Year I


In Year 1, three playwrights (Joanna Donehower, Lindsay Wilson, and Louis Patrick Leroux), three directors (Louis Patrick Leroux, Cristina Iovita, and Allison Darcy), and nine actors created nine short pieces: three excerpts from Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft and six resonant responses (theatre, film, dance) grew out of our explorations. We engaged with, we resisted; we spoke to, with, and about the play. We were curious about Witchcraft.

Our pieces explored early twentieth century stigmata in young French Canadian Women, the contemporary South African albino organ trade feeding local witchcraft, as well as gruesome folk-tale used as a dubious pedagogical tool. After exploratory workshops and writing in the Fall and rehearsals through winter, a production was presented at the pan-Canadian Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences held at Concordia University in May 2009.

Program of the play – year I

Why Baillie? Why this play?

Although Baillie is conventionally thought of as a closet dramatist who had little stage success with her plays, her work is central to my conception of the survey course I teach on British theatre history in the long eighteenth century. Baillie’s drama marries the developing Romantic focus on the psychology of the individual with a keen understanding of the artistic and technical features of the early nineteenth-century stage (however much her theoretical writing argues for a different type of theatre space). She also demonstrates an awareness of the preferences of the playgoers of the period and understands their desire for spectacle; indeed, she incorporates this element in her plays in ways that appeal to both the senses and the intellect. Baillie’s theoretical writing on the theatre both complements and challenges her dramaturgy in provocative ways.

The use of spectacle in the 2011 Concordia production of Witchcraft
The use of spectacle in the 2011 Concordia production of Witchcraft

Witchcraft did not at first seem to me the most obvious of Baillie’s works to which to devote a research project and it was certainly not the clearest choice of play for me to incorporate in my theatre history survey course. Although she had more success than has generally been acknowledged with the staging of her plays, Witchcraft was apparently not performed in her lifetime and indeed the play has little theatrical history at all. However, I came to realise that this work has a lot to offer in the classroom. Firstly, Witchcraft simultaneously elucidates and complicates the understanding of early nineteenth-century theatre that Baillie sets out in the prefaces to her work. Secondly, Baillie’s interest in the mental make-up of her characters provides a fruitful link to the acting style of the period which focused on portraying emotion in performance. Studying Baillie’s Witchcraft therefore offered students a unique insight into the theatre of the Romantic period.

Harper Duffy as Lady Dungarren & Casey Stainsby as the ailing Jessie
Harper Duffy as Lady Dungarren & Casey Stainsby as the ailing Jessie


An Annotated Edition of Joanna Baillie’s Play


Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) was born in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Her father was a reverend and her mother was related to the poet John Hunter. In 1778, Baillie’s father died, leaving the family with barely anything. Five years later, Matthew Baillie, Joanna’s brother, inherited from his uncle William Hunter of a property in London on Windmill Street. The next year, Baillie moved to her brother’s new home and was introduced to the world of salon through her aunt, Anne Hunter. It is at that time that she met several key members of the Bluestocking circle, especially Frances Burney, Elizabeth Carter and Elizabeth Montague.

Etching of the Bluestockings by Thomas Rowlandson
Etching of the Bluestockings by Thomas Rowlandson

In 1790, Baillie published a collection of poems written in blank verse titled Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners. She begins to work on Plays on the Passions the following year. It would become a lifetime project. The first series of Plays on the Passions was published anonymously in 1798. In her famous introduction, Baillie explains to the reader that it is her intent to write a tragedy and a comedy delineating a passion and to illustrate the process through which passion influences the human mind, conduct and behaviour. Her approach to theatre is thus very analytical, where the human mind and the passions are carefully constructed and the progression of the passion is finely detailed. This style was controversial since contemporary theatre was not made for this level of characters introspection and when Baillie’s plays were staged, they were often not a financial success. However, readers very much appreciated her plays since they were able to follow the minute changes in characters. This has lead critiques to label her a closet dramatist, although, through her plays, she fought to change theatre’s rules and manners.

Pantomime Image: Painful Recollection
Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action: Painful Recollection

In 1836, she publishes three volumes of miscellaneous dramas, including the play Witchcraft. Aesthetically, the play keeps the subtlety of the Plays on the Passions and avoids the mannerism of contemporary theatre. Set at the end of the witch hunt, Witchcraft describes how fear and gossip spread in a small community and how fast a group of people can fall into hysteria. This is not without recalling the 1692 Salem witch trials, and in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller’s 1952 play The Crucible. It must be said that, like Salem, Scotland’s history is tied with witchcraft and the uncanny. It is the perfect setting for witches, monsters or apparitions, as proven from the many literary works using Scotland as the home of the uncanny, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Macbeth and Banquo Meet three witches (Woodcut)
Woodcut of Macbeth and Banquo meeting the three witches from Holinshed's Chronicles

According to The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, near 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft between 1560 and 1740 and went through phases of collective hysteria concerning witchcraft. The Scottish Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1736, alongside the British Act. It must be noted that witchcraft did not ceased to be a crime: after 1736, someone could be prosecuted for “pretended witchcraft” although the maximum penalty was of a year of imprisonment.

Witch Wanted Poster
1643 poster condemning witchcraft

The editors would like to thank the whole team behind this project, especially Joanna Donehower for their help and work compiling information and context about Joanna Baillie and witchcraft in Scotland.

Joanna Baillie in the classroom

Teaching Witchcraft

My focus in the FQRSC-funded research-creation project on Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft has been a pedagogical one. As the creative team worked on resonant responses to the play, eighteenth-century gestural codes, and acting style, culminating in the mounting a full-scale production, I have been concerned with incorporating Witchcraft in a course I teach, which surveys eighteenth-century British theatre history.

ENGL 370 Theatre History: The Long 18th Century is a course designed to provide an overview of the history of the British theatre from the Restoration through the eighteenth century to the Romantic period (c. 1660-1843), focusing on the London stage. The course is divided into four units, each of which covers a consecutive chronological period of eighteenth-century theatre history (the Restoration; the early eighteenth century and the Licensing Act; the later eighteenth century and the career of Garrick; and the Romantic period). A representative play is studied for each unit (for example, we study William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) for the Restoration period). We approach each play not as a literary text per se or even as a text for contemporary performance but from the standpoint of what it can teach us about the conditions of the theatre of the long eighteenth century (and the aesthetic concerns of the period). For this reason, we do not have a great deal of time to work on each play in class (as we are concentrating on the details of theatre history) and we privilege instead an understanding of the theatre in which the play appeared.

