MFA Thesis Festival 2017

Good evening! Cass Morris, ASC Academic Resources Manager, here to live-blog the 2017 Mary Baldwin University MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. Tonight, beginning at 6:30pm, members of the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, the 2016-2017 MFA class, will present research conducted for and during their year of company-building:

Paul Menzer begins by welcoming everyone, introducing the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, and reminding us that the MLitt presentations begin at 9am tomorrow. Menzer stresses the unique nature of the thesis festival at MBU, designed to combat the isolating effect of thesis writing and give students the opportunity to share with and hear from “an interested and generous” audience. Each presenter will speak for approximately 7 minutes, ending with a “provocative question”, followed by a short Q&A.

Catie Osborn – Photography as Performance: Archive and/as Adaptation

Osborn begins by explaining the scholastic considerations that her work as production photographer provoked. “There is little to no research on the implications of photograph in the theatre”. She states her intent to challenge a 1956 assertion that “photographs taken during the course of production are uninteresting”. Osborn discusses two types of photographs in the theatre: marketing/publicity and archive/documentation, as well as sharing the OED definition of “adaptation”. She believes that the act of theatrical photography constitutes an adaptation of the theatrical work — the center of the Venn diagram between marketing/publicity and archive/documentation.

Osborn asserts that the photographer working during a performance becomes a storyteller in their own right. She presents some “not at all staged” examples of “That Nice Chris Moneymaker” — one photograph showing him as alone and isolated, another from a different angle showing the actor surrounded by the theatrical audience in universal lighting. The use of photos then becomes “an adapted act”. She also shares examples of photographs that photoshopped together figures from different productions in order to market a show.

Considering the potentially infinite record of production, given the storage capabilities modern technology provides, Osborn questions how to best curate those photographs for archival. She suggests that a production must “include the photographer in the production process”. Osborn states her belief that, by including the photographer in the process, it would be possible to create a record of performance that would allow someone to experience the performance through the archives.

She poses the question: “What is lost in these performances? What is gained?”

Kelley McKinnon – “We know what we are, but know not what we may be”: Engaging a Student Audience in Self-Discovery through the Mechanism of Interaction

“If you’ve spent five minutes with me, you probably know several things:” that she has a loud laugh, that she has Opinions, and that she loves to learn. She goes on to note that another five minutes will expose that she asks personal questions and loves working with students to help them learn. “There is nothing in the world that is better to men than watching a light bulb turn on” in someone’s head. McKinnon states her belief that nothing can replace the value of a personal connection between student and teacher, and she cites a viral video of a North Carolina teacher who invented a different secret handshake for each of his students, noting that his attendance and test scores seem to correlate positively with that practice.

McKinnon notes the importance of “reversing the expectation” for students of Shakespeare, fighting against the ingrained belief many have that Shakespeare is hard and that they’re not smart enough for it. Her thesis is based around how she approaches an educational tour from a director’s point of view with the goal of taking over/changing the world. “My approach as a director is to put the systems in place to build self reliance through connection.” This applies both to her cast and staff and to the audience. For student audiences, “the clarity of storytelling” is always at the forefront, but she believes a further step of personalization can be vital, particularly when interacting with under-served audiences.

McKinnon goes on to explicate why she uses Shakespeare to “change the world”, particularly by working with inner city students, with benefits including but not limited to: explorations of tyranny, nonconformists, and violence, “wrapped up with a bunch of dick and fart jokes”. Treating Shakespeare not as something inaccessible and privileged but as something that is for them augments the experience and can, she believes, be life- and thus world-changing. She finishes by asking: “Who is my audience for this?”

Joshua Richard Williams – “We will perform in measure, time, and place”: The Qualitative Effect of Spatial Architecture on Stage Combat Choreography

Williams specifies that he is looking at the development of stage combat in a touring process and how that does and doesn’t impact the performance itself. Last summer he engaged in training and certification with the American Society of Fight Directors. He discusses the concept of “violence as spectacle” that CSE explored in its touring production of Macbeth. His considerations include examining the ways in which the dimension and orientation of a performance space, and how differences in that in touring locations may change the storytelling. For his thesis, he focuses on the opening fight which establishes the violence of the play: involving eight of ten cast members, several entrances and exits mid-bout. He notes that the paratextual fight “serves as an introduction for the audience” to the play itself.

Williams then walks through the “bloody soldier” interchange from 1.2, pointing out five details which inform the physicality of the fight. While not explicitly called for in the text, these lines allow a director and fight director to make choices about the story they wish to present to the audience. In CSE’s production, it was an opportunity to show Macbeth as a fighter surrounded by violence, continually attacked from behind, instilling a sense of wariness, distrust, and betrayal. The actor playing Banquo appears to save Macbeth twice, establishing their relationship. The fight also introduces Malcolm and foreshadows the appearance of the Weird Sisters.

Williams notes that they blocked the show for two different conditions: Blackfriars-style, with use of a backstage space, and an on-stage presentation, where the actors are all in chairs and visible throughout the production. He notes that this second set-up presented challenges, and goes on to discuss one example in depth, where the company had “a lane of perhaps five and a half to six feet in width and eleven or twelve feet in length” to perform in. Williams thinks this was probably the most challenging space to work in, but also the most illuminating.

His question asks the audience for sources on found spaces for performance or dance. “What is the difference between a performance space and a theatre? What can one do that the other one cannot?”

Justine R. Mackey – “So hung upon with love”: Examining Physical Intimacy with Compass Shakespeare Ensemble

“My work… explores the many ways in which physical touch or the lack thereof” tells a story and communicates emotion. Mackey’s thesis examines touch as a means of communication in performance. She notes that, for her, physical touch ended up being a recurring theme in her roles across the CSE season (Lady Macbeth, the Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jacquenetta in Love’s Labour’s Lost). “When I refer to physical intimacy, I don’t always mean sexual or lustful touching.” Her definition covers everything from simple familiarity to passionate interaction.

Mackey cites research from the Touch Research Institute which “prove the healthy benefits of touch,” noting that touch appears to be vital not only to human interaction but to individual health. She moves on to discussing how CSE explored the process and potential of touch in their ensemble work. To foster positive energy and the sense of community they would need for their MFA year, one early exercise involved verbally complimenting each other. Mackey took the benefits of this exercise forward into the idea of physical intimacy. Osborn and Odenbrett demonstrate another exercise from the character exploration of Troilus and Cressida, creating a powerful gestural score for two characters who long to touch but are pulled apart by external forces. From this, Mackey decided to focus on how bodies travel and intersect.

Mackey ends by asking us all to close our eyes and re-imagine the process of experiencing their devised show back in September, then asks the audience to share their most memorable experience from that evening.

Clarence Joseph Finn – “Methinks you are my glass and not my brother”: An Experience of Playing the Identical Dromio Twins with One Actor Body in The Comedy of Errors

Finn begins by stating that his thesis focuses on the challenge of playing two characters in one body and the effect that it has had on his body image. He notes that, as a result of bullying earlier in life, he had never engaged in physical training, as he had never seen the point. Entering this program changed his perspective, and he particularly notes the Viewpoints exercises taught by Doreen as teaching him to think well of his body on stage.

Working through the Dromios was his greatest challenge, made moreso by the fact that this performance was part of CSE’s already highly-doubled small scale production. He had to develop different markers for each Dromio. Finn then walks us through his process of developing them, beginning with voices: he started with Linklater choices for finding each Dromio’s voice, then moved into using Laban to marry those vocal choices to physical choices. One Dromio was lighter and quicker; the other low and heavy. He then moved on to behavioral gestures drawn from Viewpoints training. Finn also notes that the relationship each Dromio has to his respective Antipholus further informed his own physicality and spatial relationship. With the help of Sczepankowski and Odenbrett, Finn demonstrates the difference in his two Dromios.

His question: Is there a clear and distinct physical difference, and how might he further develop the physicality to make that clearer?

Molly Beth Seremet – “This is and is not Cressida”: Resisting Anthropocentrism in the Shakespeare of Things

Seremet begins “in the negative space” between the thesis she’ll actually be working on and the thesis she can no longer write. She intended to build upon her MLitt thesis, but notes that the exploration of the conflation of “person” and “thing” has become profoundly uncomfortable in our current political climate. While she’s still fascinated by the cyber-potential of becoming-human value in objects, but she is concerned about the inverse: making an object of a human. Seremet uses several examples from the past month, including the Oklahoma bill turning a woman into a “host” and the interaction of the “nuclear football” with guests at the “Winter White House”.

She goes on to note that the thesis she would like to write isn’t entirely hers to tell, given her own privilege and societal status, and she draws a connection to the “no-place” that Cressida exists in. Seremet hopes to continue elevating the object while also interrogating  the view from her position of privilege. She hopes to connect Cressida’s experience to the current immigrant/refugee crisis and with her own family history of displacement. She discusses her need to “focus on the real and the material in this era of alternative facts”.

Her question: What are the ethical responsibilities of a theatrical and art-making practice in the year 2017? And, in unpacking object-based feminism, how can the voice of the object be viewed through the mechanism?

Zac Harned – Arguing with Myself: Body Building Stories

Harned begins by describing his experience as a rifleman as a metaphor for the various components necessary for success in the small scale production. He will address the roles he played in the small scale production of Troilus and Cressida and how rhetoric informed his physical choices.

“Shakespeare’s characters cause plot by action,” whether that action is implied in what they say or more explicit when they stab someone. “All acting choices are based in necessity.” He keys in on the idea of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and “art” being, essentially, an action of making something; thus, “rhetoric is the making of getting what you want” — which could also serve as a definition of acting. Harned discusses his discovery that rhetorically-informed performances are not, themselves, a style of acting — so “why should an actor give a damn?” He asserts that without engaging the rhetoric, an actor misses the opportunity for intellectual depth and aesthetic appeal.

Harned continues that “most people approach Shakespeare with a doctrine,” and that almost every doctrine that says “yes” to something says “no” to something else. His focus on scansion and rhetoric is not meant to be dogmatic, but he asserts that rhetorical knowledge enables an actor to be faithful to the story of a character. Harned asks the audience if they can see ways in which this approach is inaccessible to actors.

Ryan Odenbrett – A Face “full of O’s”: An Examination of Ecphonesis in Berowne’s Dialogue

Odenbrett connects his MFA thesis to his MLitt thesis on statsitical analysis. He believes echphonesis (the exclamation) is perhaps the most easily identifiable rhetorical figure. What, he asks, does the use of ecphonesis inform us about a character? He focuses on a line of Rosaline’s, accusing Berowne of having “a face full of Os” — rather than interpreting this as a reference to smallpox scars or syphilis blisters, he wondered if she referred to his exclamatory tendencies.

