American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project

As most Shakespeare nerds know by now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, America’s largest Shakespeare theatre, has undertaken an ambitious project they are calling “Play On!” in which 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges will undertake to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  This announcement has provoked the predictable amount of consternation throughout the Shakespeare world, enough consternation that as the Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, whose mission is to recover the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity… through performance and education, I would like to share my thoughts on this project, both positive and negative, with our many friends.

Here’s what I like about the project:

(1) To begin with, I applaud the size, scope, and ambition of the project.

Ever since Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, arrived in Ashland in 2007, he has brought to the Festival the kind of expansive vision of a theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people.  That vision undergirded his first project, Cornerstone Theatre, in which Bill and his colleagues, fresh out of Harvard, would go into communities without theatres and create a production with the citizens.  That vision – so American in its principles and in its optimism – was also the foundation for his first big project at OSF, American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, for which he has commissioned American playwrights to attempt to create a collection of plays that helps define America in the way that Shakespeare’s history plays helped to define England.  One offspring of that project, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about LBJ and the civil rights movement, has already won the Tony for Outstanding Play.

The “Play On!” project matches Bill Rauch’s other work, and in its intention to create Shakespeare scripts of the people, by the people, and for the people, it matches as well the giving and inclusiveness that informs OSF under his remarkable leadership.  To appreciate what he has accomplished, locate Ashland, Oregon, on a map, and you will see that it’s a small city (Staunton’s size) in the isolated southwest corner of Oregon, five hours from Portland.  Always devoted to first-class work, the Festival’s location trapped it more than most urban Shakespeare companies in the predominant Shakespeare audience base of affluent and aging white people – a place to get away from the world rather than a place to engage it.  I do not know how their new programming has changed their audience demographics, but the increased diversity of the actors and staff at OSF and the emphasis on musicals and new plays have certainly made the season’s offerings look less daunting to non-Shakespeare fans as well as more interesting to experienced theatre-goers who are looking for something new and would rather not see their tenth production of Macbeth.

(2) Some good that will come from the “Play On!” project.

Already it has prompted the kind of controversy that keeps the importance of Shakespeare in the public view.  It’s made people think about their experiences seeing and hearing Shakespeare. It’s giving employment to 39 playwrights and – even more rarely – a like number of dramaturges.  And that means, inevitably, that by the end of the project, 78 very smart people, who have wrestled with replacing Shakespeare’s words (as our actors do when they try to paraphrase their lines) will be in awe of his skill, and they will approach their crafts both with more humility and with more skill.

I hope that once the scripts are all in, OSF will plan a grand convocation of these men and women to talk about their experience of trying to retain, in the words of OSF’s Director of Literary Development Lue Douthit, “the rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme” of the original.  Lue, if you’re reading this, please invite me to that occasion.  I promise not to say a word, just soak in the inevitable awe these re-creators will feel faced with what Andrew Hartley, in the answering question “Why Shakespeare?” (The Shakespeare Dramaturg, p.70), calls the “unequaled…poignancy or precision” of Shakespeare’s words and phrases “unparalleled elsewhere.”   Our actors feel it every time they play a role; our students feel it every time they study a line.  Imagine what 36 playwrights and 36 dramaturges will feel after trying to put an entire play into their own words.

(3) Clearly this project does no harm to Shakespeare, even in Ashland.

OSF assures fans of Shakespeare that over the next ten years they will produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original and that “one or more of” the plays created “may be produced along with the original canon.”  These scripts will be food for readings and discussion around the country. Shakespeare’s works have always stood up to the “translation” – in a real sense, every production is a new “translation.”  Changing words, characters, scenes, plots – none of that is new. Whenever I direct a production, I’ll change a word or twenty.  In our current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “on her withered dewlap” became “on her withered bosom”; and the fairies’ lullaby to Titania about “spotted snakes” became a soft shoe version of “By the Light of Silvery Moon.”  Am I ashamed?  Kind of.  Is Shakespeare rolling in his grave?  No seismic activity in Stratford-upon-Avon has been reported.

As our board member Kim West pointed out, this kind of “translation has been going on since Nahum Tate updated King Lear in 1681.”  Who knows how many Nahum Tates the project might produce?  In one way or another every play is only the first version of a work, changed with each production; and all of this reworking of Shakespeare in whatever language, in whatever medium, from musicals to film to comic books to TV sitcoms to Andy Griffith’s radio retelling of Romeo and Juliet, never lessened the value of his work – all of this has only given the originals more currency.

