Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Colloquy VIII: Practical Rhetoric

How can rhetoric help students?  How can actors use it?  Colloquy Chair Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager with the American Shakespeare Center introduced the session’s format as a conversation, as she put it, rather than that of a lecture, and she then had the presenters seated around the meeting room table introduce themselves and state exactly what it is that they do with rhetoric.  Tom Delise with the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory teaches his students fifteen rhetorical devices to help them in their acting.  Marshall Garrett, Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance MFA candidate mentioned how his thesis on “Measure for Measure” focused on rhetoric, and stated that he is interested in helping actors who are not familiar with rhetoric to be aware of it and be able to work with it.  Sign language interpreter Lindsey D. Snyder of Gallaudet University said she is interested in making rhetoric understandable for the hearing-impaired.  Annette Drew-Bear teaches Shakespeare courses at Washington and Jefferson College, and she said she wants to discover more effective teaching techniques, including ways to improve her students’ assignments.  The other presenters included Collin Bjork with Indiana University, Scott Crider with the University of Dallas, and Kathleen Quinlan, English Teacher with Stonewall Jackson High School.  

The Chair then talked of methodology and strategies in rehearsal and in the classroom.  Delise distributed around the room his “Rhetorical Devices Worksheet,” explaining that he gives this to his students/actors to help them prepare for a role.  The worksheet calls upon the student to name the rhetorical device, give an example of it from the text, and then asks the question, “How Can It Inform an Acting Choice?  What Questions Does It Raise?”  Garrett discussed his work on “Measure for Measure.”  He said he discovered that the flow of rhetoric in Shakespeare’s play reveals that the prison characters use almost no rhetorical devices at all, while by contrast, the character of Isabella uses rhetoric to render her antagonist Angelo speechless.

The Chair next proceeded to the topic of Dramatization of Rhetoric, mentioning that Crider’s paper in particular explored the “performativity” (performance conventions and audience perceptions) of rhetorical devices.  Some of these, such as “epizeuxis,” or the immediate repetition of a word, are definite cues for the actor.  Snyder demonstrated through signing how different words and expressions utilize different hand signs.  She also discussed how the meaning and the meter of the verse are affected by the actor’s breathing.  Crider asked the sign-language interpreter if she had worked in gesture and if so, how it relates to Early Modern acting.  Gesture, Snyder replied, didn’t appear in print until sometime in the mid-1600’s.  There is some documentation which still exists today, she added, but there is not much writing on how it was used on the stage.  She suggested that some actors were not as declarative as we now believe they were, and that the practice of using gesture became more established over time.  Snyder continued on a related subject, stating that physical training and classroom training should not be separate and distinct from one another.  Instead, rhetorical instruction should synthesize both of these approaches.

Garrett discussed Shakespeare’s use in “Measure for Measure” of the rhetorical device known as “anadiplosis,” which is the repetition of a clause or sentence’s last word or phrase at the beginning of the next line, clause or sentence.   “Do we stop Angelo’s action to try to get a word in,” Garrett asked, “or do we just let him keep on going in the scene?”  Rhetorical devices can be translated into actors’ actions as well as into words and emotions, he explained, as when one character in a scene mirrors the posture of another, indicating to the audience love and attraction between two characters.  “Souls and hearts start beating together; characters start to move in tandem,” he noted.

Quinlan shared her insights as an English Teacher on the performativity of rhetoric as well.  The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello” uses a device known as “aposiopesis,” or a sudden breaking off in mid-speech, as a kind of innuendo, she explained, to imply to Othello his wife Desdemona’s fabricated infidelity.  Quinlan also discussed another kind of omission, “ellipsis,” in storytelling.  Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart,” she illustrated for her listeners, intentionally leaves out the names of the characters.  Her students comment on this omission in her class, remarking that the narrator refers to his antagonist/victim simply as, “The Old Man.”  The reader is left to fill in the blanks by using his or her imagination.

Garrett in addition discussed his staging for “Measure for Measure,” particularly in ways to communicate to the audience a sense of balance and also the sense of miscommunication.  Bjork then shared an anecdote from his days as an actor.  He was rehearsing a scene in which his character uses alliteration, in this case it was a repetition of ‘f” sounds.  His director explained to him that the rhetorical device informs the actor’s face in performance.  The director told the actor, “You are making a kissy-face!”  Bjork said the repeated ‘f’ sounds in his character’s language was his cue to pucker up to his lady scene partner.

The Chair then asked her presenters the question, How does rhetoric figure in writing and composition?  Crider mentioned that rhetoric helps his students in their composition, and that learning rhetoric develops them into better readers of Shakespeare and in general.  Morris next asked, “Students may learn the correct term, but how can an actor use it onstage?”  The Chair proceeded to describe as an example of practical rhetoric, how emphasis on rhetorical usage in ASC’s leadership workshop helps workshop participants, who have included leaders in the business community as well as in politics, become more persuasive leaders through its use.

The Chair opened up the floor to “gallery” questions shortly before the session concluded.  Lia Wallace, ASC Educator, talked of how she taught rhetorical devices to younger kids, such as “anthimeria,” or nouns as verbs.  Wallace remarked how younger children are able to learn rhetorical devices and their names with great facility because they haven’t yet learned from cultural bias that it is supposed to be so “hard.”

Morris admitted to the colloquy’s attendees that what it is she needs to know now is what is the “next step” in the practice of rhetoric as she brought the session to its conclusion.

–Bill Leavy

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