The process of documenting the use of ecphonesis was “monotonous, but not difficult”. Berowne uses ecphonesis 23 times in the play, 18 of those in 4.3 alone. 11 of those take place after he confesses to having written his love sonnet. 92% of his exclamations occur in verse. Odenbrett runs through a breakdown of the syntactical placements of these instances of ecphonesis. Odenbrett then created a table of the total ecphoneses used in all of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Costard comes in second with 11 instances.

Odenbrett then wanted to know if Berowne uses ecphonesis more than anyone else in the canon — but he believes not, as Love’s Labour’s Lost only has 68 instances (in 12th place), while Romeo and Juliet comes in first with 146. He intends to compare Berowne to other male characters in Shakespeare’s comedies. He asks what information we feel that ecphonesis gives an actor about a character.

George R Kendall – Directing Shakespeare in Intimate Performance Space and the Brechtian V-effekt 

Kendall begins by connecting his work to Mackey’s and Williams’s, as it deals with physicality and physical space. He interrogates the nearness to or distance from the audience in various theatrical approaches, looking particularly at the use of two “intimate spaces”: blackbox theatres and studio spaces. He notes that the Blackfriars Playhouse, while not fitting into either of those categories, still constitutes an intimate space. Kendall characterizes a component of intimacy as the “shared space” of actors and audience which enhances the emotional experience of the audience.

Kendall then discusses the practice of direct address and how it fits into the use of intimate performance spaces. Though it breaks the flow of the action, it does so in a way that is not an obstruction in these spaces. Kendall contrasts the intimacy of direct address in the Blackfriars Playhouse and similar styles to the alienation of the audience and distancing of emotional involvement intended by Brecht.

Kendall states his belief that directors should be very aware of the production space when deciding up on their approach to a play, particularly with an eye towards audience address. The more intimate the theatre space, the more personal that audience interaction can become; direct address has a less profound effect in a large proscenium theatre where much of the audience is physically further from the actors. Kendall questions: What have those of you who are actors discovered about intimate performance space? and How comfortable or uncomfortable are you as an audience member with an actor who addresses you?

Melinda Marks – A Labour Saved: How I Learned to Get Along with Love’s Labour’s Lost

Marks, who was the dramaturg for Love’s Labour’s Lost, also cut that script, and her thesis examines the practical process of cutting, what she cut, and how she decided to cut it. She admits up front that she strongly dislikes this play, which makes telling us about cutting it an intellectually interesting challenge. Since this cutting was for CSE’s “Ren season show”, the show styled after the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, Marks notes that the dramaturg’s role then becomes complicated, as they have no director’s conceptual parameters for either guidance or restriction. Marks notes the difference between creating a product “faithful to” someone else’s concepts and creating a product with the particular goals of the CSE Ren season show. She both had to rely upon subjectivity and had to combat her own distaste for the play in order to create a coherent script that would be interesting for both actors and audience.

After cutting the play, Marks went through all her cuts and made notes on her reasons for them. This allowed her to distinguish between objective and subjective cuts. She also color-coded these cuts for ease of analysis. She describes her role not only as dramaturg, but also as the editor of her own dramaturgical thought process.

Marks asks what we think would be a valuable quantitative or qualitative addition to this process?

Shane Michael Sczepankowski – The Story of the Storytellers

Sczepankowski informs us that his project is “like a thesis… but it isn’t. But it is.” As a response to a challenge from Paul Menzer to write a contribution to the MFA book that was more than an academic paper. As such, he is working on a play reflective of CSE’s mission statement. He is creating “a soft re-telling of the ‘Shane’anigans that have transpired” during the CSE year; his adaptation of Macbeth responds to and parodies CSE’s process of creating their school touring show. The director appears as Hecate and the “salty actors” as the Witches, among other correlations.

Sczepankowski posits this play as a sort of archival compilation, retelling the process of CSE’s experience. In a scripted scene, Tyler Dale expresses concern that Sczepankowski is skirting his responsibilities as an S&P student; Sczepankowski admits that this is an unusual approach, but believes that it will reflect the unique and meaningful experiences of the CSE journey.

His question: What makes a successful adaptation and what makes an absolutely miserable one?

Introducing “Kids” to Shakespeare

Since 2011, four grade-school teachers have been reading and reviewing children’s, juvenile, and young adult fiction and nonfiction, and then collectively writing about it on really fun interactive blog called “The Nerdy Book Club.” They say that all it takes to be an “honorary member” of “The Nerdy Book Club” is a love of books. My favorite thing about the site, is their book awards system. Every December, the four teachers, as well as their students and fans of the site, get the chance to nominate their favorite books published that year. They all then discuss the pros and cons, and the four teachers narrow down the nominees. Everyone has the month to read anything they haven’t already and, finally, vote. They announce the winners in the last few days of December. Some of the categories that you can nominate are Picture Books, Chapter Books, Graphic Novels, Poetry, Non-Fiction, among others. Finalists have included a vast range of popular titles like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, and Mo Willems very successful Pigeon books. Another great feature of the site are the handy “Top Ten Lists.” Each list focuses on a specific topic or type of book or reader, to suggest similar titles they may enjoy. Examples include “Ten Fiercely Fabulous Female Heroines,” “Beyond Santa and Frosty: Meaningful Books for the Season,” and “Top Ten Books to Give to Adolescent Boys who say they ‘Hate Reading.’”

Recently, a friend of our Education Department brought to our attention one of the site’s December lists, “Ten Books to Introduce Kids (of Any Age! Adults, too!) to Shakespeare.” Before I review this post, I should point out that the top ten lists on the site aren’t all recommended by the four teachers who operate the blog. This one was created by an associate editor at Nomad Press named Andi Diehn. That being said, I still decided to read all ten books and look at them as an “introduction” to Shakespeare.

Diehn introduces the post with this lovely little description (her words on the left, my comments on the right);

When I was about 12 years old, I decided to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My mom was impressed. We went to the library and picked it up, along with Hamlet, just because, and I carried them home with a reverence… Okay, so at age 12, Diehn tried to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the hopes of graduating to Hamlet, “just because.” Great! What a good start! She notes that her mom was “impressed” with her “reveren[t]” book choice and provides a seemingly happy (and routine) memory of them going to the library to pick up these plays. So we get the idea that Diehn is a young reader and her mother supports that hobby by taking her to the library. Since her target audience (i.e. people who read blogs like the Nerdy Book Club) is probably made up of young readers, this is a great hook to support their budding hopes of learning about Shakespeare.
But…what were these words? This wasn’t even English, was it? I didn’t understand any of it. Within a page or two of Midsummer, I was done, discouraged, disappointed. I didn’t even attempt Hamlet. Shakespeare, I decided, wasn’t for me. Which she instantly destroys with her own example of what she sees as a failure to read successfully heightened poetry at 12. She expertly defines in her youth “this wasn’t even English” and decides that she was “done, discouraged, and disappointed” and after two pages of struggling she concludes that Shakespeare wasn’t for her.
It wasn’t until about five years later, when a high school English teacher got up in front of the class and performed the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with passion and total commitment that I was willing to give it another shot. And with daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussions about plot, symbolism, history, and character, I fell in love. THANKFULLY she was re-inspired by a passionate high-school teacher that encouraged her to “give it another shot.” It took her five years to try “daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussion about plot, symbolism, history, and character” which made her fall in love with Shakespeare.
The good news is, we don’t actually have to wait that long to enjoy Shakespeare. Actually, we enjoy him a lot more than we realize. Not only did he add more than 1,700 words to the English language, he also provides the foundations for countless books, movies, songs, TV shows, and blogs.

If you’re looking to inspire a love of Shakespeare in a kid of any age, check out these young adult novels. They’re the gateway to a lifelong connection with the greatest English writer of all time.

But apparently her experience of having a good teacher who supported her learning a difficult playwright was “waiting too long” and thankfully we don’t have to “suffer” like Diehn did. Instead she suggests reading 10 books NOT by Shakespeare, just books about Shakespeare or books that hint at Shakespearean themes, characters, and plots and THAT will make him interesting enough to foster “lifelong connection with the greatest English writer of all time.”

Her top ten include;

    1. The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees
    2. The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love by A.E. Cannon
    3. Ophelia by Lisa Klein
    4. Street Love by Walter Dean Myers
    5. Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet by Paula Marantz Cohen
    6. Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
    7. The Cake House by Latifah Salom
    8. Something Rotten by Alan Gratz
    9. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
    10. King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

Don’t get me wrong now; I am all for inspiring the youths (adults, too!) to read Shakespeare. But I have a crazy idea to introduce students to Shakespeare: you could give them (wait for it)…………………… Shakespeare. I was ten years old when I first read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so don’t tell me it’s impossible. What made the play so accessible at ten for me and what made it so accessible for Diehn in high school are the exact same thing, and I would suggest that age has nothing to do with it. We both had great teachers: someone who was passionate about the story and about making sure their students understood that they could understand Shakespeare. I see this during our workshops and summer camps with students of all ages (5 years old to 95 years old), so don’t tell me young children and young adults can’t get it because “it isn’t even English.” What made Diehn follow what was happening in the plays was “daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussion about plot, symbolism, history, and character.”

I’m not saying reading Shakespeare for the first time is as easy as reading young adult and juvenile historical fiction that introduces themes and plots from the plays, but reading the actual play should never be dismissed as “too difficult” or “discouraging” or impossible. There is a fundamental difference between a smart young reader trying to understand heightened rhetoric and poetry alone (no matter how supportive their parents may be of their hobby) and having a passionate person to lead group discussion about plot, symbolism, history, character. Lastly, I’m not even sure why Diehn suggests this method to introduce Shakespeare since it isn’t even what happened to her. She didn’t read a historical-youth-fiction piece that made her love it, she had a great teacher that made her love it.

All of that being said; I still decided to read these ten books, because while I do think most people can learn Shakespeare by reading Shakespeare, that isn’t to say historical fiction isn’t a great genre that fans of the plots of the plays can still enjoy. Rather than using these as introductions, I would suggest pairing them with the plays on which they are based and reading them as supplemental material for fun. I’ve been reading two at a time, so here are my thoughts on the first two that I tackled.

The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees

the-fools-girlCelia Rees has been a youth writer since 1993 and is best known for her book Pirates! Although I have never read her other books, I have heard of Pirates! and remember it being on the suggested reading shelves of my library when I was in middle school. I dove into The Fool’s Girl feeling excited for the most part. The book jacket summary gave me just a little bit of skepticism because of its seemingly “historical” take on a possible origin story for the play Twelfth Night. I picked up on some “Shakespearean” names like “Violetta” (similar to Twelfth Night’s Viola) and Stephano (a character in The Tempest, not Twelfth Night). The jacket also alluded to other themes and characters from Twelfth Night; namely Malvolio, Feste, and the kingdom in which they all live, Illyria. The historical and magical realism started to blend when the jacket hints to “holy relics,” the “Forest of Arden” (from As You Like It, not Twelfth Night),  and William Shakespeare as an actual character in the story. I was mostly intrigued to see how these things would all blend together as Rees’s story unfolded.

