2017 MLitt Thesis Festival Session 3

Back again for the third and final session of the 2017 MLitt Thesis Festival, 4:45pm-6:45pm.

Brooke Spatol – “I shall study deserving”: A close look at illegitimacy in Shakespeare’s England

Spatol will be using her presentation not to prove an argument, but to inform, so she opens by giving us what the argument of her full thesis is. She focuses on the isolation of bastards in a societal setting. Spatol gives accounts of the lengths parishes would go to in order to prevent bastards from ending up on their tab, including physically dragging a woman in labor over the parish line. Re-enactments of the welfare relief efforts under King James dealt more with the mothers of bastards than with the children themselves. She frames the harsh conditions for these mothers before having actors portray the end of 1.1 of King John, where the Bastard and Lady Faulconbridge discuss parentage.

She identifies the first form of isolation as domestic. Women would go to great lengths to deny their bastard children, and Spatol provides an example of a woman who had plastered her breasts to prevent lactation from giving her away. Other women would abandon their children at church’s or at wealthy men’s doors. Fathering an illegitimate child was seen as shameful and financially burdensome, but with no tests to prove fatherhood, men could more easily slip their responsibilities. Spatol connects the emotional effect of this domestic isolation to Don John in Much Ado about Nothing.

Societal shame attended bastardy in the views of Elizabethan society. Spatol discusses several historical precedents which posited bastards as proof of sin, naturally unclean, and infamous, even if later legitimized. Bastards also struggled financially, as it was difficult for parents to leave money or property to their illegitimate children, even if they wished to — and many did not wish to. Inheritance of names was also a point of dispute.

Spatol then has Chad Marriott present Edmund’s famous “Now gods, stand up for bastards” speech from King Lear as an example of an illegitimate son musing on his state. Spatol encourages us to engage with the bastard characters not as automatic villains, but as humans.

Mary Finch – Pulped Shakespeare: The Origins of Paperback Shakespeare in America

Finch begins by inviting the audience closer so that they may fondle the old books she has brought for everyone’s delight. She asserts that while mass market paperbacks have a somewhat denigrated reputation, their very accessibility may be “the first line of offense” in convincing potential audiences that Shakespeare is not hard or Old English. Finch began her research by looking into the first appearances of paperback Shakespeare in America. The initial difference between mass market and trade paperbacks was the venue in which they were sold: mass markets were sold at gas stations and other common locations, while trades were sold to universities. A series of discoveries led her to find paperbacks in America dating as far back as the 1830s.

Finch’s thesis will examine Shakespeare’s cultural place in the American 19th century as well as printing practices of that era. She notes that, despite the jettisoning of many British traits during and after the Revolution, Americans never gave up their love for Shakespeare. As Shakespeare’s popularity grew, so did the demand for accessible editions of his works — which in turn spurred greater popularity. Finch cautions that she cannot make a claim to which came first, the accessibility or the popularity.

By the 1860s, publishing was a boom industry in America — and an industry rife with espionage and back-stabbing. Finch relates the tale of Edwin Gin, an ambitious and determined young man who went from bookseller to publisher. His first publication, a Shakespeare textbook, was a passion project for him, and he intended to provide an edition ideal for teachers and students. When he updated the Hudson collection, he redesigned their format for ease of use. Finch notes that extant copies have typically been rebound and redesigned (as paperback-bound copies were unlikely to survive).

Later decades produced “library series” editions from “pirate publishers” – generally cheap both in their editing and their production. Houghton’s Riverside Library Series, however, offered a sturdy format with commentary. This had the effect of raising the standards of cheap reading. Gin went on to challenge the textbook monopoly held by the major publishers, not only with his own editions, but also by decrying the low standards of theirs. Gin’s passion for egalitarianism in publishing translated into other charitable works and activism as well, but he never lost sight of his goals of making Shakespeare accessible to the masses. He worked with a teacher, Kitteridge, whose philosophies of teaching sound remarkably similar to the mission statements of the ASC and the MBU S&P program. In 1939, the Kitteridge Shakespeare was first published, anticipating the rise of Penguin, Dover, and Folger editions that would become popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Finch finishes by crediting Edwin Gin with contributing to the ubiquity of Shakespeare in publication in America today.

Clare Boyd – None But Women

Boyd introduces her thesis by way of her love for Margaret of Anjou. In her research, she arrived at the idea that the England of Shakespeare’s histories is dependent upon the performance of gender by the monarchs. She centered her research in the Henry VI plays, positing that the plays are preoccupied with the masculinity of the monarch – or the monarch’s lack of masculine quality. She identifies four modes of femininity: idealized femininity, realistic femininity, transgressive femininity, and masculinized femininity. Boyd notes the difficulties in defining terms with a field as broad and complex as gender studies, particularly when trying to apply terms backwards in time.

In the Henry VI plays, the power of the men of England is shown as broken after the death of Henry V and the victory over the English by a French shepherdess. In 1 Henry VI, we see a “eulogy for masculinity” when the young king’s uncles dispute over the regency. Shakespeare sets Henry VI in contrast to paragons of virility and valor, such as his father and Talbot. “If the king cannot claim full masculine status, then the nation itself is in grave danger.” She notes that the word “effeminate” underscores the coding of Henry’s peace-loving qualities. Boyd suggests that Henry VI lives up not to his father’s masculine ideals, but to feminine ideals as put forth in conduct books of Shakespeare’s era. By the end of Part 1, Suffolk suggests that in order to produce a suitable heir, Henry must be matched to a woman who has the masculine qualities of valor and courage that Henry lacks. Boyd points out that though Margaret will later be mocked for unfeminine qualities, Shakespeare first paints these qualities as those which make her an ideal queen. Boyd argues that Margaret first appears, however, with the demureness and virtue expected of an ideal woman, adhering to the conduct books’ traid of ideal traits: obedience, chastity, and silence.

In 2 Henry VI, Margaret begins by performing feminine virtue before the lords of the realm, in contrast to Henry, who cannot perform the necessary masculinity. Only when alone with her now-lover Suffolk in 1.3 does Shakespeare start to show Margaret’s power and transgressive qualities, particularly when she discusses her husband’s deficiencies. “It hasn’t taken Margaret long to notice the masculine power vacuum in her kingdom.” Margaret then begins to perform the anti-ideal, showing herself to be envious, vain, vindictive, and unfaithful. By Part 3, Margaret has entirely taken over the masculine role: defending her son’s inheritance rights, the murder of Rutland,  the humiliation of York. Boyd argues that the death of Rutland is seen as more heinous than the death of Prince Edward largely because it was done at the bidding of and celebrated by a woman.

Boyd concludes by reiterating that Margaret’s transgressive womanhood takes the place of Henry’s deficient manhood. As she is not a king and a man, but a queen and a woman, she ultimately cannot succeed any more than Henry could, however. The Henry VI

Kim Greenawalt – “Say nothing; I’ll speak all”

Greenawalt distills her directing project on silent characters into two questions: “Why this scene?” and “How will this inform your thesis?” She defines her term “silent character” as a character with extended stage time who does not speak or a character who has run out of scripted lines but is still on stage. Her methodology sought to understand early modern silence, to engage with modern theatrical practices such as Viewpoints and neutral mask, and creating performance art.

Greenawalt discusses the difference between modern notions of silence as complacence to early modern perceptions of silence as falling into four types: foolish silence, eloquent silence, resistant or tactical silence, and chaotic/deadly silence. Greenawalt notes that many silences may blend various types, but that nonetheless these categories were a useful starting point for exploring a character’s silence.

Greenawalt then offers a demonstration of gestural score accompanied by music as a rehearsal practice, using five actors. After her actors move through a gestural score, she encourages them to explore the space, thinking about its architecture in particular. The actors then begin using the components of their gestural score to tell impromptu stories as they encounter each other on the stage. After the actors finish the exercise, Greenawalt discusses the process of discovery through non-verbal communication.

