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Walking Shakespeare's London

Ask any Londoner or any tourist about the history of Shakespeare and theatre in the capital and they will undoubtedly point you enthusiastically towards The Globe Theatre on the South Bank. Some may even insist that the wonderfully realised replica is actually an Elizabethan historical monument, such is its design, authenticity and aura.

Two men who are more than aware of the power and draw of this Globe replica are Gabriel Egan and Andrew Gurr, who both worked extensively on the project. Egan, who is Professor of Shakespeare Studies and Director of the Centre for Textual Studies at De Montfort University, taught the initial MA in Shakespeare Studies on the site, while Gurr was director of research at The Globe and played a large part in its design. But both were also worried that the focus on The Globe, which opened in 1997, meant that the rest of London's theatre history was being neglected.

“People know about The Globe, but they don't really know about The Rose or other theatres from the period,” says Egan. We also felt that much of the material available to the public on Shakespeare was out of date and very Globe-centric.”

The pair came up with the idea of making the latest research available to the public at large in a format that would be easily-digestible, eventually settling on the idea of a tourism project that would do just that. Egan and Gurr wanted to explode myths about the history of theatre in London but be of practical use at the same time. So, the pair began work on what would be a two year AHRC-funded research project.

“The trouble with available theatre guides is that they were based on what we thought 50 or 60 years ago,” says Egan. “People look at Henry V by Laurence Olivier made in 1944 and you see a bare boards, spit and sawdust theatre. But research has shown that such buildings were beautifully painted, gaudy and gorgeous.”

A multi-pronged approach was agreed upon, with Egan and Gurr working with partners such as the project manager Maurice Hindle, the V&A, software designers Rock Kitchen Harris and production company Illuminations to create a map, book, website and smartphone app, which would be launched alongside public lectures. All of these varied methods drew upon the same research on theatres between 1570 and 1642, but used a very different approach to disseminate the information. However, at the nub of each part of the Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT) project was the idea of walking tours that brought Elizabethan London's theatre land to life. Each output gave information on the theatres of the day and the world that surrounded them, from the lives of actors to the churches, bureaucracy and inns.

“Everything was launched on the same day, which was the 23rd of April, 2013,” says Egan. “We gave away 12,000 maps and there was a nice hard copy of the guidebook with a map. We launched the first version of the app and that has since been tweaked and improved. One problem is with video, as you don't want tourists to get huge data roaming charges. Natives will use it differently, but we decided to offer the video as links with warning about data charges for overseas visitors.”

Hopefully those tourists will be able to find a reliable wifi connection during their visit, as the films made with production company Illuminations really do add something to the experience offered by ShaLT. Interviews with researchers sit alongside performances of period pieces, evoking a real feeling of the theatre of the day.

“I thought making a number of short films responding to the material would be the best way to do things, rather than make a long documentary for television,” says John Wyver, producer at Illuminations, who also works as an academic at the University of Westminster with a particular interest in the history of arts on television. “There is obviously very little visual material from that period, so we wanted to find a way to animate that time. I have a really strong interest in how theatre performance is represented on screen. I think it is important that this work finds new audiences in different ways. It is grounded in a project with scholarly rigour and the AHRC funding was really essential to make that happen. You can't make good quality video with professional actors for nothing.”

One of the main focuses of the maps and walking tours on offer via ShaLT is on a venue known simply as The Theatre, which was built in 1576 in Shoreditch, making it London's first purpose-built theatre as we know it. The venue was taken down in 1598 and transported south of the Thames to form the basis of The Globe. The original site was the subject of an archaeological dig as the ShaLT project was being completed, meaning that new material was being unearthed and project researchers were able to go to the site and stand where the stage would have been. It also allowed them to look more closely at why theatre suddenly flourished, when the last purpose-built theatre venues in London had been the Roman amphitheatres, built around 1,000 years earlier.

Despite the historic subject matter of ShaLT, the team behind it took a very modern approach to the sharing of the information that they produced. The entire project was produced under a Creative Commons licence, meaning that anyone can share, remix or reuse the text, maps, films or audio on the website, in the apps or in the maps and books. This abandoning of intellectual property rights was a first for an AHRC-funded project, with this mindset being driven by Egan's own philosophy over ownership of publicly-funded work.

“I have been banging this drum for over 10 years now,” says Egan. “My view is that I am a public servant and employed by the state. No one else pays me, so anything I create does not belong to me, including my books. The licence means that you have to acknowledge our work, but you can use it in any way, including commercial re-use. All we want is to improve the public's appreciation and awareness of theatre in this period.”

Find out more about ShaLT, watch films, download maps and audio

You can download the app from the Apple Store or download it from Google Play

Article by Iain Aitch

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