Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 20 December 2010

You may have noticed that it’s not Friday. The office’s holiday schedule means that I won’t be manning a desk this Friday or the next, so I decided to hold last week’s Tidbits till today, and we’ll get back on our usual Friday rotation after the new year.

This week: A lot on the merit of the humanities and a little bit of pop-Shakespeare.

  • Victor Davis Hanson writes in defense of the liberal arts, suggesting that, of the problems America could have, a population “immersed in and informed by literature, history, art, and music is not one of them.” Cass says: I love pretty much everything in this essay. The humanities don’t teach you what to think; they teach you how — how to think incisively, creatively, deliberately. Hanson also talks about the imperative of linking the modern world to our historical heritage, with the ever-present threat that history may repeat itself, and that it becomes more likely to do so the less we know about it. With the danger of losing our common touchstones, the stories that hold populations together as nations, “No wonder the public is drawn to stories like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values.”
  • An essay asks “Amid globalization, what do we read?” and posits that, when constructing curricula, we should not throw out old (European) classics just because we’re now including material from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Rather, by embracing all possibilities, we might just construct a more well-read society.
  • Another essay: “The STEM of a plant cannot survive aloneSTEM meaning “Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics,” ie, the disciplines viewed as more profitable and necessary to our economy. As the author points out, the humanities offer problem-solving skills and command of language, and they also ask the difficult questions. “But pleasure isn’t the only benefit of an education filled with humanities, especially because not everyone enjoys taking classes in the humanities. Part of the importance of reading Shakespeare is its difficulty. The guy writes in a code that, in order to understand, you need careful attention and problem-solving skills. It’s like Sudoku, only you’re constantly learning new things along the way. Remembering all of the twists and turns of King Lear’s wandering may not help you ten years down the line, but the skills gained through challenging yourself will.”‘
  • New York theater takes on world history, with productions on topics such as war-torn Afghanistan, renegade American president Andrew Jackson, and race relations in the 1930s. Cass says: I love history plays, of all kinds. I think they illustrate so well why we ought to be interested in history, not just because of what it tells us about ourselves and how our culture developed, but because, plain and simple, most history is about sex and violence and incredible personalities — precisely the stuff of good theatre. As the article points out, “Shakespeare did history plays. But it’s the drama, not his manipulation of history, that lives on.”
  • California Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office Manager Robin Dolan talks about the myth of the off-season. Cass says: We empathize, Cal Shakes! The ASC produces shows 52 weeks a year, and the education department just discussed at our last meeting how our year has evolved so that we hop right from one exciting event or project to the next.
  • Finally, as you may have heard by now, the Weinstein Company and Miramax have signed a deal to produce a sequel to Shakespeare in Love. Cass says: There’s been a lot of Internet muttering about this lately, and I’m not fully certain why. If they get Stoppard back to write the sequel, I think it could be good entertainment. Leave Viola in the New World, though; let Will find someone new to inspire him, some influence that creates his darker, later plays.

Happy holidays, everyone! And in the words of Theseus: “Joy, gentle friends! joy and fresh days of love accompany your hearts!”

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed…" — The Holiday Season at the ASC

Staunton’s a winter wonderland today, coated in a thick blanket of snow, which makes it feel like just the right time to share my thoughts on the ASC’s holiday season with you. Each December, the ASC embraces wintry celebrations, and we guarantee there’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a joyful family outing or are hoping for some more grown-up entertainment. Either way, the holiday spirit is alive and well in Staunton, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three of our December productions.