Turning to Measure for Measure, Greenawalt states that she sought to create performance art that would provoke thought and emotional response from the audience in relation to characters who might not usually receive much audience attention. Greenawalt notes that different audiences at different times of day had varying responses to the visual stimuli provided by her performance art. Greenawalt hopes that her explorations and discoveries of her performance art work could help inform a director’s choices when it comes to silent characters. Her actors then demonstrate scenes from Measure for Measure using those explorative methods centered on physical performance: first rehearsing with the exaggerated gestural language, then using that gestural language to present a realistic but emotionally heightened performance.

2017 MLitt Thesis Festival – Session 2

Back from 1:45pm-4:30pm for Session 2:

Glenn Thompson – “My Voice is in My Sword”: Defining and Understanding Dramatic Violence in Early Modern Drama

Thompson’s presentation opens with a highly sneaky attempted murder by Josh Willliams, aborted when Thompson declines to engage in combat. Thompson intends to examine how violence shapes a story and how the story shapes the violence. “Entering with a sword does not constitute violence”. Thompson identifies two modes of working through stage combat: text work and rehearsal work. Text work identifies the violence on the page, and rehearsal work negotiates the enactment of the violence on the stage.

His methodology on text work begins with the simple instruction: Read the play. Thompson notes that while this may seem obvious, it is nonetheless important to return to the play and read it fresh, since even if you think you know it well, you have likely changed since you last encountered it. Thompson then notes specific questions to ask while reading to clarify the motion of bodies on stage, such as: What is the major action of each act? Who is on stage when? After reading and re-reading, then he is ready to identify the moments of violence in the play. This may include both on- and off-stage violence, as either can move the story.

After identifying all the moments of violence, Thompson then determines the specific conditions and needs of each moment and categorizes them into four types: inciting incidents, reported violence, concluded violence, shown violence. For today’s presentation, Thompson will focus on the inciting incident – specifically within Macbeth. The violent image of the “dagger of the mind” is an inciting incident because it drives the action of the play. Williams assists by enacting the speech from 1.7, as Thompson points out the various lines which imply not just violent thought, but violent action. In this speech, Macbeth “is speaking himself into action by imagining the action”.

Thompson then discusses the importance of “inciting incident” violence, noting that it is no less important than the other modes, because it sets us up for the story. This moment is crucial for creating “purposeful dramatic violence” later on.

Madeleine Buttitta – Gals Being Pals: The Moral Complexities of Shakespeare’s Status-Based Female Relationships

Buttitta begins by discussing Queen Elizabeth’s early habits of using noblewomen not only as confidantes but as her proxies and representatives. In Shakespeare’s plays, Buttitta sees a similar relationship: a woman in service who utterly devotes herself to and performs morally ambiguous deeds on behalf of her mistress. She looks particularly at the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and Paulina in The Winter’s Tale and seeks to examine the issues of “agency and authority” at play.

Buttitta moves to a discussion of class distinction and status in the early modern period. Status-based relationships she defines as those character dynamics where one character has superior social/class status to the other. To narrow further, for this thesis, she is looking at a relationship of two unrelated women who share at least one scene, where there is  a status difference between them and one is in service to the other. She turns her attention to the relationship between Desdemona and Emilia, then to Juliet and the Nurse. Buttitta asserts that the Nurse’s concern for Juliet aligns with guides for conduct seen in writings on service in early modern England, even to the point where she counsels Juliet to give up Romeo.

Buttitta examines status markers in Paulina’s speech, noting how Paulina defines herself in relation to both Hermione and Leontes. Even when chiding Leontes, Paulina still addresses him with deference. She only chooses to call him “tyrant” when she has to defend not only Hermione but the infant daughter as well. Buttitta centers Paulina’s words as the cause of Leontes’s reformation, giving the servant considerable power in an otherwise status-driven relationship.

Buttitta moves to a discussion of early modern views of friendship which could often be exclusive of women and that a sexist bias in scholarship has shaped the study of female characters in Shakespeare up to this point. Buttitta argues, though, that female characters can have morally complex relationships worth examining from a scholastic viewpoint.

Katherine Little – The French Shades of Shakespeare’s Henriad

Little introduces the intersection of her major fields of study: Shakespeare and French. In this thesis, she focuses on the Henriad: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V. She begins with an examination of Richard II as he is described by the gardener, then in his own words, as he unwittingly predicts his own fall from power, as he exists in contrast to Bolingbroke. Little argues that Shakespeare’s characterization reflects the cultural and linguistic associations of each king, with Richard representing the Norman French elitism and Bolingbroke representing the more egalitarian English mode. As such, Richard II has a distinctly different feel than the plays that follow, existing almost entirely in the privileged world of the court, with little attention paid to the populace.

Little goes on to assert that the style of the verse in Richard II is also reflective of this difference. Concerned with pomp and circumstance, a certain amount of hedonism, an elaborate language, Richard II is more aristocratic and more French — and uses a higher percentage not only of verse but of rhyming verse than do the Henry plays. She looks particularly at rhymed couplets. The Lancastrians, however, rhyme less frequently and are “more economical rhetoricians” than Richard and those of his faction.

Henry IV “looks both forward and back”, with speaking modes that are somewhere between Richard and Henry V. Henry V’s language represents the shift to English and commoner-friendly language. Little describes the IV and plays as less poetic, more action-packed. “The further the plays get from Richard II, the more prosaic they become.” As Prince Hal in 1 Henry IV, the character “has been able to divest himself of regal ceremony”; when he is king, the play contains slightly more verse — as well as French dialogue. Henry V gains credibility “from his down-to-earth Englishness”.

Little moves next to a discussion of the French-speaking scene between Katherine and Alice. She argues that the inclusion of this scene indicates that French was still a part of English heritage at this time, despite the implication that the French are only to be mocked. She also discusses how Henry attempts to draw Katherine into English-ness, even moving to the use of the English diminutive “Kate”. Katherine however, answers him in French; “Henry fails to convert her French tongue”. Little suggests that this complicates the narrative of English dominance. She also notes that Henry even sees his own progeny as half-English, half-French, thus including French in his legacy. She concludes that “no amount” of analysis can fully strip the French-ness either from the play or from England and English’s history with France and the French language.

Nick Ciavarra – That Is the Question

Ciavarra introduces that he intends to examine what he has termed “rhetorical character analysis”. He then welcomes “Jonas” to the stage to do some impressions — not very good ones, but in acknowledging that, Ciavarra notes that “Jonas” nonetheless uses repeated phrases and gestures to key in the audience in on who he is supposed to be. Ciavarra relates this to the phenomenon of parody accounts on Twitter, “capturing the sense of the person in the words, subject matter, and grammatical” representations. Ciavarra uses these examples to point out to us that: people talk differently.

Ciavarra discusses the nature of the passive voice in use in politics as a pattern of speech that we can attach to a type of “character” in real life – particularly, to politicians. He discusses several key devices attached to certain of Shakespeare’s characters, noting that “Brevity is the soul of wit” is only funny because it plays against Polonius’s established preference for macrologia, excessive wordiness.

Ciavarra moves to examining the ways that the MBU S&P program engages with rhetoric and identifies it as an “oratorical” engagement. He would like to look at rhetoric as a means of better understanding characters. This is not entirely about performing the rhetoric, but also about developing a character’s internal world. Rhetorical character analysis searches for a character’s preferred rhetorical patterns and attempts to draw conclusions based on those findings. He refers to Anna Northam’s thesis which explored the personification of certain devices.

