MLitt Thesis Festival 2016 – Session 1

Good morning! Cass Morris, back again to live-blog the first session of the 2016 Thesis Festival, 11:30am-2:00pm.

ASC Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen welcomes us, then Dr. Paul Menzer notes that this is just the start of a week of exciting MBC Shakespeare & Performance events.

Justine Mackey, “This Dog, My Dog”: Shakespeare and Man’s Best Friend
The presentation opens with dueling dogs: a lovely (adoptable!) pitbull called Duchess, actor Clarence Finn in a dog suit, and an invisible dog on a leash presented by Tyler Dale, all attempting to present Crab from The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Mackey comes out and introduces herself and her actors, and Jocelynn Joy Murphy presents the “moon” speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first with Duchess as “this dog”, then a second time with a stuffed dog. Mackey explains how she came to this topic, then notes that theatre still struggles with the choice to use live dogs, whether trained for performance or not, as opposed to prop or imaginary dogs.

“Performing animal” typically refers to an animal trained to do tricks for entertainment value, but Mackey believes that considering non-performing animals in theatre has value as well. A live dog can not only provide an interesting challenge for the actor, but can also create satisfying emotional experiences for the audience — and perhaps find a non-performing dog a forever home. Dogs, Mackey notes, need no special training in order to behave as a dog on stage. She moves to a consideration of various references to dogs in Shakespeare — there are over 2300 references to animals in Shakespeare, and the most-referenced animal is the dog.

This makes sense to Mackey, as humanity’s relationship with dogs goes back thousands of years. She provides a visual of cave paintings involving dogs. “Shakespeare was continuing a longtime theme that began thousands of years before him.” Mackey comments that outdoor theatre, such as the nearby Oak Grove, always contains the potential for unintended animal participation, as when frogs hop on stage. In this case, it can be a distraction for both actor and audience. Even intended animals can be a distraction, however, as their unpredictability can draw focus. Mackey sees this as a chance to heighten excitement. Dogs were, even in the early modern period, “an easy and accessible animal to work with on stage.” Mackey also ties this to the modern age, with the prevalence of animal-related videos on the internet, particularly with regard to the compassion that animals have for each other and for humans, and in turn, the compassion that we feel for them.

Mackey calls attention to the dual experience of placing a non-performing animal next to a performing actor, noting that it also brings up some ethical concerns. She seeks to place the theatrical use of non-performing dogs in line with other considerations of the relationship between dogs and humans. As an example, she speaks of the experiment of bringing a dog into the classroom, which improved both performance and attendance. Mackey ties this to the economic success of having a live dog in the ASC’s 2012 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as the marketing for that show let the audience know they could expect to see a live dog on stage.

“Putting a dog on-stage will immediately trigger some response to the audience.” Mackey’s observation is aptly timed, as Duchess makes some cute noises, eliciting coos from the audience. She returns to the ASC’s 2012 Two Gents, where over 13 weeks, with 13 different dogs, 9 of those adoptable dogs found homes from audience members. She then discusses the challenge for the actors: having to quickly get accustomed to a new animal, and to get the animal accustomed to them. “The dog truly becomes a symbol of the improvised.” The actor and director could not block the dog, “but rather familiarized the dog with the stage and the actors.”

She shares some experiences from Ben Curns, who played Launce in that production, including the instinctive acting that the second dog, JR, seemed to demonstrate on-stage. Another dog, Jed, was noisier, likely to cry or whine any time the attention on the stage diverted away from him. She relates that, despite some mishaps and challenges, Curns nonetheless felt that the project was more a success than not.

“Seeing an animal on-stage next to a performing human” stimulates certain things for the audience. According to an ASPCA study, nearly half of all Americans own a dog, and more know someone who does, augmenting the connection that audience members feel with a dog on stage. A live dog on stage changes the way the audience experiences the moment. Mackey notes that Thadd McQuade believes that having a live dog on stage causes a “friction of reality”, which may provoke the audience to think about why the dog is there — particularly in plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where a dog is not explicitly called for. She then speaks to the backstage effect of having a dog in a performance. McQuade’s dog was “miserable backstage” because the dog could sense a level of distress in the actors as they focused on their work, which in turn distressed the dog.

