Was’t not at Hallowmas?

Though Halloween as we know it is largely one of merriment and good-spirited spookiness, it has somber origins in both the Roman Lemuralia and the Celtic Samhain. The three days of the Lemuralia were devoted to banishing malevolent ghosts and other negative spirits. Though the Lemuralia was originally held in May, once it merged with similar Christian observances, its associations got transferred to the autumn. It may also have connection with three autumn days when the Romans opened a gate, believed to lead to the underworld, in the Temple of Janus, and appeased the spirits there with offerings from the harvest. By contrast, the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SHAH-vahn in Irish Gaelic) was primarily a harvest festival, marking the end of seasons for herdsmen and traders alike, but was also traditionally the day when the veils between our world and the Otherworld were thinnest, allowing fairies and ghosts to slip across the threshold. Many Scottish and Irish legends feature abductions carried out on Samhain. Customary protections included wearing one’s clothing inside-out and carrying iron.

macbeth_asc_summer2014_009

Jonathan Holtzman, Gregory Jon Phelps, and Patrick Midgley as the Weïrd Sisters in MACBETH. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

By the 16th century in England, those pre-Christian traditions had blended with the Christian ideas of Allhallowtide — a three-day observance from October 31st to November 2nd, featuring, in succession, martyrs, saints, and all departed Christian souls. Commoners would go begging at the houses of the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for which they would promise to pray for the souls of the rich and their families, a practice Shakespeare refers to in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Speed says that a lover would “speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Sometimes they would do this disguised or masked, perhaps as an outgrowth of the Samhain traditions, and in some areas, it was customary to dress up as the saint who was the patron or patroness of the local church. Considering the gory ends that many saints and martyrs came to, perhaps the later association of Halloween with the horror genre is a natural shift. Eventually that procession, well-known to Shakespeare, evolved into trick-or-treating.

hamlet-29

Josh Innerst as the Ghost of King Hamlet and Patrick Earl as Hamlet in HAMLET. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The early modern fascination with the supernatural infuses many of Shakespeare’s plays. Vengeful ghosts show up in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. King Hamlet even references the idea that spirits wandering the earth were souls in Purgatory:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

King Hamlet certainly doesn’t seem restricted to a single night, but maybe this is a hint that at least part of the play takes place on or near Halloween? Puck calls on the same idea of wandering spirits in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards:

Oberon is careful to remind him — and the audience — that the fairies are “spirits of another sort”, ethereal but not infernal.

That cultural delight in the paranormal isn’t so far removed from the modern day as our post-Enlightenment society might believe, either. Consider the enduring popularity of horror films, paranormal romances, and ghost-hunting TV shows, or the yearly pilgrimages many of us make to theme park haunted houses, paying for the privilege of being spooked. Here in Staunton, ghost tours of downtown have become so popular that they now start in June and keep running until winter chill sets in. Medieval and early modern superstitions have hung on as well: if you’ve ever knocked on wood, crossed your fingers for luck, or even said “Bless you” when someone sneezes, you’re continuing centuries-old traditions meant to maintain a barrier between the spirit world and our physical realm.

Director of Mission Response to the Globe Decision Regarding its Artistic Director

Sam Wanamaker’s success in building the Globe (Shakespeare’s celebrated outdoor theatre) provided much of the impetus for building the Blackfriars (Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, more celebrated in his day than the Globe).  For that reason, the Globe’s decision to part ways with new Artistic Director Emma Rice following next season is a matter that should be of interest to fans of the Blackfriars Playhouse and the American Shakespeare Center.

Because Ms. Rice is remarkable director with an exciting vision, her tenure has occasioned a serious conversation about the purpose of the Globe. The particular concern that sparked that conversation was her decision to add lighting and amplification to the shows in the Globe.  In doing so, she raised important questions about a fundamental reason for the careful re-creation of the building: to explore how plays Shakespeare designed for that space might work, not just to learn more about Shakespeare but to learn more about theatre as well.  

