The Next Generation of Playwrights Has Arrived

IMG_3730.pngIt’s been long anticipated and highly publicized, and now the wheels are officially in motion. Anne G. Morgan, our Literary Manager at the ASC, is beginning to sift through play submissions for the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project.

Take Note

Launched in April of this year, the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries (SNC) Project is an initiative to develop one new play to respond to each of the 38 plays in Shakespeare’s canon. The project is a competition: in addition to a $25,000 prize, the winners will get their plays produced at the ASC in repertory with the play it stems from. This year, Anne is searching for companion plays to Henry IV (Part 1), The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Winter’s Tale, two of which will be produced in 2019.

“Before you read it, any play you open could be the next great play,” Anne says. “There’s so much potential in this early phase.” Anne started working at the ASC at the beginning of September, and she’s already got her rhythm: in addition to reading play submissions, she’s refining the application form, answering emails, and absorbing as much institutional knowledge as possible.

On February 15, Anne will send viable play submissions to a group of readers who will help determine the list of finalists. “I am really excited about the moment we start to narrow down the pool. When the reader reports come back in, I’ve done my own reading, and it starts to become clear that we’ve got some good options, that’s the moment that’s really exciting to me.”

Mind the Gap

Fresh from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Anne has plenty of experience with new play cultivation through her work with its National Playwriting Conference. While at the O’Neill, she was able to sharpen her skills in application management and in advocating for living playwrights; these skills will come in handy during her work on the SNC Project.

She ends up being a customer service representative, an agent, and an editor for each winning playwright. Anne notes, “It’s really important to me that, not only am I taking care of the playwright when I sit down and read their play. . .I’m taking care of the writer the moment they email me with any question they have in the application process. . . .And then after we select [a play], I want them to feel taken care of with any notes that we have, in the rehearsal process, and all the way through opening night.”

Anne is excited to be involved with a playwriting initiative that is so specific: rather than putting out a general call for new plays, we are asking for plays which accommodate a large cast, walk hand-in-hand with a Shakespeare play, and utilize universal lighting.

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The call for play submissions is open, meaning anyone can submit. Anne has some advice for submitters: “Read all of the information on the website…and articulate how [your] play can speak to the Shakespeare play to which it is corresponding.”

All Aboard

Now that the wheels of the SNC Project are moving, Anne is excited to engage more than just budding (or established) playwrights. Over the course of the next year, ASC fans can get involved with the SNC Project both by spreading the word about the project and by coming to the theatre to see the plays during the rehearsal process. “One of the exciting things about new plays is that they’re not finished…so having an audience is very helpful for a playwright to hear, for example, where the laughs happen and why… so they can make rewrites.”

As the wheels of the SNC Project start their 20-year run, they promise to turn quickly. By September 2019, the ASC will have produced two world premieres of new plays, have two more plays chosen to produce in 2020, and be in the process of selecting two more plays for 2021. So take note and mind the gap; all aboard! It’s going to be a fast ride.

How We Teach Teachers

Google “Shakespeare on your feet” and the first page of search results will reveal that entities from libraries like the Folger, media outlets like PBS, and theatres like the Actors Centre advocate teaching Shakespeare through “play” or “up on your feet” or “actively”. At the ASC, we certainly use that language as well, but the driving idea behind our approach is more about context than the work we see elsewhere.  Context is a term we take very seriously; it involves more than asking students to build models of the Globe or talking about Elizabeth’s life during the era. It really comes down to teaching our teachers and students to think like Shakespeare’s actors did when they approached the text.  Look around you and see the wooden platform, the audience in the light, the clues in the text (for those who don’t have a lot of time to rehearse), so that performance of the words is at the top of students’ minds.  

ASC’s approach to teaching teachers and students is rooted in fundamentals of classroom practice and an understanding of the demands placed on teachers’ time, students’ interests, and Shakespeare’s plays.  We consider setting, context, methodology and materials and address assumptions teachers may have as well as the unique world of the Shakespeare classroom.

Setting: The ASC acknowledges that most of the teachers we work with operate in English classrooms which feature desks, and that there is some difficulty in getting open spaces in many schools.  So our lessons work within those parameters. We believe that learning is individualized, so students can learn most deeply in situations which invite inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to encourage the exploration of scene, arranged in thrust so that students are closer to Shakespeare’s theatre’s architecture.  We advocate for avatars and actors to demonstrate and help define the information but do not advocate that all students must be on their feet at the same time — something that is difficult to do in an English classroom and is not conducive to all students’ engaging with the text in context.

Context: We believe that context is everything. Context means we believe in treating the plays as plays, plays that were written for specific theatrical conditions that students benefit from knowing, and leaving the text in place in the lesson. This means that we do not employ “insult generators” or pull lines out of speeches to “throw them at each other”.  We do not advocate for separate lessons on Shakespeare’s biography, but fold the fact that he was a working actor into every exploration and note that his monarch and the political climate of early modern London may have had an impact on this character or that scene, as it arises. We consider the staging conditions he considered, as a means to get the students and teachers we work with closer to the performance Shakespeare imagined as he wrote the plays.

Inquiry (infinite variety): We create a world of many, many right answers, and we suggest a method of inquiry-based learning — where each student’s answer may differ.  Shakespeare wrote incomplete works; he needed the actors he worked with and the audiences he played for to finish them.  Students are the actors and audience, and they can answer the questions that lead to the infinite variety of choices that continue to make his plays fascinating 400 years later. We encourage students to consider a number of choices — if video comes into our lesson, we use several clips from many different productions to emphasize how many choices are available.

