MFA Thesis Festival 2016

Welcome! From 6pm-8:30pm tonight, I, Cass Morris, shall be live-blogging the presentations given by the members of Sweet Wag Shakespeare, the 2015-2016 MBC MFA company.

ASC Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen begins with a brief introduction, then passes it off to Dr. Paul Menzer, who welcomes us all to the “annual opportunity for our students to share their work with the entire community.” Each presentation will be 10 minutes with a brief Q&A; a 10 minute recess will follow Maria Hart’s presentation.

Natalia Razak Wallace, “Your Brain So Tempered”: This Is Your Brain on the Company Model
“The ability to move an audience emotionally is theatre’s prime directive,” Wallace states, then moves on to defining the goals of the MFA company model. She states that she hoped to study the neurology of emotion, hopefully “explaining why we feel how we feel when we feel things”, then to apply that to the experience of creating and performing shows. Then she explains why that was a terrible idea for a thesis.

While the neurology of eye contact was fairly clear-cut, the neurology of emotions is poorly understood and harder to explain. Wallace also states that even if she could find a “neuro-hack” for why we feel these things, she would “both revolutionize and destroy theatre.” Instead, she hopes that her findings will speak to the company model and perhaps help those approaching this project in the future.

1) It takes many variables to create emotions, both mental and physical. Humans are born with certain emotional responses, but can only access most feelings through living. “If I have never been in love, how will I recognize it when it comes?”

2) We can manipulate these variables somewhat to manufacture some parts of the emotional experience. Wallace uses an example regarding the biological expression of laughter from the Wags’ current rehearsal process. Manufacturing the physical effect of happiness, laughing, can in some cases contribute to actually creating a feeling of happiness.

3) Positive affects are better than negative affects. Good emotions tend to generate more good emotions, and visa versa. For the Wags, this has had a positive effect, as the company members got along and were generally people more inclined to make the best of situations. Wallace also notes that more challenging experiences create a stronger group affect. Positive emotions also help people to remember experiences, even challenging ones, more positively. “To make sure, we should make something really traumatic happen to the group early in the process: Maybe a devised piece in the first month?”

4) Emotions are contagious. Wallace notes that, in the case of the Wags, this means you have a group of company members who cannot keep a straight face anytime anyone says the word “but”. (The company members proceed to prove her correct by giggling from the Lords’ Chairs).

“Is this useful for future MFA companies? I don’t know.”

Q: Are there any direct actions that can come out of this?
A: The group check-ins help to release any negative emotions, as well as making group members aware of each others’ emotional states. Wallace notes that you can check . Wallace states that the first MFA company, the Rovers, are all still very close friends, and they also used check-ins.

Q: Did having journeymen enter the group (non-MFA company members taking part in a show) change the dynamic?
A: Yes, since one of the key variables in a group affect is the composition of that group. But if a group already has a strong affect, new members are more likely to “adopt that affect” than to change it.

Q: You talked about conflict being negative group affect. Can you think of any examples where conflict ended up moving the company into positive group affect?
A: The words “positive and negative become problematic”, because you can have positive group conflict — if the people taking part are still respectful of each other.

Molly Harper, “Devise with Me”: Devising with Shakespeare
Harper begins with a parable regarding the making of broth for cooking. The devised piece is the broth which will flavor the cooking for the rest of the MFA company’s year. This challenge, which Wallace referred to, involves sticking the company members in a hot room, tossing them ingredients, roasting, then simmer and serve.

“Devising is difficult when most of the participants in the room don’t understand what devising is or how it works.” She uses her personal example of the character of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, connected to the theme of Rumor — a foil to crookbacked Richard, connected to the theme of Ambition. Wallace considers them the heart of the broth for her scene — something to “roast”, to condense and bring to the forefront. They were then redirected to move their scene to a smaller space and to make choices that were more confrontational with one another. “The scene wasn’t really working if you’re actively avoiding conflict and tension.” They found contrasting tempos of movement and overlaying the speeches, rather than taking turns, heightened the tension. “I watched audience members squeeze against walls to get away from us.”

She addresses the slow simmer: tension, both between the characters on stage and within an actor’s body. “The fight to control one’s body was the greatest take-away for myself.” Harper speaks of the challenges involved with “the constant battle to keep tension in my body” as she worked through the scene with Wallace. That tension is what creates meaningful emotional responses, and thus a more satisfying story for the audience.