Here’s what I don’t like about the project:

(1) The OSF project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language.

The rationale for the project is that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand because his language is too far from our own and that audiences of a far wider range would enjoy the plays better if they were written in contemporary language.  I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.

Yes, we could all use larger vocabularies, but if you’re going to start simplifying language to reach those who don’t have a large enough vocabulary, then don’t pick on Shakespeare without picking on Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Williams, Churchill, Stoppard, and Sondheim.  For that matter go after Deadwood, West Wing, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. Shoot, go after Sesame Street.

The Wall Street Journal’s John McWhorter approves wholeheartedly of the project and tells us that 10% of the words in Shakespeare are “incomprehensible.”  That number vastly exaggerates the number of archaic words in Shakespeare and ignores altogether the way context – the other words being spoken and the way the actor speaks them – helps us comprehend.  In fact, 98% of Shakespeare’s words are either in our dictionaries as current usage English or as a close cousin of the current English.

(2) The OSF project robs from rather than adds to the meaning of the plays.

It ignores the pleasure of the unconscious experience of comprehending expanded meaning.  For example, here’s a passage from Macbeth that McWhorter wants updated. It’s Macbeth considering whether he should kill the King, Duncan:

………………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

so clear in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his taking-off.

McWhorter prefers this “translation” by Conrad Spoke:

………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne authority so meek, hath been

so pure in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his knocking-off.

McWhorter would substitute “authority” for “faculties” because he says he doesn’t know what “bearing one’s faculties” means. He doesn’t? Today we use “faculties” to mean “abilities,” – the very first definition in Merriam Webster – and pretty precisely what Shakespeare meant.  In fact the substituted “authority” is not what Macbeth is talking about.  Nor is the substituted “pure in office” the same as the original “clear in his office.”  Jimmy Carter was “pure” in his office; Ronald Reagan was “clear.” Shakespeare’s “clear” could hardly be clearer.

Most alarmingly, McWhorter champions “knocking-off” for “taking-off.”  He would choose a current slang word for “murder” instead of Macbeth’s invented phrase “taking-off.”  But even children listening to Macbeth contemplate this murder would know what “taking-off” means, and they would also know – as would the actor playing the part – that it’s a feeble euphemism, that Macbeth can’t bring himself even to say “murder,” and that is the real story of this moment. The actor performing the “translated” line would lose this moment, and the audiences listening to that “translation” would lose this insight into the mind of a man for the first time considering the murder.  Shakespeare’s word – easy to comprehend in context – provides the full understanding, whereas in McWhorter’s term the substituted word gives us only a “half understanding.”

(3) The OSF project ignores the joy of acquiring language.

We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time.  The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings.  In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.

We do that too – with Stoppard and Pinter and Beckett plays; with comedians Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Stephen Colbert; with television like Key and Peele and Wired, with lyricists from Sondheim to Notorious B.I.G.  Even when some of it flies by us, we enjoy the rush of new words in new arrangements.

(4) The OSF project endorses ShakesFear.

We go to Shakespeare unnecessarily afraid, worried about missing something, worried about vocabulary as though we were taking the SAT.  That irrational and unhelpful worry I call ShakesFear, and my main objection to the OSF project is that it endorses ShakesFear, and in doing so it misunderstands the nature of theatre and underestimates the genius of audiences.  It promotes the anxiety about Shakespeare that is a primary obstacle to its enjoyment.

(5) The OSF project takes actors and directors off the hook.

Play On!” shifts the responsibility for “comprehensible” Shakespeare to these 39 playwrights and away from actors and directors who themselves are uninterested in the way the language in the plays work.

Actors who don’t know precisely what the words are can’t make up the difference with an emotional wash, and directors whose aim is foremost the imposition of a concept can sometimes make comprehension harder.  As James Shapiro writes in The New York Times, “To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse.  They will search for them in vain in the translation.”

From the day Jim Warren and I started the company, the American Shakespeare Center has made the comprehension of Shakespeare’s language and an understanding of the way the meter and the syntax work the first business of rehearsal.  We are continually looking for the ways that staging can clarify meaning for his audiences.  We don’t always get it right in our fight against ShakesFear, but repeatedly we hear from audiences, “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” or “I forgot it was Shakespeare” or – our favorite – “That was great. Who translated it into modern English?” And then we get to tell the patron that the words were Shakespeare’s and that he himself effortlessly did the “translation.”