Ciavarra then moves into a discussion of his case study of Iago. He notes the need to first identify a dominant rhetorical form. His first assumption, that Iago asked more questions than anyone else, proved statistically inaccurate, as he asks only one more than Othello. Then he qualified questions by whether or not they are rhetorical, and by that mark, Iago supercedes the other characters, particularly during moments of high persuasion. Ciavarra discusses the manipulative nature of the rhetorical questions: “If you ask a lot of rhetorical questions, you’re probably the villain. Sorry.” Tyler Dale presents Iago’s “What’s he then that says I play the villain?” twice; once, as written; a second time, with the rhetorical questions re-written as statements. Then he and Ciavarra repeat the experiment with a bit of dialogue between Othello and Iago. Through this, Ciavarra points out not only the manipulative nature of rhetorical questions, but also how they provide Iago with plausible deniability. Rhetorical questions put the “logical onus” and burden of proof on the auditor rather than on the speaker. Ciavarra concludes by asserting the importance of rhetorical analysis in an actor’s toolbox.

Elizabeth Areopagita Bernardo – When Cultures Collide: Shakespearean Remediations Today

Bernardo’s presentation opens with two examples of “remediation” – a form of adaptation that takes a work from anywhere other than the early modern period, putting it into Shakespeare’s verse forms, and creating a communication between cultures. Remediation transmutes a cultural work from one moment in time to another as well as from one form of art to another. For this thesis, Bernardo will focus on the remediations of Star Wars and Sleeping Beauty.

Bernardo notes that, like Star Wars remediator Dosher, she attempted to adhere to iambic pentameter as close as possible, with few irregularities. She also discusses the advantage of giving silent or near-silent characters in the source material more lines on stage. She employed shared lines for lovers Aurora and Philip. Bernardo also discusses using alternate verse forms, such as Dosher’s haiku-speaking Yoda or her own tetrameter-using evil fairy. She also used a chorus to sum up action that was difficult to stage (such as flying and fights).

Bernardo then comments on other conventions, such as using a sonnet to wrap up the play. She also used prose to set some characters aside from the others, as did Dosher. To demonstrate, Luke and Boba Fett engage in battle, with Fett speaking in prose to indicate his lower status; Bernardo used prose to indicate characters’ drunken state.

Bernardo advocates for remediations as a counterpoint to the cultural view of Shakespeare as hard or too highbrow. “Translating pop and geek culture into Shakespeare’s format” may help to make these forms seem more accessible, and to make them seem more like play than like work. “The desire to emulate Shakespeare’s forms and styles” hits on retrospection and introspection that Bernardo finds amazing, and she sees in it a potential to reach new audiences.

2017 MLitt Thesis Festival Session 1

Welcome to the live-blog for the first session of the MLitt thesis festival, brought to you by Cass Morris, ASC Academic Resources Manager. This session will run from 9am to 12:30pm.

Tyler Bruce Dale – Cat on a Wooden Roof: Staging Modern Theatre in the Early Modern Style

Dale begins by asking for volunteers to fill the gallant stools on-stage. His thesis examines the development of reviving early modern practices and suggests pushing the exploration further by applying those practices to plays not written for an early modern space. He has focused on three characteristics common to the early modern and postmodern theatre: site specificity, minimalism, and the revelation of artifice.

On site specificity: Dale traces the history of the term and notes its power in dissolving the hierarchy between performers and audience, gives the audience agency rather than leaving them as passive viewer. This focuses on how architecture affects performance. Minimalism fulfills a similar set of purposes: spectators become creators, “creating content in their minds” to fill out the scene before them. Dale cites the Chorus of Henry V asking the audience to “peace out our imperfections with your thoughts”. Dale focuses on the positive experience of the audience being asked to use their imaginations, resulting in “deep investment” in the storytelling. Dale identifies the revelation of artifice as the most important of these three characteristics, with particular focus on the practice of direct audience contact. This contact invites the audience to join in and collaborate in creating the performance.

Dale goes on to discuss how television became, in the 20th century, the dominant form of media in American society, thus affecting all other forms of media, including live theatre. He then challenges this thought, noting that in the past twenty years social media has overtaken television as the dominant form of media. This marks a transition from the economy of reproductive media to one of participation. Dale notes that the early modern style, as exemplified by Shakespeare’s Globe and the Blackfriars Playhouse, now exist at a crux. He asserts that the success of these theatres and others like them will depend upon their commitment to continual experimentation, including the adaptation of 20th and 21st century plays to a 16th century space. He cites the ASC’s 2016 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, then moves into a discussion of his work on a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He notes the difficulty in applying audience contact purposefully in such a situation. He contrasts the difference in naturalistic theatre, where the characters have no conception of a world outside the fiction, with early modern works which depend upon that awareness of the external audience.

Molly Seremet and Shane Sczepankowski then present a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Dale for the Blackfriars Playhouse. Afterwards, Dale expresses his hope that we have seen the potential flexibility of modern plays for production in the early modern space.

William Leavy – Kill the Prisoners

Leavy begins by stating that he sought to demonstrate that Shakespeare articulated the national character of England through the actions of his characters, and he chose to focus on Henry V for its historical precedence. He focuses in on the troubling incident when Henry determines to execute his disarmed French prisoners, and he asks how an audience is meant to reconcile that action with the portrait of Henry V as a national hero.

Leavy then leaps to another topic, begging the audience’s pardon for doing so: his travels in Europe. He was recently in Ghent, noted for a 12th-century castle museum which features an exhibit on torture. Currently, the exhibit has a component focusing on waterboarding. Leavy connects our current controversy over the practice to the cultural view of killing prisoners during Shakespeare’s lifetime, as either a war crime or a justifiable action.

He then moves into a discussion of English legal tradition, beginning with the Magna Carta and the concept of rule of law over the prerogative of the monarch. He compares the mandates of the Magna Carta to continental practices at the time, then discusses the resurgence of torture and other extrajudicial practices in England during the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Leavy then brings this concept back to the crucial moment in Henry V and its historical precedence, asserting that Henry V may have relied upon the notion of “extreme circumstances” as justification for his actions. He also connects the thought of torture to the concept of violence as entertainment, such as the bear-baitings that Shakespeare’s plays had to compete with for audience.

Leavy also discusses the intended torture and murder of Arthur in King John, the “orgy of depravity” in Titus Andronicus, acts of cruelty in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, beatings and other cruelties in The Taming of the Shrew, Benedick’s promise to “devise thee brave punisments” for Don John in Much Ado about Nothing, and the vicious prank played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He then hypothesizes a mental exercise imagining the writing of Twelfth Night in the age of the Geneva Convention, which creates in Feste a clown who commits war crimes. Returning to Henry V, Leavy notes that Shakespeare has Gower and Fluellen justify the execution of the prisoners by relating the story of the French soldiers killing the “boys and luggage” — but then undercuts the effect by having Fluellen move to a comparison of Henry’s treatment of Falstaff and Alexander’s accidental murdering of his friend.

Sophia Beratta – Coin Flippery: The Study of Dramatic Determinative Variables in Shakespeare’s Canon

Beratta opens with a revisiting of prior years’ jokes regarding her physical similarity to Catie Osborn who, after a coin flip, takes over reading the thesis presentation. Beratta/Osborn notes the ubiquity of coin flips in modern society, including the NFL use of a coin flip to determine the start of games and the theatrical presentation of coin flips in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Beratta/Osborn introduces DDV: dramatic determinative variable – an element of chance to change something in the course of a production as a whole. Beratta/Osborn argues that introducing an element of chance creates excitement for audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the plays. She cites recent examples where use of a DDV determined something about the production, such as which actors would play which parts or whether a production of Hamlet would use the quarto or folio sequence of scenes. Hamlet is a frequent subject of DDVs, perhaps because its overall story is so well known. Beratta/Osborn relates a story where bored high school students were “transported” when a DDV led to the impromptu casting of a middle aged black woman as Hamlet. The goal of the production was “to find the Hamlet in everyone”, using a diverse cast to reach the concept that Hamlet could be anyone. Beratta/Osborn also notes the use of celebrity casting to inspire this excitement in audiences.

