Blackfriars Conference 2015: Welcome address and Keynote: Paul Prescott

This is Merlyn Q. Sell live blogging from the Blackfriars Playhouse.  Today’s Keynote Address is The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Sam Wanamaker presented by Paul Prescott from 11am to 12pm.  First, however, Dr. Ralph Cohen delivers a heartfelt welcome.

Cohen begins by remembering the late Tom Berger.  He recalls a time when Berger stuck his head into a firehouse and shouted “Theatre!”. The audience greatly appreciates the joke.   Cohen mentions that the best and worst part of the Blackfriars Conference is that there is too much to do.  He blames Sarah Enloe.  He introduces ASC resident actor, Allison Glenzer, who reads an email from Jim Warren.  Warren is currently on the ASC’s audition tour, seeking actors for upcoming seasons.  Warren points out the conference’s special focus on the intersection between academics and performance.  Mary McDermott, chair of the ASC board, also welcomes conference attendees.  The Blackfriars is a particularly fitting venue for such a conference in this legacy year.  McDermott makes a point of welcoming home students and alumni of Mary Baldwin’s graduate program.  The ASC staff introduces themselves from the balcony to the much-deserved appreciation of the audience.  Mary Baldwin College president, Pamela Fox, takes a moment to celebrate the fifteen year partnership between Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance graduate program and the ASC.

Cohen throws down his gauntlet in welcoming attendees to the only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse and reminding us that the Sam Wanamaker is not a recreation.  Cohen introduces Steve Owen, Staunton city manager.  Owen lives up to his self-proclaimed role as a “ham sandwich”. After recounting some of Staunton’s claims to fame, Owen praises the ASC for the magic it has brought to the community.

Sarah Enloe takes the stage to accept a bouquet of roses and the gratitude of the audience. For the remainder of the conference attendees can look forward to hearing her before every keynote for changes to the conference schedule. With the help of Mary McDermott, Enloe retires the 2013 conference bear and introduces the 2015 bear and her signature pearls. After a few housekeeping items from Enloe, Cohen introduces Dr. Paul Menzer.

After a quippy rumination on time, Menzer welcomes attendees on behalf of the current MBC Shakespeare and Performance students. Menzeer warmly introduces today’s keynote speaker Paul Prescott.

Prescott provides an overview of the keynote’s main concerns at the outset. The address encompasses creation myths, ancestor worship, the stories we tell, the keeping of annals, the conditions under which theatres get built, and global mobility. Prescott believes that Charles Marowitz’ biography of Sam Wanamaker in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the best biography we currently have for Wanamaker. Prescott’s investigation of Wanamaker’s archives finds that that biography has one glaring error. Its assertion of Wanamaker’s lifelong devotion to Shakespeare is inaccurate. Prescott is interested in the background that led to Wanamaker’s eventual devotion to Shakespeare and the foundation of the Globe Trust.

Prescott provides a snapshot of Wanamaker’s background, including his childhood and teenage years. In 1943 Wanamaker visited the Chicago World’s Fair with his father and experienced a version of the Globe in the “Merry Olde England” section of the fair. In the Wanamaker archives a program from this event includes a post-it note on which an older Wanamaker had written “The beginning”. Later on Wanamaker acted on a Globe stage in Cleveland. Wanamaker was performing “tabloid” versions of Shakespeare, fifty minute populist reductions of the original texts in rep.

Wanamaker began spending time in London in response to his uncertain position in America as a communist. In preparing an affidavit for McCarthy, Wanamaker blamed his preparation to play the role of a young Russian soldier for his joining the communist party. Under these circumstances, Wanamaker moved to London. Because of his position in the United States, Mi-5 eventually placed Wanamaker under surveillance and even recommended his imprisonment in the event of emergency. In surveillance records Wanamaker’s interest in Stanislavsky’s methods was noted. Eventually the United Kingdom grants Wanamaker permanent residence.

In 1957, Wanamaker took over Shakespeare Theatre Liverpool. When the public was solicited to suggest new names for the theatre the winning title was The New Shakespeare Theatre. Wanamaker’s programming for the New Shakespeare Theatre focused on the antithetical combination of banned plays and popular family fare. Wanamaker had hopes that the theatre could become a “cultural community center”. Unfortunately after twenty months the New Shakespeare Theatre ran out of money and the venture ended. Wanamaker found a home at the New Shakespeare Theatre and even slept at the theatre. Wanamaker said of his work in Liverpool that it was particularly meaningful because it merged his selfish desires with a higher purpose.

Wanamaker’s Method style notes for his performance of Iago in 1959 are in his archives. He created detailed backstory for Iago including syphilis, possible bastardy, the loss of children, and marital infidelity.  His Macbeth was seen through the lens of the Cold War and was based primarily on a pervasive feeling of fear.

In the 1960s Wanamaker turned towards opera with mixed results. He also worked with Bertolt Brecht at this time. Looking at retirement and wishing to finally anchor himself in London, Wanamaker turned to the idea of the Globe. In a 1972 interview Wanamaker pointed out his desire to become a permanent fixture of a community. From 1972 to 1975, three seasons of performances were done under tents on the Globe site. During this time Wanamaker was curating a rough and tumble, populist approach to performance. Wanamaker’s expectations for the Globe did not include early modern performance traditions in any major way. He hoped for work that blended Brecht and Stanislavsky.

Inspired by someone’s rock opera idea for Macbeth, Wanamaker brainstormed couplings of Shakespeare plays and popular rockers. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to his combination of David Bowie with Hamlet. Wanamaker’s association of Sting with King Lear does not go over as well.

Prescott concludes, reminding the audience that the line from Sam Wanamaker to London’s Globe theatre is not a simple straight line but a collage of influences.

About merlynq

Scholar, artist, and all around good egg.

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