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'What Signifies a Theatre at Royal Holloway?': A Student-Led Research Project

Posted on 01/05/2012


One of the most enjoyable aspects of ‘WSAT’, a research project I am conducting with Elaine McGirr, has been the enthusiastic involvement of students in archival and practice-based research. Nourjahad and Staging Lovers’ Vows, directed by Dr McGirr were devised in collaboration with the student-performers. They proved to be highly effective in engaging them critically with theatre history and the heritage industry. I supervised a group of student volunteers who explored the amateur dramatic activities of former students as recorded in the archives of Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges.  (Because the WSAT? Project concentrates on the long-nineteenth century, we did not pursue student drama to the present.)

The project would not have been possible without the support of the college Archivists, Vicky Holmes and Adele Allen.

The research team comprised: Felicity King, Susan Lewis, Dan Risch, Yananda Rocha dos Santos, and Anieka Saxby. What was achieved? In terms of learning outcomes, the team learnt research skills such as accurate note-taking and gained experience of handling and interpreting archival materials. They became more sensitive to the need to consult multiple sources in order to understand what they were seeing. At times the archive room turned into CSI Royal Holloway as we attempted to uncover the identity, means and motives of participants in the drama. The most gratifying element for me was the palpable sense of excitement they felt in handling these historic documents and through them, connecting with the lives of their predecessors. They summoned the ghosts of am dram past and conveyed a sense of depth to the continuing theatrical life of this college.

Poster Image      Poster Image

What did I gain that I could not have done if I had conducted this research on my own? I benefitted from the students’ first impressions of the materials and from the reflections they made on the differences between students drama then and now. When I remarked that I am barely aware of student drama on campus – there were no posters advertising auditions, rehearsals or even performances – Yananda pointed out that organisation and publicity is largely conducted by means of Facebook. This will create problems for future archivists. In addition, as well as noticing the formality of many of the early posed production photographs and the heavy involvement of staff in student productions, student researchers commented on the different meaning of drama for students. Dan remarked that now that we have a Department of Drama that prepares students for a professional life, the nature of student drama has changed.

What specifically did we uncover? We discovered a wide range of ways in which students engaged with drama and how that engagement changed over time.  Bedford had a fine tradition of staging classical Greek plays in the original. Royal Holloway seems to have concentrated on vernacular performances, some of which were written or adapted for them, but most of which were in the professional repertoire. 

The volunteer researcher concentrated on particular case studies:

  1. Annual Year Group Productions (Anieka Saxby and Yananda Rocha dos Santos)
  2. Shakespeare Reading Group (Susan Lewis)
  3. CHARD (Yananda Rocha dos Santos and Felicity King)
  4. A particular production: Prunella (1913) (Dan Risch)

1. Annual Year Group Productions.

Royal Holloway was founded in 1886 and very quickly a tradition arose of putting on entertainments each November involving the most of the second years. They are commemorated in a beautifully produced formal album of college photographs (RHC AS/141/1).  They were presented to the college by Mr Charles William Carey, who was curator of the Picture Gallery from 1887 onwards. They comprise photographs of each year’s intake of students and of various drama productions. The number of students in each year was small enough at first for them all to be housed in Founders’ and for a great deal of them to be involved in the annual productions. We wondered if the choice of play might actually have been affected by the need to provide as many parts as possible for the young ladies. Some were clearly meant to impress the participants and audience with a moral lesson, such as a production of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (a distinctly un-pc exploration of women’s education), and Any Girl (1907) which seems to have been a moralising allegory along the lines of the Medieval Everyman, instructing the girl to follow the path of learning and virtue. Others are part of the classic British repertoire of Elizabeth drama, Sheridan comedies and light plays. (For example: Francis Beaumont, The Knight of The Burning Pestle (1908); Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (1910); Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1912); J. M. Barrie, The Admirable Crichton (1914); R. B. Sheridan, The Rivals (1915).) In these productions, male parts were often played by the students, occasionally by the tutors. Staff seem to have been involved in directing plays.