“The final product was a delicious performance — which you may see again in the upcoming Sweet Festival of Wags!” The broth, she notes, ties the entire course together. The ideas, themes, and words enriched and condensed throughout the devised process ended up coloring those in the other plays in their year. Their actions began with examining Shakespeare’s text, but they then had to find ways to physicalize those concepts. “I believe that the devised show is an integral part of the S&P MFA model” because it helps to bring their studies out of the realm of the mind and more into the realm of the body, “thereby creating richer and more present performances.”

Q: To continue the metaphor, how do you avoid the adage that too many cooks spoil the broth?
A: “Hmm. That’s a good one.” Harper uses an example of, if there’s too much cayenne, you can cut it with yogurt or oregano — so if you’ve got one cook that’s too prone to cayenne, you can balance it out with cooks that like yogurt or oregano. Harper then ties it to Wallace’s ideas about a positive atmosphere.

Q: What ways have you found to continue uncovering these tensions?
A: Harper discusses that she’s focusing a lot on the tension between the upper and lower body — and the challenge created in dealing with a torn meniscus when working with that! She then discusses an exercises that Doreen Bechtol does with a pole, where two actors have to keep a literal physical connection between them.

Meredith A. Johnson, “These Indeed Seam, for They Are Actions That a Man Might Play”: A Humorous Thesis on Costume Design and Character Embodiment in Hamlet
Johnson begins by discussing the connection between early modern humourism and modern psychology and “how the physical manifestation of bodily humours in costume pieces” interacts with character choices and performance. The presentation will focus on Claudius, played by Patrick Harris, and Hamlet, played by Ian Charles.

(This live-blogger notes that there are a number of delightful sewing-related puns that she is not typing quite fast enough to catch)

Johnson provided the cast with single-page humour-based character profiles during their first read-through, meant to be examined alongside the script, in the hope that references and connections might be easily visible. She translated the concepts into costume pieces, relying largely on humoural colors and fabric weights.

During the costume parade, she discovered that “my humoural concept should not visually compete” with the show’s overall minimialistic, high-tech concept. So, she revisited her designs, re-imagining in how the humours might manifest in the costumes. “There is a fine line between serving the process and serving the product, and in that liminal space, I found a fine lining.” Literally — in the lining of the garments.

Johnson, with the aid of Charles and Harris, shows these to the audience, noting how the colors both tie the characters to each other and reflect their humoural balances — or imbalances. The actors then had the choice to find out where they could reveal those inner linings during the natural course of the show.

Harris speaks about how this helped him to think about Claudius’s tension and stress, particularly because: “my choler was located in my collar.” During the play, he first fidgets around his throat, then exposes the choler within the collar. Charles speaks to “playing with opening a button, but letting it be a subconscious thing” inspired by an emotion.

Johnson believes this gave the actors an intriguing new concept to work with, “without interfering with or muddying the aesthetic of the production.” Charles speaks to the consideration that actors then can carry over to other performances: what is the character hiding?

(Ralph: So are there any questions you’d like to be unraveled, any points to tie up?)
Q: How did you avoid stereotyping?
A: It was more about the fluctuation of the humours — which came from working with the actors, to see where they felt the most choleric. Johnson speaks to it being a state of flux, something to activate or de-activate.

Q: You talked about how this created better communication with the audience. Any insight on how that was still readable to the high school audiences?
A: “I actually intended to do the opposite — I think it enriched the performances and made the storytelling more clear.” Johnson notes that that terminology was never introduced to the audience; it was all visual.

Q: In a play where Hamlet literally wears the color of his humour on his sleeve, did you ever think about the fact that the other characters have a surface humour and then the inner humour?
A: Oh, absolutely.

Q: So how would you dress Claudius externally?
A: Phlegmatic, which it is — calmer, more pulled together.

Q: Did you choose colors linked to the humour historically or that would evoke that humour emotionally in the audience?
A: Historically.

Merlyn Q. Sell, Suit the Word to the Actor
Sell begins by stating that for adaptation to function as adaptation, it requires some participation from the audience, that they be able to conceive the similarities and differences from the original text. Actors will shape how the audience experiences those text. For this presentation, she will focus on the function of direct Shakespeare quotations in the staged reading of her One Woman Town.