Pantomime of 18-19th C. English society manners and gestures
Pantomime of 18-19th C. English society manners and gestures

Although only four plays are covered, these works have a unique role to play in the course: in a series of practical workshops we use the dramatic texts to further elucidate the conditions of the theatre of the period. Students are required to undertake an assignment which asks them to work in pairs to direct a group of their peers in performing a short section of the script. They select the scene and prepare a written rationale and instructions in advance and these documents are shared with the class on the course website. The students come to class prepared to work on the scene and the directors spend the bulk of the class rehearsing their actors. The workshop culminates with the directors briefly introducing their project to the class audience before the scene (of about 5 minutes) is performed. We spend a few minutes in informal discussion at the end of the class. The students are then asked to post feedback on the scene online. The directors use this feedback to reflect on their performance in a short written statement, which is submitted along with the preparatory work and script; this written work forms the basis of assessment. The emphasis in this assignment is on exploring an element of the theatre history of the long eighteenth century: I ask the students to set themselves an intellectual challenge to be explored through performance. So the directors are not thinking about how they would stage the play in a contemporary theatre but how they would do so in the theatre for which it was originally written. The key question is: What can a performance of this play teach us about the theatre of the period?

As I teach this course almost every year, in order to keep things fresh I occasionally change the plays selected as representative of each sub-period covered in the survey. In the final two years of the project I was therefore easily able to incorporate Baillie’s Witchcraft as the drama representative of the Romantic stage in the final unit of the course. However, this presented something of a challenge. Baillie’s reputation is as a closet dramatist, one who wrote plays to be read in private rather than staged in public. It therefore seems rather perverse to include her work in a course that focuses on the commercial London stage. In the past I have taught, for example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Remorse (1813), one of the most successful tragedies for decades (in terms of the number of performances), which seemed to be a more obvious choice (and is readily available in a modern edition, the Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama). Even if one emphasizes that Baillie’s work had more success in the theatre than has previously been acknowledged (De Monfort, for example, had good runs at Drury Lane in 1800 and 1821), it still seems odd in the context of this course to focus on a play which was apparently not performed until the 2008 production in London.

In terms of the decision to incorporate Baillie into the course, the characterization of her as a writer divorced from the commercial stage proved to be easy to overcome. Indeed, I had already begun to teach her work in previous years. Baillie’s theatre theory, which is found in the long and detailed prefaces she wrote to the collections of her published plays, offers an important insight into the Romantic theatre. In her theoretical writing Baillie offers a clear outline of the early nineteenth-century stage and gives a lucid account of what she sees as its shortcomings, although she is at pains to relieve the spectator of responsibility for these limitations. Briefly, Baillie sees the Romantic stage as too large to allow the subtle acting style, which would enable the audience to form an emotional connection with the drama; the large stage is used instead to provide spectacle which gratifies the senses. In class, I continued to work with Baillie’s preface “To the Reader” from the third volume of her Plays on the Passions (published in 1812) as this text provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the Romantic theatre, its defining features and its limitations. The text is also easily available in the Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama and online via Google Books.

2011 production of Witchcraft at D.B. Clark Theatre, Concordia University
2011 production of Witchcraft at D.B. Clark Theatre, Concordia University

As we began to work with Baillie’s dramatic as well as theoretical work, we could use her prefatory writing to assess whether Baillie “practices what she preaches”, considering how much her dramaturgy adheres to the stage reforms she advocates and to what degree her play responds to the existing demands of the early nineteenth-century stage and its audience. We read and performed Witchcraft with Baillie’s theatre theory and discussion of the Romantic theatre firmly in mind, which helped us to better understand how and why this play may or may not have worked on the stage of the period.

As for the decision to include Witchcraft in the course, I soon discovered that in fact the play lends itself well to teaching the theatre of the Romantic period. The play is not a part of Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, a somewhat idiosyncratic project in which Baillie wrote a series of pairs of plays which each address one particular emotion or passion (such as love, fear, jealousy) as a comedy and a tragedy. Although these plays are the work for which Baillie is best known, Witchcraft’s independence from this sequence in fact made it a good choice for teaching. Rather than investigating a single passion, Witchcraft explores a range of emotions. The play thus offers a more versatile experience for performance since it requires the embodiment of a greater range of emotions. Nevertheless, the connection between this play and early nineteenth-century acting is very clear because the passions remain central to the piece. Texts on acting of the period, such as Henry Siddons’s Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action (1822), elucidated how these emotions should be performed, particularly in light of the fact that there was a widespread belief at this time that every human emotion had its commonly recognized manifestation in outward behaviour. The passions were thus codified and could be easily set down in an instruction manual such as Siddons’s.

Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action: Voluptuous Indolence Gesture
Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action: Voluptuous Indolence Gesture

Witchcraft was therefore productive in exploring Romantic acting style in the classroom. I selected a handful of passions from Siddons’s manual and students worked in small groups on using the text and images he provides to help them perform the emotion in question as it might have been rendered in the early nineteenth century. They were then asked to select a line from the play that they felt expressed their particular passion and to deliver it using the acting style set out by Siddons. This exercise proved particularly fruitful, not least because of the class discussion afterwards, in which students reflected cogently on using the images (which of course depict a fixed snapshot of the actor, rather than a dynamic presentation of the emotion) to help their performance. We also explored how one might calibrate the performance of the passion in order not to appear too exaggerated. Finally we discussed how this acting style might act as an aid to comprehension in the large theatres of the Romantic period and how it might be applied to Baillie’s plays, which in her prefaces she envisages being performed in a smaller, more intimate space, with a high degree of psychological realism.

In addition to the clear connection with the acting style of the period, Witchcraft worked well in this course as the play both elucidates and complicates Baillie’s theatre theory in provocative ways. For example, in her theoretical writing Baillie addresses the audience’s predilection for the dramatic spectacle which had become prevalent in recent years as a result of the large size of the Romantic stage and the need to fill it with action. Baillie does not blame the public for wanting to see “pomp and circumstance” on the stage but suggests that such spectacle should be used to “heighten [the] effect” of tragedy. During one of the practical workshops led by students, as a class we discovered that Witchcraft embodies this aim of providing a type of spectacle that stimulates both the senses and the intellect. Students chose to stage the final scene of the play in which Mary Macmurren and the heroine Violet are about to be burned as witches. This climactic scene includes two stakes, eye-catchingly placed front and centre stage, a large and noisy crowd which continually presses in on the two condemned women, a tolling bell, shrieks offstage as Grizeld Bane murders the villainous Annabella, and finally the sound of a trumpet and the arrival of a company of soldiers who provide a reprieve for the two women from the horrific fate of being burned alive.

