This blog post is part a project for the ITP (Interactive Technology and Pedagogy) certificate at the CUNY Graduate Center. I used this project to explore digital technology in the field of theatre, particularly in New York City's independent theatre community. Indie theatre holds a unique space within the New York theatre community. Often called "off-off-Broadway" theatre (I am choosing not to use that term because not all theatre should be referred to by its relationship to "Broadway"), the independent theatre movement generally refers to non-commercial productions produced in smaller venues that hold under 99 seats.
I am interested in understanding what digital interactive platforms are available for independent theatre-makers in New York City and how they are being used. Over the course of the project, I had to expand my scope for how I am understanding and defining "interactive technology" because the ideal interactive platforms that I was looking for do not exist (HowlRound comes the closest). There are specific platforms for message boards, essays/articles, reviews, archives, but nothing that cohesively combines these items to provide a dynamic forum for artists to discuss their work and build a stronger community.
While there have been some extraordinary archives over the years, the biggest ones such as the Indie Theatre Archive/ New York Theatre Experience and Backstage have been shut down or significantly revamped due to lack of resources and not enough labor to properly maintain the archives. Additionally, these sites provided some of the resources above, mainly reviews, listings and audition calls.
Utilizing social media, e-mail listservs, and direct text messaging, I asked independent theatre artists for recommendations regarding locating the interactive platforms that already exist and the ones that artists would like to see in the future. I also drew upon my own knowledge as a theatre practitioner and the online spaces that I regularly visit.
Created for actors by actors, Audition Update is the premier communication tool for non-union actors to communicate regarding audition sign-ups and expectations. This community-generated forum allows for immediate information to be distributed. Non-union actors depend on this platform to be notified whether or union auditions will “see” non-union actors. This platform also provides a necessary (and anonymous) space to vent and exchange advice.
Acting can be an incredibly isolating profession, not to mention non-union actors are at the greatest risk for being exploited and abused by employers. This platform is important because it provides a space for non-union actors to commiserate and exchange valuable information about theatre companies, auditions experiences, and upcoming opportunities to "be seen". This platform also provides an honest (and anonymous) space to discuss compromising situations and experiences both in the audition room and on the job. There is a culture of silence within the theatre community (which is slowly beginning to break thanks to the #MeToo movement) regarding abuse, discrimination, and exploitation of performers. Due to the high competition and a limited amount of work, people are less likely to speak up. Anonymous platforms provide these spaces to call abusive artist staff and companies out. This space also provides a much-needed platform to commiserate as a community because being an actor is hard and being "non-union" is even harder.
The Civilians: Extended Play
The Civilians is a Brooklyn based investigative theatre company. Their mission is to connect theatre and society by asking the pressing questions of the day. They run an extraordinary platform called Extended Play, which is "theatre beyond the theatre" and dives into the critical issues that theatre are grappling with in terms of the relationship between theatre and society. According to the Civilians website, "Extended Play is an online platform for creative and critical discourse devised by the Civilians, a company that makes new theater from investigations into the most vital questions of the present. Through a number of artistic programs, the Civilians advances theater as an engine of artistic innovation and strengthens the connections between theater and society."
It seems that this platform is not regularly updated (though the archive is still there and its resources are vast and fascinating). I am listing it here because it does/did something unique in that it not only reflects the mission of The Civilians (creating investigative theatre), but it puts that mission into practice and truly explores the intersection of performance and social practice. It is a wonderful example of praxis.
HowlRound Theatre Commons
HowlRound embodies the vision of what I think an ideal digital platform for theatre should be. HowlRound is a free and open platform for theatre-makers worldwide whose content includes essays, podcasts and videos submitted from artists and writers across the globe. They “amplify progressive, disruptive ideas about theatre and facilitate the connection between diverse practitioners and function as a ‘commons’ – a social structure that invites open participation and shared values.” Each day HowlRound posts new content which includes articles, blog posts, live streams of performances and theatrical events. HowlRound also has a weekly digest where readers can subscribe to receive the articles from the past week directly in their e-mail boxes.