What concerns me as co-founder of the ASC and as a member of the Globe’s Architectural Review Group, is the way the press is framing the Globe’s decision.  Their easy view is that this is a battle between tradition and innovation – between those who want the shows in the Globe to be a kind of museum theatre and those who want to apply modern technology to the shows to make the plays contemporary.   

The reverse is true.  The technology that Emma Rice has installed in the Globe is the conventional lighting and sound available in every prosperous modern theatre.  She is a master of the use of that technology, but there is nothing new about it; fitting it into the Globe is a case – almost literally – of trying to put a square peg into a round hole.  By contrast, the Globe is a unique building.  Previous Globe directors – men and women – have drawn their inspiration from that building, and their exploratory work has been a wellspring of contemporary theatrical creativity.  They have helped us to look anew at the relationship between actor and audience, at live musical accompaniment, at movement, at costume, and at issues of gender and casting.

In that way, the Globe, as Sam Wanamaker intended, has reminded us of the value of the purely human in the theatrical experience.  In short, by using the space that inspired Shakespeare to look afresh at theatre unmediated by technology, the Globe has been a leader in creating unconventional theatre, and it has inspired theatre companies all over the world (most without connection to Shakespeare) to trust in the ability of actors and in the understanding of audiences to make great theatre without the support of performance-enhancing technology.  

The American Shakespeare Center is proud that the Blackfriars Playhouse is one of those unconventional theatres.

Education Retreat 2016

Once a year, the education department at the American Shakespeare Center ventures out into the social and artistic world that is NOT centered in Staunton, Virginia. We call these outings our “Education Retreat,” with the double-entendre of being educational experiences for us as well as the attendees consisting of members of our education department. Previous adventures have included attending plays at other theatres, going to Busch Gardens, and spending  quality time at the home of our Director of Education. All of these outings obviously vary in their educational and artistic impact on us and on their other audiences, but they are all united by the major goal of our “retreats;” camaraderie and team-building. This was the first educational retreat that I got to go on (being a new hire as of April this year), but in previous years attendees have ranged from just salaried staff, to interns, to education artists. The goal is to include as many people as possible each year, and to impact as much of our team as we can with a fun and educational experience.

This year’s trip included Sarah Enloe, Director of Education, Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager, Lia Wallace, College Prep Programs Manager, and me, Adrienne Johnson, Company Manager and Camp Life Coordinator.  We made good time driving into Washington, DC on Wednesday afternoon, had dinner and saw Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, the first part of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes at Round House Theatre produced in partnership with Olney Theatre Center. On Thursday we tried and failed to get into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, and instead went to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and had lunch at Rasika before we had a few meetings at the Folger Shakespeare Library. We only hit a bit of traffic coming home, and were all back at work Friday morning.

YUZU Japanese Restaurant

We weren’t supposed to eat here. We actually had reservations for Jaleo, but we were late and they couldn’t delay our reservation by much. We still did our best to take the Metro across town in time, but were more worried about our curtain time since we probably lost our table. We literally walked into the nearest restaurant to the Metro station and (I think) found a little goldmine. Instead of a contemporary Spanish restaurant, we ended up in a Japanese restaurant with a personal sushi chef (with quite the resume). I was totally up for trying a new style of food… but sushi is my favorite food, so I was thrilled about the unplanned change. Collectively, we got edamame and tempura vegetables, spicy karaage chicken, udon, three different sushi, and two nigiri. Everything was delicious.

Round House Theatre

For this production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Round House Theatre teamed up with Olney Theatre Center. The two theatre companies have announced a “two-year commitment to co-produce outstanding plays in Montgomery County.” Angels in America is the first of this undertaking, and the next partnership (this time at Olney) happens in Fall of 2017. When it premiered in 1991, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. When we began looking at plays for our retreat, I suggested Angels in America to Sarah, mostly out of the selfish reason that I love the play and that I wanted to see some serious tech at work, knowing they’d at the very least need a fly-system. Luckily, there was a groupon. Sarah and I had read both parts before, and both Lia and I had seen the HBO version of the play, but Cass had neither read the play nor seen the made-for-tv special before our expedition on Wednesday.

