Keeping Read Not Dead alive
For the past six months, I’ve been working as a post-doctoral research fellow here at Shakespeare’s Globe. My job has been to collect data and record information about over 200 Renaissance plays which have been staged by the Globe’s long-running Read Not Dead project, and in this series of blog posts, I’ll be telling you a bit more about what I’ve been up to.
Since 1995, Shakespeare’s Globe has been on a mission to produce rehearsed readings of all the plays which survive from between 1567 and 1642 – some 500 or so dramas which, for the most part, are no longer staged. Of course, far more plays were written and performed during that time – around 3,000 – but most haven’t come down to us: either they weren’t printed and the original manuscripts were lost, or they were printed and those printings haven’t survived. Still, 500 plays are more than enough to be getting on with: the Read Not Dead project has been running for almost 23 years, and we’re only about halfway through!
For those of you who’ve never been to a Read Not Dead event, here’s what happens on the day. Our actors arrive on a Sunday morning and met with a director; they’ll have done no prior preparation for their roles, and they’ll be performing script-in-hand. The cast have 5 or 6 hours to get the play on its feet, decide on blocking, and perhaps choreograph any necessary swordfights. Then, at 4pm, the audience arrive and the play comes alive: the actors usually have only had the chance to go through the entire play once, so most of the time the performances are based on instinct and adrenaline.
Why do we do this? While I can’t speak for the initial reasons Read Not Dead began, here are my personal top five points as to why these events are brilliant.
1. We get to discover plays that aren’t being performed anywhere else
2. Some of these plays are real hidden gems. A play falling out of fashion in the seventeenth century isn’t necessarily an indicator of its quality, or of what it might have to say to a modern audience.
3. The ensemble work between the cast is astonishing. Seeing them put a play together in a single day is pretty exhilarating.
4. Some of our Read Not Dead alumni have gone on to some rather impressive things. People like Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Craig, Sally Hawkins, Michael Sheen… The list isn’t quite endless, but it’s pretty cool.
5. You get to be a smug theatre hipster, talking about plays few other people have heard of; and perhaps when some of our current Read Not Dead actors make it big, you’ll be able to boast that you saw them perform when they were up-and-coming.
So what’s my role in all of this? Well, we want the plays that we stage to be remembered for longer than a single afternoon. Some of these scripts are only just waking up again after a 400-years-long nap, and frankly, we’d like them to stick around a bit longer this time and get the oxygen of publicity that so many of Shakespeare’s plays are exposed to.
With this end in mind, Shakespeare’s Globe is setting up a Read Not Dead database. It will contain information on every single Read Not Dead play: who originally staged it, and where; when it was printed; where possible, who acted in it. It will also feature photographs, clips, and scripts from our own performances: all on a searchable database which, for the first time, blends Renaissance theatre history with its revival in modern day performance.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about the information I’ve been collecting and what it’s revealed about the theatre scene of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.But for now, why not book in for our next series of Read Not Dead plays? Starting in May, our new Censorship season will confront ideas about suppression and sedition featuring Renaissance plays which speak vividly to us even today.
Words: Dr Miranda Fay Thomas