HowlRound is based out of Emerson College in Boston. While it does not serve only the New York "independent theatre" community, the insightful well-written articles and materials provide a deep dive into the conversations that are happening within artistic communities across the globe. Spending only 10 minutes searching the HowlRound Theatre Commons will give readers
Go See A Show
The Go See a Show! podcast is the only podcast dedicated to the independent, or “off-off-Broadway,” theatre scene in New York City. Each episode features an interview with artists making theatre in our community, discussing the ideas and process behind their work, usually focused on a show currently running around town.
This is another platform that is providing the necessary exposure to independent artists. Each episode of the podcast centers around a show that is currently running in an independent theatre and the artists who are working to create the work. Go See A Show! is unique in that it is not reviewing the shows, but simply providing the artists with a space to discuss their work and their practice. This podcast is for the independent theatre community and is a useful tool for artists to have archive their work.
Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library
The Hemispheric Institute is run out of NYU. It is a "collaborative, multilingual, interdisciplinary consortium of institutions, artists, scholars, and activists throughout the Americas. They work at the intersection of scholarship, performance traditions and politics. Hemi has wonderful programs for young artists/activists, in addition to residencies, performances and lectures. They also have an online digital video library. “The Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library (HIDVL) is the first major digital video library of performance practices in the Americas. Created in partnership with NYU Libraries and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this growing repository guarantees historical preservation and free, online access to almost 900 hours of video through the Hemispheric Institute website. A trilingual Profile (English, Spanish and Portuguese) is created for each collection, contextualizing the videos with detailed production information, synopses, image galleries, texts, interviews, bibliographies and additional materials. Artists and organizations always retain the copyright to all their videos, as well as the original material, which is returned after digitization. With video documentation spanning from the 1970’s to the present, the collections seek to promote dialogue and a deeper understanding of performance and politics in the Americas.”
I have included this on my list because it's the only archive of it's kind (outside of the NYPL or library archive) to have tri-lingual language features and focus predominantly on Latin American performances. This archive in combination with the important work that Hemispheric Institute does in its daily operation makes this a unique and solid addition to this list.
The Interval describes itself as "a theatre publication interested in ideas and how people think and view the world. The Interval features actors, writers, directors, composers, producers, and designers; people from theatre’s past, present, and future. The only people we do not feature are men.
The work of The Interval is needed now more than ever. Most recently they published a roundtable discussion that addresses the mental health of women theatre-makers. I have not seen anything like this anywhere else and it’s an imperative discussion to be spearheading. They also are in the community promoting women’s work and women artists in the theatre. I am not sure if The Interval only focuses on women working commercially (this seems to be the trend based on the articles I've read - though their mission statement claims they are open to everyone). That being said, next to HowlRound they are one of the most important platforms for hosting relevant theatre conversations.
The Theatre History Podcast
This is exactly what it claims to be (and more), a podcast that introduces listeners to artists, traditions, shows and performances across time and place. This is a critical tool for the theatre community, especially for introducing students to theatre history. Live performance isn’t something that’s always easy to study and understand. According to their mission, “this podcast aims to introduce listeners to the artists, scholars, and archivists who are working to bring the history of performance to life. We hope that, by listening to this show, you’ll learn about exciting new performances, fascinating books, and valuable repositories of knowledge, all of which will help you better understand theatre’s history.” Each episode features a blog post with additional information that readers can find sources. Readers also have the opportunity to post comments and continue the conversation.
The Theatre History Podcast helped me pass my first comp exam. I would listen to an episode each day to familiarize myself with a new performance technique or “theatre moment’ in history. The host is dynamic, makes the work accessible and connects
Indie Theatre Archive
While this platform is no longer with us (there was a wonderful show created about the life and work of Marin Denton last year), it is worth noting because it was one of a kind and one of the very first online platforms to provide resources to New York's indepdent theatre artists. "The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., was a nonprofit corporation. Founded in 1999 by Martin and Rochelle Denton, NYTE gave the indie theater movement its name, and used new and traditional media to promote the work of America’s foundational theater artists to a worldwide audience. Their major programs were the nytheatre.com website, NYTE Small Press, nytheatrecast, and Indie Theater Now. NYTE is in the process of closing down all of its operations by the end of 2018," this is what is now left of the New York Indie Theatre Archive website.
I hope that Mr. Denton is enjoying a much needed retirement and rest. I also hope that somewhere all of his hard work has been archived so it's available for future generations.
