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Popular Entertainments

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.

Yet it could be argued that show people 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.

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.'

This Working Group seeks to bring together scholars and scholar/practitioners and welcomes 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 is 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;
  • the semiotics of the circus space;
  • 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';
  • the circus and variety 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.

These topics should in no way be regarded as prescriptive but merely as suggestions for further discussion. Over the years, the scope of the Working Group has broadened to include discussions about popular entertainments in the context of a mediatised culture, street performances, music theatre, vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the role of children in the entertainment business. Nevertheless, the significance of circus, its history and performance values, has retained a strong presence in the ongoing discussions.

Convenor: Victor Emeljanow, University of Newcastle, Australia: 

Work Plan

The group's discussions initiated the establishment of Popular Entertainment Studies, the international online journal, in existence since 2009. 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. The next meeting of the group will take place at the IFTR World Congress, University of Warwick, 2014.


Victor Emeljanow, General Editor, Popular Entertainment Studies, E-journal, University of Newcastle, launched August 2009, two issues each year. ISSN 1837-9303


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 Selth Coppin: Colonial Clown and Gentleman
  • Melissa Bellanta – Poor Urban Youth and Popular Theatricals: The Case of Late-19th-Century Australia

Individual Outputs

  • 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)
  • 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 Studies3.1 (2012): 7-23.
  • Lipton, Martina. “Imbricated Identity and the Theatre Star in Early-Twentieth-Century Australia,” Australasian Drama Studies58 (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).


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) 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

Previous meetings were held at the annual IFTR conferences in Munich 2010, Lisbon 2009, Seoul 2008, Stellenbosch 2007 and Helsinki 2006. In 2009, the group also held a joint meeting with the Historiography Working Group.

Other Conferences

  • Another World of Popular Entertainments – international conference, University of Newcastle, Australia, 12-14 June 2013 – Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow (co-convernors).

  • A World of Popular Entertainments – international conference, University of Newcastle, Australia, June 2009 – Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow (co-convenors)