Five Questions: Judith Hawley on Amateur Theatricals

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Judith Hawley is Professor of English at Royal Holloway, University of London.  Her doctoral work at Oxford was on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which remains one of her major interests, but she has also published widely on science and literature, eighteenth-century women writers, and coteries, groups and sociability.  Her current projects include a group biography of the Scriblerus Club and a new edition of Tristram Shandy.  In this interview, though, we discuss her ongoing collaborative work on amateur theatricals: approaches and publications; the series of conferences organised under the ‘What Signifies A Theatre?’ rubric; and the new Research into Amateur Performance and Private Theatricals network, which she co-directs with Mary Isbell.

1) How did you first become interested in amateur performance and private theatricals?

My interest came initially from personal experience.  As a teenager and then as a student at Cambridge, I was very involved in amateur dramatics as a performer, director and producer.  As well as the opportunities to explore different selves, I loved the collaborative aspect of theatre making.  As an undergraduate writing an essay a week, I also enjoyed the rhythm of spending a whole term working towards a production.  When I became a lecturer, I had no time for recreational activities and the only opportunity I had to perform was showing off in lectures.  A conference held at the wonderful setting of Chawton House in 2008 enabled me to turn my former activities into an academic project and to reflect on the pleasures available to the amateur.  Prof Marian Wynne Davis organised a conference on women and drama called ‘Her Make is Perfect’.  The conference mingled performances and presentations and made use of the domestic spaces of Chawton House.  I realised that women had more scope for dramatic activities in the domestic sphere than in the public and professional sphere.  I researched two case histories: the respectable Elizabeth Yorke, Countess of Hardwicke, and the scandalous Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Anspach.  As my research has progressed, I am discovering what an enormous range of types of non-professional performance has taken place and still takes place.

2) How did you go about putting together the network of scholars and practitioners you assembled for the ‘What Signifies A Theatre?’ project?

My first contact was my colleague, Dr Elaine McGirr, who alerted me to the CFP for ‘Her Make is Perfect’.  At this conference I made numerous useful contacts, including theatre practitioners such as Kate Napier and Liz Kuti.  Realising what a rich topic it was, Elaine and I organised a conference at Chawton House in 2010.  Our starting point was a question posed in Mansfield Park: ‘What signifies a theatre?’  We thought it appropriate on a number of levels: Chawton House is such an important centre for Austen studies and the failed theatricals in Mansfield Park are the main impression most people have of private theatricals.  Furthermore, we were interested in what happens when drama moves out of the designated performance space of a theatre.  This was the first of three conferences under this title.  With each call for papers, we made contact with a widening circle of academics at different stages of their careers including, for example David Coates who is working on a PhD on country house theatricals at the University of Warwick and the specialist on nineteenth-century theatre history, Professor Kate Newey (Exeter).  Another significant contact was made when I saw a CFP for a Northeast Modern Language Association panel on amateur performance in the long nineteenth century posted by Mary Isbell who was then completing a PhD at the University of Connecticut.  For a very brief moment I saw her research as a potential rival to my own.  But I quickly realised that the topic is so large that it is necessarily collaborative, not least because records of performance are patchy and scattered.  I alerted her to the first WSAT? conference, and we are now working together on a conference to be held in June 2014.  A further key collaborator is the director Abigail Anderson.  I first met Abigail through a totally different route and admired her inventive productions.  She worked at the lamentably underfunded but exquisite Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds where, with Colin Blumenau, she presented a restored Georgian repertoire.  I can’t list everyone I have had the pleasure to work with on this project, but I would also like to mention the architectural historian Jeremy Musson, whom I know through mutual friends and who has kindly put me in touch with people who work in historic houses.

As with many projects, the primary means of assembling a network are the internet and face-to-face encounters at conferences or cafes.  Wordpress sites have been our primary way to share details about these projects on the web: and, which Mary maintains.  These sites and distributing our CFPs through the usual channels have brought out numerous individuals who had previously thought that they were alone in their interest in the amateur and gradually, our network grew.  We were also fortunate enough to connect with other networks, including a wonderful group based at NTNU, Trondheim, Norway and researchers at the University of Southampton working on music in country houses.  At the third WSAT? Conference held at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2011, we decided that we would consciously organise a network and plan out next stage of activity.  RAPPT emerged. The name – Research into Amateur Performance and Private Theatricals – was devised by Viv Gardner.