Message Boards, Social Media Groups and E-Mail Listserves
I had spread these out as separate categories and listed specifics but instead, I am lumping a few of these platforms together since they serve a similar function. There are many e-mail listserves from specific organizations that work to connect independent theatre artists but they are mostly taken up by casting calls, people advertising their shows (among other services), sublet and rental needs, fundraisers, crowdsourcing and general "noise". While these are the most commonly used modes of communication, there is a general problem of
Broadway World and Playbill have specific message boards that at some point were shut down and then reopened because people were abusing them. These message boards were primarily for fans and became anonymous spaces to trash talk performers and productions. At some point, there was a predominant theatre actress Patti Murin, who wrote a scathing blog entry about bullying on the message boards that caused Broadway World to revise their community standards.
Some Closing Thoughts:
Over the short time span that I've worked on this assignment (about 3 weeks), I surveyed nearly 50 independent theatre artists who are currently working in New York City via e-mail and social media regarding what online platforms they use to communicate with other artists and receive news about the community. The most popular sources were private e-mail lists and Facebook groups, though several artists expressed anxiety around Facebook (information no longer being private, and the pressure to "perform" a certain amount of success for their friends). Many people are looking for avenues to get away from social media but none exist at the moment.
Artists expressed a need for an internet platform that connects independent theatres in cities throughout the United States, particularly for locating performance spaces and venues for touring. Additionally, there are requests for a crowdsourcing platform that would specifically fund theatre projects. Finally, there is a general feeling that artists are working in silos, there is little financial and social support for their work (unless the person is independently wealthy or "has connections") and a sense of chronic "busyness" makes folks exhausted.
Personally, I would like to see a platform similar to the structure of HowlRound but that specifically addresses the issues, concerns, and culture of independent theatre-makers in New York City. I think the mix of articles, essays, blog posts, alongside an open forum would be a dyamic tool for the community.
We went on a 72-hour road trip to Vermont this week. It was our way to celebrate the end of the summer and beginning of the school year for both of us (Ryan is starting his MFA in Arts Leadership at Brooklyn College this year and I am entering my 3rd year of Ph.D. work at the Graduate Center). We rented the car from Newark airport because it's significantly cheaper by hundreds of dollars. If you live in NYC, you should do this... seriously. You may get caught in rush hour traffic when you return (ahem) but you'll have an extra $300 dollars in your pocket that you can put towards your next road trip.
Vermont is my kind of place... politically progressive, values the arts, plenty of opportunities to be in nature and some mighty damn good food.
We begin our food tour with... Sonny's Blue Benn Diner in Bennington. Cheap, delicious and cash only. This classic diner will warm your heart and fill your stomach. It will not empty your wallet. I've heard it said that Blue Benn is one of the "greatest diners in the Northeast" and despite being from New Jersey, I believe it.
Vermont is hidden swimming holes. Our first stop was Warren Falls, the thing I dream of, turquoise water hidden away between rock gorges, natural water slides and pools up to twenty feet deep. The water is crystal clear so looks can be deceiving in terms of depth. The water is also cold... ice cold. It didn't deter either of us, especially Ryan who enjoys the occasional cliff jump (Warren Falls is full of various cliffs for jumping...). Don't be like me and forget your water shoes. The ground is steep is full of rocks. Additionally, the moss on the rocks make it very slippery.
Entrance to Warren Falls... swimmers and sunbathers can walk a mile in either direction to enjoy this swimming hole.
After 2 hours at Warren Falls we continued north towards Burlington to Leddy Beach.
Shoreline at Leddy Beach in Burlington, Vermont.
Willard Street Inn can be a little pricey, there are less expensive room options that are just as beautiful as the most expensive ones. The homemade breakfasts are unbelievable. This frittata is made entirely from the vegetables in the large garden located behind the Inn.
Breakfast at Willard Street Inn.
On our second morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the Inn and then headed over to Mount Philo in Charlotte to hike the 1.9 mile trail to the summit of the mountain.
In the afternoon we headed over to Shelburne Farms. This working farm has several public education programs for people of all ages which include gardening, animal care and cheese making. We hung out with goats and took a walk on one of the many beautiful nature trails through large gardens.
Goat at Shelburne Farms.
In the evening we headed back to the Church Street Marketplace, Burlington Vermont's "downtown" for a lovely dinner at American Flatbread, all natural brick oven pizza (here's a fascinating history of the oven, if you are wondering...) followed by dessert at Ben and Jerry's.
