Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions with Rick Blunt

Our recently featured Rick Blunt led a workshop in Shakespeare’s staging conditions for 50 Bath County High School students, and I thought it might be fun to drop in and take a look at the ways our actors help further the educational mission of the American Shakespeare Center.

Blunt begins by asking the students to list some of the ways the ASC uses Shakespeare’s original staging conditions to present his plays. Blunt combines the answers of leaving the lights on and thrust staging into our overall theme of audience inclusion. That’s how we try to make Shakespeare’s plays accessible, but what are the barriers to this access?

Blunt’s next exercise involves saying “Shakespeare” and asking the students to think of a word. “Old,” “smart,” “Stratford,” “plays,” and “poetry” are popular choices, and Blunt seizes on this description of old and introduces the idea of Shakespeare’s modernity. One of the students in the group points out the years of Shakespeare’s life, to which Blunt responds that to us the texts are old, but Shakespeare was writing for, what was for him, modern times. The plays of Shakespeare are meant to be living things performed on the stage.

But how do we make the plays come alive? Blunts classroom is configured in a U-shape, which simulates the Blackfriars’ thrust-stage; he then performs a monologue from his role as Rafe in Knight in the Burning Pestle using an imaginary Susan on the stage. To illustrate how Shakespeare’s staging conditions are different, Blunt then performs the same monologue as he does in the performance, identifying a young lady in audience as Susan: this always gets a laugh in the show, and it gets a bigger one in this group. When Blunt asks them why it’s funny, the universally offered answer is that it was because of the audience reaction. Asked who they were looking at, the students respond that they were watching their classmate. Blunt explains how this makes for a different performance every time.

Of course, audience inclusion is only one aspect of Shakespeare’s staging conditions, another key element is the lack of large sets and lighting effects to create the world of the play. Blunt has a student volunteer perform the first two lines of Romeo and Juliet’s prologue (“Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), and then asks the students where they are. As a chorus, the students in the workshop respond that they are in “Verona.” Blunt explains this is only one way that Shakespeare uses language to indicate how to perform his plays.

Blunt asks for another volunteer, and introduces him as “a friar who trembles, sighs, and weeps” (Romeo and Juliet 5.3). Blunt asks the student volunteer how he thinks he should be acting if he (Blunt) introduces him as “a friar who trembles, sighs, and weeps.” They perform the entrance again, and the student volunteer suits his entrance to the Blunt’s lines, and Blunt then offers an explanation of embedded stage directions.

Of course, embedded stage directions require a further understanding of the way in which the directions are both given and received. Blunt illustrates the point by choreographing the opening street fight of Romeo and Juliet and comparing the effects of Benvolio telling them to “part, fools” and the Prince calling them “rebellious subjects.” Benvolio is ignored, but the prince is obeyed; and thus Blunt introduces the way that Shakespeare can use the status of the speaker to direct the action of the scene. Blunt goes on to demonstrate how actors can reinforce the status of Shakespeare’s characters by having his student-volunteer-cast turn and kneel to the prince as he enters. He describes this as the ASC’s way of using actors to put other actors in the proverbial-spotlight.

Speaking of lighting: how does one play darkness when we leave the lights on? Blunt introduces the balcony scene as a challenge to ASC actors because the scene is dark. It takes place at night, after all. Blunt has another student volunteer recreate their own personal experience of darkness by asking them to demonstrate what happens when they wake up in the middle of the night to get a snack. The student volunteer tries to “feel” his way through the space to the door and walks carefully. He also uses a cell phone to help him see the floor. Blunt explains that actors can create the darkness by the way they move, and Shakespeare can help them by giving them a prop, or using language to describe the environment.

Blunt ties these elements together for the students in the balcony scene. Having two more volunteers perform the roles of Juliet and Romeo, Blunt shows them how Juliet can begin by talking to the audience, but needs to use the darkness of the environment to not see Romeo, who (in the current production) hides among the audience. Romeo’s questions are directed to the audience, which involves them in the conversation. Both of the lovers are talking to the audience, but neither one knows that the other is talking to the audience. “[Shakespeare] makes you a confidant in this relationship,” says Blunt, excited “it’s unbelievable!”

Shakespeare’s language is sometimes perceived to be an obstacle, but Blunt reminds his students that 98% of Shakespeare’s vocabulary is modern. The words may be unfamiliar, but you know what “be-screened” means without having to look it up. He also points out the heightened nature of Shakespeare’s language: “if you’re Romeo, and you just got caught creepin’ in some girls yard, and she asks you what you’re doing here, you better come up with something good.” The average Renaissance-Londoner didn’t ask for a glass of water by making classical allusions, but Shakespeare’s characters use heightened language to talk about their heightened circumstances. This language directs the circumstances of the actors.

Blunt also touches on the cross-gendered casting that we use at the ASC, and describes some of the ways that Shakespeare made us of the convention of an all male acting company. He uses more student volunteers to illustrate the idea of a boy actor playing a female character who dresses as a boy and then pretends to be a woman in As You Like It. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays under the presumption that, in 400 years, they would be able to get it right and use female actors to play female roles, he wrote his plays specifically to take advantage of the conventions of the time, which is why it is essential that we cross-gender cast our plays.

“This guy Shakespeare was a smart man,” Blunt concludes.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the ever ebullient Blunt’s workshop was the way he engaged the students, especially the ones who were shy or trying to remain uninvolved. Participation is not an option in Rick Blunt’s workshop, and while not every student got a chance to perform, the number of volunteers increased every time he asked for them. Getting our audiences to want to engage Shakespeare on his own terms is one of our core principles, and Blunt’s success with this group is a testament to that mission.

Bring ’em Back Alive presents "Love’s Fire"

In 1998 seven modern playwrights were commissioned to write new plays inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the resulting collection, Love’s Fire, was presented as part of the American Shakespeare center’s Bring ’em Back Alive staged reading series.

The Bring ’em Back Alive series was conceived to help bring new voices and less performed works to the Blackfriars, and last night’s readings realized that goal on a whole new level. ASC resident and touring troupe members combined forces with Mary Baldwin College graduate students, The Hamner Theatre, the University of Virginia, and the Maryland Shakespeare Festival to bring six of these plays to the Blackfriars Stage.

Inspired by the transcendental music of Shakespeare’s greatest love poetry, a painter tries, and fails, to paint his lover; a couple finds romance through jazz, and a group of students try to understand two sonnets and discover the roots of the Tree of Knowledge.

We hope you’ll join us for the next reading in our Bring ’em Back Alive series will be Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters, on Sunday, October 20, 2010 at 7:30 PM. If you would like more information, or would like to volunteer as a reader, please contact Colleen Kelly, Director of Training, at colleen@americanshakespearecenter.com.

C-Span Talks Shakespeare

C-Span has put their video library online, and never being one to pass up a chance of typing “Shakespeare” into a search engine, they’ve got some pretty interesting results available. Peter Brook, Myra Manning, George Whitman and others are featured. Check it out.