Essentially, Rees took Malvolio’s final line from the play, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (5.1), and imagined what that revenge might look like. Rees’s story details the plight of the children that result from the double marriage that ends the play; Orsin (instead of Shakespeare’s Duke “Orsino”) marries Viola and they produce Violetta, and Viola’s twin brother Sebastian marries Countess Olivia and they produce Stephano. Essentially, Viola goes missing and Duke Orsin begins to study witchcraft (popularly frowned upon in this retelling) and loses his grip on reality. This weakens his hold on his kingdom, and he is usurped by a cruel Sebastian, not the loving, impromptu man of Shakespeare’s play, but rather a jealous brother who is disappointed in his title as Count and in his Countess’s love for his sister (the two ladies are best of friends and he spends little time with his wife). Violetta and Feste flee to London and meet William Shakespeare, they enlist his help and he writes Twelfth Night based on the stories Violetta shares with him. Stephano also made it safely out of the ruined kingdom of Illyria, the two cousins reunite in London and work together to overthrow the evil Malvolio and evil Sir Andrew.

There are a lot of other small allusions to other plays that will only be meaningful to readers who know what they’re looking for. For example; they go to the Forest of Arden (near Stratford instead of in France) and there is a character named Robin Goodfellow who plays tricks on people and scurries around the forest (of Arden).

The book is also extremely heavy-handed in its religious themes and undertones. The whole feud between Malvolio and every other character (it seems) is that they aren’t devout enough. It becomes his personal goal to convert everyone or kill them in the process. His main plan of attack is stealing an ancient religious artifact from Illyria which he plans to travel the world with in order to persuade the faithless. As if forced conversion isn’t a heavy enough religious plot for a YA novel, Rees makes the Illyrian artifact the gift of myrrh that had been given to Christ at birth. Violetta says that the artifact is the reason for Illyria’s existence and Rees lays it on thick;

The golden reliquary , studded with gems and cunningly wrought by the goldsmiths of Byzantium, holds one of the most sacred relics in Christendom: the gift of myrrh offered to the Infant Jesus by the magus Caspar. The precious substance is contained in a small silver-lidded cup of great antiquity, set with precious stones and still containing the myrrh used to anoint the body of Our Lord. (pg 72)

Because Rees is so careless and universally inclusive in her blending of Shakespearean plots and themes, her constantly heavy-handed religious language is an odd opposition.

However, her appreciation of Shakespeare is sweetly encouraging. She describes his character as kind and smarter than everyone else; “He began to have an idea. It came to him complete, all of a piece. That was what made him different from other men” (pg 163).

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper is an English and Welsh writer known for her blending of mythological, king-of-shadowslegendary, and folktales with contemporary stories, times, and plots. Although King of Shadows is one of her later books, she uses the same time-traveling devices in this book. In King of Shadows, American Nat Field travels to London in 1997 with a boys’ acting troupe and their director, Arby, to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in repertory with Julius Caesar in the newly constructed recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe. On their first day there, Nat gets sick and goes to bed with a high fever. When he wakes up he has been transported to 1599 and will be playing with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s playing company, in the new Globe. Luckily, he is a “new member” to the company so it doesn’t matter that no one recognizes him. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are also doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nat is to play the same part he was going to play with Arby’s troupe, Puck. The other Nat Field (famous boy actor from the Blackfriar’s Boys) is in-turn transported to 1997 and (thankfully) can be treated for the bubonic plague with simple antibiotics. For the most part both performances go well and present-day Nat gets to be in both of them, however, high-jinks ensue. The big reveal comes right at the end when Nat and his friends realize why and how the switch happened. The realize that if past-Nat had performed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men instead of present-Nat, William Shakespeare would have gotten the plague and died in 1599.

“‘It was 1599, Nat,’ Rachel said. ‘Shakespeare was only in his thirties, he wrote most of his greatest plays after that. If he’d acted with Nathan Field instead of with you, he’d have caught the plague and died.. If you hadn’t gone back in time, William Shakespeare would have died’” (pg 173).

Their director “Arby” confirms this and reveals his name is actually “R.B,” his initials – “Richard Babage.” The fun idea is that if you say “Richard Burbage” with a British accent, it kind of sounds like “Babage.” Although Cooper never officially confirms that Arby is supposed to be Richard Burbage (who Nat meets when he time travels), she heavily suggests that Arby knows about the time-traveling and may have caused it at the end of the book.

As absurd as this plot is, I actually kind of liked this book. It was cute if nothing else. And what was really fun about it was that a lot of the stage devices and plots that Nat gets to experience in 1599 are historically accurate. There are several ideas that aren’t confirmed and there is no historical evidence to support them, but I love that Cooper imagined possible technical ideas. And lastly, there are only two “historical” things that are straight-up wrong. Here are examples of these;

CORRECT!

  1. A huge pet-peeve of our co-founder, Ralph Alan Cohen, is when actors enter and exit through the house. There is no evidence to say that this happened and more probably would not have because of the cost of acting company’s costumes. They wouldn’t have risked wearing precious and expensive fabrics past groundlings. When Nat tries to use the blocking his present day director gave him in rehearsal in 1559 and exit through the house, William Shakespeare has something to say about it; “‘Can I go through the house?’ ‘Through the house?’ Shakespeare said. I pointed into the auditorium. ‘No, no,’ he said firmly. ‘That is for clowns, and not clowns of my liking. Thy place is the stage’” (pg 72).
  2. Cooper accurately describes the use of a plot (in both 1599 and 1997) and a 1599 book-keeper; “As usual, there were constant nervous visits to the ‘plot,’ the list of entrances and exits that hung near the stage in the tiring-house, and whenever Master Burbage came offstage he made a beeline for the book-keeper, a small bespectacled man… with the play’s text on his lap” (pg 88).
  3. Although there is no historical evidence to support the idea that Shakespeare’s actors used audience contact, we’re like 99% sure they did. At the very least, we find that at our Blackfriars Playhouse today, making eye contact with an audience member is one of the most common and most meaningful original staging conditions in our tool belt. Nat finds this to be true in 1599 as well; “I fixed my eyes on one man near the front… and said everything right to him. It was a perfect eye contact; he was gaping at me, fascinated” (pg 93).
  4. We also know that Shakespeare’s company produced many plays in repertory in a very short amount of time, and Nat notices that “…there simply wasn’t time to rehearse so much” (pg 178).

NOT CONFIRMED BUT FUN IDEAS!

  1. There isn’t a lot of evidence about the technical aspects that went into special effects at early modern playhouses. However, Cooper imagines some creative solutions to create smoke and fog, war sound effects, and bird song in her novel;
    1. “… fireworks were being set off onstage in a sequence of huge bangs, and clouds of smoke from a crude smoke machine being puffed out from a backstage bellows, for the battle effects, and Pistol grabbed my arm” (pg 92).
    2. “…blowing a little pipe into a bowl of water to make the sounds of birdsong; burning rope in a metal pot, to make smoke that could be puffed with a bellows across the stage…” (pg 115)

WRONG!

  1. Cooper’s worst offense is careless and irresponsibly switching between “thee” and “you.” Just like in French (tu and vous) and Spanish (tu and usted), English used to have formal and informal personal addresses (thee and you).  Although this has fallen out of practice today, it isn’t difficult to grasp the concept. And once you understand it, the ShakesFearful idea of “thee” in the plays becomes much less daunting. “Thee” is the informal, and was used to address people you were close to and people of a lower status than you. Alternatively, “you” was formal and was used to show respect and to address nobility or people of a higher status than you. Cooper not only has no regard for people’s’ statuses in her novel, she frequently will switch between “you” and “thee” in the same speech, implying that there is no difference. Instead, she appears as if she is just trying to sound “Elizabethan” and it is inaccurate and uninformed; “‘Thou needst none. I have found a way in. Come.’ Roper glanced at me maliciously. ‘Unless your Paul’s Boy has no stomach for it, of course’” (pg 64).
  2. The final completely made up event is still a fun plot device and they do the same thing in Shakespeare in Love, so we can’t fault Cooper too much. The Queen comes to the playhouse. Queen Elizabeth would have never come to a public playhouse, let alone in 1599 when she was in her late 60s. However, her attendance at Dream is a pretty fun idea and it means that present-Nat gets to meet her. So that’s pretty cool.

Overall, these books weren’t great. And I would never use them to introduce students to Shakespeare. However, it might be fun to pair them with the plays that they draw the most from and read them as supplemental reading (The Fool’s Girl with Twelfth Night and King of Shadows with A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Especially King of Shadows. It was pretty cute and had a lot of fun history in it, The Fool’s Girl was too fanciful, too heavy-handed, and the attempt at historical “sounding” language was often more difficult to follow than simple text.

 

Next time! Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and either Ophelia by Lisa Klein or Street Love by Walter Dean Myers (whichever of the two gets to the library first).

“To try eloquence, now ’tis time”: Virtues and Vices of Rhetoric

Last week, in less than twenty-four hours, our country had the opportunity to experience two important political speeches: President Obama’s farewell address and Donald Trump’s opening statements to the first press conference he has held since last July. Both were prepared statements, though both appeared to involve some measure of ad-lib. Since President Obama’s farewell address was much longer, I chose to examine only a segment of it, of comparable length to Mr. Trump’s opening statement.

By the Numbers
Complexity and elegance in speech are not necessarily about sentence length or vocabulary level: they’re really more about variety. Does the speaker vary syntax? Does the speaker demonstrate a grasp of language’s fluidity and flexibility? Does the speaker use a wide or narrow range of descriptors? As Shakespeare knew, these traits create a character who is verbally facile and engaging. Going too far with them, however, can create a ridiculous character, such as Holofernes:

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.

The gift is in knowing how to apply language deftly, which is not the same as the oratory onslaught that defines much of Holofernes’s speech. Then there are characters like Dogberry, who reach for verbal greatness but somewhat miss the mark:

LEONATO
Neighbours, you are tedious.

DOGBERRY
It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the poor duke’s officers; but truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in my heart to bestow it all of your worship.

LEONATO
All thy tediousness on me, ah?

DOGBERRY
Yea, an ’twere a thousand pound more than ’tis; for I hear as good exclamation on your worship as of any man in the city; and though I be but a poor man, I am glad to hear it.

Bless.

Some hard facts on President Obama’s speech segment:

  • 1393 words long, featuring 583 unique words (words used only once in the speech) (42% of the whole)
  • 869 of those 1393 words were monosyllabic
  • 202 had more than three syllables
  • His longest word was “responsibility” (six syllables)
  • His ten most commonly used words (excluding grammatical words like “the”) were I’ve, us, years, just, should, own, Americans, young, because, and up.
  • His Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 9th, with a Reading Ease score of 57.

Some hard facts on Mr. Trump’s speech:

  • 1365 words long, featuring 401 unique words (29%)
  • 877 of those 1365 words were monosyllabic
  • 7 words had four or five syllables, and none more than five
  • His ten most commonly used words (excluding grammatical words) were: going, very, lot, we’re, news, will, think, great, because, and veterans.
  • His Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 7th, with a Reading Ease score of 67.

Visualization
To help you get a sense of the “feel” of those numbers, I include two word clouds below, one for each speech. (These clouds also omit, as word clouds typically do, common grammatical words such as “the”, “a”, “with”, “on”, etc. I have, however, opted to include “and”, “that”, “very”, “our”, and “us” in both, as their usage seems to exceed commonality in a significant way).

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Word Cloud of President Obama’s farewell address segment

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Word Cloud of Mr. Trump’s press conference opening statement

By the Rhetoric
(Be ye warned: there are Greek terms within. But fear not! I promise to define all of them)

If you’re interested in the full rhetorical mark-up of each speech, according to our R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric, I’ve appended those at the bottom of the post (with apologies for my handwriting). I’ll just hit a few highlights to discuss overall patterns.

President Obama, as I’ve noted before, is prone to auxesis, the arrangement of a series. In fact, he may be slightly over-prone to it; sometimes his series nest within each other and stretch beyond the set of three that’s most harmonious for a listener.

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His other commonly used devices include:

  • isocolon, repeated sentence structure
  • antithesis, the arrangement of contrast
  • diacope, the repetition of a key word after intervening matter.

These devices often interweave and support each other. Look at the following snippet, where the arrangement of a series coincides with repeated structure:

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When we hear language used this way, whether consciously or not, we recognize the intention behind it. No one speaks like that accidentally. Auxesis and isocolon support each other particularly well: our brains appreciate parallel sentence structure on an almost subconscious level, and when that overlaps with the creation of a list, the speaker can carry us along with his story more easily. President Obama also often uses one device to segue into another — notice how, above, the use of “creed” at the end of his series carries through to his summarizing statement, which in turn shares syntactical similarity with the series. Compare these interwoven patterns to those in Richard II’s speech as he capitulates to his deposition:

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads(1),
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage(2),
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown(3),
My figured goblets for a dish of wood(4),
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff(5),
My subjects for a pair of carved saints (6)
And my large kingdom for a little grave(7;1),
A little little grave (2), an obscure grave(3)

The most commonly used rhetorical devices across Mr. Trump’s speech are:

  • epizeuxis, the immediate or near-immediate repetition of a word
  • polysyndeton, where use of conjunctions creates run-on sentences
  • ellipsis, the absence of key words or phrases, often in the form of unfinished thoughts
  • parelcon, the insertion of redundant or superfluous words such as “very”.

Consider the following segment:

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At first glance, the markup of Mr. Trump’s speech appears more rhetorically dense than President Obama’s, but it is worth noting that rhetoric is not always only about the words. Often, it is also about the delivery of those words, particularly in matters of emphasis, specificity, and intention. Silva Rhetorica discusses this when examining stylistic vices:

Every dimension or aspect of style has vices associated with it, and every vice has a corresponding virtue. Indeed, the very same locution may in one sense be regarded as exemplifying a stylistic virtue, and in another, a vice.

It is helpful to understand that all figurative language alters the normal meaning or arrangement of words to some degree. When figurative language is apt for a given context and purpose, it is eloquent and effective (and thus exemplifies one or more of the virtues of style); when figurative language is not apt for a given context and purpose, it is ineloquent and ineffective (and thus exemplifies one or more of the vices of style).

This distinction often becomes important in regard to devices of repetition, because the speaker’s affect lets the listener know whether the repetition was chosen or unchosen. Chosen repetitions can run the gamut of sounds, words, phrases, and structure. Consider, as I’ve noted before, the repetition of structure in Brutus’s funeral oration, or Antony’s repetition of phrases in his — or look at Edmund in King Lear, musing on the word legitimate:

Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, legitimate.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards.

Edmund repeats the word to draw a contrast between the status it confers and his own bastardy. It is hard to imagine an actor performing these lines as though Edmund were not choosing that word in each instance, particularly since he uses with slightly different context each time, and “fine word, legitimate” indicates that he is thoroughly aware of the word’s weight and power.

Unchosen repetitions fall into the category of stylistic vices, including battalogia, the continual unnecessary reiteration of the same words, phrases, or ideas; tautologia, the unnecessary repetition of the same idea in different words; and homiologia, tedious or inane repetition. These devices might tell us much about a speaker’s overall verbal intellect or about their current emotional state. Consider Othello, overwrought with jealous suspicion:

Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her: that’s fulsome. Handkerchiefconfessions: handkerchief. To confess, and be hanged for his labour. First, to be hanged, and then to confess: I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus (pish): noses, ears, and lips: Is’t possible? Confess?handkerchief? O devil.

Immediately after this, Othello “falls into a trance”, elucidating that he is not in control of his physical self, and his words indicate that he is likely not in control of his intellectual and emotional selves, either. Those “lies” early in the speech might or might not be an intentional riff on the word, but the whorling repetitions of “handkerchief” and “confess” seem to have no definable pattern. They are disjointed thoughts to which Othello cannot seem but help to return.

Other stylistic vices involve figures of addition, such as:

  •  perissologia, the vice of wordiness
  • pleonasm, the use of grammatically superfluous words
  • periergia, over-use of words or figures of speech
  • bomphiologia, self-aggrandizing exaggeration.

Take Fluellen, for example:

Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore her eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation: and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.

Is that run-on sentence deliberate or accidental? I have no idea. It’s a choice for the actor to make, and it’s going to create a different character depending on which way it goes. Is Fluellen rambling, absorbed in his own musings and oblivious to the effect on his listeners? Or does he use those conjunctions and parentheticals intentionally, so that no one interrupts him, thus keeping him in control of the scene? Either choice could be correct, but much depends upon the delivery.

More rhetoric is not necessarily better rhetoric. 
We’ve looked before at Claudius’s rhetorically dense and nigh-incomprehensible speech in 1.2 of Hamlet, which I think is as good an example as any in Shakespeare of the maxim that density of rhetoric is not necessarily a virtue. It may be overblown — the vice of macrologia refers to excessive wordiness in an attempt to appear eloquent — or simply inept, as in aschematiston, which may refer to either the unskilled use of figures of speech or starkly unornamented language. As with so many things in life, in speaking, balance is key, lest the speaker turn a virtue into a vice.

Full rhetorical mark-up of President Obama’s speech segment

Full rhetorical mark-up of Mr. Trump’s speech

23 reasons why the ASC should never have performed BBAJ – and why it’s a blessing that we did anyway (#15 will knock your socks off!)*

Amy Wratchford, Managing Director of the American Shakespeare Center, was in the midst of a presentation to my MFA class about the administrative side of “arts administration” when she dropped the bomb that exploded my worldview. I remember it vividly: it was May of 2015, I was knitting, the room was too hot, all of my classmates were bouncing slowly up and down on the exercise balls the group had silently consented must replace all chairs, and Amy was so very excited to confide in us that in the American Shakespeare Center would be opening its 2016 Summer/Fall season with a production of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

I distinctly remember Amy punching the air with a self-satisfied “yes!” as everything I ever knew or loved crumbled into dust around me.

This should probably go without saying, but we’re the American Shakespeare Center, not the American Shakespeare-and-also-the-occasional-uncannily-well-timed-modern-rock-musical Center.

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Does anything about this say “Shakespeare” to you?

Admittedly, no, we don’t exclusively perform Shakespeare. But we’ve been open for more than 25 years (performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse for 15), mounting between 16 and 18 productions a year since we added the Actors’ Renaissance Season in 2005, and Shakespeare only had a hand in 38 surviving plays. We would be super bored if we only performed Shakespeare. And anyway, isn’t “Shakespeare” less the name of a specific playwright than a generic phrase referring to a vaguely Renaissance-y time period? You see “Shakespeare” in the name of the company and it basically goes without saying that we also perform the works of his contemporaries: Marlowe, Middleton, Beaumont, Fletcher – sometimes even Beaumont and Fletcher because let’s face it, they all collaborated anyways. And even if they didn’t, it’s all iambic pentameter at the end of the day. “Shakespeare and his contemporaries” opens the door to many plays, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ain’t one of them.

Okay, yes, I will also concede that we perform works that do not fit into even my loose definition of “Shakespeare.” We perform Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol every year — but show me a theatre that doesn’t. We’ve performed Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac twice, once in 2007 and again in 2014, but we used the Anthony Burgess translation both times — which puts Rostand’s rhyming French Alexandrine verse couplets into the very Shakespearean rhyming English iambic pentameter couplets — which makes it basically Shakespeare. Yes, we’ve done Tom Stoppard’s 1964 adaptation Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead, but we did it in repertory with Hamlet, so that hardly counts. Okay, fine, we’ve even done a “rock musical” before – the 2014 smash hit Return to the Forbidden Planet, but every line of dialogue in that play not set to the tune of a jukebox musical number originally came from Shakespeare. And I’m pretty sure George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare were actually the same (undead) person (which explains Arms & the Man) and everybody knows that Shaw was a huge admirer of Oscar Wilde (Importance of Being Earnest) which is arguably similar in style to Wittenburg by David Davalos who just so happened to be in an off-off-Broadway play with Kevin Bacon! Wait, what are we talking about?

 

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Oh, right – WHY WOULD WE DO THIS?

The actual criteria for deciding which shows we’ll perform at the Blackfriars Playhouse is less about a certain author or time period and more about identifying plays that work in our space — that is, that work with Shakespeare’s staging conditions. Will the play work on the merits of its words alone, sans sets or lights or soundscapes on a bare, universally lit thrust stage? Can it be done unplugged, with live sound cues and acoustic instruments? Does it include natural opportunities for contacting the audience? Does it allow for continuous flow of action — the Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” — where actors in a new scene enter while speaking even while the previous scene’s actors are exiting? Does it have opportunities for actor doubling? How about cross-gender casting? Can it be done in “two hours traffic of the stage”? If the answer is yes to most or all of those questions (as it is for the aforementioned plays), then it deserves at least a fair trial on our stage. If it works super well, we might do it again (see: Cyrano, Importance of Being Earnest) and if it doesn’t… well, at least we tried?

I’m assuming this “why not try?” philosophy was behind the decision to stage Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and let me tell you why we should not have tried. First – no, it can’t work on the merits of its words alone because roughly 74% of its words are expletives (and 40% of statistics are made up on the spot). No, it can’t be done unplugged – it is a rock musical written for electric guitars and strobe lights, not Patrick Earl with a fake microphone backed by Chris Johnston on a cocktail drum kit. Any potential moments of audience contact would be forced upon the play, not built into it — because Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was not written with a visible audience in mind. It has huge, cumbersome sets that wouldn’t even fit inside our building, let alone allow for a continuous flow of action. Also, it’s a terrible play, and a musical to boot.

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Look at this! It is such a musical!

No, I had never seen it or read it, but that’s not the point. Did I mention I hate musicals?

I wasn’t rooting for the play to fail so much as I had already accepted the inevitability of it doing so. I made doomsday predictions about having to leave Staunton, towing along my three degrees in Shakespeare while searching for somewhere else to work, because this disastrous production would cost us all our subscribers and close the ASC’s doors for good. I went to the dress rehearsal in gloomy spirits, bracing for the impact of a trainwreck.

A dress rehearsal is never a true indication of the quality of a production, but nevertheless, I was confused when what I saw didn’t suck. I wrote that off as a fluke and remained pessimistic during previews. But they didn’t suck either, and then all of a sudden the play was open and running and not only did it not suck, it rocked. And not only did it rock — it sold. And not only did it sell — it worked. Prolific theatre reviewer Eric Minton of Shakespeareances.com wrote in his review that “In fact, the Blackfriars aesthete singularly enriches the quality of Timbers’ and Friedman’s piece,” which in its Broadway form took place on “a cluttered hodge-podge” of a set. “Scenic designer Donyale Werle’s inspiration seemed to have come from watching a Disney Bear Jamboree while sipping on an Andro-laced LSD cocktail,” Minton quips, citing his own review of the original production.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterIn comparison, the ASC set includes a giant flag, a desk, some stools, the actors and their instruments, and “the couple of dozen audience members sitting on ‘gallants’ stools’ on either side” of the stage, who, Minton notes, also “serve as props.” We told this story of our American history the way Shakespeare would have had to: unplugged and universally lit. As a result, BBAJ at the Blackfriars Playhouse took on all the best qualities of Shakespeare’s history plays. The production was not just a retelling of past events but a shrewd commentary on current ones, speaking as much about the insane political climate of today as it ever did about the insane political climate in and for which it was written (in the case of BBAJ, the 2008 Presidential Election). In short, it worked, and not by a slim margin… which meant both that Amy had been super right and I had been super wrong.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterI can admit that now, because being so completely and utterly wrong about BBAJ at the Blackfriars Playhouse is one of the most refreshing things that has ever happened to me. It reminds me of something ASC co-founder and Director of Mission Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen likes to say: we think we’re smarter than the Elizabethans because we’re alive and they’re dead. We turn the last 400 years of knowledge into a weapon against our ancestors, always using the modern to re-examine the historical, as if being alive makes us more qualified than they to discuss issues of humanity (which, spoiler alert, haven’t changed in 400 years because evolution doesn’t work that fast).

Theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, has always provided a robust playground for this sort of recasting. In between the writing of Othello and today, we invented and dissolved the African American slave trade, for example. Shakespeare knew nothing about it, nor America’s resultant (and persistent) systemic racism, but try reading Othello without acknowledging what we know now. Rinse and repeat for The Merchant of Venice with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, or Taming of the Shrew with suffrage and misogyny — we are always looking at the past through the tinted window of the present. This not “bad” or “wrong” but it is limiting and laborious. By painstakingly applying 400 years of technology and criticism to his texts in a bid to somehow suddenly “understand” them on some sort of nonexistent (but super enlightened!) level, we are always working for Shakespeare.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse allowed Shakespeare to work for us, instead. The production offered up a new understanding of our present by staging it through the lens of the past — and I mean that literally. By using Shakespeare’s staging conditions, we discovered poignant moments of actor-audience contact that both didn’t (and couldn’t) exist in the original staging of BBAJ. At the Blackfriars Playhouse, those moments allowed (and sometimes even forced) audiences to identify personally with the play’s subject matter. Those moments cut through the expletives and dance numbers to create keen satire out of what would otherwise be merely gratuitous shock-jock humor with the occasional catchy hook. The conditions of the production brought out the best of the play itself, the hard questions and the moral ambiguities we’ll never escape, no matter who’s President. I watched this play affect audience members profoundly and personally, the way Shakespeare’s plays often do, the way that makes them discuss the whole thing over dinner for hours and years afterwards.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse proved that using Shakespeare’s staging conditions is not just a way, as our mission says, to “recover the joy and accessibility of the Renaissance stage” (emphasis mine) but also to discover the new and potentially hidden joys and accessibilities of the modern stage. The plays written for this staging conditions are not the only ones that thrive within them. Shakespeare’s plays can and do thrive superbly when performed in modern staging conditions – The Blackfriars Playhouse is not the only theatre to ever stage a successful, enjoyable, provocative, delightful production of a Shakespeare play. That’s not what the American Shakespeare Center does, but that doesn’t mean we think others shouldn’t. Modern explorations of Shakespeare making use of advanced modern technology are valuable and necessary for what it can teach and show us about Shakespeare and ourselves. We exist to provide that modern exploration of Shakespeare making use of early modern technology in the form of our staging conditions – which, of course, teaches us more about Shakespeare and ourselves. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a modern exploration of a modern play through the use of early modern technology, and in this singular and very unexpected instance, that exploration led us to profound new discoveries about this modern play that turned it into the captivating, convivial, thought-provoking theatrical event it never quite managed to be before.

The fact that we stand a good chance of discovering something magical when applying the same staging conditions to a wide variety of theatrical genres means that the Blackfriars Playhouse ultimately has no limit on its repertoire. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse shattered the limits of what we can do with (and learn from) Shakespeare’s staging conditions. I guess Amy was right to be excited, after all.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare Center— Lia Wallace

*No, this isn’t a list. Dashed expectations are what you get when you click on clickbait.

Top photo by Michael Bailey.
All other photos by Lindsey Walters | Miscellaneous Media Photography.

 

Solo Loqui

I feel it prudent to begin this post with: I am not a mathematician. I’m a writer. We try to keep me away from numbers. Almost everything I know about statistical analysis, I learned from Mythbusters. I am, quite explicitly, in charge of words for ASC Education.

But sometimes, what you need is data.

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No, not that Data.

I’ve been working on a Study Guide for the Henry VI plays, and when pulling text for an activity on audience contact, I noticed… there are almost no soliloquies in 1 Henry VI. Almost no moments where the actor is alone with the audience. Huh. So, I tweeted about it. Then ASC actor Tim Sailer let me know that, from what he’d seen of Coriolanus, there were almost none in there, either.

Weird. Two relatively little-performed, and dare I say? little-loved plays, both with such low quotient of soliloquies. This got me wondering: is there a pattern to that? Are plays with more soliloquies generally better-received? My instinct said yes — but my instincts have been wrong before. I needed data to find out for sure.

Methodology
Diving into this, I had to do two things: tally up the soliloquies per play and find out if my perception of the plays’ popularity was close to the mark.

For my purposes of counting up lines, I had to define precisely what I meant by “a soliloquy”, and what I arrived at was this: an actor alone with the audience, neither responding to nor being responded to by any other on-stage/in-scene character. So, if you’re on-stage with a corpse or a sleeping body, you can soliloquize — so long as you’re not addressing said corpse or sleeper. What I’m interested in is that dynamic between actor and audience, where only one performer is actively influencing the audience — so I place no litmus test of content upon it. I am as willing to take expository soliloquies as emotional ones, and indeed, they often overlap. I did make note of what kind of soliloquy each was (with full admission that this is a subjective judgment on my part): functional/expository, introspective/emotional, or comic/musical. This percentage of the whole, I refer to henceforth as the “soliloquotient”. (It’s also worth noting that I was going off of the Norton Shakespeare’s versions of the play, so that involves quarto/Folio conflation in some instances. I recognize that there might be valuable differences to discover there, but, alas, I could only devote but so much time to this particular bee in my bonnet.)

As for determining play popularity, 281 individuals were kind enough to answer a survey on the subject. Admittedly, this sample set is drawn from people within one to three degrees of separation from me and the ASC, so it’s naturally people more inclined to like Shakespeare than, perhaps, the general populace. But I was actually okay with that. Because I wanted to compare more popular to less popular plays, the opinions of people who had only seen, say, Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be less valuable to me.

So what did I find out?

Broadly? My assumption was totally wrong! The data utterly cut the knees out from my hypothesis, but that’s okay. I still learned a lot. As we so often tell students in our workshops, sometimes you have to be wrong in order to figure out something right — and this rabbit hole definitely lead me to some interesting observations.

The Soliloquotient
To start with, my perceptions of which plays were the most soliloquy-heavy were not spot-on. Richard III and Much Ado about Nothing were both lower than I expected; The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Timon of Athens were significantly higher. A few of the oddities are almost entirely due to Choruses; if I altered my definition of a soliloquy to remove those (thus basing soliloquies only on characters within the play), then Pericles drops from a chart-topping 13.71% to a mere 1.63%; even Henry V drops from 10.33% to 3.27%, leaving the Boy’s short soliloquy and Henry’s “ceremony” speech as almost the only character-driven soliloquies in the play. Romeo and Juliet, though, suffers a much smaller drop — from 7.69% down to 6.75%. But, for the sake of number-crunching, we’ll stick with my initial definition and keep in the Choruses.

The average soliloquotient is 4.82% per play — though the median is lower, 3.95%. A standard deviation of 2.87% indicates that the bulk of the plays fall between 1.08% and 6.82%. Only one play, Coriolanus, falls below that 1.08% mark, but 9 fall above 6.82%. Macbeth, Cymbeline, 3 Henry VI, Romeo and Juliet, and Timon of Athens are all between one and two standard deviations out (between 6.82% and 9.69%), while Henry V, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles are all above two standard deviations out (greater than 9.69% soliloquies). Here’s a histogram to visualize the spread of soliloquotients across the plays:

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Looking just at that data, it would seem that a high proportion of soliloquies is at least as likely to make a play hated as loved. But let’s dig further:

Popularity
My instincts about the plays’ popularity were largely borne out. Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, and Macbeth top the charts whether I took the simple average of reported enjoyment (on a scale of 1-5, where 1 was “I loathe this play” and 5 was “I love this play”) or whether I looked at the percentage of respondents who rated the play “above the fold” — ie, a 4 or a 5. Charts of both are below, and while they’re not wildly different, to measure a play’s loveability, I prefer the “above the fold” version (and its partner, “below the fold”, those plays with a significant number of respondents rating a play “dislike” or “loathe”), both because it smooths out the variance in how many people have seen which plays and because it distinguishes between plays that are really liked or loathed versus those which people just feel neutral about.

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Fully 22 plays land with more than 60% of respondents “above the fold”. Most of those are fairly expected: Richard III, Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1 Henry IV, The Winter’s Tale, and Henry V round out our top ten, and of those, all but Winter and Henry V get more than 75% in the top two boxes. I’m not wholly surprised that Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar don’t get quite as much enthusiasm, considering those are often plays served as tonics to students (and plays that are, I believe, pretty easy to screw up), but they still come in at a respectable 70% and 67% above the fold.