"Every act we perform today must reflect the kind of human relationships we are fighting to establish tomorrow."
- David Dellinger
Resources and Recommendations:
Sonny's Blue Benn Diner
U.S. Route 7 North
Leddy Park Road, North Avenue
Willard Street Inn
349 South Willard Street
Mount Philo State Park
5435 Mount Philo Road
1611 Harbor Road
American Flatbread Pizza
Ben and Jerry's Factory Tour
I love Coney Island. This doesn't come as much of a surprise to folks who know me well. At first, it started out as sort of a joke. I didn't really love it as much as I said I did... or maybe I did, I don't really know. It's campy, loud and kind of dirty. The food is expensive (though totally fulfiling boardwalk goodness) and at least once per year the Cyclone gets stuck and riders have to be evacuated. However, despite some of these quirks, it truly is my favorite place in the world. Maybe it's because I grew up on the Jersey Shore and this place reminds me of home like no other... or maybe it's just the diverse community of people enjoying themselves at the beach... or the beach itself... whatever it is, nothing grounds me as much as a few hours at Coney Island.
For years I've been going down to Coney Island at all times of year (the dead of winter is the best) to take photos. At some point, I'll pick the best ones out. Yesterday I only had my iPhone with me, but for a little phone, it takes wonderful photos. I call this mini photo essay "Three hours in Coney Island".
The classic Wonder Wheel shot. Without a photo of the wheel was I really even in Coney Island? If you have 3 hours in Coney Island, you must ride the Wonder Wheel and Cyclone. Both require separate payment at the entrance (and don't take tickets). One has to get at least one ride in each season. I have not been on it yet this season but there is time... I mean, only 2 more weeks until school starts. Clearly, I better get on this...
Iconic Nathan's. I usually go to the one at the boardwalk and have a picnic on the beach but this one is the most iconic and the site of the annual hot dog eating contest on July 4th. Joey Chestnut is still the reigning male champion for the 11th year in a row, having downed 74 hotdogs in 10 minutes. Miki Sudo remains the female hotdog eating champion for the 5th year in a row.
The Nathan's website offers suggestions for how to dress your dog but I prefer the classic - sauerkraut, relish, mustard and ketchup. Utter perfection.
The water was cleaner than I've ever seen it before and those unfriendly clouds provided some much-needed shade from the sun but sure caused some havoc on the walk home.
I was supposed to be reading theory for school but somehow the theory turned to poetry. Andrea Gibson speaks to my soul in a way that very few humans can. I tried to get their latest book but it wasn't available at The Stand yet.
Closing with some necessary inspiration from Andrea Gibson...
There is too much to say about Palestinian theatre that I have left off this blog because I am in the process of writing two articles - one for HowlRound and another for Arab Stages which will speak in detail to the experience. I will be posting links as soon as they are available.
This mural is on the wall at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.
"You are witnessing our annihilation..." - Bank teller in Ramallah
For most of my life, the only images I ever saw of Palestine were crying women and stone-throwing youth. The US media does a terrible job of portraying Palestine, even the progressive media. I was contemplating whether or not I should post some of the photos below because it reinforces a certain image of Palestine that already saturates the media. This was not the Palestine that I experienced. It was certainly part of it given that it's under a military occupation, but it's really important to portray the joy, resilience and life that was present in every second of the day. However, to not show the occupation is equally problematic.
The entrance to the Al-Amari Camp. Many of the camps have large keys near the entrance. The key is a symbol of the Nakba - the catastrophe, the final turn of the house key and displacement of 750,000 Palestinianian women, men and children who were thrown out of their homes in 1948. Many of these people still hold on to their house keys.
Israeli soldiers outside of the Ibrahami Mosque. To enter the mosque you have to go through several checkpoints (see one below) and show your passport.
Below: Handala on the wall of the Aida Camp in Bethlehem. Handala was first created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali who wrote: “The child Handala is my signature, everyone asks me about him wherever I go. I gave birth to this child in the Gulf and I presented him to the people. His name is Handala and he has promised the people that he will remain true to himself. I drew him as a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way." Read more here.
A mural on the wall in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.
The other side of the wall - Jerusalem.
A woman waits for a bus to get from Ramallah to Jerusalem. Distance wise, the trip should be less than thirty minutes but because of security, it took us three hours. We switched vehicles several times. We were fortunate that our American passport allows us to visit Jerusalem. Many of the youth we worked with are not allowed to visit.
Gernika refers to Guernica, the town that was razed by German soldiers during the Spanish Civil War. The attack specifically targeted civilians and was the topic of the famous painting by Pablo Picasso.
One of the murals in Ramallah asked "These Walls Can Talk - Will You Listen?" and that is the question.
When is the world going to listen?
So many more questions than answers.
When I first arrived in Palestine I struggled with how to write about it. What is my responsibility as a westerner, specifically an American in documenting the Palestinian struggle against the occupation? What is my role as someone with an extreme amount of privilege, a US passport holder who can come and go as I please and buy pretty much anything I need while on the ground in talking about life under occupation? How do I speak to "audiences" (which for now consists of the ones I have on social media) who already have a preconceived idea of what Palestine is and is often driven by an extreme religious ideology that commits them to dehumanize an entire population (I'm talking about evangelical Christians more than anyone else)?
These photos don't begin to do anything justice - it's an attempt to start figuring out what questions to ask and where to enter the conversation.
More to come...
A boy selling birds and poultry at a shop in Hebron.
Glassmaker in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. The city is divided into two parts - H1, which is under Palestinian control and H2, which is under Israeli control.
Finding Wifi in Bethlehem.
Children playing in Hebron.
Three photos of children and youth in the al-Am'ari Refugee Camp. Established in 1969, the al-Am'ari Refugee Camp is a Palestinian refugee camp in east Ramallah. Al-Am'ari suffers from a water crisis, poor sewerage, unemployment and overcrowding. A large majority of the population is under 18.
Tattoo in Ramallah.
Marhaba from Ramallah in the West Bank.
Al-Manara Square in Ramallah
I am here to do pre-dissertation research and as a participant in the Ashtar Youth International Theatre Festival which begins on Saturday. I have a fantastic group of artists from New York City (the Co-Op Theatre East youth ensemble) who will be joining me tomorrow. This week I am beginning to collect interviews with theatre artists working in Palestine. I will be doing that the entire time I’m here but I’ve had an extra week to get everything kick started and get acclimated.
I have been studying Palestinian culture and theatre since I was in undergrad but there is no amount of reading that can prepare you for what is actually happening on the ground here. In only four days of being here, I have met some of the most remarkable people, artists and activists from around the world.
I have never felt so welcome as a stranger to a new place. For example, I took a shared taxi to Jenin (which is the most northern city in the West Bank) today and was speaking with a young woman named Noor who was sitting next to me in the cab. She was pointing out various sites like olive orchards, villages, checkpoints and Israeli settlements. She invited me to her home for lunch. We spoke about life in Jenin and how her family had moved several times because their home was destroyed by buldozers and then bombed.
Homemade Palestinian lunch in Jenin.
I am looking forward to sharing more stories and photos from Palestine in addition to sharing more about Ashtar.
Ashtar aims at making theatre a fundamental need within Palestinian society, through stimulating cultural awareness, awakening perceptions towards aesthetics and arousing artistic sensibility and taste. It also seeks to build and strengthen cultural bridges with the Theatre World through creative works and ideas. Ashtar is actively engaged in researching and experimenting with various artistic elements, tools, and techniques. It aims at creating at theatre that has the scent of Musk, the color of Amber and the taste of Figs. A theatre that is capable of penetrating all walls including that of the audience’s unconscious.
The entrance to the Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah.
I look forward to sharing more from Palestine and the Ashtar International Youth Theatre Festival. Here are a few more photos from around the neighborhood.
Rooster on sale at poultry and bird farm
Sunset over Ramallah
Because this is a photo blog… here are my favorite photos from Belgrade.
Protest outside of the National Museum in Belgrade
After the rain
The view from my flat
Kayaking tour in the Danube
Graffiti on the wall outside of the University in Belgrade
Fisherman on the Danube
Architecture in Belgrade
Another view from the entrance to my flat.
Red umbrellas outside of Manufaktura
Swans on the Danube
This wraps up my time in Belgrade. I look forward to returning to this wonderful city in the near future.
As expected I have been neglectful in my blogging. I want to wrap up Belgrade before I move on and talk about Palestine, which will be for the remainder of my time abroad. I will wrap up talking about two highlights of the week, the plenary talk by James Thompson and my own presentation.
I will start by saying James Thompson is sort of an academic celebrity in my world. He is a co-author of Performance in Place of War, which was the first book I ever read about people who make theatre in conflict zones and inspired my work today. He spoke on the aesthetics of care and called on academics (who are trained to be critical) to work alongside the communities they are studying/writing about as opposed to positioning themselves as superiors. Academics must offer critiques to help move work forward in addition to discussing downfalls.
This was a very appropriate talk considering my own presentation on best dramaturgical practices in creating autobiographical theatre aimed at youth. I drew upon my own past participation in these types of performances and interviews with staff members/youth in various NYC based not-for-profits and theatre ensembles that have missions to empower youth or promote social justice through their theatre work. We had a lively discussion about the non-profit industrial complex and best practices moving forward.
As this presentation was part of a 20+ page paper and project I worked on last semester, I focused solely on dramaturgy and the role of the dramaturge in this type of work. The conclusions I drew for the role that the dramaturge can/should play in the development of social justice youth theatre include:
1. Helping the artists and creative staff develop and maintain a healthy rehearsal structure, including implementing opening and closing rituals and setting strong personal and professional boundaries.
2. Reminding the artists and staff that while the work is therapeutic, it is not therapy. Theatre cannot be expected to take the place of mental health services and/or personal therapy. If the cast is particularly young or inexperienced, the dramaturge may offer resources for where to obtain such services.
3. Assist in negotiating the space in between personal identity and story by helping participants understand that their identity is not limited to only their stories. (This is particularly important when working with populations that have experienced significant amounts of trauma.)
4. Renegotiating and rethinking the power structures in the rehearsal room.
5. Considering that most youth theatres engaged in “theatre of the real” have a social justice component to their mission, they must consider utilizing the dramaturge as a mediator between the creative team and community. Make sure that the community understands the intentions of the project and has a legitimate say in how they are being portrayed on stage.
6. Create strategies for engaging the community post-performance and maintaining relationships.
7. Offer theatrical techniques that separate the actor from their personal story.
I suppose if you work in the field that some of these points are obvious, but as I know from previous experience, it’s not enough to KNOW these things, the effort must be made to implement them fully and to provide the dramaturge with the resources and power within the organization that they need to do this work.
I had a bit of a surreal moment when a scholar that I cited in the paper (and often cite) happened to be in the audience and introduced herself/exchanged contact info following the talk.
As I am still trying to figure out what my dissertation project will be (so much paint is being thrown on the wall and we’re seeing what sticks…) I am certain that the themes in this paper will continue to be tackled in one way or another. I have been very interested in exploring the non-profit industrial complex, and more importantly, seeking out alternatives to the hierarchal non-profit model which dominates theatre in New York. I have some unique experience to offer in this area. Right now it’s a matter of connecting it to the theatre in conflict zones, which is where my heart is.
Ironically, the first thing my professor said upon reading the paper was, “this paper is going to make a lot of people angry.”
When I was young (like about 4 or 5 weeks ago...) I was completely obsessed with Medieval Times. For those who are not familiar with the age-old suburban New Jersey tradition of attending Medieval Times, it’s a “medieval” (and I’m purposely writing it lowercase with quotes) dinner theatre and jousting tournament. The audience is divided into teams and throughout the night you root for your knight to win the tournament and the heart of the princess. There are castles, kings, crowns, chicken, ribs (you eat with your hands… just like “back in the old days”) but... at the heart of this very special place… and the ONE thing that I was most fascinated with as a nine-year-old (which is probably the last time I visited Medieval Times), was the ONE exhibit my mother would not let me visit… the “medieval torture chamber”, a museum of mock-medieval torture devices.
Well, fast forward 22 years to my roaming around the Belgrade Fortress today (which by the way, has areas dating back to the Neolithic era... read the incredible history on that link) what is the first thing I stumble upon? An exhibit of torture devices from Medieval Europe.
And, oh boy, after 22 years of repression, the rebellion had come...
The truth is, I’ve always had an interest in torture as a performance and disciplinary tool (on both an individual and societal level). I’ve written several sociology papers on it in undergrad and have read a number of books on the topic. There is no shortage of writing on this subject, as I learned when I proposed to write about torture as performance in a class I took on early modern theatre.
