Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session #3

Molly Beth Seremet here, reporting from Colloquy Session #3 at 9am on Thursday morning! The topic is Cultural Appropriation and the session is chaired by Monica Cross with presenters Scott Campbell, Raven Claflin, Angelina LaBarre, Louis Martin, and Richard Schumaker.

Louis Martin’s paper deals with Hero’s silence in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, focusing on the ways film adaptations manifest her silence. This paper focuses predominately on the Burgess, Brannagh and Whedon films. Martin first asks us to look at a clip from Burgess’ film, in which many of Hero’s lines are retained. Martin also points out that physically, Hero stands to deliver these lines and speaks quite clearly, exercising her own agency. By contrast, in Brannagh’s film, some of Hero’s lines are cut and the film depicts her physically on the ground with others towering over her. Martin then moves into exploring the Whedon film, in which Whedon depicts a Hero who is in fact not a virgin, having been in a previous relationship with the film’s Don John character. Martin describes a scene in the Whedon film in which Hero dons a Marilyn Monroe-style gown to wear for the party scene and further details a scene Whedon invents in which Hero pointedly refuses any further advances from Don John, using her own voice. In doing so, Whedon stages Hero’s agency and allows her to speak for herself.

Scott Campbell’s paper deals with original practices because, in his words, “it is the things we are most passionate about that deserve the most pressure.” Campbell interest lies in the cross-generational cultural appropriation that occurs when modern-day practitioners borrow historical practices in modern-day performance. Campbell terms this generative work, which results in the creation of something new, not a reconstruction of a historical mode. In his work, Campbell also posits that over time, modern-day companies that use original practice methodologies become facile in those practices as time passes, taking out the ‘danger’ elements that modern companies sometimes associate with original practice conventions.

Raven Claflin’s work delves into multi-modal poetics and Shakespeare. As Claflin posits, multi-modal poetics is a cross-genre theoretical approach and methodology that combines studies on Shakespeare with pop culture adaptations including comic books and graphic novels. Claflin’s paper focuses on a comic version of Macbeth, titled Macbeth the Graphic Novel and the supernatural soliciting therein. Claflin asks us to consider the placement of the Witches and ghosts across these comic book adaptations in connection with the ambiguities contained in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Angelina LaBarre’s work examines hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare. LaBarre explains that these adaptations are often considered ‘bastard children,’ criticized by both Shakespeare purists and and hip-hop theatremakers alike. LaBarre reminds us, however, that audiences love these cross-genre performances. LaBarre posits that both Shakespearean drama and hip-hop are linguistic and poetic art forms and that some hip-hop practitioners including KRS-1 approach iambic pentameter in their work. LaBarre focuses in on the production Othello Remix, part of the 2012 World Language Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. This performance was the only offering in the festival to sell out regularly. LaBarre points out that this production served as the United States’ offering in this festival, representing hip-hop as a distinct cultural language.

Monica Cross’s work focuses on Shakespeare’s language. She proposes that Shakespeare’s text melds with current-day language in modern adaptations of Shakespeare, looking closely at12 Ophelias by Caridad Svich. Cross states that Shakespeare’s language melds seamlessly in adaptation which, as Cross indicates, is a very timely concern given Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s upcoming translation initiative. According to Cross, Svich interpolates her own language into 12 Ophelias along with quotations from the past to weave Shakespeare into the present tense. In the act of remembering Hamlet. For Cross, this appropriative methodology brings Shakespeare into the present while still also staging elements of Shakespeare’s language.

The panelists now move into discussion surrounding their papers. LaBarre asks if using appropriative methodologies on Shakespearean texts serves our own ends only, or if in fact this approach can push our understanding of Shakespeare’s texts as well. Campbell wonders how much of this appropriative practice delves into the realm of translation. Claflin clarifies his belief that any transformation of Shakespeare becomes adaptive while appropriation involves a reframing of the source material into a specific cultural frame, drawing on Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood as an example. In a pedagogical sense, Martin urges us to work with multiple adaptations of a single Shakespearean source text, such as several films of Much Ado About Nothing,  to allow students the opportunity to see diverse possibilities to draw their own conclusions.

The discussion now turns to ideas of ‘original’ or ‘real’ versions of Shakespeare, with Campbell flagging the common tactic of holding up some artistic Shakespearean adaptations as ‘the real Shakespeare.’ As the panelists discuss, this emerges particularly in teaching applications, in which film versions of Shakespearean plays provides an easy way in for modern students. Claflin urges us to remember that while adaptations may be harnessed in this way, this pedagogical aim may not necessarily be the adaptor’s impetus for creating the work in the first place.

Cross then leads the panelists towards us an engagement with an audience’s knowledge of the source texts in adaptive practice. Cross refers us to Svich’s introductory materials in 12 Ophelias, in which Svich details that an audience that is familiar with Hamlet may see her play as a furtherance or extension of Shakespeare’s narrative, while an audience that has not yet contacted Shakespeare will see 12 Ophelias as the story of a stranded woman making her way in an unfamiliar world. The play therefore tells a cohesive and rich story for any audience, no matter how familiar that audience is (or is not) with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. LaBarre then turns us to an investigation of poetic structure in hip-hop and Shakespeare.  She introduces the notion of call-backs, such as rhythms, lyrics, melodies that harken back to earlier songs and artists. As LaBarre points out, this self-referentiality appears in early modern drama as well. Interestingly, LaBarre also points out that misogyny becomes a thru-line in both hip-hop and early modern drama.

The discussion now moves to a discussion of Shakespeare as cultural capital, examining the function and responsibility of using adaptations of Shakespeare as first points of contact for an audience. This brings the conversation into focus on issues of an original or authoritative text. Campbell recalls a childhood memory of an adaptation of Macbeth in the cartoon Duck Tales. LaBarre springs off of this to discuss the ways that she troubles the ideas of authoritative texts for her students, asking them to study both Shakespeare’s Othello and Othello Remix.  In doing so, LaBarre holds up both texts as possibilities, allowing students to form their own conclusions.

The discussion turns now to adaptations of Hamlet. Participant and American Shakespeare Center understudy Symmonie Preston asks us consider the ways that 17th and 18th century theories and preconceptions inform our readings of Shakespeare’s drama. She calls Ophelia into focus as an example, pointing to the ways that modern productions often strip away Ophelia’s agency as influenced by a 17th and 18th century lens that dictates what less-enfranchised characters should be. Preston argues that applying an adaptive hand to these plays can re-establish these characters’ agencies by removing the 17th and 18th century referential frame. Panelists Campbell and Claflin push this argument further asking us to consider the ways that even in authorial texts are adaptations mediated through the apparatus of textual culture.

The conversation now circles back to pedagogy, thinking through the ways that we can teach appropriation productively to instill agency in our students. A participant mentions using lines from Shakespeare as tool to allow students to ‘re-write’ them in their own words, expressing Shakespeare in their own vernacular. Claflin then points out that anytime we teach Shakespeare, we are in fact teaching our own adaptation of the play and in using strategies of appropriation, we might open channels for students to do the same for themselves.

An audience member asks the panelists to consider the ways that in other cultures, adaptations of Shakespearean drama often use elements other than the English language to form their adaptations. How do non-language-based adaptations factor into this conversation? LaBarre points out that hip-hop adaptations use a verse structure of their own to tell their stories. As in Shakespearean drama, the verse structures in hip-hop dramas change to indicate changes in mood, characters, etc. with the incorporation of beats that work for and sometimes against the verse language. Campbell draws on this idea of time signatures, reminding us of Spanish Golden Age drama, in which meter equates to emotion. Campbell then calls on notions of ‘disowning’ when considering foreign language adaptation of Shakespeare, asking if it is possible to write ‘against’ Shakespeare using Shakespearean language or conventions.

Now, the discussion turns to adaptations of Shakespeare into gendered languages. When language is gendered, what is gained or lost by making decisions surrounding these ambiguities? Claflin and Campbell hone in on the ways that ambiguity factors into Shakespearean drama. This opens a broader conversation in the room

Cross brings us back, reminding us that everything we have access to in the Shakespearean sphere can become part of adaptation. Our cultural moment allows us to make meaning out of all possible options that we have as theatremakers, adapters, scholars, and teachers. Cross urges us to remember that we always see Shakespeare through our lens.

And that’s a wrap for Colloquy #3. Thanks for a riveting conversation.

-Molly (@moxymolly)

About mothbelly

I'm the kind of gal who makes bad decisions with great enthusiasm. Regularly. And then writes about them, while feeling anxious. And drinking coffee and/or wine. It's my process.

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