Materials: We provide teachers with materials that are complete and formatted for ease of use in the typical English classroom (black and white, because most schools copiers are not color; few pages dense with information to save paper; and we are working to envision more in the digital classroom — white boards, etc)

Teacher Experience: The ASC realizes that the vast majority of teachers working with students on Shakespeare’s plays have had few classes on the subject and are not versed in theatrical techniques (nor do many want to be; they teach English because it is their passion). We believe that teachers desire to deepen their own learning and knowledge in order to deepen their students’. We recognize that they have limited time in which to add to their knowledge, so we strive to make every minute that they spend in our professional development programs immediately applicable to classroom practice and to their own and their students’ enrichment.  We take the approach that if teachers know more about how these plays work and worked on the stage, they will have a richer understanding of why the plays are worth studying and be able to communicate to a diverse body of learners

Respect:  We believe that teachers’ time is precious and that they learn the most from fellow educators — educators who have the time to prepare detailed and specific lessons and handouts that they can immediately deploy in their classroom. We model those lessons so that teachers can see one approach and adapt each activity to their own style and purpose.  We arrange the lessons in an accessible way so that they can teach the unit in any order and blend the lessons together as they choose, but also provide a scaffolding section (The Basics) so that teachers have a baseline of knowledge from which to begin. We test the lessons and conduct focus groups, then we adjust them as needed, constantly improving the materials we provide and our approach to them. And, we enhance the lessons with feedback and input from our actors and the events that transpire in a rehearsal room, so that we are speaking truth and giving students and teachers the very important insights our actors share in classroom applicable ways.

In short, we aim to create an atmosphere of learning that makes gaining knowledge and engaging in exploration irresistible.  A space in which students dread the final bell because they will have to leave the topic, a room filled with voices and opportunities to state one’s thoughts — while realizing that difference of opinion is beautiful and can be shared respectfully.  A place where the learner can become the teacher and the teacher learns something every time the class convenes.  We believe the way to do that is by empowering teachers, giving students agency, and providing them with tools to examine words and meaning that stretch well beyond the classroom walls.  Even to a 400 year-old theatre, perhaps.

You can learn more about each of these and participate in an active and hands on model of practice at our teacher seminars offer 4 times annually at the Blackfriars in Staunton (the next one is August 3-4) or on site in your district.  Contact sarahe@americanshakespearecenter.com for more information.

Behind the play: Matthew Radford Davies talks LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Love’s Labour’s Lost joined the repertory of the Summer/Fall Season last week.  Today we catch up with director Matthew Radford Davies to hear his thoughts on the newest addition to the Blackfriars Playhouse lineup.

You’ve directed the Mary Baldwin University MFA company in the Blackfriars Playhouse, but this is your first time directing the resident troupe.  What’s different?  What’s the same?

Working with the resident troupe, I find myself practicing what I preach during the semester, which is an enabling experience.  The professionals are skilled musicians, not just of instruments, but also of the sound box that is the Blackfriars stage.  They play the frets that we spend time locating in class.  One of the central tenets of our MFA approach is collaboration, which is a buzzword in theatre pedagogy but which is even harder to effect than to spell.  I’m delighted to affirm that the collaborative spirit as the ASC, to which our students aspire, is alive and well.

You mention in your director’s note a 1930 quote from Harley Granville-Barker. “Here is a fashionable play now three hundred years out of fashion.”  Why was he wrong?  What makes this play fashionable in 2017?

I don’t think Harley G-B was wrong.  (Is he ever?)  But plays have their times, their kairotic moments, and just as quickly find themselves out of joint again.  Coriolanus, a long-neglected play, is everywhere at the moment, perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.  As the world stumbled from Edwardian excess into a Great Depression, and the threat of war began to rear its head once more, it’s easy to see why theatregoers might struggle to care about the emotional anxieties of la jeunesse doree.  Post-war, I suspect the play started to re-engage with sexual politics, feminism, and the battle of the sexes.  Meanwhile, the slipperiness of the language and the generic uncertainty of the ending clearly appealed to the postmodern sensibility that favored skepticism and heterodoxy over conformity and hierarchy.  Beneath its elegant exterior and its plotted edicts and male-directed mandates, lurks a roguish energy of doubt and questioning that, I think, contemporary directors find intriguing and appealing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often heralded for its linguistic brilliance.  We’ve been calling it “Shakespeare’s most exuberant word-fest.”  Shakespeare is, of course, known for his mastery of the English language.  What is it like working on a play that’s particularly spectacular even by the high standards set by Shakespeare’s other works?

I remember once reading that language in LLL is a character in its own right.  If so, then this character is as intriguing and untrustworthy and compelling as all the others in the play.  Throughout the canon, Shakespeare displays the fabulous paradox of an author both enamored by and deeply skeptical of, the written language.  In Love’s Labour’s, as in so many of his plays, letters are the guarantors of disaster, but in this play the spoken word gets equally challenging treatment, since what the characters say is as untrustworthy as it is seductive.  So, as theatre makers, we need to do more than just say the lines clearly, we need to luxuriate in them, their syntax and sound, their rhetorical dexterity.  Not surprisingly, amid such linguistic opulence, the simple lines — often short and expressed in Anglo-Saxon terms – land most powerfully.  One of my favorite lines in the play, in the entire canon, in fact, is Berowne’s simple, sudden exclamation, “ — O, my little heart.”  But that purity of expression gains its power, its energy, emerging from its rhetorically dense context.

We think Shakespeare may have written a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there are no surviving copies.  Some scholars believe LLW might actually just be Much Ado about Nothing.  Do you think there is any merit to that idea?  Is it special to direct a production of LLL playing in repertory with Much Ado?

While the RSC recently staged this clever conceit, with the same actors “appropriately cast” across the two plays — Benedick/Berowne to Beatrice/Rosaline, for instance — with the narrative conjoined, or divided, by the Great War — I strongly doubt that Much Ado is LLW (which quite possibly existed and is now lost).  I am, however, delighted that the ASC is bringing LLL and Much Ado together in one season, especially as they’re both in period dress, since audiences can judge for themselves how well the plays work as companion pieces.  I am personally as struck by the differences as well as the connections, and the way the two productions ask us to view a similar theme and cast of characters from very different angles.

What scenes or characters should audiences specifically look for?