The greatest gift of a good Shakespeare production is this kind of unconscious “translation” – an occasion when performance combines with the wellspring of our language to enlarge us.

(6) The OSF project condescends to certain audiences.

My final concern about the OSF project is the soft discrimination of its low expectations.  As I have said, the plan is meant to be a part of OSF’s admirable push to make Shakespeare of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But those people are less in need of help than OSF imagines.  Children are always swimming in a sea of new language; it’s how they learn.  For an adult, Much Ado about Nothing may be harder than The Important of Being Earnest, but for the eight-year-old, they present similar challenges – or, depending on your point of view, opportunities.  The OSF project would deprive the very audiences it’s concerned about of those opportunities by creating a kind of “separate but equal” Shakespeare.

OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous.  And it is work.  And it is worth it.”

As I said at the start, the OSF project has done all of us a favor by raising the issue of how we deal with the rich gift of Shakespeare.  First thing we do, let’s not underrate it.

Ralph Alan Cohen

ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission


*This post was edited on 10/10 to correct the numbering in the second section and correct “quipped” to


“Practise rhetoric in your common talk” with ASC Education’s Rhetoric Flashcards

Now available in the ASC Gift Shop, ASC Education is pleased and proud to introduce Rhetoric Flashcards!


This resource features fifty of Shakespeare’s most-often-used figures of speech, subdivided by our R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric classification system. If you’re interested in deepening your study of Shakespeare’s language, we’ve got you covered from accumulatio to zeugma.

These flashcards are ideal for any teacher, student, or actor who wants an easy jumping-off point to take their study of Shakespeare’s language to the next level, moving beyond the broad patterns and into more specific devices. Each card includes the term itself on one side, with its definition and an example of it in use in Shakespeare on the other. You can use them as a quick reference or as a way of testing your memory, if you’ve committed to being able to explain paralipsis to friends, colleagues, or strangers trapped next to you on airplanes.

I am personally tremendously excited that we have these to offer these now, as it’s a project that’s been three years in the making — and even longer if you trace them back to their origins in colored pencils and index cards, created for Dr. Ralph’s language class in the MBC graduate program. I have long hoped to provide this resource to teachers, students, and actors, and now my dream has now become tangible reality!

-Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

Summer/Fall 15 Playhouse Insider: Now on Sale!

I’m pleased to announce that the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of the Playhouse Insider is now on-sale in the Box Office! Here’s a sneak peek at what’s inside:SF15Cover


I’m delighted to have an article from Kate Powers, the last person to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the ASC, back in 2011. While Midsummer is always a crowd favorite, Powers initially felt some hesitance to tackle the project – but rehearsing the show helped her find the same love we at the ASC hope you’ll feel for this year’s production.

In Matt Davies’s piece, you’ll hear from an ex-Antony in his own words. Davies played the role for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, under the direction of our very own Ralph Cohen. While Cleopatra often receives more attention as a famously challenging role, Antony comes with his own set of expectations and imaginings, and Davies will lead you through his exploration of them.

Finally, as our current tour prepares to embark on the first phase of their journey in September, I thought you would enjoy a look at what life on the road is like – and what it means to come home to the Playhouse. Patrick Poole and Lexi Braverman of last year’s Method in Madness tour share their experiences in an interview with Education Artist Lia Razak Wallace.


Our first scholarly article illustrates that, at the Blackfriars Playhouse, research and practice are always deeply intertwined. Amy Grubbs shares her observances from working on The Winter’s Tale as a member of Mary Baldwin College’s 2014-2015 MFA Company, Turning Glass Shakespeare.

I’m tremendously excited to offer an article from Michael Poston, a friend from the Folger Shakespeare Library. As technology continues to advance, editors across the world are engaging with new ways to present Shakespeare’s texts. Poston uses some examples from 1 Henry VI to illustrate the challenges of tagging a Shakespeare play for digital mark-up, and the result is a fascinating look at the underpinnings of early modern texts in the modern age.

With the 8th Blackfriars Conference coming up in October, we decided to showcase some thoughts based on a paper from a previous conference. Matt Kozusko’s article on humor in Hamlet is precisely the blend of sharp, amusing, and insight that we prize in the presentations at each biennial gathering, the topic Matt chose also offers a great transition from our Spring to Summer season..


We’ve just wrapped the 2015 No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, and in 2016, we’ll be taking the team abroad again. Find out what traveling to London to study Shakespeare is like from 2013 camper Lia Janosz – and learn why she considers Dr. Ralph the Indiana Jones of early modern theatre.

Finally, teacher Katrien Vance shares her experience – and those enjoyed by her students – in bringing ASC Education to her school for an exploration of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions. From special effects to the nuances of rhetoric, her class dove into the work with great enthusiasm – and the pictures from their stage blood workshop are not to be missed!

If you’re interested in contributing to a future issue, please send me an email with your proposal:

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

Leadership Seminar: Cue Scripts and Killing Caesar


It’s IP week here with ASC Education! Since 2012, we have hosted an annual leadership training event for International Paper, a truly massive corporation producing paper goods of all kinds and total ubiquity — chances are good there’s an IP product within your arm’s reach at this very moment!

One of the most rewarding components of the week is watching our groups grow from day to day, both in the work they do on personal presentation and structuring their personal statements, as well as in the scenework we do with them. On Tuesday, small groups of three or four put together short scenes from Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew. Yesterday, groups of six and seven tackled Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. And today? Today they killed Caesar.

Killing Caesar is, as I’ve noted before, one of my very favorite things to do. What makes it extra special during IP week is seeing how far these folk have come in just a few days. On the first day, many are hesitant, both of the words and of offering their ideas. This morning, they hardly needed the coaches in the room at all. They could find embedded stage directions, make suggestions to each other, and negotiate the needs of the scene to tell a story, all with very little guidance.

They’ll have their final performances tomorrow, but for now, I wanted to share a few pics from today’s rehearsal:

Podcast Archive: 2015

2015 Actors’ Renaissance Season

2015 Spring Season

“So sensible seemeth their conference”: On Academic Conviviality


There’s a danger in academia, and in theatrical practice, of sometimes letting yourself get into an echo chamber. When you live and work with so many people who are all focused towards the same mission, its easy to feed off of each other’s brains and lose sight of other perspectives. This, I think, is the main reason we have conferences. (The other reason, so far as I can tell, is that it’s beneficial to one’s sanity to realize that, no, you aren’t the only one crazy enough to care with fervid passion about the placement of stage directions or punctuation marks). Leaving our home base and trekking to far-off climes can reinvigorate our own studies and pedagogical practices. Sometimes, getting out introduces new concepts. Sometimes, it reminds me that — yes, I do think the way I think for a reason, and I’m sticking to it. Both experiences are valuable.

This spring has given me a lot of opportunity along those lines. In April, Sarah and I went to Vancouver for the Shakespeare Association of America conference, an annual gathering of hundreds of scholars and graduate students from the US and beyond. The conversation is large and robust, a mix of the venerable and best-known scholars with the up-and-comers. Each year, particularly among the young guard, there’s more conversation about digital approaches to Shakespeare, about community outreach, and about how Shakespeare speaks to different diverse populations. It’s great to know that so many people are so invested in using new technology and opportunities to breathe continual life into the plays we’ve all loved for so long.

The trouble with such an enormous conference, though, is that you can often feel like you’ve missed out on a lot. There are only a few plenary presentations, and a dozen or more seminars run concurrently. I’m grateful for the thriving conference hashtag — widely proclaimed the best on Twitter — #shakeass15. Tweeting sessions not only helps me take notes for myself, it puts me in conversation with other scholars and students with similar interests — and following the hashtag helps me know what I’ve missed due to scheduling conflicts. It’s nice to have a sense of what everyone’s working on, even if I can’t get all the details. Just knowing what conversations are ongoing is an important awareness.