The most-hated plays are pretty expected, too. Because this was a sample of Shakespeare enthusiasts, only a few plays had more than 15% of responses in the bottom two boxes: Merchant of Venice (17.24% dislike or loathe), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (18.86%), All’s Well That Ends Well (21.43%), The Taming of the Shrew (22.14%), Troilus and Cressida (22.3%), The Two Noble Kinsmen (22.86%), The Merry Wives of Windsor (27.91%), Timon of Athens (29.01%), and Henry VIII (30.58%). Some very early plays and some very late (and co-authored) ones, as well as a smattering of those with significant issues for modern feminists. Merry Wives is the only real surprise there, and I’d be curious to know what about that comedy falls so flat for many viewers.

A rating of 3 marked a play as “neutral or mixed feelings” — and King John, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Henry VIII top that list, all with over 45% in the middle box. I find it interesting that some of the most hated plays are also the ones with the most mixed feelings. The same is not true of the best-loved: the top six there are the lowest six in the neutral category.

Cheeringly, perhaps, there is no play that no one loved: two people marked even Henry VIII in the very top box. There’s also, however, no play that no one hated: 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, 1 Henry IV, and Richard III all got precisely one “loathe” vote.

Revelations
But there are a few fun surprises. What’s Richard II doing in a relatively high position when I look at the “above the fold” data? That play isn’t what we’d call “popular” — it’s one of the least-frequently-seen in this survey. But people who do see it? Seem to love it. It comes in at a respectable 65.76% above the fold, and only 8.15% below.And that makes a kind of sense, particularly when you remember that Shakespeare wrote it the same year he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. Something in the language seems to resonate with those who get exposed to it on stage.

Richard II is also fascinating for what its soliloquotient reveals about the play. It’s very, very light on soliloquies — until you hit Act 5 and Richard’s massive 77-line beast of a heart-to-heart with the audience. Looking at it as data, not just as scenes, helped me to realize that until that point, Richard is never alone. Literally never. He is a king who always has someone on hand. His entire life is a public performance — and then it’s all stripped away.

Once I noticed that trend, I started finding similar patterns in some other plays. Antony and Cleopatra are never alone together. Cleopatra is never alone at all. Timon starts out never alone, like Richard, but then spends a significantly larger portion of his play in isolation. Hal/Henry’s only soliloquies of any length are “I know you all” in 1 Henry IV and then “general ceremony” in Henry V; Falstaff gets the bulk of the audience’s time in the Henry IV plays. Hamlet starts off, as you would think, with a lot of time with the audience — but hands that privilege off to Claudius for most of acts three and four, and no one soliloquizes in act five. Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Two Noble Kinsmen are the only plays where the women soliloquize more than the men (though Helena and Hermia put in a good showing in Midsummer — Puck and Bottom just barely edge them out, and Juliet would win Romeo and Juliet if you take out the Choruses; she certainly has more time alone with the audience than Romeo does).

Conclusions
So, all in all, this data gave me a lot of fun information to turn over in my brain, and I expect I’ll return to some of it in future ponderings; but, it turns out, there is really no correlation between soliloquotient and a play’s likeability. Note the following charts:

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If anything, a higher soliloquotient — those over 2 standard deviations away from the norm — seems to hurt a play far more than help it. Even creating secondary versions without Choruses and other non-character commentaries didn’t change much — the line would tilt up a very little, but nothing significant.

There does seem to be something of a “sweet spot”, though, as you can see from the clustering: the most-loved plays all have a soliloquotient between 3.5% and 7%. Plays above or below that don’t make the mark — but that’s not really determinant evidence, since not all plays within that sweet spot do land in the top tier of popularity and love-ability.

If I were to continue this experiment, I’d try to focus it more narrowly — specifically, to find out if people are more favorably inclined towards shows they’ve seen in the Blackfriars Playhouse or another theatre with universal lighting and direct audience contact. Take Timon of Athens, for example: this is among the least-loved plays in the survey, but anecdotally, I know that people who saw it on our stage with Rene Thornton Jr. in the title role absolutely loved it. Can one strong performance change an audience member’s outlook on an entire play? Does the soliloquotient matter more in a theatre with universal lighting?

My instinct and hypothesis on both is yes — and perhaps someday I’ll have the data to back that up!

“I witness to the times that brought them in”: 2016 Year in Review

If the internet is any judge, a lot of people will be really glad to see 2016 out the door. Political turmoil and celebrity deaths have taken their toll, expressed in hashtag memes like #SayByeto2016inagif and #wtf2016. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been anything to celebrate, and in ASC Education, 2016 had quite a few high notes!

Most excitingly, we officially welcomed Lia Wallace and Adrienne Johnson to the Education team! Both are recent graduates of Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare and Performance MLitt/MFA program. Lia began work with us way back in 2012 as an intern, then became an Education Artist, and is now our College Prep Programs Manager, overseeing the ASC Theatre Camp. Adrienne has previously served time (like Director of Education Sarah Enloe also did, back in the day) as personal assistant to Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, and she is now our Camp Life Coordinator as well as the ASC Company Manager, responsible for the upkeep of the Playhouse and other properties. You can read about their transitions into these positions here on the blog: Lia and Adrienne.

61Big events this year included the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp trip abroad: Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords. For ten days, Ralph, Sarah, MBC Professor Mary Hill Cole, and I shepherded a fantastic group of 22 Shakespeare enthusiasts around England and Wales. In the Cotswolds, the moors of York, and the fens of Cambridge, we wandered through history, discovering the world as it would have been familiar to Shakespeare and his audiences. To catch up on those adventures, check out the NKSC16 tag.

05fbdda7-86d4-48d4-9aab-11cac67d650b2016 also saw the publication of two all-new Study Guides, in addition to updates to several volumes. The Tempest and King Lear were on the Student Matinee line-up for the first time in my tenure, giving me the opportunity to dive into two of Shakespeare’s best-beloved works. We’re celebrating with a flash sale on those two guides, so nab yours before 5pm today to save 20% on these shiny new volumes!
Buy King Lear or The Tempest ASC Study Guide.

13087333_10104284381621743_4879776445061724543_nIn April, we commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a block party that spanned downtown Staunton. Hundreds came to enjoy the food and wares offered by over two dozen merchants, and children of all ages got to experience mini-workshops and Shakespeare-themed craft activities, delivered right in front of the Blackfriars Playhouse. You can see pictures from that event here.

We also partnered with UVA’s Special Collections Library as it housed a traveling copy of the First Folio, offering workshops in Charlottesville in April, ahead of the Folio’s arrival, and in October, when the tome was on-site.

In December, we had a Staged Reading in a new format as a special event: rather than having one group perform a 90-minute show, four groups came from across the Shenandoah to put on four shorter shows, all demonstrating how English drama has marked the Christmas holiday throughout the centuries. With a mummery from Shenandoah Governor’s School, a mystery play from Shenandoah University, a vaudevillian masque from Spectacle and Mirth, and a Victorian-style pantomime from Stuart Hall, we filled the Playhouse with mirth and laughter for a festive night at the start of the holiday season.

And, as ever, we had a year’s worth of Student Matinees, Little Academes, and other workshops. In the 2015-2016 school year, we welcomed over 11,000 students from 284 schools, homeschool groups, and other organizations, and we have already had 142 groups join us so far in the 2016-2017 school year. We also welcomed International Paper back for their fifth Leadership Program, and we’re looking forward to seeing them again this spring.

So what’s forthcoming in 2017? More of everything: matinees of The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado about Nothing; all-new study guides on Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Henry VI plays, and Sense and Sensibility (that’s right! I’m taking on Austen for the adaptation that will be on the 2017-2018 tour); Leadership Programs on-site at the Playhouse and at the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville; visits from the Road Scholars; the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp back in Staunton to explore the theme of Shakespeare and art; ASC Theatre Camp 2017, featuring 1 Henry IV, Titus Andronicus, and The Sea Voyage in Session 1 (June 18-July 9) and King Lear, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle in Session 2 (July 16-August 8); and, of course, since it’s an odd-numbered year, the Blackfriars Conference (Oct 24-29) will welcome hundreds of scholars and students to celebrate Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Happy New Year from all of us at ASC Education! We hope to see you soon, whether at the Playhouse or out on the road.

Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

Playing Around

As a theatre professional, one of my great privileges is having friends in the profession.  Friends I watch onstage at the ASC, friends who perform with other companies, and friends who are brave enough to start their own production companies.  This has been a particularly lucky month, as I’ve seen the four shows onstage at the American Shakespeare Center; traveled to see the work of brand-spanking-new company Essential Stages (with talented players) in Institute, West Virginia; and made my way down to Atlanta, Georgia to see (at last) the work of dear friends at the Shakespeare Tavern there.  

In West Virginia, Doug Minnerly and his magicians took a bright and unique approach when producing their Comedy of Errors.  Doug and I met in 2015 when he attended our No Kidding Shakespeare Camp (for Adults).  He mentioned starting to think about getting back to his first academic passion — theatre — sometime soon and he was with us to soak up everything he could, having fallen in love with the ASC’s plays a couple of seasons earlier.  Little did I know then how serious he was.  He went back to West Virginia and began the groundwork (immense in scope) to form a company and give Shakespeare to his community on a regular basis.  

15025568_10207567475921776_2615553657556017896_oAt some point in his work, new avenues presented themselves in the form of a generous donor at West Virginia State University.  This supporter sponsored an artist enrichment series that would do several things for the students at WVSU and the community at large including have a master class with ASC actor Allison Glenzer, produce innovative versions of both Comedy and and Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan.  If the show I saw is any indication, Doug’s part of West Virginia harbors a significant collection of talented and eager theatre practitioners. Innovative musical performances, beautifully designed and accompanied by Jeff Haught, opened the show and continued throughout and at the interlude, setting the scene for what Doug described as as an homage to the Marx Brothers — a notion which suited the play to a tee.  Costumes inspired by the forties and a set with ample flexibility (which echoed the Blackfriars Playhouse’s own back drop in structure) invited the audience to transport themselves to another time, a time that worked very well for this “zany” show.  The work the group did on the text in early days of rehearsal created crisp and clear characters who were easy to understand, easy to embrace, and easy to laugh with.

One of the toughest aspects of this show, a crazy comedy by almost all marks, is the opening scene.  Egeus does. go. on.  Because of the pre-show music (performed with great charm by Rob James and Kimberlee Gibson), the delivery of the interminable speech as a musical number was seamless and, believe it or not, fun.  The excellent vocals Will Taylor lent the role of Egeus (and the rousing interlude music) belied his other interest — frontman to a band in the area. Playing against the winning John Campbell as the Duke, the two created a lively and humorous tone which carried through the rest of the production — except whenever the character Adriana appeared onstage.  

