The Library Theatre Company with Cornerhouse: by Julie Wilkinson, with the British Theatre Consortium and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Spirit of Theatre
a ‘practice as research’ arts project

 

Contexts and partners

 

    The Library Theatre Company and Cornerhouse are forming a new company, due to move into a newly built Arts Centre, at First Street in 2014, funded by Manchester City Council.  The City continues its support for Manchester’s own theatrical and cinematic culture despite challenges to public funding for the Arts, developing a shared legacy of passion for and investment in the dramatic arts, dating back to the origins here of the Repertory system, as invented by Annie Horniman in 1908. The planning for the theatre in the new building has been debated and supported for the last three years by a representative panel of audience members, theatre workers, youth theatre members and academics, with shared interest in the Library Theatre Company.  This Community Consultation Panel will be guiding partners in the Theatre Ghost research project. 
     The British Theatre Consortium is a co-operative of academics and playwrights, dedicated to research, engagement and advocacy in and for British Theatre in all its forms.  The Theatre Ghost project forms part of a larger BTC research project entitled From Spectatorship to Engagement.  The aims of this national project are to investigate three things.  How audiences participate in theatre, physically and mentally, together and alone; how different kinds of community engagement affect the quality and value of an audience’s participation; and how best to share good practice. 
     Manchester Metropolitan University offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in all forms of Creative Writing, and houses a prestigious School of Theatre, training actors.  The University is able to offer expertise in oral and local historical research, in academic analysis of Drama and Film, and in community arts practice, research, and outreach.  We propose to involve students taking Humanities courses in collecting, collating and analysing evidence for The Theatre Ghost project under the supervision of academic staff.

Why The Theatre Ghost?


      In theatrical superstition, many theatre buildings have resident ghosts, which connect with the traditions or history of the companies that have worked there.  There is nothing stable or consistent about the nature of such imaginary beings, and the telling of tales about them is inherently playful.  However, they arrive in the collective or individual imagination in a way that confirms the ghostliness of theatrical form; capturing something of the complexity of audience’s enjoyment in vicarious experience, as roles are re-created on stage, or indeed, places and people on screen.  The Ghost can stand for all dramatic characters.  It figures both pretence and repetition; it is immaterial but serious; it reflects experience which is hard to define, but embodies trauma, injustice, or unresolved personal or social tensions; and it won’t be kept down.

     The aim of this project is to explore the relationship between the City and these companies (LTC and Cornerhouse) which it funds directly, through an imaginative gift to the new building.

     By making the process of inventing the Theatre Ghost public, open, and deliberate, the project aims to bring to conscious attention evidence of and judgments about the content and value of dramatic representation which we have not yet articulated, or marked.  The new Theatre Ghost is a holding form for memories and responses to theatre experiences from audiences with the entire range of knowledge of and engagement with the Library Theatre’s work; from local people who have never before been to the theatre but contribute through their taxes, to regular theatre goers.

     The image which best captures this inspiration is the Emma Magnus’s 1935 painting which was long displayed in the basement foyer of the old Library Theatre, in which we catch a glimpse of Annie Horniman, but from behind, following the rich stuff of the long train of her red and gold evening gown.  Horniman herself was both a canny Theatrical Manager, who promoted Manchester writers and writing, and for a while a member of an ‘occult society’.

 

Research Aims

 

 1. To investigate, record and analyse the nature and meaning of and effect of the work of the Library Theatre in Manchester, within living memory and in the present day, using oral history and creative research techniques.

 2. To engage the local community of theatre spectators and film and theatre makers in devising multiple versions of a Theatre Ghost, a character whom the participants would like to offer as a candidate to haunt the new First Street Arts building, as a way of mobilizing and sharing a critical and informed sense of the value of the dramatic arts in the city.

 3. To devise, test and evaluate a distinctive creative research method.

 4. To evaluate and disseminate and re-plot the story of the relationship between the people of Manchester and the Library Theatre Company.

 

Research Methods.

 

 1. Oral history project:  two strands.  One set of (student) investigators will interview volunteer participants, both audience members and theatre workers about their memories, knowledge and experience of the work of the Library Theatre Company.  Another group will interview volunteers from one audience for a particular play in the company’s season, at four points;  immediately after the play, a week after, a month after and three years after the performance.

 2. Enriched online questionnaire: we will write and post an online survey, open to the public with questions supported by information from the story of the history of the company, relating to memories and response to the LTC.  At the end of the questionnaire, respondents will be invited to imagine their version of a Ghost for the new theatre building and to reflect on what they have invented.

 3. A programme of (recorded) creative writing workshops with client groups; children and young people in school; students; adult audience members; theatre workers and funders.  The aim of the workshop will be to devise the character of the Ghost, and to write, draw, or otherwise represent its presence and history; to reflect on what has been invented.  There will be at least four workshops; more depending on funding.

 4. The project will be accompanied by a concurrent online blog, for reflection and discussion.  We will incorporate work already done by the Panel and by the Theatre (the Memory Tree Project) into our final report.  Evaluation of the project will be conducted by the Community Consultation Panel in conjunction with BTC and the Library/Cornerhouse management.

 

Note:  marginalia became key element in Writ Large survey responses; work on the significance of the unguarded or unbounded comment on texts including authored texts has an important place in both literary and artistic criticism.  We will make space for, note and evaluate doodles on our questionnaires.

 

Outcomes.

 

 1. The Blog.

 2. An exhibition of The Theatre Ghost, to be curated by the Community Panel and the Artistic Directors of the new building, including documentary evidence, collated responses, and an account of the project.

 3. Research paper as part of the British Theatre Consortium’s project.

 4. Other possibilities include: Radio Documentary; community play; short film commissions, interpreting The Theatre Ghost.