I won’t speak for my cohort, but I loved the production. First, it was great to see some well-timed tech. As someone who stage managed for years before coming to work at the ASC (where we do it with the lights on!), I really miss seeing and executing what my stage-management professor from undergrad perfectly titled “a sexy light cue.” Timing cues is a detail-driven expertise that takes constant finessing, and something I miss most about calling shows. It is a skill that I am afraid I will lose if I don’t use it, and I was grateful to relish in a cleanly-executed production. There’s no better feeling than when a beautiful technical aspect in your play is timed perfectly with the talent of the actors. Well-done Round House/Olney. Secondly, the acting was superb. It’s hard to pinpoint just one favorite character or scene or moment. Kushner obviously wrote a wonderfully balanced play, with great character arch and development, but putting that aside, just the acting was outstanding. I had never seen Thomas Keegan perform, since I’m new to the ASC, but Sarah, Cass, and Lia all had, but only ever in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I imagine that a Republican, Mormon, closeted-homosexual was out of the usual wheelhouse in which they’d seen him perform. Keegan toward above his detail-oriented partner, Kimberly Gilbert’s Harper. When reading the play, Harper is my favorite character, in Round House/Olney’s production, I really want to say she’s still my favorite. Her honest Harper was earnest in her delivery and meticulous in the use of her hands. Gilbert could teach a lesson to every Nina who asked what to do with them. But every scene she did, was topped by one of her cast-mates, and then again by her, and then again by her cast-mates (you get the picture).

It is hard to single out a single winning performance. And yet, I’m still going to try to. Sarah Marshall was noticeably Sarah Marshall in every character she doubled, with the exception of Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother. Each actor in the production was good at making almost all of their words sound genuine, as if they were being delivered for the first time.  This is something we strive for at the ASC, because we believe that the quick delivery of Shakespeare’s text is crucial to understanding the language and executing the original staging practices of his plays. It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve tried, and maybe succeeded a few times in plays I’ve been in. Many actors find this “discovering” of language one of the more difficult practices of acting; how do you make words that someone else wrote, that you spent hours memorizing, sound like you’ve never spoken them before and definitely haven’t practiced saying them hundreds of times? I have never seen an actor execute this better than Sarah Marshall did in the scene where Hannah Pitt first arrives in New York and has a discussion with a homeless woman about getting directions to her son’s neighborhood.  Because of my obsession with tech in a show, it is very hard for me to “get wrapped up” in a production as I am constantly looking around the room to observe as much of the backstage elements as a I can. However, during this scene, I forgot to look around, because I couldn’t look away. It was the most real, wonderful connection of two fake people I’ve ever seen, and my heart went out to Hannah Pitt. Overall, the show was amazing, and my only regret is that I probably won’t get to see Part II before it closes at the end of the month.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

file_000-4

Photo by Cass Morris

We didn’t get in so I can’t talk about the actual museum (although I plan to go with my family in March, so might have more to say later). But what I can talk about is the overwhelming excitement and feeling of camaraderie as we waited to get in. We got to the line around 8:05, and were so close to getting in. If we’d been about 10-15 minutes earlier, we would have been in the pretty large group of people that got into the museum with their generous same-day passes (distributed at 9:15). The pre-sold tickets to the museum are currently sold-out through March 2017, but each day the museum reserves several “Same Day Timed Passes” to try to welcome as many people as possible, both those with reservations and those without. The line had between 200 and 300 people waiting to get in (rough observed estimate, I didn’t count), and I’d say we were almost in the middle of that group. The line was made up of a mix of African Americans, white Americans, other ethnicities, and I heard one man proclaim to a guide that “even the Canadians” were making the trip down to the museum! It was a lovely display of exactly what the museum is trying to highlight, #apeoplesjourney and “A Nation’s History.” The museum is for everyone. And we all have the opportunity to explore this new and exciting display of an integral part of American history, culture, and community. I can’t wait to check it out sometime next year.

