The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre: An Interview with Aleks Sierz & Lia Ghilardi

Theatre critic Aleks Sierz and cultural geographer Lia Ghilardi have combined forces to write ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre‘, a creative mapping of British theatre and its audiences from 1558 to 1954. I spoke to them about navigating the mammoth task of documenting nearly 400 years of dramatic history, approaches to non-fiction writing, and possibilities for future theatre audiences.

Where did the idea for ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre’ come from?

Aleks: I have written a number of books about British theatre, both in a journalistic format and in an academic format, but I was looking for a more inspiring way of talking about the subject. History and current historians becoming media stars is a contemporary phenomenon: history is everywhere these days. You can’t switch on your TV without seeing a talking head, an actor playing a historical figure, a recreation of time past… So Lia and I discussed the idea of introducing an element of story telling into our own historical survey, to make it much more enjoyable for the reader, and to reach out beyond the normally small number of people who regularly read theatre books. I believe that the history of British theatre is an exciting one and I wanted to reach out as much as possible.

Lia: That’s right. From the start, my idea was to bring into the dusty field of British theatre history books a more acute sense of stepping into another world, to convey the experience of being there, of feeling the past. I was also keen to make the experience of reading a bit more immersive, by developing the narrative as if it is a storyboard. So that’s how the idea of introducing each episode by setting it in a particular time and place came about. After all, theatre is about using imaginative ways to tell stories so it felt right to be more creative.

Why did you choose narrators for each section?

Lia: Originally, Aleks thought that we should have one guide, a bit like Doctor Who, for the whole book, and then, talking about it, I suggested having a different guide for each of the eight chapters. These are fictional figures who take the reader by the hand and lead them through each historical era. Of course, each character is in some ways emblematic of their time — they embody the traits of their era. And they are audience members rather than theatre people — they are ordinary people rather specialists. They represent the wider public. For example, our character Constance — who is our Edwardian guide — is a typical New Woman of pre-first world war times.

Aleks: Yes, we had a lot of fun creating these characters, and giving them their idiosyncrasies and their opinions and attitudes. In short, their individuality. One of my favourites is Gabriel, who is the guide for the chapter on the Regency era. He is a young black former-slave who is keen on reforming both the theatre and society, and his energetic personality felt just right for this age of revolutions.

Why did you focus on London?

Aleks: Well, the history of British theatre is mainly a metropolitan phenomenon. As you know, first the English and then the British state achieved a high degree of centralisation quite early on, from the Tudors onwards, and culturally London led the way for many decades. Certainly, since the Restoration, London theatre set the repertoire and tastes for much of the rest of the country.

Lia: However, we did make an effort, within the constraints of space that we set ourselves, to make brief forays outside of the capital. We not only time travel, but we also travel out of London, to Stratford-upon-Avon, to Brighton, to Manchester. Dublin and Edinburgh are often mentioned, and so are places such as Bristol and Bath. But, in the end, ‘All roads lead to London!’

How did you go about choosing what got included — and omitted — from the history?

Aleks: The method that we chose to use, setting up scenes and imaginary conversations, did have implications for the writing of this particular history. For example, in a standard history book, you can have a phrase such as ‘No one knows for sure who the first female actor was.’ In our book, to convey this piece of information we first had to set up a scene, then describe the setting and explain what was at stake, and then invent a conversation about it. So instead of one sentence you have to write one paragraph. And whereas in most standard history books it is normal to discuss those facts that are uncertain, or disputed, we aimed for much more certainty, so in every instance in which there was a dispute, we read the evidence, weighed up the balance of probabilities, and made a choice. In other words, we offer an interpretation as well as a story.

Lia: Yes. The original draft was about half as long again as the 300 pages that our book eventually came in at. It was full of detail about arcane theatre practices and forgotten plays. So we set ourselves a target of about 10,000 words per chapter and started to cut, always asking ourselves: is this really interesting? Is it important? Do we need it for the story? And, sometimes, how would our guide know? What would they include? So our defence against anyone who complains that there is a play or a venue missing from our book is: our guide has forgotten about it — we haven’t. For me, the main criteria for inclusion was interest for the general public, not for the theatre specialist.

What have been the biggest advantages and disadvantages of co-authorship?

Lia: The advantages and disadvantages can be summed up in one phrase: massive disagreements about all aspects of the book — form, content, level of detail. Often it turned into a struggle between male and female attitudes, between the anorak and the flaneur, between pedantic comprehensiveness and sticking to the point, between detail and the big picture. In every case, dispute educated both of us.

Aleks: That’s right. And one of the pleasures of authorship is that two heads are better than one. We were each other’s external critical eye. I reminded Lia that some facts were essential in telling the story and she reminded me that too many facts bogged down the narrative. Crudely, I contributed the facts, Lia the imaginative vision, and the questioning attitude.

Which was your favourite period to write about?

Lia: The Elizabethan era and the Victorian period.

Aleks: The Regency and the Modern chapters.

There are some extraordinary statistics in the book — for example that 20,000 Londoners visited the theatre every week in the Jacobean period. What was your most surprising or exciting discovery whilst researching for the book?

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Lia: The sheer amount of creativity in the theatre culture of this country. Time and time again, we wanted to cut something. But time and time again, we bowed to the inevitable: there was so much to include because the subject was so rich. I was extremely interested in the role of the audience, especially when it was vocal in its support of a particular play, or riotous in order to keep admission prices low.

Aleks: I was most impressed by the number of anecdotes and gossipy stories. My favourites are the origin of the term ‘box office’, the story about Shakespeare’s sexual adventure and the one about Richard Brinsley Sheridan taking a glass of wine while his theatre burnt down. But I’m not going to tell you the punchlines of these stories — for that you have to read the book.

‘The Time Traveller’s Guide’ is focused on theatre audiences — how do you see the demographic of future British audiences evolving?

Lia: My guess is that audiences will get younger as technology continues to influence performance, and that the visual elements of the show will become more important than the verbal. During the 19th century, new theatre technologies enabled theatres to create huge visual spectacles, typically melodramas, and their working-class audiences expanded. I would expect something similar to happen again in the future. The latest star phenomenon is also worth a mention: at the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in Hamlet at the Barbican and the media are talking about the ‘Cumberbitches’, female fans who have never seen a Shakespeare play, never been to the theatre, but are going because he’s on stage. This is an example of theatre as a unique one-off event, that will probably widen the audience.

Aleks: As well as these kinds of changes, I also predict a lot of continuity. Compared to film or radio, theatre is quite a difficult medium to enjoy. I mean, where are the different camera angles, where are the jump cuts, where’s the music? To get into theatre you need to concentrate a lot, and go often. And that’s quite expensive. So I believe that the older, university-educated audiences of today will continue to be the backbone of future theatre audiences.

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi
Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi

Do you view the introduction of the EBacc into schools as a positive or negative move, and why?

Aleks: I’m not an expert on secondary education, but the concentration on a core of some six subjects will inevitably mean that what the government perceives as ‘soft’ subjects such as drama, music and the arts will be neglected and that will surely impact on the overall education of young people across the country. Already, theatres outside London are noticing that the number of school parties has fallen, and this has a negative effect on their box office. Gradually, this might contribute to a crisis in the repertoires of theatres outside London, and thus to a shrinking of available theatre experiences for everyone.

Lia: Teaching and learning about culture and the arts is key to forming fully rounded human beings, and future citizens. If we concentrate on a narrow curriculum without aesthetic and moral values then it will not only be difficult to nurture new audiences but also to achieve a more harmonious society. Personally, I think that subjects such as music, history of art or philosophy are a must.

How do you think academic writing about theatre could be more accessible?

Lia: We don’t want to attack academics — we both work in universities after all! And many television dons such as David Starkey, Simon Schama, and in the field of theatre James Shapiro, do a very good job in broadening the audience for history. And their work inspired ours. When we were writing our book we relied a lot on big fat tomes whose impeccable research, meticulous reasoning and clarity of writing were an enormous help. But as well as in-depth research, we also wanted to convey our own joy in discovery to the widest number of people. And isn’t that the definition of accessibility?

Aleks: Yes, our slogan was: we read the boring books so that you don’t have to. In the future, the results of academic study will be more widely available in user-friendly platforms by means of digital technologies. Already theatres such as Shakespeare’s Globe and companies such as Digital Theatre are developing new methods of disseminating research, making it more interesting, especially for young people, so that’s an optimistic note to end on!

Leah Broad

‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre’ is available to buy now from Oberon Books, RRP £14.99. More information about Aleks and Lia can be found at their respective websites.

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