The Playhouse Insider

I’m in the process of finalizing the premiere edition of The Playhouse Insider, the magazine that the ASC is producing, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell the Internet something about it. It looks fantastic, and I pretty much can’t wait to get it out into the universe for public consumption. I’m so excited about this project and the opportunities it’s going to have to grow in coming years.

We’ll be putting this publication out twice a year, in December to preview the Actors’ Renaissance Season, and in June to preview the Summer and Fall Seasons. Our goal for this magazine is to provide the readers with a look into different experiences of early modern theatre at the Blackfriars Playhouse. We’ve solicited articles from ASC actors and artists, from renowned scholars, and from members of the ASC community, and as a result this first issue has so much quality material. Whether you’ve been coming to ARS shows since they began in 2005, will be joining us for the first time in 2011, or are just interested from the far-ranging Internet, there will be so much in this magazine for you to enjoy.

Our artists’ contributions include a brief history of the ARS. I’m really glad we got this into print, because up until now, there hasn’t actually been any codified explanation of just how the ARS came to be. Now we’ll have it all set out for our own institutional records, and the information will also be available to any scholars or patrons who are interested in how experiment. If you’re unfamiliar with the Actors’ Renaissance Season, the basic concept is this: after years of adhering to Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, the ASC wanted to push further and experiment with Shakespeare’s Rehearsal Conditions, putting on plays the way the King’s Men and other companies in the 16th- and 17th-centuries would have: without a director, working from cue scripts, making costume and prop and music decisions on their own, and setting their own rehearsal schedules. I think the ARS shows have so much energy and spirit — they’re just electrifying to watch — and it all comes out of the drive and ingenuity of the actors.

Those actors contributed to our artistic-focused articles. One is an in-depth conversation with veteran actor John Harrell, who has not only been an actor in every ARS so far, but who also has a hand in cutting the scripts for the season. Harrell talks about his process cutting scripts, the fun in working with unusual texts, and what he’s looking forward to tackling as an actor in the 2011 ARS. We also have veteran actors Rene Thornton, Ben Curns, and Chris Johnston sharing some of their favorite moments from Ren Seasons past. In both of these interviews, the articles make it so easy to see the actors’ enthusiasm for the ARS. They really seem to delight in the ownership of the plays that this season gives them, and they revel in the freedom to let their creativity take over.

We’re also excited and privileged to have some great articles from our scholastic community. Carole Levin, the Willa Cather Professor of History and Director of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Nebraska, contributed an article on the anonymous play Look About You, which meshes high history, low comedy, and lots of disguises. The play takes place during the reign of Henry II and features a young Robin Hood. Levin’s article examines the play in relationship to the rest of the Robin Hood saga and to other plays of the early modern period set during the reigns of the early Plantagenets. Carole gave me something great to think about in viewing this play as a sort of prequel to Shakespeare’s King John, which I’ll definitely be giving thought to in my continuing exploration of how early modern plays reflect the English sense of national identity. Continuing on the history theme, Glenn Schudel, an MFA candidate at the MBC program for Shakespeare in Performance and a dramaturgical intern for the ASC, provides us with a look at the “unlikely heroes” of Henry VI, Part 3: Margaret and Richard. Schudel considers their treatment within the play and the historical maligning of their characters in his examination of these two marginalized figures. His writing is witty and elegant, making for an article that is both informative and fun to read. The last scholastic contribution is my own, which I mentioned back in October, looking at Adriana (from The Comedy of Errors) and the tradition of Shakespeare’s wives. Though The Comedy of Errors, an early play, has its share of flaws and, plot-wise, is definitely among the least original of Shakespeare’s plays, you can see in it, and particularly in Adriana, the seeds that will continue to grow through the rest of his career. All three of these articles demonstrate the kind of educational insight that we prize here at the ASC, offering readers a glimpse into the intellectual intrigues surrounding these quirky plays.

For the last division of the magazine, we have the contributions from audience members and observers. Director of Education Sarah Enloe shares her experience working with A Trick to Catch the Old One with our No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for adults. The camp participants did a read-around of the play back in the summer, and Sarah talks about the insights gleaned from working through an unfamiliar text. We also have a great piece for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of the ARS, written by Rhonda Knight, Professor of English at Coker College, who spent the 2010 Ren Season observing rehearsals. She got to watch the construction of the plays in action, and her article is like a mini-documentary of the process. Finally, Cheryl and Mark Keeler, two of our regular patrons, explain why it is their family loves the ARS season so much. Their piece expresses the effervescent joy that I know so many of our audience members feel when watching Ren Season shows.

All in all, I’m ridiculously pleased with how attractive the magazine has turned out. The layout is accessible and inviting, and the pictures really capture the frenetic energy and wild creativity of the Ren Season. My favorite picture, from one of my favorite almost-leapt-out-of-my-seat-with-excitement moment from the 2010 ARS, is on page 21 — but I don’t want to ruin the surprise by telling you all what it is.

I’ll be posting again early next week, when the magazine will be available in the Playhouse box office and free-of-charge online. I’m so looking forward to putting this out so I can hear what everyone else thinks about it.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 19 November 2010

A lot of education-oriented links this week, along with some items that are just good for a laugh.

  • Kevin J. Costa from the Folger talks about the thin line between teaching Shakespeare and directing it. Cass says: This shared skill set is something we’ve been trying to bring more to the forefront in our new study guides. It helps bring the plays to life so much more if the teacher can think like a director, moving the students through the action of the play rather than just talking about it. We know that trying to be a director can be a fear-inducing thing for some teachers, so we give the teachers the tools and the language to work like one.
  • The Kennedy Center has launched a new, interactive site for students. Sarah says: This one relates events/people to Shakespeare’s work in a new way. The site also provides some interesting videos.
  • A survey of job-related websites has ranked teaching as the fifth most stressful occupation, right behind combat soldiers, air traffic controllers, firemen, and coal miners.
  • Dan Rebellato at blog on The Guardian asks “What’s so wrong with proscenium arch theatre?”, and Stanley Wells, after asking “To thrust or not to thrust?“, also backs up Rebellato. Cass says: It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with proscenium theatres in general. It’s just that they seem less effective for early modern theatre, since proscenium arches don’t provide the conditions that early modern plays were written for. The opposite holds true as well, I think. Most Broadway musicals would never work on a small thrust stage like ours, for instance, and many new plays rely heavily on technological advances to tell their stories (I’m thinking of Closer, which requires being able to see an instant messaging conversation on-screen). There’s probably a larger blog entry in here for me, really, since this topic is so near and dear to the hearts of those of us at the ASC. I think the arguments against proscenium arches that others seem to be giving Rebellato miss the mark, and it’s certainly not like you can’t watch an excellent production with excellent performances on a proscenium stage, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still drawbacks to that style, especially where early modern plays are concerned.
  • And now, for some shameless self-promotion: an article from Hood College, written by a student who came to see Othello, and one about the literary society from Randolph-Macon College coming to see The Taming of the Shrew. We’re so glad that these students had such positive experiences at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and we hope they’ll come back again soon.
  • MBC MLitt/MFA candidate and ASC employee Shannon Schultz has started a blog, More Things in Heaven and Earth, which will begin by chronicling her experiences directing an all-male production of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Finally, if your day needs a laugh, check out what would happen if Shakespearean characters posted on Craigslist.

Imprimis will be off next week for the holiday, so look for an extra-big listing on December 3rd.

Clowning Around with Dan Kennedy

Pointing out his big nose and bald head, ASC actor Dan Kennedy calls himself a born clown, but his years of training in Australia and Russia probably helped. Kenedy recently taught a workshop on clowning techniques for the ASC, and I couldn’t resist stopping in to learn some techniques from the master.

Those of you who’ve made it to this season’s production of Taming of the Shrew have got to see Kennedy’s clowning at Christopher Sly in the induction, which Kennedy describes as the hardest two minutes of the season. “You never know who’s going to be out there or what they’re going to do,” he says. Clowning isn’t exactly a lost art, but it is less frequently taught in universities than the method acting techniques that have come to define the art form in the 20th century. Method acting is all about subtlety, and clowning is all about exaggeration.

“Feel the top of your forehead where you still have control of your wrinkles,” Kennedy says. “That’s where your eyebrows go.” Kennedy’s philosophy of clowning is that clowns do what normal people do, except they do it in much bigger ways. Clown makeup allows a clown to be seen hundreds of feet away in the big top, but it also allows them to create exaggerated reactions to the world around them.

Toward this end, Kennedy has us break into pairs. One of us walks around the space as normally as possible, while the other observes, and then picks a few things about our walk to exaggerate; then we try to copy our partner’s exaggerations of ourselves. The results vary between the very big and the very small, but herein lie the bases of the clown characters that we will develop. From here we go on to do something similar with our faces, and this is where the class of clowns begin to take on their types: happy, sad, dopey, or frightening.

Another important aspect of Kennedy’s clown technique: “to a clown, everything’s new.” Kennedy encourages his class to take simple props: sticks, ropes, fans, and pinwheels, and try to figure out what they are. Translated into the action of a clown, this means what they can be used for. Watching the clown experiment with the possibilities of a simple, every day object is a great source of humor, and one clown’s discoveries can inform another’s. If a clown decides that a stick is a sword, another might decide that two sticks are a shield.

Here Kennedy passes out clown noses to the class, asking us to close our eyes and imagine the characters we’ve created. “The people who do this take their work very seriously,” Kennedy says. “To anyone who’s done any mask work, the mask isn’t a toy, you don’t stick your fingers through the eyes; you treat it like a character.” Clowns may do ridiculous things, but it’s hard work, and the conclusion of the workshop makes a great object lesson out of that. Using music to create a clown dance for us to play in, five minutes feels like longer. Others have more success finding their inner clown, than I do, but that doesn’t bother me too much. “Really learning how to do this takes years and years,” Kennedy says at the beginning of the workshop. “I’m going to give you the introduction to the sort of things they do.”

So maybe I’m not ready to be a clown, but thanks to Dan Kennedy, the attendees of this workshop have a better idea about the process of one of the funniest actors in the ASC’s resident company.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 12 November 2010

Quite a few links this week, on a smattering of different subjects:

