Popular Entertainments

20 November, 2014

Popular entertainments have suffered from scholarly neglect, possibly because their very ephemerality makes documentation and analysis extremely difficult. As well, the meaning and definition of both 'popular' and 'entertainment' remain widely contested, retaining pejorative connotations that are at odds with their transnational significance.

The Popular Entertainments Working Group was set up at the 2006 Helsinki I.F.T.R. conference to give an enduring scholarly voice to the investigation of popular entertainments. At the outset we felt that show people and their contributions were largely unrecognised. Yet it could be argued that they together with their menageries, their entourage of highly skilled physical performers, their clowns, have always been successful cultural emissaries able to cross national borders seemingly at will, and to transcend the limitations of language in a manner that theatre has largely been unable to match.

Certainly since the 19th century the speciality acts of contortionists, equestrians, jugglers, aerialists, strong men, illusionists and 'prodigies' have found a home in both the variety theatres and circus tents. Also the interactions between humans and animals – horses, dogs, bears, monkeys, lions or tigers – have delighted and amazed generations and have thus played a significant role in 'the social construction of happiness.'

In the period since 2006 the scope of the Working Group has continued to broaden, thereby reflecting the changing interests of its members. Thus current discussions include such areas as popular entertainments in the context of a mediatised culture, street performances, music theatre, vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the role of children in the entertainment business. It strives to bring together scholars and scholar/practitioners welcoming participants from a range of complementary disciplines: theatre and performance studies, health, history, psychology, dance, fine art and music as well as performing arts curators and archivists to engage in the analysis as well as the celebration of popular entertainments.

The Working Group continues to be interested in exploring such issues and themes as:

  • the role of popular entertainments in the formation of national identities;
  • the performative practices of variety and circus shows and other forms of popular entertainment;
  • spaces and spatiality of the popular: the unbounded venue;
  • documenting non-text based performance;
  • transnational careers of circus and variety performers;
  • the implications of (world wide) travel of circus/variety shows
  • popular entertainment and notions of 'liveness';
  • popular entertainments as industries;
  • the role of the spectators and their reception of performances that challenge the conventional boundaries of performative behaviour and physical endurance;
  • strategies for retrieving and analysing popular entertainment data;
  • spectacle and celebration;
  • the economics of the popular;
  • performing the popular.

Working Group Achievements

1.            Journal

The group's discussions initiated the publication of the international peer-reviewed online journal Popular Entertainment Studies. It has now been operating since 2010 and has just been accepted by the Thomson Reuters organisation for inclusion in its Arts and Humanities Citation Index and Current Contents/Arts and Humanities. The journal is an open access one and can be viewed for further information at www.newcastle.edu.au/journal/popular-entertainment-studies.The Working Group's involvement with the journal is ongoing and it provides a venue for the submission of papers delivered at the FIRT/IFTR annual conferences.

2.            Conferences

Two further outcomes have been the mounting of the international conferences held at the University of Newcastle, Australia:

  • A World of Popular Entertainments – June 2009 – Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow (co-convenors)
  • Another World of Popular Entertainments – June 2013 – Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow (co-convenors).

The first of these resulted in an edited volume the content of which can be viewed below:

Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow, eds. A World of Popular Entertainments: An Edited Volume of Critical Essays (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 295 pp. ISBN 978-1443837309.

Part 1: Marvels and Wonders

  • Jerry Wasserman – Aboriginal Dance, Military Drill: Captain MacDonald’s Trained Indians and 19th-Century Variety Entertainment
  • Bill Dunstone – The “Fatima” Illusion: Technology, Show Business and the Modern Female Body
  • Kirsten Wright – From Medical Marvel to Popular Entertainer: The Story of Captain Costentenus, “The Tattooed Greek Prince”
  • Yuji Sone – Double Acts: Human-Robot Performance in Japan’s Bacarobo Theatre

Part 2: Adaptation and Preservation

  • Martina Lipton – Localism and Modern British Pantomime
  • Jonathan Bollen – From Theatrical Nostalgia to Modernist Design: Nightclubs as Venues for Live Entertainments in Mid-20 -Century Australia
  • Janette Pelosi – “Submitted for Approval of the Colonial Secretary”: Popular Entertainment in the State Archives, 1828-1856

