Blackfriars Conference 2015: Brunch and Buck Fizzes: “The Body’s Knowledge: Merging Multiple Ways of Knowing in Shakespeare’s Plays”

Following Sunday Brunch, Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen of the American Shakespeare Centerand Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance introduced Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company to speak about what she termed as “body knowledge” in performing Shakespeare.  Professor Packer began her presentation by leading the audience of conference attendees in a breathing exercise, instructing them to engage in breathing with “the whole of your body.” She then had her audience members take their pulses and count the number of pulses per individual breath.  The most common response from individual audience members was five heartbeats per breath.  She likened that ratio to that of iambic pentameter in a line of verse. “Iambic Pentameter is an extension of what we do in our natural state,” Professor Packer informed her listeners.  “Your body is who you are.  You are impulse with an “im-” in front of (your pulse).”  She then advised her listeners, “Remember the intelligence behind every figure of speech.”

Professor Packer applied her insights to the plays overall: “The power of the story lies in what’s going on with the storyteller or with the actor,” she said.  “The line endings in a speech reveal the speaker’s psychological development.”  Perhaps in reply to Professor Tim Carroll, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival’s keynote address conference on the subject of Iambic Fundamentalism the day before, in which Carroll stressed that in Shakespeare as in public speaking, the speaker should not, as a matter of form, stress ‘I’ or ‘me,’ Packer in contrast, gave actors the green light to hitting ‘I’ and ‘me’ in a line as long as actors also follows up those first person descriptions by hitting the active verb in the same lines in which they appear.  She also gave a key piece of advice to actors: “To hell with the operative words!”

Professor Packer then introduced ASC actors Sarah Fallon and Allison Glenzer to play a scene from “Othello.” She set the stage by discussing how Othello’s and Desdemona’s bed sheets symbolized the couple’s (interrupted) Wedding Night.  Othello and Desdemona could not consummate their marriage on their Wedding Night, she said, because Cassio’s brawl which opens the play prevented such an event from taking place.  She then directed Glenzer, playing Othello, to slap Fallon, playing Desdemona.  Fallon’s Desdemona cried out in pain when Glenzer’s Othello struck her.  Immediately, Professor Packer surveyed the audience and asked for its response to what it just witnessed.  Several members of the audience expressed that they “felt” Desdemona’s cry of pain instead of simply having heard it.  Packer explained, “The visceral response is in the body.” She continued, “You have to get to the form before you can ever get to the content, and in Shakespeare, the silences are in the audience’s body as well as those which the actors express.”  Professor Packer elaborated how Shakespeare in his later works began to shift the characters’ emotional feeling behind the words, as well as how the line of dialogue sounded to an audience. The actor shifts the thought, intellectually and emotionally, she concluded.

Bill Leavy