He may not wear wigs, passionately recite lines on stage or get nervous on opening night but David Dean is otherwise living the life of a dramatic actor.
The co-chair of the Carleton Centre for Public History is exploring the way playwrights and actors literally recreate history on the stage, helping to define our understanding of the past while creating history in the process.
Scholars have long devoted their attention to historical fiction books, heritage buildings, museums and television programs. Historical productions on stage, however, have largely been ignored, says Dean.
“It’s a shocking admission,” he says.
Unlike books, where history is only described, or TV shows and films where scenes are played out on your screen, the theatre very much brings history to life in front of people’s eyes.
“They become their roles and become these people,” says Dean, who received a $38,975 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to fully embed himself in this project. “The theatre doesn’t grab the public attention quite as much as some of these other media (sources) . . . but that energy – the social energy – is special. It’s a direct relationship with audiences.”
But it’s not just about how the stage influences Canadians. Dean also hopes to develop research strategies to explore how theatrical historical performances are made from the inside out while gaining valuable insight from a relatively untapped and unlikely group of experts: dramatic actors.
“We have a lot in common in terms of what we do,” says Dean, adding that many actors study their roles with the diligence of historians, making them – in many ways – experts themselves.
“It’s about the actor being a sort of historian,” he says. “They perform their own history of those events.”
But it’s a two-way street, as actors also look to gain valuable historical context from Dean. While the role of historian-embedded-with-actors might seem unusual, it’s really not that much of a stretch for Dean, who already serves as a historical adviser for theatre groups.
“A historian, in many ways, has a lot more to offer actors than an English critic,” he says, “and that synergy between the two disciplines is quite electric.”
Dean will be observing three historically-inspired productions in the National Art Centre’s upcoming season: Romeo and Juliet (set in the 16th century, making it a historical piece), Vern Thiessen’s Vimy (based on the battle of Vimy Ridge) and Michel Tremblay’s St. Carmen of the Main (dealing with issues affecting Montreal in the 1970s.)