Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 2

We’re back for Session 2 of the MLitt/MFA Festival, with five presentations between now and 4:30.

What Would Will Do? Contemporary Playwrights Writing for Shakespeare’s Globe, by Katy Mulvaney (MLitt candidate)

Katy begins with a staging of the first words spoken on the stage of the new Globe, introducing her concept of producing new works in the early modern architecture. Katy argues that the new Globe presents an opportunity to synthesize modern sensibilities and theatrical conventions with the advantages offered by the early modern space, as well as to explore the points of conflict and contention between theatrical expectations in the two eras. She gives examples from plays by Peter Oswald, written for Shakespeare’s Globe, which parody the early modern conventions of staging darkness and asides to the audience. While these examples call out some of the suspensions of disbelief necessary in Shakespeare’s plays, they also toy with the audience’s expectations in a way that pushes normal boundaries and explores new avenues. She also discusses other ways of involving the audience, whether pulling a volunteer to take the place of an actor, or placing actors in the galleries to augment the feeling of discussion in a crowded hall. Katy argues that new plays produced for the Globe can explore opportunities the stage presents that early modern plays do not. During the Q&A, Katy says further than the most frequent early modern staging condition that new playwrights seem to explore is audience contact.

The Pyrotechnique Story: Commanding Dragons, Devils, the Natural and the Celestial, by Maxim Overton (MLitt candidate)

Maxim begins by apologizing for the lack of explosions in his presentation (and acknowledges that we have a right to be disappointed that he’ll be setting nothing on fire). He goes on to say that his research indicates a dearth of scholarship on the practice of special effects in early modern theatre. He argues that the two most significant inventions of the 15th-century in Europe were the printing press and gunpowder, and that while we in the early modern theatrical community have discussed much about the former, we have given almost no thought to the latter. Maxim connects the idea of special effects with the appearance and visual representation of magic on the stage, particularly the intersection of magic and scholarship, using Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay as his primary example. He argues that fire was a necessity (or, at least, that an acting company must have considered it a necessity) to represent a demon, dragon, or hellmouth, escalating the creature in question from the mundane to the magical. Maxim then moves on to a consideration of Dr Faustus, where the eponymous character has already gained command of every other scholarly discipline and now moves on to demonology. His first attempt at summoning yields a dragon, and Maxim argues that the accompanying stage direction indicates use of pyrotechnics. He refers to Sarah Keyes Chang’s 2010 thesis which posited that the dragon was a puppet, but Maxim considers that a puppet “would not be horrible enough” or “memorable enough to, twenty years later, be depicted on the title page.” He goes on to describe other places in the play where the presence of devils and magic suggests further use of fireworks, including the potential for “fire-breathing masks” or a costume which was, itself, on fire. (He also notes that there are four or five examples of such a costume “going badly”). During the Q&A, Maxim notes that the advance of gunpowder changed pyrotechnics and fire from an element of light, heavenly characters to dark, evil, satanic characters; fire became a threat rather than a source of comfort.

“What Imports This Song”: Transmitting Ballad Allusions in Hamlet to the Post-Modern Practitioner, by Michael Allen Hollinger (MLitt candidate)

Michael examines the references to popular songs written into Hamlet, allusions which are now lost on modern audience. His presentation opens with two poems, presented by Clara Giebel and Elizabeth Rentfro, the first comprised of lyrics from early modern songs, the second of lyrics from songs from the past fifty years. Michael points out that while we may not recognize any of the lyrics from the first poem, most of us could point out many, if not all, of the references made in the second poem. Michael questions first if it’s possible to make the early modern allusions as recognizable to modern audiences as they were to the original audiences; “The answer is no.” How, then, can practitioners approach the material in a way that illuminates meaning? He admits that the thesis is, in the words of Dr. Menzer, “productive trouble, working without a clear solution.” Michael seeks to open the discussion and to provide an avenue for further exploration in production. Looking at a song of Ophelia’s, he first sets the lyrics to the modernly-recognizable tune of “Scarborough Faire,” then attempts an invented melody, then finally to “Camptown Races” (all sung by Clara Giebel). He argues that the the melancholic first two options were superior to the third, upbeat tune, “unless you want Ophelia to look completely cracked-out.” In his next example, Hamlet (AJ Sclafani) and Polonius (Shannon Schultz) have a conversation in which Hamlet quotes or near-quotes several times from a ballad called “Jepha, Judge of Israel.” Without any tune, the allusions pass the audience by. AJ and Shannon then present the scene again, this time with all of the ballad-originated lines to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface,” then a third time, mixing speech and melody. The second staging makes Hamlet appear a little goofy, while the third staging explicates the point that Polonius is missing the reference, but may contain too little of the actual tune for the audience to recognize it. In a fourth staging, Polonius tries to acknowledge Hamlet’s allusion, but doesn’t know the tune. Michael explains that each tactic attempted during rehearsal “tells us something different about the characters,” and that exploring the ballad allusions in this way can open up many doors for interpretation. Shannon, AJ, and Elizabeth give another example, from the gravedigger scene, in which Michael identifies the gravedigger’s song as one out of “Tottel’s Miscellany.” He notes that the actors decided that the gravedigger could sing either a recognizable modern or an invented tune, as long as it is upbeat and cheerful, based on Hamlet’s reaction. In another interpretation, Michael switched the verses in Hamlet for different verses from the same song, these focused more on the subject of death, thus at once more appropriate and inappropriate for the gravedigger. Michael argues that the switch allows a modern audience to recognize more easily Shakespeare’s possible intent with the allusion. Michael argues that musical allusions in performance are certainly not foreign to modern audiences, and that he hopes that productions will work to discover Shakespeare’s possible intentions through the original allusions and then work to make those intentions clear on the stage.

Playing Women Playing Men on the Blackfriars Stage, by Linden Kueck (MLitt candidate)

Linden states that her research began with a question: “Why was the early-modern English stage willing to take boys for women, and why are modern audiences willing to take women for men?” She argues that gender hierarchies remain present in casting practices and audience reactions. She focused on three productions: Kate Norris as Richard III, presenting a female actor as an adult male character, Vanessa Morosco as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, a female actor as a female character, and Denice Burbach as King Henry in 2 Henry VI, a female actor as a male but young and perhaps feminine character. Linden then gives over the stage to her doppleganger, Glenn Schudel, to re-enact first a conversation with Ralph Cohen (presented by Amanda Allen). This conversation illuminates some reasons behind ASC casting choices, including the choice never to change the gender of a character, as well as the roughly 8-4 male-to-female ratio amongst the actors. The conversation also probes the tendency of men playing women to be a “send-up,” and the tendency of females in male’s roles to be “functionary.” Female actors are required to adopt male traits seriously; the same is not often required from male actors regarding femininity. Next, Maxim Overton enters as another Linden for excerpts from her interviews with Jim Warren (presented by Bonnie Morrison). In the interview, Jim noted that, early on in the ASC’s history, some female actors had been unhappy playing even large male roles. The discussion also includes physical signifiers of femininity (such as hands-on-hips) and costuming; Jim noted that he tries to eliminate aspects that make the audience think about the actors as women. Maxim-Linden adds that, in more recent years, more female actors have been willing to audition for male roles. When it comes to performing gender, “masculinity becomes creation by negation,” while femininity is prosthetic. The scene shifts to Amanda Allen as Linden and Glenn Schudel as Kate Norris, in a phone interview focusing on Kate’s performance as Richard III and on her current Hamlet project. Kate noted that she “didn’t try to suppress anything… I don’t take away anything that I am,” rather focusing on adding traits pertinent to the character. She also spoke to a “sense of entitlement” in male characters and to the need to figure out how to “take up more space… spread my legs wide” because that was a more masculine assumption. Speaking to the response from audiences, Kate stated that she felt like it made them feel like they could do anything, like it called attention to the taboo about men playing women. Amanda-Linden went on to discuss the ASC practices of reducing feminine features through breast bindings, whereas men add false breasts and padding, relating it to Kate’s idea about women feeling the need to take up less space whereas men feel entitled to take up more space. Next, Bonnie Morrison as Linden re-creates an interview with Vanessa Morosco (Maxim), wherein Vanessa talks about the difference between watching female characters react to others and seeing Helena in All’s Well tell the audience about herself. Female characters tend to have fewer lines and few or no soliloquies, depriving them of opportunities to connect with the audience as strongly as the main male characters do. Linden also asked Vanessa what role in Shakespeare she would most like to play, leading to Vanessa stating that she would “like to live in some of the larger male roles for a while.” Linden herself retakes the stage, joined by all of her doubles, to sum up: the theatre needs to acknowledge the extant gender hierarchies and the implications of casting, and then to use theatre to challenge rather than reinforce gender constructs. She concludes that the ASC should push further, moving female actors past purely functional male roles and male actors past purely comic female roles. During the Q&A, Linden explicates that she asked Glenn to send-up femininity, Maxim and Amanda to try and play her specifically, and Bonnie to try and portray a typical female scholar, as a way of exploring the different options for portraying a female character on the stage.

Who Done It? A Case for Collaborative Authorship in Arden of Faversham, by Daniel F. Trombley (MLitt candidate)

Dan posits a two-author theory for Arden of Faversham, based on the notable disjuncture in the text. He notes that he will present scenes from the beginning, middle, and end of the play which best explicate the duality (with Melissa Tolner, Jonathan Haas, Liz Lodato, and Stephanie Tschetter acting). The first scene presents the plotting of a murder and concurrent promise of a marriage in somewhat comic strokes, along with fairly heavy-handed, though fast-paced, exposition. The language in the second scene changes considerably, with previously dull characters breaking out into surprising poignancy and demonstrating a deftness with literary allusions that they do not possess elsewhere. Further scenes continue to underscore the volatile nature of the text and the inconsistency in characters’ speech. Dan notes that there may be other elements at play as well, such as the impermeability of the text in early modern print culture, confusing the issue of transmission from original manuscript to what we have extant today. Dan then leads us through a history of the theories surrounding the authorship controversy of Arden of Faversham and the complications of attribution studies. During the Q&A, Dan introduces the idea of the “apocrypha texts,” whereby scholars have subjected various plays to a series of textual tests; a play which fails three is considered not-Shakespearean, but as many as nine failures may still be considered to have a Shakespearean hand in it.

And now we’re off for a dinner break (which I think ought more properly, at this hour, to be termed a tea break) — back at 5:30 for the final three presenters.

(Read more from Session 1 and Session 3).