Monday, 27 February 2012


I've decided to start with taking my visual inspiration from the posters I like so much; my starting point for the content comes from thinking about the layers of history and the words echoing across the centuries from that first opening night. The experience I had while visiting of being in a silent theatre and that expectant hush; that feeling that if you strain your ears enough you might be able to hear an echo of those first words.  I was so taken when I first went on a guided tour with the fact that the theatre was shut for such a long time; it had decades at first of light and sound and activity, but was then closed and used for other things. Then suddenly rediscovered and refurbished in the twentieth century, so it saw all that activity start up again. Two significant opening nights - one in 1788 and one in 1963. And we know what was performed on each occasion. We even know the members of Samuel Butler's original company in the 18th Century as well as who spoke and what was performed at the reopening in the 20th Century. So I have plenty of content to work with and some visual hints as well.

I'm beginning with sampling - trying out different materials, different weights of paper,  to get at the idea of layering. I'm using some different thin lightweight papers that might work being layered together... thinking about layers of memory, fragments of text, the ephemeracy of a performance...its transitory nature.

For this sample I've planned out some text using the name of the first piece performed - 'Inkle & Yarico', an opera by George Colman. I found a photocopy of the script in the archives and there's usefully a copy of the script online as well. I found an interesting snippet in a contemporary newspaper reporting on the reopening of the theatre in 1963 which says that the first production to be staged after the gala reopening was to be 'Inkle & Yarico' but I couldn't find any more reports of this actually happening.

There's a playbill which features a later production of the same opera so I used the letter shapes from that in my sample.

This first small piece is cut from Chinese rice paper; I like the quality of it very much - its quite tough so withstands sharp scalpel cutting and quite intricate detail. I  use a surgical scalpel for paper cutting -   a Swann Morton handle and 10A Swann Morton blades. It does tend to curl and move - a bit like a fabric more than a paper. I need to try cutting a larger sample from the A3 size that I have and I'm ordering a bigger size to see how large I can go - its really how much weight will stand up to being hung/pinned. That's another aspect to this piece, which will be how to present it so it stands off the background and creates some shadows as well as how to achieve a layered effect. I've tried pins which I think work as its a bit like trying to trap the memories and preserve them, rather as people preserve insect and butterfly specimens. Again its a case of trying out some variations, for example, these are lace pins but I'm getting some entomological pins which should be longer and finer and might look better.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Day Three - Layers

 The theatre has a rather elegant and restrained decorative scheme; its a real contrast to later Victorian decorations which are more familiar perhaps - lots of gilt and velvet and curlicues, statuary and tassels. This theatre is quite simple with very little to distract the eye from the stage. There's also a lovely example of early scenery - rather Gainsborough-esque 'woodland scene' which is the UK's oldest-known theatrical scenery; apparently all the trees in the scene can be identified as specific types.

But what is nice is that you still get a sense of the old theatre underneath the restoration - one of the guides pointed out a place where the original paintwork has been deliberately left to show through. Its as though you can look through all the layers of history back to when it first opened. I find that fascinating;  its almost as though you could stand on the stage and feel the past through the layers of years. I feel like that about memory - you can stand in a place and know that you were exactly there, 20 years ago, and wonder if you can sense that presence of an earlier self, hear echoes of words spoken all that time ago.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Day Two - Archives

One of the volunteers really kindly showed me the theatre archive and spent much of her morning answering my questions and finding me so many interesting documents, from the text of the plays first performed in the theatre, to playbills, postcards, posters and press cuttings. There are so many hidden gems in the scrapbooks kept of performances; all sorts of fascinating sidelines on the theatre. A huge range of possibilities for projects; part of what I'm doing is finding a starting point - its a sort of focussing into a small vein of something to explore and its very easy to get distracted by all sorts of interesting ephemera (postcards and letters from Graham Chapman, John Cleese etc. when they performed at the theatre with their Cambridge Circus review in the sixties for example). What I primarily wanted to look at was the playbills and I found quite a few interesting examples. Visually (to me at any rate) they are so attractive with their mishmash of different styles and I love the emphasis on points of interest that is achieved by the use of a range of typefaces.
Once you start looking for text, you find it everywhere. I always spot the written word - and a theatre is full of words.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Day Two - Echoes

As well as silence there's an emptiness about the theatre - its a building just waiting for an audience and that moment when someone steps out onto the stage. The dressing rooms are eerily empty.