In this production, we have worked extremely hard to fashion individuals from a formulaic plot structure.  While the lovers are clearly patterned in groups, their concerns echoed and enriched by the “rusticals,” we also wanted to ensure they had their own arcs and expectations.  Not only do the lords and ladies each have journeys to travel and lessons to learn, they all pursue their developing loves in subtly different ways.  We’ve also worked to tie the comic subplot, featuring the love triangle between the hearty Jaquenetta, the lusty Costard and Armado, the Spanish knight down-on-his-luck, as tightly as possible to the main plot. Comedy, romance, and potential tragedy (in the form of a melancholic undertow), intermingle in this play of sophisticates, sophists, and simple rustics, and we want you, the audience, to never quite know what will float to the surface at any given moment.  We hope that the characters constantly surprise you, and challenge all of our easy expectations.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up.  Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery.

A Moment about “Still Star-Crossed” – and other Shakespeare adaptations

Countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays span hundreds of years, and the likely candidate for most adapted play is Romeo & Juliet. Most recently, “Grey’s Anatomy” creator and prolific TV producer Shonda Rhimes explores the world of Shakespeare’s classic post tragic deaths.  Aptly named Still Star-Crossed (the show draws its name and plot from author Melinda Taub’s 2013 young-adult novel), Rhimes’s latest work joins the consistently expanding realm of film and television adaptations of Shakespeare.

In her book Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, Margaret Jane Kidnie terms adaptation “an evolving category…closely tied to how the work modifies over time and from one reception space to another”. Accessible to audiences beyond academia, Still Star-Crossed does an admirable job of staying true to the play’s dramatic pathos, while keeping intact the flesh of well-scoured soap-operatic fascinations with shifting alliances that have characterized Rhimes’s evolving television repertory.

The show focuses on named characters Rosaline and Benvolio, who take the place of Romeo and Juliet as Verona’s eponymous star-crossed lovers, and explores their connections to both warring, shambling families.  Still Star-Crossed lifts characters’ names and statuses from both the “original” work (“original” in quotes because even Shakespeare lifted from other sources), and Taub’s book.  

Though it lacks iambic pentameter, there’s a lot about Still Star-Crossed Shakespeare enthusiasts can find to love: integrated casting (an enduring, welcome fixture of Rhimes’ shows), central female characters, brewing political intrigue, and varied romantic relationships.

The show follows a female character who has little to do in the original and is therefore ripe for development. Rosaline (who in Shakespeare’s work was discussed but is not even included in any stage direction, much less possessed of any lines,) is the show’s main female protagonist.  She exhibits qualities evident from Shakespeare’s other heroines while maintaining her own story arc.  As played by actress Lashana Lynch, Rosaline is headstrong, independent, pragmatic, and loyal.  

As in As You Like It, the show features more than one strong female, and she shares qualities with characters such as Lady Macbeth and Volumnia (of Coriolanus). Princess Isabella, the sister of the feud-frustrated ruler of Verona, as played by Iranian actor Medalion Rahimi, is exacting, ambitious, and operates from Verona-walled shadows.

The concept of copyright was foreign to the people of early modern England (approximately the late 15th century to the 18th century).  Plays were licensed, but were ultimately the property of the playing troupe – not of a single author (a practice which fellow early modern playwright Ben Jonson heavily challenged during his time and beyond).  Plays vibing off of Shakespeare’s work proliferated from the early modern period onward. Two examples include John Fletcher’s 1647 The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed (a continuation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) and Nahum Tate’s 1681 The History of King Lear, (in)famous for its happy ending.  Adaptations have also carried over to films in the early 1900s.  Although the mediums are different, observing the plot-related elements present in Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s trilogy Throne of Blood, Ran, and The Bad Sleep Well (adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet, respectively) next to Tate’s Lear shows the similarities in the practice of adapting.  Beyond, similarities, though, the choice to include distinct elements, such as some from Japanese Folklore, in the films, influences the action, if not necessarily the events from the plays they borrowed or re-purposed.  Though not influenced by folklore, by contrast, the direct changing of a plot point in Tate’s Lear–that of going from a tragic to a happy ending–subverts the conclusion in ways that can be both shocking and delightful”.

The adaptation train shows no sign of slowing down.  Indeed, our own Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project at the ASC seeks to build of modern canon of contemporary companion plays that vibe off and are inspired by Shakespeare’s work.  Recent concern has been expressed of Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries being cast out of theatres in favor of their modern day kin, perhaps most notably after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Initiative launched in 2015. But there’s no cause for concern, dear friend. Past and future adaptations of Shakespeare’s works are beautiful reflections of his masterpieces, and they can only help us recover the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s plays.

Still Star-Crossed airs Saturdays at 10|9c on ABC.  Full episodes are online at ABC.

The Nurse and Juliet: Underappreciated Connections in “Romeo & Juliet”

In Ben Curns’ “Notes from the Director” program note on our 2016/17 Hungry Hearts touring production of Romeo and Juliet, he cited the enduring, universal divisions evident in Shakespeare’s Verona – families, genders, classes – as well as how they, now more than ever, strongly resound in today’s world the thematic (and universally-charged) importance of love over hate. The title characters, despite their families’ seemingly perpetual and reason-absent conflicts, unite and thrive together under the auspices of love. Though under entirely different auspices, the Nurse – employee to the Capulet family, servant, advisor, wet nurse, and, ultimately, mother figure and friend to Juliet – share love and loss in spite of the obvious distinction, and division, of class.

Employment as a household servant in early modern England was a major sector of the English economy (Spicksley, 678). For those of ages 15-24, as an inevitable step in the life cycle of early modern lives, service provided secure employment, board and lodgings in their employer’s household, and a small cash income for many adolescents before they embarked on marriage in their mid to late twenties (Woodward 141). Steeped in status, Juliet and the Nurse’s relationship in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet at first evidences one such the straightforward, easy-to-follow dynamic of status in early modern Europe, wherein lower status individuals are employed in service to those of higher status (nobility). Thus, their relationship is based in status and loyalty. Shakespeare demonstrates his acknowledgement and knowledge of such through the proliferation of this and a myriad of colorful, complex status-based relationships in his works (labourers, servants and otherwise).

