Revitalizing the Prom: Popular Performance and History at the Seaside

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Drama


This project aims to reactivate the pierrot show on the beaches and promenades of The English Riveria and South West resorts. The rise of the pierrot troupe or concert party as open-air, promenade, variety entertainment coincided with the rise and heyday of the British seaside resorts from the late 1890s, and shared their decline in the 1950s. There is only one pierrot troupe still giving occasional performances, Tony Lidington and The Pierrotters. British seaside holidays are once more on the rise, but there is no trace of this performance form that once formed a vital element of the holiday experience. Through a series of workshops, performances, and a travelling exhibition, the project will use historical research into, and through, performance to understand the history of this almost lost popular form, and to assess how audiences might understand and value such performance today.

Much of the pierrot show was improvised and contingent. Only fragmented traces of scripts, songs, and memoirs form the archives held by the University of Exeter and Tony Lidington. By engaging with the embodied transmission of the repertoire, through Tony Lidington's professional practice, and by exploring in practice and in the space of the seaside resort, we can access a richer understanding of the necessary performer skills, the content, the audience address, and the significance of the form in the past. The Principal Investigator, Tony Lidington and four young, local, professional performers will conduct two day-long workshops that will explore what the pierrot show intended to do and what its potential relationship to audiences was.

Using archive research and the findings of the workshops, we will interpolate material of our own during an intensive 2 week devising process, to create a promenade performance on the model of the pierrot show for contemporary audiences. The performance will tour beaches and promenades of the English Riviera and South West, licensed by Teignbridge and Torbay councils, during the early summer season. Two performances will visit schools with a short accompanying workshop. The devised performance will develop a performative frame (using prologue, epilogue and costume) that contextualises the interaction of the historical and contemporary performance elements, drawing the audience's attention to the performance mode as cultural history. An exhibition will accompany the performance, staged in a mobile booth clad with images and text drawn from the archive, and with a mutoscope showing rare footage of pierrot troupes in action from the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition will draw attention to the contested nature of history-making by contextualising the history of the pierrot troupe alongside other saeside entertainment forms such as black-face minstrelry, and will reflect on how the pierrot show form might already be valued and 'known' by today's audiences, from its afterlife translated into other mediated forms, such as the seventies television variety show, Seaside Special, or the Black and White Minstrel Show, or other narratives such as Croft and Perry's It Ain't Half Hot Mum.

The workshop process, performance devising process, and performances will be documented and audience reactions will be recorded. Audience feedback is key to understanding how audiences respond to and conceptualise not just the content of the performance, but its process of history-making. Qualitative audience research in open-ended interviews will be undertaken to ascertain audience perception of the performance as entertainment and as cultural heritage, of the manufactured nature of theatre history, and the cultural contribution the project has made to their experience of the resort. Analysis of the findings from the workshops, performances, and project will result in an article, a conference paper, and a DVD case-study for distribution to resort officers, tourist officers, and heritage professionals more widely.

Planned Impact

Users and beneficiaries of this research are (1) Local councils particularly resort officers, tourism officers and regeneration officers (2) community members in resorts (3) holiday-makers in resorts (4) heritage professionals (5) Tony Lidington.

1. Local councils, particularly officers with responsibility for tourism, resorts, arts, and regeneration, will benefit from an enhanced and diverse provision of entertainment, driven by research, and from an analysis of the cultural contribution such entertainment makes through real-world audience analysis. The project's performances and exhibition, community talks and schools visits offer a multiple-access programme. This pilot project will also include, in DVD form, an analysis of the reception of performances and the possibilities for a mechanism for supporting an on-going collaboration between University and local councils to provide promenade entertainment within resorts.

2. Community members will benefit from an enhanced knowledge of the history of their resort, and of history-making itself, through the performances, travelling exhibition, programme of talks with community groups, and schools visits. This offers an enhanced programme of cultural events that diversifies the entertainment available in their locale.

3. Holiday makers will benefit from new cultural activity (performances and exhibition), and participation in an analytical assessment of the cultural reception of the project.

4. The wider field of heritage professionals and resort tourism professionals will benefit from the findings and analysis of the project which will be circulated as a DVD case-study and reception analysis of the workshops and performances as mode of active historical investigation.

5.Tony Lidington will benefit from an extension of part of his professional activity into new research questions and areas, offering the possibility for a re-evaluation of his practice. He will benefit from on-going collaboration and connections into networks with local councils, local communities, the wider field of heritage professionals, and the University.


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Title Pierrot Performance 
Description Formation of the Pierrotters, a four person pierrot troupe and the creation of a thirty minute peripatetic, seaside performance, devised and written by 4 performers, director/facilitator Tony Lidington of Promenade Promotions and facilitator /researcher Jane Milling. The performance designed to tour seaside promenades, piers and pavillions, was presented over 30 times in July 2010 at resorts along the English Riviera including Dawlish Warren, Torquay Harbour, Paignton Pier, Babbacombe Beach and Brixham Harbour. The performance was created with the support of Torbay Council and Teignbridge District Council. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact The performances were seen by over 1,000 people, and over 200 were interviewed to help assess how live performance and the performance heritage of English seaside resorts might enhance the cultural experience of seaside resorts. Mischa Eligoloff from the Culture Unit, Torbay Council said, 'This is a great collaboration between local authorities, an academic institution and a local company with exceptional professional expertise. Torbay is delighted to be involved in such an innovative programme of work exploring traditional seaside heritage and developing genuine employment opportunities for young professionals in entertainment. We hope his could be the start of a wider programme of regeneration through seaside heritage and entertainment.' 
Title Pierrot performance 
Description Additional panels for a mobile touring exhibition, drawing on the material researched and developed from pierrot collection at the Bill Douglas Museum, University of Exeter. The mounted exhibition toured on the side of the van with the company and was the source of much interest and discussion around the performances. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact Increased discussion of the role of performances such as the pierrot troupe. This developed from the accessibility of the exhibition panels to holiday-makers and passers-by on the promenades where the performances played. At Teignmouth seafront, the van and exhibition was the source of an impromptu additional class for a group of visiting primary school children from Dawlish Primary School, who were visiting the seaside as part of a project on the Victorian era. 
Description That the pierrot show, which was once a fantastically popular form of seaside family entertainment during the heyday of the British seaside holiday, remains a useable part of the cultural heritage of most seaside resorts. Audiences, and social attitudes, have changed yet the pierrot show can still offer live, intimate, and topical entertainment quite different to anything else you'll experience at the contemporary seaside.'
Exploitation Route The project contributed to the creation of a new pierrot troupe that has had an intermittent performing life. Performers from the troupe featured on BBC programme - The Edwardian Farm, in a photo collection, and have extended the work of Promenade Promotions, our collaborating company into further opportunities for socially engaged work.
Sectors Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The project developed the public profile of heritage performance on the English Riviera. This brought immediate media attention of value to the Regional Cultural Officers, and has been part of the development of a more adventurous cultural policy in Torbay. Ongoing development of findings from this project has enhanced the work of the collaborating organization Promenade Promotions ( in extending the work with schools and in the Torbay region-see Tony Lidington of Promenade Promotions is currently enrolled on a PhD through Publication by Performance Practice at the University of Exeter.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural