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.