throw from where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed.

Amy Victoria Norris considers the Globe audience and their relationship with the actors on stage.

It’s been all change in these parts over the past few months. We’ve started a new term here on the MA, which means a whole new module at the Globe, and in our first plenary session of the month, actor and Globe Education Faculty member acting practitioner Dickon Tyrrell told us about sitting in the upper gallery as the strobe lighting was taken down to mark Shakespeare’s Globe transition into a new phase of artistic direction.

Acting on the Globe stage is, as the Globe’s Cause, a ‘radical theatrical experiment’, which we explored ourselves in our first plenary session of the month, entitled ‘Playing with the Globe audience’. We worked with Dickon to workshop what is different about being an actor on the Globe stage, specifically thinking about how to engage with your audience. An actor is so connected to their audience, in the shared light of the Globe Theatre theatre, that it becomes a reciprocal relationship; you are acting in the space of the audience, playing off their reactions at times. What stuck out to me what Dickon’s warning that an actor knows their audience has lost interest when they start swaying; he recalls noticing that the groundlings start to almost move in synchronicity from side to side when an actor has lost their focus.

This idea of the Globe audience, all moving together as waves in a sea, is interesting for our study this term; our new term at the Globe has brought with it our new favourite linguistic term… phenomenology. Try saying that three times fast(!) Historical Phenomenology encourages a study of early modern performance that takes into account what it would have been ‘felt’ like to experience theatre in context. For our purpose, this means considering what it was like to be an Early Modern audience. Therefore, it is integral to this term’s module at the Globe: ‘Staging Shakespeare in Early Modern Playhouses’.

Particularly interesting to us has been the early modern idea of ‘contagion’ in a theatrical environment; Shakespeare’s audiences would have believed they could be literally infected by the actions of the stage. Allison Hobgood uses the example of Macbeth to explore how attending a performance would put an audience member at risk of catching the kind of fear played out onstage, which could affect the balance of your humours and cause embodied illness. The permeability of one’s skin, especially when all cramped together as groundlings, means that not only could physical ailments like the plague spread quickly, so could emotions and sins performed onstage which could be literally infectious. Both the physical and the emotional contagions move through the crowd like Dickon’s wave simile. The Globe, whether it’s the first or third space of that name, demands a connected audience.

We also got a chance to be a part of the audience ourselves three times this month, firstly to see the Rutgers’ Conservatory performances of both Richard III and 1 Henry IV. Being an MA student here is to be a part of the Globe Education family, and we were all thrilled to be invited to see the work of BFA and MFA Acting majors from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, University in New Jersey, who have spent their junior year training here.

We returned to the theatre as groundlings again to see the Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production of Much Ado About Nothing, a 90-minute fast-paced performance of one of my favourite plays. These performances are a great way to see some super high-energy Shakespeare; I fear we MA students were maybe approaching on as raucous as we imagine early modern playgoers to have been!

This performance was a finale to my highlight of the month; the Globe’s inaugural postgraduate conference, organised with London Shakespeare Centre. We were lucky enough to have the call-for-papers extended to not only doctoral but also MA students, and I therefore had the chance to present a snippet of my early dissertation research, and get some really helpful feedback and pointers. From the very first day of my course, I have felt encouraged and accepted as part of a larger academic community as Masters student here. The bodies you’ll interact with as a postgrad at King’s and the Globe accept that you have a valuable voice as an MA student, and encourage you to contribute to the larger academic conversation. It’s really a community like no other.

We ended the month with the Globe in snow (the ‘Snow-Globe’, if you please), I took a quick break from my Tuesday afternoon volunteering session in the Globe’s archives to have a small-scale photo shoot and snowball fight on the roof terrace overlooking the theatre whilst the cast continued with a show of Much Ado. Even as everything around us in London ground to a halt like we’d never seen snow before, the show must go on!

Further Reading on Phenomenology:

Bruce Smith, Phenomenal Shakespeare (Wiley Blackwell)

Allison Hobgood, Passionate Playgoing in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) 

Katherine Craik and Tanya Pollard (eds) Shakespearean Sensations: Experiencing Literature in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)