National Air and Space Museum

I had been to the Air and Space Museum many many times (my family lived near DC growing up, so we frequently explored the museums and monuments whenever relatives came to town), but Lia and Sarah had never been before, so we quickly chose to explore this one. Like I usually do, I quickly passed by the fighter plane and war plane exhibits for the (in my opinion) way cooler part of the museum. I spent most of my time in the moon exhibits while Sarah, Lia, and Cass explored other parts of the museum and, of course, went to get some freeze dried ice cream. Duh.

The aeronautical collection began in 1876 but didn’t occupy its current building on the National Mall until 1976, and it has grown to be the largest of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. Although the exhibits have developed over time, when exploring the museum it is easy to see that a lot of the exhibits are outdated. We each noticed this about the museum and that actually sparked our biggest discussion once we left. It wasn’t actually about the content of the museum, but instead about curating and maintaining exhibits. Sarah asked us “If you had the funding to redesign a museum, what would you keep, what would you toss, and where could you begin from scratch?” Specifically at Air and Space, so much of the content is artifacts; actual pieces of planes and spacecraft, so we all agreed we could keep the actual pieces while updating what we said about them. This is a constant discussion for the ASC’s education department because we are always archiving our work (artistic, educational, and now administrative and marketing). We actually have three archival interns at the moment because there’s so much material to process. Although we don’t have our archived material on display, we are constantly cataloguing and rotating our data between our two locations, and visiting other theatres and museums offers important insight into how to catalogue and maintain our own historic records to make them as easily accessible to as many parties as need them in the future.

Rasika

Rasika is one of our boss’s favorite restaurant. For my birthday last year, he tried to take me there for dinner, but we couldn’t get in. The four of us did get in for a lunch reservation and were joined by an intern from the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She wanted to meet with us to discuss our community outreach and our interaction with our audiences before, during, and after they attend a production at our theatre. We were able to answer a lot of her questions, but are also arranging for her to speak with our development team members.

The five of us sat down for a delicious Indian meal in which I can honestly say I don’t remember what everyone ordered. We did begin with an order of Palak Chaat, which is a crispy spinach appetizer with sweet yogurt. It was amazing and I could have eaten just that. Everyone else ordered some form of meat or veggie/sauce/rice dish, varying in color, spice, flavor but similar in deliciousness. I ordered tandoori salmon that was the most tender piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. Finally getting to try this famous Indian restaurant was well worth the wait.

Folger Shakespeare Library

For the rest of the afternoon Sarah had arranged for us to meet with two leading members of the Digital Media and Publications team at the Folger; first with Michael Poston, the Database Applications Associate, and second with Eric Johnson, the Director of Digital Access. Poston showed us his current projects, an online version of the works of Christopher Marlowe (similar to Open Source Shakespeare from what I can tell) and a transcribing database of Early Modern manuscripts (less theatre history specifically, more all-of-the-things history). I must admit, I didn’t follow everything he was talking about, but, man, were Cass and Lia excited. I was most excited by Poston’s palpable enthusiasm for his own project. His hospitality and openness to take the time to engage with us was the best part of the meeting.

file_000-5

Photo by Cass Morris

We then had about a forty-five minute break before our meeting with Johnson, so Sarah and Cass explored the Jane Austen/Shakespeare exhibit currently in residence at the Folger while Lia and I wandered over to Capitol Hill to visit my sister on her lunch break who works as a clerk for the House of Representatives. Sarah loves Austen’s work and was excited about the mash-up of two great writers.

After the break, we met with Eric Johnson. While Johnson manages the various digital programs at the Folger and oversees Shakespeare Quarterly, he is most famous for creating Open Source Shakespeare, one of the most widely-used Shakespeare research resources. Lia was excited because the last time she met Johnson, she fangirled a little too hard, although he had no memory of the meeting. We had a nice chat, but I was mostly excited to see his collection of Washington Nationals memorabilia in his office. Again, I don’t always follow the academic depth of the conversation, but Johnson was friendly and welcoming in all the best ways.