Miriam Cummings, Emily Tognet, Claire Hogan, and Greg Walker
The witches of Witchcraft:
Miriam Cummings, Emily Tognet, Claire Hogan, & Greg Walker

This scene is evidently designed to provide a feast for the eyes and ears of the audience and the large number of people present (beyond the core characters) and the varied action help to fill up the stage. But the scene is also a key part of the plot: the intense and varied action on stage heightens our concern for the pious Violet, who is virtuously resigned to her apparently impending death, despite her innocence. Staging this scene in class revealed how the play exemplifies the precepts Baillie sets out in her preface whilst still maintaining a keen awareness of what will provide pleasure for the audience. It therefore became clearer to us precisely how Baillie sought to reform the Romantic desire for stage spectacle. Working with this play allowed us a better understanding of the pressures dramatists faced in writing for the cavernous auditoria of Drury Lane and Covent Garden; we saw how easy it would be to allow spectacle to dominate over psychology and that Baillie manages to keep both in play.

Finally, the play was helpful in considering the subject matter, genre and aesthetic features of Romantic drama. Project research assistant Anna Sigg joined us in the classroom to share her expertise on Romantic literature and Romantic aesthetics. This knowledge was helpful in establishing how Baillie fit with the canonical male writers of the period, who, with the exception perhaps of Coleridge, were less successful in writing for the commercial theatre than Baillie but who were all, like her, participating in a movement to re-imagine and revitalise British tragedy, which was deemed to have fallen into decay. Anna also highlighted Baillie’s part in a group of female dramatists who were among the most successful writers for the stage in the period and her connection with the era’s female poets, who were developing their own conceptions of Romantic aesthetics. Witchcraft’s subject matter and interest in the supernatural also provide a clear link with Shakespeare, still the most frequently performed British dramatist at the time. Baillie was described by the novelist Walter Scott as the Bard’s female counterpart and with this work we see her offering a different take on the supernatural subject matter of Macbeth, as well as developing her own approach to tragedy.

As well as its link with Shakespeare and its attempt to reinvigorate high tragedy, Witchcraft also incorporates some of the more popular genres prevalent in the theatres in the early nineteenth century. At this time the performance of spoken-word drama (comedy and tragedy) was restricted to the “legitimate” or patent theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Minor or “illegitimate” theatres were allowed to operate as long as they did not impinge on this privilege and so developed a variety of new genres which relied heavily on music and spectacle instead of dialogue, notably melodrama, which was often marked by a rhetoric of excess. As the patent theatres saw the popularity of the works presented on the illegitimate stage, they began to incorporate elements of these new forms into the works they staged. Also popular in this period was gothic drama, which was characterised by a fascination with the supernatural and the uncanny and was similarly spectacular. The class had a productive discussion of the use Baillie makes of melodramatic and gothic elements in Witchcraft, as well as her incorporation of features of the Romantic aesthetic, such as the sublime. We were thus able again to understand how Baillie combined a desire to redefine Romantic tragedy with an acknowledgement of the exigencies of the early nineteenth-century stage. This allowed us to better understand Baillie’s place as a Romantic playwright but also enabled us to appreciate the difficulties faced by any dramatist in the period, who would need to respond to several overlapping, if not competing, demands from theatre managers and from the audience.

21st century interpretation of the Romantic Aesthetic
21st century interpretation of the Romantic Aesthetic

Our exploration of Baillie’s and Witchcraft’s place in the Romantic theatre was helped immensely by being able to see the play in performance. The first time I taught the play I was able to make use of footage of several key scenes filmed in year one of the project. The second time I used the play in class we had the good fortune to be able to see the creative team’s full-scale production of Witchcraft at the end of the course. In fact, I incorporated this experience as an optional question on the take-home final exam, asking the students to consider how historically accurate the production was. About half the class came to see the show and chose to write about it and their essays showed that seeing the play in performance had helped them to better understand the theatre history of the period, precisely as this course encouraged them to do.

Students wrote sensitively about the key question of the size of the stage, recognising that the D. B. Clarke theatre, although not an intimate space by Montreal standards, is considerably smaller than the patent theatres of the Romantic period (seating 387 rather than 3,000). The production therefore helped to actualise Ballie’s call for her works to be staged in a smaller theatre space and, having discussed how her plays might have appeared on the Romantic stage, we were able to see how they would work in a setting closer to that for which she advocated. Students also identified the production’s use at certain points in the play of the early nineteenth-century acting style that we had studied, and discussed how this aided the communication of emotion to the audience. Many of the essays also discussed the production’s use of spectacle, noting that just as Baillie desired, directors Christina Iovita and Louis Patrick Leroux used spectacle as a complement to the action (and not as a substitute for it) by finding modern parallels (such as video projections, for example of the bar brawl that led to Murrey’s banishment) for the popular elements of the Romantic spectacular (such as the appearance of supernatural beings like vampires and witches, or calamitous events such as fires , floods and shipwrecks).

Directors Louis Patrick Leroux & Cristina Iovita
Directors Louis Patrick Leroux & Cristina Iovita

Students also recognised how the production brought substantial elements of the gothic and the melodramatic to this Romantic tragedy, which led them to realise that the play could be much more enjoyable in performance than it had initially seemed on the page and enabled them to better understand what aspects of a theatre production might give an early nineteenth-century audience pleasure.

Marriage of 19th C. acting style and video projections in 2011 production of Witchcraft

Working with the project team on developing a pedagogical approach to Witchcraft proved to be a fruitful experience for me as a teacher and as a scholar. Baillie’s theoretical writing and her playwriting both have a lot to offer the student of Romantic-era theatre history in ways that may not always at first be apparent. Incorporating Baillie’s work in my theatre history survey course allowed me and the students to more fully grasp what exactly the early nineteenth-century theatre was and what Baillie hoped it could be.

Works cited and further reading


Baillie, Joanna. Plays on the Passions. Ed. Peter Duthie. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001.

Baillie, Joanna. “To the Reader” (1812). In The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003. 370-78. Also available via Google Books

Baillie, Joanna. “Witchcraft” (1836). In Six Gothic Dramas. Ed. Christine A. Colón. Chicago, IL: Valancourt Books, 2007. 339-415.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Remorse” (1813). In The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003. 165-204.

Siddons, Henry. Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action. 2nd ed. London: Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1822. Available via Google Books


Burroughs, Catherine B. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Burwick, Frederick. Romantic Drama: Acting and Reacting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Carlson, Julie A. “The Theatre”. In Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. Ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 642-52.

Cox, Jeffrey N., and Michael Gamer. Introduction. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003. vii-xxiv.

Crochunis, Thomas C. “Romantic Theatre”. In Teaching Romanticism. Ed. Sharon Ruston and David Higgins. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 24-37.

Gilbert, Deirdre. “Joanna Baillie‘s Witchcraft at the Finborough Theatre”, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 23.1 (2008). 91-103.