Beratta/Osborn moves on to discussing the 2016 RSC Doctor Faustus where the lighting and extinguishing of matches determined who would play Faustus and who would play Mephistopheles. Beratta/Osborn suggests that this DDV theatricality not only heightened excitement, but also set the mood for the production that the audience was about to see. Beratta/Osborn then presents two different versions of the famous Kate/Petruchio spat in 2.1 of The Taming of the Shrew, demonstrating that DDV can necessitate alternate versions of blocking the same scene to allow for the differences in actor strength and size.

Beratta/Osborn notes the potential of DDV practices to keep return audiences interested, since they may experience a different play if they return to see the production more than once. She then presents the Hal/Hotspur fight from 1 Henry IV dependent upon a DDV that could change the ending of the play – determining whether it is Hotspur or Hal that dies. The same lines, reassigned between the two characters, can thus create an entirely different scene. Hotspur regrets Hal’s death, but finishes off Falstaff with violent rancor. The original audience, Beratta/Osborn notes, reacted with laughter — but she asserts that it came at least partly from surprise and shock. She argues that DDV can reinvigorate centuries-old plays by playing against audience expectations and reviving a sense of discovery in them.

Chad Marriott – Everyman and the Audience: An Exploration of Staging Conditions

Marriott begins, after a digression on the nature of shortening a 50 page thesis for a 25 minute presentation, with a short explication of the action of Everyman. He discusses the difference in effect upon the audience created by early modern staging conditions and 19th/20th century proscenium conditions. The audience’s reciprocal reaction is crucial to the creation of a play, and Marriott explores how the physical playing space can shape that reaction.

Marriott cautions against conflating “staging conditions” with “staging conventions”. He then discusses the notion of “sacred spaces” in theatre and suggests that early modern conventions, in eliminating the barrier between actor an audience, extends the sacred space for the actors, though not for the audience. A darkened auditorium “fixes” the sacred space within particular boundaries. Marriott then has actors present a scene from Everyman as though in a theatre with those boundaries, refraining from engaging the audience. The scene seems, even on a first watching, to have many opportunities for audience address, but the actors turn outward typically only when addressing “God” by way of the rose window at the back of the house.

Marriott discusses how an exit through the audience can make the audience feel “left behind” in the same manner as a character remaining on stage. Shared lighting creates a “varying sacred space”, and Marriott has his actors present the scene a second time, in this iteration moving through and frequently engaging the audience.

Marriott ends by advocating for the consideration of role of both actor and audience in shaping a production. Taking the audience into account when preparing a production will “increase specificity and improve the experience of the audience.”

Garrett Schwalbach – Need Advice on Starting a Theatre Company? Early Moderns Would Like to Share…

Schwalbach introduces his thesis examining the creation of a theatre company in the current economic climate. He suggests that future entrepreneurs may benefit by discarding many current common practices and instead taking inspiration from the financial underpinnings of early modern theatrical business. The dominant business model today is the not-for-profit model: a theatre company can file as a NFP by fulfilling certain requirements There are currently 1750 NFP companies. Benefits include access to grants and the tax-deductible nature of donation to these companies. Schwalbach shares graphs of income (in earnings and contributions) for NFPs for the past ten years. Expenses for these companies follow a similar rate of increase as the income. Schwalbach then relates these graph to “the profit margin” – changes of unrestricted net assets and explains the practice of endowments and the difference between restricted, temporarily restricted, and unrestricted assets.

Schwalbach moves to considering the audience: as audiences have stagnated or slightly decreased in the past ten years, NFPs have also decreased. Paid personnel at NFPs, however, have increased. He states that this is because “a non-profit has to grow”, because all money taken in must be fed back into the programming, which necessitates the presence of more administrators.

Schwalbach then shifts to examining the business practices of early modern companies such as The King’s Men. He compares their success to that of their competition. Schwalbach takes the time to explain how patronage, assets, and capital worked for these early modern companies and how the process of shareholding affected the flow of money into and out of the theatre. Shareholding had no guarantee of profit, thus investing the shareholders in the success of the company — as a result, the shareholders were often directly involved in the theatrical process. As an example, Schwalbach discusses Shakespeare’s role as a businessman, shareholding in the King’s Men to make his fortune.

Schwalbach proposes that future companies look at the idea of individual investment. He relates the early modern theatrical model to that of modern bands, whom he believes are applying this system successfully. He suggests that theatres might benefit from changing to this business model rather than continually fighting the restrictions and other challenges of NFP status. The need to meet these challenges results in higher ticket prices, which then stagnates audience growth and reduces the accessibility of theatre to marginalized groups. “When you’re doing a not-for-profit, a lot of things are out of your hands.” But, Schwalbach argues, investing in yourself gives you more control and a greater ability to produce art.

Jessi Scott – Lost in Translation: The Treatment and Disappearance of Macbeth’s Porter and Othello’s Clown from Stage to Screen

Scott opens with a knock-knock joke, a tribute to Macbeth‘s Porter: “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Othello’s clown.” “Othello’s clown who?” “Exactly.” She moves to discussing the weight assigned to tragedies versus the supposed lightness and inconsequentiality of comedies. She notes that the roles of clowns in tragedies often end up cut from performance, particularly when the play is translated from stage to film.

In examining 14 Macbeth films, Scott found that the Porter appears in nine of them, but several cut the role down to only the equivocation or only the dirty jokes portion of the scene. Othello‘s clown, however, appears far less frequently. Only Trevor Nunn’s filmed production retain the Clown’s lines. While there is humorous material, “the jokes from the script aren’t included.”

Scott notes that, two weeks ago, her thesis took a turn as she learned more about the process of film-making and how that process might relate to the decision to cut or keep the tragic clowns. She discusses the use of forced perspective in film, which can shape the story and the emotional weight of certain objects, moments, or characters. She suggests that, as the clown is often a conduit for the audience, the absent audience in film undercuts the need for and power of that character model. Scott posits this as a key challenge of film directors: “How does one engage with an audience that isn’t there?”

Scott posits that the time of cast and crew, rather than the run time of a film, may determine the presence or absence of characters or scenes. She discusses her own process of wrangling with external factors during a film shoot as an example, then shares the resulting film with the audience. Scott ends by stating that, as we need to laugh in dark times, retaining the comedy inside of tragedies is an important choice.

Allison Jones – Shakespeare for the Early Elementary Classroom 

Jones begins by noting the increasing call for teachers to introduce Shakespeare to students at younger ages, but that few resources exist for that age group (particularly those with no or low reading skills). Many approaches rely heavily on theatre games, “more a generalized exploration of theatre with Shakespeare as a handy frame”. Jones is hoping to develop activities that will center Shakespeare’s language while still calling upon young students’ sense of play.

Jones discusses the goal of the RSC to introduce students ages 5-9 (early elementary) to Shakespeare, recommending that students be exposed to Shakespeare “no later than age 11”. Jones reached out to members of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, and while many agreed that children as young as preschool or kindergarten could enjoy Shakespeare, not all have programs designed for those students. Jones believes that a focus on play is a strong avenue to follow, as it taps into the natural inclinations of children towards imagination and experimentation. She explores an extended definition of “play” and relates how Shakespeare can meet the definition even for young children. Though adults may often “play” as well, she notes that children do not share the “dismissive attitude” that many adults have towards leisure activities.

Young children are also at an ideal age for exposure to the language of Shakespeare, as their language acquisition skills are “highest until the age of 6”. Introducing children to the vocabulary and grammar of Shakespeare’s plays assists in “transforming the archaic and obsolete to the familiar” — as such, students exposed to Shakespeare early will likely not find its language as difficult later on in life.

Jones discusses her experience in leading a workshop on iambic pentameter with a group of second and third grade students. Victoria Buck assists her by demonstrating components of the workshop. Jones discusses the relation of the rhythm of nursery rhymes and the importance of patterns in children’s play to teaching Shakespeare’s meter. The students explored vocal and physical ways of enacting the meter, and Jones compares this to the typical actions accompanying the rhyme “Ring around the Rosy”. She welcomes a group of three early education students to the stage to demonstrate. Dividing a speech between students, one line apiece, exposes the entire class to a larger section of text without placing too much burden on any one student. Jones then moves to demonstrating how she related music to those lines to augment the sense of movement and rhythm.

Back at 1:30pm for Session 2!

MFA Thesis Festival 2017

Good evening! Cass Morris, ASC Academic Resources Manager, here to live-blog the 2017 Mary Baldwin University MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. Tonight, beginning at 6:30pm, members of the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, the 2016-2017 MFA class, will present research conducted for and during their year of company-building:

Paul Menzer begins by welcoming everyone, introducing the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, and reminding us that the MLitt presentations begin at 9am tomorrow. Menzer stresses the unique nature of the thesis festival at MBU, designed to combat the isolating effect of thesis writing and give students the opportunity to share with and hear from “an interested and generous” audience. Each presenter will speak for approximately 7 minutes, ending with a “provocative question”, followed by a short Q&A.

Catie Osborn – Photography as Performance: Archive and/as Adaptation

Osborn begins by explaining the scholastic considerations that her work as production photographer provoked. “There is little to no research on the implications of photograph in the theatre”. She states her intent to challenge a 1956 assertion that “photographs taken during the course of production are uninteresting”. Osborn discusses two types of photographs in the theatre: marketing/publicity and archive/documentation, as well as sharing the OED definition of “adaptation”. She believes that the act of theatrical photography constitutes an adaptation of the theatrical work — the center of the Venn diagram between marketing/publicity and archive/documentation.

Osborn asserts that the photographer working during a performance becomes a storyteller in their own right. She presents some “not at all staged” examples of “That Nice Chris Moneymaker” — one photograph showing him as alone and isolated, another from a different angle showing the actor surrounded by the theatrical audience in universal lighting. The use of photos then becomes “an adapted act”. She also shares examples of photographs that photoshopped together figures from different productions in order to market a show.

Considering the potentially infinite record of production, given the storage capabilities modern technology provides, Osborn questions how to best curate those photographs for archival. She suggests that a production must “include the photographer in the production process”. Osborn states her belief that, by including the photographer in the process, it would be possible to create a record of performance that would allow someone to experience the performance through the archives.

She poses the question: “What is lost in these performances? What is gained?”

Kelley McKinnon – “We know what we are, but know not what we may be”: Engaging a Student Audience in Self-Discovery through the Mechanism of Interaction

“If you’ve spent five minutes with me, you probably know several things:” that she has a loud laugh, that she has Opinions, and that she loves to learn. She goes on to note that another five minutes will expose that she asks personal questions and loves working with students to help them learn. “There is nothing in the world that is better to men than watching a light bulb turn on” in someone’s head. McKinnon states her belief that nothing can replace the value of a personal connection between student and teacher, and she cites a viral video of a North Carolina teacher who invented a different secret handshake for each of his students, noting that his attendance and test scores seem to correlate positively with that practice.

McKinnon notes the importance of “reversing the expectation” for students of Shakespeare, fighting against the ingrained belief many have that Shakespeare is hard and that they’re not smart enough for it. Her thesis is based around how she approaches an educational tour from a director’s point of view with the goal of taking over/changing the world. “My approach as a director is to put the systems in place to build self reliance through connection.” This applies both to her cast and staff and to the audience. For student audiences, “the clarity of storytelling” is always at the forefront, but she believes a further step of personalization can be vital, particularly when interacting with under-served audiences.

McKinnon goes on to explicate why she uses Shakespeare to “change the world”, particularly by working with inner city students, with benefits including but not limited to: explorations of tyranny, nonconformists, and violence, “wrapped up with a bunch of dick and fart jokes”. Treating Shakespeare not as something inaccessible and privileged but as something that is for them augments the experience and can, she believes, be life- and thus world-changing. She finishes by asking: “Who is my audience for this?”

Joshua Richard Williams – “We will perform in measure, time, and place”: The Qualitative Effect of Spatial Architecture on Stage Combat Choreography

Williams specifies that he is looking at the development of stage combat in a touring process and how that does and doesn’t impact the performance itself. Last summer he engaged in training and certification with the American Society of Fight Directors. He discusses the concept of “violence as spectacle” that CSE explored in its touring production of Macbeth. His considerations include examining the ways in which the dimension and orientation of a performance space, and how differences in that in touring locations may change the storytelling. For his thesis, he focuses on the opening fight which establishes the violence of the play: involving eight of ten cast members, several entrances and exits mid-bout. He notes that the paratextual fight “serves as an introduction for the audience” to the play itself.

Williams then walks through the “bloody soldier” interchange from 1.2, pointing out five details which inform the physicality of the fight. While not explicitly called for in the text, these lines allow a director and fight director to make choices about the story they wish to present to the audience. In CSE’s production, it was an opportunity to show Macbeth as a fighter surrounded by violence, continually attacked from behind, instilling a sense of wariness, distrust, and betrayal. The actor playing Banquo appears to save Macbeth twice, establishing their relationship. The fight also introduces Malcolm and foreshadows the appearance of the Weird Sisters.

Williams notes that they blocked the show for two different conditions: Blackfriars-style, with use of a backstage space, and an on-stage presentation, where the actors are all in chairs and visible throughout the production. He notes that this second set-up presented challenges, and goes on to discuss one example in depth, where the company had “a lane of perhaps five and a half to six feet in width and eleven or twelve feet in length” to perform in. Williams thinks this was probably the most challenging space to work in, but also the most illuminating.

His question asks the audience for sources on found spaces for performance or dance. “What is the difference between a performance space and a theatre? What can one do that the other one cannot?”

Justine R. Mackey – “So hung upon with love”: Examining Physical Intimacy with Compass Shakespeare Ensemble

“My work… explores the many ways in which physical touch or the lack thereof” tells a story and communicates emotion. Mackey’s thesis examines touch as a means of communication in performance. She notes that, for her, physical touch ended up being a recurring theme in her roles across the CSE season (Lady Macbeth, the Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jacquenetta in Love’s Labour’s Lost). “When I refer to physical intimacy, I don’t always mean sexual or lustful touching.” Her definition covers everything from simple familiarity to passionate interaction.

Mackey cites research from the Touch Research Institute which “prove the healthy benefits of touch,” noting that touch appears to be vital not only to human interaction but to individual health. She moves on to discussing how CSE explored the process and potential of touch in their ensemble work. To foster positive energy and the sense of community they would need for their MFA year, one early exercise involved verbally complimenting each other. Mackey took the benefits of this exercise forward into the idea of physical intimacy. Osborn and Odenbrett demonstrate another exercise from the character exploration of Troilus and Cressida, creating a powerful gestural score for two characters who long to touch but are pulled apart by external forces. From this, Mackey decided to focus on how bodies travel and intersect.

Mackey ends by asking us all to close our eyes and re-imagine the process of experiencing their devised show back in September, then asks the audience to share their most memorable experience from that evening.

Clarence Joseph Finn – “Methinks you are my glass and not my brother”: An Experience of Playing the Identical Dromio Twins with One Actor Body in The Comedy of Errors

Finn begins by stating that his thesis focuses on the challenge of playing two characters in one body and the effect that it has had on his body image. He notes that, as a result of bullying earlier in life, he had never engaged in physical training, as he had never seen the point. Entering this program changed his perspective, and he particularly notes the Viewpoints exercises taught by Doreen as teaching him to think well of his body on stage.