By contrast, the Halved Heart Academic Conference at Shakespeare’s Globe was an intimate affair. A dozen presenters, two keynotes, and an audience of roughly forty scholars and students, all focused on a single topic: friendship in early modern drama. Because of the tight focus of the conference, we all came in with even more of a shared vocabulary than early modernists typically have. There are few other places, I think, where references to Cicero, Erasmus, and Montaigne could get thrown out quite so casually, with such little footnoting. While being at a large conference can sometimes leave me feeling a bit at sea, that communal focus at Halved Heart helped me to feel immediately part of a group, welcomed and warmed. A small conference is, by its nature, exclusive, though. We shared ideas passionately and with brilliant conversation, but it’ll be harder for those ideas to keep propagating. (We had a hashtag there, too: #HalvedHeartConf, if you’d like to see what we were on about). We can each bring what we learned back to our home institutions, and I’ve made some wonderful friends I look forward to connecting with in the future, but it’s just naturally more of a closed loop than a larger conference.1479469_10151906077508347_1988637814_n

In October, we’ll welcome a few hundred scholars and students to the Blackfriars Conference. We hope to strike a happy balance between the broad-reaching topics and the intimate, friendly atmosphere. Towards that end, most of our sessions are plenary. While a large conference might have only six to eight papers with no competing programming, the Blackfriars Conference has sixty-six. This allows for a wonderful exchange of ideas, where everyone gets to hear the same papers and join in the conversation. But then we also have our colloquy sessions, each focused on a single topic, to further the detailed conversations and to encourage scholars with similar research interests to connect with each other. (And yes, we’ve got an official conference hashtag, too! Follow #BFConf15 for updates as we organize and for information from the conference itself once October rolls around).

All of these conferences serve different purposes, and they’re all great in their own ways. I’m definitely looking forward to SAA 2016 in New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in the world; I hope I’ll be able to head back to London (another favorite city) for another Globe conference sometime; I look forward to welcoming all our friends to our home, here in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

“What were’t worth to know the secret of your conference?” – Henry VIII

1476674_10151906090108347_892834423_nTomorrow is the deadline for would-be presenters to submit abstracts for our biennial Blackfriars Conference. Predictably, the flood gates have opened in the last week, and my inbox has brimmed with innovative and exciting suggestions for possible explorations. I continue to be amazed at the community of people (myself included) who work for Mr. William Shakespeare, nearly 400 years after the guy died. But more than that, I am delighted by how these abstracts shape my thinking and appreciation not just for the man (the guy I often refer to as my boss) but also for the community members who I am pleased to call colleagues.

What follows is a brief glimpse of just some of the papers you may* hear if you come to Staunton the last week of October 2015:
  • Romeo’s and Juliet’s relationship to the “Sun Economy”
  • Connecting The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta
  • Feminism and Consent in Taming of the Shrew
  • Rhetoric and Stanislavsky in Shakespeare Performance
  • Conversion and Repentance in Winter’s Tale
  • Shakespeare and the Civil War
  • Chests and Trunks
  • Entreating in Taming of the Shrew
  • Drinking in Hamlet
  • Fletcher’s School Room: Dance and Performance in Two Noble Kinsmen
  • Coffins
  • Parenting Skills (this conference really does have something for everyone!)
  • Act 3 scene 2 (of every play)
  • Bad teachers and bad students in Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • Shakespeare performances at sea
  • Violence on Stage, Poison vs Blood: Women vs Men
  • 2  Gents: The Musical
  • Syphilis
  • Pregnancy on the early modern stage (unrelated to the above)
  • Madness
  • Quartos
  • Perkin Warbeck
  • The performance of Hero
  • Shakespeare and Chinese
  • Eye Contact
  • Shakespeare and American Sign Language
  • Kings on the eve of battle
  • Satire
  • Shakespeare and Lincoln
  • Shrew and 50 Shades of Grey
  • Geography
  • Psychology
  • Gender-cross casting
  • Art
  • Eavesdropping
  • Corpses

…and more.  We will announce the results of the selection process in May; til then, keep your eyes peeled — and see how many things you can find in your life that relate to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

–Sarah Enloe
ASC Director of Education

*I will send these abstracts to a set of “blind” readers on April 15.  The readers will see neither the name of the person who submitted, nor that person’s affiliation–whether it is collegiate or independent, graduate student or emeritus professor.  The readers will mark each abstract with a letter grade based on a set of criteria we provide, and we will collate the grades and select the top 66 for plenary presentation.  

Exciting Opportunities for Teachers This Summer

The Valley’s trying hard to break through the chill into more spring-like weather, but at ASC Education, though, we’re already thinking ahead to summer! I just wanted to take a moment to showcase three chances that teachers have in June, July, and August to learn new techniques for invigorating their classroom exploration of Shakespeare.

June 22nd-26th, we’ll be up at JMU in Harrisonburg leading a Content Teaching Academy. Sarah and I are tremendously excited about this, as it’s a chance for us to squeeze a full model Shakespeare unit into a single week. Using Julius Caesar as an example text, we’ll go through all the building blocks of scansion, rhetoric, staging conditions, audience contact, and more, and then we’ll use those as a scaffold for exploring characters and performance choices, as well as the ideas of theme and tone that your students will be expected to address in standardized tests. Attendees are eligible for 30 hours of professional development credit, and for an extra fee, can receive three hours of university graduate credit from JMU. This is really an incredible deal — nowhere else are you going to get such value in such a short time. Learn more and register now!

Teachers are also invited to attend the week-long No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, July 20th-24th. This year, we’ll be exploring the theme of Social History, looking at the cultural, religious, economic, and interpersonal aspects of the early modern world that shaped Shakespeare and his playmaking, through special lectures from Ralph Alan Cohen, Mary Hill Cole, and Steven Urkowitz. Through these sessions and the workshops led by ASC Education staff, teachers can earn 20+ hours of professional development credits. We’ll also have our usual festive schedule of rehearsal observations, field trips, a cast party, and of course you’ll get to see the shows of the ASC Summer Season. Here are just a few of the ways that past participants have described NKSC — If these entice you, registrations are open through the ASC website.

  • “I found this to be one of the top experiences that I have had at ASC.”
  • “I enjoyed talking to other campers and finding out about everyone’s diverse backgrounds. I appreciated that we all came to Shakespeare in different ways.”
  • “I walked away with not only practical knowledge, but with some new insight into myself”
  • “This is a unique opportunity to learn about Shakespeare’s world from top-flight experts, including the ASC’s own Ralph Cohen, in the most casual and friendly settings imaginable. You’ll come back with a much more in-the-bones feel for the circumstances the plays were born in.”
  • “This was truly a time to rejuvenate myself as a teacher and Shakespeare enthusiast. Thank you ASC!”
  • “It was a splendid feast— Shakespearean, cultural, and historical , for the mind, body and spirit”

If you can’t make a week-long commitment, never fear! We’ve got a single-day Summer Teacher Seminar on August 7th. This year, the Summer Seminar will focus on Shakespeare’s Toolbox — the basic components of his texts that allowed him and his actors to create their plays. We’ll be going deep and narrow into not just the mechanics but the application of meter, rhetoric, and Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, so botteacherseminar08120030-1h teachers new to ASC methods and our frequent flyers will find valuable insights. This is, in some ways, an expansion of what we’ll be teaching during the Shakespeare Association of America Conference in Vancouver later this week — but here, we’ll be on our home turf with more workshop hours to devote to giving you all the tools you need to make Shakespeare a hit in your classroom. Register now to join us in August!

We’re absolutely thrilled that we have so many opportunities to engage with teachers in the coming months. We want to put the lessons learned on-stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse into as many classrooms as possible, because we know that these methods change the way students experience and think about Shakespeare. As one of our frequent seminar attendees says, “My students LOVE Shakespeare and get excited from the moment they see the classroom re-arranged.” Get your students eager to rush to your class, and spend some time with us this summer!

Winter/Spring 2015 Playhouse Insider

The latest edition of the Playhouse Insider is now available for purchase in the Box Office! Here’s a sneak peek at the goodies within:photo (6)

  • An interview regarding “Bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst” with Sarah Fallon, who has played the role of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew three times.
  • A look at the amazing Aphra Behn, the woman behind The Rover — and some of the complicated gender politics of Restoration England.
  • Professor Stephen Purcell of the University of Warwick discusses how The White Devil has “flummoxed” readers and spectators throughout history.
  • From Penn State Harrisburg, Professor Margaret Jaster tells us why she keeps bringing her classes back to the Blackfriars Playhouse for Little Academes.
  • Meredith Parnes, frequent resident of the gallant stools, on what’s kept her coming back not just to the shows but to the Blackfriars Conference and the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp as well.
  • Actors John Harrell and Kate Eastwood Norris, the first to portray Benedick and Beatrice at the Blackfriars Playhouse, share their memories and their thoughts about Much Ado about Nothing 11 years later.
  • Dane CT Leasure, MBC MFA graduate and Artistic Director of Rubber City Shakespeare, discusses his experiences working on the special effects of Rogue Shakespeare’s 2014 Doctor Faustus.
  • Our Playhouse Manager, Melissa Huggins, provides some insight on how the ASC’s costuming practices are “following an original practice without consciously trying”.