While the theatre is waiting for the next performance the leavings of the previous one remain.
A jacket, a cue sheet and a few sparkles remaining from the last show which was a pantomime (The Adventures of Sinbad)...all that's left of such a colourful noisy involving event. I'm really glad I went to see it - the theatre was so different. Full of action and interaction, light and sound. I loved the way they used the space - the actors are right in the audience because we are all very close to the stage. The seating wraps round it so some of the audience are right at the actors' eye level and it becomes almost a conversation. The acoustics are great and they make you very aware of the physical presence of the actors, not just their voices but the sound of their footsteps on was so impressive when the whole place was transformed into a ship at sea using painted canvas at the sides. With a quick flourish of ropes, it was unrolled and suddenly, there we were. My first experience of theatre that I can remember was here in 1979.  I had the chance to look through some of the wonderful scrapbooks and collections of playbills in the archive and there it was - 'Beauty and the Beast'; opening night 24 December 1979.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Back to the Theatre - Day One - Structures

Armed with sketchbook and camera I went back for a few days on site and I was allowed to wander freely around the theatre. I set myself up in corners, finding places to draw to get as many perspectives on the theatre as I could. I wanted to have a bit of quiet time just to get a feel for the place.

Its so different being in a theatre when its dark and there's no one else there. There's an atmosphere of expectation - its profoundly quiet; footsteps echo when someone crosses the stage, you can hear people's voices as they pass along the Wynd outside. I began to focus on the structures in the building - the engineering that makes a theatre work, like the banks of lighting rigs, the electrics, the heavy curtains knotted up on the stage.

There's also machinery under the stage - spanning the centuries... a wooden winch for raising and lowering the footlights, counterweights for the trapdoor...modern junction boxes and electrics.
 It all makes me think about what a theatre is.

Friday, 3 February 2012

An Initial Visit

 I made an initial visit in November. The theatre is small but perfectly formed !   I last saw it a  long time ago when I was only 7 or so. My whole family went to Richmond for a very exciting Christmas away - the first time I'd ever spent Christmas away from home. I've never forgotten going to see the pantomime - 'Beauty and the Beast' here. It would have been in the late seventies. I remember it being very hot and crowded - and feeling really part of the performance as it was happening because it was all so close.
 I was shown around by a really informative guide - thank you Dave Palmer.   Its a museum during the day with regular guided tours. The whole thing has been renovated since I last saw it - I particularly liked all the painted fronts of the seating and the trap doors. The stage is really raked - something you only realise when you stand on it. There are words everywhere - the boxes are named after playwrights of the time, several of whom are now quite obscure. The tour includes being able to see back stage, well, under the stage, and the two rather cramped dressing rooms.

 These little faces are original paintings that have been preserved. I thought how wonderful that so much remained in place in the building. Apparently the theatre was boarded up for 200 years; it was open for a fairly brief time - from 1788 to 1848 it was full of life and performance - concerts, plays etc.  and then almost nothing until it was renovated and reopened in 1963. I was very struck by the fact that it was somewhat forgotten - that it had ever been a theatre and it was used for all sorts of different functions, including as a repository for paper salvage during the war. And now its full of life and light again.

I also particularly liked the many playbills on display - especially their multiplicity of fonts.

The first two plays ever performed there are known - on the 2nd September 1788, 'Inkle and Yarico' and 'The Midnight Hour' were played. I'm really keen to look at these - there's something compelling about the idea of the first words spoken to the audience on that stage.