  • Are naughty words a vanishing species? An op-ed wonders about if profanity becoming so common and unshocking is de-valuating powerful words. The article includes a brief discussion on Shakespeare and Bowdlerization.
  • Meanwhile, an editor at the Desert Valley Times think we should be insulting each other with greater flair and panache and suggests that politicians should borrow some of Shakespeare’s zingers during debates.
  • In the wake of the US’s recent turbulent elections, here’s a ballot I think we can all get behind: Shakespeare/Marlowe 2012. Bumper sticker sales are going to a foundation that promotes Shakespeare and theatre education for young folks across the country. Cass says: I wonder who would run against them. Beaumont/Fletcher? Jonson/HisEgo?
  • Some suggestions on teaching Shakespeare from a “computer buff” who “likes to write.” Sarah says: He begins by stating his chagrin regarding students and adults, then suggests some ways to relax students. He includes teaching the plays as performance and suggests movie viewings… I say movies in bits but go “performance”!
  • Tips on working through a Shakespearean monologue. Sarah says: While I don’t agree with all of Alex Swenson’s terminology and conclusions (“Some of the language in Shakespeare is outdated and therefore hard to understand”), I think the steps of exploration (paraphrase, scansion, character clues within the play) may be helpful to students and teachers. I would offer that a word-for-word paraphrase, leaving the syntax intact, would also reveal clues about the character that students should explore.
  • A compendium of the articles of David Crystal. Sarah says: My obsession with word meaning, invention, and instruction comes into play in this recommendation. David Crystal figured heavily into my thesis, so imagine my joy finding all of his articles in one place! I would also encourage you to follow his blog… some Shakespeare, lots of word talk.
  • Intern Natalie blogs about the thesis festival. Sarah says: I know I am citing our own blog here, but gosh, if Natalie can’t get a point across eloquently. Read it to see what you missed on Monday.
  • Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman. Cass says: Bardfilm blogs about the intersection of two of my favorite things, in honor of Neil Gaiman’s 50th birthday. Anyone who hasn’t read, well, all of Sandman, really, but especially the issues featuring A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest has completely missed out. One of my favorite moments actually comes when Morpheus, the Shaper of Dreams, first meets Shakespeare in a pub and overhears him talking to Kit Marlowe, saying: “I would give anything to have your gifts, or more than anything to give men dreams that would live on long after I am dead. I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.” (Fun fact – almost everything Shakespeare says in his first appearance is in iambic pentameter. Because Neil Gaiman is Just That Good).
  • Finally, San Jose State University theatre is putting on a steampunk Twelfth Night. Cass says: I felt like I had to include this one, following the Gaiman link, just in case there was any doubt about my level of geek-dom. Seriously, though, this is the third steampunk Twelfth Night I’ve heard about in, I think, three years. Why is this play getting all the steampunk love and not the rest of the canon? Christina has suggested a steampunk Civil War Cymbeline, and I’m for it. What other plays do you think would work well all steampunk-ed out? (And for any of our readers asking “What on earth is this ‘steampunk’ thing Cass is going on about?”, here’s a collection of descriptions of the aesthetic/movement/genre).

Enjoy your weekends! Anyone who’s seeing some good early modern plays ought to let us know about it.

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

And we’re back for the third and final session of this semester’s MLitt/MFA presentations. Four more presenters this time around:

If the Shrew Fits: Chronology, Misogyny, and Dichotomy in the Taming Plays
presented by Andrea Kelley

Andrea’s presentation opens with a video montage of various productions and adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, illustrating Kate’s dramatic arc throughout the course of the story. The selection includes the Taylor-Burton Shrew, a puppetry show, 10 Things I Hate About You, and a recent BBC update, thus representing selections from across several decades of modern media.

Andrea then explains that this montage shows that there is no one Shrew in the cultural consciousness — and there never was. Seven different adaptations existed between 1594 and 1754. To examine the differences between these adaptations, Andrea has chosen to focus on the infamous “final speech” by Katherina. Katie Crandol and Sarah Keyes Chang help Andrea by speaking passages of this speech from different adaptations, beginning with Shakespeare’s. In the 1594 The Taming of A Shrew (anonymous), the speech calls even more strongly on biblical allusions, placing wives in context of Eve and Sarah to Adam and Abraham. The third version comes from The Tamer Tamed, a sequel, in which Petruchio’s second wife, Maria, completely up-ends Kate’s veneration of her husband. Next comes Sauny the Scot, a 1698 play by John Lacy, wherein the Kate analog, Peg, gives only a two-line speech, which Petruchio then follows up with a reference to Tamer Tamed. Neither of the works entitled The Cobbler of Preston include an analog for Kate’s speech, as both derive from the Sly frame story only. Finally, in the 1878 Booth adaptation of the 1754 Garrick play Katharine and Petruchio, the text pulls some of Shakespeare’s text directly, but abbreviated. Andrea notes that nothing in any of these plays can serve as either a description of or a prescription for all early modern marriages, as they differ in of themselves.

Andrea moves on to present several other presentations of early modern marriage: a dialogue between a good wife and a shrew, by Erasmus; a 1652 polemic by John Taylor, which suggests a song a husband may sing to a wife “if she begins to yell at him” — which seems to suggest beating a wife to death with a club; a description by Frances Boyle Shannon in 1696, which opines that it would “be now another wedding miracle” to see obedient wives; and a ballad “The Taming of a Shrew, or, the Only Way to Make a Bad Wife Good, or at Least Keep Her Quiet, Be She Bad or Good,” which posits the suggestion that men have faults, too.

Andrea concludes by stating that even the totality of all the available Shrews does not represent an accurate depiction of early modern marriage, any more than a representation of all modern sitcoms represents all modern marriages.

What to Expect When Staging the Expecting: Pregnancy in Early Modern Drama
presented by Amanda Noel Allen

Amanda’s actors begin by punctuating attitudes towards pregnancy: Linden Kueck is well-padded and resting her hand on her stomach in the universal signal for “baby on board”, David Ashton represents the patriarchy, complete with misconceptions and bad puns, Brian Falbo seems grossed out, and Rob Cantrell merely hangs his head in shame. Amanda prefaces the several issues involved with presenting pregnancy, including discomfort, the feminist trouble with women who define themselves by the ability to give birth, and the nurturing/threatening binary which tends to dominate portrayals of pregnancy. Amanda questions why so much rehearsal time is given to battles or portraying deformities (as in Richard III), but so little given to how to present pregnancy.

Amanda defines 3 criteria for the pregnant characters she chose to examine in her thesis: 1) Characters who are undoubtedly pregnant (excluding Doll Tearsheet, who may be faking), 2) Characters who are enough along that a physical representation would be expected (excluding Helena of All’s Well, as her gestation is uncertain), 3) Characters whose pregnancy is a driving force in their plot. Thus, she chooses Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, and Juliet from Measure for Measure.