Mackey hopes that her work can help change the way that scholars focus their exploration of live animals on stage. As Mackey discusses the lasting impression that an animal can have on the audience, Duchess sneezes adorably. Mackey concludes by underscoring the long history that live animals have in performance, then states her belief that the live dog generates more connection with the audience, generates more revenue, and enhances the overall theatrical experience.

Q: Is there any sort of consent issue when it comes to using animals in performance?
A: There are organizations that work with regulations on performing animals, more for Broadway and film.

Q: What are the runner-up animal references in Shakespeare?
A: Second was birds, third was horse. Cat was low, and a handful were only answered once, like shark, squirrel.

Q: How does the dog not know that it’s not witnessing real conflict on-stage?
A: There can be a correlation; one dog reacted just to the word “kick”, which suggests that they do pick up on the on-stage dynamic.

Q: Did you get into the history of circus?
A: “I’m digging more into that now and how that has changed, even more recently.”

Molly Seremet, Cyborging Hamlet: A Tabletop Engagement
Seremet opens by referring to Harold Bloom’s assertion of Shakespeare’s singularity, his ability “to write the human.” This line of thinking suggests that Hamlet, then, is a “field sketch” of an entirely new kind of life. Seremet ties this to the idea of a human “that has not yet been,” figuring the conflict between heart and head for future hands that engage with the text. “A man from the future, caught up in the concerns of the past.” Seremet then presents a counterpoint argument from Degrazia, who also engages with the idea of interiority, but suggests that this positions Hamlet as dated, not modern. Defining Hamlet by that interiority only works if you divorce him from his reality; his contemporaries would have understood him in relation to contextual concerns such as land, patrimony, and inheritance. “In order for Hamlet to appear modern, the premise of the play had to drop out of sight.” Trying to make Hamlet’s self-reflection too modern ignores that he exists in a historical set of expectations and influences.

Throughout these discussions, Tyler Dale, on stage, manipulates a series of seemingly unrelated props.

The attempt to “assume modern ownership” of Hamlet ignores his and the play’s reality, and says more about our modern desires than about the play and character. Seremet suggests that the tension between Bloom’s and Degrazia’s interpretations is fascinating because it challenges our definitions of what is “modern”. Seremet proposes that we move away from questions of “what makes Hamlet modern” and instead consider that he has moved beyond modernity and moved into a post-modern idea of humanity, “an emblem of the post-human subject.”

Seremet then directs our attention to Dale as he wordlessly performs a card trick.

Seremet discusses the position of the cyborg in human understanding, then ties the ideas of Hamlet to that definition. Hamlet “as a character symbolizes a kind of human that few can emulate.” He is both “abundantly familiar” yet distant. “In cyborg fashion, Hamlet the character manages to hold us at arm’s length” as he performs humanity. We should consider that he represents not the human, but “a possible human,” an “actant”. He has the ability to act, but chooses not to, and “through the act of non-acting, becomes an actant.”

Seremet suggests that “Hamlet can be seen as a placeholder for the human,” stuck within his story, “an object occupying the subject position.” She argues for the replacement of Hamlet with an unpredictable object, to “shift the character”, which she hopes will re-ground Hamlet within his own text. Seremet refers to the mechanic terms that the play uses in reference to Hamlet. “Hamlet’s actant state can be framed in cyborg terms,” caught between the no man’s land between technological and human. Seremet relates this to the concept of “thingification”, examining the relationship between the animate and inanimate.

Seremet concludes by suggesting how we can capture the cyborg metaphor in theatrical practice, particularly by drawing attention to “thing-power”, thinking beyond the life-matter binary. In theatrical terms, an object remains a prop; an object-cyborg with thing-power, however, could become active rather than passive — a shift in perception, away from how we might use objects to considering how objects already use their thing-power on us. Seremet hopes to challenge the primacy of the human in theatrical practice.

Q: Any connection to the previous presentations, regarding the dogs?
A: Parallel tracks. Animals are different in that they do possess more outward agency.