Part 3: Leisure and Tourism

  • Gillian Arrighi – From the Traditional Travelling Circus to the Global Zoo: The Persistence of “Performing” Animal Shows in the 21st Century
  • Amanda Card – Do Try This At Home: Dance Manuals, Myopia and Misrecognition

Part 4: Sites of the Popular

  • Veronica Kelly – Australia’s First Belgian Day (1915): History on Stage and Street
  • Bett Pacey – The Contribution of Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane to South African Street Theatre
  • Janys Hayes – An Issue of “Place”: Circus WOW, Women of Wollongong’s Community Circus

Part 5: The Highbrow Debate

  • John Bennett – What Good is a Good Night Out: Imbricating Discourses of Labour, Scale and Radicalism in Contemporary British Popular Theatre
  • Rosalind Halton – From Hailstones to Hallelujah: The First Handel Commemoration
  • Helen English and Stephen Wye – Musical Entertainment in Newcastle, NSW, 1875-77
  • Kath Leahy – George Seth Coppin: Colonial Clown and Gentleman
  • Melissa Bellanta – Poor Urban Youth and Popular Theatricals: The Case of Late-19th-Century Australia

3.      Overview of papers delivered at Working Group meetings since 2011

2014             IFTR Conference, University of Warwick, UK

  • Lucy Amsden (University of Glasgow, UK), Playing with the flop: failure in Gaulier’s Clown classroom
  • Gillian Arrighi (University of Newcastle, Australia), “A fine mental training…a splendid physical exercise”: unearthing the influence of the professional stage trainer at the turn of the 20th century
  • Kim Baston (La Trobe University, Australia), The ‘new’ hippodrama: contemporary equestrian spectacle
  • Jonathan Bollen (Flinders University, Australia), Australian entertainers in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s
  • Dyan Colclough (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), Reading between the lines: touring Vera Beringer
  • Richard Cuming (University of Winchester, UK), Awkward Clowns and Several Government Inspectors: from Meyerhold to the Mighty Boosh
  • Victor Emeljanow (University of Newcastle, Australia),Pierrots and Pierrettes: concert parties and their female impersonators during World War 1
  • Ellen Gjervan ( NTNU, Norway), Equestrian drama and circus feats under the Aurora Borealis: the winter season of Gautier & Co. in Trondheim, Norway 1839-40
  • Catherine Hindson (University of Bristol, UK), Shoulder rubbing with Celebrities: the Actors’ Orphanage Fund Theatrical Garden Parties 1904-1925
  • Veronica Kelly, (University of Queensland, Australia), Rocking the Town: Black women entertainers in Australia 1950s-1960s
  • Martina Lipton (University of Warwick, UK),  “Evergreen Jessie”: Jessie Matthews tours to Australia 1952 and 1957
  • Elizabeth Osborne (Florida State University, US), Memory Remade: The legacies of The Clansman and Birth of a Nation in popular culture
  • Bett Pacey (Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa), Battles of war as amusement enterprise: Fillis’s spectacles in London and St. Louis
  • Simon Sladen (Victoria and Albert Museum, UK), From Mother Goose to Master: Training networks and knowledge transfers in contemporary British pantomime
  • Lisa Warrington (University of Otago, NZ), Jekyll v. Hyde
  • Catherine Young (City University of New York, US), Audiences and animality: taste, laughter and the animal vaudevillian 