Adriana has regularly struck me as a tragic character slotted into a comic play.  Poor woman: her husband is apparently unfaithful, certainly inattentive, and then appears to have gone mad.  Kimberlee Gibson’s work in the role was touching and believable.  She lent gravitas, and she was a terrific spoiler to her sister, played well by Keturah DeWeese; to the excellent Dromios, Abigail Miskowiec and Rob James; and to her husband and his twin, played by Jonathan R. Maynard.  Yes, the Antipholi were played by the same actor.  Sometimes necessity in the mother of excellence, and it was in this case.  Jonathan ably coped with what might have been awkward entrances and exits, which seemed to keep him going 90 miles a minute, but he looked completely in charge and made each second on stage count.  Particularly memorable was his duet with Luciana, a bittersweet exploration of confusion.  It seems he may be the quintessential quadruple threat: singer, dancer, actor, and self-doubler.  Patience DeWeese played Luce and the Courtesan distinctly, as the activity of doubling demands.  I particularly enjoyed her turn as an additional character in the first scene between Luciana and Adriana; her deftness with the props actually helped to clarify some moments and lent another perspective to view the scene through.  She followed that turn up with a corseted courtesan who let the audience in on some of her thoughts, something that Jenna Skeen (in multiple roles) also tackled head on with aplomb.  One of the toughest things about working in community theatre is bringing everyone to the same level, for instance, when Mike Murdock, a professional actor and director appears in many of the same scenes with one of the only students in the production, it is imperative that both raise their game — and they both did.  As the merchant, Mike gave Eric Rogers strength by offering him a character that was committed and Eric gave it right back as the Goldsmith and Gaoler.

Doug Minnerly’s take on the production was refreshing.  Returning the play to many of the staging conditions Shakespeare’s company used — doubling, playing in thrust, sharing light, valuing music — created a team between audience and actors that made each success the more sweet.  If anything, I would say only that more stripping could improve the piece.  Chairs and other set pieces tended to crowd the stage; relying on the actors to convey the feeling without pulling those item in might have saved some valuable rehearsal time.  The cut of the script and musical inclusions kept the show moving at a swift pace.  The talents and skill levels of the cast were well matched to their on-stage responsibilities and the staging was clever, including in-jokes and special effects.  Most of all, I loved that Doug relied on the words of Shakespeare and the talents of his actors to tell the story.  He trusted the audience, and that confidence in their ability to enjoy Shakespeare just as he is paid off dividends.  

The very next week, I had the privilege of seeing many of my colleagues from the Shakespeare Theatre Association in Atlanta.  Atlanta is home to the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, a company founded and operating under many of the same principles the American Shakespeare Center embraces.  We share a strong belief that the communal theatrical world Shakespeare wrote for can be re-created by sharing the stories with our audience, by playing close to them, speaking to them, and keeping the text paramount in the production.  Their 3 Henry VI was part of an ambitious undertaking to produce all three in the trilogy in rep this fall. I had wanted to see their work for nearly a decade, ever since I’d heard about them, but always managed to be in Atlanta at a time when it wouldn’t be possible.  No more.

 

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“El Presidente”

It’s not every day that the Henry VIes are readily available for audience consumption, but this fall has offered multiple opportunities to me, for which I am grateful.  Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, another STA member, did a brilliant conflation which I got to see in September, ASC just wrapped our own 2 Henry VI,  and I was able to round out my feast with this production.  In addition to finally seeing my opposite number, Laura Cole, in role as Lady Gray — doing a smart, sassy take in a fun part — I also got to see the directing work of the man I gladly called El Presidente when I served as his secretary on the STA Executive Committee, and a former ASC intern, Bridget McCarthy (who stole every scene she was in).  I was also able to see the work of several veteran AST company members, including the excellent Mary Ruth Ralston in the title role and the impressive Amee Vyas as Margaret.  I enjoyed especially another education colleague, Andy Houchins, as Richard III, and I hope he goes on to play the role in the trilogy’s sequel when it comes into season.   This production used doubling (you almost have to with these shows, unless you have a sizable population of talented actors and endless supplies of cash) very well, and some great turns took place in the younger characters, as Hayley Platt used her stature and skill to bring boys to life.  I will admit (and hopefully not be hit by lightening for doing so) that I am just now, after the compressed viewing this fall, finally following all of the relationships in this epic English History retelling.  

 

The mere fact that I had the opportunity to experience three productions of this tale in such a short time — because, believe me, I know that it is no simple thing to keep all of the Plantagenets and Lancasters straight (much less all of the Edwards and Richards) — does reinforce my advocacy for Shakespeare performance as a means to teach English History.  I admire the artistic directors who put these (difficult to sell) plays in their season, as they do a service for students of history–which, honestly, has to be everyone. The populism Jack Cade advances in 2 Henry VI is a reflection of our recent election, and it offers us an opportunity to see (and not see) ourselves, our mistakes, our successes. Such presentations of historical figures force us to engage with tough questions and ask ourselves about the choices we make. By understanding our past, we can more clearly see our way to the future.  Let’s just hope there aren’t as many heads rolling.  So, I am grateful for friends who make that work available, who tell clear stories that bring history to life, and who let us all share in the joy of good theatre.

Was’t not at Hallowmas?

Though Halloween as we know it is largely one of merriment and good-spirited spookiness, it has somber origins in both the Roman Lemuralia and the Celtic Samhain. The three days of the Lemuralia were devoted to banishing malevolent ghosts and other negative spirits. Though the Lemuralia was originally held in May, once it merged with similar Christian observances, its associations got transferred to the autumn. It may also have connection with three autumn days when the Romans opened a gate, believed to lead to the underworld, in the Temple of Janus, and appeased the spirits there with offerings from the harvest. By contrast, the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SHAH-vahn in Irish Gaelic) was primarily a harvest festival, marking the end of seasons for herdsmen and traders alike, but was also traditionally the day when the veils between our world and the Otherworld were thinnest, allowing fairies and ghosts to slip across the threshold. Many Scottish and Irish legends feature abductions carried out on Samhain. Customary protections included wearing one’s clothing inside-out and carrying iron.

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Jonathan Holtzman, Gregory Jon Phelps, and Patrick Midgley as the Weïrd Sisters in MACBETH. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

By the 16th century in England, those pre-Christian traditions had blended with the Christian ideas of Allhallowtide — a three-day observance from October 31st to November 2nd, featuring, in succession, martyrs, saints, and all departed Christian souls. Commoners would go begging at the houses of the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for which they would promise to pray for the souls of the rich and their families, a practice Shakespeare refers to in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Speed says that a lover would “speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Sometimes they would do this disguised or masked, perhaps as an outgrowth of the Samhain traditions, and in some areas, it was customary to dress up as the saint who was the patron or patroness of the local church. Considering the gory ends that many saints and martyrs came to, perhaps the later association of Halloween with the horror genre is a natural shift. Eventually that procession, well-known to Shakespeare, evolved into trick-or-treating.

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Josh Innerst as the Ghost of King Hamlet and Patrick Earl as Hamlet in HAMLET. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The early modern fascination with the supernatural infuses many of Shakespeare’s plays. Vengeful ghosts show up in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. King Hamlet even references the idea that spirits wandering the earth were souls in Purgatory:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

King Hamlet certainly doesn’t seem restricted to a single night, but maybe this is a hint that at least part of the play takes place on or near Halloween? Puck calls on the same idea of wandering spirits in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards:

Oberon is careful to remind him — and the audience — that the fairies are “spirits of another sort”, ethereal but not infernal.

That cultural delight in the paranormal isn’t so far removed from the modern day as our post-Enlightenment society might believe, either. Consider the enduring popularity of horror films, paranormal romances, and ghost-hunting TV shows, or the yearly pilgrimages many of us make to theme park haunted houses, paying for the privilege of being spooked. Here in Staunton, ghost tours of downtown have become so popular that they now start in June and keep running until winter chill sets in. Medieval and early modern superstitions have hung on as well: if you’ve ever knocked on wood, crossed your fingers for luck, or even said “Bless you” when someone sneezes, you’re continuing centuries-old traditions meant to maintain a barrier between the spirit world and our physical realm.

Director of Mission Response to the Globe Decision Regarding its Artistic Director

Sam Wanamaker’s success in building the Globe (Shakespeare’s celebrated outdoor theatre) provided much of the impetus for building the Blackfriars (Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, more celebrated in his day than the Globe).  For that reason, the Globe’s decision to part ways with new Artistic Director Emma Rice following next season is a matter that should be of interest to fans of the Blackfriars Playhouse and the American Shakespeare Center.

Because Ms. Rice is remarkable director with an exciting vision, her tenure has occasioned a serious conversation about the purpose of the Globe. The particular concern that sparked that conversation was her decision to add lighting and amplification to the shows in the Globe.  In doing so, she raised important questions about a fundamental reason for the careful re-creation of the building: to explore how plays Shakespeare designed for that space might work, not just to learn more about Shakespeare but to learn more about theatre as well.  

What concerns me as co-founder of the ASC and as a member of the Globe’s Architectural Review Group, is the way the press is framing the Globe’s decision.  Their easy view is that this is a battle between tradition and innovation – between those who want the shows in the Globe to be a kind of museum theatre and those who want to apply modern technology to the shows to make the plays contemporary.   

The reverse is true.  The technology that Emma Rice has installed in the Globe is the conventional lighting and sound available in every prosperous modern theatre.  She is a master of the use of that technology, but there is nothing new about it; fitting it into the Globe is a case – almost literally – of trying to put a square peg into a round hole.  By contrast, the Globe is a unique building.  Previous Globe directors – men and women – have drawn their inspiration from that building, and their exploratory work has been a wellspring of contemporary theatrical creativity.  They have helped us to look anew at the relationship between actor and audience, at live musical accompaniment, at movement, at costume, and at issues of gender and casting.

In that way, the Globe, as Sam Wanamaker intended, has reminded us of the value of the purely human in the theatrical experience.  In short, by using the space that inspired Shakespeare to look afresh at theatre unmediated by technology, the Globe has been a leader in creating unconventional theatre, and it has inspired theatre companies all over the world (most without connection to Shakespeare) to trust in the ability of actors and in the understanding of audiences to make great theatre without the support of performance-enhancing technology.  

The American Shakespeare Center is proud that the Blackfriars Playhouse is one of those unconventional theatres.

