The Owle Schreame’s goal is to create an unprecedented archive of alternative historical theatre in London. They usually hold a season of one to three productions between September and December, which put into action the training and performance research they have undertaken in the past six months. Their current project, The Vagabond Stage, is, however, a year-long season of obscure plays. The first in the season was a fully-documented performance of the oldest extant English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister (1552). This play blends ancient Greek theatrical conventions with the English tradition of bawdy folk plays and Medieval Moralities. Filled with boisterous characters, strong women, trickery, foolery, and buffoonery, it foreshadows the great Elizabethan comedies that followed in its wake. By making the forgotten texts of our theatrical history the subject of their creative exploration, Owle Schreame present an intriguing alternative to the classical pieces that are commonly offered to a theatre-going audience.
Most theatre companies rely heavily on Shakespeare (with the occasional Webster or Marlowe) when compiling their classical repertoire. As audiences we are frequently presented with old favourites. Owle Schreame, however, offers the opportunity to find the unfamiliar within the old. They save the curious, odd, and problematic plays from abandonment and anonymity, plays that have contributed to the development this country’s celebrated theatrical history.
Owle Schreame performs historical texts as they were meant to be performed. The actors put themselves in the conditions that were the norm for their historical counterparts: there is no conception of a fourth wall, the actors are dependent on the cue lines of their cast mates, and they give themselves limited rehearsal period. Owle Schreame’s Roister Doister, for example, had only three group rehearsals. The first run through was in front of a paying audience on performance night. Under these conditions, there are inevitable slip-ups, forgotten lines, and mis-timed entrances. All of which are naked for the audience’s view. Yet the acting takes on a lively, improvisatory nature as a result. The danger, uncertainty, and freshness of this performance method requires the actors to be alive and adaptable in the space. Owle Schreame rise to this challenge – their actors are quick on their feet, unfazed by any surprises and openly responsive to their surroundings. Like the theatrical ‘players’ of old, they evidently enjoy playing with their text, their audience, and each other. Such performances flaunt the common tendency to approach the acting of a period text with kid-gloved trepidation. Instead of being intimidated or dominated by the language, the actors (and their audience by extension) relish its challenges.
The audience of an Owle Scheame production are dropped into the same atmosphere as a theatrical punter of five hundred years ago. For Roister Doister, this was the rowdy, raucous atmosphere of a period comedy. The pub theatre’s bar was open in the corner of the performance space throughout the show, to be frequented at any time by thirsty audience members and actors. The humorous scenes of the play were punctuated with songs (both melodious and bawdy). The cast interacted freely and openly with their audience, treating them as humans rather than an anonymous group of ticket buyers. Before the performance began, Brice Stratford (the company’s Artistic Director, and actor of the title character) instructed his audience not to worry about following the plot, or decoding the language. If the audience were focused on this, he emphasized, then the actors were not fulfilling their role as entertainers. The audience should enjoy themselves, first and foremost. That is, after all, the reason they came.
The Owle Schreame take their audience to locations they may perhaps not expect to go for theatre. The Bread and Roses Pub Theatre in Clapham North, (where the Roister Doister was staged) is an adaptable performance space, above a pub which boasts a great atmosphere and menu. The company have a history of staging their performances in interesting and relevant settings. In 2011, they performed the first stage jig in over 400 years on the archaeological site of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre. In 2013, they produced the critically acclaimed Cannibal Valour Rep Season – a repertory performance of three obscure Jacobean plays at the burial site of their playwright. Two of these plays were premiers, staged for the first time four hundred years after their writing.
In 2014, the company established the Owle Schreame Awards in honour of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The awards recognises thirteen of the most innovative and courageous productions of historical theatre in the United Kingdom. These prizes are designed to foster a community of cutting-edge classical theatre makers, and develop a network for like-minded creatives to start conversations and plan further productions. The only awards in the world devoted solely to classical theatre, they encompass all forms of historical performance including folk and religious drama. Winners are awarded an engraved glass skull (in honour of Hamlet, naturally). Each recipient presents a speech about their project, its motivation, and the artistic discoveries made. These speeches are documented, as preservation is central to Owle Schreame’s ethos. The company ensure that all their performances, projects, and research are thoroughly recorded. By this means, the new life that they and other innovative stagers of historical theatre give to material is extended onwards to benefit future generations.