She begins by examining Hermione in several different productions of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione’s pregnancy became an issue of anxiety for Leontes. Amanda addresses the notion that “the public nature of the later months of pregnancy” necessitates reactions from the other characters on stage. Falbo, Kueck, and Ashton portray a scene calling attention to Hermione’s maternity. Amanda relates Leontes’s and Polixenes’s desire to avoid upsetting a pregnant woman to early modern conceptions about what could happen to a child in utero, including that disturbing sights or thoughts could be harmful, and that pregnant women ought to moderate their emotions to keep from causing deformity in the child’s physical form or personality. Amanda then ties this idea to modern notions of how mothers should act. She argues then that the later scene, when Leontes accuses Hermione, can be informed by the idea that Hermione must be attempting to retain composure.

Amanda moves on to consider the Duchess, who attempts to hide her pregnancy, unlike Hermione, whose pregnancy is completely public. She asks what other signifiers can be called upon if the “baby bump” is hidden by loose garments, and her actors read from What to Expect When You’re Expecting to call upon other playable symptoms of pregnancy. This gives the Duchess (Ashton) something to perform, and Bosolo (Falbo) something to attempt to observe. Amanda states that she thinks “distractingly large bellies” may do the actor and audience a disservice by making it harder for the audience to focus on the actor’s words. Such choices could also become too comic or too monstrous, and thus inappropriate for certain plays.

Finally, Amanda considers Juliet. She has Kueck and Cantrell portray the scene between Juliet and the Duke, first with the expected genders (Kueck as Juliet and Cantrell as the Duke), then again with the genders reversed (Cantrell as Juliet and Ashton as the Duke). She says that pregnancy “automatically writes sex on the body,” as an outward manifestation of something a man can’t physically do. She questions whether or not a man playing a pregnant woman may actually be easier for an audience to accept than a man playing any other woman — or if such a staging is even more jarring. Amanda then notes that Juliet, unlike Hermione and the Duchess, is in no position of power, of inferior social status and unwed, and that this may inform portrayals of her. She also thinks this makes Juliet a key figure representing the silences and omissions surrounding the portrayal of pregnancy.

Amanda concludes that the issues and awkwardness in presenting pregnancy speak to a problematic societal idea about pregnancy as only important when it affects men. Why isn’t the potential for life given as much weight and consideration as the potential for death and ruin? She asserts that “actual, specific, fierce maternal love… should inspire awe, not sentiment.”

Textual Necromancy
presented by Tony Tambasco

Tony discusses his experience reviving and amending a text of The Merry Devil of Edmonton for performance in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, combining traditional bibliography with more practical theatrical concerns. He begins by describing the history of Merry Devil, sketching out contemporary references to the play, its apparent popularity, and its multiple printings in the early modern period. It remained popular during the Restoration era, and then disappears from performance record. He states that editors up till now have ignored the application of the play to the stage when producing their editions, perhaps because of the inherent difficulties already present in editing it.

The play is already brief, shorter than Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, perhaps due to having been cut prior to preparation for publication. Tony discusses the possibility, via the competing opinions of Tiffany Stern and Andrew Gurr, that plays may or may not have been cut for touring productions. At least one scene is definitely missing, as its absence is palpable, which suggests that others may be missing as well. Tony then launches into a quick run-down of the differences between the many early quarto versions of the plays, as well as the passing ownership of the play between editions.

Tony states that he wanted to involve his actors in the editing process as much as possible. His initial compilation text used Q1 as the control, allowing actors to see some of the differences between the editions. He discusses the relationship between a director and the text, describing it as “stewardship.” Since modern directors almost always cut classical texts, and since they also cannot re-create all the conditions of early modern theater, Tony argues that every modern production of a play is thus, in some ways, an adaptation. For his production, rather than producing a sole conflated text, Tony gave his actors instructions on how to edit their texts and left them to make their decisions for themselves. Unlike in most productions, where an actor’s notes on blocking, scansion, diction, or other choices are generally ephemera, lost after the production is over, for Tony’s Merry Devil, these notes were used to help re-inform the editing of the overall text. He hopes this will have improved the quality of the text through performance practice — while admitting that no performance can completely get at “what the text says or means.”

Shakespeare’s Operas: The Development of Music and Drama on the 17th Century English Stage
presented by: Amanda Devlin Knowlton

Amanda begins by describing the origins of “opera,” both as a word and as a form of theater and discusses the early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays into this new theatrical form. She suggests that the more supernatural plays, such as Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lent themselves more easily to this adaptation, perhaps because of the connection between music and magical incantations.

She looks first at the music within Shakespeare’s plays themselves. Midsummer, she notes, has a surprisingly little amount of music for a comedy with such supernatural themes — yet the inclusion of music at all marks something different for Shakespeare. She refers to the lullaby in 2.1, which links the ideas of song and spellcasting, and Shannon Schultz performs a modern adaptation of the song, with the scene acted out by several others. She also examines the musical quality, if not outright melody, of many of Puck’s lines, created by the combination of his meter, rhyme schemes, and repetition. Amanda suggests that many of these themes recur years later in The Tempest.

Amanda then discusses Macbeth, which does include songs, but songs which were lifted out of Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. Her performers present “Come Away” in the context of Macbeth, including only part of the original from The Witch, as only part of it seems to fit in — but Amanda notes that many editions include the entire song. She also considers the “Black Spirits” song from later in the play, which in full describes a number of spirits and calls them by name, never otherwise mentioned in Macbeth.

Continuing the theme of supernatural worlds lending themselves easily to musical accompaniment, Amanda moves on to discussing The Tempest. The Tempest has eight songs within its text (compared to three in Midsummer and Macbeth). Ariel in particular uses songs as enchantment, and Amanda’s performers demonstrate this with the scene in which Ariel leads Ferdinand along. Amanda then compares these songs to the rowdy tunes sung by Stephano and Trinculo, suggesting that they may be ironic parodies of Ariel’s enchantments.