Purinton, Marjean D. “Pedagogy and Passions: Teaching Joanna Baillie’s Dramas”. In Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. Ed. Thomas C. Crochunis. New York: Routledge, 2004. 221-40.

The theatre (as) object

The Artistic Director as Designer

Theatre is an experience; it is a set of conventions—agreed upon lies; it is ceremonial, yes, yes, of course... I believe and practice, and hope for all this. Yet, theatre is also an object. Object of viewing, study, appreciation. A physical object before us, pulsating, living, responding to our very own gaze upon it. Within theatrical performance, there are hard, cold objects: props, set pieces. Objects which can be multiplied, take a life of their own, gain sudden pertinence. As long as there are few and they are well-chosen.

Dreams of an Uncluttered Stage

What I love most: a bare stage, uncluttered by set elements and, especially, by props. I’ve always felt props to be crutches on which actors lean on rather heavily. When unsure, many actors’ and directors’ instinct is to grab a prop, use it as a metonymic device; infuse it with life. All the while draining the performing body from its initial intent. Puppeteering is a noble tradition which I prefer to leave to puppeteers. Though I have been accused of being one, when directing, especially when giving very precise directions as to where one should stand, how far one can go, and so forth. Lighting constraints allow for this, of course, with the narrowing down of individual performance space in order to establish a relational space based on the audience’s perception of the bodies in motion before us.

2005 Production of Louis Patrick Leroux’s Dialogue Fantasques
2008 Production of Louis Patrick Leroux’s Dialogues Fantasques pour causeurs eperdus
Matralab, 2008.

My aesthetic, from the first play I directed in 1992, has been minimalist and low tech in appearance. Yet, I am profoundly baroque. And I regularly use very expensive stagecraft and technology attempting to deconstruct it, to bring it down to a human scale so as not to distract from the actors interacting with it and with us. I like to hide the technology, the cables, the hundreds of hours of toiling behind a clear, well-chosen, image, ideally one which subverts the technology which produced it (for instance, showing a green screen backdrop, rather than projecting background images onto it). One with which the performers will, ideally, engage or ignore, thereby creating a tension, a counterpoint between warm and cold bodies, between what which draws our gaze and what which touches and resonates within our bodies.

Year 1: The performative screens

Performative Screens from Resonant Response Play/Blood/Flight
Performative Screens from Resonant Response Play/Blood/Flight

In year 1, I designed the space in which all nine scenes and short plays would inhabit. It needed to be rather neutral but be very quickly transformed into spaces varying from mid-eighteenth century Scotland, to early twentieth century Québec, to contemporary South Africa, or the netherlands of folk tale.

The three screens followed a very simple premise: they would be only set object within a very large, open space. Therefore, they needed to serve as wings: establishing a backstage; they needed to allow for multiple entrances and exits; they needed to be easily and quickly decorated to establish setting or tone; they needed to allow for a certain transparency, in order to open up the theatrical space to larger ones, to infinite possibilities. Consequently, the screens became a surface to light and to project video, slides, and lighting effects onto; backlit, they allowed for shadow play; and when video was projected, from the back, I thereby eliminated the possibility of unobstructed wings. Movements behind the screens were amplified. Nothing could be hidden. The actors were in performance all along; they could never quite become themselves. They were players, playing.

Three Screens Drawing
Sketch : Three performative screens

The three screens echoed the three original scenes from Witchcraft we were drawing upon. They also echoed the three resonant response impulses, and the three variations on my own proliferating response to “Women on the Moor.”

The screens needed to be more than mere translucent theatrical curtains, more than a surface to project onto. They were made into prominent focal points when necessary, and tripartite framing device for the live actors. I wanted the actors to act alongside with the screens and not be crushed, visually, by them. This needs to be rehearsed. Actors need to spend time with their uncompromising likeness; they need to appropriate the inflexible projected image, and extend out to it, use it, engage with the audience through this larger than life forced intimacy. Working with the screens forced me to fundamentally change the script of Blood and to forcefully create an emotional tension between the on-screen action and the on-stage emotion (Alexandra and Lindsay performing the Ave Verum, taking the soundtrack away from the subliminal backdrop of film and thrusting it forth as the principal performative action). The screens also challenged my reading and staging of “The Reach of the Law,” a collage of sorts from various scenes culminating with the promise of witch burning and the condemnation of the innocent of innocents, Violet Murray. The filmed crowds were larger than life, so was the Minister. I liked this oppressive quality, but the image did stand to overwhelm the live actors. Paradoxically, the sound recording from the video was of such poor quality that it diminished the visual effect, it actually made it ridiculous. The actors found it very frustrating to cue their responses to the unchanging, cold, automaton-like recording. So, on dress rehearsal (of the April public try-out of the May 2010 production), I cut the sound completely, and asked the actors to take responsibility for the lines of all of the on-screen characters. They cut down the projected images to size; they owned them; they interpreted them for us, and curiously mediated the media back to us. The adrenaline of the last minute request before a live audience energized the actors and convinced me that this is where we needed to go with the scene, which had otherwise been stiff, expository, and unfortunately regulated by technology.

I thrive on happy accidents and constraints. Tech week, though stressful, is heavenly. It forces compromise (when on a budget or a tight schedule or just trying to save the show) or, even better (with the luxury of time, money, and risk-taking momentum): more interesting and exciting solutions to initial lacklustre choices.

Year 3: The Abandoned Dialectic

Bar Scene
Bar Scene

In year 3, I hoped to work much in the same manner with video. But there were two directors and I realized very late in the process, that my colleague was not interested in exploring this, in spite of six months discussions and countless design meetings. By then it was too late to fully explore the concept, which would have required additional rehearsal hours and tech time, which we did not have, and a commitment on the part of the whole design team, which wasn’t forthcoming. The video work essentially became ornamental backdrop rather than an integral part of the production. There were two plays being directed side by side: one with the actors, the other with the designers; one from the lip of the stage, the other from the back of the auditorium; one concerned with actors connecting with one another, the other with actors engaging with the audience; one asking for more emotion, shriller cries, louder sound effects, the other for smaller, more focused emotions. It could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t. There were tensions, aesthetic, creative, but the final “product” ended up being both an aesthetically pleasing and a richly textured, layered performance.

Milford Haven: Forced Intimacy

Coming out of the third year production of Witchcraft, I wanted to pursue what I had begun in year 1 with the performative screen work. Looking forward to my work with the McGill Shakespeare Group and our exploration of Cymbeline, I thought of digging out my 1995 variation on Shakespeare’s play, Milford Haven. The monologue features Imogen in the precise moment she realises that she is being abandoned and left for dead by her husband’s footman in Milford Haven, liberated from courtly obligations and her womanly role, yet left alone in the woods, unprepared, with nothing but her chastity belt and a change of men’s clothes. Because it is a moment stretched in time, a moment of recognition, of reckoning; because it is an intimate address, I felt I could return to this idea of the performative screen, and maybe even bend it into a semi-circle, embracing the audience. Across from the screen will be a mirror through which the audience will see itself immersed in the world of Milford Haven.