When I refer to the term ‘status-based’, I relate to the definition I used in my MLitt (Master of Letters) thesis “Gal Being Pals: Status-Based Female Relationships in Shakespeare”. Coined as the “Bechtol Test” (after professor Doreen Bechtol of Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare & Performance graduate program), I provide the following qualifications:

  • Two women make up the relationship;
  • one woman is of higher status (mistress) than the other
    (servant/gentlewoman);
  • the woman of lower status does work/labor for the higher status woman in
    some definition/capacity;
  • the two women are not related by blood or marriage (“sisters”)
  • the two women must share at least one scene;
  • the two women must have some familiarity with each other (“alliances”)

As evidenced by their first scene shared of the play, Juliet and the Nurse beckons a recognizable status-based relationship: the Nurse readily recalls Juliet as “the prettiest babe that e’er I nursed” and demonstrates a close, tender relationship with her: “were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck’d wisdom from thy teat” (1.3). Using the qualifiers above, we see the two women Juliet (acting as mistress) and the Nurse (acting as, well, nurse) make up a status-based relationship, are not related, share five scenes together, and are familiar enough to regularly joke around with each other (as evidenced in 2.5, when the Nurse makes Juliet impatient with the forbearance of her news from Romeo).

Despite the above evidence, in the case of Romeo & Juliet’s Nurse, author and Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, would not consider her to be an example of a positive status-based relationship. In his research, he affirms his own belief that the Nurse, by abandoning Juliet in her time of need, places her own concerns above those of her mistress, thus displacing her devotion in favor of her employers, the Capulet family. With this logic in mind, Bloom is correct. The Nurse is concerned about her fate. What Bloom forgets, however, is how the Nurse’s unspoken fear of losing job thematically ties back to her concern for Juliet’s safety. Female servants had less job security than their male counterparts. As mentioned by author and fellow Shakespeare scholar Alan Bray in his book The Friend, women servants were not as freely employed. More importantly, the Nurse’s concern for Juliet effectively aligns with guidelines to those in service in early modern conduct manuals.

Dorothy Leigh, in her 1616 courtesy manual/early modern self-help book A Mother’s Blessing, concerns her readers with a child’s idleness and an aim to keep them from being such (58-9). Juliet does not stay idle (for long). The Nurse, following Juliet’s instruction, seeks Romeo about the prospect of marriage. With this action, the Nurse doubly acts as her messenger and her proxy. She also, however, keeps Juliet in suspense. The Nurse, after sending Juliet up and down a rollercoaster of frustration for her news, tells her to “hie [herself] to Friar Laurence’s cell” and get married to Romeo already, though it would be against her parents’ wishes (2.5). With this action, and the ones in the scene prior, the Nurse allies herself on Juliet’s side three-fold: proxy, messenger, and confidante.

In direct contrast to these loyalty-immured actions, things take a turn for the worse in Act Three, Scene Four. In the wake of Tybalt’s death, proverbial excrement hits the proverbial fan: Juliet reveals to her parents that she wishes not to marry Paris, and that she would rather marry Romeo. Naturally, her parents do not take this well. After Lord and Lady Capulet threaten to disown her, the Nurse does not rush to defend her. She then proceeds to tell Juliet to follow her parents’ orders, to marry Paris.

I think it best you married with the county….
Romeo’s a dishclout to him: an eagle, madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart…
Your first is dead; or ’twere as good he were,
As living here and you no use of him.

Following this exclamation, Juliet can only reply:

JULIET
Speakest thou from thy heart?
NURSE
And from my soul too;
Or else beshrew them both (3.5. 217-227)

The repetition of beshrew and heart between them both is worth of note, if only for the last lines’ finality, mutual use of rhetoric (which showcases the Nurse’s intellect), and the ensuing vibrato. The finality of such also reminds both Juliet and the Nurse about their roles, which reflect their statuses within their “within”. Juliet remains the daughter of a noble (upper-class) family, and the Nurse as a lower-class, wage-earning servant of same. Both parties are expected to follow orders, and to act as the parts indubitably embedded into their lives. In the context of the Nurse’s “divided” duty to Juliet and to her employers, Shakespeare here daylights an internal, insoluble problem of class-based friendships, and a significant one at that. The Nurse, as seen in the exchanges above, has so far acted as ally and proxy to Juliet, following in these steps her love and devotion to her mistress. Within and after Act 3, Scene Three, however, she chooses to weigh, and ultimately follows, the will of her employers Lord and Lady Capulet against the will of her young mistress. It is evident that she still loves Juliet; in spite of this, the Nurse must serve the Capulet family above all else, and, ultimately, above the wiles of a teenage girl. Juliet is a member of the Capulet family; however, she is not the Nurse’s employer. By putting her job above her loyalties, the Nurse bestrews her own heart; to Juliet, though, she swears by it and her soul.

Ultimately, the Nurse, out of love for Juliet, tells her charge to follow her parents’ wishes, and, as a result, creates again a chasm-wide gulf between class and camaraderie. Out of love, the Nurse tells Juliet to stick to the status quo. Out of love, the Nurse follows her needs of her employers over her own. Out of love, so many events in Romeo & Juliet occur: Romeo and Juliet meeting and falling for each other; the Montagues and the Capulets holding fast to their families; their families’ eventual, hard-won reconciliation and, thus, the creation of community through shared loss. Though these divisions exist within both the world of Verona and our own, love, its different kinds (romantic, platonic, familial), and its ability to burn through hate was palpable in early modern England, and remains so today.

*Passages of this blog post have been repurposed from Buttitta’s MLitt thesis.


Sources:

Bray, Alan. The Friend. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1998. Print.

Buttitta, Madeleine Alyssa. Gals Being Pals: Status-Based Female Relationships in Shakespeare. MA Thesis. Mary Baldwin University, 2017 (TBD).

Curns, Ben. ” ‘Here’s Much To Do With Hate But More With Love.’ ” Notes from the Director: Romeo and Juliet. American Shakespeare Center, 2016. Web. 07 June 2017.

Kussmaul, Ann S. “Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 39, no. 1, 1979, pp. 329–331. JSTOR.

Leigh, Dorothy. The mothers blessing. Or, The godly counsell of a gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behinde her for her children. Containing many good exhortations, and good admonitions profitable for all parents to leaue as a legacy to their children. London: John Budge, 1616. Early English Books Online.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. ed., New York, W.W. Norton, 2008.

Spicksley, Judith M. “The Economic History Review.” The Economic History Review, vol. 64, no. 2, 2011, pp. 678–679. JSTOR.

Woodward, Donald. “Early Modern Servants in Husbandry Revisited.” The Agricultural History Review, vol. 48, no. 2, 2000, pp. 141–150. JSTOR.

Much Ado about MUCH ADO

 

The 2017 Summer/Fall Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse kicks off this weekend with performances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Much Ado about Nothing.  Today, we’re catching up with Much Ado‘s director, Jenny Bennett, to get some thoughts on the show’s opening.

much_ado_about_nothing

Left: Allison Glenzer and David Anthony Lewis in Much Ado about Nothing.  Photo by Michael Bailey.  Right:  Jenny Bennett.  Photo by Lindsey Walters.

This is your third time directing at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  What do you most look forward to about directing here that is different from other venues?  What is similar? 

I love getting to play in Shakespeare’s staging conditions, especially the #SharedLight.  (Wait- is that a real hashtag?  If not, it should be: #SharedLight #ftw.)  There’s no distance between the actors and the audience here: they see us, we see them, we see each other seeing them and each other.  In the shared candlelight of the Blackfriars, we are all right here, right now, making this story together on the great words of these great plays.  It’s some ultimate theatremaking, in my opinion.

I’m a big fan of making theatre that makes the most of the medium, that uses artistic elements that can only happen/that happen best on a stage full of powerful actors inventing a story with the audience right exactly now.  As an audience member, I love it when a production trusts me to imagine along with it—“Oh – that actor I recognize who was just the delighted ingénue in the last scene now has on pants, stuffed her hair in a hat, and is a whole new person called Boy?  And I’m to believe that just because she and the other actors say so?  On the power of their word?  Yes, please.  Awesome!  We will imagine right into that, thanks; we will absolutely join in making this play.

We are so game out here in the audience – we’re hungry to participate in something big and smart and beautiful.  In this Playhouse, we get to unite for a few hours, bound together by a great play spoken by great actors who we imagine along with in #SharedLight (look, I did it again).  It doesn’t matter who we were when we walked into the Playhouse;  by the time we’ve walked out of it after the show, we’ve helped make a play out of nothing.  Well, nothing but words spoken and listened.  Shakespeare might relate ‘words’ to ‘wind’, though, and wind is air, and air is airy…nothing.  Far from diminishing the value of the word, what I take from him is that all human possibilities come from the word.  We exist in language, in a theater or not.  We exist, because we say so.

What about Much Ado about Nothing is different from the two other plays that you’ve directed here (The Winter’s Tale and King Lear)? What are you most looking forward to about this play?

You know, it’s interesting that all three of these plays I’ve gotten to direct here have featured moments of the idea of ‘nothing’ (just a few examples – Leontes’ big WT speech beginning 1.2.284 ‘Is whispering nothing?’; KL sequence beginning with Cordelia’s reply to her father’s request for public love 1.1.87 ‘Nothing.  Nothing?  Nothing, my Lord.  Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”; Much Ado….about Nothing.)

‘Nothing’ is an idea Shakespeare was very interested in, if you measure interest by the frequency the word and its puns show up in the canon.  I could be projecting, for sure: I’m definitely interested in this idea.  No – thing.  Absence of something.  Infinity.  Possibility.  A moment of creation from which tales can be spun toward harmony or chaos, depending on the spinner (and the listener).

When you add in the accent of English spoken by Shakespeare’s actors at the time, of course, you get all these homophone puns on ‘noting’, too – what we ‘note’, what we pay attention to, or not.  It’s explicit in this play on multiple occasions – Balthasar’s song intro in 2.3, ‘noting’ the daughter of Leonato in 1.1, the Friar’s ‘noting of the lady’ in 4.1.

Much Ado about Noting.  Much Ado about Nothing.  Which is it, do you think?  I think it’s both.  How great is that?  Thanks, Will.

Directing in the Blackfriars is a collaborative process.  What is it like to work with actors who have been on our stage for so many years? 

I love these rockstar nerds.  (And I mean ‘rockstar’ both literally and figuratively: the ASC troupe of actors is my favorite band.  ‘Nerds’ I mean literally, my highest praise.)  Acting in these staging conditions attracts the brave.  It fosters that courage to be present and spontaneous over a five-month run with a few hundred people looking you right in the eye.  The confidence in being, the trust in an audience that comes from long experience on this stage is a precious gift.  The staging conditions are very much about the actor and the text – just the way I like it!

Directing is always a collaborative process wherever it happens — the Theatre itself is a collaborative medium full of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, producers, and a variety of staff, and a play doesn’t happen without all of these contributions.  The whole ASC team and the artistic community they make together is a delight to get to be a part of as a guest.  I’m so excited to see the ASC bringing playwrights into the mix with the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project, too!  They’re gonna have a blast, writing for the possibilities of this troupe, where the words have power and the actors are game.

Do you have a favorite scene or line from this play?  Have any become your favorite through the directing process? 

My favorite line and scene is all of them.  That’s what usually happens to me through the directing process, alas!  But here’s a list of dozen delights that leapt to mind at your question.  I’ll let readers listen for who says them in the show, or let readers guess the speaker, if they’re a lovely supernerd who likes a Shakespeare line quiz:

“Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”

“One doth not know how much an ill word may empoison liking.”

“Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending.”

“Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”

“For it so falls out / That what we have we prize not to the worth / Whiles we enjoy it“

“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much.”

“If her breath were as terrible as her terminations there were no living near her: she would infect to the North Star.”

“He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.”

“Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it.”

“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

What scene or characters should audiences specifically look for? 

Audiences want to look out for the wittiest couple that ever sparred in Benedick and Beatrice.  Throughout the whole play, in fact, every character has some kind of Euphuistic wordplay.  The topic setup, volley, volley, volley, SPIKE of puns, twists, and other feats of wit in this play have tickled audiences into high hilarity for four centuries!

Another thing that I love about this play is the notion that since we’re all invented out of nothing, we can reinvent ourselves out of nothing, too.  Several people in this play are confronted with a rebuke of who they are, or how they’ve been behaving – they overhear people talking about them or are directly told they’ve made a terrible error.  The real mettle of a person is revealed by what they choose to do with that information.  Grace is available to those who take action to repair what’s broken, to be available to Love, to be ‘good men, and true.’  Along these lines, I’m quite fond of our 5.3 Tomb scene.  Chris Johnston, Music Director, wrote the most beautiful song.  I won’t spoil it here, but I hope you love it as much as I do.

You’re ending this play with a big song and dance number.  What inspired that choice? 

Benedick did.  He says ‘Play music!’ and so I said, okay.  We’re fair giddy at that point (that’s his conclusion, anyway), so we went ahead and danced, then, too.  It’s a couple of lines earlier than the Folio’s [Dance] instruction, but we start dancing again there, as well.  Though for the other two songs in the play we chose to keep the text and write the tunes (Tim Sailer composed the delightful ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ that he sings as Balthasar;  Chris Johnston composed the gorgeous Tomb Song), the ASC often takes on musical moments in the plays as they would have been taken on in Shakespeare’s original staging –contemporary, known to the audience—something I’ve always loved as an audience member here.  That guide felt like what was wanted in this exuberant moment, so I looked for a contemporary song.  The one we picked I came upon while on the treadmill (which I stumbled off of, happily thinking this might be it).  I wrote Chris Johnston and said ‘this?’ and he said ‘YES, PLEASE!’  Gotta come to the show to see what it is, though.

Anything else our audiences should know? 

“We are the only love gods.”

“And if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!”

Much Ado about Nothing is on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse through November.  More at –> amshakes.center/MuchAdo

Shakespeare’s Mom Was Definitely Better At This Than We Are (But We’re Trying Anyway) #WorldBakingDay

Hi!  We’re Beth and Jeremy two home bakers from the American Shakespeare Center.

DSC_4532At the ASC, we recover the joy and accessibility of Elizabethan theatre, but today we’re on a mission to find out if the Elizabethan kitchen is worth recovering too!

We’ve got ​​a 1658 recipe (found here), turned our baking brains on, and watched enough Great British Bake Off to figure this out.  The recipe is pretty vague, so we’ll probably try out some variants and see what works best.

Take a pound of ſugar finely beaten, four yolks of Eggs, two whites, one half pound of Butter waſht in Roſe-water, fix ſpoonfuls of ſweet Cream warmed, one pound of Currans well pickt, as much flower as will make it up, mingle them well together, make them into Cakes, bake them in an Oven; almoſt as hot as for manchet, half an hour will bake them.

The journey begins . . .

Jeremy looks it up and finely beaten sugar is probably just sugar.  Powdered sugar was called “white powder” which sounds like cocaine and we didn’t have time to buy that.

DSC_4533We’re making rosewater (don’t tell the neighbor but we clipped her rose bush) because we couldn’t find it at a supermarket anywhere near us.  Turns out rosewater is exactly what you’d think it is and super easy to make at home (and useful to keep around!).

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We actually found currants at the supermarket (no indication as to whether or not they’re “well pickt” though)!  We got chocolate chips too because YOLO.   Jeremy says the currants just taste like raisins.  Beth disagrees.  To her, they’re a “weird, tiny raisin.”  Fundamental difference.

Neither of us feels entirely confident about the order of ingredients.  Beth feels like this is probably an “all in one/mix it all together” type thing but Jeremy feels like the butter and sugar should be creamed first.   We go with Beth’s instincts.

Some Notes on the Process, Measurements, and Temperature

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What does being “wafht” in rosewater mean?  Should we rinse the butter in rosewater?  We opt to  add just a couple of tablespoons and mash it together.

We used Google to figure out how much a pound of sugar is, but you could also use a kitchen scale or just guess!

We used a tablespoon for a “fpoonfull.”DSC_4556

There’s no set cooking temperature and we have no clue what a “manchet” is or how hot it should be baked.  We preheat at the tried and true 350°F.

Anyone trying this recipe at home should definitely experiment with all of the above.  We want to hear how it turns out.

Time to Mingle

DSC_4559Then we used Ye Olde KitchenAid mixer to “mingle” sugar, butter, flour, cream, and eggs because our peasants were busy in the fields.  We looked up some other recipes which instructed the reader to beat for a full hour.  We’re not about that.  KitchenAid to the rescue!

“As much flower as will make it up” – what the heck does that mean?  We’re going to attempt multiple flour combinations to see what gives us the best (i.e. least terrible) result.  But, let’s get real, with butter, sugar, and eggs, it will probably taste good.

We start off with just two cups of flour.  The consistency resembles more of a thick batter, so we’re baking it in a muffin tray to see what we get. (Say hello to our assistant, Sunny.)

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Then, we add more flour, probably a cup and a half but at this point we’ve ditched the measuring cups.  Jeremy calls it a very “tacky dough” and the dough yelled “YOU’RE TACKY LOOK AT THAT SHIRT.”  We decide these are best as a typical drop cookie.

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Another cup and a half (ish?) of flour, and the dough resembles shortbread – crumbly, but still holds it’s shape.  All tackiness is gone!  We press these into small cakes and we’re ready to go!

