Imprimis: Links and Tidbits – 24 June 2011

Just a few links for you this week, with a focus on the idea of what Shakespeare continues to mean and what appeal his plays continue to have in modern society.

  • A blog post asks “Do we stage too much Shakespeare?” Or, rather, are theatres staging the same few plays too many times? Cass says: Not a problem at the Blackfriars Playhouse, given how many near-unknown (outside of academic circles, at least) plays we revive each year. Who’s ready for Tamburlaine the Great this fall?
  • From London, we have some more information on Shakespeare’s prominent place in the Cultural Olympiad of 2012. Celebrations will include televised versions of the plays, a series of plays staged by foreign companies at the Globe, and a two-part documentary by Simon Schama. With some wondering why Shakespeare takes so much precedence as England’s cultural ambassador (over others like Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, or the Bronte sisters), Schama says first that Shakespeare has a more universal, less-Angleophilic appeal than many post-Industrial authors, and that unlike Middle English authors like Chaucer, “The amazing thing about Shakespeare is that if you actually deliver Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, to teenagers they actually do get the language.”
  • Our Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen gave a radio interview yesterday with WOSU in Columbus, Ohio on the enduring appeal of Shakespeare in modern life. Dr. Cohen discusses the interplay between actor and audience that Shakespeare and other early modern authors offer — the interaction which makes theatre a fundamentally different form of art than movies.
  • Our college prep theatre camp started up this week — If you want to follow along with their activities, check out the ASCTC Blog, and come out to see their final performances on July 10th.

Scansion Discoveries

I have begun work in earnest on the ASC Study Guides for the 2011-2012 artistic year. One of my first projects has been formulating our “Basics” section, the building-block skills of exploring Shakespeare: scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, using the stage, and using the audience.

As part of this process, and in conjunction with ASC Education’s intention to develop Unit Plans for teachers to follow, I’m preparing the first 100 lines out of each play as an example of the Basics for the teachers. I just completed the scansion for all six of the plays I’m building Study Guides for this summer — Hamlet, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, and Much Ado about Nothing, from our upcoming artistic year, plus Julius Caesar as a bonus. Doing these small blocks of text has reminded me why scansion is so important. It illuminates so many subtleties that could easily pass a reader or an actor by otherwise, and many of those distinctions give actors choices and opportunities to work with.

The first scene of Julius Caesar volleys between verse and prose, as Flavius and Murellus chastise the plebeians who have decked out for Caesar’s triumph. The interesting bits of scansion here are subtle, but crucial. Some telling pronouns fall into stressed positions — Murellus and Flavius stress “you” and “thou” more than is typical, indicating their accusatory tone. These instances could also give an actor the opportunity to single out an audience member: “Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft / Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements.” The first 100 lines bleed over into 1.2, and the oddity I noticed there is something that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not, but either way, it amused me: Caesar uses an awful lot of caesuras (mid-line breaks). This doesn’t seem to be any key character indication, and I haven’t scanned enough of the play to know if the trend continues past the first few lines of 1.2, but, if this was intentional on Shakespeare’s part, I think it’s a pretty cute joke.

The most interesting thing about the first 100 lines of Hamlet, at least from a metrical perspective, are the number of shared and short lines. In many places, characters — particularly Barnardo and Marcellus — share lines, especially when discussing the Ghost or questioning Horatio. In some instances, the split occurs mid-foot, which indicates that the second speaker’s line really has to follow rapidly upon the first’s. In other places, the shared lines, put together, form an alexandrine — a 12-syllable line — which could indicate some overlap in speech. These lines have to come quickly, and that, in turn, creates the sense of panic, right on the edge of hysteria, that the watchmen experience when the Ghost appears. In contrast, in other parts of the scene, some lines fall short, indicating the potential for a pause. These irregularities seem to work with the darkness of the scene, allowing space for the watchmen to confirm identities when someone new enters. The other significant short lines fall around the Ghost’s entrance and exit, which makes me wonder if those breaks leave room for the trap opening, or for some special effect.

Henry V opens not with a scene, but with a prologue. The speech is a little trochee-heavy, but other than that, there’s not much irregular about it. The scansion does bring out some sly little delivery indications, however. Consider the following lines:

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?

The stressed “this” interests me because it places such immediacy on the physical space in which the actor delivers these lines — all the more intriguing when you consider that Henry V was probably the first play performed at the Globe. In the new building, reconstructed from the stolen framework of the Theatre, Shakespeare puts the stage itself foremost in his audience’s mind during this prologue. I also like the stressed “can,” which puts such strong emphasis on that question. An actor could do a lot with that little stressed “can” — it could be a real concern, with the actor looking to the audience for support, or it could be cheeky, a tease. The prologue is full of these little gems, and they’re particularly great when performing Henry V in an early modern space. The words call attention to the inherent qualities of the space and the staging conditions, giving the prologue a layer of meaning which loses force in a production that relies on elaborate sets and lighting designs. I don’t have as much to say about the 1.1 portion of the first 100 lines, except that Canterbury’s lines require some really odd elisions in order to scan something resembling normally. I would be interested to see if this remains true in his infamous “Salic law” speech in 1.2.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first thing I noticed is that while Egeus retains regular meter while he’s talking to or about Demetrius, his scansion suddenly goes wild whenever he has to talk to or about Lysander. Hermia, meanwhile, is the only character who remains perfectly regular throughout the scene (or, at least, throughout the first 100 lines). Her father is threatening her with death, the ruling Duke is telling her her only other option is a nunnery, her boyfriend is about three seconds away from engaging in fisticuffs with her father’s favored suitor, and yet Hermia remains completely composed. Those are both great clues for actors. Something about Lysander, clearly, just rubs Egeus the wrong way, to the point that he can no longer control his speech patterns. As for Hermia, it gives the actress a great choice to make — Is she just so sure of herself that she can remain entirely unflustered, or is she so scared that she’s gone numb, and can only allow herself to express emotion once her father, Demetrius, and Theseus have left the stage?

The scene as a whole also has a higher than usual percentage of stressed pronouns, in a way that focuses a lot of attention on possession, particularly of Hermia, but also of love, desire, and rights. Egeus can’t stress enough times that Hermia is his property: “As she | is mine, I may dispose of her” … “And what is mine my love shall render him. / And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.” Lysander and Demetrius throw some stressed “him”s and “his”es around as they jockey for the Duke’s favor, while Hermia stresses her right to full knowledge of her circumstances, and ultimately, her right to make her own decision, whatever the consequences: “But I beseech your grace that I may know / The worst that may befall me in this case, / If I refuse to wed Demetrius.” The high number of stressed pronouns in the scene subtly underscores the interpersonal conflicts driving the plot.

In the opening of Richard III, the only thing that seems regular is the irregularity. Richard’s verse halts and limps as much as he does — or is it just that he disdains the proper way of speaking as much as everything else? His most frequent variants seem to be feminine endings, alexandrines (6-foot lines), and oddly-placed trochees — as though, while telling us that he is “deformed, unfinished… scarce half made up,” he compensates by cramming his lines full of extra syllables. Many lines have more than one irregularity, as in “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes,” which piles a spondee, a mid-line trochee, and a caesura together. There are also many lines with ambiguities, that could easily scan more than one way. Bardweb’s analysis and mine, for example, disagree on several points, largely because I try to stick to the iambs wherever possible, and they’re a bit free with the pyrrhics. Even with conservative application, however, there are still far more pyrrhic-spondee combinations and more mid-line trochees than seem usual. I’ve also never wished I believed in medial stresses as much as when working with this speech. The discrepancies, though, leave room for choice, depending on what an actor wants to emphasis in performance. The opening of this play is definitely one of those moments when there is no single right answer, just myriad possibilities.

As for Much Ado about Nothing — Well, its first 100 lines are in prose, like most of the play, so I didn’t have any scanning to do there. That doesn’t mean I won’t have plenty to get into with the other Basics, though, so Much Ado fans (like myself) have plenty to look forward to as my work continues.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 10 June 2011

Just a few links today: Shakespeare reaching across language boundaries, new research into old records, and a good laugh for the end of your week.

  • “Shakespeare as a Second Language” examines using Shakespeare to reach students in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Langauges) classrooms. The author of the article believes that Shakespeare shouldn’t be “saved for high school English class or reserved for only gifted students,” but that early experiences with his works can have great benefits.
  • Speaking of the benefit of Shakespeare to other languages, the “Learning English” website has a radio feature on Shakespeare’s treatment of law, justice, and human conflict.
  • Shakespeare in the Park not for you? How about Shakespeare in a Bar? As the website posits, “Where else can you sit next to Caesar after his death and share a pint as you both watch the rest of the story unfold?” Cass says: This sounds like such an entertaining way to spend an evening — Who’s up for starting this at Zynadoa or The Mockingbird?
  • On the more erudite end of things, research into Tudor England coronary reports has revealed a possible inspiration for Ophelia’s drowning. Cass says: Whether or not you buy into this possibility, the article is worth reading just for the Darwin-Award-worthy list of accidental deaths. Who knew that Christmas games and maypoles could be so dangerous?
  • Is theatre good for you — as in, potential-health-benefits good? Is it possible to overdose?
  • And finally, if you need a laugh, check out cracked.com’s 6 Most WTF Moments in Shakespeare (this article has an adult language warning) — and as a bonus, one of the pictures for King Lear is from an ASC production! So what do you think? Does the article feature your favorite moment of stage insanity? Or did they miss out on something spectacular? Cass says: If that author thinks Shakespeare has some crazy stuff going on, we need to introduce him to Middleton and Ford. (And, er, as always on the Internet, don’t read the comments if you value your sanity).

Preview: The Playhouse Insider – Summer 2011

Summer at the American Shakespeare Center is an exciting time, with two troupes in rehearsal, preparing three seasons’ worth of new shows. The Summer issue of The Playhouse Insider will offer readers an exclusive look at the making of the eight plays that comprise these seasons. The issue will be on sale in the Box Office or by mail order in a few weeks, but for now, I thought I would give our blog readers a special preview of what will be in the issue.

In this issue, our Artists section features two directors and two actors. First, Nick Hutchison shares his experiences directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the ASC back in 2004. Producing Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play presents different challenges in an early modern space like the Blackfriars Playhouse, and not all of them stem from Wilde’s expectation of lights and dropped curtains. The text also asks different things of actors and directors: “Where Shakespeare has unfathomable depths, Oscar is all surface, and rejoices in the fact. Start to try and analyse the text as you would in Shakespeare, and it doesn’t work, but when you luxuriate in its brittle elegance, its superficial brilliance, it comes alive, clearly and hilariously.” Hutchison confesses that he was initially skeptical of Earnest‘s playability on the Blackfriars stage, but that he ultimately found that “the play doesn’t just survive the transfer to the Blackfriars but rejoices in it.”

Our second director’s piece comes from our own Ralph Alan Cohen, who will be directing Henry V for the Fall season. Cohen explains his admiration for the play he describes as “an odd work.” He sees Henry V as Shakespeare’s first experiment with deconstruction and as his “great essay on the power of an audience.” After all, the Chorus explicitly instructs the audience on what they will have to do with their imaginations to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Cohen sees this play as Shakespeare saying to his viewers: “Here are some Lego pieces – a bunch of well-written speeches and a few great, stand-alone scenes. Make a play, Audience, have some fun.”

Rounding out the Artists’ section, touring troupe actors Rick Blunt and Denice Burbach share their experiences of life out on the road. They discuss issues both professional and personal, from the challenges and opportunities for discovery presented by having to adapt to new spaces to the sense of community they build in towns across the country, from the reality of living out of a single suitcase to the great adventure of traveling the United States. The Almost Blasphemy Tour takes off for the first leg of their run in September, returning to the Playhouse for the holiday season in December. Summing up their experiences on tour, both Rick and Denice express that the process is an ongoing one, a continual process of learning and of change. Rick says that he continually strives to discover “how to get better, how to be better,” while Denice states, “It’s unlike any job you will ever have in your life. I forget sometimes how unique a path we’ve chosen.” For ongoing details on where the tour is headed, friend us on Facebook or check out “ASC on Tour” on our website.

Since the ASC focuses so strongly on research and education, we ask leading minds in the field to share their thoughts on our upcoming plays in our Scholars section. Roslyn Knutson, Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Arkansas and President of the Marlowe Society. Knutson shares what makes Tamburlaine so fascinating for her, from the visually striking stage moments to the challenge of a modern actor who must “negotiate with [Edward] Alleyn’s ghost” in performing this larger-than-life role. Tamburlaine is Knutson’s hero, she says, because “his exceptionalism is not just the testosterone of Marlowe’s mighty line. It is also the charisma of the over-achiever.”

Our second scholar is our own Christina Sayer Grey, who examines the storytelling patterns in Shakespeare’s Romances, two of which the ASC will have in production this year (The Tempest, opening June 24th, and The Winter’s Tale in the Almost Blasphemy tour). As Grey explicates, the thread that links the Romances is “a shared concern with the stories of lapses in historicized time – the space between something being lost and its being found, the time between Before and After.” While The Tempest and Cymbeline dramatize only the gap itself, Pericles provides a triptych of Before, During, and After, and The Winter’s Tale shows a diptych of Before and After. Grey examines how these different structures bend the typical expectations of Comedy and Tragedy, creating the nebulous generic classification of the Romances.

Finally, our Audiences section in this issue focuses on our student audiences. Two teachers, Kerry Kisa of Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, VA, and Linda Nicholson of Highland Springs High School in Henrico, VA discuss how bringing students to see shows at the Blackfriars Playhouse and using the ASC methods of teaching through performance has enriched their learning experience. Kisa describes how her students last year explored the staging of Othello, arguing over the intricacies of bed placement and actor blocking. “As I stood watching my students quarrel over the scene, I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’ve got them.'” Nicholson talks about the “Blackfriars Fever” that has taken over her school, where students scramble to be the first to sign up for field trips to the Playhouse. “One young lady told me she went the first time as a means of missing classes, but after the show, she wanted to hide in the bathroom and live in the playhouse.” While we’re pretty sure the Playhouse staff would have some strong opinions about that, we love the enthusiasm! Both Kisa and Nicholson share their students’ opinions about an active exploration of Shakespeare in their own words, and it’s wonderful to see how much they’re enjoying what they once dismissed as boring or irrelevant. If you’re a teacher who would like to bring your students to the Blackfriars Playhouse, read up about our matinees or contact Group Sales Manager Ben Ratkowski.

Putting this issue together has me excited for what’s coming up at the Playhouse over the next few months, and I hope it will imbue all of you with the same eager anticipation. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the issue goes on sale — look for the announcement early in July.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits – 3 June 2011

This week: debates about the value of a degree, and some insights into acting.

  • There’s been quite a bit of hullabaloo in the news cycles recently about the value not just of a college education, but of the economic advantage given by one degree over another. Turns out that majors like engineering, math, and computer science earn 50% more than the humanities. (Cass says: Raise your hand if this comes as a major shock to you). The idea of “gainful employment” may soon be affecting how much college students pay for courses — or how much they’re allowed to receive in loans. (Choose a low-earning major? Like, say, English or education? Sorry; we’re cutting you off).
  • The humanities, however, aren’t taking this lying down. One clever article assumes Shakespeare’s voice for its rebuttal. Another op-ed states, “No matter how much they earn or don’t earn, no one can ever take from them their poetry, literature, music or art. Many, probably most, never lose their love of Shakespeare, Mozart, Cezanne or whatever the source of their youthful passions.” Cass says: And for my part, I’d rather have the job satisfaction I have right now than be making twice as much in a job that made me miserable.
  • And, for what it’s worth, President Obama’s new education plan includes strategies for teacher retention.
  • The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Santa Cruz reports exploding popularity for its adult-learning programs. The ASC encourages lifelong learning through programs at the Playhouse and by hosting excursions for the Road Scholars program.
  • British actress Eve Best, currently on stage at the Globe in Much Ado About Nothing, talks about performing Shakespeare, including this tidbit on cross-gender casting: “There’s something really interesting about crossing genders because you’re no longer caught in the sexual politics of your part… I think with some roles like Lady Macbeth and Isabella [in Measure for Measure] as an actress one is always trying to exonerate the character slightly. When you cross genders you don’t have to worry about that stuff – it’s unbelievably liberating.”
  • ABC News has a lovely piece on the art of acting, as voiced by 81-year-old actor Christopher Plummer, which includes thoughts on how his approach to acting Shakespeare has changed over time.