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March 01, 2010

Medieval and Early Modern Authorship conference

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This is what happens when you don't check the Call for Papers alerts regularly enough. Sadly I can't go to this as it clashes with another trip, but a brief look down the announced papers shows a really relevant range of research topics. At least, happily, there's a collection coming out of it, so I'll be able to catch up belatedly with some of the conference conversations.

November 18, 2009

The (Re)Birth of the Author

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I'm strongly considering putting in a proposal for this conference, though as yet I haven't worked out what said proposal would be. Five days of interdisciplinary conversation about authorship sounds fascinating, though, and it'd be good to get to an international conference before the next academic year begins. Plus, a week in Turin wouldn't be too shabby!

September 14, 2009

British Shakespeare Association Conference @ King's College London

Just a very quick post about this year's BSA conference in London. Entitled "Local/Global Shakespeares", the conference brought together a prestigious line-up of speakers, events, workshops and seminars. Though, to bring up a negative, no lunch.

I was only able to attend the first day of the event, as I've recently been in something of a state of flux through moving house and still had a great deal of sorting out to do at home. However, the first day seemed to go extremely well. An opening set of plenaries saw Ann Thompson speaking interestingly about the global impact of Hamlet; Gordon McMullan giving a fascinating account of The Island Princess in performance and its assocations with Indonesia; and Sonia Massai discussing a Zimbabwean township-style production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona that I'm now dying to catch. They were followed in the afternoon by the great Edward Hall of Propeller discussing the work of his company and the always-entertaining Michael Dobson on the global spread of Shakespearean performance.

The day concluded with Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson (a "right pair of old hams" in the words of a fellow delegate who shall remain anonymous) delivering a jointly-written paper, taking a line or two at a time, on the sonnets. The novel delivery was extremely entertaining; it's always nice to see someone doing something a bit different with the old paper format. The content of the paper was deliberately contentious, aiming to kill the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet and the Young Man. By taking the sonnets out of sequence, they pointed out that very few of the individual sonnets identify the gender of their addressee; that there is no reason to assume continuity of addressee between sonnets; that there is no reason to conflate any of the addressees with the volume's dedicatee; and that the sequence itself should not be thought of as such, but rather as a collection, or even a "rattlebag".

I completely agree with the deconstructive approach of Wells and Edmondson, and it is necessary to take an extreme position in order to counter the invariably biographical readings applied to the collection over previous decades. However, I did take issue with the suggestion that the order of the sonnets should still be retained. This reading was based on the idea that a sequence of thought does not exist between the poems, and if that is the case, and the poems really are a "rattlebag", then there is no reason save bibliographical to retain the order. The problem with retaining the order is that we will read them in order; and once we begin reading the sonnets in order, it is surely impossible to retain the same sense of each sonnet standing completely independently. As Wells acknowledged, several of the sonnets themselves imply a continuity of thought, beginning with "But" or similar, and once you acknowledge that continuity then the statistics begin to look shaky. If one is going to deconstruct the sonnets, then the traditional order, the 'sequence', needs also to be broken up. Once the biographical readings are successfully interrupted, maybe then we can return to the order provided by the book and reconsider, freed of the 'characters' history has created, what the order implies.

In between the plenaries was a split session featuring thirteen parallel events. Thirteen. Sadly this meant I had to miss some extremely interesting-sounding seminars, such as one on Early Modern Repertories which would have been very relevant to my current work. Instead, I sat on a panel called 'Teams Researching Shakespeare in Higher Education', which discussed changes in HE policy and funding. As I'm part of a research team, my contribution to the panel was in discussing how my route has differed from the 'traditional' PhD route which most of my peers at Warwick have taken. The different emphasis on skills and training; the opportunities afforded; and the profile one gets from being part of a research team are all positives. Negatives, perhaps, would be the increased pressure and the anxieties over 'ownership' of the research: will my work on the apocrypha remain entirely mine, or will I be ceding the best bits to the greater book project? It was an interesting discussion in any case, and we're putting together a report so the AHRC can hopefully benefit from the feedback.

That was it for the conference for me, but a useful day nonetheless. Hopefully I'll be in a more settled place when the next big conference comes around, and be able to get a lot more out of it as a result.

June 17, 2009

British Graduate Shakespeare Conference

The annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference ran Thursday to Saturday of last week. This was my third Britgrad, second time presenting. Sadly I was only able to attend for the first two days, but as ever it was a thoroughly fascinating and useful event.

My paper, "Preserving Shakespeare: Bardolatry, Canon and the Shakespeare Apocrypha", was essentially a distilled version of some elements of my first chapter, looking at how the Apocrypha had been formed by Bardolatrous critical and editorial attitudes, but making the case that the Apocrypha is a necessary consequence of an author-centric study of the period. I was actually moved on the morning of my presentation from a panel dealing with cultural value to be paired with a paper on Nashe's pamphlets. While the former panel would have been extremely useful, there were some nice parallels coming up between our papers.