In 1995, after seeing my (excessive) play Rappel (Apocalypse, in English translation) open at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Theatre’s Assistant Artistic Director came to see me, half-alarmed, half-excited at his sudden insight. My anti-theatrical charge had convinced him that I should be doing installation and performance art rather than theatre. I wondered what he meant by that. Couldn’t theatre also be as urgent and potentially unsettling as performance art? Shouldn’t it? “No, you should be doing performance art. Good luck then!” And he shook my hand, bringing the exchange to a close, satisfied that he had saved me years of troubled angst working in the wrong field.

I thought of that moment, on opening night of the Year 3 production of Witchcraft. I also remembered what had worked well in Year 1. I remembered moments of elation from subverting theatre in Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus in 2009. I also recalled visual and performance artists balking to my ideas, finding them too conventionally theatrical and narrative-driven. We work in convention-bound disciplines, no matter how open to interdisciplinarity we claim to be. The trick, I guess, is to work within the conventions and to find the snags, and to pull at them, until the unravelling produces something elating.

Observing the Unobservable

Witchcraft and Blindness

I was invited to work on the Hypertext and Performance project in 2009. Members of the project were asked to interact with, and respond to, Scottish playwright Joanna Baillie’s Romantic play Witchcraft. I joined in the project’s first year as an actor and playwright. During that time I created a short resonant response to Witchcraft titled Blind based on the witchcraft-related killings of people with albinism in East Africa. Three years have passed since I began work on this project and in that time I have traveled to Tanzania to further my research in order to develop Blind (2009 resonant response) into a full-length play. The “Hypertext and Performance” project has, since that time, proved to be unique and fruitful, and has taken all of the participants down many surprising, if unforeseen, avenues. In terms of my own work, the project has allowed me to travel across three continents, beginning in Scotland with Baillie’s play, to Montreal where we have continued to work on it, and finally Tanzania, East Africa. Although this may seem tangential, it has been a lucid movement that has yielded surprising connections.

Exploring Blindness with the Performative Screens
Exploring Blindness with the Performative Screens

At the beginning of the first year the participants: actors; playwrights; dramaturge; and directors involved in the project, held a brainstorming session where we brought in materials in response to the subject of witchcraft. The responses were varied. We moved from terrorists as modern-day witches, the specter of depression and mental illness, and all the way through to ritual and shadow puppetry. From these materials we crafted a series of short “resonant responses” based on scenes from the original Baillie play and incorporated materials from the session that we found particularly compelling. Alison Darcy, a fellow actor who went on to become my co-collaborator and director of Blind (2009 resonant response), brought in photos of sangomas (witch-doctors in South Africa) as well as one very distinct photo that became one of the kernels from which our response grew.

A scene from Lindsay Wilson’s Blind
A scene from Lindsay Wilson’s Blind

The photo shows twelve school children in royal blue tunics, sitting in a classroom at splintered desks. A number of the children in the picture have albinism, while others are blind. At the centre of the picture is a young boy who is blind and, for some unknown reason, looking off to the left of the picture as if he is trying to figure a way out. As soon as I saw the picture I knew that my response would be linked to the story that I sensed in it.

The playwrights were each given a different scene from Baillie’s Witchcraft and asked to create a response based on the theme of each of those scenes. The only commonality between the responses was how different they were. I was given a scene entitled “Fishing for Information” where the character of Black Bawldy fibs to the guard Andersen about what he knows about the witch who everyone believes is menacing Jessie, the sick child. I was struck by how much Black Bawldy speaks in this scene but how little concrete information he is able to convey. The scene, and especially the picture, both seemed to point at what witchcraft might be to someone like Bawldy, as well as the blind boy in the picture: unobservable through the senses but palpable in one’s surroundings; the experience of an atmosphere of fear; a sense of urgency and mystery.

As I began researching the killing and trafficking of albino body parts in East Africa I began to understand that the beliefs that have prompted the killings are complex. One of the first things I discovered was that some witchdoctors and some tribes in Tanzania believe that people with albinism - zeru-zeru is the derogatory term in Swahili which means “ghost-like people” - possess great magical power. There are many myths and legends about albinism, which reduce those with the disorder to ghosts, magical beings or curses; few of the myths and legends tend to be humanizing. Corrupt witchdoctors will procure the body parts and then sell them with the promise that it will enhance a person’s wealth, power and profit.

Furthermore the beliefs that have spurred the killings are linked to politics and industry. The murder and trafficking of albino body parts began to rise during the violent political elections in Kenya in 2007, Tanzania’s neighbor to the north. There is a higher percentage of people with albinism in East Africa, in particular Tanzania, and their body parts are harvested and trafficked by corrupt witchdoctors traveling between (but not limited to) Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. For the most part the corrupt witchdoctors sell the body parts to politicians and businessmen. Some Kenyan politicians have paid to procure this perceived powerful magic in order to ensure they would win the elections.

Around 2008 - 2009, the killing and trafficking, particularly in Tanzania and Kenya, attracted international attention. This, in turn, placed a great deal of pressure on the Tanzanian government to intervene and regulate harmful witchcraft practices. One of the solutions for keeping people safe, particularly children, was to open pre-existing centres for children with disabilities across Tanzania. On my trip I visited Motindo Primary, Misongwe District, near Mwanza city, which was one of the first centres to open its gates to children with albinism. I was invited along by Under the Same Sun, a Canadian NGO based in Vancouver, British Columbia and Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania who work for the rights and awareness of people with albinism. Under the Same Sun conducts school evaluations to see what the status of the children is in these schools after the height of the killings in 2007 / 2008. Many of the children remain in the schools, and the problem of what to do with them, and how to help them, still persists.

While I was conducting my research in Tanzania I felt a sense of liminality. I was an observer from another country, observing the rites, beliefs and customs of a culture that was not my own. Although I was embedded in the culture in order to get a better sense of it, I was still approaching it from an outsider’s perspective. I found my position as an observer to be about recognizing being in-between the story you think you know; the one you are being presented with; and what the story really is. I wrote something to myself during my participation in the school evaluations:

To be an observer does not mean to be passive - no one can ever be a passive observer - those two words cancel each other out.

I felt my experience as an “observer” curious: I was an empathetic observer, I was asked to align myself with feelings and experiences that were foreign, mysterious and obscured and tried to understand them as best I could without being fully able to interact; which, in a sense, is exactly what one tries to do with witchcraft. Witchcraft is about liminality. All sorts of rituals exist to deal with the unobservable and what feels beyond our control. We create rituals in order to understand what is between us and the power we sense the practice of witchcraft wields.

