MLitt Thesis Festival 2014: Session 3

Sarah Blackwell: “Turning Sonnet: Performing Lyric Poetry”
Actors: Josh Brown, Molly Harper, Jamie Jager, Sara Vazquez
Blackwell opens with the sonnet she wrote for Ralph Cohen’s “Language of the Performance” class, performed by her four actors, structured so that the audience could “visually and aurally experience” the argument of the sonnet. Though she did not write the sonnet initially intending it for performance, her four actors “turned sonnet” and embodied the verse. Blackwell characterizes sonnets in performance as “reasons in rhyme,” and notes that the sonnets in Shakespeare’s plays challenge the traditional solitary nature of sonnets. Blackwell also points out how often sonnets within the plays do not reach their intended audiences, often going astray in the delivery, allowing Shakespeare to use them as “transformative devices.”

The most sonnet-heavy play is Love’s Labour’s Lost. Blackwell notes that, while Dumain’s ode is not structured like a sonnet, it still has syllabic similarity if re-lined. Blackwell and her actors then walk through the various transformations, as the King and Longaville “turn perjurer”. Blackwell posits that the performance of the sonnet is key to this transformation, as they cannot be perjured without an audience — which the King provides for Longaville, Berowne for the King. Blackwell also identifies Berowne as a character who can “burst into sonnet”, as in the moment when he interjects spontaneous poetry into the argument over whether or not to sign the King’s oath. The King, Longaville, and Dumain respond with their own tercet, which Berowne then volleys with a fourth rhyme, demonstrating that all men are consciously aware of their own poetical capabilities. Blackwell identifies the progression of rhymes as moving from reason towards ridiculousness.

Blackwell then questions what happens if the performed sonnet is a soliloquy, performed without an onstage audience. She uses Beatrice as an example of the sonnet becoming an argument with the self. Beatrice not only shifts from prose into verse, but into an incomplete sonnet. Her first set of rhymes set up questions, which the second two answer; in the next quatrain, the rhymes are weaker, offering an actor a variety of choices on how to perform the awkward rhyme and rhythm. Blackwell identifies this as a transformative moment for Beatrice, and posits that she may be her own, self-aware audience — as Benedick is in his later attempt at poem-making. Benedick comments on the “ominous endings” of his own bad rhymes. Blackwell suggests that this may inform their belief in the final scene that they do not have the “reason” to love each other. Claudio and Hero then provide the physical evidence of the sonnets. Blackwell concludes that the volta turn for a character happens in performance, and that the presence of an on- or off-stage audience is key for the transformation.

Q&A: Cyndi Kimmel raises the question of translation. A: Blackwell has not addressed that, as she’s only been looking at Shakespeare’s sonnets. She notes, however, that the transition words for the volta likely serve the same purpose in other languages.
Q: Danielle Guy questions if Blackwell also looked at Romeo and Juliet, who fall in love in rhyme. A: Blackwell nods emphatically, noting that they are each others’ audience. “They transition from strangers into kissing strangers.”
Q: Doreen Bechtol asks Blackwell about the term volta, particularly as it relates to a dancing term. A: Blackwell says she has not looked at the history of the word volta, but more on the many alternate definitions of the word “turn”.
Q: Paul Menzer asks about the tangibility of paper sonnets versus the sonnets which do not have paper attached to them, asking if Blackwell has been able to track qualities of sonneteering when paper is or is not present. A: Blackwell notes that reading of a sonnet occurs less often, more that “he writes characters who burst into sonnet”. She admits that it can be difficult to pick out a sonnet just by listening to it, especially when it’s broken up, as with Berowne’s during the oath scene.
Q: Matt Davies follows up by asking how it might relate to cue script, wondering when actors using cue scripts pick up on the sonnet. A: Blackwell speaks to the variant styles of printing the sonnets in the Folio, admitting the difficulty of representing the sonnets on paper for either a reader’s or an actor’s benefit.

Scott Campbell: “Selling Imagined Dearth on the New Early Modern Stage”
Actors: Josh Brown, Adrienne Johnson, Charlene Smith
Campbell seeks to look at the intersection of scholarship and performance in under-rehearsed Shakespeare performances, which he qualifies as non-perjorative, but as “companies that are intentionally limiting the amount of rehearsal they are doing”. Campbell discusses the increased attention in the 20th and 21st centuries of production companies on early modern rehearsal practices with such practices as direct audience address, universal lighting, and reduced rehearsal time. Campbell seeks to interrogate the research behind the practice of rehearsal time in particular, because of its reductive nature.

Campbell argues that the marketing of under-rehearsed shows is a re-shaping rather than a re-creation, which he posits as a discrepancy between the research and its application. He examines five Mid-Atlantic companies which use reduced rehearsal practices. He suggests that the marketing for these companies attempt to sell dearth as authentic and/or as a novelty, framing it as “a withdrawal of modern conveniences”. Campbell believes that, while compelling, these marketing approaches “only tell one side of the story… one which does not accurately reflect the early modern stage.” He compares this to KFC’s 2007 re-branding as “trans-fat free” — selling absence rather than presence, the “novel merit of what it does not possess, rather than what it does”. Campbell then refers to Taffety Punk’s method of marketing a one-day rehearsal period as capable of challenging modern notions of theatre, as well as Richmond Shakespeare’s idea of “anything can happen”. This, Campbell notes, is the theatrical equivalent of baiting rubbernecking, which he relates to the early series of MTV’s The Real World. He identifies that marketing shows this way is somewhat misleading, as a production can be unpredictable no matter how well-rehearsed it is or how much it costs (referring to the ill-fated Spiderman musical’s travails).

Campbell then notes that the original early modern companies could not sell their dearth in the same way, because it was not a deviation from the norm, but the norm itself. “Early modern theatre succeeded in spite of dearth, rather than because of it.” He suggests that the research actually exhibits a “resource-rich environment”, rather than one founded on absence, and identifies several of those resources: lasting communities, actor familiarity, and common vocabulary. His thesis suggests “a fixable disconnect” between the research and the marketing practices of the companies, and that re-creating these conditions will let 21st-century companies “produce powerful theatre that more accurately reflects” theatre of the early modern period.

Q&A: Cass Morris mentions that ASC Education has long used the term “technology” when referring to cue scripts, to frame the practices as positive and constructive, rather than reductive. A: Campbell says, yes, he thinks that language could be productive, and that he has noticed a shift in the ASC’s marketing terminology towards that sort of language since about 2011.
Q: Who ever said that marketing had to be truthful? A: Campbell admits that, yes, it is still selling something and can be generative, as this is a new product, rather than framing it in terms of re-creating. He hopes to address the disconnect between what companies of this sort sell and what they actually provide.
Q: Matt Davies addresses the idea that “Shakespeare done by the experts is bad for you… and that ‘Shakespeare-lite’ is ‘fun'”, and he wonders if Campbell has picked up on that sense. A: Campbell is aware of the idea though has not encountered much of it in his research for this project, as he has largely looked at just a few specific theatres in the past 15 years. Menzer points out an “ethical responsibility” when claiming authenticity.
Q: Arlynda Boyer asks if Campbell looked at the Globe’s marketing and if this might be “a uniquely American privileging of being a historical blank”. A: Campbell’s research is just now starting to look at the Globe. He notes that he thinks the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season has strongly influenced the theatrical companies and the marketing of those companies in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Amy Grubbs: “Rogues, Vagabonds, and Common Players: The Interaction of Late Elizabethan Theatre Companies with the Unsettled of London.”
Actors: Linnea Barkland, Sarah Blackwell, Molly Harper, Rebecca Wright
Grubbs begins by identifying the 1590s as a time of desperation for many English citizens, with the number of “poor and unsettled residents of London’s suburbs” greatly increasing. A year of plague followed by five years of poor harvests decimated the population and then unsettled the survivors, combining “to create an environment of downward social mobility and early death”. She identifies the greatest problem brought on by these conditions as vagrancy.

And then, two fights over phones break out in the audience, ending in the public proclamation of Rebecca Wright and Molly Harper as rogues. Grubbs then explicates that her actors have re-enacted incidents which led to the rewritten 1598 Poor Laws. The common threads are wandering and begging, which rendered a person worthy of punishment. Grubbs clarifies that there were some classes of the poor who were protected and deemed worthy of charity. She further identifies how important it was in this time to belong to a community; London’s suburbs were then, full of people who “did not belong”. Grubbs goes on to discuss how theatrical companies interacted with these Poor Laws, noting that they were usual contributors to charities, evidence she draws both from legal writs and from references within the plays. The theatres also “encouraged the employment of the unsettled”, most obviously in the apprenticeship of young boys within the company. Grubbs also states that the theatrical companies “worked together with their neighbors”, helping to create demand for other professions such as the watermen who ferried playgoers across the River Thames.

Beyond merely financial concerns, Grubbs argues that the theatre companies “created a community”. She refers back to the language of the Poor Laws, which included language similar to that of acting — seeming, calling themselves, feigning to be, etc — and she discusses the punishments given to vagrants. Grubbs argues that “theatres welcomed the unsettled as part of their community”, particularly since the price for a groundling remained at a single penny for over seventy years, despite great inflation in London in general. She suggests that this allowed the poor, servants, and other disadvantaged classes to attend the theatre, thus becoming part of the community. Grubbs also points to the choice to re-build the Globe in the same location across the river, despite that the King’s Men were making much more money at the Blackfriars, as evidence that “the King’s Men felt a civic responsibility” to their Southwark neighborhood. Grubbs encourages other theatre historians to continue exploring the relationship between the theatres and the unsettled poor, beyond her temporal parameters and beyond the suburbs of London. She notes that many of the moments in Shakespeare’s plays which relate to the poor, such as Falstaff’s speech about his impressed soldiers, are designed for direct audience address, strengthening that connection.

Q&A: Ralph Cohen begins by questioning the “unofficial contract there seemed to be between the theatres and the poor”, particularly with regards to the decision to keep both the Blackfriars and the Globe open. Jessica Schiermeister then offers her own research on Continental theatres.
Q: Clare von Rueden questions if the relationship between the poor and the theatre was affected by the fact that unaffiliated actors were considered vagabonds. A: Grubbs acknowledges the legal and figurative ways in which players were identified as unsettled.

Mara Sherman: “Theatrical Spinach”
Actors: Nicola Collett, Dane Leasure
Sherman’s thesis examines the educational materials and programming at five Shakespeare companies. She specifically interrogates the tendencies to teach the same material to privileged and under-privileged groups in different ways. Sherman begins by questioning the American affinity for Shakespeare, despite its tendency to uphold the very hierarchal society which America had broken away from in the Revolution. She identifies a combination of revived Anglophilia and “the conscription of Shakespeare into American myth-building” as reasons for the dominance of Shakespeare in American education. She then walks through a brief history of Shakespeare’s role in American culture, ending on the idea that Shakespeare is “theatrical spinach”, promoted as “good for you”.

Sherman first addresses the question of “Does Shakespeare taste good?” In response, she has her actors present a re-creation of a tuna fish commercial, wherein a fish emulates Shakespeare in order to prove he has good taste, which she claims illustrates “Shakespeare’s immense cultural capital” and that demonstrates the idea that “Shakespeare can change you” for the better. Sherman then questions how Shakespeare in education supplements or challenges the ideas that Shakespeare can increase your upward social mobility, make you smarter, or otherwise enhance your life.

Sherman then addresses her assessment of the word choices used in the marketing of theatre companies which target underprivileged groups. She chose to identify those groups which she considers to target upper-middle class families based on the tuition costs for programs. She notes that three prominent companies offer scholarships to their programs, though she raises the question of other potential roadblocks, such as travel costs, clothing needs, financial aid applications and essays, etc. She then identifies the key problem as how various companies choose to address their targeted socioeconomic groups, whether personal enrichment and skills needed to succeed within the theatrical industry, or benefits based more on the public good or as alternatives to “more punitive measures”. The real trouble that Sherman identifies is the treatment of Shakespeare as a way of fixing problems as opposed to encouraging personal enrichment.

Sherman concludes by offering up alternate theses, tangentially related to her own research, for the consideration of the MLitt first years, and with recommended reading for the audience. She then invites any interested parties to join her in planning the educational revolution at her house this evening (BYOB).

Q&A: Patrick Harris questions if Sherman has encountered gentrification, where Shakespeare has been brought into the locale of the inner city but still marketed to the upper-middle class. A: Sherman has seen some hints around it and would like to explore more.
Q: Celi Oliveto asks first if she knows when Shakespeare was first required in school and, second, how she feels about Shakespeare’s inclusion in the Common Core Curriculum. A: At least by World War I, though Sherman notes that Shakespeare was important and prominent in the culture well before then. Sherman says she is against the Common Core in general, and also doesn’t trust public schools to teach Shakespeare well on a regular basis.
Q: Jessica Hamlet asks if Sherman has personal experience with any of these programs. A: Sherman attended a program at OSF in 2006 and describes it as “completely transformative”. She notes that, though her family was nowhere near poor, she was still a scholarship kid at that program and one of the least well-off students in the program, a fact which unsettled her at the time and which she finds increasingly disturbing now.
Q: Monica Cross questions what the programs for “at risk” students look like and where those students eventually end up. A: Sherman notes a dearth of readily available information on that topic.
Q: Wondering if the “instrumental language” in marketing is aimed more at funders than at the students, if there is a difference in what they do with the kids and what they say in order to earn attention from donors. A: Yes, absolutely.
Q: Scott Campbell asks if this is intrinsic to Shakespeare camp or if it also extends to sports leagues and other academic camps? A: Campbell believes it is definitely not limited to Shakespeare, though the position Shakespeare occupies in our culture is unique.

Emma Patrick: “’There’s a double meaning in that’: An examination of thematic doubling in Shakespeare’s works”
Actors: Sarah Blackwell, Josh Brown, Molly Harper, Merlyn Sell, Aubrey Whitlock, Rebecca Wright, Molly Ziegler
Patrick begins acknowledging the impossibility of knowing what, precisely, influenced Shakespeare in his youth. She presents the sort of title page for the type of play Shakespeare might have seen as a child, which more typically demonstrated the players and doubling than did the title pages of plays written in Shakespeare’s adulthood. Her actors present a scene from Cambyses, demonstrating the potential power of thematically doubling a child whom a king kills with a bow and arrow with the bow-and-arrow-bearing Cupid. Though unrelated characters, embodying them in the same actor suggests revenge for the child, particularly since Cupid’s actions eventually lead to Cambyses’s death.

Patrick moves to considering similar potential doublings in Shakespeare’s King John, doubling Arthur with John’s young son Henry. As Arthur is the target of John’s murderous intentions, and dies through a mishap trying to escape them, this doubling creates a significant echo for the audience, particularly as Henry receives the crown and the allegiance of the English lords. Patrick suggests that this doubling will give the audience “a sense of closure and poetic justice at the end of this play.” Patrick argues that Shakespeare “took the convention of thematic doubling … and transformed it for his works”, noting that there are many other potential doubling tracks worth exploration.

Q&A: Matt Davies asks about the big “if”, noting the lack of evidence that this significant doubling was done by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. A: Patrick specifies that the only play within Shakespeare’s career’s timeframe showing such doubling was Mucedorus, which suggests that the practice was ongoing, but that the absence in other plays does not necessarily mean it was not.
Q: Julia Nelson queries if Patrick has considered the Boy and Princess in Henry Vwho both speak French. A: Patrick says yes, that example is in her thesis.
Q: Clare von Rueden questions the presumption that the actors had influence on the doubling lists of the early plays. A: Patrick admits that no, there is no direct evidence, though she finds the suggestion of it in the directions for the interludes. “Somebody intended it to be that way”, whether or not it was a sole original author.
Q: Davies asks further if there’s any evidence that there may have been status-driven divides between full casts in London and doubled casts on the road. A: Patrick has not identified a status divide, but rather a temporal one with the move towards permanent playing companies in London.

2 thoughts on “MLitt Thesis Festival 2014: Session 3

  1. In response to Emma Patrick’s paper about doubling. Mucedorus was not the only play with a doubling chart. David Bevington outlines many more plays in “From Mankind to Marlowe.” (Pardon the lack of italics) The latest known play that I have found is “The Fair Maid of the Exchange” (p. 1607) which has the largest doubling chart of them all with 11 actors.

    Still, it’s fascinating stuff. Why were these printed? Was there amateur drama use? What does the increasing number of actors through the years say about the growth of company size and professionalization of the entertainment industry? How much does thematic doubling result from a actor playing a type? etcetcetc.

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