Dubbed a “live interpretation takeover,” the performance event presented a “mashup” of Shakespeare, interpretive dance, and swordplay across the vast Tower complex.
Getting invited to perform at the Tower of London even once is no small thing, Pogson said. The Tower belongs to the Historic Royal Palaces, holds the Crown Jewels, and runs under the auspices of the Royal Army. There are many constituencies involved, not least of which is the resident group of professional actors called Past Pleasure, who have portrayed historical events for more than 25 years.
“It’s run by the military, so to get in there you have to work with thousands of stakeholders,” said Pogson. “We pulled it off and didn’t ruffle any feathers, and it seems to have pleased everybody.”
Though it was their first time at the Tower of London, LDA students were no strangers to performing in royal palaces, thanks, in part to Charlotte Ewart, a Fordham instructor in period dance who is also an associate artist with Historic Royal Palaces. Since fall 2017, Ewart has arranged for students to perform at Hampton Court, a palace once occupied by Henry VIII that sits about 18 miles southeast of London.
An Interpretive Takeover
The Hampton Court performances taught students and teachers alike about the possibilities and limitations of immersive theater on a grand scale. The genre started to take shape professionally through historical reenactments in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, said Ewart. She also tipped her hat to hobbyist reenactors of historic events, such as the Civil War reenactors.
“The costumed interpretation of historic events falls between theater, education, and tourism,” said Ewart.
Traditionally such performances attempted to portray what’s happened historically, she said, and authenticity was the driving objective in order to give audiences a view of the past.
“We can’t actually recreate 1536, so now we’ve shifted our performance toward highlighting the themes or stories and telling them in an accessible in an entertaining manner,” she said. “This way we can create a theatrical presentation and it can be in modern dress using modern dance or movement. “
Ewart noted that the Tower complex is large and diverse. It holds an infamous former prison, acts as a fortress, and serves as a functioning palace. The performers were charged with tying in those particular themes, which they explored through workshops. They spent weeks in a movement class, for example, delving into what it feels like to be imprisoned; the resulting performance melded their individual interpretations into a cohesive whole that was performed in the tower’s prison.
Those abstract movement pieces were complemented by reimagined performances of classic plays, like Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Ewart said that while LDA students may have helped tourists better interpret the Tower’s history with their performances, it was nearly impossible for them not to be affected themselves as well. After all, more than 10 centuries of history took place in that very space.
“The students were doing the Richard III speeches exactly where the king stood,” she said.
But while the spaces hold tremendous history (prisoners included Thomas Cromwell and the future Queen Elizabeth I), the vast rooms can seem to hold little context to some visitors.
“When you place a special performance in there, it brings the space to life and people begin to see it in a different way,” she said.
Working with Local Teens
In spite of the very real challenges posed by a rambling ancient site, the performances were deemed a success and prompted Tower management to invite the students to come back next spring—this time with young people from the area, said Pogson.
Unbeknownst to the students, their professionalism succeeded in bringing a pilot program to Fordham London Centre next semester when LDA students will coach acting for local teens from underserved neighborhoods.
Fordham London Centre got its start 40 years ago when leadership at Marymount College of Fordham and a group of instructors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts established LDA as a conservatory steeped in the British acting tradition. Liberal arts and business programs soon followed. Like the rest of the center, the conservatory accepts students from Fordham and students registered full time at a U.S. college or university.
“When we moved to Clerkenwell, Father McShane said he wanted us to come into the neighborhood as proper, good neighbors,” said Pogson. “We were looking for an overall link into the neighborhood, and we’ve found it.
As rehearsals for the November performance progressed, Pogson invited management from the Tower of London to visit the new London Centre. The close proximity and professional facilities more than impressed them, she said.
“When they visited and saw the space and they said, ‘Oh, you really are in the neighborhood,” said Pogson.
The Tower was already seeking programming for the area’s 11-to 18-year-olds. Having student mentors close to the teens’ age that were supervised by LDA’s professional staff seemed to be a perfect fit.
“They will have the benefit of being mentored by students not too much older than themselves, which is a great way to build connections,” said Pogson. “Many of these state schools cannot provide one-to-one connection for acting classes that we’ll provide.”
Students from nearby state schools and youth centers can try out for 25 slots and perform alongside LDA students at the next Tower of London performance in April 2019.
“It’s quite a coup, and I do think it’s the cura personalis that we talk,” said Pogson. “It’s a win-win for the Tower, for the teens, and for Fordham.”