Universiteit Leiden

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Marieke Wijntjes

Theatre as scientific experiment at OverActing festival: 'Practice can help you further in your historical understanding'

What did plays look like in the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries? With the new OverActing theatre festival, university lecturer Jed Wentz is trying to get closer to an answer to that question.

'Drama from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is very outspoken,' Wentz enthuses. 'The emotions are expressed very clearly, so you always know exactly where you are in the story. I really like that working towards catharsis.'

Old and new side by side

And working towards catharsis there will be in the first weekend of December. The programme of the festival, organised by Wentz, features several melodramas, tragedies and silent films, all made in the distinctly emotional play tradition that was popular from roughly 1680 to 1930.

Old and new should be able to coexist.

The older work is interspersed with more modern theatre forms that complement one another, such as the spoken word. 'I don't want to get into an atmosphere of "old is better",' Wentz says to explain this choice of contemporary programme elements. 'Personally, I really like the old play tradition, but I don't want to impose anything on anyone. Old and new should be able to coexist, just as you can enjoy both ballet and modern dance.'

Festival as scientific experiment

Apart from enjoying the festival, Wentz hopes to learn a lot from it. In fact, besides being a theatre festival, OverActing is also a scientific experiment. 'This approach ties in with the combination of practice and science that we apply at ACPA, but also with the popular discipline of living archaeology,' he says. 'As an example, people might go and live on a seventeenth-century farm for a year with only seventeenth-century clothes and tools.'

The idea is that you go through an emotional cycle.

At OverActing, the historical situation is therefore recreated as faithfully as possible. On Saturday evenings, for instance, a drama, a tragedy and a comedy will be performed successively, as was the custom in the eighteenth century. 'The idea was that you went through an emotional cycle,' says Wentz. 'I'm curious to see how that works in practice. For example, the hall lights stay on for a while, so you're not completely alone and you're allowed to walk in and out. Because there is no break, at some point people will indeed say: I'm off now. I'm very curious how that will work. What does that do to the actors? What does that do to the audience? In that sense, it is real research. Not only are the facts from a manuscript important, you can further your historical understanding by actually performing the works.'

Scientific reflection

That newly acquired practical knowledge is then reflected on at a three-day symposium, also organised immediately after the theatre festival. 'We have lectures on specific techniques, like screaming and sets, but we also have Tracy C. Davis from North Western University coming to give a keynote on decolonisation. She will probably be opposed to what we are doing. That's good, that gives us something to discuss,' says Wentz, who is already cautiously dreaming of a sequel to OverActing.

'This project sheds light on how the plays are written, but also how they are consumed. What is really missing for the latter is an authentic audience. To encourage and cultivate that, it would be nice to have this kind of event once a year or once every two years. Then you have even better conditions to test your hypotheses.'

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