Quotations can work in two ways: the first is simplest, where characters are performing Shakespeare. The second function, in Shakespeare as well as in One Woman Town, indicates madness. “The disjointed functions of a troubled mind” manifest as quotations, disjointed from their surroundings. The Old Man in One Woman Town utters quotations that are only tangentially related to the conversation he’s taking part in. “The response is not easily interpreted.” Sell is unsure whether or not it is important for the characters or audience to recognize the quotations; they add something of an “easter egg”, but without that awareness, the disjointed nature of his speech is still apparent.

The playwright can define meaning of the quotations via the surrounding context, but the actors also help to shape an audience’s understanding. Shakespeare as a form of ethos, a figure of memory — a character knowingly quoting Shakespeare, even if they don’t specifically reference him. This can function to align the character with Shakespeare’s authority. As example: the “wonder-tonic” salesman in One Woman Town, where Shakespeare seems to give “a celebrity endorsement”. In subtler context, it can draw a connection for the audience, who may associate the quote with a particular emotion or memory. A figure of distance — “a character may find themselves free to say what they really mean only when clothing themselves in Shakespeare’s words.” A character can speak words, as when Jane quotes Goneril, with a different intention than the Shakespeare character’s. This depends on the characters understanding that those words are a quotation. In instances where that is ambiguous, it muddies the understanding; Sell offers potential examples from One Woman Town. Sell also includes moments where the characters are unknowingly quoting, where a script quotes “to ingratiate itself” with an appreciative audience.

Sell discusses how she will revisit these quotations for the re-mounting of the staged reading in the upcoming festival, as well as for future production. For the play to survive outside the audience that will appreciate the inside jokes, “Every line must serve the story.”

Q: What constitutes “failure”, what’s the metric by which a quotation might be found wanting in the script?
A: If the only purpose it serves is to highlight the playwright and not the play itself.
Q: Which playwright?
A: “Me.”
Q: How do you judge that?
A: Sometimes it’s a grey area, and those can be left to the actors to interpret. Sometimes “I know very clearly, I’m just doing nudge-nudge, wink-wink, aren’t I clever, and those can clearly go”.

Q: Do you think in your paring down, you’ll reserve the quotations for certain characters?
A: The Old Man will keep all of his. Some characters would know Shakespeare, so it’s logical for them. Others have mangled Shakespeare, which may still have a function.

Q: You mentioned the role of the audience in adaptation. Would you perform that show for a more general audience?
A: “I would like to perform it for other audiences. As it currently stands, it requires revision to be performed that way.” Sell notes there are currently references that don’t serve the play’s actual story.

Q: Was part of the project related to your MLitt thesis about the prevalence of Shakespeare in the Wild West?
A: It’s definitely where it generated from.

Q: Where the character has mangled the Shakespeare, do you think that’s the character hiding behind it, or discovering it, or remembering it from seeing a Shakespeare show go through town? What did you mean by that?
A: Sell thinks the specifics of some of that could be left to the actor.

Aubrey Whitlock, Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Butts: Puppeting As You Like It
Whitlock begins by discussing the nature of a small-scale production, which may require one actor to play multiple characters on stage at the same time. Some previous companies have used either costumes or audible signifiers to indicate the change between characters. Whitlock references Jeffrey Chips’s thesis, which discussed change of costumes as a kind of puppetry; Sweet Wags took this a step farther, casting only three actors to play all the parts in As You Like It and using literal puppetry in the show.

Whitlock identifies three phases of working with the puppetry: Phase One: Delineating the puppet hierarchy; Phase Two: Working w/ signifiers and body parts; Phase Three: Rehearsal, mishaps, and re-evaluation. Choosing body part puppets was not only practical, but tied to the “hipster aesthetic” embraced by the production.

The hierarchy allowed the cast to answer two questions: who claims the actor’s body, and who gets the pieces? (“That’s really gross”). Sell, from the sidelines, shares her instructions to her actors. Whitlock notes that dominance was generally determined by the size of the role and importance in storytelling. Some characters would always need to inhabit the actor’s body (Orlando, Rosalind, Celia); others would only ever be a part. Based on that, they workshopped where, how, and when the other characters could appear. They had to explore how much expression they could . Angular parts of the body provided natural ridges that could approximate nose-like structures; softer parts were more difficult to anthropomorphize “but also far more hilarious”.