First up is the family-friendly A Christmas Carol, which the ASC has produced every year since 2002. The production is frothy and delightful. The ASC touring troupe does a wonderful job bringing the exuberant spirit of the show to life. Maybe I’m just an incurable sap, but I can’t help wanting to dance at the Fezziwigs’ party, and I always tear up about Tiny Tim at the end of the show. But if you can’t indulge a sentimental nature during the holiday season, when can you? I got to watch this show during one of our school matinees, and it was a great day for it — we had a younger group, 3rd-5th graders, and I had almost as much fun watching them as I did watching the show. The girls sitting on stage shrieked and clutched at each other when the ghost of Jacob Marley emerged from the trap, rattling chains and howling in agony — and the little boy sitting next to them leaned so far forward he nearly fell out of his seat, exclaiming “That was awesome!” when Marley descended again. The kids were delighted by the frequent interactions of the cast with the audience, whether to use them as hat-racks or scarf-holders, or as the recipients of the candy canes that the Narrator (Chad Bradford) whips out of his hat as though by magic. Something about the enthrallment of little kids makes this show even more special; it’s a different experience, and just that little bit more magical.

For me, A Christmas Carol took on a new tenor this holiday season, in light of the economic difficulties so many people have faced over the past year and more. When Scrooge (presented with scowling excellence by John Harrell) asks “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” or when he calls the unemployed “idle people,” it’s hard not to hear echoes of the recent debates over tax breaks and unemployment benefits. Of course, all of that is likely to sail right over the heads of the children in the audience, but adults may find Dickens’s classic more relevant than ever.

Second, an annual favorite, the adults-only Santaland Diaries. This year Rick Blunt hitches up the candy-cane stockings as Crumpet the Elf in David Sedaris’s one-man-show about the experience of being an elf at Macy’s Santaland. I got to watch John Harrell in this role the past two years, and with Rick in the elfin knickers, it’s definitely a different show. Rick inhabits the role with self-mocking glee, shamelessly changing into his elf costume on stage and, the night I saw it, pausing mid-monologue once to hike up those striped stockings. Particularly excellent is Rick’s way of playing off of the audience, incorporating them and their reactions into the story. What I’ve always loved about this show, however, and what Rick brings across particularly well, is the kernel of tenderness underneath all the cynicism and biting wit. The contrast particularly relevant for the modern holiday season, over-commercialized in a period of recession, when so many people feel the pinch even more tightly than during the rest of the year, when it’s become “cool” in plenty of circles to eschew the saccharine celebrations and settle in for a good snarking instead. Amid all of that, it’s nice to be reminded, through Rick’s excellent performance, of the real holiday spirit, the desire to make someone smile, to make someone feel special.

Finally, the ASC is pleased and proud to offer the world premiere of The 12 Dates of Christmas, written by and starring our own Ginna Hoben. Based off of her own experiences, Ginna presents the story of Mary, a woman who sees her fiance making out with a coworker on national TV during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The audience follows her through a year’s worth of bad dates and family feuds. The show is refreshingly honest. The sparkle may be off the snowflake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at the absurd way that life falls apart, falls together, and constantly reassembles — because Mary’s experiences are, while idiosyncratic tales particular to one woman’s life, also universal. Almost everyone’s suffered a heartbreak, often a humiliating one. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to face a holiday, whether Christmas or New Year’s or Valentine’s Day, alone. That association we all share, combined with Ginna’s open and inviting demeanor, makes it easy for the audience to relate to Mary, to want to cheer her on and to see her succeed. Ginna also uses the audience to wonderful effect, calling out for advice, looking for sympathy or agreement, or cocking an ironic eyebrow whenever we think we know where the story is going. I think what I like best about the show, however, is that it doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow. Mary’s story is going to go on, offstage, post-monologue — and that’s real. Life’s major events and excursions rarely end on neat little capstones.

All three of these shows continue through the end of the month, so you’ve still got plenty of opportunities to catch them if you’re within traveling distance. And lest you think that the ASC becomes a Shakespeare-free-zone during the holiday season, the touring troupe will also be giving performances of their three traveling shows, Macbeth, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure, during the first week in January.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits: 10 December 2010

This week: More on Shakespeare and economics, the value of education, some very young folk engaging with Shakespeare, and a few just-for-fun lists.