Working through the Dromios was his greatest challenge, made moreso by the fact that this performance was part of CSE’s already highly-doubled small scale production. He had to develop different markers for each Dromio. Finn then walks us through his process of developing them, beginning with voices: he started with Linklater choices for finding each Dromio’s voice, then moved into using Laban to marry those vocal choices to physical choices. One Dromio was lighter and quicker; the other low and heavy. He then moved on to behavioral gestures drawn from Viewpoints training. Finn also notes that the relationship each Dromio has to his respective Antipholus further informed his own physicality and spatial relationship. With the help of Sczepankowski and Odenbrett, Finn demonstrates the difference in his two Dromios.

His question: Is there a clear and distinct physical difference, and how might he further develop the physicality to make that clearer?

Molly Beth Seremet – “This is and is not Cressida”: Resisting Anthropocentrism in the Shakespeare of Things

Seremet begins “in the negative space” between the thesis she’ll actually be working on and the thesis she can no longer write. She intended to build upon her MLitt thesis, but notes that the exploration of the conflation of “person” and “thing” has become profoundly uncomfortable in our current political climate. While she’s still fascinated by the cyber-potential of becoming-human value in objects, but she is concerned about the inverse: making an object of a human. Seremet uses several examples from the past month, including the Oklahoma bill turning a woman into a “host” and the interaction of the “nuclear football” with guests at the “Winter White House”.

She goes on to note that the thesis she would like to write isn’t entirely hers to tell, given her own privilege and societal status, and she draws a connection to the “no-place” that Cressida exists in. Seremet hopes to continue elevating the object while also interrogating  the view from her position of privilege. She hopes to connect Cressida’s experience to the current immigrant/refugee crisis and with her own family history of displacement. She discusses her need to “focus on the real and the material in this era of alternative facts”.

Her question: What are the ethical responsibilities of a theatrical and art-making practice in the year 2017? And, in unpacking object-based feminism, how can the voice of the object be viewed through the mechanism?

Zac Harned – Arguing with Myself: Body Building Stories

Harned begins by describing his experience as a rifleman as a metaphor for the various components necessary for success in the small scale production. He will address the roles he played in the small scale production of Troilus and Cressida and how rhetoric informed his physical choices.

“Shakespeare’s characters cause plot by action,” whether that action is implied in what they say or more explicit when they stab someone. “All acting choices are based in necessity.” He keys in on the idea of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and “art” being, essentially, an action of making something; thus, “rhetoric is the making of getting what you want” — which could also serve as a definition of acting. Harned discusses his discovery that rhetorically-informed performances are not, themselves, a style of acting — so “why should an actor give a damn?” He asserts that without engaging the rhetoric, an actor misses the opportunity for intellectual depth and aesthetic appeal.

Harned continues that “most people approach Shakespeare with a doctrine,” and that almost every doctrine that says “yes” to something says “no” to something else. His focus on scansion and rhetoric is not meant to be dogmatic, but he asserts that rhetorical knowledge enables an actor to be faithful to the story of a character. Harned asks the audience if they can see ways in which this approach is inaccessible to actors.

Ryan Odenbrett – A Face “full of O’s”: An Examination of Ecphonesis in Berowne’s Dialogue

Odenbrett connects his MFA thesis to his MLitt thesis on statsitical analysis. He believes echphonesis (the exclamation) is perhaps the most easily identifiable rhetorical figure. What, he asks, does the use of ecphonesis inform us about a character? He focuses on a line of Rosaline’s, accusing Berowne of having “a face full of Os” — rather than interpreting this as a reference to smallpox scars or syphilis blisters, he wondered if she referred to his exclamatory tendencies.

The process of documenting the use of ecphonesis was “monotonous, but not difficult”. Berowne uses ecphonesis 23 times in the play, 18 of those in 4.3 alone. 11 of those take place after he confesses to having written his love sonnet. 92% of his exclamations occur in verse. Odenbrett runs through a breakdown of the syntactical placements of these instances of ecphonesis. Odenbrett then created a table of the total ecphoneses used in all of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Costard comes in second with 11 instances.

Odenbrett then wanted to know if Berowne uses ecphonesis more than anyone else in the canon — but he believes not, as Love’s Labour’s Lost only has 68 instances (in 12th place), while Romeo and Juliet comes in first with 146. He intends to compare Berowne to other male characters in Shakespeare’s comedies. He asks what information we feel that ecphonesis gives an actor about a character.

George R Kendall – Directing Shakespeare in Intimate Performance Space and the Brechtian V-effekt 

Kendall begins by connecting his work to Mackey’s and Williams’s, as it deals with physicality and physical space. He interrogates the nearness to or distance from the audience in various theatrical approaches, looking particularly at the use of two “intimate spaces”: blackbox theatres and studio spaces. He notes that the Blackfriars Playhouse, while not fitting into either of those categories, still constitutes an intimate space. Kendall characterizes a component of intimacy as the “shared space” of actors and audience which enhances the emotional experience of the audience.

Kendall then discusses the practice of direct address and how it fits into the use of intimate performance spaces. Though it breaks the flow of the action, it does so in a way that is not an obstruction in these spaces. Kendall contrasts the intimacy of direct address in the Blackfriars Playhouse and similar styles to the alienation of the audience and distancing of emotional involvement intended by Brecht.

Kendall states his belief that directors should be very aware of the production space when deciding up on their approach to a play, particularly with an eye towards audience address. The more intimate the theatre space, the more personal that audience interaction can become; direct address has a less profound effect in a large proscenium theatre where much of the audience is physically further from the actors. Kendall questions: What have those of you who are actors discovered about intimate performance space? and How comfortable or uncomfortable are you as an audience member with an actor who addresses you?

Melinda Marks – A Labour Saved: How I Learned to Get Along with Love’s Labour’s Lost

Marks, who was the dramaturg for Love’s Labour’s Lost, also cut that script, and her thesis examines the practical process of cutting, what she cut, and how she decided to cut it. She admits up front that she strongly dislikes this play, which makes telling us about cutting it an intellectually interesting challenge. Since this cutting was for CSE’s “Ren season show”, the show styled after the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, Marks notes that the dramaturg’s role then becomes complicated, as they have no director’s conceptual parameters for either guidance or restriction. Marks notes the difference between creating a product “faithful to” someone else’s concepts and creating a product with the particular goals of the CSE Ren season show. She both had to rely upon subjectivity and had to combat her own distaste for the play in order to create a coherent script that would be interesting for both actors and audience.

After cutting the play, Marks went through all her cuts and made notes on her reasons for them. This allowed her to distinguish between objective and subjective cuts. She also color-coded these cuts for ease of analysis. She describes her role not only as dramaturg, but also as the editor of her own dramaturgical thought process.

Marks asks what we think would be a valuable quantitative or qualitative addition to this process?

Shane Michael Sczepankowski – The Story of the Storytellers

Sczepankowski informs us that his project is “like a thesis… but it isn’t. But it is.” As a response to a challenge from Paul Menzer to write a contribution to the MFA book that was more than an academic paper. As such, he is working on a play reflective of CSE’s mission statement. He is creating “a soft re-telling of the ‘Shane’anigans that have transpired” during the CSE year; his adaptation of Macbeth responds to and parodies CSE’s process of creating their school touring show. The director appears as Hecate and the “salty actors” as the Witches, among other correlations.

Sczepankowski posits this play as a sort of archival compilation, retelling the process of CSE’s experience. In a scripted scene, Tyler Dale expresses concern that Sczepankowski is skirting his responsibilities as an S&P student; Sczepankowski admits that this is an unusual approach, but believes that it will reflect the unique and meaningful experiences of the CSE journey.

His question: What makes a successful adaptation and what makes an absolutely miserable one?

