Propa Penniless

3 actors perform on stage.

“I genuinely did not expect to laugh as much as I did, or be as profoundly moved. That ending was so powerful, and retained its power each time I watched it.

– Cathy L Shrank – Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature at University of Sheffield

If you ask someone ‘have you heard of Thomas Nashe?’, we’ve found that people will probably say ‘no’.

If the name is new to you, Nashe was a writer mostly active in London during the 1590s. After coming out of the Elizabethan version of higher education, he found a total lack of employment opportunities and struggled to be seen, heard and read. His frustration with the world comes through strongly in his very nihilistic and scathing works. He managed to get by with the help of various patrons and work as a ‘hack’ writer (a pen for hire) until his death at 32 while in exile in Norfolk.

Researchers from Newcastle University and the University of Sheffield have been looking into Nashe’s writing and making strong connections between his own situation and what young people are facing today – the changing world of work and economic precariousness brought about by the hoarding of wealth and outside factors like pandemics (just as we had Covid, Nashe had to deal with outbreaks of plague).

As part of the wider ‘Penniless’ research project (one of Nashe’s most famous works was called ‘Pierce Penniless’), Cap-a-Pie was asked to devise a piece of theatre that responded to Nashe’s works and looked at those modern-day themes. What was created (a work co-devised by performers Emily Corless, Rachel Stockdale and Mahsa Hammat Bahary) was ‘Propa Penniless’, a mixture of Nashe’s words, our contemporary take on him as well as sections involving the actor’s own experience of work and the difficulty of trying to be an artist.

‘Pierce Penniless’ is a dense and difficult text but the researchers knowledge of it and the world that Nashe lived in was invaluable to us when we were devising. We were really proud of what we made – feedback from the audience showed that the piece both amused them and moved them.

Sections of the piece were filmed to be part of a short documentary about the project that will be released soon.

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