In Blind (2009 resonant response), we experience a moment in a young blind boy’s head as he tries to shield his brother and sisters from the violent murder of their albino mother that they hear in the next room. It was based on the boy in the picture and trying to imagine what chain of events had led him to be in that picture, at that school, at that particular moment. In traveling to Tanzania and meeting, speaking to, and playing with the children at Motindo Primary I have come to understand that witchcraft is about perception.

What I saw at Motindo Primary, Misongwe District, Tanzania shifted my perception.

Motindo Primary, Misongwe District (2011).

When the team from “Under the Same Sun” arrived in Mwanza we were trained by a UNICEF representative in how to conduct interviews and interact with children. At one point during our week at the school, our evaluation team gathered around a group of five children as the UNICEF representative challenged us to look at each child. She pointed out that it was not enough to document, through pictures, the state of the children and the school. It was our responsibility to be with the children and experience what they were experiencing. The internally displaced children had been brought to this centre for a variety of reasons, some because of their disabilities, some because they were not safe from threat in their communities. In observing the children of the school, wanting to know their real opinions, I also had to walk a very careful line. Interviewing children is a human rights issue. You gain their trust, lead them (unintentionally) to believe that you will change their situation and at the end of this process you still leave them where they are, with no guarantees that their situation will change. In one interview a girl told us: Hakun Papashida - “There’s nowhere we can hold onto.”

At first the only apparent tie between Scotland, Montreal and Tanzania was the subject of witchcraft. Looking back now, I think the status of the tormented Jessie in Baillie’s work and the children in the photo from Motindo Primary - children who do not necessarily have a clear idea of who the witch in the situation is - was the first resonance between the play and my research and experiences. There seems to me something strange, yet logical, about concern for a child being at the centre of Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft. Jessie, the child, is being tormented by a witch; the people in her community become vigilant and desperate about the threat of witchcraft. They seek to harness and thwart the status of witchcraft in their community.

There has certainly been a similar impetus behind the story of Blind (resonant response 2009, full-length version 2012). I think children and their perception of events are of greater interest than adults. One may argue that they enter and accept a state of mystery more easily. The people around Jessie in Baillie’s play and the central character in Blind are both seeking to make the unobservable real, to make sense of the threat and then make it go away. When Bawldy tells the story to Andersen of the witch who came into Jessie’s room he tells Andersen “what it was she could not say, for she could not see in the dark.” He explains that Jessie tried to catch the witch but is only left with a piece of the gown sleeve as evidence. When pressed further to explain, Bawldy admits that Jessie cannot describe what the witch looks like because it was in the dark. The characters in Baillie’s play know that the witch exists; they are frightened, but cannot give name or shape to the interaction. Similarly in Blind (resonant response 2009), the blind boy is trying to find a way to describe and transform what he is hearing to his brothers and sisters to make it less threatening. He can only sense the threat of the killers in the next room but he cannot say exactly what it is because, as he and Jessie share a similar experience, they are in the dark.

The second resonance between Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft and Blind (full-length version 2012) is the political climate as a backdrop in the world of both of these plays. Witchcraft, as I have come to understand is aligned with politics. Witchcraft and politics are about the pursuit of power, justice, revenge and, in my experience, it is also related to a governmental force that both derives its position from witchcraft while seeking to manage it. Politics and witchcraft function in a similar manner, they are both about the conflict among individuals or groups having or hoping to achieve power. Vicky Ntetema, the BBC reporter who first reported on the killings in East Africa, furthered this connection. Ms. Ntetema is also the Executive Director of Under the Same Sun. She told me that the Tanzanian government “[...] banned [traditional healing] for eight months in 2009 and then lifted it in 2010. Right before the Tanzanian elections. The witch-doctors all said: uh-uh, don’t come to us. But all the politicians go. Everyone believes.” Ms. Ntetema’s comment stemmed from seeing a new, white SUV parked out front of a witchdoctor’s compound. It was the car of a politician. Politics are lucrative and politicians are one of the few that can afford to own an SUV. The complicated part of all of this is also the following: Politicians are the ones who ban the murder and trafficking but they are also the ones that continue to buy this type of witchcraft because they are, for the most part, the only ones who can afford it. They believe that in order to win an election you need the help of a witchdoctor. The government needs and believes in witchcraft. Witchcraft empowers politics; politics perpetuates witchcraft.

At the same time we were creating Blind (resonant response 2009), I was also cast as Grizeld Bane, the witch and protagonist (in my opinion) of Baillie’s Witchcraft. Grizeld Bane is the witch who seeks retribution and justice against the British government who murder her husband. I believe that Grizeld Bane, the witch, is an important and cathartic force in Baillie’s play. She is both feared and admired in her community. It is her status as a witch, and her ability to play the role, that sets in motion unobservable forces that both upset and restore the magnanimity, the balance of the Scottish society she is part of. Witch-doctors in Tanzania are of great importance; they are grass-roots leaders. There is a tendency in the West to be drawn to what is negative and reductive in our perceptions of “Africa.” Witchcraft and traditional healing, all too often, falls into this line of thinking. It is more ambiguous than this. At the second school evaluation I participated in, with Under the Same Sun, the school exists alongside a witchdoctor’s compound.

Witchdoctor’s Compound in Misongwe District
Witchdoctor’s Compound in Misongwe District, Tanzania alongside a school that housed internally displaced children with albinism. (2011)

The children can see the compound and it is part of their daily existence. It is not uncommon that children with albinism mix with children who have family members that are witchdoctors. It is disturbing to some that the compound is next to the school because of what it represents to the children but it also indicates that witchcraft remains an integral part of the culture. The ambiguity inherent in Tanzania’s relationship to witchcraft is something that the children contend with and can be difficult to comprehend. However witchcraft functions at many different levels in a community and is not necessarily negative. Witchcraft and traditional healing are intrinsic to Tanzanian culture. Witchcraft compounds are extremely common in rural areas of Tanzania. From Mwanza to Misongwe District there are thirty-three kilometers of road, there are at least thirteen witchdoctors compounds on the road: that is a witchdoctor’s compound for every 2.5 kilometers alone.

Witchdoctors compound
Witchdoctors compound, Misongwe District. (2011)

It is almost impossible to do, but I think that it would be useful for government officials, traditional healers, teachers and aid workers in Tanzania to talk about cultural beliefs surrounding witchcraft. Especially as it pertains the well-being of a community. I was informed by a Social Welfare Officer during my trip that there are cultural training programs for traditional healers in order to ensure that they understand the responsibility of their position within their community.