Q: How does this relate to definition of “property”? What happens when the agency is reversed?
A: “In order for an object to cross over into cyber-territory, it has to act on us.” The difference between a prop and a object-cyborg is whether or not the thing has its own agency.

Catie Osborn, Contextualizing the Sword: Titus Andronicusand Early Modern Performance
Osborn begins by discussing how Raiders of the Lost Ark relates to Titus Andronicus, specifically the moment where Indiana Jones shoots the swordsman rather than engaging with him, because Harrison Ford had dysentery at the time. Osborn wondered how the cultural connotations of each weapon affects the audience’s perception of this as a humorous moment or not. “Does this become a symbol of colonialism and white oppression? Does Indiana Jones become the bad guy? Or, what happens when we understand the story behind the story? … It wasn’t colonialism, it was diarrhea.” Which brings us, Osborn notes, to Titus Andronicus, “famously shit on over the centuries.”

She wants to attempt to illustrate that the rampant violence is not demonstrating Shakespeare as an inexperienced and bloodthirsty playwright, but rather a commentary on cultural violence of the time. Her thesis examines the moments in Titus when a weapon appears and connects them to the early modern audience’s perception of those weapons.

Osborn presents the Peacham drawing from Titus, which illustrates a scene that never happens in the play — so how much can we really learn from it? She looks particularly at Aaron’s sword, not only incongruous in the supposed scene of imprisonment and pleading, but also at odds with the textual description of his weapon as a scimitar (important because the word choices centers Aaron as “exotic other”). Titus, meanwhile, seems to have spear, even though the text describes him as having a sword.

The play, Osborn notes, opens with a call to arms, specifically, to swords. Titus Andronicus, though not a historical Roman story, nonetheless connects to the cultural ideas of Rome prevalent in early modern England. Even without Latin, an early modern reader had access to Roman ideas and stories through English translations of Plutarch and others available in print. Shakespeare opens with a conflict between patricians and plebeians, but because the play has no specific time period, the audience cannot exactly know why either party appeals to each group of citizens. Osborn also remarks that, in Shakespeare’s England, Rome had alternate connotations, thanks to early modern Rome representing the corruption of Catholicism; this may explain some of Titus‘s atrocities, including the literal killing of messengers.

Titus combines familiar references to Rome into something vicious and brutal. Osborn highlights the important influence of Seneca on the text. A juxtaposition exists between the Roman and early modern ideas of vengeance; for the Elizabethans, vengeance belonged to God, and personal revenge was punishable by law. Titus, then staged “an Elizabethan anxiety” about the possibility for personal vengeance to spiral out of control. Osborn connects the 1594 publication of Titus to another text in the same year, which commented on the negative effect that vengeance had upon the revenger – specifically, visions and apparitions, such as that which Tamora visits upon Titus in the play.

Osborn shares a deeper consideration of just who gets murdered in Titus and why, positing it as both a dual morality play and a revenge tragedy. This becomes important when taken along with the religious conflicts of the time. Both Catholics and Protestants, though, would have been familiar with the story of Cain — and the admonition of God that any one who visited vengeance upon him would have it returned to them sevenfold. Osborn points out how many instances of violence in Titus are about brothers and that the “sevenfold” plays out within the play. Actors Sophia Beretta and Chris Moneymaker perform a scene between Chiron and Demetrius, which references their rapiers — a weapon which Osborn states was recognized as “contentious” by the early modern audience. The sword was associated with tradition and honorable warfare, while rapiers were weapons of personal vengeance. Fencing manuals commented on the dueling culture of the period, particularly with regard to the “daring” language that Shakespeare has the Gothic brothers emulate. Osborn points out that Chiron and Demetrius are doing something doubly illegal, both with regard to dueling and to wearing live steel in a royal court (illegal under Henry VIII). The scene, then, explains dueling culture and then tension between new and old styles, “hidden masterfully in a bevy of boner jokes.”

Q: How did the idea of the scimitar register at this moment historically?
A: There’s a notion of “otherness” present in Titus, which carries over into the culture at large — that of a mystical East.

