As the autumn term begins, in situ: offers a new course exploring the topic of Tragedy in Performance. Here, in situ: director and course tutor Richard Spaul explains what inspired the new course and what participants can look forward to.

Richard, it’s clear that you are very passionate about the dramatic form of Tragedy. Why?

Tragedy seems particularly important at the moment – I sometimes feel that the more tragic the world itself becomes, the more swamped we are with trivial, ‘feel-good’ entertainment. The tragic dramatic form, which started with the Greeks, is a powerful and heroic medium that looks at difficult issues, stories and situations with an unflinching gaze, not simply trying to cheer oneself up. I feel I need this element in my life and work – and many other people feel so too.

Beyond that, Tragedy is full of the greatest stories, images and staging techniques. It’s a very powerful genre and has attracted the greatest writers, actors and directors.

The course will explore a number of perspectives on Tragedy, from the Greeks to the present day. Why do you feel it’s important to look back in time in this way?

It’s important to see where things come from, how they develop, how they change, what persists and what gets outmoded. Being interested in how people thought and wrote in previous epochs is vital to one’s development in any art form. Looking at Tragedy from the Greeks to the present day, we see a complex development of similarities and differences. And the stock responses to that – such as ‘human nature never changes’ – are clearly just as inadequate as the idea that the Greeks are utterly remote and have nothing to communicate to us. The interesting thing to explore is the interplay between continuity and change, the ways in which Tragedy in Performance today is similar to – yet different from – past renderings.

in situ: has performed a number of tragedies before. What approaches have these performances used that you’ll be teaching on this course?

Yes, we’ve done a lot of work on Tragedy, and used many different approaches.

We’ve often started with the Ancient Greek idea of the Chorus – a community of some kind, such as the Old Men of Argos and the Slave Women – who see the action, comment on it, sing about it. There are lots of artistic possibilities and challenges involved in such Choral work, and we’ll be working on these in detail.

Another theme we’ve employed from time to time is the use of Masks, also a Greek idea. This is a very exciting and powerful approach to Tragedy which participants find fun and eye-opening. So we’ll be doing a lot of that.

Most importantly I think we have often sought to find Ritual in our work. We’re not just illustrating the story of whatever or whoever it might be, we’re taking the audience through a tragic ritual, and this involves elements such as movement, rhythm, atmosphere and the emotional power of the voice.

Ritual may also involve a unconventional encounter with the location. In our production of King Lear, we used the huge wide-open spaces of Wandlebury Hill-Fort to reflect the old king’s tragic journey from power to destitution; crucially, the audience didn’t just watch – they literally walked with us, came with us, they went through the whole thing with us. This seems to me to be vital.

The topic of ‘Tragedy in performance’ sounds challenging. So what level of acting skill do participants need?

We welcome people of any level of experience or ability as long as they are willing to plunge wholeheartedly into the work. So everyone is welcome, including complete beginners. We are also keen to work with people who may not be experienced actors but who have experience in other art forms – for instance dance or visual art – or with teachers, students, writers who may know the subject well from an academic point of view but have not previously engaged with it in performance.

Basically, we welcome anybody who’s interested, anybody who is happy to learn and to contribute.

Does the course involve much line learning? Is it suitable for participants for whom English is not their first language?

The course will involve some line learning. I’ll be giving students some short dialogues from Greek, Jacobean and Modern Tragedy. Plus, I’ll invite people to learn a short solo text of their own choice that reflects on the theme in some way. So there is preparation, but it’s not excessive and shouldn’t prove difficult.

As to mastery of English, I think participants would need a reasonable level of the English language to fully enjoy the course. If they don’t have that, they might want to do another course such as Physical Theatre. Having said that, I have worked with, and currently work with, many non- native English speakers and they are often enormously successful at doing the work.

What sort of exercises will the course involve?

Certainly warm-up games and exercises; exercises in movement and voice; basic group work – exercises that are important whatever the theme of a course. Plus, more specific to the theme of Tragedy: work on choral movement and speech; work on dialogue; exploration of space, voice, rhythm, tempo, language.

There’s a lot more we could do than is possible in an eight-week course – but I aim to do enough to whet people’s appetite for more. And for those who wish, the project will continue into 2018 with a performance project.

What are you most looking forward to about teaching this course?

The most enjoyable thing is always the encounter with the participants. Meeting new ones and finding out what they can do. Reconnecting with people I’ve worked with before, and continuing on the acting journey.

Tragedy in Performance: an 8-week course focussing on the dramatic form of Tragedy.
Dates: Wednesday 11th October – 6th December 2017 (no class Tuesday 15th November)
Times: 7.30 – 10pm
Venue: St Philips Church Centre, 185 Mill Road, Cambridge CB1 3AN
Price: £199