Category Archives: cultural economy

Shakespeare Country

Back from study leave after a busy year of research and writing and now fully immersed in teaching again. One of several things I worked on in 2017 was a short guide to Stratford-upon-Avon and its theatres for a forthcoming book on theatre-going in the UK. Below is an abridged version of the entry, which will hopefully appear in print sometime later in the year.

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So you’re interesting in going to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare? Plan for 1-2 days, depending on how much theatre you want to see, and prepare yourself for a charming little oddity of a town that tends to divide visitors. Some love its quietly bustling, timber-beamed way of life; others find it a rather twee imagining of ye olde England intended to snaffle as many tourist ducats as possible. Either way, it really is worth seeing, not least because it’s home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has put on an impressive year-round season of Shakespeare, early modern drama, modern classics, and new work since 1961 …

… The main reason you’re here, of course, is the theatre, and if the timing’s right then you may have as many as 3-4 productions to choose from during your stay. Like the National Theatre in London, the RSC has three stages and tends to use them for different kinds of productions. The main house is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, typically reserved for Shakespeare’s works and modern classics. It’s been here since 1932, when the building was constructed as part of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and until 2007 featured a large, proscenium-arch stage. It was in this space that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh titillated audiences with a chemistry-ridden Macbeth in 1955, John Barton and Peter Hall literally made history with The Wars of the Roses in 1963, and Peter Brook redefined what British Shakespeare could be with his ‘white box’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970.

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Today, the interior space is entirely transformed: following a three-year, £112.8m redevelopment project, it now features a deeply thrust stage, around which a 1,040-person auditorium wraps on three tiers. Recent highlights in this redesigned space have included Rupert Goold’s Las Vegas-inspired The Merchant of Venice in 2011 and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s politically incisive The Comedy of Errors for the theatre’s World Shakespeare Festival the following year. The good seats in the RST really are special, with the space achieving an intimacy that is rare on big, main stages, but watch out for the poor views that come with many of the cheaper seats. In some cases it’s better to go with the discounted restricted view tickets than to chance the costlier seats next to them: the view from the latter may very well be nearly as limited, and for a pretty penny more.

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For those interested in something a little different, and for the chance to see one of the most beautiful and dramaturgically powerful spaces in the UK, head next door to the smaller Swan Theatre, built in 1986 and seating 426 people. Though many Shakespeare plays have been staged here through the years—highlights include Greg Doran’s dazzling Anthony and Cleopatra, starring Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart in 2006, and Maria Aberg’s daringly inventive King John in 2012—these days this theatre tends to be reserved for lesser-known works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and new plays commissioned by the RSC …

… If after these delights you find yourself with time to spare, just down Waterside you’ll discover the Dirty Duck pub (officially ‘The Black Swan’), site of thespian drinking antics from the mid-twentieth century onwards. For tasty, late-night fare, you can’t beat Hussain’s Indian Cuisine on Chapel Street, rumoured favourite of Sir Ben Kingsley when he tread the boards in the 1970s. After this you’ll no doubt be stumbling back to your B&B for a cosy night’s sleep, or jogging across town to the station to catch the last train back to the big city.

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Audiences, Readers, Listeners, Users – Understanding reception in a digital age

On 18 May I’ll be leading a workshop on ‘Understanding reception in a digital age’ as part of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Below is a description of the event and the schedule for the day. If you’re a researcher at UoB or an artist in the Midlands region and are interested in attending, please get in touch!

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Digital connectivity is radically reshaping how we engage with culture in the 21st century. Whether it’s the books we read, the music we listen to, the theatre we see, or the people with whom we interact, new technologies are remapping the way we access, consume, create, and share cultural experience. This one-day workshop will explore the impact such changes are having on the study of reception across the humanities and social sciences.

Since Stuart Hall’s ground-breaking work in field in the 1970s, the University of Birmingham has been at the forefront of debates about how people interact with culture and the meaning they derive from it. This workshop will build on this long history of interdisciplinary, grassroots thinking by investigating how digital technology is changing both the methods and the objects of reception-oriented research. It will consider how audiences are becoming increasingly active co-producers or ‘pro-sumers’ of artistic works through collaborative digital media, how the data produced through digital encounters might be used to generate new creative projects and formulate new research agendas, and how environment and materiality still shape cultural experience in the supposedly de-localised and disembodied world of online interaction. It will ask how we can best study audience, reader, listener, and user experience in a digital age, making the most of the new methods available to us and the new ways in which people are interacting with and creating culture.

The workshop aims to bring together expertise in reception studies and the digital humanities from across the University, and also to strengthen partnerships with artists and cultural programmers conducting practice-based work in the field. It will showcase the findings of several externally funded projects based at the University, and it will build upon strategic developments in digital research. Each panel will feature three brief presentations from academics and artists, leaving 20-30 minutes per session for further discussion among all the workshop participants. The day will conclude with a one-hour, guided roundtable session, which will result in a list of key questions for the field, identify possibilities for follow-on projects and funding, and outline next steps for digital culture and reception research at UoB.

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10.30-10.40         Introduction and aims for the day – Erin Sullivan (Shakespeare Institute)

10.40-11.30         Data – Michaela Mahlberg (Language and Linguistics), Rowanne Fleck (Computer Science), Di Wiltshire (visual/performance artist)

11.30-11.50         Tea/coffee

11.50-12.40         Co-production – Caroline Chapain (Business School), Helen Abbott (Modern Languages), Annie Mahtani (Music/composer and curator)

12.40-1.40           Lunch

1.40-2.30             Space – Patricia Noxolo (Geography), Matt Hayler (Literature), Katie Day (theatre director)

2.30-3.20             Roundtable discussion with tea/coffee – Danielle Fuller (American Studies/Literature), Peta Murphy-Burke (Arts Council)

3.20-3.30             Next steps – Erin Sullivan

For further details or to register to attend this workshop please contact Lauren Rawlins at For more about UoB’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) see


Shakespeare, Britain, Brexit

Pretty much glued to news sites and social media feeds this morning as this new phase in UK politics unfolds. Three years ago I was writing about how the London Olympics used Shakespeare to celebrate British diversity, and how the politics that followed were failing to live up to those ideals. But now things are looking even worse than I feared. Watching Farage & co. on the news I can’t help but think of this brilliant and now terribly prescient cartoon by Steve Bell that I wrote about in the essay. Shakespeare will of course survive this sinking ship, but I’m honestly not sure what’s going to happen to us.

Copyright Steve Bell 2013/All Rights Reserved



The money question

Very interesting article below about the challenges of financing a theatre broadcasting project (courtesy of John Wyver and his blog at Illuminations Media).

Call me naive, but I would have assumed that commercial theatre (i.e. Broadway and the West End) would be better equipped to capitalize on new financial ventures such as live broadcasting. But this piece from the New York Times — ‘Off Off Off Broadway (at Your Multiplex)’ — suggests that this isn’t the case. On the contrary, established arts institutions like the Met Opera and the National Theatre have both the cultural heft and long-term structure to be able to develop an in-house broadcasting programme and to keep it supplied with a steady stream of productions:

    ‘The scattershot attempts to follow National Theater Live and the Met suggest that there is still plenty of head scratching about the financial and philosophical issues behind the idea of canning Broadway for mass consumption.
    Julie Borchard-Young, who along with her husband, Robert Borchard-Young, runs BY Experience, said the sheer institutional might of companies like the Met and the National made the process far easier to navigate than it would be for an individual Broadway producer. Ms. Borchard-Young, who knew the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, from his days at Sony Classical, was the one who initiated conversations about bringing opera to the movie-theater masses.
    “Broadway is not a single unified institution that can do all the legwork to prepare the marketplace,” she said. “Also, the serial nature is important. When you have a series of productions, everything from marketing to other costs are easier to handle.”’

The other point the article makes are the manifold challenges of negotiating artists’ contracts and associated financial rights — something I’ve heard reiterated in smaller-scale digital projects as well.

Unsurprisingly the question of money is a very, very important one, and one that perhaps we hear far too little of. How much does it cost to produce a live broadcast, and to what extent are those costs recouped through cinematic and DVD/download distribution?