Her own hierarchy broke down thusly: Orlando and Dennis, full body; Duke Senior, half of the body; Touchstone, a clown’s nose and mustache Phoebe, on the thigh; Audrey, the bum; the Forest Lord: on one hand. Whitlock proceeds to done all of these costumes before resuming her thesis.

Through rehearsal, they found it impossible to embody more than two characters simultaneously, as they lost mobility. Eventually, the cast realized that the technical skill necessary was “far beyond what we could master in six weeks”. In re-evaluation, they dropped the concept of puppetting secondary characters and returned to other methods, such as stepping between characters. Only one did survive: Adam, which Adrienne Johnson demonstrates. He was always a fully-puppetted character, never one that she had to switch between fully embodying and puppetting.

The exploration of puppetting, however, still helped the actors to inform their physical choices when they moved to fully embodying those characters. Whitlock discusses examples from her own performance: such as Audrey, previously the butt, who turned into someone whose butt was always the first part of her to enter the scene.

She ends with this advice: “Don’t try to totally re-invent the wheel. BUT – do seek for new and interesting ways to approach the small-scale challenge.”

Q: Discuss more of the process of how the puppets continued to haunt your physical process.
A: Uniformity of posture became particularly important. Silvius, who had been a thigh-and-knee puppet, became a knock-kneed character. Charles the wrestler went from just being a bicep to having a bicep-centric signature gesture.

Q: If you had enough puppetry experience, would that be a lucrative experience?
A: “It would certainly be fun trying.” Whitlock notes that more time and specific training would have made that easier. “I don’t know how to make my butt expressive and articulated from the upper half of my body.”

Q: How much merit in the idea of puppetting empty spaces?
A: When it’s clear, it’s effective, but not what we chose to do.

Patrick Aaron Harris, Look at This F*cking Thesis: Modern Counterculture in Sweet Wag Shakespeare’s As You Like It
Harris begins with a disclaimer that this thesis includes strong language and internet memes; viewer discretion is advised.

His thesis examines how early modern “deviant counterculture” might manifest in Shakespeare’s plays and how to engage modern audiences with historically deviant social identities — specifically here, the hipster counterculture. So why is it called “Look at This F*cking Thesis”? Harris invites us to travel back to 2003, when counterculture was presumed dead — and then the hipster revival came, leading eventually to the 2010 creation of the website “Look at this f*cking hipster”, a visual critique designed to mock and expose hipsters. This, Harris believes, demonstrates that “hipsters, to this day, occupy a very precarious cultural position in our society.” On the one hand, they tend to be forward-thinking trend-setters, particularly in economic and environmental concerns. On the other hand, they are often accused of misappropriating cultural identities and of turning important movements into fads, placing the need to be cool above everything else. Harris quotes his mother when she was admonished for not shopping at Whole Foods: “Get off your locally-sourced, recycled-from-the-old-world-forest soapbox.” They are also accused of contributing to gentrification.

“But Patrick, what do hipsters have to do with Shakespeare?” Theatre, Harris states, of any time period, is a vehicle for culture and counterculture. During the early modern period, “many regarded public theatres with suspicion and abject hatred”. He speaks specifically of the performance of Richard II that became involved with the Essex Rebellion. Harris then turns to consideration of As You Like It, quoting director Merlyn Sell’s supposition that as the actors inhabited both male and female parts, the audience would have to question and interpret issues of gender, and that this also fit with the often gender-fluid hipster aesthetic. Harris then shares pictures of the characters in their performance of As You Like It, specifically focusing on Rosalind and Celia’s transition from the court to the forest: “Their choice to dress below their socio-economic status, despite escaping to the forest with a bounty of gold and jewels,” is emblematic of the hipster aesthetic.

Harris closes by stating that he hopes this peek into their concept will encourage us all to think about the relationship between theatre, culture, counterculture, and how we embody those things.

(Matt Davies: I feel so uncool up here)
Q: What is the official culture that hipsters are being counter-culture to if hipsterism is on the rise in culture?
A: “I devoted about 60% of my thesis to explaining that.” Harris draws the line at what is supported by social and government institutions and what contraverts that. There is a grey area. “Hipsterism seems to only be preoccupied with not being mainstream.”