2013             IFTR Conference, Barcelona, Spain

  • Gillian Arrighi (University of Newcastle, Australia) Re-routing traditional circus performance: towards a cultural history of community circus in Australia
  • Kim Baston (La Trobe University, Australia) Transatlantic journeys: John Bill Ricketts and the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus
  • Victor Emeljanow (University of Newcastle, Australia) Palliative pantomimes 2: popular entertainments, humour and other survival strategies in prisoner-of war camps during World War Two
  • Janys Hayes (University of Wollongong, Australia) Drumming the Future: Vietnamese drumming as a bridge between tradition and popular entertainment
  • Susan Kattwinkel (College of Charleston, South Carolina, USA) A Theatrical Journey – Reconceiving Tourist Performance on a World Tour
  • Veronica Kelly (University of Queensland) David N. Martin and the ‘Acts and Actors’ of Australian Variety
  • Martina Lipton (University of Warwick, UK) The House that Tommy Built ‘somewhere in Greece’: Pantomimes produced by the 85th Field Ambulance in Salonika 1915-18
  • Bett Pacey (Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa) The Drive-In Theatre as a popular form of entertainment in South Africa
  • Lisa Warrington (Otago University Aotearoa/New Zealand) The Laughing Samoans: Comedy for the Lounge
  • Dorothea Volz (Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany) Much Ado About a Silent Play. Max Reinhardt's Pantomime “A Venetian Night.”

2012             IFTR Conference, Santiago, Chile

  • Gillian Arrighi (University of Newcastle, Australia) The Savoy Pantomimes: Complementarity and Innovation
  • Jan Clarke (Durham University, UK) The Play Text as a Reflection of Performance: the Case of Thomas Corneille’s L’Inconnu
  • John Bennett (Liverpool Hope University, UK) Football Plays
  • Jonathan Bollen (Flinders University, Australia) Cargo-loads of entertainment: touring Hong Kong’s night clubs in the 1950s and 1960s
  • Victor Emeljanow (University of Newcastle, Australia) Palliative pantomimes: some excursions into the role of popular entertainments in prisoner-of-war camps during World War 1
  • Veronica Kelly (University of Queensland, Australia) Albert Down Under: the multi-mediated career of Stanley Holloway in post-war Australia
  • Bett Pacey (Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa) The rise of the bioscope in early 20th century South Africa and its relationship with live popular entertainment
  • Danielle I. Szlawieniec-Haw (York University, Ontario, Canada) Getting Paid to Freak Out: The Popular Entertainments of Snookie and Eden Wood

2011             IFTR Conference, Osaka, Japan

  • Gillian Arrighi (University of Newcastle, Australia) “A Great Deal of Hysterical Nonsense”: a popular children’s company and the geographies of ruin
  • Jonathan Bollen (Flinders University, Australia) ‘As modern as tomorrow’, ‘as international as a jet-airliner’: Harry Wren takes Toho’s Cherry Blossom Show on a tour of Australia in 1958  
  • Cathy Haill (Victoria & Albert Museum, UK) 'New lamps for old!' - Tradition, innovation, community in British pantomime today
  • Janys Hayes (University of Wollongong, Australia) Of the People, for the People: Duong le Quy’s site-specific spectacles at the 2010 Hue International Arts Festival
  • Susan Kattwinkel (College of Charleston, South Carolina, USA) The Tradition of the Eccentric Body in Vaudeville: Subversion and Power in Performance
  • Veronica Kelly (University of Queensland, Australia) You lucky people! Gracie Fields and friends tour post-war Australia
  • Bett Pacey (Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa) Gumboot Dance: From Traditional Roots Through Innovation To Popular Entertainment

