Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session XVIII: Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse: The Study, the Stage, and the Classroom

This is Merlyn Q. Sell blogging Colloquy Session XVIII from the Blue Ridge Room at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel running from 9-10:15am.  This session is chaired by Bryan Herek.  The presenters are Jim Casey, Annalisa Castaldo, Sarah Enloe, Fiona Harris-Ramsby, Kate McPherson, and Rhonda Knight.

Before the session formally starts the presenters are engaged in a discussion of Lia Razak Wallace’s work presented earlier this work regarding the science of eye-contact between performers and audience.  Clearly Wallace’s ideas have generated a lot of excitement among conference attendees.

Herek begins by saying that today’s colloquy is a reunion of sorts for those that attended the summer 2008 NEH Institute.  There were twenty participants that included high school and college teachers.  The focus of the five week intensive was Shakespeare in the classroom.  Participants cut Antony and Cleopatra, split it into eight parts which were rehearsed in teams with ASC actors and culminated in a tag team performance.  The rigorous schedule included classes every day in the Blackfriars and the opportunity to repeatedly see the ASC productions at the time.  The Institute enriched the participants’ teaching and even resulted in McPherson’s students began an original practices company in Utah.  Knight returned to ASC for a sabbatical later on and has continually found the actor’s renaissance season style to be particularly useful in reaching her students.  Enloe stresses that providing a time constraint and the rules of original practices explodes creativity in students.  Herek finds that introducing the idea of solving “the puzzle” of particular staging moments allows students to forget the weight of Shakespeare and comprehend one individual moment and have tools to take on the next moment.  The presenters are all in agreement that having props on hand is essential to awaking students to the possibilities of the text.  Castaldo’s student body is made up primarily of engineering students and others who are taking the class for a GE requirement and aren’t able to devote the time out of class necessary to actually attempt a full performance themselves.  However, seeing the ASC renaissance season was equally fruitful for her students in linking the page to the stage.  Casey has always been invested in close reading and a focus on the text.  He finds cue scripts to be a very valuable teaching tool, though admittedly that is greatly dependent on the students.  There is a consensus among the panelists that performance in the classroom frequently fails but when it is successful it opens up the text in unique ways.

Herek stresses the significance of the pre-show music in a production.  During the Institute Herek had championed the participants to include a music pre-show in their production as well.  He’s continued to champion the pre-show with his students by not allowing them to stew backstage before performance.  He finds that the pre-show sets an environment that is key to connecting Shakespeare to things that are more familiar to his students.

McPherson and her students also took Shakespeare into the juvenile justice system.  Her students cut the scripts down to sixty minutes and they were then performed by the incarcerated boys.  McPherson and her students had to overcome the boys’ reluctance to cross-gendered casting but they frequently saw some really wonderful moments.

Herek mentions Ralph Alan Cohen’s book as being necessary as a touchstone to recall what they experienced so intensely at the Institute.  McPherson found the experience to be as exhausting as the conference but five times as long.

Casey points out the growth in his scholarship since the Institute and how it provided a focus for his work and created valued connections within the group.  McPherson shares that her first published article grew out of the work at the Institute.  Castaldo is currently working on a book about magic on the early modern stage and she has found that she is now able to include questions of staging in that work.  Enloe mentions the habit of “reading for the stage” is created by working within performance.

McPherson finds that her work has become infinitely more collaborative since this intensive.  Enloe reminds the group how impossible it would have been to complete the Institute’s tasks individually and that collaboration was a requirement to succeed.  Herek agrees that collaboration is also key to his work.  He also stresses the value of the network that was created by the Institute and how warm the extended Blackfriars community has been.  Casey agrees that he had previously found it very difficult to collaborate but since the institute he has published two collaborative articles and has many other collaborative projects in the work.

Enloe says they only had two days to cut Antony and Cleopatra, which Herek found it very difficult.  There was a lot of dissension within the groups regarding the cut.  Castillo says she ultimately took their script and cut it herself so that decisions were made by the deadline.  The cut had to follow ASC’s rules regarding cuts: 1. Liposuction not amputation. 2. Can’t cut entire scenes. 3. Can’t cut entire characters.  Herek  walked away from the process with a greater understanding of the purpose of comedy within tragic plays.  He finds that the comedy is also a great hook for students as well.  Enloe correctly guesses that he worked with  ASC actor John Harrell in the intensive.

Knight recalls a session taught by Roz Knutson wherein they were tasked with writing a scene based solely on the title of a lost play.  These scenes were eventually performed.  In this instance, Knight found that again it was important to trust the people that had the idea and make a decision.  Everyone agrees that once a decision is made you can move forward much easier.

Castaldo has found the tools learned at the Institute is particularly empowering for students, especially those who are afraid of Shakespeare.  The original practices staging, the cue scripts, and a specified end goal has given the students control of the work instead of merely reading.  Casey points out how it also awakes for students the idea that there are multiple solutions to any staging problem.

Enloe requests some more information as to what the pedagogical purpose of exercises like Knutson’s might be.  Knight found that the exercise allowed them to apply the knowledge they already had of original staging practices.  It provided an outlet for creativity and made students aware that there are many plays we no longer have.  Herek says that these techniques have become a model he uses when discussing teaching.  Enloe suggests that these types of exercises do more than simply teach Shakespeare, they also teach collaboration and creativity.  There are many skills required in a renaissance style production are applicable in many avenues outside of performance and Shakespeare.  Casey concurs, noting that these skills are the exact things currently being sought by employers.

About merlynq

Scholar, artist, and all around good egg.