Not my best paper, but useful to deliver, and made me more aware of what's within my remit to deliver. The questions were primarily concerned with the implications for a wider understanding of canon, which is something I'm absolutely very interested in, but I had let that overtake my paper rather more than I'd realised. In order that this project doesn't spiral completely out of control, I'm going to have to make sure that my primary focus is the apocryphal plays: once they start becoming a subsidiary part of my argument, I'm biting off far more than I can chew.

Lots of extremely good papers, too many to discuss in any kind of detail here, but there was a very intriguing thread going through several that I saw. A growing interest in how Shakespeare's work relates to that of his contemporaries was manifested in surprisingly varied ways: Clare Smout talked about sources, considering A Woman Killed with Kindness as a source for Measure for Measure, while Derek Dunne talked about intertextuality, with revenge tragedies actively responding to their generic predecessors. My own research is considering discursive authorship, plays being "authored" by their forebears, competition, theatrical provenance and generic considerations. The cumulative effect of this was to suggest how criticism is moving to embrace and negotiate the collaborative environment of the theatre as impacting on authorship, promoting a closer attention to repertory as a part of the authoring process.

Two conferences last week then, both of which have given me a great deal to think about.

Authorship: An Interdisciplinary Conference

I presented on my PhD research for the first time last week at a postgraduate conference at Roehampton. Particularly interesting conference this for me, as it was also the first time I'd presented to a non-specialist Shakespeare audience. The theme of the conference was "Authorship" in all its forms, and a fascinating mix it was.

Papers covered ground from contemporary creative translations of Petrarchan sonnets to multiple versions of films being released on DVD, from discussions of how individual authors' lives impacted on their work to ideas of editing and re-authoring from archives.

The main benefit of this conference for me was in breaking out of a Shakespearean community with received ideas about canonicity and authorship, and from ideas of literary authorship themselves. Film offers some fascinating parallels with the early modern dramatic canon, particularly in the way it presents single names as the stated 'authors' of a collaborative project. The idea of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" seems to me to potentially have some interesting mileage in respect of an understanding of how the King's Men's plays were originally presented.

The author appeared, overall, as a particularly elusive and problematic figure, and impossible to come to any neat conclusions about. Some of us were presenting papers attempting to move away from the author towards a wider sense of discursive authorship, others were reacting against this kind of move to draw greater importance to the individual agencies responsible for bringing a text to public attention. There was definitely a shared sense of the 'author' having to be understood as part of the authoring process rather than the whole, but beyond that it seems that there's a great deal of work still to be done.

More generally, the conference itself was a small and extremely friendly affair, and I feel quite privileged to have been invited to take part. I'll post my abstract for the event over on my e-portfolio shortly.

May 14, 2009

Authorship conference

I've just been accepted to give a paper at the Second Roehampton University School of Arts Postgraduate Conference, entitled "Authorship: An Interdisciplinary Conference". The papers look interesting, everything from Ibsen to Kubrick in there! I'm presenting a paper which I've ambitiously titled "Escaping the Author: Un-attributing the Shakespeare Apocrypha", which is going to essentially argue that the overstated importance of Shakespeare as an author has crippled useful criticism of many of the apocryphal plays, and use that as the basis to make an argument for a study of the drama of the period not centred around authors.

The conference is on June 10th - which is the day before Britgrad in Stratford, to which I've ALSO been accepted, doing a paper on a slightly different aspect of the apocrypha. This one is "Preserving Shakespeare: Bardolatry, Canon and the Shakespeare Apocrypha", which confronts the notion of an apocryphal canon, interrogating the motivations for its creation and the influence it has on our understanding of the wider Shakespearea canon.

Two papers in one week. In that week, I'm also reviewing Julius Caesar for the Shakespeare journal, All's Well that Ends Well and The Winter's Tale (Old Vic) for Shakespeare Revue, and seeing the Globe's As You Like It. I may also be required to pass my upgrade interview to PhD status that week. The deep breathing begins here.....

April 25, 2009

Shakespeare in the Archives

Writing about web page

Warwick's been a site of activity this week. I've been to talks by Jonathan Lamb of Vanderbilt University, by the lead architect on the transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and to a presentation of an academic experiment with Hamlet. The biggest event, though, has been the "Shakespeare in the Archives" conference hosted by the CAPITAL Centre, which I've been auditing over the last two days.

The key event of the conference has been the launch of the Re-Performing Performance website, the project which CAPITAL Research Associate Jonathan Heron has been heading up over the last few months. Tying in with the launch, this conference was concerned with theatre archives. What are they? How do we make them? How do we use them in research and teaching? Perhaps most importantly, how can we improve on all of these issues?

