Skip to main content

Fellowship Report

 

Fellowship in Creativity and Performance 2006-7 - Paul Allen

Profile: For 25 years prior to the fellowship I had been a freelance writer and broadcaster, presenting mainly arts programmes for BBC Radio 4 (Kaleidoscope) and Radio 3 (Night Waves) and combining this with writing plays for radio and theatre (including the adaptation of the screenplay of Brassed Off that was seen at the National Theatre and continues to be produced in Britain and overseas) and some university teaching. I had also published a biography of the playwright and director Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Introductory note: While the formal fellowship at CAPITAL was for six months it will be clear from the report that follows that my involvement with the university and its partners at the Royal Shakespeare Company has – as a direct and organic result of the fellowship – continued well beyond the fellowship’s formal end. I hope this suggests ways in which the CAPITAL ‘idea’ flourishes beyond its formal parameters.

Project summary: There were four strands to my project for the first CAPITAL Fellowship in Creativity and Drama, held from October 2006 to March 2007 inclusive. They were (1) to use my experience as a playwright and writer and presenter for radio to run workshops in writing for performance; (2) to use experience as a critic and in interviewing critics to contribute to sessions of an existing module studying the theory and practice of Shakespearean criticism; (3) to explore ideas and practice of creativity through public interviews with creative artists from a range of disciplines; and (4) at least to begin serious research for a book on the Shakespearean character of Sir John Falstaff.

Project report: On arrival at the university if became clear that there was already an intensive programme of appearances by visiting creative artists, under the auspices of both Warwick Arts Centre and various academic departments, and to have invited further speakers would have further cluttered an already full (and sometimes clashing) diary. Consequently (3) above did not really take the form I had proposed. However, I found I was able to play a part in the on-going relationship between the university and the Royal Shakespeare Company precisely because my experience links the practices of theatre-making and academic research. Public interviews in the RSC’s ‘creative team talks’ series have in fact continued to this day – the most recent at the time of writing was with Greg Doran, the director of the hugely successful production of Hamlet – and interviews with Dominic Cooke about Pericles and The Winter’s Tale remain available as podcasts on the RSC’s website. This process has now been extended through my participation in the RSC’s summer schools. While these events take Warwick to Stratford, so to speak, there were also many opportunities to bring RSC practitioners to the university, notably for CAPITAL’s opening Carnival and for the British Shakespeare Association 2007 conference. It will be noted that these activities broaden the reach of the university considerably: while it is of primary importance that the interests of students are well served by them, it is also true that they reach a wider public ranging from academic specialists to theatregoers of all ages and backgrounds.

The strands outlined in (1) and (2) of the project summary above duly took place and had significant spin-offs the following academic year.

Writing for Performance (1) was refocused as Writing for Radio and included three wide-ranging workshops during the fellowship itself which were fully subscribed. They covered drama, features and factual writing but concentrated on the primary form of writing for performance by asking all students to write short monologues – either a memoir or a fictional piece – for themselves to deliver. At least one of these students gained the confidence to pursue a further qualification and career in broadcast journalism as a result. A second series of workshops after the formal completion of the fellowship (when I returned to the university to teach two modules) was followed by an all-day radio writing workshop which I led in conjunction with the distinguished ex- BBC (now independent) writer and producer Pete Atkin.

As for (2), during the six months of the fellowship I was able to contribute a professional critic’s response to student writing in the module dealing with the history, principles and practice of Shakespearean criticism. At least one student on this course went on to gain a post in the professional media; with this background I was able to teach the module the following year when the regular tutor was on sabbatical.

Falstaff

My study of Falstaff will eventually I hope be the major outcome of the fellowship. Why did I want to write about him? First of all because of his sheer persistence. It may well be, as is often surmised, that Shakespeare wrote Henry IV part 2 for reasons which were largely commercial. The character was so instantly popular that Shakespeare’s company would have been mad not to bring him back. The sheer magnetism of Falstaff might also account for the way in which composers (Salieri, Nicolai, Verdi, Elgar and Vaughan Williams to name a few) have been attracted to his story in the very different play The Merry Wives of Windsor but I wondered if it was significant that the greatest work to come out of this tradition – Verdi’s opera with Boito – makes the effort to incorporate the ‘honour’ speech from Henry IV part 1 in what is otherwise part of the simple comic tradition. And on reading and re-reading the history plays my sense of something not wholly commercial going on was intensified. Shakespeare writes Falstaff long – part 2 has a sprawling plot and a rambling convergence as it approaches its pay-off in Falstaff’s rejection by the newly crowned Henry V. In my own experience when playwrights write long it is because they are struggling to work something out. It will be clear from this that in addition to the huge body of work contributed to the study of Shakespeare by textual scholars, historicists and of course working actors and directors I wanted to see if there was anything to be discovered by looking at the plays as a playwright.

