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Plenary Interview: Andy Kesson

Interview by Josh Caldicott, BritGrad 2018 Co-Registrar

Originally posted: 31 May, 2018

With one day of BritGrad 2018 down and two more to come, we eagerly look forward to presentations from more plenary speakers in the next two days of the conference. Among them is Andy Kesson, a Reader in Early Modern Literature at the University of Roehampton.

Andy is also the author of 2014 book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship and is the lead researcher on the Before Shakespeare project.

Read on for what Andy had to share about his work with John Lyly’s Galatea, what happens when one “decentres” the text in a rehearsal room, and what advice he’d give himself as an undergraduate.

Josh Caldicott: First of all, for anyone who hasn’t come across him before, could you explain who is John Lyly and what makes Galatea a significant play?

Andy Kesson: John Lyly is an early contemporary of Shakespeare, he’s ten years older than Shakespeare, and his first book comes out in 1578 when Shakespeare is in his mid to late teens. Lyly’s early work was a couple of prose-fiction early English novels which became the bestselling literary works of their time. He then becomes head-hunted by the Earl of Oxford to front a boys company who performed in London and at court, performing a sequence of plays, not all by Lyly but eight of which survive and are by Lyly, and Galatea is a third of those plays and is part of a sequence of plays exploring alternatives to compulsory forms of heterosexuality: so exploring virginity, exploring the ability of any woman to turn down a random man who people insist she has to marry, or in Galatea exploring female same sex desire.

JC: How long has the Galatea project been going, what is the background to the project?

AK: I’ve worked with Emma Frankland [the director] for about ten years now, particularly around the Globe’s “Read Not Dead” project, where both of us have worked, individually and together for some time. She and I have been talking together for about four years now, about Galatea as a queer text. Emma’s background is both that she has classical training but she usually works from a more contemporary perspective, a live art perspective, a DIY aesthetic, quite far away from the normal classical modes of theatre, strongly grounded in text-based, author-based and set-based, fictional stage places. So we were always excited about Galatea as a potential for uniting those two worlds that we’re both interested in, the contemporary and the classical (in the theatrical sense of the word “classical”). That’s where the work on Galatea began and we’ve been staging it in open rehearsals for a few years now and we’re still in the process of applying for funding.

JC: How has the project balanced the performative aspects with the more academic aspects, considering Lyly as a topic of research?

AK: Up until now those two things have been at a glorious imbalance towards performance, so it hasn’t been a project about Lyly and it hasn’t been a project about early modern performance, and that’s been exciting. I guess one of the problems I have with practice-as-research is that it does tend to be about those things, and it tends to privilege academic questions over performance based ones, and for me what’s exciting about practices-as-research is the coming together and the pooling and the sharing of different kinds of expertise. So I’d be really happy if this production discovered nothing about early modernity or about Lyly, but discovered instead an old play which is now new, for the contemporary repertoire, that for me would be an entirely successful outcome.

So, it’s been about decentring text, but for me those have been really crucial early modern questions as well, in the sense that all early modern theatrical texts are contingent, negotiable, and we know this as editors, we know this as theatre historians but we don’t tend to talk about them in that way when we talk about performance: we start talking about “the text” and “the way it should be done”, we start evaluating contemporary performance decisions against what we consider to be historically valid ones based on the text we have. So to be working with a performer who loves this text but is also very happy to get rid of swathes of text, to be in a rehearsal room where the text is once again negotiable and is a provocation tool for the performers rather than the non-negotiable starting point, is something I find quite exciting and is something I’d like to import back into early modern studies. It’s something I’ve always wanted to get back there.

JC: As we’re looking back, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of BritGrad, what advice would you give to yourself as an undergraduate or a graduate student?

AK: My short answer would be to take lots of advice. Take advice from those from different scholarly fields, from those at different stages in their career, just take all that advice and then you can choose to act on or ignore that advice as it applies to you. I think, as a discipline, we’re not particularly good at taking advice, but I think it’s really important that we share our advice, that we socialise so that we can share our ideas and get new perspectives on them.

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