14720599_10208593585131757_434939822047785651_n

Photo by Sarah Enloe

What We Learned

Although I’d been to the Smithsonian before and I wasn’t as enthused by the online academic resources as Lia and Cass were (but who is, really?), I can say I learned a lot about the exhibits, playhouses, and museums different from ours, and those that were similar. At every place we went, we were greeted warmly and openly, encouraged to participate, and welcomed to return. No matter where we go for future retreats, at least the four of us will get to go together and learn more about each other and the world around us. If engaging in the local, diverse, and exciting cultural and theatrical environment is the goal, I’d say we aced this retreat. If learning about each other as a team and as individuals was the goal, top of the class there too. Overall, I was grateful to take two days to learn about my team and, more importantly, how we as a team can fit into the world around us.

(Photo credit: Sarah Enloe)

“And, be assured, you’ll find a difference…” (HV): ASC Education’s work with teachers

file_001-1

Teachers working in groups at our Fall King Lear Seminar

Google “Shakespeare on your feet” and the first page of search results will reveal that entities from libraries like the Folger, media outlets like PBS, and theatres like the Actors Centre advocate teaching Shakespeare “through play” or “up on your feet” or “actively”. At the ASC, we certainly use that language as well, but the driving idea behind our approach is more about context than the work we see elsewhere.  Context is a term we take very seriously; it involves more than asking students to build models of the Globe or talking about Elizabeth’s life during the era. It really comes down to teaching our teachers and students to think like Shakespeare’s actors did when they approached the text.  Look around you and see the wooden platform, the audience in the light, the clues in the text (for those who don’t have a lot of time to rehearse), so that performance of the words is at the top of students’ minds.  

I know that “comparisons are odious” (Dogberry would probably have said “odorous”), but sometimes they are the “eftest” way to point out the essence of practice.  I have made a habit of attending my colleagues’ workshops whenever I can, of evaluating the materials they offer online and in print, and of thinking about the art of teaching.  What follows here is a basic statement of the ASC’s philosophy and how it differs from some work I have seen and studied elsewhere:  