A further stimulus has been grant applications.  Awards advertised by the AHRC and Leverhulme led me to form interdisciplinary teams to put together grant proposals.  Sadly, the applications were not successful, but the process of drawing up the proposals and planning the projects was almost as useful as it was depressing.  Discussing common interests with colleagues in Drama, Geography and Media Arts was a pleasure in itself.

3) What common themes emerged from the research and the amateur performances presented at the three WSAT? conferences?

One of my principal themes is the value of the amateur.  The value of artistic endeavor is usually measured by a range of incompatible calculators: aesthetic value; the potential for income generation; or the authority conferred by institutional recognition.  However, such judgments are not calibrated to register the value of most of the drama that is staged in Britain: it is non-professional, not for profit, or to use a term that makes most people cringe: ‘amateur’.  The history of the professional stage is well known; the West End and the subsidized theatres get plenty of coverage in the media.  But what about all those hundreds of am dram groups who meet in scout huts and community halls up and down the country?  At the last count (December 2010) more than two and a half thousand am dram groups were signed up to NODA, the National Association of Operatic and Dramatic Associations.  Why?  What do they get out of it?  Perhaps more to the point, what do their audiences get from watching a bunch of amateurs put on a show?  The little that is known about the history of amateur dramatics has been written by professionals: by journalists, theatre historians and practitioners with a stake in maintaining the prestige of the professional stage.  One question usually asked about am dram is: ‘Is it any good?’  Understandably, the assumption is that professional theatre is bound to be better.  But we can ask that question in different ways.  We can ask: ‘What is am dram good at?  What is it good for?  What kinds of pleasures and benefits does it bring to its participants and audience?’  Moreover, I want to find out whether we can we disrupt the current obsession with the professional and the profitable by revaluing the amateur.

My starting point was that the private nature of amateur performance provided women with more opportunities than the professional stage.  It also emerges that performance in private spaces can transform and disrupt the home.  Family relations are tested through performance and through the unusually intimate relations between performers and audience.  Other discoveries include the temporal and social dimensions of the phenomenon.  According to the only published survey of private theatricals, Sybil Rosenfeld’s Temples of Thespis (1978), they were an elite craze that started around 1780 but went out of fashion in the 1820s.  However, in papers presented at our conferences, scholars demonstrated that not only did social elites continue to perform for pleasure rather than profit well into the twentieth century (think of the Bloomsbury set), but that all classes enjoyed amateur theatricals from the Spouters Clubs – artisans who met in taverns around the turn of the nineteenth century – to the Victorian parlour drama that was popular among the middle classes.  As well as crossing social boundaries, the phenomenon crossed and tested boundaries between professional and not-for-profit performers.  Professional performers – musicians, actors and dancers and some production staff – were employed by the upper classes for their private theatricals and the amateur stage increasingly became a route into the profession.  Some of our discoveries are presented in a collection of essays I co-edited with Mary Isbell: Amateur Theatre Studies, a Special Issue of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 38 (2011) and in my own forthcoming chapter: ‘Elizabeth and Keppel Craven and The Domestic Drama of Mother-Son Relations’, in Stage Mothers: Women, Work and the Theatre 1660-1830, eds Elaine McGirr and Laura Engell (Bucknell University Press, forthcoming).

