ASC Education in 2013

As we wrap up another great year at the American Shakespeare Center, we’re gearing up to offer even bigger and better programming in 2013 (and beyond). Here’s a sneak peek at what we’ll be bringing you over the next twelve months:

  • The No Kidding Shakespeare Camp: London Edition: This adventure is something we’ve been wanting to do for several years now. Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, drawing on his experience founding JMU’s Studies Abroad program and leading overseas trips for many years. This program will focus on Shakespeare’s London and the theatrical joys of the modern city. Highlights will include the Globe Theatre, the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Regent’s Park, walking tours of important neighborhoods, a day trip to Oxford, and visits to some of London’s finest pubs. Registration is now open, and we would love for you to join us next summer.
  • From Class to Cast: 2013 Summer Teacher Seminar: With NKSC heading overseas, we’re expanding our Summer Teacher Seminar to a three-day adventure in the mechanics of putting together a play in your classroom. From cutting, doubling, and casting to costume considerations to the language work that forms the basis of all of the ASC’s productions, we will walk teachers through some techniques to get Shakespeare’s plays up on their feet and into their students’ bodies.
  • The 7th Blackfriars Conference: Our biennial celebration of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and the early modern theatrical world will take place 23-27 October 2013. The gathering will honor George Walton Williams IV and will include keynote addresses from Russ McDonald, Ann Thompson, and Peter Holland, among others. Registration and Abstract Submission are now open.
  • Conferences: Members of ASC Education will make appearances at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference and at Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays at UC-Davis in January, at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in April.
  • Even more new and improved ASC Study Guides: In 2013, our Lulu offerings will expand to include Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor, with mini-guides on All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry IV, Part 1. I’ll also be updating As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet with some fresh new activities.
  • More Education Artists — meaning more programming for you: Sarah and I spent a week in December training and auditioning new Education Artists, and once they are settled in, they’ll be helping us out with workshops, Little Academes, Educational Residencies, Leadership Programming, and much more. Together, we will welcome colleges from all over the country to the Blackfriars Playhouse, including old friends from James Madison University, the Federal Executive Institute, Grove City College, the University of South Dakota, Indiana Wesleyan, and International Paper. Remember, we also take this show on the road with Leadership Programming in Germany and more residencies on the books in 2013.
  • A plethora of pre-show entertainment: Our Dr. Ralph Presents Lectures and Inside Plays Workshops will begin again in just a few weeks with insights into the plays of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. Join us select Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the year at 5:30pm to brush up your knowledge of old favorites or to get an introduction to unfamiliar works. Podcasts of these lectures and our Actor-Scholar Councils will also be available to further enhance your play-viewing pleasure.
  • Slightly Skewed Shakespeare: The 2013-2014 Staged Reading series will feature works that are familiar yet off-kilter, almost-but-not-quite the Shakespearean plays you love and recognize. Join us for the First Quarto of Romeo and Juliet, the forgery Vortigern and Rowena, Nahum Tate’s infamous adjustment of King Lear, and the anonymous history The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.
  • ASC Theatre Camp: This year’s campers will explore Pericles, As You Like It, Richard II, The Taming of the Shrew, John Fletcher’s The Wild Goose Chase, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Registration is now open.
  • Student Matinees: In 2013, we’ll be offering nine titles: Julius Caesar and Henry VIII in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, Twelfth Night and Love’s Labour’s Lost in the Spring Season, Romeo and Juliet, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida in the Fall Season, and A Christmas Carol in the Holiday Season, with a special preview of Spring 2014’s Othello.
A very happy New Year to you all — we look forward to seeing you at the Blackfriars Playhouse in 2013!

Cakes and Ale: Christmastide and Twelfth Night in Early Modern England

While modern culture in the West has extended the holiday season backwards to Thanksgiving (and, at least judging by many big box retailers, all the way to November 1st), our medieval and early modern ancestors instead pushed the celebration later, into January. The four weeks before Christmas, during which we now haul out the holly and deck the halls, were the season of Advent, distinct from Christmas and bearing a rather less celebratory feel. Advent was a time of preparation — specifically, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, while thinking about his first visit to the earth. Most of December, therefore, was liturgically a time for spiritual contemplation and solemnity. Fridays and Saturdays during Advent were times of fasting and abstinence, and some traditions extended this self-denial to the entire season. The Christmas season did not properly begin until Christmas Eve, and it culminated in Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night.

The Twelve Days of Christmas that we all know from the carol were originally all feast days belonging to specific saints, beginning with the Feast of St. Stephen (think of Good King Wenceslas going out to visit the poor) on December 26th. Other honorees during this time included St. John the Evangelist, St. Sylvester, an early pope, and, pertinent for enthusiasts of English history, St. Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom in 1170 (as ASC patrons who saw The Lion in Winter this past fall may remember) was considered such a horror that ecclesiastical authorities kept the commemoration of his death on the day it took place, rather than moving it outside of Christmastide, as would have been common practice. Other days commemorated Jesus’s circumcision and naming, which, while not as obviously celebratory, are interesting because they point toward the idea of Jesus as a living human, subject to the same customs as other Jewish males of his era. Prayer during Christmastide was joyful rather than somber, and the two weeks from Christmas Eve to Epiphany Eve were a time for rest from labor, for feasting, and for revelry. Gift exchange took place either on New Year’s Day or on Epiphany itself, mimicking the visitation of the myrrh-, frankincense-, and gold-bearing Magi.

Most of Twelfth Night’s traditions were food-and-drink-related, with fruits, cakes, and wassail particularly popular gastronomical focuses. January 5th was the day to eat and drink everything that had been prepared during the Christmastide season, as well as the last day to enjoy the festive decorations. The tradition of taking down Christmas decorations on Epiphany, January 6th, persisted into colonial America, and many still observe it to the modern day, considering it unlucky to leave decorations up any longer. Some of the traditions of Twelfth Night have, over the centuries, drifted into other holidays. Several early modern sources describe the baking of a Twelfth Night cake with a bean, a pea, or a penny inside of it. Whoever found the errant item in his slice would be proclaimed king for the day — a tradition with roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, but which has since become attached instead to Mardi Gras celebrations on the eve of Lent. In some countries, the season of Epiphany was also the season of Carnival, which may explain the tradition’s unmooring from Twelfth Night and getting stuck onto Mardi Gras instead. The extension of celebrations throughout the winter also makes logical sense for agricultural societies, where there was less work to do in the cold, barren months, and when people may have had greater need for good cheer.

Stephanie Holladay Earl as
Olivia in 
Twelfth Night.
Photo by Michael Bailey.

So what does any of this have to do with Shakespeare’s play? Certainly a production could choose to set Twelfth Night during Twelfth Night, but nothing in the play necessitates that association. No dialogue refers to the holiday or gives any indication of the season, and the secondary title, What You Will, seems more appropriate both for the content of the play and as a sly bawdy joke in the same style as the other “festive” comedies, Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It. The title might indicate that the Chamberlain’s Men originally performed the play on Twelfth Night, but the earliest recorded performance isn’t until Candlemas, February 1st, 1602. Was there an earlier performance that went unrecorded? Perhaps, and plays were certainly popular entertainment at court during Christmastide – but we don’t know for sure. There are a few thematic similarities between the events of the play and the traditions of the holiday, but you have to squint and tilt your head a little sideways to see them. Toby and Andrew’s cheerful inebriation would certainly fit with Christmastide celebrations, but it hardly seems a holiday-only indulgence for them. Viola’s cross-dressing and Malvolio’s determination to turn from steward to lord might be seen as reflecting the up-ending of social order that attended some Christmastide traditions such as the bean-finding or the Feast of Fools, but the connection is tenuous, particularly given those themes’ prevalence in other plays as well. The criticism of Malvolio’s revel-hating ways (“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”) may bear some relevance to the Protestant tendency to pull away from the festivals that they saw as tainted by Catholic idolatry, but that religious trend did not become pronounced for a few more decades, peaking under the Commonwealth’s outright banning of the Christmas holidays, and so it seems a more general indictment of Puritan hypocrisy. The threads of connection may be present, but they’re definitely frayed. If nothing else, though, the title of Twelfth Night has helped to keep the idea of the holiday more prominently in the public consciousness than it might otherwise be.

At the ASC, we carry the spirit of celebration with us year-round, with performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse 52 weeks a year — Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany all included. Our Holiday Season shows, A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, and The Twelve Dates of Christmas continue through December 28th, and on the last weekend of the year, you can catch our Tempt Me Further shows before they head back out on the spring leg of the tour: Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Duchess of Malfi, and, of course, Twelfth Night. Then join us January 4th as we open our 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season with Julius Caesar. Whatever and however you celebrate, we at the ASC hope that you have a lovely holiday season. Cheers!

Adventures in Dramaturgy: The Packet

I recently completed one of my Big Projects for the year, and it was one that was a little new and different for me — a dramaturgy packet for use in the Actors’ Renaissance Season production of Julius CaesarI was excited to tackle it, since Caesar is a pet favorite play of mine. I have a strong classical background in addition to my early modern training, which made dramaturging this show a natural fit for me. The interpersonal contortions of loyalty that surround the assassination of Julius Caesar make this period of classical history particularly fascinating. Revisiting my old Roman buddies was (as anyone who passed my desk while I was working on the project could attest) a giddy delight for me. 

The primary challenge with creating packet for the ARS is figuring out how much of which information to present. Everything needs to be streamlined for maximum efficiency and useful for the actors — playable information, not details that have no bearing on the production.
So, however interesting I may find the nuances of the Roman political system or maps of the city in the first century BCE, those are not things that are as likely to help the actors. On the other hand, a brief explanation of the cursus honorum, the sequence of term-limited political offices a Roman man would aspire to hold, can provide helpful information about status in the same way that the more familiar ranks of English nobility can, if I present it in the right way. I settled on an annotated diagram (right, original from vroma.org), depicting not only the levels of offices, but which characters hold which offices at the time of the play, and which offices they’ve held before. Hopefully this will help to translate the relative power dynamics into terms that the actors can use on stage. Relationships are also important; several actors have mentioned in conversation or in podcasts that knowing who was related to whom helped during the Henry VI plays, so I created a family tree for the important members of the Roman elite. As it turns out, nearly all the major figures in Julius Caesar are connected through blood or marriage as well as politically, causing Sarah to refer to the play as “really the world’s worst family reunion.”

There are also ways in which Julius Caesar gives me a little more leeway to provide historical information than some other plays might, because Shakespeare adheres more nearly to his sources (mostly Plutarch) here than he does almost anywhere else. Compared to his English histories, Julius Caesar is practically a documentary. For that reason, I’ve done a lot with those original sources, pointing out scenes and lines that seem to come straight out of Plutarch or Appian, but I’ve also included some of the corollary information that doesn’t make it directly into the play, but might still be helpful — like popular perceptions of Cassius’s character or the chaos of the assassination scene. Consider this description from Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:

As Caesar entered, the senate rose in his honour, but as soon as he was seated the conspirators surrounded him in a body, putting forward Tullius Cimber of their number with a plea in behalf of his brother, who was in exile. The others all joined in his plea, and clasping Caesar’s hands, kissed his breast and his head. At first, Caesar merely rejected their pleas, and then, when they would not desist, tried to free himself from them by force. At this, Tullius tore Caesar’s robe from his shoulders with both hands, and Casca, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one, near the shoulder. Caesar caught the handle of the dagger and cried out loudly in Latin: “Impious Casca, what doest thou?” Then Casca, addressing his brother in Greek, bade him come to his aid. And now Caesar had received many blows and was looking about and seeking to force his way through his assailants, when he saw Brutus setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he dropped the hand of Casca which he had seized, covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes. The conspirators, crowding eagerly about the body, and plying their many daggers, wounded one another, so that Brutus also got a wound in the hand as he sought to take part in the murder, and all were covered with blood.

Compare that to 3.1 of Julius Caesar:

CAESAR
Are we all ready? What is now amiss
That Caesar and his senate must redress?
METELLUS CIMBER
Most high, most mighty, and most puissant Caesar,
Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat
An humble heart,–
CAESAR
I must prevent thee, Cimber.
These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
And turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children. Be not fond,
Thy brother by decree is banished:
If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him,
I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.
Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.
METELLUS CIMBER
Is there no voice more worthy than my own
To sound more sweetly in great Caesar’s ear
For the repealing of my banish’d brother?
BRUTUS
I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery, Caesar;
Desiring thee that Publius Cimber may
Have an immediate freedom of repeal.
CAESAR
What, Brutus?
CASSIUS
Pardon, Caesar; Caesar, pardon:
As low as to thy foot doth Cassius fall,
To beg enfranchisement for Publius Cimber.
CAESAR
I could be well moved, if I were as you:
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this;
That I was constant Cimber should be banish’d,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
CINNA
O Caesar,–
CAESAR
Hence; wilt thou lift up Olympus?
DECIUS
Great Caesar,–
CAESAR
Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
CASCA
Speak, hands for me.
           They stab CAESAR.
CAESAR
Et Tu Brute? ———– Then fall, Caesar.

This comparison shows how close Shakespeare’s version of the scene is to the historical record, but also how much he leaves to the actors to choreograph. Would his original company have been familiar enough with Plutarch’s version of events (and Appian’s, and Suetonius’s, and Nicolaus of Damascus’s) to fill in the gaps? I don’t know. It’s as possible that they did as that they didn’t. Our actors may find some details helpful or inspirational but others irrelevant or impractical. My job is just to present the information so that they can make those choices — and I know I can’t wait to see how they handle this moment.

Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he still takes some liberties. Between 3.3 (Cinna the Poet) and 4.1 (the Second Triumvirate in action), he jumps several years and an entire war that occurred as Antony and Octavius struggled for control of Caesar’s legacy. Why does Shakespeare do this? I’m not sure. It certainly helps to focus the action more on Brutus and Cassius, augmenting the idea that this is really Brutus’s tragedy, not Caesar’s, and it blunts some of the political complexities of the situation. So how much do the actors need to know about what happens during that interlude? I’ve tried to summarize as succinctly as possible, including links to the (vast wealth of) information in Plutarch, should any of the key players involved in those dynamics be interested in exploring that further. Mostly what they need to know, however, is that Antony and Octavius are only tenuous allies, with plenty of bad blood already between them.

Another problem with any history play is how much background information to give on events that occur before the play begins. How much do the actors need to know about Caesar’s conquests or his war with Pompey? By the time the play opens, after all, Caesar has already subjugated Gaul and Pompey is already dead. Pompey never appears on stage, even as a corpse, but many characters do refer to him, from the first scene onward. Murellus berates the commoners for cheering the man who “comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” when previously they had cheered Pompey with equal fervor. The conspirators and Antony clearly tell us that Caesar dies in Pompey’s Theatre, at the feet of Pompey’s statue, even though no statue would exist on a bare stage like that of Shakespeare’s Globe or our Blackfriars Playhouse. These details, I think, mean that Pompey has some lingering, ghost-like relevance in the play — relevance that Shakespeare’s actors and audiences would likely have been more aware of, since the Roman greats were more common reading then than they are today. Similarly, some information on Caesar’s conquests may help to explain why he was such a big deal, why the conspirators hated him so much, and whose allegiances shifted away from Caesar over time. But, again, I don’t want to overload with details that really have no bearing on the events of the play — so summary again becomes important.

After determining what information I wanted to provide, I had to figure out how to present it in a way that maximized its usefulness for the troupe. After a few introductory sections, the bulk of the guide is a scene-by-scene breakdown of questions that the play raises. The lovely Miriam Burrows furnished me with the idea to create a secondary table of contents, listing information by character rather than by topic. I also listed the relevant characters at the top of each page in the scene breakdown, and the bibliography includes annotations for each character. I hope that this system of cross-referencing will help the actors get to the information they need quickly, without bogging them down in information that has no direct relevance for them.

Some dramaturgy packets, especially if they need to help design teams as well as actors, will include extensive image galleries with information about costumes, settings, character appearances, and previous productions of the play. These details have less relevance at the ASC, particularly in a Ren Season production. While I did include a short image gallery in the packet itself, I decided to place the bulk of visual information on a Pinterest board. This not only cuts down on the length and file size of the packet, it also allows me a little more freedom with what I include: original Roman frescos, sculptures, and mosaics; pictures of modern re-enactors; maps and landscapes; and a few screencaps from HBO’s Rome (because I just can’t help myself). Some of the actors may not be interested in this sort of visual inspiration, but it may help others, especially when they go to pull costumes. Even if they don’t go the traditional toga-route, the colors and fabrics may still help them when they start thinking about what clothes will best communicate their characters to the audience.

Rehearsals for Julius Caesar start on New Year’s Day, so my next Adventure in Dramaturgy will be sitting in the room while the actors work, ready to answer any questions that may come up on the fly. I’m already planning out ways to pre-load my dashboard with the major sources and pertinent links in order to maximize my usefulness to our troupe. Check back in January for my thoughts about sitting in on rehearsals, and be sure to come see Julius Caesar and the other shows in our always-exciting Actors’ Renaissance Season.