Living History

Professor Helps Renew Shakespeare’s Globe
by Liam Farrell | photo by Photo Fusion | illustration courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

For most historians, the opportunities for live experiments are rare, but Franklin Hildy, director of graduate studies in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, has been part of one for more than three decades.

The expert in theater history (right) helped design and build, and continues to refine, the reconstructed Globe Theatre on the banks of the River Thames in London. Since 1984, he has been director of the Shakespeare Globe Center (USA) Research Archive, and last year, he became the only American recognized as a Globe senior research fellow for his contributions to knowledge of Shakespearean theater.

The Globe has come a long way, he says, since American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker proposed recreating the theater where the Bard’s plays were first performed more than 400 years ago. Wanamaker, who started the project in 1970 and died before it was complete, spearheaded decades of researching and fundraising while battling skeptics who thought it would be nothing but a glorified theme park.

Now, it’s one of the most successful theaters in England, attracting nearly a half million people last year.

“It gives you a chance to take all this research you do and apply it,” Hildy says. “We’ve learned enormous amounts from that project.”

Rebuilding the Globe—just a few hundred yards from its original location, with a thatched roof, plaster walls and yard open to the sky—was an effort based on best guesses, as its measurements and appearance had to be woven from contemporary sketches, written accounts and even part of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Since it opened in 1997, Hildy says, further scholarship has shown that the London Globe was built too big, and a lower gallery doesn’t have correct angles and causes some acoustic problems. These are the sorts of issues addressed by Hildy and other members of the Architectural Advisory Group, which provides ongoing consultation to the trustees of the theater complex.

The biggest revelation, however, has been in terms of audience dynamics. The historic design of the building calls for nearly half of its 1,500 audience members to stand in the yard, a section not covered by a roof. Initially, modern patrons tried to sit in the yard area around three sides of the stage, instead of standing like their forebears.

“If you let them do that, the building didn’t work,” Hildy says. “You could feel the energy drain out of this dynamic structure when the audience sat.”

To prevent this, the theater staff used to spray the area with water before the audience came in. Now, everyone knows it is a standing area.

Having completed the design for the indoor Sam Wanamaker playhouse (based on 17th-century plans), the Architectural Advisory Group, of which Hildy is the only active American member, will return to the issue of how to decorate the inside of Shakespeare’s Globe, a project that was not completed when it opened. Although there is no definitive blueprint to follow, he says the challenge is to constantly improve knowledge of these theaters.

“Sometimes you do not get it right, but you learn from that,” Hildy says. “And this theater history project is inspiring a new generation of people to love Shakespeare."


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