On Friday evening, 9 October, we put on a special performance in the Brotherton Library’s Brotherton Room with the help of four student actors from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI). Called ‘It’s Electrifying!’, the show was organised as part of Leeds Light Night, an annual evening of free arts events (exhibitions, performances, installations) all based around the theme of light that takes place across the city, including the University. As this ties in so well with the themes of our project, this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Working closely with a colleague from the School of PCI, George Rodosthenous, who is also one of the lecturers supervising the production of our Electrified musical, we recruited four drama students as volunteers to take part in our show. Fitting in planning, script writing, rehearsals and organising costumes around everyone’s busy schedules was a challenge, but the students worked hard, and other members of PCI staff were also very helpful; special thanks go to Allana Marsh and Steve Ansell for helping to sort us out with costumes and props at quite short notice!
We used the performance to address the hopes and fears surrounding the introduction of electric lighting into people’s homes around the end of the nineteenth century. There were four characters, representing a range of classes and opinions, for example the young lady of the house, excited at the aesthetic possibilities of the electric light, and her mother-in-law, who was sceptical, didn’t understand what electricity was or how it worked, and didn’t think it should be brought into their home.
We also had the housekeeper, who was happy that the new lights didn’t give off any soot or smoke to blacken the paintwork, but who was sad to need to make redundant the boy who had been in charge of the candles and oil lamps. Finally, the maid was wary, knowing that people had died through accidents involving electricity.
The 15 minute show ran four times over the course of the evening, and over 110 people came to see it. We even had a song about the electric light from the 1880s, which the characters sang and hummed over the course of the performance. The Brotherton Room itself was also the perfect venue for the show; dating back to the 1930s with the rest of the main body of the Brotherton Library, it is an incredibly atmospheric space, and made a very passable country house library for the performance. It looked great lit up with electric candles.
Also forming part of the event was a display of historic electrical objects from the University’s Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which we used to tell the story of domestic electricity from its generation to its use in the home, from the 1880s until the 1940s. These included an old battery, a copy of a Mrs. Beeton book from the 1920s which dealt with electric cookery, and an Overbeck Rejuvenator, a 1920s electrical therapy kit for use by individuals in their own homes. The audience was encouraged to take a look at this display after the performance.
We got great feedback on the creativity, the costumes, and of course the singing! We’d like to thank our colleagues in PCI, in the Brotherton Library and in the Museum, and in particular the PCI students, for all their help making this event possible.