Blackfriars Conference – Plenary Session XI

Hello, again! Molly Beth Seremet here, all set to liveblog this plenary session which runs from 2:30pm – 3:45pm in the Blackfriars Playhouse. This session will feature the scholarship of Abigail Montgomery (Blue Ridge Community College), Alan Armstrong (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Steven Urkowitz (American Shakespeare Center Trustee & City College of New York, emeritus), Travis Curtright (Ave Maria University), Eric M. Johnson (Folger Shakespeare Library), and Don Hendrick (Kansas State University). This plenary will also feature the acting talents of the American Shakespeare Center Touring Troupe.

Abigail Montgomery (Blue Ridge Community College) – Pull Up (Down, Over) a Chair: Gallantly Re-Staging and Re-Interpreting Key Moments in Shakespeare

Montgomery begins her paper by discussing the modern-day impulse for control and participation by the audience in the theatre. She references last season’s ASC production of Comedy of Errors, in which the gallent stools usually organized on the fringes of the stage shifted more centrally into the action.  Montgomery mentions that the rationale for this choice was historical, as gallants in the early modern period were allowed to “move their seats anywhere on the stage they liked.” Montgomery describes her experience as an audience member during this production. Though she herself was seated in the balcony, she noted the reactions of those lucky gallants who were quite literally placed into the action.

Montgomery now moves into a performance, ahving actors Jessica Lefkow, Cordell Cole and Ross Neal enact the closet scene from Hamlet.  In this scene, Cole as Hamlet ushers Lefkow’s Gertrude through the door and literally into the laps of the other scholars seated on stage. Cole forces a panelist to stand up and seats Lefkow in his place. In addition, Cole’s Hamlet kills Neal’s Polonius, who falls at the feet of the scholars seated on the other side of the panel. Montgomery notes that the scholars in close proximity to the murder as well as the dead body might well remain hyper-aware of Polonius’ presence in a way unique to this staging condition.

Montgomery then moves to an analysis of the way this sort of audience arrangement might work in the history plays. Now, we watch the Touring Troupe actors enact Henry’s deathbed scene from 2 Henry IV. Neal portrays the dying Henry while Cole’s Hal ponders the hollow crown. This scene plays out right at the feet of the panel of scholars who watch closely as Cole places the hollow crown (tiara, actually, in this staging) on his head. The scholars then witness Henry’s miraculous recovery from a close angle, leaning over Henry’s waking body. Montgomery wonders if gallants might join in the action in this sort of staging, perhaps to don the crown themselves or stay Hal’s hand. Montgomery posits that this staging arrangement might empower the audience through proximity and involvement in this scene. Montgomery also questions how this proximity might impact the empathy or pity an audience feels for characters in these morally ambiguous scenes. She asks, “for tragedy’s sins, are we in any way responsible?

Alan Armstrong (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) – Redeeming Lysimachus

Armstrong introduces his paper on Pericles, describing the play as “a match not in heaven, but in a whorehouse,” and turns the focus to performance options to make Lysimichus ‘work’ in production. Armstrong grounds this discussion in the OSF production of Pericles which closes tomorrow. For Armstrong, constructing a cohesive and satisfying narrative for Marina and Lysimachus.

Armstrong describes the difficulties OSF encountered in staging this play, brought into focus because of the inherent sexual violence and attempted rape at the core of Marina and Lysimachus story. In a staging experiment tried by OSF, the actor playing Lysimachus used the line “a private place” to force Marina onto the bed. As Armstrong notes, however, this reading of the scene stripped away Marina’s power and made it difficult for the actress portraying Marina to speak her verse lines in the scene. OSF discovered that a more effective staging of this scene relied on tension not assault.  Armstrong notes that OSF found the heart of the scene by having Lysimachus hold a respectful distance from Marina in this scene. As Armstrong explains, the key here was to “not get crunchy. Space is yout friend.”

Armstrong isolates the imagery of the scene, locating the action in a stage property: the coin purse Lysimachus carries in the scene. Armstrong notes that OSF cycled through several different sizes and styles of coin purses to help advance the narrative. In the staging OSF employs, Lysimachus digs a cion out of his purse during this scene and, while maintaining distance from Marina, tosses a coin onto the bed to ‘pay’ for her. In this way, the tension of the moment plays out effectively with a spectre and not a reality of physical violence.

Armstrong now turns to an analysis of the manner in which OSF handled the pillow and blanket called for in the reconciliation scene. For OSF, this moment became a moment in which Lysimachus could gently hand the pillow to Marina to assist Pericles.  Staging this moment in an intimate way without the need for an offstage servant to bear in a pillow and blanket and disrupt the privacy of the moment.

Armstrong posits that OSF found a staging that worked for their production and used this interpretation of Lysimachus to tell the story of Pericles they were interested in telling. After all, as Armstrong notes, Shakespeare’s word are the bones from which the story can be made.

Steven Urkowitz (American Shakespeare Center Trustee & City College of New York, emeritus) – Shakespeare Revises the Capulet Ladies: ‘That’s Well Said’

Urkowitz begins his paper with a historical background of the First and Second Quartos of Romeo and Juliet. He focuses his analysis on three key women in these texts, and the depictions of idyllic agreement between the women in these texts. Urkowitz circulates a handout showing some examples of this harmonious feminine language.

Now, actors Aleca Piper, Jessica Lefkow, and Susie Parr perform the servants scene in Q1, with Lady Capulet delegating cheery responsibilities in an amiable manner in this Q1 text. Lefkow’s Nurse silently assents to the directions she is given. Then, the actor snow demonstrate the same scene using the Q2 text, in which the languge shifts from a tone of amiable hustle and bustle to discordant frantic behavior. Piper’s Lady Capulet is bristly, Lefkow’s Nurse is snappy, and Urkowitz pushes the argument further, noting that Lord Capulet also ratchets up the interpersonal drama in this moment.

Now, Urkowitz demonstrates a similar phenomenon later in the play when the Nurse rouses Lady Capulet after her secret wedding day. The actors first perform the Q1 version of the scene, in which Lefkow’s Nurse sneaks in in advance of Lady Capulet with words of softness for Juliet – “what lamb? Lady Juliet?”

Urkowitz calls our attentions to the differences Q2 makes to this moment, noting that Lady Capulet will enter Juliet’s room unannounced. The actors work through this scene for us, with Piper’s Lady Capulet intruding upon Parr’s Juliet without LefKow’s Nurse running interference. Urkowitz notes that this variant of Lady Capulet “hammers home her dismal business.” As Urkowitz explains, Q1 Romeo and Juliet stages softness, agreement, and “a matrix of supporting women” that is conspicuously absent in the same relationships in Q2.

Urkowitz now takes us later in the play, demonstrating the manner in which both versions of Lady Capulet say a final goodnight to their Juliets. The Q1 text contains moments of maternal softness on Lady Capulet’s part, though Piper and Parr hold their physical distance from each other. The Lady Capulet of Q2, however, is stony, emotional distance paralleling the vast spatial differences between the actors.

Urkowitz posits that these significant changes in two texts of the same play reflect authorial intention and in fact, an intentional change in this milieu of the plays.

Travis Curtright (Ave Maria University) – Marina’s Forensic Discourse and Romance

Curtright focuses his paper tightly on Marina and notes that unlike other female characters in other romantic dramas, Marina is a woman who seems to save herself. Curtright clarifies that we have this impression of Marina because of her use of forensic discourse. The origin of this style of language lies in the ancient courts of law, focused on debate, persuasion, and the creation of a rhetorically sound argument.

Curtright explains that this type of argument is formed in one of two ways, which are antonyms of each other: causa honesta or causa turpis. He notes that Shakespeare steeps Marina’s language in this style of argumentation, in set debate pieces. Marina identifies her person with the causa honesta she represents, and her own cause reflects her person. Her debates turn on her opponent’s recognition of her goodness and the validity of her case. Curtright notes that Marina speaks often like a supplicant in front of a judge, establishing her own authority and goodness as evidence for her case. Further, as Pericles as judge hears Marina’s story in preparation to judge it, he in turn discovers his own daughter. Marina discloses her person by narrating the shocking and scandalous misfortunes she has survived and Pericles sees the causa honesta within her, restoring their relationship as father and daughter.

In Shakespeare’s first romance then, Curtright concludes that the miracles of restoration accompany the arts of persuasion, in an act  of “soul-bending resonance.”

Eric M. Johnson (Folger Shakespeare Library) – Using Data in Shakespeare Studies

Johnson begins his paper by introducing the idea of data as lying outside of Shakespeare’s texts, looking at the ways in which audiences interact with Shakespeare. He notes that the audience data collected does not pose security risks, as it is aggregated and in no way tied to individual audience members.

Johnson quantifies the types of data collected, noting that this can include things like book and ticket sales as well as measurements of online engagement. He uses World Shakespeare Bibliography as an example. Further, he notes the Folger Shakespeare Editions are great measures of exposure, as they are often used in classrooms. He notes that plays like Macbeth and Hamlet are the most used editions in this series, even over Romeo and Juliet. He connects this to search data from sites like Open Source Shakespeare, tracking the online Shakespeare search behavior of students who are exposed to Shakespeare in schools.

Now, Johnson describes a workshop he participated in in which theatre professionals explored data sets and possible integrated uses for data of theatrical audiences and readers. Using a group of data sets, the researchers determined that Macbeth has vastly more readers than Twelfth Night and yet the data supports the fact that the number of commerical productions of each play has actually been about even. Johnson then notes that data can be used to provide concrete reasons why plays that are considered ‘less good’ like Timon are in fact, less good. Johnson also mentions the possibility of using aggregate data to determine which genre makes audiences drink the most here at the American Shakespeare Center (spoiler: it’s the history plays).

Don Hendrick (Kansas State University) – Catherine vs. Henry: The Rematch

Hendrick starts his play with provocative statement, “Woman. Love me. They love the way I interpret Shakespeare.” From there, he jumps into his paper looking at the wooing of Catherine not as her defeat but as her victory. He notes that in recent film adaptations including the Hiddleston Hollow Crown interpretation stage a scene in which it takes longer and longer for Catherine to give in to Henry’s advances. Hendrick asks the audience if this is a trend we want to see more of and if we would like to eventually see a version of the scene in which Henry loses. The women in the audience cheer!

Now, Hendrick notes that Shakespeare has a propensity for “f**king with the Jacks in his plays in favor of his Jills.” Hendrick jokes that every turning over a new leaf by a Shakespearean male is like peeling an onion “again and again until nothing is left.” Hendrick then states that Shakespeare allows Jack to get Jill but only with the help of one of two distortions. He terms these distortions subtraction and addition.

Now, the actors take over to demonstrate. First, Neal and Cole demonstrate a moment of locker room banter between the men about Catherine that gets quite graphic. The audience laughs heartily at the naughty bits, proving Hendrick’s point that this bawdy moment will complicate an audience’s acceptance of this particular Jack getting the aforementioned Jill.  Hendrick notes that this moment often cut in performance as a result to clear the way for Henry and Catherine eventual relation.

The actors now demonstrate the additive strategy Hendrick names, using music in the wooing scene between Henry and Catherine. In adding music, Catherine is wooed both by Henry’s words and the soft, romantic music.  The music stops and starts throughout the scene, coming back in on moments of agreement between the two characters, allowing Catherine’s objections to cut through the silent moments. Cole’s Henry and Lefkow’s Catherine demonstrate the scene aptly while Neal provides music on the guitar. Hendrick pauses the scene right before the kiss and roars at the warning thunder heard in the playhouse.

Now, Hendrick asks the actors to demonstrate the scene again, with Catherine in charge. Here, there is no music and the scene hovers mostly in serious territory. Lefkow’s Catherine is stern, making Cole’s Henry work that much harder to both make himself appealing and understood to her.

Hendrick notes that, due to time constraints, he will end there but hints that he had planned to have Lefkow’s Catherine present the epilogue of the play and also hints that he had asked her to play it pregnant. He ends there, however, just missing the bear!

And that’s a wrap on another terrific sessions of scholarship and artistry.  It was my pleasure to spend another plenary session with you. Hope you’ll join us here for the rest of #bfconf15!

-Molly

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.