Stop by soon and get all these insights into the shows of the Actors’ Renaissance Season and the Method in Madness Tour for just $5!

Julius Caesar: Early Modern Blockbuster

As has become traditional in March, I’m using the excuse of the upcoming Ides  to expound my feelings on (and love for) Julius Caesar.

This year, I want to riff off of a really excellent post about the play from what might seem like an odd source: The Tor Blog. Tor, for those who don’t know, is a sci-fi fantasy publisher, an imprint of Macmillan (one of the Big 5 Publishers). The author of the piece is Chris Lough, who usually blogs about superheroes. If that all strikes you as strange, it really shouldn’t. I’ve long suspected a large overlap between fans of Shakespeare and fans of genre fiction. If you love language, great storytelling, and captivating characters, you’ll rarely find better than you find in sci-fi and fantasy novels, so it’s quite natural to me that many people who love one also love the other.

What delights me so much about this post is the unbridled enthusiasm Lough expresses for Caesar. It’s just so refreshing! I usually hear about people approaching this play with great trepidation or with weary resignation, and that so depresses me, because, as long-time readers of this blog know, I think there’s so much there to unpack and rejoice in. And Lough hits on so much of it. He calls Caesar “a visceral and fast-paced epic,” “tightly plotted,” and, most tellingly, “a blockbuster.”

These are the things I’ve always loved about Caesar. I’ve long said it should share renown with Macbeth as a high-octane thriller. I know teachers struggle to get students to see that awesome energy, though. Many educators have trouble feeling the love themselves. So why? What is it that gets in the way?

Well, for one thing, it’s about the most Dead White Guys Making Speeches you can get, and that can be off-putting from a distance. Of all the famous Dead White Guys Making Speeches in history, these are about the most famous. Not without reason! The men are culturally important and the speeches are fantastic. But it can cause a not-unreasonable knee jerk reaction for students who are tired of being buried under such viewpoints. For female students, particularly, there are few immediately apparent avatars. The women in the play are scarcely better than non-existent. Calpurnia mostly exists to have her (perfectly rational) fears brushed off and ridiculed, and while Portia gets some great language, her apparent instability and desperation don’t make her the best of role models. (And then she disappears after 2.4). So there are some instinctive barriers to get past when it comes to encouraging students to empathize with the characters.

The other, I suspect, is that it’s given as a tonic. It’s a mandatory part of most high school curriculi, where it looms like a precariously placed boulder over the syllabus. Dr. Ralph talks about this in the opening of the Caesar chapter of ShakesFear and How to Cure It, envisioning a Shakespeare who dreams of the future industry built up around him and is bitter about it:

…[Will] woke up grumpy. His work, his words, his ideas were going to be a major industry and make strangers rich. It was more than he could stand. How could he stop or at least limit the damage? He thought all day, and then he had a brilliant idea. He would write a play without comedy and without sex, full of long and serious speeches, and he would make that play about an historical event and famous personalities so pivotal to western history that every public school in the English-speaking world would put it into the curriculum. Students would first be introduced to his work with this play, and the result would be that they would never want to read or see another work by William Shakespeare in their lives. In this way, he would assure that a large majority of the modern world hated him and thus reduce to a fraction the profit others would make off his works. That evening he started writing Julius Caesar.

Actually Julius Caesar is a wonderful play; it’s just the wrong one to use for teaching teenagers a delight in Shakespeare. Like you, however, I have to teach it, and the first time I stood in front of a class trying to get them interested in hubris, tragic flaws, and dramatic irony, I felt more and more as if the class was looking at me through soundproof glass. At the end of the hour, I told them I wanted a rematch.

The challenge, then, is for teachers to find the joy in the play themselves and then to communicate to students. I’ve had great luck in classrooms by exploring the embedded stage directions around killing Caesar and the fun you can have with blood. Once you hook them with that, you can get them excited about the gorgeously manipulative rhetoric, the really warped sense of ego all of these guys seem to have, and the conversations about personal and political power we’re still having today. That’s when you can start seeing Julius Caesar as the tightly-plotted blockbuster we ought to consider it.

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager