MLitt Thesis Festival 2015: Session 2

Natalia Razak Wallace: “Prolonged Eye Contact”
Razak Wallace begins by alarmingly dimming the lights on the audience in the Playhouse. She then gives a brief overview of the unique qualities of the social brain in the human animal, positing it as crucial to interpreting behavior and making decisions based upon it. She presents an example of interpreting behavior and predicting movement based on Doreen Bechtol’s imagined curled lip, which may indicate that Razak Wallace is about to get slapped. “Doreen’s curled lip does not exist in a vacuum, because it is, presumably, attached to her face.” The extension of the example illustrates how a change in eye contact, whether deliberate or unintentional, can change the interaction, forcing the social brain to work harder to determine the complexity of the given circumstances. Eye gaze directs focus and attention more strongly than other physical indicators.

Razak Wallace notes that this plays into audience contact, making an audience member acutely aware of his or her body, imagining how it must look from the outside. She posits this as a challenge to the social brain, as the brain has become aware of the body in a way that it does not expect within the bounds of the theatre. For actors in traditional, lights-off theatre, the gaze is performative. Without audience contact, “the audience is not socially available to the audience.” Lighting thus changes the essential theatre experience on both ends. Razak Wallace prefaces a scene (acted by Shane Sczepankowski and Molly Seremet) by noting that, while we here may not find observations about audience contact and performance new, it’s because our social brains have become accustomed to that interaction at the Blackfriars Playhouse. On the first run-through, the actors perform in traditional proscenium style, ignoring the audience that they cannot see; on the second run-through, they pretend awareness of the audience that they still cannot see. Both of these call upon a performative gaze with no real connection made.

The third iteration is lights-on, with audience contact. The actors’ performances change based on the visible response of the audience. Razak Wallace details the cognitive processes that audience member Linnea was undergoing without even consciously being aware of it, culminating in “the astonishing realization: I exist” — a realization extended to the rest of the audience, who consequently become aware that they, too, exist. She notes that there are other physiological responses related to sensory input and response forming a part of this process as well. Razak Wallace also details that this interaction may either be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on how one’s social brain interprets the stimuli; if pleasant, it may help make the words spoken during the eye contact more memorable, but if unpleasant, it may make the words harder to hear and comprehend. Either way, the moment is likely to be memorable, but the latter situation may not be memorable in the ways either actor or audience would hope for.

Razak Wallace concludes by stating that not all theatre is or should be social, but that it can be powerful and positive in a number of ways. She connects this to an essential quality of empathy. She states her belief that Shakespeare’s plays call for audience contact, but in order to make the most of it, “the actor must stop performing and the audience must stop observing, just for a moment, just long enough to make eye contact.”

Q&A
Q – Is the difference between having a pleasant and unpleasant experience down to your personality?
A – Yes and no. Some of it is down to how your social brain operates, but the actors can also help mitigate those circumstances. “Make eye contact mindfully, in ways that are more likely. ” She also notes that duration of contact affects how positive or negative it is.
Q – So how do you mindfully make eye contact?
A – Fit the word to the action. People like it more in comedies than in tragedies, because we want to feel good, not crazy. Don’t prioritize over relationships on stage.

Dierdra M. Shupe: “Putting a Head on Headless Rome: Titus Andronicus, the Body, and the Body Politic in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays”
Shupe begins by defining what she means by the Roman plays, a modern sub-genre of Shakespeare’s plays, but notes that many modern scholars have left out Titus Andronicus when considering this subset, ostensibly because it’s locus so early in his career disqualifies it. Shupe suggests that certain allusions and thematic elements link Titus inextricably to the other Roman plays such as Julius Caesar. 

Shupe then addresses the question of chronology: taken in orderof historical events, Shakespeare’s plays go from Republic-set Coriolanus to the 1st-century Republic/Empire shift in Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra to the imperial Titus Andronicus — not,however, the order in which Shakespeare wrote them. Shupe argues that, in terms of the body politic, Shakespeare orients Coriolanus with the knee. In Julius Caesar, the titular character is  presented as synonymous with Rome, and most of the bodily references are to blood, usually Caesar’s blood. The play begins with mentions of Pompey’s blood and culminates with a civil war wherein Rome is essentially shedding its own blood. Shupe considers Antony and Cleopatra to hold the place of the heart, with numerous references to that part — the most in any Roman play and the second-most in the canon. She connects the heart with the idea of allegiance, particularly in regard to Antony’s divided loyalties between Rome and Egypt.

Returning to Titus Andronicus, Shupe identifies the most prominent body part as the hand, referred to 47 times — usually as part of a severance. Shupe connects the idea of dismemberment to the concept of a disordered and troubled Rome. Heads play a role in the play as well, particularly in 3.1, when both severed hands and severed heads appear on-stage together. Shupe suggests that these body parts relate to the service done for Rome, later used to mock the characters in question. Shupe concludes by reiterating her assertion that Titus ought to be studied along with the other Roman plays.

Q&A
Q – Considered Cymbeline as well, since partially Roman-set, has similar body-focused imagery and themes?
A – Thesis came out of desire to look at Roman plays as a subset of history plays.
Q – Talk more about the idea of transformation of the body, connecting to performance.
A – Would like to look more at the idea of whether or not assassins appear at Caesar’s funeral with blood still on their hands.
Q – Have you found Roman plays resistant to performance linkage?
A – Haven’t found that, but haven’t found it’s even been done that much.

Meredith A. Johnson: “Shakespeare’s Problematic Prophetic Character Dreams”
Johnson examines the prophetic dreams of Clarence and Calphurnia in relation to thoughts on dream theory in early modern England and aims to connect these concepts with modern performance and exploration in the rehearsal room. She posits Clarence’s introduction to his dream as “a theatrical tool to create anticipate on-stage and in the audience,” with Brackenbury’s reactions critical to raising the stakes for the audience (acted by Patrick Harris and Merlyn Sell). Johnson instructs Brackenbury to use Clarence’s religious language to inform her next line. Noting that the prophecy is buried in a lot of dream imagery, Johnson further instructs Brackenbury to help the audience out by reacting most strongly to the prophetic elements. Clarence’s further statements speak to the ambiguity of where the dream comes from — a dead relative, an angel, or a demon. In a third segment, Johnson notes the difficulty Clarence seems to experience upon waking, and instructs Brackenbury to take further cue from that. After the discussion of hell and demons, Brackenbury ends by calling upon God to give Clarence good rest.

Johnson then shifts to the “delightfully murky waters” of dream interpretation in Julius Caesar. Harris and Jess Hamlet enact Calphurnia’s concerns in 2.2, with Caesar’s fatalism standing in opposition to Calphurnia’s fears — which are not, in early modern thought, necessarily ill-founded. She considers them divine warning. Johnson redirects Hamlet to try the lines again as though she is stating the most simple and apparent fact. Shakespeare portrays the strength of Calphurnia’s interpretation by having Caesar, initially, cede to her wishes — though another interpretation, hinging on Caesar’s use of the word “humour”, might instead present Calphurnia as unbalanced.When Decius (Sell) enters, Caesar relates the whole of Calphurnia’s dream, which Decius then re-interprets, managing to convince Caesar to “see the image of the citizens of Rome bathing in his own blood as something positive”. Johnson points out that the dreamer herself takes no part in the interpretation, “silenced by her womanhood”. Decius then continues to wrest control of the interpretation away from Calphurnia and convinces Caesar to act against a clear prophecy.

Johnson concludes by calling for greater attention to the historical connotations of dreams and prophecies when acting plays that involve these moments, in order to make the stakes feel more engaging and immediate for the audience.

Q&A
Q – As a director, how much depends on actor’s idea of the reliability of the narrator?
A – For example, in Caesar, since the dreamer wasn’t actually reciting the dream, you can make decisions about that.
Q – So it lands on the on-stage audience’s reactions to help the not-on-stage audience to understand what’s going on?
A – Yes.
Q – Did your research indicate that the dream theory of the time and the science of the time is heavily inflected in these prophetic dreams when they show up?
A – Yes, it definitely does glimmer through in the plays. Moreso in the ways in which characters on-stage treated it. Actual content of a dream you can argue about “what water meant”, but the fear surrounding what it could mean, like, “Did a demon visit you last night?” More about the way community treated dreams as a thing.
Q – Seems like in Calphurnia exammple that you were mainly focused on fact that dream was coming from a woman and therefore insignificant. Major part of early modern thinking?
A – Yes, couldn’t avoid some gender discussion there.
Q – Any evidence of dream skepticism in research?
A – Definitely, definitely. A lot of scholarly argument over it, conditions to meet. Have to be a sinless person and not eat anything weird before you go to bed. The Church gets to decide whether you were visited by something or not. More to do with the dreamer than the dream.
Q – If you speak a dream, is it always because there’s a prophetic element to it?
A – I don’t think that’s necessarily so. I chose prophetic dreams because I thought it would be more obvious to show you how you can put a shoulder behind them and get audience to understand what’s important about them.

Patrick Aaron Harris: “From Philosopher to Quack”
The presentation opens with Josh Williams presenting the opening of Doctor Faustus, only to be interrupted in his conjuring by Harris and fellow actors Megan Clauhs, Zac Harned, Anna Lobo, and Sarah Wykowksi. Harned queries what the value in practicing is, which Harris tells us is precisely the point: practice can cue the difference between philosopher and quack. He states his intention to demonstrate that awareness of early modern magical practices can improve modern performances and audience understanding.

Harris moves to a brief history of wizardry in English literature, tracing the origins of Gandalf and Dumbledore in Merlin and other medieval romances, all as a part of tradition positioning magic in the self, channeled through artifacts, animals, or geographical locations. Harris suggests that magicians on the early modern stage might be seen as character-directors, creating imagined circumstances on stage for the delight or fear of on-stage audiences. Harris notes that good magicians rarely appear without a balancing evil force, often leading to trials of magical skill, such as those seen in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Harris then discusses the dangers in portraying magic on-stage — popular with audiences, but under monarchs that outlawed and persecuted expressions of magic/witchcraft. As such, plays display both good and evil magicians as “outside of and disruptive to social order”. Harris offers both Doctor Faustus and The Tempest as examples of how the magicians must be eliminated or relinquish power in order to restore social norms.

Harned then introduces the concept of magicians on the early modern stage as neo-Platonism, which Harris explicates as a revived interest in the “world soul” and cosmic energy, linking the human to the divine. A scene from Doctor Faustus, where Faustus discusses his newfound devotion to “magic and concealed arts” with Valdes and Cornelius, illustrates this philosophical conversation. Harned raises the question of whether or not Faustus ought more rightly be considered a witch, given the shape his disavowal of Christianity and his enactment of rituals, which mirror descriptions of witchcraft in early modern texts. Harris argues that since Faustus is not a slave to Mephistopheles, he does not qualify as a witch. Harris also notes the neo-Platonism evident in the difference between educated and uneducated interactions with magic, with the misapprehension and lack of control of the clowns rendering them bestial.

Harned then challenges Harris to make the same case of neo-Platonism for Prospero, who in using a staff, cloak, and ethereal familiar more nearly resembles a medieval magician than an early modern one. Harris argues that Prospero’s magic derives from his books, the source of his power, even though we never see him with the books on-stage. Further, in conversation with Stephano and Trinculo, Caliban gives testimony as to Prospero’s power centering in his books. Harris further argues that magic is the most theatrical thing a playwright can put on stage, and one which allows them greater ability to discuss their own theatricality. Re-examining the early modern conceptualization of magic can help modern productions to recover this theatricality in performance.

Q&A
Q – Idea of performative language, what about performance of spells on the stage? Did companies attempt to inoculate themselves against calling a thing into being by acting it?
A – Accounts of an extra devil appearing on-stage during Faustus, audiences believed and feared.
Q – About technology, special effects?
A – Not avoided but evaded looking at that, because most of what he’s looking at is what’s embodied by the actor.
Q – What about unsuccessful conjurations (ex of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet)
A – Research has focused on lower-status clowns than Mercutio, without access to resources to learn magic. People who don’t study magic can’t do it, no matter how hard they try.
Q – Can doubling create implication that Faustus is engaged in sexual conduct with Mephistopheles, and thus involved in witchcraft?
A – Would never do that precisely to avoid drawing those connections.
Q – Connection to music?
A – That was actually initial topic. Transformed through ideas of language to the idea of book-based magic. Now focusing primarily on the kind of magic that requires extensive study as opposed to the kinds of magic that are done through occult ceremonies. Blurry lines.

Merlyn Q. Sell: “The Good, the Bard, and the Powerful Homely: Shakespeare’s Place in the Wild West Rediscovered”
The presentation opens with the impersonation of Sell by actor Megan Clauhs. The thesis discusses the role of Shakespeare in western American culture, with a particular focus on the transformation of Shakespeare in the community of Deadwood, South Dakota. In addition to saloons, gamblers, and prostitutes, Deadwood also had Shakespeare. Modern tourism in Deadwood capitalizes on it as “the wickedest town”, ignoring the significance of Shakespeare in its cultural development. The presentation then involves an “epic rap battle” between representatives of real history and the exaggerated legends, presented by Sell herself, Mark Pajor, Meredith Johnson, and Marshall Garrett.

Clauhs-Sell then moves to an examination of Deadwood legends Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, noting the difficulty in reconciling our modern views of miners and cowboys with Shakespeare-focused theatre-goers. But the historical reality was that Deadwood crowds “adored” performances of Hamlet, going on to put on their own amateur performance in 1878. Traveling performances of Othello and Richard III followed in the next few years. Amateur recitation both in private theatres, around campfires, and even in a shaving saloon was an honored cultural tradition. Newspapers also featured numerous quotations from Shakespeare as a common cultural touchstone. A Shakespeare reference also surfaced in a whiskey ad.

Clauhs-Sell points out the transition in the early 20th century towards a nostalgia for the Wild West as a lost era of adventure and exploration. Shakespeare then shared blame with women as a detrimentally civilizing influence on the Wild West — though both had worked towards the betterment the citizens of Deadwood. Clauhs-Sell gives the example of an 1880 Ladies of the Episcopal Church benefit performance of The Merchant of Venice and the creation of clubs promoting literacy. This contributed to a century-long tradition of civic service and political power by women in Deadwood, but their public events were attended by people from all segments of society. The desire to position the intellectual, cultured East against the mythologized rough and tumble West contributed to the erasure of Shakespeare as a part of Western tradition.

Q&A
Q – Way to synthesize this into modern Shakespeare education, with eye towards defeating ShakesFear?
A – In a lot of the country, people really identify with Wild West, if people thought that rough and tumble dudes with guns liked the show, they would give Shakespeare more of the benefit of the doubt. Can also help to stage and promote shows in a Wild West theme.
Q – Any references to the poetry of the cowboy?
A – Yes. Tradition to have Shakespeare in the wagon. Focused more on mining communities, because brought together almost everything we associate with Wild West except for cowboy.
Q – When did you decide to write the rap and how long did it take you?
A – It took a long time. Thanks Sir Mix-A-Lot.
Q – As Shakespeare transitioned to high culture, growing resentment toward it because it took away from image of what they wanted the West to be?
A – Yes, definitely. High culture doesn’t fit in with ideal of the mythologized West.
Q – Shakespeare mines?
A – New Mexico, there’s a town called Shakespeare, Stratford Hotel, all the mines had Shakespeare names. Though some of them also could have been names of prostitutes.

–This session live-blogged by Cass Morris, ASC Academic Resources Manager