Introducing “Kids” to Shakespeare

Since 2011, four grade-school teachers have been reading and reviewing children’s, juvenile, and young adult fiction and nonfiction, and then collectively writing about it on really fun interactive blog called “The Nerdy Book Club.” They say that all it takes to be an “honorary member” of “The Nerdy Book Club” is a love of books. My favorite thing about the site, is their book awards system. Every December, the four teachers, as well as their students and fans of the site, get the chance to nominate their favorite books published that year. They all then discuss the pros and cons, and the four teachers narrow down the nominees. Everyone has the month to read anything they haven’t already and, finally, vote. They announce the winners in the last few days of December. Some of the categories that you can nominate are Picture Books, Chapter Books, Graphic Novels, Poetry, Non-Fiction, among others. Finalists have included a vast range of popular titles like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, and Mo Willems very successful Pigeon books. Another great feature of the site are the handy “Top Ten Lists.” Each list focuses on a specific topic or type of book or reader, to suggest similar titles they may enjoy. Examples include “Ten Fiercely Fabulous Female Heroines,” “Beyond Santa and Frosty: Meaningful Books for the Season,” and “Top Ten Books to Give to Adolescent Boys who say they ‘Hate Reading.’”

Recently, a friend of our Education Department brought to our attention one of the site’s December lists, “Ten Books to Introduce Kids (of Any Age! Adults, too!) to Shakespeare.” Before I review this post, I should point out that the top ten lists on the site aren’t all recommended by the four teachers who operate the blog. This one was created by an associate editor at Nomad Press named Andi Diehn. That being said, I still decided to read all ten books and look at them as an “introduction” to Shakespeare.

Diehn introduces the post with this lovely little description (her words on the left, my comments on the right);

When I was about 12 years old, I decided to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My mom was impressed. We went to the library and picked it up, along with Hamlet, just because, and I carried them home with a reverence… Okay, so at age 12, Diehn tried to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the hopes of graduating to Hamlet, “just because.” Great! What a good start! She notes that her mom was “impressed” with her “reveren[t]” book choice and provides a seemingly happy (and routine) memory of them going to the library to pick up these plays. So we get the idea that Diehn is a young reader and her mother supports that hobby by taking her to the library. Since her target audience (i.e. people who read blogs like the Nerdy Book Club) is probably made up of young readers, this is a great hook to support their budding hopes of learning about Shakespeare.
But…what were these words? This wasn’t even English, was it? I didn’t understand any of it. Within a page or two of Midsummer, I was done, discouraged, disappointed. I didn’t even attempt Hamlet. Shakespeare, I decided, wasn’t for me. Which she instantly destroys with her own example of what she sees as a failure to read successfully heightened poetry at 12. She expertly defines in her youth “this wasn’t even English” and decides that she was “done, discouraged, and disappointed” and after two pages of struggling she concludes that Shakespeare wasn’t for her.
It wasn’t until about five years later, when a high school English teacher got up in front of the class and performed the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with passion and total commitment that I was willing to give it another shot. And with daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussions about plot, symbolism, history, and character, I fell in love. THANKFULLY she was re-inspired by a passionate high-school teacher that encouraged her to “give it another shot.” It took her five years to try “daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussion about plot, symbolism, history, and character” which made her fall in love with Shakespeare.
The good news is, we don’t actually have to wait that long to enjoy Shakespeare. Actually, we enjoy him a lot more than we realize. Not only did he add more than 1,700 words to the English language, he also provides the foundations for countless books, movies, songs, TV shows, and blogs.

If you’re looking to inspire a love of Shakespeare in a kid of any age, check out these young adult novels. They’re the gateway to a lifelong connection with the greatest English writer of all time.

But apparently her experience of having a good teacher who supported her learning a difficult playwright was “waiting too long” and thankfully we don’t have to “suffer” like Diehn did. Instead she suggests reading 10 books NOT by Shakespeare, just books about Shakespeare or books that hint at Shakespearean themes, characters, and plots and THAT will make him interesting enough to foster “lifelong connection with the greatest English writer of all time.”

Her top ten include;

    1. The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees
    2. The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love by A.E. Cannon
    3. Ophelia by Lisa Klein
    4. Street Love by Walter Dean Myers
    5. Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet by Paula Marantz Cohen
    6. Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
    7. The Cake House by Latifah Salom
    8. Something Rotten by Alan Gratz
    9. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
    10. King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

Don’t get me wrong now; I am all for inspiring the youths (adults, too!) to read Shakespeare. But I have a crazy idea to introduce students to Shakespeare: you could give them (wait for it)…………………… Shakespeare. I was ten years old when I first read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so don’t tell me it’s impossible. What made the play so accessible at ten for me and what made it so accessible for Diehn in high school are the exact same thing, and I would suggest that age has nothing to do with it. We both had great teachers: someone who was passionate about the story and about making sure their students understood that they could understand Shakespeare. I see this during our workshops and summer camps with students of all ages (5 years old to 95 years old), so don’t tell me young children and young adults can’t get it because “it isn’t even English.” What made Diehn follow what was happening in the plays was “daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussion about plot, symbolism, history, and character.”

I’m not saying reading Shakespeare for the first time is as easy as reading young adult and juvenile historical fiction that introduces themes and plots from the plays, but reading the actual play should never be dismissed as “too difficult” or “discouraging” or impossible. There is a fundamental difference between a smart young reader trying to understand heightened rhetoric and poetry alone (no matter how supportive their parents may be of their hobby) and having a passionate person to lead group discussion about plot, symbolism, history, character. Lastly, I’m not even sure why Diehn suggests this method to introduce Shakespeare since it isn’t even what happened to her. She didn’t read a historical-youth-fiction piece that made her love it, she had a great teacher that made her love it.

All of that being said; I still decided to read these ten books, because while I do think most people can learn Shakespeare by reading Shakespeare, that isn’t to say historical fiction isn’t a great genre that fans of the plots of the plays can still enjoy. Rather than using these as introductions, I would suggest pairing them with the plays on which they are based and reading them as supplemental material for fun. I’ve been reading two at a time, so here are my thoughts on the first two that I tackled.

The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees

the-fools-girlCelia Rees has been a youth writer since 1993 and is best known for her book Pirates! Although I have never read her other books, I have heard of Pirates! and remember it being on the suggested reading shelves of my library when I was in middle school. I dove into The Fool’s Girl feeling excited for the most part. The book jacket summary gave me just a little bit of skepticism because of its seemingly “historical” take on a possible origin story for the play Twelfth Night. I picked up on some “Shakespearean” names like “Violetta” (similar to Twelfth Night’s Viola) and Stephano (a character in The Tempest, not Twelfth Night). The jacket also alluded to other themes and characters from Twelfth Night; namely Malvolio, Feste, and the kingdom in which they all live, Illyria. The historical and magical realism started to blend when the jacket hints to “holy relics,” the “Forest of Arden” (from As You Like It, not Twelfth Night),  and William Shakespeare as an actual character in the story. I was mostly intrigued to see how these things would all blend together as Rees’s story unfolded.

Essentially, Rees took Malvolio’s final line from the play, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (5.1), and imagined what that revenge might look like. Rees’s story details the plight of the children that result from the double marriage that ends the play; Orsin (instead of Shakespeare’s Duke “Orsino”) marries Viola and they produce Violetta, and Viola’s twin brother Sebastian marries Countess Olivia and they produce Stephano. Essentially, Viola goes missing and Duke Orsin begins to study witchcraft (popularly frowned upon in this retelling) and loses his grip on reality. This weakens his hold on his kingdom, and he is usurped by a cruel Sebastian, not the loving, impromptu man of Shakespeare’s play, but rather a jealous brother who is disappointed in his title as Count and in his Countess’s love for his sister (the two ladies are best of friends and he spends little time with his wife). Violetta and Feste flee to London and meet William Shakespeare, they enlist his help and he writes Twelfth Night based on the stories Violetta shares with him. Stephano also made it safely out of the ruined kingdom of Illyria, the two cousins reunite in London and work together to overthrow the evil Malvolio and evil Sir Andrew.