Amanda then discusses how the closing of the theaters allowed for the advent of secular music as a more prominent performance event. In the Restoration, English opera flourished, despite the threat of influence from Italy. Until 1710 and the arrival of Handel, opera in England remained a thoroughly English affair — and many of those composers tested their experiments on Shakespeare. Amanda discusses the first full adaptation, of The Tempest, in 1667; subsequent re-mountings of the production grew closer and closer to what we think of now as “opera.” She also discusses the popularity of Davenant’s “operatic Macbeth.” She also notes the comparative unpopularity of Midsummer during the Restoration, which was considered “insipid” by the end of the 17th century. Henry Purcell took up the play in 1692 with The Fairy Queen, which was briefly popular but which quickly disappeared from repertory.

Amanda concludes by presenting a choral piece out of The Fairy Queen.

And that’s it for thesis presentations until spring! It’s been quite a day — we’ve had a lot of excellent scholarship and engaging ideas presented. Best of luck to all the presenters in completing their theses!

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 2

So we’re back, after what Dr. Menzer hopes was “a substantial lunch, for a zesty palate cleanser of scholarship.”

Ford, and Jonson, and Middleton, Oh My!
presented by Carolyn R. Alvarez

Carolyn introduces her presentation by stating that she was attracted to the idea of looking at early modern authors who are not Shakespeare. She questions the societal influences that have made Shakespeare the “poet of the millennium.” She then brings out “Gary Taylor” (presented by Bonnie Morrison) and actors portraying a number of early modern authors: John Ford (portrayed by Riley Steiner), Thomas Middleton (Stephanie Tschetter), Ben Jonson (Katie Crandol), and William Shakespeare (K.C. Capron) — chosen in part due to revived interest in production or publication of their plays. (Kit Marlowe also appears, briefly, only to be told that he died too early to be considered in this thesis). Carolyn takes a few moments to provide biographies for these authors, while ‘gentlemen’ themselves snipe and snark at each other in the foreground (Crandol’s Jonson, nipping liberally from a flask, gets in a few particularly good zings, as does Steiner’s geriatric Ford).

Carolyn uses the contrasts between these authors to circle in on the idea that what’s made Shakespeare popular throughout time has been people — actors, publishers, readers, and scholars. She suggests that Shakespeare’s exclusive attachment to one company had a lot to do with his enduring success. She then touches briefly on the idea of the editorial hand, comparing Shakespeare’s publications to those of Jonson, who took a stronger hand in making sure what went into print were the precise words he intended.

She moves on to looking at the idea of Shakespeare as a brand, leading to the labeling of certain texts as “bad” quartos, or of questioning the validity of “lost” plays. This concept also connects to the relationship between art and money, legitimizing the plays through their monetary value. At this point, Marlowe reappears, only to be stabbed in the eye by “Gary Taylor” — allowing Carolyn to make the point that timing was important, too. Shakespeare made an impression on the publishing world before his death, and by the time the other authors on stage died, his first complete works was already on the market. Carolyn then questions the motive behind the compilation of the First Folio, and she suggests, in conclusion, that there may have been a great deal of personal emotion behind the publication, as opposed to merely financial reasons.

X-Treme Casting
presented by Jeffrey Chips

Jeff is looking at the possibilities engendered by breaking the traditional rules of doubling: allowing doubled characters to meet on stage, performing shifts by changes in posture and voice rather than by use of costume and props. He begins by presenting a scene out of King John, with only five actors presenting (by my count) eleven characters. The actors are in blacks, with only a few props (a lion-skin, a sword, a couple of crowns) either to help them change characters, or to stand in place of those not currently being portrayed.

Jeff goes on to describe production companies that use “x-treme casting,” noting that the challenge lies in telling the story clearly and efficiently. He contests that this may be “entry-level Shakespeare,” not merely an exercise for advanced and experienced actors or scholars. Jeff has his actors present instances where characters within the play actually tell stories by means of casting themselves as other characters. Sarah Keyes Chang then presents a scene out of The Comedy of Errors where one character (Dromio of Ephesus) presents a conversation between himself and Antipholus of Syracuse, including engaging in stage combat with herself; AJ Sclafani does the same for Bottom presenting Pyramus and Thisbe, and Paul Rycik goes on to present Lance, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, who tells a story involving six characters, casting his own shoes as two of them.

Addressing the “entry-level” issue, Jeff suggests that younger audiences actually respond more favorably to x-treme casting than do their elders, perhaps because their experiences of Shakespeare have not already been fixed. He then presents a scene out of a reconstruction of Cardenio where a key character, who is in the process of being described by another character, is portrayed by a hat up until the moment when the character speaks and an actor takes over.

Jeff goes on to suggest that professional skittishness about x-treme casting derives from fear, particularly the fear of asking too much of the audience. The audience, however, by Jeff’s assertion, desires a higher degree of involvement with theater, that the actor-spectator relationship is crucial and that x-treme casting can be a new and exciting way into that dynamic. To illustrate the importance of the audience’s imagination, Jeff has his actors present a scene out of 2 Henry IV, using no costumes or props, but only their own bodies and voices to draw character distinctions. Jessi Malicki presents five characters in rapid succession; the device works well because Shakespeare’s words give such a strong indication of each of the supposed soldiers being considered for Falstaff’s army, giving Malicki plenty to work with in drawing each of the five.

Quoting from a number of actors and production companies who have experimented with x-treme casting, Jeff considers both the possible losses and possible discoveries inherent to this form of doubling. Some actors find that cutting plays to make these doublings possible necessitates a flattening of some characters, while others discover nuances when forced to distinguish between two characters present on stage at the same time. He also nods to the economic benefits of a smaller cast and minimal reliance on costumes and props, but he asserts that this is not a reason to use x-treme casting. He concludes by voicing his opinion that x-treme casting can enhance the imaginative qualities of Shakespeare’s plays, and that fears of alienating the audience should not keep a company from experimenting with the choice.

Performance within Performance
presented by Clara Giebel

Clara begins by defining her focus for this presentation: looking at the interperformativity of actors and musicians with both on-stage (in-play) and off-stage (in-theatre) audiences. She considers first the “catch-singing” scene of Twelfth Night, looking at how the on-stage performances can affect the off-stage audience’s perceptions and sympathies. The scene transforms Andrew (Michael Wagoner) and Toby (Liz Lodato) from drunken fools to more nuanced characters, genuinely absorbed in and moved by Feste’s (Zach Brown) song. Clara considers the linguistic differences in Andrew’s and Toby’s speech here than elsewhere in the play, particularly Andrew, who so often fails to use complex vocabulary appropriately, but here gets out “mellifluous” both accurately and out of his own imagination, rather than from following Toby’s lead. It seems to be “a transformation springing from Feste’s performance” — and Clara suggests that this is a nice thought, that we could all be bettered by seeing good performances (indeed, an engaging thought for those who make a life out of creating theater).

Clara moves from this performance, with Feste, universally recognized within the play as a skilled performer, to that of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the on-stage audience indicates that the aritsans are far from proficient actors. She points out that Shakespeare spends more time having characters discuss “Pyramus and Thisbe” by way of introduction and interjection than he does on the play-within-a-play itself, by a good 100 words. She hypothesizes that bad performances within performances need more explanation than does a good performance within a performance (like Feste’s). Lodato presents Quince’s prologue, with Wagoner, Brown, and Katy Mulvaney acting the hecklers; Clara uses this to comment on the theatrical practice of a prologue excusing a play, as well as the necessity of conveying intended meaning to the audience. She then has Lodato present the prologue again with altered punctuation to portray more accurately what we can assume Quince meant to say, thus demonstrating that there is nothing wrong with what Quince says, only with how he says it.

Presenting a number of other examples where characters use music or performance to affect their own emotions: Hermione restored to life, Lear restored to sanity, characters staving off madness or despair. These transformations then net in the audience as well, bringing them along with the emotional shifts or tests of endurance. Clara sums up her ideas on performativity quite elegantly: “Through the influence of performance, the audience can lay hold of miracles.”

The Dramaturg as Director: Reviving The Misfortunes of Arthur
presented by Rachel L. Kohler

Due to the nature of Rachel’s MFA project, wherein she acted as dramaturg in charge of an Actors’ Renaissance Season- style performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur, this presentation is less lecture-formatted and more a re-enactment of certain portions of her experiment. Rachel begins by recapping information about her MLitt thesis, which had examined the presence (or, rather, absence) of plays about King Arthur in early modern theater. She determined to use the sole surviving Arthurian play as the basis for her dramaturgical exploration. Rachel describes the process of putting together the play, including the challenges of replacing actors at the last minute. She deliberately provided no dramaturgical information before the initial “Ren run” of the show. Brian Falbo, Liz Lodato, Dan Trombley, and Elizabeth Rentfro re-enacted a bit of the fumbled initial run (to general amusement).

Rachel then describes what her dramaturgical packet entailed: everything from vocabulary to historical references and costuming. She relates that her actors, having stumbled through the initial run of the play, found the packet helpful for moving forward with the play. Dan Trombley comes out to describe how he used Rachel’s information to put together the characters of Gawain and Gildas; then Rin Barton does the same for Cawdor and Constantin, explicating that knowing familial relationships, never mentioned in the play, made those characters make a lot more sense.

Rachel explains how, throughout the rehearsal process, she attempted to let the actors make their own decisions, facilitating but not directing. Rentfro and Lodato present a scene, and Rachel then explains (via Dan Trombley acting as a director) how a director might instruct actors both on character motivation and specific actions and timing; Rin Barton then steps in, presenting the persona of dramaturg, to illustrate providing characters with historical notes and options for performance choices, rather than making those choices and telling the actors what to do.

Among the greatest challenges in The Misfortunes of Arthur were the highly stylized, and frankly, quite bizarre dumb-shows between each act. Rachel explains her dramaturgical notes helped the actors make sense of the convoluted descriptions for those dumb shows, transforming them into something with greater clarity. Rachel finishes by asserting that, as far as experiments go, she considered this one a success. The Q&A involves not only Rachel, but also her actors, as their experiences are crucial to analysis of the experiment.

And now it’s time for a tea break! I’ll be back at 4:35pm for the third and final session.

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 1

Welcome back to another live blogging event here at the American Shakespeare Center. We’re pleased to bring you the Fall 2010 Thesis Festival, featuring presentations of the works of MLitt and MFA students in our partner program at Mary Baldwin College. We’ll start off with three papers in our morning session, followed by an early afternoon session after lunch, and then a later afternoon session after a tea break. There will be a separate blog post for each session, which I’ll be updating as we go.

Miranda as Native: An Exploration of Sexual Politics and Cultural Hegemony in Caribbean and African Postcolonial Adaptations of The Tempest
presented by Amy L. Bolis

Presentation begins with Maxim Overton reading a speech of Caliban’s, while Kimberly Maurice and Johnny Adkins echo with descriptions of the character from elsewhere in the play. Amy explicates that the language reveals the “legacy of colonization,” and that in The Tempest, we see Caliban as the colonized and Prospero as the colonizer, and then asks — where does that put Miranda?

She links this idea with the influence of Shakespeare in colonized regions, introducing the idea of examining post-colonial adaptations of The Tempest from regions such as Zambia and Trinidad. Amy posits that casting Miranda as “native to the island” gives her rape the connotation of the results of colonization; she then explains that Johnny will be portraying Prospero throughout her presentation, Kimberly Miranda, and Maxim Caliban. Amy then helps out those of the audience un-familiar with the term “post-colonial,” situating the term in helpful concrete terms, with the unifying “central concern of cultural power”.

Amy then discusses a tradition in productions of The Tempest which focuses on spectacle, highlighting spiritual themes and quotes like “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and “O brave new world.” Amy asserts that these productions take a reluctant approach to the colonial implications. Casts Prospero as sympathetic, makes audience “inclined to pardon Prospero”. Her actors then presented a scene which foregrounds Caliban’s implied inferiority; she highlights Miranda’s complicity in this view, that the gentle girl who sympathized with the shipwrecked sailors could not help “being socialized into” the view of Caliban as part of a “vile race.”

Amy goes on to note that the post-colonial adaptations she studied give Miranda a greater connection to the island than does Shakespeare’s play (where Miranda willingly leaves). “She becomes the battleground upon which the battle for serenity is being fought.” She then considers the sexual politics at play, from Prospero’s obsession with Miranda’s virginity to the implications of sexual relations and procreation between two different races. To illustrate this, Amy has her actors portray scenes from the four adaptations she considered:

1) from Elizabeth Munez’s Prospero’s Daughter, with a scene illustrating Virginia’s innocent inability to differentiate between races. Also highlights Virginia’s association with the island, which she comes to consider herself indigenous to, though she was born in England; Kimberly delivers a monologue where Virginia explains this.
2) from David Wallace’s Do You Love Me, Master?, where Miranda describes herself as “cross-grained,” underscoring her mixed-race background. Prospero, despite having no respect for Miranda’s mother, holds his daughter to a higher standard, seeking to match her to the only other European on the island. Miranda retains an awareness of her mixed-race throughout the play.
3) A Tempest, by Aime Cesaire, which higlights Miranda’s comfort and familiarity with the island, which she wishes to share with willing listeners. Cesaire even reassigns some of Caliban’s lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Miranda, changing the tenor of those lines.
4) George Lamming’s novel Water with Berries, which Amy uses to discuss the sexual politics, as the Miranda-character describes the graphic rape which dissociated her from identification with the island. The islanders here become the savage stereotype, but only because they have learned it from their colonial masters.

Amy finishes by presenting the idea of stories as the means of identification for conquered peoples. The presentation of Miranda as native “foregrounds questions of indigenousness” and allows The Tempest to become an enduring arena for a discussion on the power dynamics between colonizers and the colonized.

Rosalind and Cleopatra: The Androgyne in Performance
presented by Lem A. Prades

Lem begins by connecting the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays to the sexual/gender ambiguity of Queen Elizabeth, at once the ultimate female and a removed, and thus asexual, force. Using this conception of Elizabeth, Lem suggests a connection between Elizabeth’s persona to both the comic cross-dressing heroines and the primary females in tragedies who also take on masculine attributes. Lem states that the aim of his presentation is to examine the “collapsing masculine and feminine features in Shakespeare’s dramatic features,” using the comic example of Rosalind and the tragic example of Cleopatra. Lem suggests that “Rosalind and Cleopatra exercise the greatest degree of autonomy,” layering sexual identities that “perpetuates autonomy over the self and others.”

Lem begins by explicating the theories of gender and performativity that he will be working with throughout his presentation. This introduces the third gender, the androgyne, taken from Plato, an idealized figure synthesizing both the masculine and the feminine attributes, transcending duality. So where in this do Rosalind and Cleopatra most neatly fit?

Lem suggests that the most basic level of gender synthesis is transvestism, seen literally in the comedies, but more figuratively in the tragedies. Rosalind initially uses transvestism as a defense mechanism, but it evolves into a more enduring identity. Lem quotes Marjorie Garber, who attributes Rosalind’s continued cross-dressing, even after the threat has been neutralized, to an essential effect on Orlando’s development, because Rosalind can only get close to Orlando in the guise of a boy. Cleopatra’s transvestism, on the other hand, is less obvious; she occupies a male position in society, as ruler. Lem relates societal disease with this idea, despite the present of female monarchs in the 16th century, to Knox’s “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” This discomfort appears in the play, when Enobarbus questions Cleopatra’s right to take part in the wars; “Enobarbus sees Cleopatra as a distraction rather than the ruler responsible for the kingdom,” and he relies heavily on insecurities related to sexuality. Lem states that the Romans see Cleopatra as “too feminine when she shouldn’t be, and never quite feminine enough” when she ought to be.

Lem goes on to discuss the power wielded by Rosalind and Cleopatra through love. He looks at Rosalind in 3.5, when she discovers audacity after watching Phebe and Silvius. Rosalind there discovers that she has attracted Phebe despite her harsh words; Phebe explicates her attraction, and reveals her attraction to both masculine and feminine attributes. He then compares this to Enobarbus’s initial description of Cleopatra, wherein Cleopatra asserts her power and sovereignty. “Her creative personality has little to no end of masculinity in it.” Yet she never gives over entirely to masculinity; nor does Rosalind. Both blend their power plays with feminine mischief and coyness, and each woman exercises teasing command over her partner.

Each woman, though, Lem notes, resigns herself to a role as “feminine counterpart;” both women agree to follow rather than to lead. Rosalind tells Orlando, “I am yours,” handing herself over to him entirely. Interestingly, Cleopatra’s declaration comes with her death, as she prepares herself as a bride for the already-dead Antony, and takes her doom to her breast, mixing the most life-giving and supremely feminine image of the nursing mother with the poison of death. Lem finishes by asserting that transvestism provides opportunity for change, and for exploring the grey area between the binary opposites of masculine and feminine.

‘Sblood, Zounds, and Marry: Oaths as Indicators of Character Change on the Early Modern Stage
presented by David C. Santangelo

David opens by suggesting that oaths and expletives can express, not just momentary frustration or reaction, but aspects of character or of change. He grounds uses of these in the context of an Act which levied fines on any uses of profanity, as well as several other laws, from the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, with penalties ranging from 12p fines to whippings. He also refers to some polemic attempts by clergymen to “dissuade Englishmen from swearing.” These acts also led to some instances of censorship, particularly in the Caroline period.

David moves on to explaining that his thesis focuses on the oaths of Hamlet, Othello, and Iago, but for the purposes of this presentation, he’ll be looking solely at Iago. Iago’s opening line, which includes “‘sblood,” indicates that Iago’s tendencies lean towards the blasphemous and the profane. He continues to swear throughout his first scene, “blaspheming three times in quick succession,” indicating that he “is not only vulgar, but may be of a questionable moral standing.” When talking to Othello, however, Iago adopts the more unusual “by Janus” as his oath of choice; the god involved, the double-faced god of doorways and of looking both forward and backward, however, may relate to Iago’s own two-faced nature. His oaths become milder when he feels the need to maintain his “honest” affectation. David also asserts that Iago’s jesting, mild oaths demonstrate his disregard for his wife (later augmented by, well, murder).

David goes on to explicate the other character attributes that Iago’s oaths reflect: his arrogance and that he is a liar. As a self-proclaimed villain, his frequent blaspheming underscores his surety in his villainy. He makes false oaths, swearing “by this hand,” by an honor the audience knows he does not truly have. Iago thus tailors his oaths to who is listening and to the ends he desires to achieve. David sees these techniques as evidence of Iago’s intelligence and cunning.

David also looks at the timely use of “As I am an honest man,” which he paints as “a cunning comment on Iago’s character.” It comes when he has just, quite dishonestly, manufactured the brawl which destroys Cassio’s reputation. He thus perpetuates his honest image while in the process of wreaking chaos. He sees this, and other instances of saying one thing while meaning another, as evidence of Iago’s “Janus-like character.”

Iago’s final oath, “Zounds,” in Act 5 brings him back around to the foul-mouthed soldier we saw in the first scene; with his plans discovered, he can safely drop the honorable image and revert to form. Iago’s profanities, in this instance, come from his inability to control the situation. He thus begins and ends the play with blasphemy, abandoning the more elegant and crafty oaths used elsewhere in the play. “He is, at his core, vulgar.” David ends by asserting that oaths exhibit character change and personality, and that studying these oaths can help an actor when working through roles.

And that’s it for Session 1 — I’ll be back at 2pm (Eastern) for Session 2.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 5 November 2010

Just a few articles this week — I don’t know whether the world of Shakespeare was quieter (perhaps all recovering from Halloween), or if I just had my head so deep in our Road Scholars program that some things escaped my notice. Incidentally, I should add — if any of you readers have an interesting link that I seem to have missed, please post it. I am always up for being pointed towards interesting articles, blog posts, games, and updates in the world of Shakespeare.

So, this week…

  • Sir Peter Hall doesn’t care for thrust staging. Cass says: He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but I question his reasoning. The idea that blocking on a thrust stage depends on “whose turn it is to have a fit of text” is just, well, absurd, as anyone who’s worked on the stage of the Blackfriars Playhouse can tell you. It isn’t as though we just set in a triangle and then rotate whoever’s talking to the front. Thrust staging opens up so many more opportunities than flat proscenium staging, and it gives directors and actors the chance to really play with how they want to create focus.
  • “Once More, Unto the Breach… with Cyborgs”Cass says: There’s been quite a bit of scuttlebutt about this on the Internet over the past few days. I think it sounds, well, interesting, at least. I’m sure I’ll see it, because if there are two things I can’t resist, they’re Henry V and sci-fi thrillers. Here‘s just another of the many articles I’ve seen on the movie this week.
  • A German blogger thinks that English is dead as a language because we use Shakespeare as a litmus test, saying “Well, Shakespeare did it, so it must be right” when confronted with any linguistic anomaly. Cass says: Considering that the source of his offense is this YouTube clip, a clever bit of word art based on a quote from Stephen Fry, I can’t help but feel that this blogger has missed the point.
  • Are any of our readers participating in NaNoWriMo? If so, a blogger has tips for cribbing writing advice from Shakespeare — particularly when it comes to creating chilling villains.

Have a great weekend! And to anyone planning to play with fire in honor of Guy Fawkes Day, remember: Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep.

Gary Taylor on Middleton and A Mad World, My Masters

The American Shakespeare Center is pleased to have Gary Taylor introduce our Bring ’em Back Alive reading of Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters. Taylor is the editor of the Oxford Complete Works of both William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, has authored books such as Reinventing Shakespeare, and was one of the keynote speakers at the 2009 Blackfriars Conference, and we’re all very pleased to have him back for tonight’s performance.

Taylor introduces Middleton as the author of “fast, short plays,” and “in some ways, the first American playwright.” Middleton’s father was a member of the original Roanoke expedition, and returned to London a year later. Middleton refers to Virginia twice in the context of shipping women to Virginia to provide wives for male colonists, in a typical linkage of sex and money, and his politics “are consistently anti-monarchical.”

While most of us are familiar with Shakespeare the playwright for “all time,” but in A Mad World, My Masters Middleton shows himself to be a playwright for our time. His characters live in a fallen world, and the chaste and innocent lovers common in Shakespeare’s plays have no place in it. The characters of A Mad World are sexually mature and sometimes dishonest, but this doesn’t preclude them from being good people who deserve happiness.

By setting characters who have abandoned all ideas about their own purity a long time ago in a comic world, Middleton presents his audience with a world in which the imperfect can find love and happiness. Taylor makes the point that this is the world we live in, or perhaps should like to, by asking by show of hands how many people in the room are virgins. A single individual raised their hand, and while they might be at home in a Shakespearean comedy, the rest of us should find comfort in the world that Middleton offers. “Middleton’s world is one filled with people like us,” Taylor says: “who we can like, we can love, and forgive for their limitations.”