This meant a much closer examination of Falstaff’s character as someone who, while very loosely inherited from the source material (the nondescript Oldcastle in The Famous Victories of King Henry V), is to all intents and purposes a major invention by Shakespeare – along with the other low-lifes, the only major invention in a history play that he allows himself. And, in examining Falstaff’s character, I was led to look harder at Prince Hal, both in the plays and in what little we know of his life.

This inevitably led not only to English history but to the discoveries made through psychology, particularly in the field of child development. Crossing disciplines has not traditionally, been much practised or encouraged in academic work. On the other hand the kind of reading I needed to do - while possible if you are an independent scholar – is very much easier within the framework and resources of a university; one which has direct access to the archives of a major theatre company dedicated to your writer and to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust opens up even more facilities.

During my fellowship I was lucky enough to interview Simon Callow – then playing in the musical version of Merry Wives – for a Gloucestershire literary society; he is the author of a short study of the plays for Faber and generously put me onto further lines of inquiry relating the wider mythology of which Falstaff, whether Shakespeare was aware of it or not, has become a part. Another actor, Des Barrit, by the sheer fact of being cast as Falstaff and then later as the leading character in Alan Bennett’s vastly successful play The History Boys alerted me to another aspect of Falstaff, his ability to reappear in the creative tradition under different names and in different guises.

I have gone into some detail about this in order to make the point that it was really only through the CAPITAL fellowship that I have been able to make, for better or worse, the kind of progress I have. I am aware that I am likely to finish by transgressing a number of academic ‘givens’ – such as the one that we cannot know Shakespeare’s intentions. This may simply raise a whole new set of questions but I think we can at least assume his intention to write the most effective plays he can. The world of the rehearsal room is doubtless very different in 2008 from what it was in the 1590s but I should be very surprised if actors didn’t bring to their creativity everything they picked up in their daily lives as well as their study; which makes me feel more confident about crossing frontiers into psychology and anthropology from time to time.

From time to time during the fellowship I was able to share – to try out? – some of my early thoughts through lectures, in conversation and in supervising a Shakespeare in History group of MA students. This was not only invaluable in itself but allows me to comment on the wonderful level of support I was given following my appointment by academic staff, administrative staff and by a uniformly enthusiastic, bright and simply enjoyable group of students.

It is also important to add that I have a continuing relationship with CAPITAL as an honorary associate fellow and this not only allows me to make use of university research facilities but has given me a base from which to pursue actors who have played Falstaff for their insights; the continuity of my relationship with the RSC Press office, for example, has made it very much easier to interview David Warner following his participation in the history cycle which began in Stratford and concluded in London this year.

The underlying principle of CAPITAL is that there is much in common between good teaching and good rehearsing; one of those things in common is that those who teach are also learning all the time just as directors and writers learn constantly from actors. This is, I think, another way of saying that the creative process – with its continuing interplay between the single vision and collective response and interpretation – is at the heart of most progress.

And I want to end by adding a thought about performance. Shakespeare’s frequent references to the theatre as a metaphor for life have led some people to believe he despised it, thought it pretence, a mere ‘shadow’ of reality. The ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It expresses Jacques’ thoughts, not Shakespeare’s, but it is worth saying that though we may play many parts in our lives we can hardly interpret this as pretending to be anything from a baby to a pantaloon; we perform perforce and we are what we perform. As a journalist and writer who found himself in a teaching situation I worried at first that I was merely performing teaching, pretending to be a teacher. But as actors know, pretending is just performing not terribly well. They also know that the performance is a collaborative act involving not just the players but the played-to. I hope I’ve learned from trying to perform – that is to say, to be – a teacher.