Approach American Shakespeare Center The Other Guys
Setting The ASC acknowledges that most of the teachers we work with operate in English classrooms which feature desks, and that there is some difficulty in getting open spaces in many schools.  So our lessons work within those parameters. We believe that learning is individualized, so students can learn most deeply in situations which allow inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to invite the exploration of scene, arranged in thrust so that students are closer to Shakespeare’s theatre’s architecture.  We advocate for avatars and actors to demonstrate and help define the information but do not advocate that all students must be on their feet at the same time — something that is difficult to do in an English classroom and is not conducive to all students’ engaging with the text in context. Frequently, our colleagues’ lessons require a wide open space so that all students can be up and active simultaneously.
Teaching assumptions The ASC realizes that the vast majority of teachers working with students on Shakespeare’s plays have had few classes on the subject and are not versed in theatrical techniques (nor do many want to be; they teach English because it is their passion). We believe that teachers desire to deepen their own learning and knowledge in order to deepen their students’. We recognize that they have limited time in which to add to their knowledge, so we strive to make every minute that they spend in our professional development programs immediately applicable to classroom practice and to their own and their students’ enrichment.  We take the approach that if teachers know more about how these plays work and worked on the stage, they will have a richer understanding of why the plays are worth studying and be able to communicate to a diverse body of learners. Many professional development programs spend a lot of time teaching 21st-century theatre techniques; these do not give insights into the works Shakespeare wrote and are limited in scope — even within professional theatres.  The time spent on those could be used to connect Shakespeare to his theatrical practices so that we understand the ins and outs of what his actors saw on the page, rather than giving English teachers modern day theories of how to instruct their students in the fundamentals of acting.
Context We believe that context is everything. Context means we believe in treating the plays as plays, plays that were written for specific theatrical conditions that students benefit from knowing, and leaving the text in place in the lesson. This means that we do not employ “insult generators” or pull lines out of speeches to “throw them at each other”.  We do not advocate for separate lessons on Shakespeare’s biography, but fold the fact that he was a working actor into every exploration and note that his monarch and the political climate of early modern London may have had an impact on this character or that scene, as it arises. We consider the staging conditions he considered, as a means to get the students and teachers we work with closer to the performance Shakespeare imagined as he wrote the plays. Many in our cohorts take lines out of context to “show that Shakespeare isn’t hard”, in arenas like “Shakespearean insults” games or “text lay ups”. We believe that removing surrounding text achieves the opposite goal and says to students that “Shakespeare is too hard for you to understand unless I take it out of the play.” We think that students will enjoy the connections between Shakespeare’s plays and his biography if direct lines connect them.  We avoid assignments that advocate for set or light design for a play, since those projects fight the nature of the continuous action in early modern theatres.
Teaching teachers We believe that teachers’ time is precious and that they learn the most from fellow educators — educators who have the time to prepare detailed and specific lessons and handouts that they can immediately deploy in their classroom. We model those lessons so that teachers can see one approach and adapt each activity to their own style and purpose.  We arrange the lessons in an accessible way so that they can teach the unit in any order and blend the lessons together as they choose, but also provide a scaffolding section (The Basics) so that teachers have a baseline of knowledge from which to begin. We test the lessons and conduct focus groups, then we adjust them as needed, constantly improving the materials we provide and our approach to them. And, we enhance the lessons with feedback and input from our actors and the events that transpire in a rehearsal room, so that we are speaking truth and giving students and teachers the very important insights our actors share in classroom applicable ways. While many practitioners do provide outlines and handouts, the formatting and explanation is often insufficient for the busy teacher who is moving from teaching American Lit to Shakespeare or from one period to another.  Often, the handouts skip important steps, attempt to cover too much, or anticipate too much knowledge as a baseline.  Moreover, actor talkbacks and director discussions take a large percentage of the time in some seminars at other theatres, while these sessions can be fun, the bulk of the discussion does not translate to classroom practice or a better understanding of the plays.
Inquiry

(infinite variety)

We create a world of many, many right answers, and we suggest a method of inquiry-based learning — where each student’s answer may differ.  Shakespeare wrote incomplete works; he needed the actors he worked with and the audiences he played for to finish them.  Students are the actors and audience, and they can answer the questions that lead to the infinite variety of choices that continue to make his plays fascinating 400 years later. We encourage students to consider a number of choices — if video comes into our lesson, we use several clips from many different productions to emphasize how many choices are available. Stating that a scene is “about” something or that a character is “some characteristic” and asking students to inhabit that idea features in many programs’ methodology.  These opinions may be related to an instructors’ take or experience; however such approaches prohibit exploration. Using film in the classroom can be reductive, as it may limit the students’ idea of the play to one interpretation.
Materials We provide teachers with materials that are complete and formatted for ease of use in the typical English classroom (black and white, because most schools copiers are not color; few pages dense with information to save paper; and we are working to envision more in the digital classroom — white boards, etc) I have seen handouts totalling 25 pages, with color, or difficult to read facsimiles or, worse, fluff activities (word finds, crosswords, quizzes — time killers, not enrichment activities) that do not bring students any closer to understanding Shakespeare’s work, nor its relationship to his life and theirs.

In short, we aim to create an atmosphere of learning that makes gaining knowledge and engaging in exploration irresistible.  A space in which students dread the final bell because they will have to leave the topic, a room filled with voices and opportunities to state one’s thoughts — while realizing that difference of opinion is beautiful and can be shared respectfully.  A place where the learner can become the teacher and the teacher learns something every time the class convenes.  We believe the way to do that is by empowering teachers, giving students agency, and providing them with tools to examine words and meaning that stretch well beyond the classroom walls.  Even to a 400 year-old theatre, perhaps.

–Sarah Enloe
ASC Director of Education