Sheridan, The Rivals (performed 1915). (RHC AS 141/1 Archives, Royal Holloway, University of London)

Taken by a maths mistress who was a keen amateur photographer, the photographs – sometimes a formal cast line up, sometimes posed scenes from the plays – were taken in the quad. We thought plays might have been staged in the open air, but as the second-year entertainment took place in November, we think it is more likely that they were posed outside for the sake of the light. There is a site between the two staircases in the West Quad which forms a kind of stage and that is still used by students for summer productions.

Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (performed 1912). (RHC AS 141/1 RHUL Archives)

Later photographs were taken outside a rustic looking pavilion. We had some difficulty indentifying this building until we found a pamphlet on the history of the college which identified it as the bungalow built by the architect, William Crossland as his home while he supervised the construction of the college. It still exists almost unrecognisable under layers of white clapboarding near the college shop.

We don’t know if plays were staged here or whether it was just a backdrop for photographs.

Crossland’s Bungalow (c. 1895). (RHC AS 141/1 RHUL Archives)

Yananda suggested that the images told us a lot about what the students got out of these performances. She commented: ‘The photos suggest a strong sense of community among those involved in the performances. The casts are often somewhat large – perhaps when selecting which plays to perform, they wished as many people as possible to participate. Photos also mostly feature what seems to be an entire cast, instead of focusing on individuals or protagonists (although of course there are some of those as well [PH241/60]), emphasising the importance of community and group work.’

As the college expanded, its cohesiveness was strained. The different schools put on their own productions: especially the English and German schools who put on plays in their own languages. Perhaps drama was being recognised as a component part of the curriculum rather than a mere entertainment?

2. Shakespeare Reading Group

Not all productions were inclusive. There were different kinds of more select groups including CHARD and the Shakespeare Reading Group which allowed a small group of students to experience drama without taking on the major commitment of time and expenditure necessitated by a full-scale production. Staff were involved in these groups, giving the sense that students were chaperoned and supervised much more in the past and their entertainments were vetted for their moral appropriateness. The Shakespeare Reading Group met after prayers, which suggests its position in the scheme of things. Susan studied the Minute Book of this group – a small book that contained accounts of meetings from 1908 to 1945. She became fascinated by the professional skills the students learned from their membership of this group. These included components of the committee mentality: note taking, fund-raising, obsession with particulars and practicalities, quarrels and disputes (over membership, whether or not to drink tea, etc.) She also noticed that the social dimension of the group was as important as its reading of Shakespeare.  Students enjoyed picnics, performances and, the highlight of the year – the annual tug-o-war with a rival club, the Georgians who read contemporary plays. The minutes for Michaelmas Term 1935 record that on 28th November, the Georgian Society challenged the Shakespeare Reading Group to a Tug-of-War: 

The Tug-of-War took place on the Hockey Pitch at 3.30pm.  Miss Stephens very kindly umpired and Miss Brookes acted as official "Heaver".  Shakespeare's team pulled valiantly but Georgians proved superior in weight and guile, and twice succeeded in pulling three members of Shakespeare over the white line.  Georgians very kindly invited Shakespeare to tea afterwards in Miss Luffman's room.

Dressing up for the contest was part of the fun. Sadly, the Shakespeares rarely won. The minute book closes in 1945 and we know no more after that.

3. CHARD – Royal Holloway College Amateur Dramatic Society.

Yananda explored the records of this group. She noted that the society was very concerned with practical problem-solving: their records frequently refer to budgetary consideration, the cost of curtains and costumes, whether to charge for admission, as well as more artistic concerns such as choice of play text and organising auditions. Third years worried about exam pressure, so tended to leave the bulk of the administration to younger students. There is interesting evidence from the second half of the twentieth century about the students’ sense of their relationship to London and the national student drama scene. They seem to have felt semi-detached, perhaps because of Royal Holloway’s isolation in Egham.

