Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Lunch and Learn Session: Meet and Drink with MBC Shakespeare and Performance

Today’s Lunch and Learn session, Meet and Drink with Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance hosts, all of whom are S&P instructors: Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, Dr. Paul Menzer, Professor Doreen Bechtol, Dr. Matt Davies, and Professor Janna Segal.  Dr. Menzer, director of the program, opened the session by mentioning the opportunity for prospective students to attend the MBC Shakespeare & Performance program.  He said the “&” denotes the new and original approach to learning Shakespeare in training students to be both practitioners ‘&’ scholars: “Above all, what we study here is in collaboration,” Dr. Menzer stated.  Several of the S&P program’s alumni next introduced themselves to the congregation, and this entry lists each one in the following paragraph.

Jemma Alix Levy, Assistant Professor with Washington and Lee University was the first alumna to speak to session attendees about MBC’s Shakespeare & Performance program.  She discussed how the program’s “marriage” between scholarship and practice attracted her to undertake it and earn both of its degrees, the M.Litt (Master of Letters) and the MFA (Master of Fine Arts).  She will present the devised show, “Believe None of Us”, which the conference’s program describes as, “An exploration of Shakespeare’s three Hamlets,”  late Friday night.  Casey Caldwell was the next alumnus to speak.  He is completing his PhD in English at Northwestern University.  He thanks the program for giving him the scholarly and intellectual foundation to speak to everyone he encounters in academia as well as to members of Chicago’s performing community.  He said The Blackfriars Playhouse gave him an awareness of the role that a performing space plays in helping to achieve a greater understanding of Shakespeare and Early Modern texts.  Alumnus Rick Blunt, the next to speak, now performs with ASC as one of its regular cast members.  He discussed the help MBC S&P program’s faculty gave him the help he needed to write his first thesis as well as train him to perform in an ensemble.  Alumna Katherine Mayberry, Class of ’07, is now the Executive Director of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, Michigan.  She is an Adjunct Professor at her undergraduate alma mater, Grand Valley State University, and in addition she freelances as a dramaturg.  She expressed that the MBC S&P student community remains a vital part of her life and work.

Natalia Wallace, a current MFA candidate announced her upcoming performance in the original show, “One Woman Town” by her fellow “Sweet Wag” (fellow MFA candidate) Merlyn Q. Sell.  The show debuts tonight (Thursday) in the Blackfriars Playhouse at 11:30 pm.  Wallace talked about her experiences in her first two years with the program.  She wrote her M.Litt thesis on neuroscience, and she expressed her gratitude for the S&P faculty’s help and how she now incorporates what she learned in her first two years into her MFA year.  Patrick Aaron Harris, MFA candidate, also a “Sweet Wag” was the next to speak, and he shared with his listeners how another S&P alumnus he knew from the theatrical community of which Harris was a member suggested that he consider enrolling in MBC’s S&P program.   He mentioned how the S&P faculty supported him on his thesis idea about hipsters.

After the S&P alumni shared their stories, Dr. Menzer introduced the program’s founder, Dr. Cohen to discuss the creation of the Shakespeare & Performance program.  Professor Cohen wanted Mary Baldwin College to help with the Blackfriars Playhouse.  The college agreed to supporting the playhouse, and Dr. Cohen thanked his colleagues for sending him people who now constitute a “community of helpers.”  The ‘&’ of “S&P denotes the intersection of performance with metrical and textual work, he said.

Dr. Menzer then introduced Dr. Matt Davies to discuss the third year of the S&P program, the MFA year.  MFA training reinforces “disciplinarity” and “individuality,” Dr. Davies explained.  He stated what is the program’s major innovation in its training approach with the following analogy: actors preparing for a role ask of their characters whom they portray, “What do I want?”  Dr. Davies adapted that fundamental question into “What do we need?” to better help a producing theatrical company in facing what he sees as its essential challenge.   He then went on to describe the program’s training model as one consisting of three “pillars.”  The first pillar of the model is collaboration.  The second pillar is participation in the company’s ongoing discussion and then making decisions as an ensemble.  The final pillar is employabliity, which for the purposes of today’s globally competitive and ever-changing marketplace, Dr. Davies defines as “entrepreneurship.”  The MFA program, Dr. Davies concluded, is both a class and a professional training program.

Doreen Bechtol next spoke, discussing the S&P program’s operational perspective.  She discussed the May Term at the start of the MFA year in which her students put together their upcoming year’s season in just three weeks.  The S&P program, she informed her listeners, subsidizes several internships with other Shakespearean companies presenting students with additional training options before they return in August at the start of the MFA year.  The first production of the training year is the “devised show,” which Bechtol explained is concerned primarily in helping the new student company it to find its voice.  The goal of the MFA company’s next show of the season is to tour schools and show school students in their audience “how accessible Shakespeare can be.”  Next on the season’s program is a small-scale touring show in which the MFA troupe is divided into two companies who perform at community and arts centers.  Next, Bechtol informed her listeners, is the Renaissance Show whose goal is to stage a production under conditions which are as close to those with which the original Blackfriars actors worked in Shakespeare’s day.  This includes actors having to use cue scripts instead of providing each actor with a complete copy of the whole play as is standard practice today.  The MFA company proceeds from that staging challenge to performing in a guest-directed show.  The goal here is to develop professional ties with the theater community by working with one of that community’s veteran directors.  Ultimately, the MFA training year culminates in a final production as well as “final chapter,” which Professor Bechtol explained can either take the form of a thirteen-minute conference or as a publishable work for a book which the MFA students author.

Janna Segal who is with both the S&P and the MBC undergraduate Theater Department, teaches the May Term course, “Company Management and Company Dramaturgy.”  She discussed company partnerships, such as that of MBC’s with ASC.  She searched extensively to find other graduate training programs in Theater and found only six MFA programs with “mentored professional stage experience” through full-time, professionally-performing regional theaters, including the S&P program.  Only four of these programs, she discovered, have MFA’s available in Performance and Production, and she found that all of these programs include Shakespeare as part of their training.  Only the Shakespeare Theater Company, she found, also includes other Early Modern theater works in addition to Shakespeare as part of its training, but it is an acting-only MFA degree.  The MBC S&P MFA training program, Professor Segal went on to explain, is the only such program to combine dramaturgy, collaboration and company management into its MFA curriculum.

Dr. Menzer brought the session to a close by mentioning the Shakespeare Intensive which is held on the first weekend in June to give prospective students an idea of what the S&P training program does in this community.  He then opened the floor briefly to questions.

–Bill Leavy, S&P M.Litt Student, blogger.

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