  • A teacher blogs about the value of a liberal arts education. Cass says: She has an amusing (and so true) comment on Shakespeare: “And in Professor Brady’s Shakespeare class, I learned the undeniable truth that Shakespeare was a dirty dirty bird. When in doubt, assume he’s talking about sex. This will serve you well in interpreting his texts. It also goes far in explaining why the man’s works have endured for so long.” But the real focus of the post is a commentary on the current state of our education system, which in America is designed to churn out round pegs for round holes, cogs for the machine. On her students’ obsession with good grades and finding “the right answer,” she says, “I grew so frustrated, I returned everyone to their seats and asked a question. ‘Why do you attend school?’ After the first round of the ‘Because they make us’ chorus, other answers started to trickle in. To get good grades. To get high SAT scores. To get into a good college. To get a good job. ‘Doesn’t anyone want to learn?'” This goes so much to my own personal philosophy of teaching — that we ought to value education for its own sake, that being a learned individual, who can carry on interesting conversations, think critically and creatively, and who has the desire to seek out new information and to explore it — that that’s important. I wish it wasn’t always about the bottom line and the step-ladder to success.
  • Former ASC NEH Institute participant Jim Casey has an article coming out soon on the “ethical requirements of early modern bodies and the moral judgments tied to them,” especially as relating to violence, masculinity, and femininity. Sarah says: Not unrelated to Cass’s blog this week… Should be an interesting read.
  • Sir Patrick Stewart on, among other things, British arts cuts in education: “I don’t think any recent Government can be smug about their relationship to the arts in England. Even the Labour Government underestimated the sheer economic benefits that derive from it. It’s never been fully appreciated or understood. Until it is, there will be tension.”
  • The essay “Sophistication Versus Savagery: How Education Defies Distinction” examines, through some of the work of the late Frank Kermode, Caliban and the relationship between education and morality.
  • A director has made a career out of doing Shakespeare in unusual locations, including Hamlet on Alcatraz. Cass says: This is pretty much the polar opposite of how we do Shakespeare at the ASC, but man, that sounds like it would be a fun show to experience.
  • Career Lessons from Shakespeare employ some cleverness in making practical use out of quotes from Shakespeare, and another author argues that “Shakespeare knows why so many home-based businesses fail — Do you?”
  • A home-schooling mom wants to assure you that yes, six-year-olds can do Macbeth. Cass says: I love that this mother isn’t shying away from the challenges presented by Shakespearean language, and that she’s willing to introduce her six-year-old to such advanced concepts as allegory and metaphor. Here’s hoping young Willem is hooked for life — send him across the pond for our Theatre Camp when he’s old enough!
  • Another remarkable student, this thirteen-year-old wants to see all of Shakespeare’s plays within two years. Cass says: What a great personal challenge! This kid’s lucky to have a family who can travel to see so many great shows done by so many wonderful companies. We’re especially grateful that they’ve chosen to see a few of their plays at the ASC — come back for more when you move on to Middleton, Marlowe, and Jonson.
  • The end of the year always sees an influx in “Top 10” lists and similar, and the world of Shakespeare is no different. Enjoy 10 Genre-Busting Shakespeare Remixes and the Coolest Shakespeare Riffs in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

That’s all for this week — If you’re within traveling distance to Staunton and need some holiday cheer, swing by for family-friendly A Christmas Carol, or for the grown-ups only Santaland Diaries or Twelve Dates of Christmas.

Ophelia, Desdemona, and Juliet vs Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola — Is the Tragedy Bias in Schools Sexist?

This post is credit in part to Duane at ShakespeareGeek, because the idea came to me after perusing the responses to a post of his asking “What Shakespeare did you read in high school?” (And if you haven’t popped over there to tell him your experience — do so). The responses have been more or less what I expected — a lot of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, occasionally subbing in Othello or King Lear. Only infrequently does a comedy make the list, almost always A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It — but even those are rare appearances in the curriculum.

It’s long perturbed me that so many high schools will insist on only beating kids over the heads with the tragedies. Now, don’t get me wrong. The tragedies have great material, obviously, and most of it is not beyond your average high-schooler’s capacity to grasp. I just think that you’re more likely to get the kind of excited, engaged reaction we hope for out of teaching the comedies. (I know plenty of folk may disagree with me and think that the comedies rely too much on obscure jokes and convoluted language; flatly, I just believe those naysayers are wrong). I think it’s far easier for teachers to fall into traps with the tragedies, and to get bogged down in the doom and gloom that might be off-putting. Ignoring the comedies causes teachers to miss out on so many opportunities — clever wordplay, cross-dressing heroines, puns galore, and the bawdy, earthy, genuine sexuality that would give teachers a better chance to hook kids on Shakespeare and to keep their attention. Then, once you’ve convinced them it’s good stuff, you’ll have better luck getting them interested in the tragedies.

But that particular pet peeve of mine is a fight for another day. What’s just occurred to me on reading Duane’s post and its responses, however, is the notion that there might be something a little more insidious clinging on to these curriculum choices. The tragedies, far more than the comedies, are boy-centric, peopled with male figures, concerned with the problems and personal journeys of men. I have to wonder — Is the dogged adherence to teaching the same few tragedies in high schools perhaps the legacy of centuries’ worth of education as a male-dominated institution? Teaching, at least at the pre-collegiate levels, has become a more female domain, but that certainly has not always been the case. Do we teach Hamlet and Caesar simply because that’s what has always been taught, never minding what cultural norms might have influenced those decisions centuries ago?

Of course there are women in the tragedies — but, in most cases, hardly women we’d want high-school students emulating. Half the women in the tragedies are the bad guys, after all — Lady M, Goneril, Regan. The heroines of these plays, in the meantime, come off as a little weak. Ophelia is most effective in poignancy, and Gertrude is either astonishingly naive, or her strongest moment is in drinking poison. Portia and Calpurnia barely get any stage time at all in one of the most-frequently-taught tragedies. Cordelia may be sweet and well-intentioned, but her dramatic purpose is pretty much to die to make Lear feel bad about himself. Additionally, the women of the tragedies almost universally act only in reaction to the male central figures. Lady Macbeth may be an exception at the beginning of Macbeth, but she loses that dynamism and that ability to affect events as the play goes on. Juliet is perhaps the most proactive female among the commonly-taught tragedies, but we’d hardly want our fourteen-year-old students following her example. Most of the tragic women, however, don’t have agendas of their own, they don’t take initiative — they respond (usually by dying).

And even when those women do appear, they hardly get the stage time or line counts of their male counterparts. The largest female role in a tragedy is Cleopatra, with close to 700, and she is the exception to pretty much everything I’ve said about women in tragedies so far — and she’s the central figure of a play most high schools don’t attempt. Juliet comes in 2nd, a little over 500, but after that it’s down to Desdemona, just under 400, and Emilia and Lady Macbeth, at around 250 each. Gertrude, Ophelia, all three of the Lear sisters — none of these ladies bank more than 200 lines. Compare that to Iago’s 1100, Othello’s nearly 900, Lear at close to 800, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra) at around 750, Brutus at about 700, Romeo and Macbeth topping 600, and, of course, Hamlet trumping them all at over 1400 lines, nearly as long in his one role as some of Shakespeare’s shorter plays.

The girls, overall, get a much fairer shake in the comedies. Rosalind speaks more than twice as much as her male counterpart, almost 700 to Orlando’s almost 300. Helena speaks almost 100 more lines than Demetrius, and Lysander only has Hermia by about 10; Helena has the third-most lines in the play, falling only just short of Nick Bottom and Theseus. Viola and Olivia top 300, about the same as Feste and Sir Toby, and far more than the romantic heroes of Twelfth Night. Benedick only outstrips Beatrice by about 60 lines. There also tend to be, overall, more women in the comedies than in the tragedies. Midsummer has Helena, Hermia, Titania, and Hippolyta; Much Ado has Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula; Love’s Labour’s Lost has the four ladies plus country-girl Jaquenetta; As You Like It has Rosalind, Celia, Phoebe, and Audrey. These women also tend to be in more scenes, making the female presence on stage far greater in the comedies than in the tragedies.

Furthermore, the women of the comedies make their own decisions and act as their own agents. They are, if not always the sole central characters, sharing the stage much more evenly, and they are certainly the characters whose decisions drive the plot in many of the comedies. They often act in defiance of men’s wishes or of societal expectations, rather than succumbing. And, perhaps most importantly, they live. Fiery and feisty and resilient, they live. They survive shipwrecks, heartbreaks, wildernesses, outlaws, exiles, threats of execution — and they go on to triumph. For this, I find the women of the comedies just plain more interesting that the women of the tragedies. Shakespeare seems to give them a lot more credit.

So why don’t we showcase Beatrice’s wit to our high-schoolers? Viola’s eloquence, Rosalind’s spirit, Hermia and Helena’s passions, Titania’s magic, Kate’s fire, Portia’s cleverness? Why does our focus default to the male perspective?

I wonder if it has something to do with something that’s more generally pervasive in our culture — the notion that it’s the male viewpoint that’s considered universal. This debate came up recently in the film world with Disney’s decision first to rebrand the film Rapunzel as Tangled, then to stop making fairy tales all together, because they don’t market as well to boys. Boys, after all, don’t want to go see a movie about a girl, but girls will readily see movies about boys, so Disney’s turning to the Pixar model of the male universal viewpoint. There was also a minor hullabaloo in the literary world this past summer over the marginalization of female authors and female-dominated genres. Publishers and production companies routinely appeal to male readers and male audiences, despite that women go to more movies and purchase more books — precisely because they know they can bank on the women turning up and forking over cash anyway. The bias continues to get validated.

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that this trend has carried over, even subconsciously, to how we teach Shakespeare and which of his plays we select. We can get a 16-year-old girl to consider Hamlet, to dig into his words and his psyche, even to identify with him and his struggle, but a 16-year-old boy is far less willing to extend that courtesy for Beatrice or Rosalind. Even within Hamlet, I’m sure it holds true — I’d love to hear from teachers about how many boys choose to write their essays on Ophelia or Gertrude, versus how many girls do. I know as a student in high school and college, I wrote my assignments on the female characters whenever possible, looking closely at Lady Macbeth’s language, trying to coax out Gertrude’s backbone, attempting to vindicate Goneril and Regan, positing Juliet as the far stronger character than Romeo — not out of any desire to make a stand for feminism, but simply because those were the characters, the arcs, and the issues that most interested me. It would’ve been nice, however, to have had the opportunity to consider a female character who was central, rather than marginal, who was the main focus of the play and the instigator of action, rather than a sidelined role.

The good news is that I don’t appear to be alone in desiring an appeal on behalf of the comedies. A few of the teachers who replied to Duane’s post say that, despite having been fed all the tragedies in their own high school years, they now turn to Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, mixed in with the typical tragedies and a few histories. I’d be glad to see this turning of the tide as a continuing trend. Students should get a broader sampling of Shakespeare’s works as early on as possible, and we should be celebrating Shakespeare’s women as much as his men.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 3 December

This week in Imprimis: the new RSC theatre, the value of the humanities and Shakespeare, and some essays and tools relevant to several of the plays.

  • Ian Richardson’s ashes have a permanent home in the new RSC building. Sarah says: Puts me in mind of the theatre ghosts I have worked with (or against) in the past. In my first theatre position, there was “The Toe” — apparently one of the workers had an accident in the construction process and left a little something behind. This something had an unfortunate habit of overheating the lighting system in the middle of a show and throwing us into dense darkness. At the second theatre I worked in, “Marie” was responsible for all the troubles we came into contact with… until one year, at Halloween, when we invited her to help us with a haunted house. I will be interested to hear what Ian Richardson does for the new Stratford theatre… or, just, what he is blamed for.
  • Speaking of the new RSC Theatre… Jonathan Bate blogs about it, discussing the thrust stage versus proscenium-style. Sarah says: Huge fan of Jonathan Bate, huger fan of what he says here about the new RSC space! Come for a visit, Professor Bate. We think you might like it.
  • A new teacher training program is hitting the roads in 8 states, aiming to transform teacher training to be more like that undertaken in medical school. Sarah says: Yay for changes in teacher education! Our own partner program at MBC is already working on a model like this one. Though the class is currently limited to one semester, the students have many authentic opportunities for practice and feedback. I hope this catches on, because, while I can only speak for myself, teacher education has been severely lacking in the valuable experiences that will keep teachers in the classroom.
  • In what’s become a bit of a running theme on Imprimis, we have another article on Shakespeare and Economics… Or, the economics of getting rid of Shakespeare. Sarah says: I’ve learned a lot this week about the value of money vs the value of life. A good life is priceless. What kind of life can we lead without art?
  • Along those lines, another author takes up the cause of the humanities: “Yet it is within the humanities that students are most apt to develop writing and critical thinking skills — where they will in essence teach themselves how to learn. The humanities also engage students in the weighing and testing of values, and help them ponder what it means to be human. These things are not only the proper heart and soul of an education; paradoxically, they create the kind of thinkers and lifelong learners so badly needed int he workplace and government.” (Emphasis Sarah’s). Sarah says: Only if leaders listen… consider Bloomberg’s appointment of a “business” leader to head NYC schools. I hope that she will not forget the value of the arts and intangibles to the human soul, psyche, and brain.
  • A new study at the University of South Africa says that children who grow up in households where books are plentiful go further in school than those without books, regardless of the parents’ education, the relative wealth or political climate of the nation the child is born into, or the parents’ occupations. This study may not be Shakespeare-related, but we certainly advocate reading to children and fostering a love of a books from an early age.
  • Check out this diagram of the relationships in Hamlet. Sarah says: It’s a bit mathematical, but fun. For me it emphasizes how much easier it is to appreciate Shakespeare if we treat his plays as, well, plays. When we see Hamlet and Gertrude onstage we get what this diagram tries to express much more easily.
  • A blog has a nice essay on Shakespeare’s Macbeth versus the historical Macbeth.
  • And, Twelfth Night Theatre has a blog post on the importance of Margaret in Richard III. Cass says: I found this post particularly relevant, as we’re about to head into an Actors’ Renaissance Season with Henry VI, Part 3.
  • Here’s another interesting essay, this one about four of Shakespeare’s women who break the assumed traditional mold. Cass says: I particularly enjoy what this essay has to say about Cleopatra, in particular — but then, I have a particular affection for her.
  • Looking for a New Year’s resolution? Why not commit to the Shakespeare Reading Challenge? Cass says: I think this is a great idea, but why stop there? The highest bracket only covers a third of the plays! For the truly intrepid (or, you know, graduate students), I propose the Jaques level, if you read 24 plays, the Beatrice level, if you read 32, and the Prince of Denmark level, if you read all the official cannon, plus Two Noble Kinsmen, Q1 Hamlet, the apocryphal Edward III, and all the sonnets and poems. Sarah says: How about a challenge for seeing the plays? The ASC alone could get you almost to Henry V level!
  • Finally, here’s a great tool if you’re someone (like us) who likes to play with Shakespeare’s words — a useful and accessible concordance.

I just noticed that this is the 50th post in the education blog. Thanks for reading, everyone!