Education Retreat 2016

Once a year, the education department at the American Shakespeare Center ventures out into the social and artistic world that is NOT centered in Staunton, Virginia. We call these outings our “Education Retreat,” with the double-entendre of being educational experiences for us as well as the attendees consisting of members of our education department. Previous adventures have included attending plays at other theatres, going to Busch Gardens, and spending  quality time at the home of our Director of Education. All of these outings obviously vary in their educational and artistic impact on us and on their other audiences, but they are all united by the major goal of our “retreats;” camaraderie and team-building. This was the first educational retreat that I got to go on (being a new hire as of April this year), but in previous years attendees have ranged from just salaried staff, to interns, to education artists. The goal is to include as many people as possible each year, and to impact as much of our team as we can with a fun and educational experience.

This year’s trip included Sarah Enloe, Director of Education, Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager, Lia Wallace, College Prep Programs Manager, and me, Adrienne Johnson, Company Manager and Camp Life Coordinator.  We made good time driving into Washington, DC on Wednesday afternoon, had dinner and saw Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, the first part of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes at Round House Theatre produced in partnership with Olney Theatre Center. On Thursday we tried and failed to get into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, and instead went to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and had lunch at Rasika before we had a few meetings at the Folger Shakespeare Library. We only hit a bit of traffic coming home, and were all back at work Friday morning.

YUZU Japanese Restaurant

We weren’t supposed to eat here. We actually had reservations for Jaleo, but we were late and they couldn’t delay our reservation by much. We still did our best to take the Metro across town in time, but were more worried about our curtain time since we probably lost our table. We literally walked into the nearest restaurant to the Metro station and (I think) found a little goldmine. Instead of a contemporary Spanish restaurant, we ended up in a Japanese restaurant with a personal sushi chef (with quite the resume). I was totally up for trying a new style of food… but sushi is my favorite food, so I was thrilled about the unplanned change. Collectively, we got edamame and tempura vegetables, spicy karaage chicken, udon, three different sushi, and two nigiri. Everything was delicious.

Round House Theatre

For this production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Round House Theatre teamed up with Olney Theatre Center. The two theatre companies have announced a “two-year commitment to co-produce outstanding plays in Montgomery County.” Angels in America is the first of this undertaking, and the next partnership (this time at Olney) happens in Fall of 2017. When it premiered in 1991, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. When we began looking at plays for our retreat, I suggested Angels in America to Sarah, mostly out of the selfish reason that I love the play and that I wanted to see some serious tech at work, knowing they’d at the very least need a fly-system. Luckily, there was a groupon. Sarah and I had read both parts before, and both Lia and I had seen the HBO version of the play, but Cass had neither read the play nor seen the made-for-tv special before our expedition on Wednesday.

I won’t speak for my cohort, but I loved the production. First, it was great to see some well-timed tech. As someone who stage managed for years before coming to work at the ASC (where we do it with the lights on!), I really miss seeing and executing what my stage-management professor from undergrad perfectly titled “a sexy light cue.” Timing cues is a detail-driven expertise that takes constant finessing, and something I miss most about calling shows. It is a skill that I am afraid I will lose if I don’t use it, and I was grateful to relish in a cleanly-executed production. There’s no better feeling than when a beautiful technical aspect in your play is timed perfectly with the talent of the actors. Well-done Round House/Olney. Secondly, the acting was superb. It’s hard to pinpoint just one favorite character or scene or moment. Kushner obviously wrote a wonderfully balanced play, with great character arch and development, but putting that aside, just the acting was outstanding. I had never seen Thomas Keegan perform, since I’m new to the ASC, but Sarah, Cass, and Lia all had, but only ever in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I imagine that a Republican, Mormon, closeted-homosexual was out of the usual wheelhouse in which they’d seen him perform. Keegan toward above his detail-oriented partner, Kimberly Gilbert’s Harper. When reading the play, Harper is my favorite character, in Round House/Olney’s production, I really want to say she’s still my favorite. Her honest Harper was earnest in her delivery and meticulous in the use of her hands. Gilbert could teach a lesson to every Nina who asked what to do with them. But every scene she did, was topped by one of her cast-mates, and then again by her, and then again by her cast-mates (you get the picture).

It is hard to single out a single winning performance. And yet, I’m still going to try to. Sarah Marshall was noticeably Sarah Marshall in every character she doubled, with the exception of Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother. Each actor in the production was good at making almost all of their words sound genuine, as if they were being delivered for the first time.  This is something we strive for at the ASC, because we believe that the quick delivery of Shakespeare’s text is crucial to understanding the language and executing the original staging practices of his plays. It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve tried, and maybe succeeded a few times in plays I’ve been in. Many actors find this “discovering” of language one of the more difficult practices of acting; how do you make words that someone else wrote, that you spent hours memorizing, sound like you’ve never spoken them before and definitely haven’t practiced saying them hundreds of times? I have never seen an actor execute this better than Sarah Marshall did in the scene where Hannah Pitt first arrives in New York and has a discussion with a homeless woman about getting directions to her son’s neighborhood.  Because of my obsession with tech in a show, it is very hard for me to “get wrapped up” in a production as I am constantly looking around the room to observe as much of the backstage elements as a I can. However, during this scene, I forgot to look around, because I couldn’t look away. It was the most real, wonderful connection of two fake people I’ve ever seen, and my heart went out to Hannah Pitt. Overall, the show was amazing, and my only regret is that I probably won’t get to see Part II before it closes at the end of the month.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

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Photo by Cass Morris

We didn’t get in so I can’t talk about the actual museum (although I plan to go with my family in March, so might have more to say later). But what I can talk about is the overwhelming excitement and feeling of camaraderie as we waited to get in. We got to the line around 8:05, and were so close to getting in. If we’d been about 10-15 minutes earlier, we would have been in the pretty large group of people that got into the museum with their generous same-day passes (distributed at 9:15). The pre-sold tickets to the museum are currently sold-out through March 2017, but each day the museum reserves several “Same Day Timed Passes” to try to welcome as many people as possible, both those with reservations and those without. The line had between 200 and 300 people waiting to get in (rough observed estimate, I didn’t count), and I’d say we were almost in the middle of that group. The line was made up of a mix of African Americans, white Americans, other ethnicities, and I heard one man proclaim to a guide that “even the Canadians” were making the trip down to the museum! It was a lovely display of exactly what the museum is trying to highlight, #apeoplesjourney and “A Nation’s History.” The museum is for everyone. And we all have the opportunity to explore this new and exciting display of an integral part of American history, culture, and community. I can’t wait to check it out sometime next year.

National Air and Space Museum

I had been to the Air and Space Museum many many times (my family lived near DC growing up, so we frequently explored the museums and monuments whenever relatives came to town), but Lia and Sarah had never been before, so we quickly chose to explore this one. Like I usually do, I quickly passed by the fighter plane and war plane exhibits for the (in my opinion) way cooler part of the museum. I spent most of my time in the moon exhibits while Sarah, Lia, and Cass explored other parts of the museum and, of course, went to get some freeze dried ice cream. Duh.

The aeronautical collection began in 1876 but didn’t occupy its current building on the National Mall until 1976, and it has grown to be the largest of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. Although the exhibits have developed over time, when exploring the museum it is easy to see that a lot of the exhibits are outdated. We each noticed this about the museum and that actually sparked our biggest discussion once we left. It wasn’t actually about the content of the museum, but instead about curating and maintaining exhibits. Sarah asked us “If you had the funding to redesign a museum, what would you keep, what would you toss, and where could you begin from scratch?” Specifically at Air and Space, so much of the content is artifacts; actual pieces of planes and spacecraft, so we all agreed we could keep the actual pieces while updating what we said about them. This is a constant discussion for the ASC’s education department because we are always archiving our work (artistic, educational, and now administrative and marketing). We actually have three archival interns at the moment because there’s so much material to process. Although we don’t have our archived material on display, we are constantly cataloguing and rotating our data between our two locations, and visiting other theatres and museums offers important insight into how to catalogue and maintain our own historic records to make them as easily accessible to as many parties as need them in the future.

Rasika

Rasika is one of our boss’s favorite restaurant. For my birthday last year, he tried to take me there for dinner, but we couldn’t get in. The four of us did get in for a lunch reservation and were joined by an intern from the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She wanted to meet with us to discuss our community outreach and our interaction with our audiences before, during, and after they attend a production at our theatre. We were able to answer a lot of her questions, but are also arranging for her to speak with our development team members.

The five of us sat down for a delicious Indian meal in which I can honestly say I don’t remember what everyone ordered. We did begin with an order of Palak Chaat, which is a crispy spinach appetizer with sweet yogurt. It was amazing and I could have eaten just that. Everyone else ordered some form of meat or veggie/sauce/rice dish, varying in color, spice, flavor but similar in deliciousness. I ordered tandoori salmon that was the most tender piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. Finally getting to try this famous Indian restaurant was well worth the wait.

Folger Shakespeare Library

For the rest of the afternoon Sarah had arranged for us to meet with two leading members of the Digital Media and Publications team at the Folger; first with Michael Poston, the Database Applications Associate, and second with Eric Johnson, the Director of Digital Access. Poston showed us his current projects, an online version of the works of Christopher Marlowe (similar to Open Source Shakespeare from what I can tell) and a transcribing database of Early Modern manuscripts (less theatre history specifically, more all-of-the-things history). I must admit, I didn’t follow everything he was talking about, but, man, were Cass and Lia excited. I was most excited by Poston’s palpable enthusiasm for his own project. His hospitality and openness to take the time to engage with us was the best part of the meeting.

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Photo by Cass Morris

We then had about a forty-five minute break before our meeting with Johnson, so Sarah and Cass explored the Jane Austen/Shakespeare exhibit currently in residence at the Folger while Lia and I wandered over to Capitol Hill to visit my sister on her lunch break who works as a clerk for the House of Representatives. Sarah loves Austen’s work and was excited about the mash-up of two great writers.

After the break, we met with Eric Johnson. While Johnson manages the various digital programs at the Folger and oversees Shakespeare Quarterly, he is most famous for creating Open Source Shakespeare, one of the most widely-used Shakespeare research resources. Lia was excited because the last time she met Johnson, she fangirled a little too hard, although he had no memory of the meeting. We had a nice chat, but I was mostly excited to see his collection of Washington Nationals memorabilia in his office. Again, I don’t always follow the academic depth of the conversation, but Johnson was friendly and welcoming in all the best ways.

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Photo by Sarah Enloe

What We Learned

Although I’d been to the Smithsonian before and I wasn’t as enthused by the online academic resources as Lia and Cass were (but who is, really?), I can say I learned a lot about the exhibits, playhouses, and museums different from ours, and those that were similar. At every place we went, we were greeted warmly and openly, encouraged to participate, and welcomed to return. No matter where we go for future retreats, at least the four of us will get to go together and learn more about each other and the world around us. If engaging in the local, diverse, and exciting cultural and theatrical environment is the goal, I’d say we aced this retreat. If learning about each other as a team and as individuals was the goal, top of the class there too. Overall, I was grateful to take two days to learn about my team and, more importantly, how we as a team can fit into the world around us.

(Photo credit: Sarah Enloe)