Q: When Rosalind and Celia buy the farm in Arden, that is literal gentrification. Can you talk about that?
A: “For hours.” Harris notes that this changes the economy of the forest, as they pay for land that they’re not going to work, creating a complicated socio-economic relationship.

Maria Hart, Character Gesture in War of the Roses: Using Movement in the Small Scale Touring Model
Hart begins with a disclaimer regarding the title: the lecture is more about the framework for her work than specifically on War of the Roses. She then confesses to a pedagogical pitfall: that she tends to default to teaching the way she was taught; instead, reflective thinking regarding the development of a skill set is more productive, and she wants to apply that to the development of the small scale touring model. She notes that institutional memory allows her to ask three questions: Where did we come from, where have we been, and where are we going?

Since 2010, the program has been involved in an ongoing discussion about “extreme casting”, stemming from Jeffrey Chips’s thesis and the arrival of Matt Davies to the faculty, coming from an extreme doubling company. Though not a new technique nor new to the program, 2010 was pivotal to the role of extreme casting within the program, as it then became a staple of the MFA model. The change in terminology to “small scale” allows for more flexibility in interpretation.

Hart worked with Chips during her first semester at Mary Baldwin and connected it to other productions she had experienced at El Paso Kids and Company. Her awareness better prepared her to take on 10 roles in Katy Mulvaney’s Henry IV x 4. Hart notes that the program’s continued work on these shows is creating a set of alternate rules and methods. Nothing in the scaffolding of program skills directly prepares the MFA company for putting together the small scale performance; rather, they learn both by observation of previous years’ shows and through the trial and error of their own in rehearsal.

The actors must operate within a distinct set of rules in order for the storytelling to remain clear to the audience. Hart then delineates the variant rule sets used by the Sweet Wags’s As You Like It and War of the Roses. While the methods were different, both involved intense physicality. Hart describes the process as one of developing a “physical score” that went along with the verbal script. “The genre also requires an intense sense of ensemble” because the actors are so reliant upon each other for the various components of that physical score. Hart also describes the importance of precise motion, physical virtuosity, and mitigated ego.

Her future work will focus on the transitions, physical tension, stage business, character gesture, and vocal points in War of the Roses. She hopes to then describe a set of solutions for shifting from character to character.

Q: The small scale touring show has generated the most institutional memory; why do you think it might be that this show has generated that body?
A: Hart believes that relates to the ability to define it. Other shows are based more upon a traditional model given to them — the Ren style show derives from the ASC’s Renaissance season, the educational show derives from the ASCTC shows, but the small scale is out of those pre-defined molds.

Q: Interested in the idea that each actor is a storyteller, expand further?
A: Hart views this as a sort of reincarnation of the idea of the Greek chorus.

Q: How small can small go whilst retaining the ensemble?
A: That’s a hard definition. “We know that Kate Norris can do a one-woman show, so is she an ensemble within herself?” Hart discusses the importance of having an outside eye as director even in a one-person show.

(And now, a ten-minute interval)

As we resume, Garrett opens by getting everyone to sing “Happy birthday” to Matt Davies.

Marshall B Garrett, Revisionist History (Plays)
Garrett begins by referencing Hall’s condensation of the 3 Henry VIes and Richard III into one show, wherein Hall begs forgiveness for the heresy of cutting and changing Shakespeare’s words. “We can perhaps forgive the founder of the RSC for having a flair for the dramatic… and the passive voice.” Garrett notes that companies have been adapting Henry VI for centuries, though everyone seems mortified by their own temerity in doing so. Garrett and Harris created their own adaptation, and Garrett argues that this is the same sort of re-imagining that Shakespeare himself did, as evidenced by the variant quarto and Folio texts of these plays.

To convince us of the merit of the quarto texts, Garrett draws our attention to a handout provided to attendees (and which he will perhaps be good enough to provide a digital copy of to this live-blogger for inclusion here). The two versions prepare the audience for the next play in different ways: either preparing for the death of Rutland or for the mirroring of fathers and sons.
(ETA: Garrett.ThesisFestHandout1; Garrett.ThesisFestivalHandout2)

Garrett then turns to considering the quarto’s use of “pull” versus the Folio’s “pluck”. Though using the quarto as a base text, they determined to transpose in the Folio’s “pluck”, as it seemed a distinct revision. “Pull” is a less distinct word, and interesting for examination largely in those places where it changes to “pluck” in the Folio. Their choices “highlighted action over lament”, and, for an audience that has seen the Temple Garden scene, “pluck” has a stronger connotation later on than “pull” does.

