The Chamber of Demonstrations
Reconstructing the Jacobean Indoor Playhouse

by Martin White

This practice-led research project used a full-scale reconstruction of the interior of a Jacobean indoor playhouse. I have used this in the past for research purposes (including full productions, with an audience, of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore and Nathanael Richards' 1630s Roman shocker, Messallina). The particular focus of the project, however, was to explore the uses of candlelight in the playhouse, something which everyone mentions, but which has not been systematically explored.

The Chamber of Demonstrations project began life under the title Working With Inigo Jones, but the research of Dr Gordon Higgott increasingly called in question the safety of that, and it was decided to retitle it.The project had two main objectives:

  • The first was to erect a full-scale reconstruction of the stage and auditorium of an indoor Jacobean playhouse based closely on the drawings (previously generally attributed to Inigo Jones but now likely to be by John Webb) that are held in the library of Worcester College, Oxford. Working on this reconstruction with a group of professional actors, I wished to explore in particular the effects that could be achieved in candlelight, and through the use of various portable lighting instruments. This is a key aspect of early modern performance; this was the first detailed practice-based exploration of it. Virtual Reality models (such as you can find on the DVD) are fine, and allow us to explore otherwise unrecoverable performance spaces, but, to my mind, they have a an 'unlived in' feel, quite unlike the texture and atmosphere of 'real' performance spaces.
However, the documentation and dissemination of practice is essential for it properly to be conceived of, and available to the wider community, as research.
  • So the second objective became a question of how this work could be captured and published in a form that allowed interactive responses from the user. The answer came with the advent of High Definition cameras, capable of working in much lower levels of light than conventional cameras without losing definition in the image. My encounter with Ignition Films, a production company specialising in HD, provided a solution from the world outside academia that made the research ambition achievable.

Under the technical direction of DoP, Terry Flaxton, the stage action was filmed simultaneously, using Panasonic Varicam HD cameras, from four viewpoints (pit, side stage box, side upper gallery, front upper gallery) to reflect the key viewpoints (socially and financially determined) in the original playhouse and central to an understanding of the playhouse experience. In addition to the performance footage, I required face-to-face interviews with other scholars (often on complex issues that required the creation of on-screen slide shows) and location shooting to provide the contextualising material, and a system of web-links to keep the material up-to-date.

In addition to Ignition who were responsible for the shoot and delivery of the DVD and whose producer, Alison Sterling, also oversaw the stage production, the project involved an unusually wide range of collaborators.

The project demonstrated how flexible the light can be, and the kind of theatrical impact it can make (see Research for details).

We believe the DVD design represents an innovative use of digital technology in the documentation of theatre practice and research. The user interface allows the stage action to be viewed from different viewpoints with no break in the stage action; there is also a wide range of supporting documentary material including interviews with prominent academics, demonstrations and analysis of original practices in staging, costume and make-up plus a computer-generated VR model.

We first produced a Standard Definition prototype that was circulated to a number of scholars in early modern theatre in the UK and worldwide, and demonstrated at a number of international conferences. We received detailed feedback from our peer reviewers, following which a number of changes were made to the disc. 

A Standard Definition DVD is available to buy. Click here for further details on where to get your copy.

This website will carry the research results of the project, a collection of essays on indoor playhouse and performance practices, and other relevant materials and will updated at regular intervals.