September 24th, 2018
What do you research and why did you want to create a piece of theatre from it?
I work broadly on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, popular medicine, and the supernatural over the last few hundred years. This has included exploring urban and rural fortune-tellers and their clients, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I began to refocus my attention on the popularity of fortune-tellers during the First World War due to be being involved in running the University’s Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre. I was interested in the opportunity to create a piece of theatre out of this research for two reasons. First, I had already worked with the theatre company Out of Joint to inform the creation of a play about Jane Wenham, of Hertfordshire, who, in 1712, was the last person to be found guilty of witchcraft in England. I had much enjoyed working with the actors, playwright, and director, so I thought working with Cap-a-Pie would be an equally stimulating and enjoyable creative opportunity. And it has been.
What excited you most about The Important Man and what were the challenges?
The world of fortune-tellers and prophets during the First World War is full of potential for drama and comedy, and I hoped that the depiction of this unusual facet of everyday life on the Home Front in the form of a play, would better bring home to people the complex relationship between anxiety and faith in a time of war. The play also explores interesting ideas around the boundaries between science and the supernatural, at a time when spiritualism was popular, and electricity was still a novel force for many people. As the historical advisor, I guess the main challenge was to identify the sort of source materials and objects that might give Cap-a-Pie a real feel for the period and the diverse characters who operated as fortune tellers and prophets. Just giving a load of academic books and articles to a creative team whose time is limited, who need to work fast and intensively to generate narrative and dialogue that give a genuine feel for time and place, is not particularly helpful.
Has creating the show made you think any differently about your research?
Yes, in several ways. I consider writing history as a creative exercise in blending narrative, analysis, and illustrative examples. Working with Cap-a-Pie made me think about how the process of writing for a different medium, a play, can inform the way I approach writing history for a general reader. Every time I was working with Cap-a-Pie we were thinking about the audience and how you can tell a complex story as simply as possible. That is a really valuable exercise. The questions the Cap-a-Pie team asked about the personality and motive of the characters in the play also made me reflect on how I understand the real people that inspired the fictional creations. I am always learning from other disciplines and people with different approaches to presenting history.