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Into the Oven

We don’t really trust the recipe’s suggested guideline of thirty minutes, so we’re going to check them every 10.

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10 minutes in and they’re looking pretty good.  Still got a way to go!

20 minutes in and batch two are ready to come out.

22 minutes and and batch three are good to go.

30 minutes and batch one is looking good.

Let’s taste!

Batch 1

These are by far the most “cake”y by modern standard.  They’re light, fluffy, and buttery.  The lack of any kind of extract or zest makes them taste kind of plain, but the rosewater comes through nicely on the finish.  (Also, we totally know muffin papers aren’t historically accurate.)

Batch 2

Beth says this batch tastes like cream of wheat.  Jeremy has never eaten cream of wheat so he can’t agree or disagree.  She grabs a chocolate chip variety and – “Oh my god those are so much better.  God I could put those away.  I’m so hungry.”  The rosewater isn’t coming through on this batch at all, probably because the extra flour has neutralized it.  All in all these are pretty underwhelming.

Batch 3

This batch is dry as bones.  They’re decent enough to eat fresh out of the oven (meh but edible).  But after cooling for a little over an hour they’re hard as rocks.  Don’t even try these in your home.  Stick with 1 or 2.

Moral of the Story

Baking is fun!  Eliza-baking is like a riddle, with a pinch of myftery, and a dab of rosewater.  We learned that the modern advances in baking are truly magical, but that these Elizabethan bakers could make a truly tasty cake.

Introducing “Kids” to Shakespeare: Part 3

In this blog series, I’m reviewing the suggestions from “The Nerdy Book Club’s” December post “Ten Books to Introduce Kids (of Any Age! Adults, too!) to Shakespeare.Last time I looked at Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and Street Love by Walter Dean Myers. This one will look at The Cake House by Latifah Salom and Ophelia by Lisa Klein.

 

The Cake House by Latifah Salom

cakehouseI actually enjoyed this book quite a bit. The Cake House is  loosely based on Hamlet: it’s about a 13 year old girl, Rosaura, whose mother picks her up in a rush one day to flee her maybe-abusive father, Robert (it’s unclear if he was just kind of mean, or not at all? Apparently 13 is too young to form any memories…). Rosaura and her mother, Dahlia, run to her lover Claude’s house, but Robert follows and shoots himself in the face in front of Dahlia and Claude. Unhappy in her new life, Rosaura struggles to support her unstable mother while attempting to balance new relationships with her step-dad, Claude who she isn’t sure she likes, and his son, Alex, who she is certain she likes, all while being haunted by the ghost of her shot-in-the-face-father. To cope, she strikes up an incestual relationship with her new step-brother, to whom she gives her 14-year-old virginity. Like I said, Hamlet.

Truncated, joking summaries  aside, Salom has a really great novel here. Rosaura is an interesting character and the book approaches some dark topics and themes, drugs, depression, haunted pasts, teenage sexualtiy, and functionless families, through the lens of a very young, but strong, narrator. Like the titular character in Hamlet, she struggles to understand the messages from her deceased father and his relationship to her mother’s new husband. Unlike Hamlet, Rosaura never considers murdering anyone and actually has a good head on her shoulders. She is a smart girl, with a passion and skill for photography, and Salom does a lovely job imaging this teenager.

Although Salom does not litter her novel with direct quotes from Shakespeare, I like to think that she chose to characterize Claude’s house, the “Cake House,” because it’s a Danish.

(Pastry jokes are the best jokes.)

Ophelia by Lisa Klein

I really enjoyed this book. I think Klein did an excellent job weaving together her opheliaimagined backstory with scenes that I know like the back of my hand. Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most studied, produced, seen, and read play (it’s a close race between that, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it isn’t really something that can be quantified), and Klein completely reinvents the narrative, while specifically matching the famous scenes we expect to see. Lisa Klein, PhD., is a Shakespearean scholar with a special attraction to the domestic culture of Renaissance women, and she has published many articles on poetry of the time, Queen Elizabeth, and women’s needlework. She got into (self-titled) children’s writing because she was “reading lots of children’s books” with her sons and subsequently organized a local conference on “Writing for Children,” even before she’d ever done it. Ophelia was her first book, though she now has two historical fictions (one on the Civil War and one about early Roanoke colonization), and three more Shakespeare adaptations/reimaginings (one that draws from Macbeth, a mash-up about Shakespeare the person and the Dekker/Middleton play The Roaring Girl, and a compendium of Shakespeare’s comedies). I’m seriously considering picking up the Macbeth adaptation when I finish this list of ten.

Klein creates a vibrant history for Ophelia and her family, sweetly weaves Ophelia and Hamlet’s courting and secret marriage, and rewardingly gives her readers an “after” for a young woman with hardly any voice in Shakespeare’s play. Having seen Hamlet numerous times and worked on it with my MFA company just last year, I still know the scenes and lines pretty readily. Ophelia narrates her own story, day-to-day, and takes us through Shakespeare’s scenes that she is in. Klein imagines that Polonius’s ambition is what gets them into the court, but Ophelia’s wit and success are what build her a personal relationship as one of Gertrude’s waiting ladies. She works hard for her Queen, and Gertrude favors her. Hamlet courts Ophelia in secret because of their difference in status, and the two finally elope in secret with Horatio as a witness. Unfortunately, their first night together as husband and wife is interrupted when Horatio enters their nuptial chamber to tell Hamlet that the ghost is back, and he needs to come see it. Hamlet eventually reveals his revenge plot to Ophelia and she feels that keeping his secret and being a dutiful wife is directly contrary to being a faithful subject to the Queen. At first, she agrees to parade their love as if that is the cause of Hamlet’s feigned madness, but his cryptic nature and cruel outbursts are too real for her to differentiate. Because we already know what happens, the dramatic irony is doubly striking as we wait for him to kill her father. Knowing the king’s secret, having no living father, present brother, or sane husband present in the court cause Ophelia to  fear for her own life, and she flees. Horatio helps her fake her death and she goes to a nunnery in France. It’s adorable and perfect. She arrives safely and shortly thereafter learns of Laertes and Hamlet’s duel and deaths. While she struggles through her grief, she thrives as an apothecary and healer for the nunnery, but never takes vows. She remains a free woman and eventually gives birth to a son, which she names Hamlet, after his father.

As I mentioned, Klein cleverly weaves everything that happens in Elsinore through the Shakespearean scenes that we expect to see. When Ophelia longs to re-deliver the remembrances that Hamlet gave her, the scene begins after the “To be or not to be” speech, and we get to read Ophelia’s inner monologue instead of hearing Hamlet’s constant soliloquies. Same thing happens for the play-within-a-play. Ophelia narrates her worry at Hamlet’s boldness to stage such an accusatory fiction for Claudius. Most creatively, we learn that the madness scene is an intricately detailed part of Horatio and Ophelia’s plan to fake her death. Each flower that she gifts is chosen with accusatory accuracy, and her mumblings are specific with the hope that Gertrude will understand her secret thoughts. The mash-ups are refreshingly beautiful for such an overdone, known story.

My favorite thing about the novel is the nunnery business. Although Klein’s intertwining of Ophelia’s thoughts with Shakespeare’s play are clever and truly new, the completely invented plot of what happens after is so important to the novel that she created, because it isn’t about Hamlet. The infamous Dane no longer matters in the third part of the book, or rather, he matters only as he relates to Ophelia’s growth. Rather than female characters that are only defined by their theatrical relation to the men that surround them, Klein final chapter provides a completely original literary equality.

 

So far, Ophelia is definitely my favorite on the list. Once again, I encourage people looking to be interested in Shakespeare to experience the plays of Shakespeare themselves. However, Ophelia is a really good read. Maybe I like it so much because it isn’t just a retelling of the stories we already know, or an attempt at cleverly creating backstory for narratives that never needed it, but somehow it is a compilation of both of these things in a completely new way.

 

Next time! Something Rotten by Alan Gratz and Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

It’s not just any town – it’s OUR TOWN.

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Constance Swain plays Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (above photos by Lindsey Walters and Michael Bailey), one of our four Spring Season shows.  See what she has to say about pairing this classic play with Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions.

You play Emily in Our Town.  How does Thornton Wilder’s classic play compare to the Shakespeare titles you’re doing this season? How is it different?

You said it right, Our Town is a classic, an American treasure.  This play works wonderfully with both Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  These plays are chock full of lessons we’ve either learned, need to learn, or need to be reminded of.  Lessons like the power of forgiveness, the beauty of friendship, and the importance of a hearty laugh.

While Our Town shares several characteristics with these Shakespeare titles, there’s something special about its simplicity.  This play doesn’t have period dances or fancy sword fights.  There’s something familiar about the straightforwardness of Our Town.  If Shakespeare’s plays are desserts, Our Town is the meat and potatoes.

What is your favorite line/lines in the play? Why?

EMILY:  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER:  No.  Saints and poets, maybe they do some .  .  .

Being an actor is a lot like being a poet, it is my hope that I realize and inspire others to realize life while they live it.  Every.  Every.  Minute.

Do you have a favorite audience moment from either your time on the road or at the Blackfriars?

There are so many beautiful moments we share with the audience in this play.  We’re on a journey, a mission, to spark the imagination of our audience.  Our Town, in particular, calls for the audience to stretch their imagination.  We encourage them to give themselves over to Grovers Corners, to take this ride with us, feeling every loop and twist along the way.

I love watching the audience turn their heads or sit up to see the house on the hill, or Mr.  Morgan’s drug store, or the graves of fallen soldiers.  The stage manager simply points to these “places” and the audience, both young and old, turn to get a better view.  None of these places are tangible, we can’t go up and touch them.  The audience knows this.  It’s no secret.  This is a play.  But they still believe in magic.  For an evening they abandon all logic and play.

How does Our Town fit into the current cultural moment?  What do you think audiences might walk away with watching this play in 2017?  

This play is a classic because it is timeless.  No matter if the year is 2017 or 3017, this play will be relevant.  Human beings will live, and eat, and love, and die.  This play is a reminder to breathe in those moments.  Hopefully, after seeing this play, audiences hug their loved ones a little tighter before bed.

Does performing Our Town with Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions impact the way audiences respond to the play?

Absolutely! This play is captivating on its own; adding Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions only enhances its charm.  Our staging conditions (keeping the lights on, directly addressing the audience) remind people that they matter, that they are just as important to this story as any of us.

Hungry Hearts Homecoming

The Hungry Hearts tour is back in the Playhouse, bringing Romeo and JulietThe Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Our Town back to the Blackfriars stage and adding the time-traveling adventure Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)They’ve been on the road since September, with a respite back home for the Holiday Season.

Here are some of the highlights of this year’s tour:

  • The Hungry Hearts tour visited 47 cities in 19 states, reaching over 25,000 people.
  • In those 47 cities, the tour performed 75 shows, conducted 69 workshops, and held 15 talkbacks.
  • In 2016-2017, the tour had more two-show days than ever!
  • We had five new venues and 38 repeat venues, and this was our third year in a row with 70+ shows.
  • Smallest town Hungry Hearts performed in: Clarksville, Texas, population 3100
  • Largest city Hungry Hearts performed in: New York City, population 8 million
  • The largest house the troupe performed for was at the University of Buffalo, with an audience of 1400 high school students.
  • The Hungry Hearts truck, fully loaded, weighed 21,000 pounds.
  • That truck traveled 18,000 miles (and suffered only one breakdown).
  • The troupe did 262 loads of laundry.
  • 17 Crabs had their moment in the spotlight! You can catch up on their adventures on Twitter: @ASC_Crab.

Catch Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Our Town, and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the Blackfriars Playhouse, now through June 11th.