Inside 'Shakespeare's School' with Dr Harry McCarthy
Free to read online until the end of November 2020, Performing Early Modern Drama Beyond Shakespeare provides a comprehensive account of the company's practices. It draws on extensive rehearsal and performance observation, evidence from the company's archive, and interviews with actors and key company personnel.
We spoke to Harry to find out more about his book.
What is the book about?
It is the first academic study of Edward's Boys, an all-boy company based at King Edward VI School – otherwise known as 'Shakespeare's School' – in Stratford-upon-Avon. This unique company has staged a number of important productions of plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries over the past decade, and my book is the first to analyse this body of work.
I discuss not only the performances, but just as importantly the processes involved in staging these plays, taking in the company's rehearsal practices, their pedagogical approach to unfamiliar texts, and the institutional dynamics – their friendships and extra-curricular activities – which shape the productions.
Why is it important?
For years, we've been talking about Edward's Boys' productions in academic circles, and the company has a very loyal following here in the UK and, increasingly, worldwide. The company has staged plays which have scarcely been performed for hundreds of years, and their body of work provides the largest corpus of non-Shakespearean early modern drama available for examination by scholars. My book provides an essential companion to this repertoire. The insights I offer through analysis of the company's performances and rehearsal practices, as well as the multiple interviews with the company's actors on which I draw, will enhance our understanding of what it means to perform these plays today, as well as how the performance practices of the present can shed light on the performance culture of the past.
What will you be working on next?
I'm moving back in time from the study of boy actors today to a book on boy actors in Shakespeare's time, tentatively titled Boy Actors in Early Modern England: Skill and Stagecraft in the Theatre. This book focuses on the physical skills of these young actors, arguing that attending to the theatrical demands of performing as a boy on the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline stage can allow for a more thorough understanding not only of the way boy players performed, but also how plays were written for them in the first place. It will provide the fullest consideration to date of what early modern culture physically expected from its boys, how playwrights and acting companies monopolised on a hinterland of skills fostered in their young performers, and how present-day performance practice can enhance our appreciation of these actors’ corporeal craft, considerably expanding our sense of how and why boys were employed on the stages of early modern England.
What have Edward's Boys been doing this year in lockdown?
As with all theatre companies, it's been a rotten year for Edward's Boys. Their planned production of Ben Jonson's The Silent Woman, or Epicene was called off only a few days before its opening night in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was fairly involved with the production from its early stages (I even donated some of my own clothes to be used as costumes for the overdressed young lads-about town!), and, having seen a lot of the rehearsals, I know how fantastic it would have been.
The company's response to lockdown has, however, been fantastic. As soon as the production was cancelled, the company's director, Perry Mills, and I decided to make a podcast about the production, which featured the boys performing a number of scenes from the play. You can listen to the podcast here. It really gives a sense of what might have been, and also allowed the boys to say 'goodbye' to the production in some way. It remains to be seen when the company will be able to perform again, but I know from the actors I've spoken to that they're chomping at the bit to get back in the rehearsal room. Whenever it happens, the next production will be very special.