Launching ‘Cultures of Performance’

Thursday 12th October, 2017 will see the official launch of our new research cluster at the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies’ weekly research seminar, and we thought that this would be a good opportunity for our first post and a chance to outline what the cluster is all about and some of our aims in its creation.

Early drama and performance is already a key area of research at the University of Kent. Across the School of English and MEMS there are currently about ten researchers, both staff and postgraduate students, working on projects that relate to, or are concerned with, aspects of performance culture in medieval and early modern Europe. Informed by range of theoretical and methodological frameworks, such as material culture studies, cultural geography, attribution studies, space and place, site-specific theory and embodiment, each of us is pushing at the boundaries of knowledge in this field of study: of what we can know about drama, but also how we come to know it, what methods we might use and how we conceptualise the nature of the phenomenon with which we all work.

In September 2014, Sarah and Clare hosted an international conference, entitled ‘Liminal Time and Space in Medieval and Early Modern Performance’ (you can read the conference report here). The call for papers actively welcomed discussions on non-dramatic performances, as well as plays, between the tenth and the seventeenth centuries in order to consider the interrelations between time and space in early European performance practice. The papers presented not only illuminated the relationships between, and varied usages of, the concepts of time and space in performances from across the period, but also highlighted the blurred and overlapping boundaries between various early performance practices, the often vexed relationship between performance and the surviving texts, our own narrow concept of what ‘performance’ is, was and could be, and how modern reconstructions, re-imaginings and re-enactments might enable a reformulation of our conceptualisation and approaches to the performances of the past. What this conference and much of our subsequent work has, therefore, emphasised is the need to view drama in the medieval and early modern periods not as a ‘thing’ in and of itself, but as part of a continuum of performance, as part of a performance culture that not only does drama differently from us, but thinks about it differently too, that sees it perhaps doing very different things for very different reasons, and perceives and utilises overlaps and similarities in ways that are still hidden by our current view.

‘Cultures of Performance in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, therefore, conceives ‘performance’ very broadly, researching and offering opportunities to explore plays and pageants, liturgy and song, dance and tournaments from a variety of theoretical and historical perspectives, and across a broad span of European history. It is, then, the first and only research group of its kind in the UK and internationally. We aim not only to bring together scholars working in both the medieval and early modern periods, but also those focusing on different European traditions and doing so from different disciplinary perspectives. We are, furthermore, also interested in the potential of performance as a research method, and not only for those of us working on drama and plays, but also for individuals studying, for example, poetry and narrative, legal documents, letters and diaries, liturgy and music, which is why the research cluster will host a regular series of workshops, open for free to anyone who wants to experiment with performance as a research tactic.

These, then, are our aims:

  • To explore a range of performance activities, their intersections, differences and roles in the life and culture of medieval and early modern Europe;
  • To encourage and increase the dialogue between multiple fields of enquiry (literature, performance studies, theatre studies, history, archaeology, architecture, creative writing) and between medievalists and early modernists;
  • To promote performance as a valuable investigative strategy;
  • To explore the performative nature of medieval and early modern European cultural exchange;
  • To create an open platform for staff and postgraduate students from any area of medieval and early modern studies, at the University of Kent and more widely, to experiment with performance-as-research.

At out launch event on Thursday 12th October, we hope to introduce the cluster and its aims by running the first workshop in our forthcoming series. With three postgraduate student volunteers (Francisca Stangel, James Cavalier, and Jon-Mark Grussenmeyer), we will explore extracts from three non-dramatic texts and ask how performing them might change our understanding of them and what new questions might emerge through their embodiment and embodied reception.

The workshop will be interactive and collaborative, working with suggestions and comments by our audience, and will be followed by a drinks reception to celebrate the beginning of what we hope will be a fruitful and innovative research journey.

We’re looking forward to it and we hope to see you there!

Clare, Rory and Sarah.

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