There are a lot of other small allusions to other plays that will only be meaningful to readers who know what they’re looking for. For example; they go to the Forest of Arden (near Stratford instead of in France) and there is a character named Robin Goodfellow who plays tricks on people and scurries around the forest (of Arden).

The book is also extremely heavy-handed in its religious themes and undertones. The whole feud between Malvolio and every other character (it seems) is that they aren’t devout enough. It becomes his personal goal to convert everyone or kill them in the process. His main plan of attack is stealing an ancient religious artifact from Illyria which he plans to travel the world with in order to persuade the faithless. As if forced conversion isn’t a heavy enough religious plot for a YA novel, Rees makes the Illyrian artifact the gift of myrrh that had been given to Christ at birth. Violetta says that the artifact is the reason for Illyria’s existence and Rees lays it on thick;

The golden reliquary , studded with gems and cunningly wrought by the goldsmiths of Byzantium, holds one of the most sacred relics in Christendom: the gift of myrrh offered to the Infant Jesus by the magus Caspar. The precious substance is contained in a small silver-lidded cup of great antiquity, set with precious stones and still containing the myrrh used to anoint the body of Our Lord. (pg 72)

Because Rees is so careless and universally inclusive in her blending of Shakespearean plots and themes, her constantly heavy-handed religious language is an odd opposition.

However, her appreciation of Shakespeare is sweetly encouraging. She describes his character as kind and smarter than everyone else; “He began to have an idea. It came to him complete, all of a piece. That was what made him different from other men” (pg 163).

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper is an English and Welsh writer known for her blending of mythological, king-of-shadowslegendary, and folktales with contemporary stories, times, and plots. Although King of Shadows is one of her later books, she uses the same time-traveling devices in this book. In King of Shadows, American Nat Field travels to London in 1997 with a boys’ acting troupe and their director, Arby, to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in repertory with Julius Caesar in the newly constructed recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe. On their first day there, Nat gets sick and goes to bed with a high fever. When he wakes up he has been transported to 1599 and will be playing with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s playing company, in the new Globe. Luckily, he is a “new member” to the company so it doesn’t matter that no one recognizes him. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are also doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nat is to play the same part he was going to play with Arby’s troupe, Puck. The other Nat Field (famous boy actor from the Blackfriar’s Boys) is in-turn transported to 1997 and (thankfully) can be treated for the bubonic plague with simple antibiotics. For the most part both performances go well and present-day Nat gets to be in both of them, however, high-jinks ensue. The big reveal comes right at the end when Nat and his friends realize why and how the switch happened. The realize that if past-Nat had performed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men instead of present-Nat, William Shakespeare would have gotten the plague and died in 1599.

“‘It was 1599, Nat,’ Rachel said. ‘Shakespeare was only in his thirties, he wrote most of his greatest plays after that. If he’d acted with Nathan Field instead of with you, he’d have caught the plague and died.. If you hadn’t gone back in time, William Shakespeare would have died’” (pg 173).

Their director “Arby” confirms this and reveals his name is actually “R.B,” his initials – “Richard Babage.” The fun idea is that if you say “Richard Burbage” with a British accent, it kind of sounds like “Babage.” Although Cooper never officially confirms that Arby is supposed to be Richard Burbage (who Nat meets when he time travels), she heavily suggests that Arby knows about the time-traveling and may have caused it at the end of the book.

As absurd as this plot is, I actually kind of liked this book. It was cute if nothing else. And what was really fun about it was that a lot of the stage devices and plots that Nat gets to experience in 1599 are historically accurate. There are several ideas that aren’t confirmed and there is no historical evidence to support them, but I love that Cooper imagined possible technical ideas. And lastly, there are only two “historical” things that are straight-up wrong. Here are examples of these;

CORRECT!

  1. A huge pet-peeve of our co-founder, Ralph Alan Cohen, is when actors enter and exit through the house. There is no evidence to say that this happened and more probably would not have because of the cost of acting company’s costumes. They wouldn’t have risked wearing precious and expensive fabrics past groundlings. When Nat tries to use the blocking his present day director gave him in rehearsal in 1559 and exit through the house, William Shakespeare has something to say about it; “‘Can I go through the house?’ ‘Through the house?’ Shakespeare said. I pointed into the auditorium. ‘No, no,’ he said firmly. ‘That is for clowns, and not clowns of my liking. Thy place is the stage’” (pg 72).
  2. Cooper accurately describes the use of a plot (in both 1599 and 1997) and a 1599 book-keeper; “As usual, there were constant nervous visits to the ‘plot,’ the list of entrances and exits that hung near the stage in the tiring-house, and whenever Master Burbage came offstage he made a beeline for the book-keeper, a small bespectacled man… with the play’s text on his lap” (pg 88).
  3. Although there is no historical evidence to support the idea that Shakespeare’s actors used audience contact, we’re like 99% sure they did. At the very least, we find that at our Blackfriars Playhouse today, making eye contact with an audience member is one of the most common and most meaningful original staging conditions in our tool belt. Nat finds this to be true in 1599 as well; “I fixed my eyes on one man near the front… and said everything right to him. It was a perfect eye contact; he was gaping at me, fascinated” (pg 93).
  4. We also know that Shakespeare’s company produced many plays in repertory in a very short amount of time, and Nat notices that “…there simply wasn’t time to rehearse so much” (pg 178).

NOT CONFIRMED BUT FUN IDEAS!

  1. There isn’t a lot of evidence about the technical aspects that went into special effects at early modern playhouses. However, Cooper imagines some creative solutions to create smoke and fog, war sound effects, and bird song in her novel;
    1. “… fireworks were being set off onstage in a sequence of huge bangs, and clouds of smoke from a crude smoke machine being puffed out from a backstage bellows, for the battle effects, and Pistol grabbed my arm” (pg 92).
    2. “…blowing a little pipe into a bowl of water to make the sounds of birdsong; burning rope in a metal pot, to make smoke that could be puffed with a bellows across the stage…” (pg 115)

WRONG!

  1. Cooper’s worst offense is careless and irresponsibly switching between “thee” and “you.” Just like in French (tu and vous) and Spanish (tu and usted), English used to have formal and informal personal addresses (thee and you).  Although this has fallen out of practice today, it isn’t difficult to grasp the concept. And once you understand it, the ShakesFearful idea of “thee” in the plays becomes much less daunting. “Thee” is the informal, and was used to address people you were close to and people of a lower status than you. Alternatively, “you” was formal and was used to show respect and to address nobility or people of a higher status than you. Cooper not only has no regard for people’s’ statuses in her novel, she frequently will switch between “you” and “thee” in the same speech, implying that there is no difference. Instead, she appears as if she is just trying to sound “Elizabethan” and it is inaccurate and uninformed; “‘Thou needst none. I have found a way in. Come.’ Roper glanced at me maliciously. ‘Unless your Paul’s Boy has no stomach for it, of course’” (pg 64).
  2. The final completely made up event is still a fun plot device and they do the same thing in Shakespeare in Love, so we can’t fault Cooper too much. The Queen comes to the playhouse. Queen Elizabeth would have never come to a public playhouse, let alone in 1599 when she was in her late 60s. However, her attendance at Dream is a pretty fun idea and it means that present-Nat gets to meet her. So that’s pretty cool.

Overall, these books weren’t great. And I would never use them to introduce students to Shakespeare. However, it might be fun to pair them with the plays that they draw the most from and read them as supplemental reading (The Fool’s Girl with Twelfth Night and King of Shadows with A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Especially King of Shadows. It was pretty cute and had a lot of fun history in it, The Fool’s Girl was too fanciful, too heavy-handed, and the attempt at historical “sounding” language was often more difficult to follow than simple text.

 

Next time! Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and either Ophelia by Lisa Klein or Street Love by Walter Dean Myers (whichever of the two gets to the library first).