(If you are interested in exploring this topic more you should read the first chapter of Foucault's Discipline and Punish which details the public display of humiliation, torture and execution of Robert-Francois Damiens... and take it from there...)
Of course, it’s important to point out that the majority of the 60+ torture instruments that I saw today were used specifically on women accused of witchcraft and anyone accused of sorcery (mostly women, of course).
Here are some photos…
Entering a wing of the museum through the catacombs.
The Virgin of Nuremberg a.k.a. The Iron Maiden
The Virgin of Nuremberg (a.k.a. The Iron Maiden)
Dates back to Germany in 1515, possibly earlier. Supposedly this is one of the first instruments to mechanize torture. The condemned was locked into this sarcophagus (which gets its name from the fact that some folks believed the device resembled a Bavarian girl). Inside they are penetrated with deliberately placed spikes that penetrate the body but purposely avoided vital organs to prolong the suffering of the condemned.
The Noisemaker’s Fife
Dates back to 18th century Italy. It was placed around the neck of the “offender” so that their fingers were also locked into place. It was used primarily for minor offences such as disturbing the peace… and also to punish bad musicians.
The Medievals believed that witches and other followers of Satan would weigh significantly less than they appear so the scales were developed to weigh people accused of witchcraft. The scales were most commonly used in Belgium and the Netherlands throughout the 18th century. To quote the museum’s information about this device, “There was obviously tremendous room for abuse of the system and it was easy to declare someone guilty. During the 18th century, a court in Oudwater in the Netherlands controlled the weighing of those suspected of witchcraft. If the outcome was favorable to the accused, they were given a certificate to prevent them from any further accusations. The court collected sums of money from people in this way and it became a profitable business. The certificate was so sought after that people traveled from far and wide to be weighed and receive their document ensuring their safety from suspicion. The court had difficulty processing the number of people waiting to be weighed that there was often a backlog" (quote supplied by curating team).
Instruments of Public Humiliation
Medievals love some public humiliation (and let's not kid ourselves... as a society we still kind of love it). Many smaller offences involved serving time in the stocks, the pillory, wearing metal shoes or masks. While enduring this, offenders were subjected to being spit at and having food thrown at them. These masks above had no particular torture device attached to them. The purpose was to serve as humiliation. However, you can read about similar more sinister devices here.
While I loved my visit today, I’m not entirely on board with the way in which the exhibit is curated. I think setting these grotesque instruments up as something to “gawk” at (alongside piped in sound effects of chains and torture) completely cheapens the experience and alienates visitors from any kind of meaningful engagement or critical thinking about the objects at hand. Also, aside from the plaque at the entrance, there is not much context or information about Medieval society.
As mentioned, there is a plaque at the beginning of the tour that explains the reasoning for showing all these devices (we should acknowledge our history, etc.) but then tries to say it's not political, when in fact it's nearly impossible to separate politics from torture considering these instruments were mostly implemented by the church which was the governing power at the time. It does provide a little information about Medieval life but appears mostly apologetic. I was also reading the English translation. I don't know if it's different in Serbian.
The practice of torture continues today all across the world. I immediately think of capital punishment in the US, for example. Europe has abolished capital punishment (except for in Belarus) and refuses to sell the United States the drugs needed for lethal injection, which has led to a number of botched and pro-longed executions as states are still trying to figure out the most effective cocktail to use.
Also, can we call it irony that directly outside the torture exhibit is a display of military weapons and tanks? Obviously, it is all part of the military museum but I can't ignore that, especially given that today is the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
For under $3.00 I highly recommend this museum if you find yourself in Belgrade.
Not to mention, exploring the Belgrade Fortress is a MUST (and worth its own blog post).
Feet overlooking the fortress.
In 500 years I wonder if folks will come across a torture museum showing the electric chair, lethal injection, drone warfare, etc.? I hope humanity has progressed enough that they leave thinking about how inhumane things were "back then" and has no sort of contemporary situations to compare it to. History has shown us that this will probably not be this case.
Also... just worth noting that there is a wonderful sale happening at New Jersey's Medieval Times right now so anyone that wants to take me for my birthday in 6 months, or on a date (wink, wink) can hop on that in August...