Galatea Workshops: Where are we?

This week, Emma Frankland is exploring John Lyly’s Galatea (1585?) at the Jerwood Space with a collection of performers, actors, and makers, looking in particular at its representations of non-normative sexuality and concluding investment in transgender identity exploration.  Throughout the week, a handful of academic visitors are dropping in to observe or participate.  The workshops are also working between deaf actors and hearing actors, so in the first two days the room has seen a full British Sign Language (BSL) performance of Galatea–quite a remarkable way to kick off August!

Throughout today and the rest of the week, we’ll be posting some interviews with performers in the workshop, media content, and hopefully some reflections from academic observers, who are dropping in throughout the week to observe and/or participate.  But here’s what we’ve been up to so far…

The week started with an extended “introduction,” with everybody explaining their interest in the workshop and, importantly, giving everybody a chance to voice their thoughts about the work.  Emma also offered some flexible possibilities about the week going forward, opening all ideas out to questions and encouraging responses.  The workhops, and Emma’s practice this week, are characterised by an open attitude towards creativity and wellbeing. One of the striking features of the workshop practice is Emma’s regular call for moments of reflection: how do we feel about what has just occurred; how do we feel in our bodies and minds at the moment?  Physical and vocal warm-ups, too, draw attention to our embodied experience and wellbeing, and we never have the chance to lose feel of our physicality (a new experience for many participants!).

While not necessarily a text-led exploration, we nonetheless started the week with a full read-through of the play.  In a way, this has been the “odd thing out” in the workshop so far, as it was focussed entirely on the text of Galatea, but the idea was to give everybody the chance to see and hear the text in full and to discuss it. The read-through brought the story, words, and characters into the room amongst the group, ensuring we were all on the same page (even when, afterwards, we were nowhere near a page!).  It also offered plenty of moments for reflection, bafflement, curiosity, and excitement about what goes on in the world of Galatea.

That world contains various interrelated “sections”: a Humberside town that demands a virgin sacrifice every five years and from where the “lovers,” Galatea and Phillida, hail; the Goddess Diana and her nymphs in wooded community; sparring among the classical deities, with Neptune, Cupid, Venus, and Diana at odds; three brothers seeking employment and trying various unusual apprenticeships.  On Monday, the performers split into groups to look at the social world of the “town.” That town contains three “families”: Galatea (a girl whose father dresses her as a boy to avoid sacrifice); Phillida (ditto); and a third figure, Hebe.  The groups explored the attitudes towards sacrifice, towards worship of the deities, and towards the strange “monster” that is promised, in the text, to come for the virgin every five years.  This was rounded off with a performance that explored the “carnival” of that sacrifice, with priest-like figures asking for each families’ mythology.

Performers then visualised these mythologies through a series of different performance styles: a reading of a scene; a morris/pageant-style dumb show of the sacrifice story; a fluid “sketch.”  These explorations presented a vivid and creative imagining of the elusive “monster” overshadowing the society in Galatea, from a be-tentacled and metamorphosing creature to locally-grounded anxieties about environmental change.

Monday and Tuesday introduced us to brilliant original music set to the two songs in the play, composed by Victoria Abbott.  Vicky took us through the tune of the song and, on Tuesday, some harmonies.


While these songs are only a few lines in the text, spending time vocalising them to Vicky’s music drew our attention to what the songs tell us about the society, the frustration, and the violence of Galatea‘s multiple worlds.  We will be posting Vicky’s songs later in the week, so everyone will have the chance to listen to these wonderful imaginings of the play’s soundscape.

As Emma had been saying, Tuesday we do Gods.  We looked at the deities in the play in an astounding variety of approaches. The day began with further concentration on body and movement, and the physical warm-up led straight into a collective movement exercise.  This explored physicalisation of “godly” power and movement and became a visually striking improvised dance piece.


Then came the costumes…


Catwalking deities in costumes…

The National Theatre has lent us a rack of costumes for the week; we explored the riches on offer and what might be available for creating images of deities.  Exploring these costumes led to some of the most striking visual moments so far, when performers created “tableaux” for two of the deities in the play, Venus and Diana.  These tableaux were formed of multiple bodies and an array of rich and wacky costumes.  They were by turns imposing, frightening, and extremely visually striking.





This exercise culminated in the group’s creation of the patriarchal “Neptune” figure/idol.  Building on the collective group movement, this idol was then slowly and improv-choreographically dismantled.


Advancing towards Neptune…

A number of performers noted that this experience made a particularly forceful impression, and Claudia described the unprompted dismantling as a slow danced “orgy”; others observed that it was a desire for taking a “piece” of Neptune that unconsciously overtook the group as they explored the play-town’s worship of these deities.

The afternoon saw some scenes performed between Cupid and Diana, exploring the different ways in which these characters could be performed, with different performers embodying different facets of these figures.  This included a BSL performance of the scene between Diana and Cupid, in which the visual aspects of the scene were boldly and comically teased out.

Exploring the play’s Cupid included a fascinating exercise of human spaghetti: as performers linked hands and intertwined themselves, a bolshy Cupid worked through the play’s “love-knot” scene, in which he is commanded by Diana’s nymphs to undo a series of physical knots representing romantic entanglements.

The day neared conclusion with an exploration of Neptune, Diana, and Venus in multiple and varied performances, including a particularly comic schoolteacher-Neptune by Becky Barry, castigating and then admiring Cupid’s plans, and Diana’s “train”:

The day finished with an open-floor feedback on the day and asking where everybody’s heads and bodies are at.  The responses speak to the variety, vibrancy, and energy that had filled the room on Monday and Tuesday.

There is also another presence… As Andy has remarked, What is John Lyly doing in this room?  Emma’s way of working opens up the relationship between text, performance, and interpretation, and the words of Galatea have drifted away and then been injected or fed in at the end of an exercise.  This practice also characterises the fluid relationships between performers, observers, and part-time participants in the room.  The academics dropping in and out were not in the room as “experts” but to view or to engage in the exercises.

We start Wednesday by carrying forward the enthusiasm and energy with which the week began.  We’ll move on to individual’s experience of the workshops going forward, hearing from performers and observers…

Callan Davies

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