Q: Difference between “deliberately unstable” and “deliberately revised”?
A: “I’m not really using them distinctly; that was sloppiness on my part”. He does note that there may be something to examine in the actors available in the different companies that Shakespeare was working with at various points in his career.

Q: Did you find that having worked on the cutting, things that happened in the show that would have changed your cutting?
A: They did make a couple of cuts pretty late in the process. “One thing I would have done” related to the choice to highlight the feuding rather than the familial, where he would have made the pluck/pull substitution throughout.

Jess Hamlet, “Kicks Her and Exit”: Staging Violence in The City Nightcap
Hamlet begins by describing the high volume of “kicks” in The City Nightcap, noting that this presentation will focus on the first two kicks in the play and their relation to early modern ideas of gender roles. The first, “Kicks her and exit, she weeps” may at first seem quite specific, but leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The kicked character, Abstemia, also receives a second kick from Lorenzo at the end of Act One (“kicks her, she swoons”). Hamlet argues that, in a tragicomedy, these kicks contribute to the tragic nature of the play and should be interpreted as such by performers and audience.

She also notes the importance of distinguishing whether these kicks are the same or different. She finds opportunity in the kick being the same, despite Abstemia’s escalated reaction to the second: “he considers her to be a possession, a piece of chattel.” Abstemia’s variant reaction may come from heightened emotional pain in the second instance. Hamlet notes that if her reaction comes from physical pain rather than emotional pain, a production may choose to make the second kick more violent. Patrick Harris and Maria Hart then demonstrate the Wags’s staging of the stage direction. This could be textually supported, as a character then accuses Lorenzo of being “too violent”.

Hamlet then discusses Jacobean notions of appropriate conduct in marriage. Violence against husbands was treason, but wives were subject to “appropriate correction” and were thought to be improved by suffering, encouraged to suffer in silence in the promise of spiritual reward. Though Abstemia does not verbally object, Hamlet argues that Davenport makes her passively eloquent.

Hamlet also points out that the people in this play “kick downward”, sending a message of inferiority and disgust to those being kicked. “In choosing to kick rather than slap or hit, the men are telegraphing” that their victims deserve nothing better than that part of the body most in contact with dirt, mud, and shit. Hamlet suggests that stage directions could be better examined for character clues, and those who do so “may be surprised to find new avenues into the play’s meat.”

Q: How often is the kick that of a higher person to a lower person?
A: Hamlet looked only at the kicks in this play, not at the 40ish in the rest of the canon of early modern drama.

Q: Follow-up: How many of those kicks are against women?
A: “That’s the next step.”

Q: Does the theatrical space (such as lights-on in the Playhouse) affect the audience’s experience of these kicks?
A: Hamlet is interested in how spectator relationships affect the experience; ie, if one audience member sees another being uncomfortable, does that change how the first audience member feels? She thinks this may be different in a larger space such as the Globe, as opposed to the intimacy in the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Q: How do you think the location of where the kick is received on the body may change the perception?
A: Abstemia is already down, both physically and in the marriage, “so that… sends a message. And not one I agree with!”

Q: So how does that relate to other kicks, where they are standing?
A: “Well, in the Turk kick, because he’s a man, he automatically gets more equality even though he is socially inferior. The gender gives him agency.”

Q: Relating to the idea that, when you take a dead body off-stage, if it’s the hand last, it’s tragic, if it’s the feet last, it’s comedic, that the foot is a comedic body part. Is there a connection there?
A: “I would point you to YouTube and groin kicks.” Hamlet thinks less so in The City Nightcap, that only one kick might border on comedy and it comes so quickly on a non-comic kick that it’s hard to separate the two.

Ian A. Charles, The Ur-Melody: Awakening Character and Place in Sweet Wag Shakespeare’s Cymbeline
Charles discusses his role in creating music for Cymbeline: sound designer, music director, and composer. Drawing from his background in musical theatre, he looks at the idea of melody-as-theme, but notes that he must consider what music in theatre is meant to accomplish: to cue transitions, establish patterns, underscore particular moments. Music can thus shape character and place in performance. He then discusses the leit motif, a repeating pattern that gains meaning through association with characters and moments. He uses West Side Story as an example. “I’m drawn to the idea that a central theme” can illuminate something “genetic to the play”.