Q: How does the research you’ve done translate to other plays?
A: This actually started with the Wars of the Roses, which ended up being just a little bit too much, because there was so much going on historically and culturally. “I thought Titus was a good test case,” but she wants her research to be something that readers can apply to whatever play they’re working on.

Q: Did you arrive at a sense of “rapiers are always this, swords are always this” in regard to their cultural connotations?
A: Youthful spirits, irresponsibility, people willing to fight in the streets = rapiers; Fancy people, high status people, those with traditions and responsibilities = swords “is generally how it splits across the entire canon.” Chiron and Demetrius are a good example.
Q: Did that link with military vs personal?
A: “That’s a great question; I’ll let you know!”

Ryan Odenbrett, Exit Crying Murder: A How-To Manual for Statistical Shakespeare Analysis
Odenbrett begins by stating that his thesis began as a desire to state Shakespeare’s intention in creating a pattern with the “murdered and escaped” characters in 3.3 and 4.2 of Macbeth, but that the project spiraled into “the Death Sheet”, a catalog of all the deaths in the Shakespeare canon. “I wanted to prove one point, but instead and accidentally, I made something better.” He hopes that this will enhance the Shakespeare community’s ideas about death on stage and that it will be able to inform performances.

His database illustrates topics including but not limited to: the ratio of Shakespeare death plays to non death plays, identification of on and off stage deaths, frequency of deaths within plays, how deaths take place, how they are discovered, chronological placing of death within a play, etc. Odenbrett carefully notes that he refrains from placing authorial intent upon the patterns that the database suggests.  “In short, Exit Crying Murder uses statistical Shakespeare analysis to examine the deaths in the canon.” Odenbrett comments that this is particularly apt in the year in which we are recognizing the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and refers to performances taking place across the globe that are performing all of Shakespeare’s deaths.

To start, he describes the phenomenon of charting Shakespeare’s deaths, beginning with an infographic that circulated the internet in 2013. Odenbrett suggests that the analytical human brain finds something satisfying in “this synthesized information in the way of visual images”. He challenges them, however, on the grounds of being inaccurate, and then presents his own table of the chronological compilation of every death in the canon (recorded from the First Folio).

Odenbrett then shares his “rules for admittance” for including a death in his compilation: that the character must appear on stage, be mentioned as dying on stage, or have appeared in a prequel work (the “Falstaff rule”). Looking at his chronology, Odenbrett points out that Shakespeare averaged one “death play” per year, and that he favored death plays over non-death plays by a factor of roughly two to one. He then shares his own pie chart displaying how many of the total deaths take place in each play. Most of the deaths take part in the tragedies, then the histories, then just two deaths in comedies. Early in Shakespeare’s career, most of the deaths took place in histories, but later in his career, he produces eight death plays in a row. However, the histories tend to have more deaths per play (6 in tragedies vs 8.1 in histories). The deaths in tragedies are also mostly on-stage, whereas more deaths in histories take place off-stage.

Plotting all the on-stage deaths into a line graph indicates a negative correlation over time — more deaths earlier in his career than later. Odenbrett speculates that that may have indicated his competition with Marlowe in the first few years. His last five plays have zero on-stage deaths, “as though he got tired of trying to drag carcasses off-stage”. A trend line of off-stage deaths indicates nothing useful by itself, as there is no discernable pattern, but when compared with the on-stage trend line, it seems that his plays alternate between high on-stage and high off-stage deaths.

Odenbrett uses Macbeth as a case study, intending to highlight the play’s irregularities when it comes to on-stage deaths. “Of the Death plays which feature more onstage deaths than offstage deaths, Macbeth possesses the lowest percentile at 57%.” Only Macbeth and Richard III die in stage directions, speaking nothing after their fatal wounds are received, “as though they didn’t deserve it.” Macbeth is also one of only two plays where a child dies on-stage — only 1.2% of all of Shakespeare’s deaths. Odenbrett argues that killing Lady MacDuff on-stage diminishes the rarity of that death. He mirrors this scene with Fleance’s escape and Banquo’s on-stage death, drawing attention to linguistic similarities between Banquo and Lady MacDuff.

