You push aside the curtains and it is another day in Notting Hill, one in thirty-five, and you begin listing the day’s appointments. You might jog around Hyde Park and grab coffee at the nearby bakery before class. After class, you could drop off your laundry and tour the Victoria and Albert Museum or have tea with your classmates on the Thames. After dinner, you will try to finish a review of last night’s play or a journal entry on Austen’s Emma, after which you will watch another play.
Such was the morning routine of students during the 2015 Penn-in-London summer abroad program, which immersed them in English culture from the English Civil War to debates over legal funding. Students were lodged at a house in Pembridge Gardens, which conveniently leads directly to the Notting Hill Gate tube station. With a kitchen and access to reliable Wi-Fi, the house had little to be desired. Greeting us at the door when we arrived was David Espey, who has been organizing the program for more than thirty years and taught the theatre journalism course. A course on the novels of Jane Austen, taught by Michael Gamer, was also offered, as well as courses on modernism and on Victorian literature and film taught by Paul Saint-Amour, whom we welcomed into his first year teaching in the program.
Although it offered courses in English literature, the program welcomed students studying in fields from creative writing to engineering and business. Some of us had participated in theatre before, and a few of us had already been to London; when we learned we would watch fifteen plays in five weeks however, none of us were prepared for what was to come. As Professor Espey put it, “Your head will spin.” We were shocked, moved, inspired, and challenged as we were whisked from commercial plays, such as the Tony Award-winning Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to new, cutting-edge plays at the Royal Court Theatre.
As distinguished theatre critic Michael Billington noted during one of our classes, London theatres are less constrained by commercial considerations than those of other countries, since they have substantial public funding, allowing them to stage challenging productions without compromising their artistic integrity. Furthermore, subsidy makes tickets affordable to more people and allows plays to reach larger audiences. Once a week, our class discussions would be lead by Billington, who has been writing for The Guardian for over forty years. During these classes, he encouraged us to explain and defend our reactions to the plays that week. What was the political climate at the time of the play’s writing? How does the set design reflect the play’s themes? Are the characters fair depictions of racial minorities? How does the plot engage with earlier dramatic conventions? With only a handful of plays under our belt, we did not have definite answers to these questions, but throughout the course we developed the critical tools to argue persuasively about theatre. By the end of the program, we could articulate with authority why a play was sluggish and confusing, or hilarious and brilliant.
By waiting for the audience to subside after a play was over, students often got the opportunity to speak to the actors and the director about their creative process. “I do not believe in character,” one of the actors said to a student after a show at the Finborough Theatre. His provocative remark confused many of us, as did the director’s assertion that “the play takes place outside time.” Was the ambiguously modern set an attempt to universalize the play’s themes or update it? If we were moved to write reviews of a play for an assignment, we refrained from discussing it to preserve their originality. Though we occasionally reached a consensus, opinion was frequently divided; however, our reactions were equally strong, testifying to theatre’s enduring ability to engage its audiences emotionally.
In addition to meeting members of the cast and crew, we went on a backstage tour of the National Theatre and discovered how the architectural affordances of a theatre shape the staging of its productions. These optional excursions were not limited to the theatre, but encompassed a variety of historical subjects. Students in the modernism course were sent through London to recreate the sojourns of characters in Mrs. Dalloway and asked to consider how historical developments at the beginning of the twentieth century contributed to the modernist style when they visited the Imperial War Museum. We trekked through nine miles of sprawling English countryside, first to Hever Castle, where Anne Boleyn spent her youth, and a few weeks later to Chawton, where Jane Austen wrote her most famous novels, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While these country walks tested our stamina, we were blessed with fair weather and the opportunity to walk through the same grass and soil that inspired the Austen’s novels.