While pleasure is a major priority for CHARD, we were struck by how far its members sought to imitate professional practice.  Students engaged in every aspect of theatrical life from fund-raising to reviewing. They reviewed their productions in the college’s magazine of record: Royal Holloway Notes, as Felicity discovered. Reviewers were careful to mention pretty much everyone in the cast and to try to say something complementary about all of them. ‘Despite the evident team spirit,’ Felicity commented, ‘CHARD has an air of professionalization about it – whether they are aiming for a career in the theatre or whether this amateur activity developed skills useful for other walks of life, I get the impression that CHARD combined fun with improvement.’

4. A particular production: Prunella (1913)

In the summer of 1913, members of CHARD performed a pastoral comedy, Prunella; or, Love in A Dutch Garden, written for amateur companies by Laurence Housman and Harley Granville Barker. Dan, who analyzed the records of this production, remarked that ‘this seems a “cheeky” choice of play due to the semi-controversial nature of the comedy: salt-of-the-earth gags, master-servant gags, love gags, also there was a play-within-a-play involved. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the constant mockery of masters by servants, which would have seemed racy to audiences of women’s amateur dramatics in 1913’. It was produced by E. M. Rowell who might have been an enthusiastic tutor or lecturer.  He later published essays on philosophy.

The most remarkable thing about this production is that CHARD not only performed, they also crafted an exquisite record of their production in the form of a hand-made illustrated album.

(RHC AS 211/2 RHUL Archives)

Dan wondered if it was intended as a gift to the director, producer or financer.  The album contains tableau from the play, posed in the quad, with relevant lines written underneath.

(RHC AS 211/2 RHUL Archives)

The costumes are very well-made, as shown in this photograph of a selection of the characters:

(RHC AS 211/2 RHUL Archives)

‘As with current student productions,’ Dan argued, ‘one would assume that, in the short term, a certain amount of status would be involved in a production seen by the entire college. It would have also been an excellent opportunity to ‘let their hair down’ – many of the photos show the cast smiling and laughing.’ Was it, then, unlike other aspects of student drama which aimed at developing professional skills? Dan noted that ‘the play itself is far from being artistically spectacular. Rather, it seems to be a vehicle for the actors (students and lecturers) to have fun. Indeed, the play was written with amateurs in mind.’ Moreover, he argued, ‘The contrast with current student drama is striking. The fact that Drama is taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate level contributes to the fact that plays are both more professional and there is a sense that students (those who study drama and wish to be involved in a career later on) involved must learn the important, technical things that might give them an edge in the world of work. The backstage and tech arenas are now considered disciplines in themselves, which seems to be far from the case in 1913

(RHC AS 211/2 RHUL Archives)

Dan concluded, however, that ‘There must have been a personal feeling of success in the production that can be inferred from the intricacy and genuine effort put into the piece – possibly designed as a grand presentation piece, as shown by the beautifully hand-inked front cover, and the frontispiece’:

(RHC AS 211/2 RHUL Archives)

And end papers:

(RHC AS 211/2 RHUL Archives)

One of the research questions I had in mind when looking at the archives was how instrumental was drama for students in the past? What did it contribute to their education? How many students went on to have a career that made use of their experience as amateur thespians? But I wonder whether, in this age when everything is measured in terms of financial investment, when everything is only worth what it will produce in future cash, whether it is not possible to think otherwise? I would like to hold onto the idea that amateurs do it out of love. Roland Barthes’s argument that production and consumption come together during participation in amateur music-making might allow us to think of amateur performance as a way of stepping aside from the capitalist system (Roland Barthes, ‘From Work to Text’, in The Rustle of Language (1989), 63). This material was produced by volunteer students. When I sent out the email inviting them to take part in this research project, I did not try to recruit them by telling them that they would acquire important transferrable skills, or that it would look good on their cv. I suggested that it might be fun. It was play.

Judith Hawley

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