4.            Individual Outputs since 2008

  • Arrighi, Gillian and Emeljanow, Victor (eds), Entertaining Children: the participation of youth in the Entertainment Industry, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
  • Arrighi, Gillian. "Political Animals: Engagements with Imperial and Gender Discourses in Late-Colonial Australian Circuses," Theatre Journal 60.4 (2008): 609-629.
  • Arrighi, Gillian. "Circus and Sumo: Tradition, Innovation and Oppportunism at the Australian Circus," Theatre Research International 37.3 (2012): 265-282.
  • Arrighi, Gillian. and Emeljanow, Victor. "Entertaining Children: an Exploration of the Business and politics of Childhood," New Theatre Quarterly 28.1 (2012): 41-55.
  • Arrighi, Gillian. "The Circus and Modernity: A Commitment to 'the newer' and 'the newest," Early Popular Visual Culture 10.2 (2012): 169-185.
  • Bennett, John. ‘More is less: Public Popularity and Academic Representation’ in Glen McGillivray, ed. Scrapbooks, Snapshots and Memorabilia: The Hidden Archives (Bern: Peter Lang, 2011)
  • Baston, Kim. "Harlequin Highlander: Spectacular Geographies at the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus, 1790-1800,"  Early Popular Visual Culture 12:2 (2014).
  • Baston, Kim. "'And now, before your very eyes': The Circus Act and the Archive" in Performing Digital: Multiple Perspectives on a Living Archive, ed. David Carlin and Laurene Vaughan,  Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.
  • Baston, Kim. "Transatlantic Journeys:  John Bill Ricketts and the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus,"  Popular Entertainment Studies 4:2 (2013), 5- 28.  
  • Baston, Kim. "SAMMA goes to the circus: Mobile Digitisation and the Circus Oz Living Archive," Australian Sound Archive (ASRA):  38 (2013), 42-55.  
  • Baston, Kim. “Circus Music: The eye of the ear," Popular Entertainment Studies 1:2 (2010), 6-25.
  • Baston, Kim. "Jacques Brel and Circus Performance: The Compiled Score as Discourse in 'The Space Between' by Circa," Australasian Drama Studies: 56 (2010), 154-169.
  • Bollen, Jonathan. "‘Show girls and choreographers in Australian entertainment – the transition to night clubs, 1946-1967," Australasian Drama Studies, 63 (2013): 52-68.
  • Bollen, Jonathan. "Here from There – travel, television and touring revues: internationalism as entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s," Popular Entertainment Studies 4.1 (2013) : 64-81.
  • Bollen, Jonathan. "Don't Give Up the Strip! Erotic performance as live entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia," Journal of Australian Studies 34.2 (2010): 125-140. Awarded the 2010 John Barrett Award for Australian Studies by the International Australian Studies Association.
  • Bollen, Jonathan. "Cross-dressed and crossing-over from stage to television", Media International Australia 134 (2010): 141-150.
  • Davies, Paul. "Transiting through the Cultures of Suburbia: How TheatreWorks Discovered the Community of an Audience", Australasian Drama Studies 60 (April 2012): 138-156. Print. Winner A.E.E. Pearse Prize University of Queensland 2012.
  • Davies. Paul. "Full Houses: Staging Drama in an Historic Mansion", Popular Entertainment Studies 2.1 (2011): 79-95.
  • Hayes, Janys. "Reframing Tradition: Le Quy Duong's Festival Theatre," Popular Entertainment Studies 4.1 (2013): 95-109.
  • Hayes, Janys. director. Bonded, by Circus WOW, funded by Wollongong City Council for Viva La Gong Wollongong Arts Festival, Wollongong City Gallery, Wollongong, NSW, 4-6th November 2010.
  • Kelly, Veronica. "Come Over Here! The Local Hybridisation of International 'Ragtime Revues' in Australia," Popular Entertainment Studies 4.1 (2013): 24-49.
  • Kelly, Veronica. The Empire Actors:  Australasian Costume Drama 1890s-1920s (Sydney: Currency House, 2010).
  • Kelly, Veronica. "North Star and Southern Cross:  Shakespeare's comedies in Australia, 1903-1904," New Theatre Quarterly 26.4 (Nov 2010): 383-394.
  • Dixon, Robert. & Veronica. Kelly, eds. Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s-1960s (Sydney University Press, 2008).
  • Lipton, Martina. “Memorialization, Memorabilia, and the Mediated Afterlife of Ada Reeve,” New Theatre Quarterly 29.2 (2013): 132-45.
  • Lipton, Martina. “Unearthing The Bunyip: Clues to the Representation of Australian Identity, 1916-25,” Australasian Drama Studies 60 (2012): 102-19.
  • Lipton, Martina. “Tactical Agency in War Work: ‘Anzac Ada’ Reeve, ‘the Soldiers’ Friend’,” Popular Entertainment Studies 3.1 (2012): 7-23.
  • Lipton, Martina. “Imbricated Identity and the Theatre Star in Early-Twentieth-Century Australia,” Australasian Drama Studies 58 (2011): 126-47.
  • Pacey, Bett. 'The role of arts festivals in developing and promoting street theatre in South Africa', South African Theatre Journal 25/3 (2011).
  • Pacey, Bett. "The emergence and recognition of moffies as popular entertainers in the Cape Minstrel Carnival," South African Theatre Journal 27:2 (2014).


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