The issue of recording performance is a fascinating one. I remember having a great deal of anxiety in my early days of reviewing about the irrecoverability of performance, a constant nagging frustration that I was missing things, that there was no way to retain a piece of the theatrical moment. It was Tony Howard who removed this anxiety in a talk where he praised the ephemerality of the performed moment, that its immediate passing into the past made that present moment all the more unique and special, remaining only in memory.

While that meant I stopped panicking about forgetting things, it doesn't help with the practical question. The fact is that we discuss performance, that performance drives forward the study of theatre, and that there needs to be some way of recovering and reconstructing aspects of what has taken place. The papers at this conference addressed an enormous range of means of reconstruction; some practically, some theoretically, all fascinatingly.

Tom Cornford's work on versions of Hamlet, presented here in paper form, sought to literally re-perform performance by using actors to recreate the rehearsal techniques of earlier productions. Andrew Hartley focussed on the archive video (with everyone reminiscing about particularly bad versions they'd encountered), while Paul Prescott discussed the theatre review as archive, something which is of particular interest to me and discussed at greater length over on The Bardathon.

Other aspects of the conference concentrated more broadly on how archives can be used to teach us more about the field. Carol Rutter presented her work on early modern women's dress to think about the practicalities of the 'unpinning' scene in Othello on the early modern stage. Robert Shaughnessy provided a close look at early twentieth century theatre programmes, using them to map changing fashions in theatre-going over the war years. Tony Howard, meanwhile, raided FBI and CIA archives (legally!) to focus specifically on the politics surrounding Paul Robeson's performances of Othello.

Another strand running through the various papers was a recognition of what performers themselves can tell us about a text. Richard Rowland was particularly interesting in this regard, using the records of performances of A Woman Killed with Kindness to answer crucial textual problems. Reg Foakes, meanwhile, focussed more generally on how contemporary performance can help resolve textual issues, though his agenda was skewed in favour of conservative productions and experiments in original practice. Bridget Escolme also provided a particularly interesting paper that took a theoretical approach to approach the immediately practical question of how we can best obtain and use actor testimony. Michael Cordner took a slightly different tack, talking about the means by which theatre practitioners archive and disseminate their own practices. Cordner provided the theatre-academic equivalent of stand-up in his description of various practitioners' approaches to blank verse, showing how rigid adherence to particular schools ends up destroying speeches, but concluding with hope that, with the right medium and mediation, theatrical training can be more usefully used by the academy.

This is something of a whistle-stop through just some of the papers and issues raised, to give a flavour of the kinds of archive-related issues under discussion. A valuable aspect, too, was the invitation to several archivists to participate, contributing to the conversations over the weekend as well as in a dedicated panel discussion.

I don't have any specific conclusions, beyond the ones made regarding my own blog and that very small area of the archive world. It does strike me, though, that performance archives are uniquely interpretative and developmental in their own right. It was Peter Holland, I think, in his introductory paper, who applied the metaphor of blind men describing an elephant to the problem of archives. They are all, by necessity, partial. Artefacts, performer memory, audience memory, video, re-creation, review, prompt-book; all present only aspects of a communal moment of performance. We cannot hope for completeness, and I believe there can be a point at which we too obsessively try to re-capture something which is, inherently, gone. By recognising the limitations of archives, hopefully we can more usefully utilise them.

March 01, 2009

Thomas Middleton's 'A Game at Chess' Symposium

Thomas Middleton is one of the most important dramatists for my studies, being author or part-author of several plays that have, at one time or another, been part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. While there is no dispute about the authorship of his final play, A Game at Chess (we even, rarely, have a manuscript of the play in his hand), a symposium on this play is still of significant interest, particularly when it aims to combine academic scholarship with theatre practice.

A team of eighteen actors had worked for two weeks prior to the symposium on A Game at Chess, each taking multiple roles and working with directors from an academic background. While there are hopes for a future production, the rehearsals were specifically geared towards presenting a variety of stagings at this symposium for discussion and experimentation. Actors and academics could then use their respective experiences to discuss the options and further understanding of the play.

It's the kind of work that I've become fairly used to at Warwick, and I fully appreciate its value. However, many of the academics and actors were less used to this kind of collaboration, and much of the event was geared towards showing how the two 'sides' can mutually benefit each other, to no small success. The hope is that this kind of forum can be repeated with other plays, which would be a wonderful thing and I only hope it can work.

The problem, if one can call it that, is that a few hours only lets you scratch the surface of this kind of work. It's something I expressed at one point in the discussion: that what would be particularly fantastic as an academic is to be in the rehearsal room from start to finish. Not to interfere or advise (for that necessarily impacts on the actors' rehearsal process, rarely for the better), but simply to watch and understand the various processes, the experiments with and rejections of various readings, the sheer volume of could-have-beens which are simply not available to an academic who sees only the final performance. The symposium offered a variety of alternatives for selected scenes; what would be truly useful, though, would be to see how the final decisions are made. I had experience of this with Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline: we were in for a few days at the very start of rehearsals and then, months later, saw the final performance - but we lost the processses that had taken them from one to the other, and thus could never know the decisions that were taken and the things that were laid aside, only the ultimate effects.