Each of our WSAT? conferences has included a performance.  The first was a piece devised by Elaine with her students in the Drama Department at Royal Holloway.  It was designed as a recreation of a particular night at a private theatrical: a performance of Nourjad written by and starring Elizabeth Craven in 1803.  One of the aims was to transform the space and to provide conference delegates with a view of the function of private theatricals in the social life of the participants.  This was achieved by the students’ imaginative staging of a play within a play: their production took the audience behind the scenes to witness power struggles between the performers.  The second was a rehearsed reading of Frances Burney’s The Witlings, directed by Anna Kretschmer, significant not least because of Burney’s trying experiences in both private and professional spheres.  At the third WSAT? conference, we explored further the intimate relationship between the audience and the performers.  A professional group with extensive experience of performing in historic houses, Artifice directed by Kate Napier, staged Arthur Murphy’s popular farce, The Way to Keep Him.  The play was performed at the famous Richmond House theatricals in 1787.  One of the forceful arguments against the idea of recreations of historic performances is the fact that while the actors’ performances might be historically accurate, the audience is undeniably modern and brings contemporary expectations to the venue.  While that factor cannot be overcome, I wanted to create a historical dimension by give the delegates an insight into the frisson caused by the celebrity of both the original performers and audience.  So I provided actors and audience with accounts of the original cast (e.g. Lord Derby played Lovemore and Mrs Damer Mrs Lovemore) and assigned roles to the actual audience (including the Prince of Wales and Horace Walpole).  We need to develop methodologies to assess what we have learnt from these productions.

4) How are you and Mary Isbell hoping to build on this with the Research into Amateur Performance and Private Theatricals network (RAPPT)?

One of our most significant realisations was that we needed to extend our remit from theatricals to performance more generally.  Most theatrical performances in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries involved music and dance as well as acting.  Hence the adoption of the name RAPPT for the next phase of the project.  We encourage specialists in musical and other modes of performance to get involved.  In 2014 we are launching a research project and conference modelled on the Pic Nic Society, arguably the first amateur dramatic society in England.  This group, which performed in the Tottenham Street Theatre, London, only survived for a few years at the turn of the nineteenth century; it was motivated by a desire for cooperative endeavour, mutual pleasure – and a fair amount of elitism.  Of course, we want to imitate their spirit of collaboration, not their snobbery.  Although in British English a picnic is now usually an informal meal eaten out of doors, it used to mean something like a potluck supper in American English, that is, a meal to which everyone brings a dish.  The Pic Nic journal explained in 1803, ‘The title of Pic Nic, given to this Paper, is used in the sense applied to it by a neighbouring Nation, signifying a Repast supplied by Contribution; and to this Miscellany all persons of genius and talent are invited to contribute.’  It was ridiculed for a variety of reasons, as depicted in James Gillray’s famous etching, ‘Blowing up the Pic Nics’:

Gillray - Blowing Up the Pic Nics

The conference – entitled ‘Paying the Piper: Economies of Amateur Performance’ – will showcase the results of two RAPPT projects currently underway: 1) a collaboratively curated digital archive of the Pic Nic Society, which will serve as a digital dramaturgy site for 2) an amateur production of one of the plays that members of the society performed at the Tottenham Street Theatre. We are taking some risks here.  Abigail Anderson is going to direct a group of motely academics in a Pic Nic production.  As well as making fools of ourselves, we are hoping that this practice-based research will teach us something about the value of amateur performance and, borrowing from rehearsal studies, we will learn about the workings of the Georgian repertoire too.

Our goal with RAPPT this year is to promote conversations about the economies of non-professional performance across periods and locations.  In drafty church halls and lavish ballrooms, on board ships, in parlours and in purpose-built spaces, lovers of the performing arts have long collaborated creatively without the sanction of academic or professional recognition. Yet not-for-profit performance still has a cost.  The extravagance of the Earl of Barrymore’s theatricals at Wargrave practically bankrupted him and, as the Pic Nic controversy demonstrates, the fashion for private performance was, at the very least, perceived as a financial threat to London’s patent theatres.  The conference will address such themes as the cost and funding of amateur performance; the role of commercial publishers and theatrical suppliers in feeding the craze for amateur theatricals; the involvement of professional performers in amateur productions; rivalries and tensions between professionals and amateurs; amateur performance in the context of a funding crisis in the humanities.

Please submit proposals of 250-500 words electronically (doc or pdf) by March 7, 2014 to

5) How can interested researchers get involved?

You are welcome to email me ( and to visit the website: