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11 February 1999: Oxford University Gazette

Rigg calls for theatre history to be taught to students

Drama students should be given the opportunity to find out more about the rich tradition of the performing arts and their place within the theatrical heritage, according to Dame Diana Rigg. She gave her first lecture as the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre to a standing-room only audience at St Catherine's College on 29 January.

Drama schools, such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where Miss Rigg won a place in 1955, teach students how to develop their voice, movement, and acting skills, she said. But she decried the fact that `nobody told me how old and how honourable my profession is'. In an environment where rejection and criticism are staple fare, such knowledge would have been comforting, she added. Her lecture, entitled simply `Theatre', was inspired by her book No turn unstoned: the worst ever theatrical reviews (Elm Tree Books, 1982) in which she invited luminaries from the theatre to send her their worst reviews for publication—a hard request to make when every bad notice is `carved on an actor or actress's heart'.

After collecting notices which ridiculed some of the stars of the British theatre, including herself when she was lampooned for her appearance in a nude scene in Abelard and Heloise, she vowed to research the origins of the Western theatrical heritage to show that actors today were not alone in suffering at the pens of the critics. It was the Attic poet Thespis, traditionally said to be the founder of Greek tragedy, who in the sixth century BC first appeared on the Athenian stage as an actor separated from the chorus, to introduce a prologue and set speeches into what had previously been an entirely choral performance.

The life of a thespian, living out of a suitcase while on tour, is nothing new. Miss Rigg described how travelling players' carried the seeds of the theatrical tradition with them, to be sowed with the blessing of the church in the more formal staging of the Miracle plays of the Middle Ages.

The establishment in the sixteenth century of Burbage's theatre outside London's city limits—and restrictive laws—allowed theatre to flourish, and for acting to develop as a profession. Throughout she focussed on the relationship between the theatrical profession and critics, from Byron's suggestion that Shakespeare was not touched by genius and 'stole the stories', to Broadway's 'capsule critics', whose job is to write cutting one-liners that can end a run before it starts. However, Miss Rigg accepted that critics were necessary and concluded that this relationship could be useful as well as demoralising when an actor is on the receiving end of a critique written by someone with a broad knowledge of the performing arts and literature.


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