This is, however, an inherent limitation of this kind of day: and for many reasons (not least practical) it's simply not possible to follow an entire process. However, even these few hours brought out many fascinating aspects of the play, which I'll try and briefly encapsulate.

  • Watching actors work intensely on short dialogue scenes brings out the fact that A Game at Chess is, at its heart, a deeply emotional and human play. Criticism and evaluation of the play is swamped by allegory and historical resonance, which is all extremely interesting but often serves to overshadow the heartbreaking individual stories within the play. This was especially true of watching the 'mirror' scene played over and over, as the stories and emotions of the Black Queen's Pawn and White Queen's Pawn were fleshed out and brought to painful life. Theirs is a story of betrayal, lost love, manipulation and carefully balanced risk, as intense as anything in The Changeling or Women Beware Women, and poses fascinating opportunities for actors.
  • Still on the historical note, I felt that there's a danger in the new speech prefixes used by Gary Taylor in the Oxford edition used for the symposium. He 'names' the characters (e.g. Black Knight Gondomar, Jesuitess Black Queen's Pawn etc.). This inevitably led to the actors referring to their characters as the historical figures, e.g. when asked what their purpose was in the final scene, the actors playing the White Knight and White Duke stated that they had come to woo the Infanta. Tying the play in to its historical allegory does make for a rich reading, but also presents the danger of trying to act two different things. I don't feel that you need to preserve the original allusions to make a successful production of this play, and in some ways the anonymity of the characters (Black Knight etc.), while making the play more difficult to read, allows for a variety of different allusions to be placed on it. Alternatively, does a modern production need the allegory at all? If you concentrate on the stories of the individual characters, and use the chess symbolism simply as a way to up the dramatic stakes (for chess is an inherently dramatic device in and of itself), can that not work in its own right? In many ways, what the symposium brought out for me is that you don't need to find allegorical significance to make the play powerful; the power is in the language and internal situations of Middleton's writing.
  • The staging adopted for the workshop turned the stage into a large-scale chessboard on which the characters moved. One thing that we didn't see much of but seemed fascinating was the idea of staging key moments as chess scenes; thus, in the final scene, the White Knight and White Duke actually manouvere themselves into the actual chess positions needed to establish checkmate. I'd love to see this developed further, though remain sceptical about whether this can be done in a way that is clear enough to the audience to make an impact. What definitely worked, though, was having characters move in ways evocative of their piece - so the knights hopped about and moved freely, the dukes and bishops moved in powerful lines, the pawns shuffled forward a bit at a time. If fully realised in production, there could be a wealth of interest come out of this idea.
  • The 'firking' scene, played between three men, made for the most hysterically homoerotic sequence I've ever seen on a stage, and yet also hinted at darkness. This black comedy ran throughout much of the workshop, and I'd suggest that this is one of the most compelling reasons to take this work on to a full production.
  • Themes that kept recurring through the various scenes were power and manipulation, and the experiments with status in the different versions of scenes were hugely effective. As the Black Knight and Fat Bishop manipulated the Black Knight's Pawn, the relationship between Knight and Bishop shifted enormously; when the Knight was powerful, the Bishop became a rather dull character, but when given authority the Bishop became hugely dangerous and more than a match for his rival.
  • Finally, the bag. While I'd naturally imagined a trap being used for the bag of hell into which the black pieces are finally condemned (I'd love to see, in an expensive production, the entire chess board collapsing into it), here members of the company contorted themselves into a writhing, hissing mass of bodies that engulfed the pieces. This image of shifting bodies worked particularly well; however, it hinted at a thoroughly more physical production than the symposium had time to go into. To bring in that level of physicality to a production would be hugely interesting, and perhaps work well with the overarching sense of manipulation that comes with any chess game - for, of course, there is always someone moving the pieces.

The symposium was certainly of use and interest in helping visualise and bring out the strengths of A Game at Chess. It seems a shame for the work to end here, and a full production seems the next natural step. It's the kind of work that funding bodies need to support, and one can only hope that a fuller academic/theatrical collaborative project might be born from this. In itself, though, a lovely event.

February 19, 2009

PG Symposium 2009

I'm organising, along with two of my colleagues in the department, the 5th Annual Postgraduate Symposium for the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. This is an internal event: all PhD and MPhil students in the department are invited to present, and the event itself will be open to all postgraduates and staff in the Department.

For now, the date for diaries is Wednesday 24th June. When we go live, I'll post the Call for Papers and further information up here.


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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