A Resonant Response to Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft
This three year FQRSC-funded research-creation project allows us to explore a “forgotten” Romantic play while channelling our own creative responses to the source material. Baillie is not our contemporary. Her sensibility is very much of another era; so are her theatrical conventions. Yet Witchcraft, through its hyperbolic illustration of fear before the unknown, is a play in which we recognize typical human response.
Witchcraft, a tragedy in 5 acts published in 1836, revisits the history of witchcraft trials in Joanna Baillie’s homeland, Scotland, through a conventicle of destitute female characters seeking power, love, and retribution in an elusive and illusory dark devil.
The play explores mass hysteria and paranoia in witches and their accusers, in women and men, and examines how individuals struggle to navigate and negotiate in a culture of fear. The play is an important artistic and historical precursor for other dramatic representations of witchcraft, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
“Hypertext and Performance: A Resonant Response to Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft” was a three-year process of critical engagement with the text as part of a Fonds de recherche Société et culture, provincially-funded research-creation project based at Concordia University in Montreal and achieved thanks to the support of Matralab and the Hexagram Institute for research/creation in Media Arts and Technology. The research-creation program, at its core, involved scholars Louis Patrick Leroux (Concordia), Michael Sinatra (Université de Montréal), Fiona Ritchie (McGill), their students, and a number of professional and student actors and designers.
The first year featured a series of dramatic responses each created in reaction to a Baillie scene, which fostered both creative and scholarly dialogue with the play. This was presented at Hexagram as part of the Canadian Congress for the Humanities and Social Science in 2010. The second year focused on Romantic gestural codes and culminated with a live public performance. The third year allowed for the culmination of the process, through a full cast and full-length performance of the play while maintaining the interdisciplinary collaborative approach of the first phase. The final staging sought to bring Baillie’s drama into the contemporary register, layering live performance with video projection and other multimedia elements as one way to negotiate the temporal and aesthetic distance of the play.
This web site is a partial archive of the three-year process and, we hope, will be the starting point for more discussion and inquiry into the teaching and staging of “difficult” or neglected works of theatre, and an example of process-driven resonant response with which to engage.
Louis Patrick Leroux – patrick.leroux[@]concordia.ca
Before responding to Witchcraft, before staging the play, we first read it as a work of theatre and literature, as a historical document, and an object of study within its original context.
The “Reading” Baillie path offers an annotated script of the original Witchcraft text and insights into reading, editing, and teaching the play for contemporary audiences.
Baillie’s play was performed every year over our three year project, though the performances in year 1 focused on key condensed scenes in a multimedia performative mode; in year 2, they followed our interest in and exploration into 19th century romantic gestural work; and in year 3 allowed for a full cast production of the play, combining explored elements of years 1 and 2.
This path includes the largely edited performance script; back ground dramaturgical work for the actors and designers; design sketches; and articles on the research which enriched and layered the creative process.
A fundamental component of our research-creation was driven by new works created in resonant response to the imperfect and sometimes frustrating source work (Witchcraft), allowing for a fundamental reading of the work, a dialogue with it — if only to play up misreadings, playful appropriations, and deconstructions.
Paradoxically, our resonant responses were focused in Year 1 and at the very tail end of Year 3, bookending our explorations of Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft through experiential research and explicit artistic engagement with the work.