Odenbrett “remains confounded by the amounts of data I’ve yet to explain to you” and hopes that the crash-course will encourage us to use statistical data when examining staging questions in the future.

Q: Is that death sheet going to be available?
A: Yes, it will be!

Q: The reason you excluded Two Noble Kinsmen was because of the collaboration?
A: Yeah, even though he most likely wrote the death of Arcites, but because it’s the most contested play and because it only happens in the stage direction.

Q: Is this information supposed to be just for study or to tell future productions whether or not to stage certain deaths?
A: The purpose is to give productions an informed choice.

Q: What is behind the popularity of the impulse to turn death into data?
A: Not sure “why they do it with death”.

Joshua Williams, Tactical Acting: A Foundational Approach to Actor Training through Stage Combat
Williams begins by stating that every actor has their own method of approaching acting, regardless of training, because of each actor’s individual background, psychological state, etc. Most schools of acting agree on one thing, however: conflict. “The basis of all acting is the physicalization of conflict” by bodies moving through space and time. Williams notes that the past few decades have seen a trend of moving towards privileging scansion and rhetorical devices, at least in the realm of Shakespeare studies, over more physical acting training.

Williams argues that many forms of training often neglect the whole-body concepts that are most accessible particularly for young actors, as well as sacrificing the specificity of intention and the tension between two actors. “The principles at the core of stage combat are the same as those of acting.” Combat foregrounds “the one against the other”, the most basic and savage source of drama. He thinks that combat should be the first skill taught to young actors, as through it, they can learn much about blocking, tension, expression, and specificity. Combat also helps young actors to understand the importance of “stakes” in any given scene. In a fight sequence, “what is ‘at stake’ is life itself.” This also forces young actors to listen to each other, both vocally and with their bodies. Combat, then, “teaches all of the most important lessons in acting.”

Tyler Dale and Melinda Marks assist Williams in demonstrating his methods. He begins with “conflict-style games”, including but not limited to tag, hide and seek, etc. One of the most useful that he found was tug-of-war. Combat there “has been shifted and reduced to its most basic concepts”, that is, two figures moving forward and back. Williams notes the ease of attaching storytelling to the back-and-forth. Marks and Dale demonstrate, attaching tugs and slips to certain words. Williams points out that this also involves breath, eye contact, etc. Partners can “tell the story of struggle” without actually exerting power over each other. Stage combat, Williams notes, “is not about winning”, but about working with a partner to sell the story.

Dale and Marks then demonstrate the basic footwork of advances, retreats, and passes can work in armed combat — pretty much the same footwork as in a game of tug of war. The tension between two fighters creates an unbroken line of tension between the actors, much like the literal line of the rope in tug-of-war. Williams notes that this tension can also apply to rhetorical conflict in the plays. In his future consideration, he intends to pursue that frame further, physically embodying verbal argument. For example: “In a normal scene, without combat, who ‘strikes’ first?” Who draws blood, who retreats, who gains power over the other? “The primary goal of this work is to serve as the basis for an actor training regiment.” His thesis outlines a theoretical conservatory program along these lines.

Q: How do you rectify the required falseness of the aggression in combat with the often-encouraged realness of the emotions in actors?
A: “I mean, it’s all acting.” Williams doesn’t see acting as generating “real” emotions. “That’s not what I’m interested in.” He performs actions.

Q: You’re claiming that your method is easier to train an actor in?
A: “No. I think it’s better.”
Q: So what makes it better than a traditional Stanislavski approach? Why is your terminology better?
A: “In my personal experience, having come up in a method-influenced environment, I never felt like it was enough to connect to the text.” Williams point to the need to connect with a partner and to connect points of action with the story.

Q: Wondering if the lines of tension correspond with Head-Heart-Gut-Groin zone theories?
A: “I have never felt as confident in the idea of physical zones for certain types of expression.” Williams says he wants to find ways of being eloquent in different areas. In terms of the idea of learning the ultimate stakes first, it would give more room to explore along the lines of those zones.

Q: How would you approach the concept of teaching physical neutrality to an actor?
A: “I think you go to another method.”

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