In going to Tanzania I wanted to know, and see for myself, witchdoctors, traditional healers, and herbalists and I was fortunate enough to speak with some. What I understand is that they are an incredible and powerful force in Tanzanian culture. They are both leaders and healers. While I was in Tanzania, Loliondo (a small village outside of the northern city of Arusha, a hub for tourists climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and going on safari) had become a place of pilgrimage.

The preacher at Loliondo, Ambilikile Mwasapile, had received the calling to go to Loliondo and boil tea from an herb that he claims cures all major ailments. I passed through Loliondo during my travels and I saw the stream of trucks and cars, packed with people going to the village. My driver insisted that his uncle had been cured of Type One Diabetes by the preacher and his tea. His uncle proved it by drinking five Fanta in a row. The tea also cures HIV/ AIDS one time only. If the drinker contracts it a second time, the tea will not cure them again. The preacher at Loliondo was reported on in every newspaper. He pleaded with Tanzanians to stop coming, he could not keep up with the demand and those who were very ill were dying in line. Even the BBC picked the story up and it was, very briefly, international news. It is easy to be skeptical but what I learned from this experience was that, ultimately, it is the needs of a people and a faith that sustains them.

Just as Baillie’s play has a tenuous relationship with the importance of witchcraft in Scotland, so too does Tanzania. By the end of Baillie’s play Father Ingham announces a new law that one cannot send witches to their deaths. The old traditions and the new co-exist in the play. Similarly the temporary ban of traditional healers in Tanzania from 2009 - 2010 signals a conflicted relationship between the role of witchcraft historically and culturally in past and present day Tanzania. Because of international pressure and attention there is an attempt to change the perception of witchcraft but perceptions are slow to change and old and new co-exist. One of the ways in which Baillie’s play and my research diverge is that Baillie’s play was written one-hundred years after the outlawing of the witchcraft trials, so in watching the play the audience would have expected the outcome. I interpret this as Baillie’s way of displaying to her audience Scotland’s cultural traditions whilst emphasizing the ways in which the culture has changed.

After having worked on my 2009 resonant response, Blind, with the Hypertext and Performance project, and with the help of Alison Darcy, Joseph Shragge and their theatre company Scapegoat Carnivale, I was awarded a grant from the Conseils des arts et lettres du Quebec for research and development. This grant allowed me to meet the children and see the school that was behind my initial impetus to write the play. I cannot underplay the importance of speaking to the children and seeing the school and confronting a new culture. Witchcraft cannot be learned in books or on websites. One of the challenges I found in writing Blind (2009 resonant response) was that I had ideas about “Africa”. And to write a full-length play? I needed experiences that were not in books.

Witchdoctors compound
Map of Misongwe District, near Mwanza, on the wall of Motindo Primary (2011).

During my time in Tanzania I met people who became essential characters in Blind (2012 full-length version) because they changed my perception of virtually everything. I returned from Tanzania with more questions, but I believe this is what happens when one is initiated into mystery, when one tries to observe the unobservable.

Author’s note for Play / Blood / Flight

I chose to respond to “Women on the Moor” (act I, sc III).

What first struck me when I read Baillie’s original scene was these women alternately playing at being witch-like and then being afraid, and Murray playing at being bad, nasty bad —maybe even finding a measure of macho pleasure in playing the Devil to the evening’s amateur witches. Actual women might have driven themselves into a Bacchanalial frenzy (as Grizeld Bane will later manage—there is no bluffing with her). But these tentative witches seemed more like young girls flirting from afar with both Eros and Thanatos. To me, this scene was about the titillating idea of witchcraft, its rituals, and almost rote movement. With further readings of the play and concrete work on the material with the designers and actors, I would gain a clearer understanding of the characters’ desperate need to belong to something larger than their boring, limited lives in Paisley, Scotland in the early to mid-1700s.

Miriam Cummings as Grizeld Bane in the 2011 production of Witchcraft
Miriam Cummings as Grizeld Bane in the 2011 production of Witchcraft

But the initial response was strong and clear. Children role playing, but then comes along a veritable horned satyr. The image troubled me; I had to run with it. The first piece then prompted two more, from early childhood to adolescence and an eventual confrontation between a young woman and her projected older self (or is it the other way around?).

Children at Play is storytelling driven theatre featuring kids doing what they do best: playing and toying with the idea of fright. Blood grew out of my desire to explore a French-Canadian Catholic angle on Baillie’s Scottish Protestant reading of witchcraft. The adolescent hysterics provoking stigmata seemed like an appropriate follow-up to the early exploration of childhood fears. I had vivid images of the Franco-American saintly and suffering figure of Marie-Rose Ferron from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, attracting the curious and faithful in the 1920s.

Alexandra Draghici in Leroux’s Resonant Response to Women on the Moor scene from Witchcraft
Alexandra Draghici in Leroux’s Resonant Response to “Women on the Moor” scene from Witchcraft

She was my substitute Jessie from Baillie’s Witchcraft.

She guided Blood’s adolescent resonant response to Children at Play, except this time, the media explored would be video performance. Stage blood never seems as convincing as film blood. In order to probe the girl’s stigmata (bloody holes in the palms of her hands and soles of her feet, crown of thorn wounds on her head, and Christly chest wound), I would need to explore this more intimately than with stagecraft. I needed film’s visual codes. The dialogue was cut down, we did not record sound, I thought of old-style dialogue cards. The story would be told with images and we would find a way to create a sound-based counterpoint with the video which wasn’t necessarily dialogue. A week before the show’s opening, I asked two of the actors to sing Ave Verum Corpus, the only words that seemed appropriate. The video screens would not be mere interludes to live performance, they would be performative screens, the image of which would be mediated through the live stage actors.

The last piece, Flight (known in rehearsal as Age until it wasn’t about that anymore) is a physical piece; a dance piece. I am not a choreographer. I am very much a word-based playwright and director. After stripping dialogue away from Blood with each new version, I felt I needed to pursue the purgative exercise and remove all traces of spoken lines.

Elizabeth's Precision Movement in Flight
Elizabeth Langley precision movements in Flight

This piece started out as a literary description of a movement piece. The performers read it, and immediately wanted to chart the piece and establish a choreography from my text. I asked the dancers to forget the details but to remember what traces remained. What imprint the text had left on them. I never looked at the original descriptive piece again. Did I rip it up, for emphasis? I can’t quite recall. Why a dance piece? Because of theatre and video being the media explored in the previous two. Also, probably because I love dance’s language and that I have always felt inarticulate and bumbling when directing more physical work. Because we had a dancer of considerable experience on the team (Elizabeth Langley, who celebrated her 74th birthday during the production) and a young actress who could dance circles around most of us (Alexandra Draghici).

Draghici dancing in Flight
Draghici dancing in Flight.

Because the two of them, while working on another scene, weren’t getting along. But their disagreement struck me as simple discordance which could be fine-tuned by having them work together and teach and learn from each other in equal measure. It worked!

Children at Play is all talk and projection of what the body can drive you to do (and will, once you leave early childhood) In Blood, the body is transgressed, broken; it is fundamentally going through adolescence. In Flight, the adult body anticipates that it will remember. But until then, it must engage in a constant movement forward so as to avoid it fossilizing. Flight was the way I found to reconnect with Baillie’s women and maybe drive away the horned masquerading devil once and for all. It is consciously naïve; I have dabbled with dance, or rather physical theatre with touches of dance. It remains one of my favourite theatrical experiences.

The horned masquerading devil in Children at Play
The horned masquerading devil in Children at Play

The scripts for Blood and Flight don’t actually reflect what we ended up presenting. I haven’t changed them, nor have I included various drafts. They are here as dissonant reminders of the fact that theatrical performance will invariably remodel the original text. A writer-director writes on his feet, in rehearsal hall. As a director, he is probably the one who will show the least respect for the writer’s original text. He is always writing, even when cutting lines, especially when cutting lines.

The Spinster’s Myth

Points of Origin for The Fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy (or Bundles)

The Finger Play of Katherine Nipsy (Or, Bundles) emerged from a variety of sources (literary, historical, and musical) and is rooted in the dramaturgical research I conducted in the first few months of my work on the project.

The Fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy

In my initial inquiries into Baillie’s play as a playwright, I delved into primary and secondary materials on Scotland in circulation at the time the play was written (1825). The contextual research entailed biographical research on Baillie herself, as well as critical and biographical inquiry into Baillie’s social and literary circle, the canon of Romantic writers, dramatists, and performers, and the status Scotland and Scottish representation on the English stage.

Inside a Poor Weaver's Cottage
Image Source: A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772

I was also interested in Baillie’s relationship to the English literary and dramatic canon as a Scot, and as such delved into colonial discourse on Scotland from the early modern to Victorian periods, focusing on English travelogues, such as those by Dr. Johnson to the Hebrides (as documented by James Boswell), and other antiquarian and pseudo-ethnographic treatises on folk customs of Scotland. I examined the political status of Scotland in relation to England around Baillie’s lifetime, considering the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and the 1820s Weaver’s Revolt (or the Radical War) in Paisley, the town in which much of the play’s action occurs, as relevant contextual events which may have influenced Baillie’s play. I also took into consideration the association of witchcraft (in England) with Scotland, tracing the origins of that popular discourse to Scottish witchcraft trials in Paisley and Renfrewshire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, James I’s anti-treason and anti-witchcraft tract Daemonologie (1597), and Shakespeare’s popular Scottish play and its coven of Weird Sisters in Macbeth.

Image source: University of Glasgow – Special Collections

Staging Historical Distance and Acts of Recontextualization.

The operations of gender, class, language and national identity in Witchcraft proved a pivot point for the development of the Nipsy text, which attempts to stage the Verfremdungseffekt the Baillie collaborators experienced in the first reading of the play. I used both the loose ends and repeating patterns uncovered in early dramaturgical analysis to weave a composite of narrative, thematic, and historical strands that, when squinted at, look, feel, and sound like the playworld of Witchcraft.

Like the Baillie playworld, the Nipsy playworld lacks ideal masculine or romantic heroes. It is a world of women and children, and soon becomes one of missing boys, Dickensian landlords, and beefeater man-babies. Only at the end of Witchcraft does English authority (and Scottish masculinity) arrive to save the women from execution as witches; in Nipsy, the arrival of Englishmen means something else entirely.

Witchcraft stages a poor woman desperate for food and her dependent “idiot” son, a young girl lusting for elusive power, and a deranged widow of an executed murderer hunting for his spirit, as witches who desire to be in league with Satan. These lone women serve as archetypal characters for the three generations of women presented in Nipsy.

At the outset, the only signs of possible irregularities in the home are the grandmother’s discomforting bedtime story of the English appetite for Scottish ladies, and the oversized red knit onesy, big enough for a man, yet meant for a babe. How might an everyday activity, the cycling of knitting needles in the home, the telling of a fireside tale, a knock at the door, the monthly rent payment take on an uncanny and warped register? What is the subtext of the domestic drama?

The title of my resonant response play comes from a finger play for children recorded in Robert Chamber’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1776), a volume designed to “supply a presumed desideratum in popular antiquities” to a British reading public, from a Scot who was preserving the “relics” of “old natural literature” of his country (3). The volume claims to contain the unwritten verses once used by Scottish folk, documenting conventionally oral storytelling traditions in print. Among the chapters is a section titled “Rhymes appropriate for children’s amusement,” which includes “Katharine Nipsy: A Play Performed on the Fingers.” In Chambers’ version, a wet-nurse performs each character in the drama on a different finger before an audience of her charges. In the plot of the finger play, a robber disguised as a friar knocks upon a lady’s door and gains entrance into her home. I toyed with this text, transforming the robber into a beefeater, or an Englishman, and placed the text in the dialogue of the Spinster, the grandmother to the two other generations of women in the Nipsy play. She tells a story as a fingerplay in miniature that resonates with and provides both a frame and mirror to the play’s action. This is also a nod at the genre of closet drama, or private theatricals performed in the home by Romantic authors, particularly women who were not often produced in male-dominated theatres. In Nipsy, the audience for Spinster’s finger play and lullaby are her daughters.

The song sung by the Spinster in Nipsy is a hybridization of popular lullabies, whose lyrics were adapted from a song in Chambers’ Popular Rhymes called “Dance to your Daddy,” and set to the tune of an American plantation spiritual “Shortnin’ Bread.” My intent in mixing the lyrics and melody was to both ally and divorce the playworld from a concrete geographical location or time period, making of it a utopia, or an everywhere and nowhere which might be America, or Ireland, or Scotland, or none of these places at a number of different times.

I continued to play with the effects of recontextualization and dislocation throughout the development of Nipsy. For the Big Feller character, I drew narrative from Anglo-Saxon riddles and the animal bestiary on the cuckoo bird, and dialogue from Shakespeare’s Henriad trilogy. The Big Feller’s text was stolen from Shakespeare’s Henry V, in his out-of-character violent address to the French at Agincourt, when he encourages them to surrender through bloody and rapacious threats, to English authority (3.2). What if Henry V’s voice erupted from some place and somebody unexpected? What would happen if I transposed the infamous Agincourt speech onto England’s land border with Scotland? What if the auditors, rather than soldiers at the front, were women and the theatre of war was the closet stage of their own home?