His argument for this thesis is that they can accomplish something similar in Cymbeline, giving the music “an almost rhetorical power”, using leit motifs as signifiers. How, then, does a composer begin? The temptation is to go to the romantic themes of Cymbeline and Postumus, but Charles suggests that there is more of a heartbeat in redemption and reconciliation. He also notes that many characters could only get away with the things that they do in a romance. Charles then ties this concept to ideas of music itself having the power to be redemptive and soul-lifting.

Charles then shares some of his compositions thus far: the initial music “must be unresolved, maybe even discordant” thanks to the unsettled state of things at the start of the play. He demonstrates a few variants that different characters might have to illustrate how they subvert, twist, or change the main theme. Charles discusses how these might relate to the textual instances of music in Cymbeline as opportunities to inject the redemptive leit motif in different ways, possibly with “something as simple as tempo”.

Music can also usher in a new location. Charles gives examples for royal Britain, rural Wales, and Rome. Jupiter’s intervention might also provide changes and even resolution to the theme. Charles notes that what we’ve heard today is still a work-in-progress and liable to change as they continue through rehearsals. He hopes that this redemptive “ur-melody” will help them find other motifs to illuminate the characters and story.

Q: Is there a period aesthetic that’s pairing with the redemptive theme that’s in line with the concept of the play?
A: Charles shares what he’s considered, though he hasn’t landed on anything. He’s explored Celtic music, much of which he found very upbeat and flexible, but he realized that he has to be able to “let go of Celtic persay, if I want it to be able to be something otherworldly”.

Q: Have you explored the ways in which the story can be told differently by playing the same leit motif on different instruments?
A: Charles notes that they are playing with the instruments and vocals in rehearsals. He wants to capitalize on the vocal strengths of the company.

Q: A question about the specific moment where the brothers question whether they should sing because their voices are breaking.
A: “I’m really excited to get to that scene” particularly since both actors “are stellar singers”.

Adrienne Johnson, Imogen as Britain: Foreign Threat in Cymbeline
Johnson opens by stating that the princess Imogen is a vehicle for the themes of sexual conquest, love, and family bonds, moving through the plot in different roles. Her identity is defined by the men who desire and seek to control her. “All of these men, whether violently or tenderly, seek to desire Imogen at some point in the play.” Johnson notes that the possessive language seeks to objectify Imogen, but suggests that Imogen also illustrates the threats to Britain’s court. Her identity and the various claims on it are then a metaphor for the vulnerability of the British crown. Johnson positions this in relation to the masculine narration of the British myth.

Johnson gives examples of Shakespeare’s use of feminized language in reference to the British body politic, where England is often described as a bloody, bruised, broken woman, ravaged by various wars and strife. In Cymbeline, the men involved consistently fail at protecting and defending the female body they seek to control and which they descriptively place value upon. Johnson notes the vocabulary used to refer to Imogen of “that of exchange”, where the audience is continually reminded that she is property. Imogen later relates her own worth to that of the land she will someday own.

Johnson further suggests that both Imogen and the Queen provide foils to the idea of masculine nationality, at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Imogen reinforces the patriarchy through her consent to the domestic role. Johnson states that her full thesis looks at the parallel stories of Imogen’s changing roles through the play and the views of Cymbeline’s court and, thus, British power. Without Imogen’s feminine participation, the masculine influences cannot establish themselves as dominant in the narrative of Britain. Her example of forgiveness motivates others, and her acceptance of her deposition allows the masculine nationality, in the person of her brother, to take over.

Q: Curious how this might impact her work on playing Imogen?
A: Since the play is still in production, she has been observing other actors’ work more than directly discussing it with her fellow actors. She’s interested in finding the moments of “value” and making sure they stand out.

Q: Any thoughts about other plays that relate to the Matter of Britain, such as King Lear?
A: Not yet!

Q: How did you arrive at this metaphor of Imogen as Britain?
A: Johnson had been reading an article about the origins of feminine power and when and how it shifted, then defined it further in discussion with Doreen Bechtol.

–This session live-blogged by Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager