Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 20 May 2011

This week’s Imprimis features several articles on non-traditional approaches to getting students to enjoy Shakespeare, as well as some thoughts on the enduring place of Shakespeare in modern culture.

  • This blog post examines different versions of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, and F1) through Wordles.
  • A new play uses Shakespeare to talk about issues of teen bullying. In “Cruel to Be Kind,” rehearsals of As You Like It are disrupted by harassment, and it’s up to Shakespeare to set things straight.
  • The BBC is running a new recitation and performance competition for secondary schools: “Off By Heart Shakespeare,” through which they hope to show that “the best way to get to know and love Shakespeare is by performing his words.”
  • “How do you get kids into Shakespeare? Get to them before they know it’s supposed to be tough” — a lovely article on teaching Shakespeare through performance. Cass says: This is exactly my philosophy, and it’s why we’re so enthusiastic at the ASC about our summer programs for teenagers and pre-teens.
  • Then, check out 7 Quirky Ways Students Learn Shakespeare for some more exciting, performance-based approaches that teachers and students are exploring around the country.
  • An article from The Huffington Post about the new Shakespeare High documentary also suggests that bare-bones Shakespeare, without elaborate costumes, sets, or lighting designs (rather like how the ASC performs…), could be the answer to keeping theatre and the arts alive in our current era of budget-slashing (when the arts are too often the first thing on the chopping block).
  • This blog post relates current technology-induced changes in the English language to the revolution of vocabulary during the early modern period. Cass says: Interesting premise, but I’m not quite sure that netspeak is as ultimately beneficial as Shakespeare’s creative inventions.
  • Finally, the Staunton Newsleader has given Shakespeare his own page. This aggregate collects Shakespeare-related news within Staunton, from the ASC, and from around the world.

The gift of the Magi(c)

I distinctly remember the first time I read O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi as an adolescent. The bittersweet irony contained in the tale of two lovers sacrificing treasured possessions in order to purchase one another Christmas presents colored my view of relationships and of gift-giving ever since. As a girl, I loved receiving tangible gifts, but opening the packages, like in the O’Henry story, never lived up to the imagined expectation … until this past week.

The story begins last fall, when two women from UVA’s Health Science Center contacted me with an idea. Kate and Laurie work for the university in positions as American Sign Language interpreters for a Deaf UVA professor, his students, and others as the community has a need. They wanted to offer the professor a chance to take advantage of his proximity to the American Shakespeare Center, and, since they would already be doing the hours and hours of preparation demanded to execute a translation for him, they offered their time to interpret for the students of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, located in Staunton, as well. This gift of talent and time taught me a tremendous amount as I conferred with them and others about approaches to bringing Shakespeare to Deaf and blind audience members.

Within a short time of their contacting me, I was able to find grant funding through the National Endowment for the Arts Shakespeare in American Communities Grant that the ASC won for 2010-11, which not only allowed me to offer the students the opportunity to attend Macbeth for free but also provided enough support for ASC actors and Education artists to go to the school to prepare the students to see the play.

At ASC Education, we firmly believe that students need little help to understand Shakespeare. We, and the teachers who bring students to our shows, have found that if people have the opportunity to see good productions of early modern plays, they find the plays not only easy but also entertaining. We think that almost two century’s practice of removing Shakespeare from the context of the Playhouse for which he wrote his plays and placing his words in literature books and classrooms has created an atmosphere in which students think the plays have little to offer them and fear Shakespeare. We think that these symptoms are the result of a curriculum more concerned with his amazing (and it does amaze) poetry than with the fact that he was writing plays as entertainment, and, if we could, ASC Education would love to wake up a world in which every teacher teaches Shakespeare as a playwright, and–perhaps more importantly–gives every schoolchild the opportunity to experience his plays produced well by good actors and artists in playhouses like ours. But the students at VSDB challenged these firmly held beliefs and that challenge turns out to be a lovely gift.

Ralph has taught Cass and me to lead workshops and lectures that are all about seeing the stage and hearing what the text can offer actors and audience alike. We work with our colleagues in teacher seminars, at No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, and at conferences to help their students see the stage when they read the page. We emphasize, with word-for-word paraphrase exercises and rhetorical study, how wonderfully the sounds of the words make audience members think on multiple levels, and how the actor interacting with both his fellow cast mates and with audience members sharing the same light creates a multifaceted prism experience in a theatre. Did you notice how many sensory words I used in that description? As we prepared for the work ahead of us, each contributing member became more and more aware of how many words we use by course that do not fit with the experience our students would be having.

An O’Henry gift I had already received from our ASC intern David Techman made the trepidation around word choice much less prevalent. David is legally blind and, when he and the ASC on Tour actors — Kelley McKinnon, Johnathon Holzman, and Chad Bradford — were preparing a tour workshop, we all learned from David for the first time that there was a “language barrier.” Having never seen–or, rather, experienced– a play the way David does, I didn’t know the best way to phrase questions to get at his experience and to consider the best approach for the workshop. We muddled through and eventually discovered a workable language that relied on discussions of when stage action works–in short, it must be big enough to be clear, but specific enough to be believable. Interestingly enough, we discovered in our conversations that textually based information is often more effective than a director’s invention. For instance, David attended a Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe in which Lavinia was raped with a dagger at the end, rather than just stabbed. This choice has no textual basis and it did not read at all to David, he found out the gist of the action only after the play’s end when his colleagues discussed it and he had an “a-ha” (though not an “uh-huh”) moment. Learning how to talk about “good fights” or good “moments” for David, helped us to figure out how to approach the workshop. When we finally met with the students, their enthusiasm and joy immediately pushed away any lingering doubt as they swash-buckled and died with gusto. Watching them enjoy the play a few days later was all the more vibrant for having seen them experience for themselves what the moments onstage felt like for the actors.

The day after sword-fighting with the visually-impaired, Cass and I returned to the school with our adviser and interpreter, Mike Ernst. Mike came to our rescue when we hosted our 2009 conference at the Blackfriars, and one of our scholars was Deaf. He bravely stepped in to interpret hours and hours of papers and shows — I never realized just how brave and kind he had been until the tables were turned at VSDB. American Sign Language is its own language, and, as such, our regular approaches to dwelling in Shakespeare’s words for workshops were not going to fly at VSDB. For one thing, as Mike, Kate, and Laurie patiently explained to Ralph and me, the play that the students and our other Deaf audience members would see was a translation. The action was all there, but the words and their arrangement were going to be different.

I, foolishly, had thought: “Well, the kids are reading the play, also we can still approach it in the same way we always would–use the text to stage a scene.” I thought we’d have a lot of fun with the banquet scene — the murderer, the ghost, the seeing and not-seeing. I thought we’d look at the text to find all of this out. When I arrived, I quickly found that the kids couldn’t look at the text and “listen” to me at the same time, so we adjusted. Rather than play the entire scene, we went for just the first 20 lines. 20 lines in a scene of Shakespeare is about one minute of playing time — and this is an exercise that we use often in our graduate program, as a great way to consider the infinite choices theatre offers.

And, boy, did we get some wonderful choices, but, boy, did we over plan for the time we had. The students eagerly jumped in as one of the VSDB interpreters, Rene, gamely balanced the room by placing himself opposite Mike so that a student in any position could visually link up with an interpreter, and so that we could work in “thrust.” Some of the choices they made were completely instructive — our Lady M in the second workshop busily gave instructions to the attendant so Macbeth would have impetus to speak “our hostess keeps her state.” Continuously, the kids came up with amazing solutions, though, sometimes, a little too amazing. In one instance of playwrighting, for example, that occurred in our first class –“ We can just have the murderer say….” Cass and I had to draw the line, citing meter, and authority of the text, but loving the heart behind it. That first group did add some action that, while not in the text, could have worked — the blood-thirsty murderer in that group, not satisfied with killing just Banquo and the other two villians in the previous scenes, upon his first entrance, also slashed the throat of the nearest servant and replaced him at the door. Surprising, dramatic, creative.

Then, they came to see it. They talked afterward about the choices the actors made versus the ones they figured out. They spoke with authority and passion about, yes, Shakespeare and the magic of Theatre. They inspired us with their passion and creativity and made us eager for the next opportunity to explore theatre with them. You can hear our actor’s responses to playing for them in our Macbeth podcast, you can chat with me anytime about my hopes to keep this relationship going–and the funding that will require. Meanwhile, I will relish remembering what a wonderful array of gifts we received. The generosity of Kate, Laurie, Mike, Kelley, Chad, Johnathon, Rene , and those wonderful students, all made our mission achievable for a new audience.

The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education.


“In the Force of his Will” : Shakespeare and Star Wars

Today is Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you all), and, in honor, I would like to take a look at some of the Shakespearean inspiration that George Lucas used when creating the Space Western we all know and love. The ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season dramaturgy intern for Henry VI, part 3, Paul Rycik, has already explored the parallels between Episodes 1-3 of the Star Wars saga and the Henry VI trilogy, but this only scratches the surface of the potential Shakespeare/Star Wars connections. Lucas’s memorable characters, epic plot, and quotable scripts share traits with many of Shakespeare’s plays, and knowledge of their synchronicity only adds enjoyment to the experience of either.

So basically — and just go with me here — the Star Wars Saga (if retold using Shakespeare characters) goes a little something like this:

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – For Anakin Skywalker’s side of things, the story plays out like the last half of The Winter’s Tale. Camillo (Qui-Gon Jinn), Polixenes (Obi-Wan Kenobi), and Florizel (Padme Amidala) find Perdita (Anakin Skywalker) in Bohemia (Tatooine). Camillo realizes that there is something special about Perdita and takes her with him back to Sicilia (Coruscant). On the political side, the story follows Richard II with the overthrow of Richard II (the Galactic Federation’s Supreme Chancellor) by Henry Bolingbroke (Senator Palpatine), who becomes King Henry IV (Supreme Chancellor).

Episode 2: Attack of the Clones – Anakin’s older now, so for Episode 2, he’s mostly Hamlet with a little Romeo at the end. Hamlet (Anakin) is awkwardly in love with Ophelia (Padme) but has some personal, mother-related issues to work out first. So, he goes home to Denmark (Tatooine), where his mother dies. In a fit of anger, he kills quite a few people over it (but not himself, and there’s no Osric, which is really a shame). At the end of the film, Anakin (now Romeo) and Padme (now Juliet) are married in secret on Naboo (in fair Verona), but instead of Friar Lawrence, they have C-3PO and R2-D2 as witnesses. Politically, this episode is when things start getting Henry VI-ish. Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) convinces the Earl of Warwick (Darth Sidious) to work for him instead of against him. Further, Jack Cade (Count Dooku) leads a Separatist faction that gives Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) the excuse he needs to put together a powerful army.

Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith – Here is where Anakin Skywalker joins the Henry VI plotline, but he has a little Macbeth in him, too. Like Macbeth, Anakin has let supernatural consideration (witches’ prophecy for Macbeth, the Force for Anakin) color his thinking, but within the politics of the story, he enters Episode 3 as Richard Plantagenet, with the decapitated head of Somerset (Count Dooku) in hand. Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) has taken over for Obi-Wan Kenobi as his father figure, and Anakin is quickly on his way to a white rose (or a black helmet). Richard Plantagenet (Anakin) revenges Clifford’s (Mace Windu) attack on Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) and, by submitting fully to the Dark Side becomes a Darth Vader who “can smile, and murder while I smile.”

Episode 4: A New HopeAgain, the story starts like The Winter’s Tale and Tatooine is still Bohemia (at least Tatooine has the climate and topographical features it’s reputed to, which is more than can be said for Bohemia). This time, though, a different Camillo (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Polixenes (C-3PO), and Florizel (R2-D2) find a different Perdita (Luke Skywalker) and realize that she has got something special about her. At this point, Luke Skywalker transforms into a sort of Prince Hal, unprepared for his filial future. So, they go to The Boar’s Head (Mos Eisley) and meet Pistol (Han Solo) and Nym (Chewbacca). Luke, like Hal, is intimately related to, but outside of the rebellions against the government that his father runs. We will not discuss the Luke/Leia business, however, because that all gets a little too much like John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back – In both Henry IV and in The Empire Strikes Back, rebellions rage. However, the most important parallel I want to draw is between Yoda and Owen Glendower – both are vital to the rebellions of which they are a part, both are thought of as magical (or Force-ful), and both speak with funny accents. I think I’ve made my point. That said, Prince Hal (Luke Skywalker) must come to terms with the future in store for him and make the choice about what sort of power he will choose to yield, thus approaching the turning point in his story. Meanwhile, Beatrice (Princess Leia) and Benedick (Han Solo) enact their merry war of words – Leia’s “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee” versus Beatrice’s “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow” and Han’s “Your worshipfulness” versus Benedick’s “Dear Lady Disdain.” Just as Benedick agrees to fight Claudio for Beatrice, Han joins the Rebellion, not out of strong political beliefs, but because he wants to satisfy the woman he loves.

Episode 6: Return of the Jedi – Little known fact, there are no Ewoks in Shakespeare. However, here is where Hal, now Henry V (still Luke Skywalker) becomes a strong leader. The final battles are fought and England (the galaxy) finds peace. Also, Leia does as Rosalind, Imogen, and Viola do and disguises herself as a man in order to take care of herself and the people she loves.

As a culture, we love an epic, the rise of the weak against the strong, the fruition of forbidden love, and the fall of the over-ambitious; both Shakespeare’s canon and the Star Wars Saga provide these oh-so-satisfying tropes in spades. The influence of Shakespeare (along with samurai history, Frank Herbert’s Dune, mid-twentieth century spaghetti westerns, and so much more) pervades the very fabric of the Stars Wars Universe. In my imagination, Shakespeare reached out his gloved hand (he was a glovemaker’s son, after all) to George in a dream and spoke these fateful words, “Lucas, I am your father.”

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Book Review: The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

The Great Night is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008. A group of humans stumble into a disaster implemented by the Faery Queen, Titania, who is in the throes of deep sorrow. Following the death of their latest changeling child, Titania and Oberon had one of their marital spats — but this time, Oberon doesn’t seem to be coming back. Desperate to get the King to show himself and so absorbed with her grief that she loses all sensibility, Titania lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreak havoc in the park. (The greater world is protected by walls of air — nothing, mundane or fantastical, gets in our out of the park while those walls, presumably conjured by Oberon, are up). The mortals trapped within are: Molly, recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend; Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago; Henry, who can’t remember any of his life before the age of thirteen, and whose obsessive-compulsive habits drove away his boyfriend; and a group of homeless people rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green, led by Huff, who believes the Mayor of San Francisco is feeding the indigent population to each other in the soup kitchens. These mortals get wound up in the actions of the faeries, who are either giving over to sensual indulgence in what they presume to be their last hours, or who are seeking ways to put the Beast back under control.

There are things about this book which are really great. It’s definitely at its best when the faeries are the main focus. Titania and Oberon are sweeping, dramatic figures, and Adrian describes the lesser faeries in a way that balances nicely between whimsical and grotesque. The flashback section where Titania and Oberon have to watch their changeling child die is the strongest portion of the book. Because their magic cannot work on anything they care for, they have to turn to human medicine to try and save the Boy. They’re also struggling to deal with the emotional consequences of actually caring for a mortal child, as their self-absorption usually prevents such deep attachments to their changelings. Adrian does a great job showing how mortals perceive the faeries when they enter the mundane world, how the little magics affect them. He also — through his own background as a pediatrician — is able to evoke the tormented feelings of parents watching a child die with great sympathy and precision. The emotionality of this section is strong and compelling, and it paints a very clear picture.

As for the humans, their stories generally start off well enough — Molly, Will, and Henry, at least, inhabit complex emotional and psychological worlds. Huff and his tribe I could have done without. They seemed extraneous, none of them besides Huff developed any real personality, and I can’t figure out the purpose of the Soylent Green trope. Not having enough of a familiarity with that source material, I don’t know if there’s some larger theme at work there, or if the fixation is just a way to demonstrate the extent of Huff’s delusions. Regardless, it seems like that subplot only exists as a tacked-on way to have an analog for the Mechanicals, so that Titania has a fool to dote on when the Beast places her under an enchantment. But the lover-analogs are fascinating, if not wholly likeable. They all enter the story in liminal states, hedging between decisions, scared to take decisive action in controlling their lives, hesitant and varying degrees of pathetic. In this way, they’re precisely the opposite of Shakespeare’s lovers, who take to the woods for very specific reasons, but their ambiguity serves the opening of the story, because it makes them vulnerable to ethereal interference.

The second half of the book degrades into confused chaos, though. As the humans fall deeper under the faeries’ spell, the narrative quickly becomes jumbled and hazy. Molly and Will, whose stories had been compelling, get lost entirely in the enchanted shuffle. Henry’s experience is only somewhat clearer. The reader does learn some more pieces of the backstory, some threads that tie these seemingly unrelated people together, but there’s no real sense of a greater point to it, no driving force behind what’s happening, and no ultimate goal for them to work towards.

And perhaps that’s all to the author’s purpose. Perhaps that chaos is precisely what Adrian is aiming for, to portray the senselessness of the whirlwind the Beast creates. Which is why I say, if that’s the case, then it’s extremely well-done. But even well-done, it interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. I like a good, solid story, some sense of cohesion, which The Great Night lacks. As the mortals falls deeper into the madness of the night, their experiences become clogged with symbolism. Adrian takes it a step too far, I think, laying the metaphors on a bit too thick, and the story loses both coherence and emotional engagement as a result.

The ending of the book is a problem. Abrupt and anticlimactic, it circumvents any kind of resolution for the characters. The mortals’ stories, set up so well at the beginning, reach no conclusion. They don’t even move along — we don’t see any indication that they’ve been changed by their time in the woods, that they’ll go back to real life different than before, because we don’t see them at the end. There’s no sense of alteration or growth. No one has a dramatic arc except Titania, perhaps, and even her story ends ambiguously, with no denouement. Adrian throws the reader into a maelstrom and then never calms the seas. Again, this confusion might be intentional, but it’s unsatisfying.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book. I always enjoy seeing how other writers interpret Shakespearean themes, and sections of The Great Night are quite strong and worth reading. The story as a whole, however, just doesn’t hang together. The disparate threads never reconnect, too many characters never reach resolution, and too much seems extraneous. The Great Night is an interesting experiment, but the book would have profited from more tightening and precision.