CfP 2020 Conference: Embodied Spectatorship and Performance in Theatre and Visual Culture, 1780-1914

Louis-Leopold Boilly, L’effet du Melodrame, c.1830

University of Exeter, Monday 14 – Wednesday 16 December 2020

Please note dates have been provisonally rearranged from June in light of COVID-19.

Throughout the long nineteenth century the ways in which spectators observed the world in which they lived and entertainments on offer changed radically. New modes of viewing were facilitated by developments in new technologies and innovations that emerged in this period: a range of optical toys were produced, while developments in painting techniques contributed to new spectacular entertainments such as panoramas and dioramas, and new printing methods facilitated the circulation of images to a wider audience. These changes created an opportunity for significant developments in theatrical performance. Images and motifs were frequently realised or remediated across different media, including the theatre, providing multivalent experiences for their audiences.

We invite papers and panels that consider embodied spectatorship and performance from a multiple range of perspectives, and in the widest possible terms.

Likely areas may include (but are not limited to):

  • How did stage spectacle create or contribute to the embodied experience of being an audience member?
  • What evidence and documentation do we have for the embodied experience of performers in the theatrical spaces of the nineteenth century?
  • How can theories of perception and visuality enable us to rethink the affective nature of theatrical spectacle and performance in this period?
  • How did new and experimental technologies developed through the visual arts influence performer and/or audience experience?
  • How did notions of theatricality impact on spectator experience of the visual arts?
  • What sort of responses did the trans-medial circulation of images create?
  • What evidence is there for the agency of spectators in the active construction of meaning in nineteenth-century places of performance?
  • How did audiences understand and respond to stage spectacle? Might stage spectacle work independently of (or even against) the meanings of text to create different responses?
  • How did similar images in different media or different national contexts inspire varying audience responses?
  • How did notions of place work to create affective experiences?
  • How might curatorial practices or innovative research methodologies help us reimagine the historical viewing experience?
  • What do representations of people reacting within the theatre, interacting with optical devices or witnessing outdoor spectacles tell us about spectatorship in the long nineteenth century?

We anticipate this conference will be of particular interest to scholars from art history, visual culture, cultural geography, theatre history and those with an interest in curation.

Accompanying this conference as part of the broader project are exhibitions at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and University of Bristol Theatre Collection, which draw on their unique collections. We will offer delegates opportunities to visit both exhibitions and meet with curators of the collections to discuss the research resources and holdings.

Please submit proposals of 200 words and biographies of 100 words using the online form by Thursday 27 February 2020 (deadline now passed). Speakers will be asked to present papers of 20 minutes with questions and discussion at the end.

The registration fee for this event will be £130 (full fee) and £80.00 (postgraduates/unwaged), and includes lunches, refreshments and a wine reception. We anticipate being able to reimburse partial travel for postgraduates/unwaged ECRs.


This conference is organized by Jim Davis, Kate Holmes, Kate Newey, and Patricia Smyth as part of a three-year AHRC-funded project, ‘Theatre and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century’, examining theatre spectacle and spectatorship in this period. The main focus is on Britain, but France provides a comparative study.

If you would like to be on the mailing list for news and events related to this project, please contact Kate Holmes at k.j.holmes@exeter.ac.uk or use our contact form.


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