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!