The Experiments


Experimenting in the Galleries: Performing with Vernon Lee

A ‘scratch’ performance on Friday 2 November 2018, 6.00-8.00pm, held in the Keynes Library, Birkbeck, University of London, 43 Gordon Square WC1H 0PD UK

This event was an initial ‘scratch’ showing of our first major collaborative performance project. My theatre Director collaborator, Rob Swain, and I had many discussions about Vernon Lee, late-C19 psychological aesthetics, and early-C20 dance and movement theorists like Rudolph Laban and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

We appointed Nicola Baldwin, our playwright, who worked with us for several months, reading Vernon Lee and associated scholarship. At first we felt overwhelmed by the multiplicity of ideas, of different avenues we might explore.

Eventually, though, Nicola presented us with a script draft. This was one of the truly exciting moments, when the research with which I’m so familiar is transformed through someone else’s creative imagination. When we began, I didn’t want the performance to include much about Lee’s biography – I wanted something abstract. But Nicola had woven the love relationship between Lee and Anstruther-Thomson into the piece and I loved what she’d done.

She created a third stage figure, as well as Kit and Vernon, called ‘The Lecturer’, whose role was to convey needed information (all drawn from my 2011 essay of Lee’s psychological aesthetics). Much of the dialogue in the final half of the piece between the two women was extracted from a ‘Questionnaire’ Lee had written and sent to the Fourth Psychology Congress (held in Paris in 1900). Nicola used other people’s words, to stunning effects.

The final phase was finding and appointing two actors and us all gathering, one day prior to the performance date, to shape the ‘scratch’. This was where alchemical things happened. It was a genuine privilege to watch professionals from a very different field  do their business. From the first read-through, on Thursday afternoon, to the performance on Friday evening, miracles of transformation occurred.

Below is the original description of the event, followed by YouTube link to the filmed record of the scratch. Various responses by audience members are included on the Responses page, as well as excerpts from feedback.

Experimenting in the Galleries: Performing with Vernon Lee

The short performance, which explores the question: “What does art do to (and with) our bodies?”, was followed by a panel discussion between Dr Carolyn Burdett, whose work on Vernon Lee, late nineteenth-century experimental aesthetics, and ‘empathy’ initiated the project; Professor Hilary Fraser, author of Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century: Looking Like a Woman; and Professor Matthew Longo Director of Birkbeck’s BodyLab, who studies the mental representation of our bodies and how our bodies shape our perceptions.

They were joined by the performance project’s Director Professor Rob Swain, writer Nicola Baldwin and actors Penny Layden and Anna Tierney (playing Vernon and Kit respectively).

See the event here:

Beauty and ugliness as the origin of empathy

An Event organised by Carolyn Burdett and Rob Swain for Birkbeck Art Week, which took place on 18 May 2017 6pm-8pm at 43 Gordon Square, Birkbeck, University of London, 43 Gordon Square WC1H 0PD UK

How do we respond to art – with body, mind or feelings? This performance by Birkbeck’s MFA Theatre Directing students explored the work of aesthetic theorist Vernon Lee (1856-1935) as she experimented with our psycho-physical responses to art. Lee used the newly coined term ‘empathy’ to describe the way we ‘feel into’ objects.  After the performance the audience and the actors discussed the event with Birkbeck’s Carolyn Burdett, who is currently writing a book about the origins of empathy.