Making a Drama Out of a Catalogue Card

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Last weekend, we welcomed a group of Leeds University students to the Local and Family History Library to take part in a mystery project for the Out There Challenge programme. None of them knew each other, and none even knew where they’d be meeting until the day before… All they had in common was an interest in the Arts, a free Saturday, and the nerve to sign up to a day-long task they knew nothing about.

At 10 o’clock that morning, their brief for the day was finally revealed. We’d gone through our beautiful, old-school card catalogue (which we still trust more than Google) and selected six plays from the past, each written by someone from Leeds or with some other connection to the city. Then we presented the titles to the group and informed them that, unfortunately, over the course of the decades, all the actual scripts had been sadly lost to the mists of time, and we needed the group to recreate and ‘return’ them to the library. Of course, we didn’t expect our brave participants to write an entire book… A one-off performance of their reimagined play – staged within the building, naturally – would be enough to appease the library gods. (And don’t worry: we hadn’t really lost the items, either. We just thought it made a suitably dramatic story!)

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Other restrictions were minimal. We simply requested that the new plays drew on aspects of local history, as, after all, it’d be a shame not to use the fabulous resources at our fingertips. And, because we were feeling extra cheeky, we also stipulated a line of dialogue to go with each title, ranging from the straightforward (“Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed”) to the downright surreal (“We’ll have to make do with that giraffe”).

For further inspiration, we looked at the classic folk tale, Mary the Maid of the Inn, which tells of a local girl’s frightening experience at Kirkstall Abbey on a dark and stormy night. (If you’re not familiar with the plot, you can read more about it at the Kirkstall Online website.) We listened to local storyteller Matthew Bellwood perform Robert Southey’s poetical adaptation from 1796, then launched into our own (hilarious) group read-through of a short playscript based on the story. This was one of the ‘Hummerston Plays’, written by a former Leeds Children’s Librarian in the 1930s to be performed by local children, and copies can be found in Local and Family History at shelf mark: LQ 822.91 H88.

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Here’s an exciting extract to set the scene:

MRS. NEVILL: (She draws her cloak round her and shudders as she drops into a chair) La, Mr. Nevill! What a journey, that old abbey with its hooting owls and rustling trees gives me the spasms.
MR. NEVILL: (Looking out of the window) ‘Tis a noble sight, see my dear how it shines in the moonlight.
BETSY: The folks build their houses of the old stones, soon there will be no abbey left (laughs) Ghosts or no Ghosts.
MRS. NEVILL: Ghosts, say you?
BETSY: ‘Tis only a tale, lady. They do say the highwaymen and footpads have spread the ghost stories, so they will have a safe hiding place. (Exit).

Other Hummerston Plays in the collection include St. George and the Dragon, The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe and, our favourite, The Book Doctor, a cautionary tale aimed at those who don’t look after library books properly, featuring such grubby-fingered characters as Caroline Careless and Dick Dirty.

Most of the rest of the day was spent in groups researching and preparing the pieces until, at 3pm, the performances began. In the Music Library, students mounted a short drama based on the title The Queen of Hearts: a war-time play with music (originally by I.K. Clark, date unknown), in which a Leeds woman looked back on happy visits to the City Varieties Music Hall to distract her from present-day fears for her son, a soldier away fighting in the War. Down in the Lending department, another group took the title Rejected Addresses: an episode in one act (by E.S. Ford, 1882) and turned it into a satirical skit about a citywide housing shortage forcing renters to take up residence within a public library. Finally, a group of Leeds Libraries staff were inspired by an anecdote from The Gipton Story: from 655 AD to 1990 AD (by Charles Yelland; L GIP 942) to reenact an unfortunate incident from Compton Road Library in the 1980s, when a customer was discovered dead in the reading room!

Some of the resources used in creating the wartime piece, The Queen of Hearts
Some of the resources used in creating the mini wartime play, The Queen of Hearts

Highlights from the day were captured on video by media students from the University, so we’ll let you know when they become available online. Until then, feel free to pop into the library and uncover some intriguing titles of your own amongst our collections. You never know how they might inspire you!

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