On the Road with Pat and Bob Schieffer

Our administrative assistant Sarah Stone reflects on her experience driving the Schieffers to and from Staunton for the 2017 American Shakespeare Center Annual Gala.

IMG_3806.JPGThe plan was to get there fifteen minutes before I needed to be there, but I pulled up to their building five minutes late. The whole way to DC in my little grey car, I could hear my dad’s voice in my head reminding me to be focused and calm when operating a vehicle, but sometimes it takes a lot of energy to heed that advice he gave me so many years ago.

Today, I was stressed about the heavy traffic and the timing kerfuffle, but the cobblestone drive, the circular fountain, and the uniformed doorman calmed me down. “I’m here to pick up Bob and Pat Schieffer,” I told him. “I’ll just use my cell to call them to let them know I’m here.” He nodded and stepped back into the lobby while I waited for their voicemail greeting to finish. Then, as if he had taken my initial words as a request, the doorman presented The Schieffers and their luggage. We loaded up – Bob in the front and Pat in the back – and started the journey to Staunton, VA.

You know who knows how to get around DC during crazy events? People who live there. Amid roadblocks and half-naked runners, I would have been lost if Bob and Pat hadn’t steered me beyond where my iPhone was telling me to go.

Once we got out of DC, the conversation flipped from frustrations about DC traffic to excitement about the ASC Gala, college life, various productions of Hamlet, and books (those we’ve read and those Bob has written). As I-66 turned into I-81, we discussed the beauty of Virginia, the delight of Staunton, and any imaginable opportunities that lie ahead. And dogs. We chatted about our dogs.

“What kind of dogs do you have?”

“Two mutts, both about 30 lbs, which makes them great apartment dogs. What kind of dogs do you have?”

They’ve always had beagles, but they haven’t had dogs for 13 years.

We’re nearing Staunton, but amid roadblocks and witches and wizards, I wasn’t worried about getting to the Blackfriars Playhouse to drop the Schieffers off for the Gala rehearsal. Because you know who knows how to get around Staunton during the Magic and Mischief weekend? People who live here.

I dropped Bob and Pat off at the entrance to the Playhouse and waved goodbye. I saw them briefly at the Gala, but between conversations and pictures (and a starring role in the Gala performance for Bob), they were in high demand.

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Bob and Pat Schieffer at the ASC Gala. Photo by Lauren Rogers.

After brunch the next day, I picked Bob and Pat up from their hotel. After we pried Bob away from a few conversations, we three loaded into my little grey car and started back for DC.

“I’m relying on you two to be my GPS,” I said. “Is that OK?”

Pat smiled. “We’re just going back to our house? Oh, yes, we can get you there.” Good.

Our conversation started with my hopes that they’d had a good time at the Gala, which was greeted with enthusiastic (but exhausted) comments about what an enjoyable evening it was. We reviewed the people they met, the things they learned about the theatre, and the possibility of coming back to see Hamlet at the ASC after the New Year. As I-81 turned into I-66, we discussed the various unions associated with the performing arts, Pat’s newly acquired producer credit, professional next steps, and coffee.

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Co-Founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, Burbage Award recipient Lesley Currier, Goodfellow Award recipient Robert C. Vaughan III, Honored Guest Bob Schieffer, and Managing Director Amy Wratchford. Photo by Lauren Rogers.

Traffic started to bottleneck as we reached DC; there were fewer roadblocks, but just as many delays as there were the day before. With the turn of the wheel, the car entered the serene environment of Bob and Pat’s driveway. As we got out of the car, the doorman greeted us: “Same girl!”

“Yep! Same girl as yesterday!”

Bob and Pat got out of the car and collected their belongings. We hugged, and I agreed to call them next time I’m in town for any length of time.

“You were a good driver,” Pat said as they turned to go into the building.

“Thanks. My dad would be very pleased to hear that.”

I waved goodbye, got in my little grey car, and quietly drove back to my two 30lb mutts in Staunton.

Sarah Stone is from Cleveland, OH and lives with her husband and two dogs in Staunton, VA. She likes to talk about food, classics, and rules that are bendable.

 

 

Guest Post: Thou Art Translated: Magic and Meaning in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

A Midsummer Nights’ Dream appeared in our 2015 Summer-Fall Season. Lia Fisher-Janosz is a forensics coach and drama teacher at the Overbrook School in Nashville, Tennessee.


Thou Art Translated: Magic and Meaning in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Lia Fisher-Janosz

How are magic and meaning made? Why are magic and meaning made? The answers to these questions stand at the center of Shakespeare’s magnificent play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the search for the answers was (at least in part) what the American Shakespeare Center’s 2015 production and a related Fall Teacher’s Seminar were about.

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Gregory Jon Phelps as Nick Bottom, 2015. Picture by Lindsey Walters.

Our search took us directly into the text itself, as one might guess.  It is in many ways a triune entity; in its one world are three, those of the would-be thespians or “rude mechanicals,” the court and the lovers, and the fairies.  When the boundaries between these three worlds start to cross and blur, magic has either just occurred or is about to do so; at the very root of this phenomenon is not a what, but a where—the wood.

With Director of Education Sarah Enloe and Academic Resources Manager Cass Morris leading us into the forest and back again, we started on the first day by considering the concept of actors playing actors and some insights that can be gleaned (and even some insults that can be gleeked) from the characterizations of the “hard-handed men.”  Next, we explored the traditions associated with courtship and match-making in the Elizabethan era, and we found our perspectives and assumptions somewhat challenged. From there, on the second day, we went on to explore how Shakespeare wrote, and with what purpose (tetrameter=magic!).  Finally, our journey culminated in a visit with Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, the ASC’s founder and Director of Mission, and also the director of the ASC’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which we had the distinct pleasure of seeing later that afternoon.  Dr. Ralph’s direction gave a nostalgic nod to the charm and delight of cinema’s earlier days—magic-within-magic-within-magic, via movies-within-plays-within-plays.  He explained why he made some of the choices he did, but also focused on the prevalence and importance of invisibility in directing and teaching Dream (and in the play itself), and upon what he believes is the “heart of his [Shakespeare’s] mystery,” Titania’s speech about her votaress.

If you thought to read of everything we listened to or learned or loved, know that I will not be the one to fetch and deliver to you such trifles and rich merchandise; for as Walt Whitman wrote:  “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, you must travel it for yourself…You are also asking me questions and I hear you, I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.”  I give just a glimpse, and tantalizing it is, to my way of thinking.

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John Harrell and Sarah Fallon as Oberon and Titania, 2015. Picture by Lindsey Walters.

Ah yes, thinking!  The workshops and performances held at the American Shakespeare Center make you think; they literally provoke thoughts not previously stirred and rouse the imagination from slumber into waking dream.  In this instance, I was prompted into a positively frenetic tarantella of ideas during the ride home from Staunton, one that included, among other things: impressions of Helena, Hermia, and Hippolyta each being a face of the Triple Goddess, for how could it be coincidental that all three names begin with the same letter, also the letter with which the name of a goddess of the moon commences? (the moon, which happens to be mentioned more in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in any other Shakespearean play); the notion of the entire play being a “dream sequence,” sprung forth from one of Bottom’s fantastical nocturnal illusions; and theories about who the changeling boy really is, and the arrival at the decision that he must be one and the same as that boy who’s perjured everywhere: Love.  Whether or not any of these perceptions hold any weight or water is irrelevant; the point is that they were inspired in the first place.  Dr. Ralph mentioned during the course of our discourse that the play “is about the great gift of the theatre.”  Inextricably linked to this gift is another, freely given by Shakespeare and by the ASC and indeed by all who participate in the theatrical experience, and this is the gift of inspiration, and of communal magic.

Now I’ve touched that standing center stone and found that what’s in hand is gold.  So, what were and are the answers to those questions, then?  How are magic and meaning made?  In sooth, I know only what I myself think the answers are.

The words magic and imagination share the same ancestors:  the (Old) Persian maguš, the Greek magikē, and the late Latin magica, which refer to those mysteries that are part and parcel of the art of the magi, or sorcerer.  Magic and meaning related to it are created by and in the human mind, birthed by the imagination and the intellect, which bring about the enchantment and understanding within and without.  In the case of Shakespeare’s plays, and those who perform and watch them, the enchantment and the making of meaning occur through the written and spoken word, and the spell is mutually cast.  Why are the magic and meaning made?  To paraphrase Dead Poets Society’s John Keating:  we make them because we are members of the human race.  We simply must.

James Joyce—himself an admirer of Shakespeare who loved the Bard’s “radiance of language”—wrote that “we’re all fools in God’s garden.”  We are all just as foolish—and as wise—in Shakespeare’s woods, and a little bit of Nicholas Bottom lives in each of us, Everyman that he is.  If this be true, then it’s we who are translated, transformed utterly by the magic that is worked on us and in us by this play.  Better still, we aren’t lost in translation, but found.

Guest Post: “Justice, justice, justice, justice” – A Lawyer’s Look at ‘Measure for Measure’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

Measure for Measure appeared in our 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season. Kimberly West is an ASC Trustee and a practicing lawyer. She teaches Shakespeare and Trial Advocacy at the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama.


“Justice, justice, justice, justice” – A Lawyer’s Look at Measure for Measure
by Kimberly R. West, J.D.

Consider a city where vice runs rampant – brothels proliferate, drunkenness is the norm, all forms of sexual perversion are available for a price, and the city’s wealthy youth mingle with street operators. The police skirt the edges, either incompetent or venal. The mayor of the city has turned a blind eye to these problems. The laws governing public morality remain on the books but have not been enforced for some length of time. Where are we? Times Square in the early 1980s? Saigon pre-1975? Welcome to the Vienna of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It is a place we recognize.

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Patrick Midgley as Pompey and Ginna Hoben as Mistress Overdone, Measure by Measure, 2016. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

In this Vienna, the ruling Duke of “dark corners” abdicates his office, dons a friar’s habit, and thus disguised undertakes a mission of spying on the state of morality in his city. (Keep in mind that the party line for a Reformation audience casts friars and nuns as prima facie villainous). The dubious nature of such an undertaking is reinforced by the war raging in the region with the King of Hungary; all of the Dukes must reach an agreement with Hungary or attack. The smoke of battle hangs heavily over the action of the play, further darkening the atmosphere and highlighting the deadly absurdity of the Duke’s actions in leaving his post.

Angelo, an untried deputy, is left in charge of “mortality and mercy in Vienna”. Under the Duke’s rule, the “strict statutes and biting laws” of Vienna have not been enforced for fourteen years (by some counts nineteen years – it seems no one is sure how long this state of affairs has existed). The Duke confesses the impact of his failure on the city: “liberty plucks justice by the nose / the baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum.” Angelo assures him that the law in Vienna will no longer be a “scarecrow,” but will see strict enforcement. Shakespeare immediately gives him an opportunity to do so. Vienna has a law on its books which prohibits fornication on pain of death. Lucio, a wealthy and promising young man, has impregnated Juliet, his fiancée. Angelo sentences Claudio to death as an example to all of the bite of the law.

Now, you say, while we thought we recognized the setting, we have left anything resembling modernity, and Shakesfear sets in – we simply can’t understand or relate to such a silly, archaic plot. Really? As you read this, fornication remains on the books as an offense in the State of Virginia – Section 18-2-44 of the Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Enacted 200 years ago, the law has not been enforced since the middle of the 19th century. While the Virginia Supreme Court invalidated the law in 2005 in Martin v. Ziheri, 607 S.E. 2d 367, following the US Supreme Court precedent of Lawrence v. Texas, the Virginia legislature has so far declined to repeal it. Adultery remains a crime on the books as well. And Virginia is for lovers?

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Jonathan Holtzman as Angelo and Alli Glenzer as Isabella, Measure for Measure, 2016. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Within this recognizable framework, Shakespeare explores justice, judicial decision-making, strict construction, lenity, and hypocrisy. Predictably, Angelo spectacularly falls, first sexually, as is fitting with his treatment of Claudio, and then murderously, ordering Claudio’s death despite the presumed Isabella’s acquiescence to his demands. These themes are not unique to Measure for Measure. In the areas of contract law and slander, Shakespeare sets up elaborate legal plot devices (or call them moots/hypotheticals used in the training of lawyers then and today) in many ways mirroring those of this play. For example, The Merchant of Venice explores the outermost limits of the enforceability of a commercial contract, and Much Ado about Nothing centers on the use of circumstantial evidence (think also Othello, The Winter’s Tale) in testing proof of infidelity. Both The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure star eloquent female advocates (all the great lawyers in Shakespeare are women!). Isabella, Claudio’s sister and soon to be a “sister” of the Order of the Poor Clares, pleads for her brother’s life with words echoing Portia’s pleas for mercy to Shylock to forego Antonio’s pound of flesh. Both Measure for Measure and Much Ado about Nothing poke fun at law enforcement — the inimitable Constables Dogberry and Elbow are sleuths of rare linguistic abilities.

Yet Measure for Measure, first performed and published well after Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, differs in tone from the other two plays. There are no green spaces of renewal, redemption, and transformation in Vienna. Structurally, a trial scene in Measure of Measure concludes the play – unusual in the legal procedural timing of Shakespeare’s trials. It is noteworthy that The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing culminate in double weddings. In the last forty-eight lines of Measure for Measure, however, the Duke orders not two, but four. Ironically, only one of these marriages is consensual and not coerced – that of Claudio and Juliet. There is little joy in the Duke’s match-making – Lucio ordered to marry a whore he has gotten pregnant; Angelo captured with the infamous bed trick which seals him to Marianna; and Isabella left speechless at the Duke’s proposal. Little wonder Measure for Measure has been labelled a “problem” play by scholars and audiences alike. Perhaps it is because this play, like no other in the canon, takes head-on the problematic question of legislating morality.

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare gives us two trial scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end of the play. Trials appear in two-thirds of Shakespeare’s plays – unsurprising, since lawyers and law students were (and are) a prime audience for Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare likely ate, drank, and argued with the lawyers and law students who frequented the pubs and private houses around the Blackfriars Theatre and the Inns of Court. The raw materials of legal life are transformed with great accuracy into Shakespeare’s drama.

The first trial scene occurs in Act 2, Scene 1 immediately on the heels of Angelo sentencing Claudio to death in Scene 1. In Scene 1, Escalus argues for a lesser punishment on the ground that Angelo, too, is subject to temptation. Angelo responds:

‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another to fall. I do not deny
The jury passing on the prisoner’s life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes. Who knows the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves?
2.1.18-25.

Who indeed? Perhaps the litigants in Scene 2, which offers the very funny spectacle of the trial of Pompey, a pimp, with his witness Froth, a customer and a gentlemen of means, for the case of Constable Elbow’s wife. In a Kafkaesque mode, the trial proceeds until it becomes clear there is no coherent charge (Elbow speaks in the malapropisms of Dogberry) against Pompey for doing anything to Elbow’s wife. Escalus, left alone to try the case when Angelo leaves earlier with the advisory verdict of “whipping them all,” rules: “truly, officer, because he has some offenses in him that thou wouldst discover if thou couldst, let him continue in his courses till thou know’st what they are.” (2.2.193-196). My law students wittily staged this scene as an episode of “Night Court,” and highlighted the implicit textual echo of the Claudio and Juliet plot as a charge that Pompey has gotten Elbow’s wife pregnant. The surreal chaos of this scene, however, ends in a form of justice: no one is whipped, although all are warned. Intent, it seems, is to be treated differently than action.

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The cast of Measure for Measure, 2016. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The same result concludes the second trial scene and the end of the play – actions, not intentions, result in liability. No spoiler alert here – the multiple revelations at the end of the play await your trip to the Playhouse to view the different slants on the extremes of strict construction and disregard of the law that emerge in the last scene of the play. When Isabella cries for “justice, justice, justice, justice,” the Duke agrees, “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death / Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.” (5.1.465-468). Then Marianna pleads for Angelo’s life, and in kneeling to join her, Isabella secures her place as one of Shakespeare’s great advocates of law seasoned with grace, redemption and forgiveness. As Isabella puts it, “For Angelo / His act did not o’ertake his bad intent, / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects, / Intents but merely thoughts.” (516-519).

We, the audience as jury, have the final verdict on the world of this play, and it is indeed a troubling, indeed problematic play – grappling with tough issues essential to an ordered society. Recognizing the familiar terrain of this world, I submit, results in the conclusion that Measure for Measure should be acquitted of being a “problem” child, and join the ranks of Shakespeare’s great legal plays.

Guest Post: The Real Magic of ‘The Tempest’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

The Tempest appeared in our 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season. Patrick Midgley is an actor who has worked with the ASC both in residence and on tour, a personal trainer, and a director who just opened his first show at Hoosier Shakes.


The Real Magic of The Tempest
by Patrick Midgley

At the 2015 Blackfriars Conference, Jeremy Lopez began his presentation with a refreshingly abrupt thesis: “Really good stuff happens in Act Three, Scene One.”

The audience burst into applause.

But Dr. Lopez was not satisfied.  If you assert that Shakespeare follows any kind of rule, you’re in for trouble, and Dr. Lopez knew this.  Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter, sure, and that’s a fixed and regular pattern: a rule for writing.  But when Shakespeare breaks his rules — or follows someone else’s, seemingly inexplicably — that’s when the really really good stuff happens.  He takes rules, genres, and styles and transforms them into something new, something entirely his own.  Something sublime.

So Dr. Lopez’s presentation began by examining the exceptions to the “Good-Stuff-In-Three-One” Rule.  He looked at plays like Othello, where in 3.1 a clown — heretofore unnoticed, and conspicuously out of place — enters and cajoles the audience into making bonfires.  Antony and Cleopatra served as another exception: there, 3.1 is a rather unremarkable scene starring Ventidius, Silius and a dead Pacorus in which the two living characters debate the merits of remaining unremarkable when you’re under the employ of remarkable men.  In As You Like It, you’d expect to find Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, but instead you find a discordant scene between Duke Frederick and Oliver, in which the Duke commands Oliver to find Orlando and bring him to court, dead or alive.  Dr. Lopez suggested that 3.1s that aren’t “really good” are worth considering, because they often serve as the world in which the play could or should exist: the calm and rational 3.1 between Cleomenes and Dion, for example, which starkly contrasts Leontes irrational, tyrannical court.

But what about the 3.1s that don’t challenge Dr. Lopez’s rule?  The ones where “really good stuff” really does happen?  As I sat listening to Dr. Lopez’s presentation, I recalled all the 3.1s that I had experienced at the American Shakespeare Center.

During the 2011 Hamlet, I sat backstage and listened to John Harrell deliver Shakespeare’s most famous speech: “To be, or not to be”.  During the 2014 Macbeth, I played the First Murderer to James Keegan’s daunting Thane and agreed to murder Banquo and his son Fleance.  And most recently, in the 2015 Midsummer, I stood behind a curtain in the musicians’ balcony, twirling a whirligig while Rick Blunt’s Puck ambushed the Mechanicals’ rehearsal.

Henry V’s 3.1 begins with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the walls up with our English dead!” In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Berowne discovers, to his horror, that he is head over heels in love, and in Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice realizes the same.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor’s 3.1, Falstaff finds a way to use a buck basket as a getaway vehicle.  King Lear’s 3.1 is the storm.  If you’re going to fall in love, take an impossible risk, or give a great speech, 3.1 is the place to do it.

5943895140_43286861df_oBut there was one 3.1 that transformed the way I look at Shakespeare and acting more than any other scene.  It was one of the most terrifying and rewarding scenes I’ve ever played because it was one of the simplest.  All I had to do was look a beautiful girl in the eye and convince her that I loved her with all my heart, soul, mind, and body.

There’s nowhere to hide in a scene like that.  You’re either true or false.

That particular 3.1 was in The Tempest.

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, probably his last solo effort, and it falls into a category that modern scholars call Romances.  The ASC has staged two of Shakespeare’s Romances at the Blackfriars Playhouse  in the last two years: Pericles, starring Greg Phelps in the title role, and The Winter’s Tale, starring James Keegan as Leontes and Abbie Hawk as Hermione.

If you saw either of those plays, Shakespeare’s “rules” for a Romance will be familiar to you.  First, there is a potentially tragic event introduced early in Act 1: remember the threat of Antiochus’s “public war or private treason” in Pericles, or Leontes’ sudden fit of jealousy in The Winter’s Tale.  So something bad happens.

Don’t worry!  The “something bad” gets tied up by Act 5, but there’s a hitch: it all hinges on a very, very unlikely act of forgiveness or reunion between family members.  Remember how impossible it seemed that Thaisa (Sara Hymes) and Pericles (Gregg Phelps) could ever be reunited?  She had presumably died in childbirth and then been cast into the ocean in a sealed coffin, only to be resurrected by Cerimon’s magic, and then hidden away as a priestess in Diane’s temple in Ephesus.  But somehow, thanks to the gods’ (eventual) kindness and Pericles’s silent strength, the two find each other once again.  And then there’s Leontes, perhaps most unlikely of all: he has to  first forgive himself and then be forgiven by his best friend, his wife, and his daughter for an unforgivable act of tyrannous cruelty.  The reward for his redemption comes through Paulina’s patient magic — or,to put it another way, through her potent art.

So while you might guess that the “Romance” plays are more about the young lovers, they’re actually more focused on redemption and reconciliation.  In fact, the real heroes of the Romances are older characters like Paulina and Pericles whose superpowers are patience and endurance.  And while you might guess that because Shakespeare wrote Romances later in his career, he’d be more likely to ignore classical plot structures, Shakespeare seems to become more interested in structure as he matures.

Both Pericles and The Winter’s Tale challenge the audience to keep up with an almost impossible structure.  In Pericles, Shakespeare swiftly cuts across Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Pentapolis, and the Mediterranean Sea (got all that?).  And in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare swiftly cuts across sixteen years just a few lines–and you’re encouraged to go with it by none other than the living embodiment of Time Itself.

Neither of these gambles sounds like something that “should” work on stage.  But they do, beautifully so, and the reason is twofold: (1) Shakespeare trusts your imagination to do the work, and (2) Shakespeare is the greatest playwright the world has ever seen.

Those two things are probably related.

The Romances are as vast as a human lifespan.  It’s as if, late in his career, Shakespeare was beginning to fit the enormity of human life to the endless possibilities presented by a theatre of the imagination.  He was celebrating the fact that the theatre could do anything with the help of an audience–fly across the world or resurrect the dead, for example– and suggesting that the perhaps the most important thing we can do is to learn to forgive each other.

The Tempest mostly follows the rules of the Romances.  It’s a play about monsters and magic, storms and shipwrecks, the savagery of nature and the ultimate power of forgiveness.  There’s a musical fairy who can turn himself into fire and lightning, a cast-away court of conspiracists, drunk clowns, and a dance party hosted by goddesses.  With all that magic and splendor and supernatural ceremony, can you imagine how incredible 3.1 must be?  It’s Shakespeare’s big finale, and the stage is set for the most miraculous scene ever seen.  And here’s how it starts:

Enter FERDINAND, bearing a log.

Not quite what you were expecting, is it?

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The Tempest’s 3.1 is a quiet, sincere love scene between Miranda and Ferdinand.  In the exact center of the play — its very heart — the clouds part, the monsters hide, and even the most mighty magician in the whole world has to sit quietly and watch.  Two young people who think they might love each other encounter each other, alone for the very first time, and tell each other how they feel.  They talk about what they’re afraid of.  They talk about what they hope for.  And they talk about how beautiful the other one is.

MIRANDA
Do you love me?

FERDINAND
O heaven, O earth, bear witness to this sound
And crown what I profess with kind event
If I speak true! if hollowly, invert
What best is boded me to mischief! I
Beyond all limit of what else i’ the world
Do love, prize, honour you.

MIRANDA
I am a fool
To weep at what I am glad of.

This is real magic.  No spell in Prospero’s book or magical feat performed by Ariel can make these two people fall in love and begin the long, hard, wonderful journey of a shared life.  It’s up to them.  They choose it.

Of all Shakespeare’s magnificent, brilliant, and bottomless 3.1s, this is my favorite.  When I played Ferdinand to Miriam Donald Burrows beautiful, feisty, sincere, and hilarious Miranda in 2011, I had only to look her in the eye and speak the truth to her.  It reminded me that acting in Shakespeare’s plays can be an expression of our noblest selves.

Shakespeare has always made me want to be a better person and reminded me of what is most important in my life.  I hope you’ll come back this winter and see two new people play Ferdinand and Miranda.  I’ll be playing the sea monster and not the prince for this go-around.  I hope you’ll love it.  Because, after all, really good stuff really does happen in 3.1.

Guest Post: Delightfully Ridiculous: Recovering the Joy in ‘Midsummer’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared in our 2015 Fall Season. Kate Powers is a director who has worked with the ASC multiple times; her most recent project was directing Twelfth Night at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. This article first appeared in the 2015 Summer-Fall edition of the Playhouse Insider.


Delightfully Ridiculous: Recovering the Joy in Midsummer
by Kate Powers

When Artistic Director Jim Warren first invited me to return to the ASC to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 2011-2012 Almost Blasphemy Tour, my heart broke just a little because I love Love LOVE working at the ASC, but I was not especially keen to direct this particular play.

Midsummer is notoriously easy to stage badly; actors and directors frequently get sucked into a misapprehension that if they just put all those rhyming couplets to work, it will be funny.  Midsummer is nearly all in rhymed couplets, which means two successive lines of verse where the final words rhyme with one another.

6426997723_75d53b5270_oIt looks like this.  Better yet, read this aloud to yourself so you can hear it:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.  (1.2)

Or,

The King doth keep his revels here tonight;
Take heed the Queen come not within his sight;  (2.1)

In fact, if the actors do hit all those rhymes as hard as they can, they fairly quickly stop making any sense, in part because they very often also fall into one steady rhythm once they set their sails toward all those rhymes.  The actors start playing the gist of the speech, rather than fighting for what they want, line by line, word by specific word.  Then they have to create a lot of stage business to cover the fact that they don’t completely understand what they are saying, and before anyone realizes it (indeed, no one may ever realize it), the audience is laughing in spite of Shakespeare rather than with Shakespeare.  Directors also often decide that the way to create fairy magic is to use a lot of glitter instead of using the language that Shakespeare gives to the Fairies themselves.

I’ve seen many mediocre productions of the play where the actors bang mercilessly on the rhyme, slaves (not collaborators) to the iamb; where Titania and Oberon declaim rather than act; where Puck is just odd without paying attention to the clues in the text.  John Barton, director and brains behind the BBC Channel 4 Playing Shakespeare series, said, “Blank verse is probably the very centre of the Elizabethan tradition and perhaps the most important thing in Shakespeare that an actor .  .  .  needs to get help from.” As I dove headlong into my preparation and research, I discovered that there were certain speeches or moments in the play that I couldn’t recall ever seeing staged to my satisfaction.  These moments of disappointment became the kernel of my approach to directing the play.  I was determined to revivify these moments, to make them active, to make them cohere and, yes, jump.

As I worked with the actors playing Titania and Oberon to eschew magical, breathy, glitter-infused Liv Tyler / Middle Earth declamation in favor of using their heightened language as well as their full voices to passionately pursue what they want from one another, to fight like hell for what they want, as I collaborated with the actors playing the four lovers to discover how each character uses the language differently to achieve their desires, as we all dove into the world of the play, I discovered that I am not anything like bored with this nearly perfect play.  On the contrary, the reason we keep doing it is because it is so good.  I was blaming the faults of myriad productions on the play itself.  My rehearsal process at the ASC, while seeking to recover the joy for the audiences around the country, helped me to recover the joy, too.

Part of the director’s task is to ask what the play is about, to ask how each scene illuminates that ‘about’ and to collaborate with the actors to mine the text for meaning.  Directing is discovering the staging that embodies that textual understanding.  Director Richard Eyre writes, “Meaning above all.”

6427176803_ba916f1726_oWhen she first encounters Oberon, Titania has a 32-line speech that teems with adjectives and classical references; she berates Oberon for all the ways in which the natural course of human and animal life as well as the seasons have been disrupted because she blames him for the disturbances.  It is not a glittery, breathy weather report; it is not just pretty speech.  It is a scathing indictment of the tension between them:

                     … The spring, the summer
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension.  (2.1)

Titania is angry with her husband.  They are having a fight.  This is not time to breathily declaim and bat her beglittered lashes.  She needs to rally all the points that will help her win the argument and cause him to amend his ways.  And while she doesn’t win, per se, she angers Oberon further as they argue.  It is out of this fight, and her refusal to give him something he wants, that his plan to “torment thee for thy injury” grows.  Titania and Oberon’s lovers’ quarrel mirrors and refracts the passions, misunderstandings, hurt, anger, and jealousy that we see in the four young Athenian lovers, that we glimpse in Theseus and Hippolyta, and that Bottom, Peter Quince, and their company inadvertently lampoon in their play.  If we miss the fight, we might miss the resonance as well as the motor of the action.  And if the actor declaims prettily rather than using these words to fight for what she needs, then we will certainly miss the fight.

Harley Granville Barker, a director, Shakespeare scholar, and clever redhead, wrote, “Let us humbly own how hard it is not to write nonsense about art.”  He wrote this in his preface to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a kind of nonsense that becomes art.  In no particular order, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is love, sex, wooing, (spoiler alert!) wedding, upsetting one’s parents, taking the occasional woman by storm (or at least by conquest), magic, moonlight, misunderstanding, transformation, and all the domains that there adjacent lie.

It is easy to get cynical about producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream or A Christmas Carol, but we don’t just produce them because they make for good box office.  Unpack that cashbox a minute:  people buy tickets to these plays because they love them.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is gateway Shakespeare:  if people have a ‘helpless laughter, tears of joy streaming down their face’ experience with this play, they’ll come back to see more challenging pieces.

We love this play, we produce this play, we come see this play because of the rich and multi-faceted ways in which it shows us how ridiculous we are and how essential love is.  Through the four social strata of the play (aristocracy, gentry, laborers, and immortals), we discover a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the fragile relationship between order and chaos, the danger inherent in passions suppressed or denied.  Through the very structure of his language – from rhymed couplets to blank verse to intense shared verse lines and back again — Shakespeare shows us relationships fraying and fracturing, recovering and healing.

Many of us have made impulsively bad decisions in pursuit of love; we can probably all remember foolishness once upon a summer night.  Helena’s fairly clear-eyed, for instance, about the rose-colored glasses she wears for Demetrius:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transform to form and dignity,   (1.1)

but Helena wants Demetrius back so intensely that she is willing to risk her best friend’s life on one last chance at love.  Titania loves Oberon, but she’s not about to give him that changeling boy; petulant Oberon is quite prepared to force her hand by whatever magical means necessary.

6427059901_0a3e6521cb_oDreams can be wonderful stuff, but they often careen out of control.  Moonlight can be romantic, but it casts shadows.  Both can skew our perceptions in alarming ways, firing our imaginations to suspect the worst, the sexiest, the cruelest, the most frightening.  The line between a dream and a nightmare can be thin and full of fissures.  Is it a nightmare because it ends badly or wakes you with a start?  Does it remain a dream because it has a happy ending?  When or how does it cross over from one to the other?  A happily moonlit playground and a dark, scary forest can be bordered by the same trees.

Dreams and nightmares are both difficult to recall in sharp detail upon waking, drifting ephemerally away as one struggles to remember.  Like snowflakes and productions of Midsummer, no two are quite alike.  The four Athenian lovers and Titania come to a new understanding through their experiences in the forest; they find their way to a new or restored love, even as they strive to recall the details.  Bottom seems happily unaware of his transformation, but his company’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe casts into relief all of the heated emotions of the forest journey.  For all of the strife, upset and discord, no one has died; no one grieves.  The “story of the night told over /… grows to something of great constancy.”  (5.1)

The churlish Samuel Pepys saw a production of this play in 1662, and observed in his diary: “To the King’s Theatre where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”  The play is ridiculous, but we hope it is delightfully so, and filled with the rich complexity, wonder and joy of new love discovered and old love savored.

Guest Post: Theatrical Duality: On- and Off-Stage in ‘Julius Caesar’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

Julius Caesar has been a part of our Dangerous Dreams tour and the 2016 Spring Season, closing this week. It also featured in 2015’s ASC Theatre Camp. Ellis Sargeant is an ASCTC alumnus and a student at Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School.


Theatrical Duality: On- and Off-Stage in Julius Caesar
by Ellis Sargeant

A hush falls over the crowd, a low chant rises from the discovery space, and the cast strides onto the stage. Julius Caesar begins.

We arrived at camp three weeks earlier, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on whatever challenges we encountered for the next three weeks. The murky cloud of untold possibilities facing us was the same one that the characters of Julius Caesar grapple with.

Both the journey of our production and the play itself begin with tension. We walked into auditions excited and anxious, hesitant and eager, with anticipation for a future we could not see. We took our seats, hearts pounding, and waited to audition in front of our directors and peers. Likewise, in Caesar the Roman senators walk the streets, excited and fearful, with anticipation for a future with Caesar as king. They sit in the Senate, hearts pounding, and wait for Caesar to inch closer to ending the Republic. Both of these tense moments are preamble leading up to the main action: at our auditions, our play hadn’t yet begun, and in Caesar, the senators’ worry is the backdrop to the play’s opening. This duality of on and off-stage experience is something that echoed throughout our exploration of the play.

Julius Caesar is a play draped in background. The play only makes sense in light of Roman history and culture. All of the characters’ choices are inseparably tied to their idealistic view of Rome. Each character in the play is convinced that Rome is the greatest city in the world, that it represents what is good in humanity. Conflict arises over that definition of “good.”

Our rehearsal process opened with a read through. We needed to get a feel for our characters in order to begin exploring the play. Similarly, the play opens with Flavius and Marullus giving background. Shakespeare needs to provide his audience with a feel for the wars that have just ended and the current political situation. Our cast then moved into rehearsing our first scenes. The plebeians party, Caesar strides onstage, and finally only Brutus and Cassius are left. We stand onstage, facing each other and the end of Rome as we know it.

Caesar is a play about the state versus the personal. Every character has to weigh what Rome itself is worth and what they would be willing to sacrifice to preserve Rome. Happiness? Security? Their own lives? The life of a best friend?

We faced similar questions during camp: What are the actors willing to sacrifice for the sake of our play? How much sleep will you give up to learn your lines? How much pride will you swallow to accept your director’s notes? How much of yourself will you give, every day, to your fellow actors and the work you are doing together?

Caesar is a play about intense decisions and life-changing events. Every conspirator has to make the decision to kill Caesar, but how do they decide? Some hate Caesar; one loves him; some love Rome; some only love themselves. The same is true for us actors. What motivates us to come to rehearsal every day and give our best? Do we come because we want applause, or do we come to build something beautiful with our castmates?

Caesar is a play about violence and chaos. It examines why people react with such anger and aggression. Retaliation, revenge, bloodlust, it’s all there. Underneath the exterior of every noble Roman is the potential for a butcher.

In the second week of rehearsal, we played a game. Our director gave us foam swords and had everyone form a circle around two people who are fencing; the first to three points wins. Then he took it up a notch, instead of three points, we fought to the death, actually acting out our wounds. Terrifyingly easily, even with foam swords, we were driven towards our killer instinct. In just a few short minutes, I went from mild-mannered camper to deadly hunter.

After the death of Caesar, Mark Antony gives the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech as a eulogy for Caesar, but what he really wants to do is drive the plebeians into a frenzy. He wants them to become a mob of rage and grief that he can direct at the conspirators. He takes ordinary people and fills them with enough rage that they murder a man just for having the same name as a conspirator. Antony taps into their killer instinct through grief and turns them into a frenzied mob.

Caesar is a play about justice, war, and conflict. Right before the war, Brutus and Cassius have an argument that almost turns deadly. They argue about whether they can compromise on the ideals that justify their murder of Caesar. Cassius wants to excuse an officer for taking bribes because it is impractical to punish him. Brutus refuses to accept that. He argues that they cannot claim they murdered Caesar for a higher good if they can’t stick to those ideals. When does a just war stop being just? When does turning a blind eye negate our ideals? How can we reconcile our ideals with pragmatism? Actors face questions not about war, but about ego: When is an idea worth fighting for? When do I have to set my own pride aside for the good of the cast? When do we have to sacrifice a concept because of the limitations of time and space that we have at camp?

Caesar is a play about duality. Although the first half may be what everyone remembers, there is an entire war after Caesar’s death and the funeral orations. Thus, there’s a story that everyone remembers and a story that everyone forgets. There is also a duality in our perception of the characters Brutus and Cassius. Even though Shakespeare gives them a fair treatment and shows the reasons why they chose to kill Caesar, throughout the Renaissance they were hated. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante places them as two of only four people evil enough to be in the final circle of Hell, along with Satan and Judas. Their struggles, their stories were largely forgotten outside of their role in Caesar’s death. Thanks to Shakespeare, in modern times, we remember the ideals they struggled for and not just their monstrous deed.

There is a duality to every theater production. The story that audiences see is the one that is there when the curtain opens, not the one that is played out in the rehearsal process. That behind-the-scenes story is full of struggle and failure and pain as well as fun and success and joy. Our audience never sees us arguing about our opening song or wondering if we would be able to pull it all together in time. Our families don’t know that one cast member became gravely ill during the curtain call. They also didn’t hear the actors playing with their stage daggers and yelling “Stabby STABBY!” or see our director launch into an impassioned ten minute rant about the problems with the Game of Thrones series. We could only give the audience one glimpse of all the work and love that went into our play, and one chance to see the conflicts and questions of the world through Shakespeare’s eyes for a single glorious hour on a Sunday afternoon as we strode onto the stage and performed Julius Caesar.

Guest Post: “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People:” The Wit of Earnest

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

The Importance of Being Earnest is a show from the Dangerous Dreams Tour and the 2016 Spring Season. Interviewer Alex Clark is an ASC Education Artist and will be beginning the MBC Shakespeare and Performance Master’s program this fall.


“A Trivial Comedy for Serious People:” The Wit of Earnest 
Interview conducted by Alex Clark, featuring Andrew Goldwasser and Zoe Speas

Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.  There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.  – Gwendolyn Fairfax, Act 1, Part 2

On Saturday, December 5, 2015, I sat down with Andrew Goldwasser and Zoe Speas, two actors from the 2015/16 Dangerous Dreams Tour.  Andrew, a veteran touring troupe member, and Zoe, a new kid on the block, talked with me about their production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

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Zoe Speas as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Tommy Thompson

ME: What is it like to be a part of the touring troupe?   The good, the bad, and the ugly.

ZOE: That’s like the name of an article.  It’s good, it’s bad, and it’s ugly.

ANDREW: Me, Ross, Zoe in that order.

ZOE: *laughing* Ow, great, I see what he did there.  It’s a lot of that.  You get used to pretty quickly finding ways to control the time that is yours, you know.  And that might be even in a van on the way to a place, and you have an eight-hour drive.  A lot of it is making sure even with all the travelling you have a way to occupy your time with stuff that’s just for you, so that there is a separation.

ANDREW: I focus on the non-touring part of it; I try to make life as much like I’m not on tour as possible.  I try to make that feel like I’m in any old town being an actor.  I have my free time during the day, then go to the theatre at night and get ready for the show.  Obviously, not seeing people — I have a fiancé at home — that part is frustrating.

ZOE: The first half of the tour, we have been up in a lot of New England, and I’ve never been to Vermont and Maine or anything like that.  So, the schedule is hectic, but it’s important to look out the van window and see all the incredible foliage that Maine has to offer.  Although, I did not see a single moose.

ANDREW: No meese.  Seeing different places, different parts of the country, is definitely part of the good.  And also getting to bring theatre to people you know don’t get to see it very often.  We’re bringing [theatre] to people who — this is their one opportunity in the year when they get to see a professional show.

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ME: What is that like for you having the two Shakespeare shows, Julius Caesar and Henry V, with The Importance of Being Earnest, which is so different?

ZOE: It’s such a relief to have Earnest.  I wish we did it so much more than we do, because doing two war plays — Henry is a war play, and Caesar is kind of a screwy political war play — and then having tea cake and wit and just the “Wildean” way of speaking and those characters and the costumes and not having to run around, it’s such a relief.  I think that’s why when we do that show we all are just having so much fun with it because not only is it a fun play but it’s a break for us.

ANDREW: I just don’t think there are that many plays that are so far removed from Shakespeare that don’t take a step down from Shakespeare in language, and so it is such a joy to do a play that is every bit as well-written, as well-structured, as well-put-together as a Shakespeare play, but that is so completely of a different world.  There’s a different kind of feeling in the room.

ZOE: Also as somebody whose job for Earnest is lacing Andrew into a corset, it’s nice to kind of have a physical way of getting out any frustration that an actor might have caused you by just cinching him as hard and as tight as you possibly can and knowing that there’s nothing he can do about it.

ANDREW: It’s true.

ZOE: It’s really pleasant.  Although then he gets me back on stage, because he’s my mom.  Damn fine woman, Andrew.

ANDREW: I’ve been saying it for years.

ME: In Earnest, because you have a twelve person troupe, nobody has to double, and in Caesar and Henry V, you have people doubling, tripling.  What is it like to have such a drastic difference in the number of characters?

ZOE: What was great about having Aleca [Piper] and [Patrick] Poole is that they were able to do a jumpstart for us on the music element of Earnest, which is more music than Henry or Caesar, because we have two interludes plus the preshow.  While we were working on blocking, they were working the same hours and same intensity as we were with getting the platform set for what we were going to be doing musically.  And it’s funny because, at first being a new person, you know what your bigger roles are, what your bigger tracks are, and you know where you have a smaller part, and so it’s inevitable, you go into it and you’re like, “Oh, okay, I’m just a supporting person,” but very quickly you learn that line count and stuff really has nothing to do with it.

ANDREW:  Earnest for me doesn’t have a backstage drama.  If you watch backstage of Henry, particularly, but also Caesar to some extent, there’s a better show going on backstage than onstage.  I mean, people just running back there and immediately just dropping everything they’re wearing onto the floor and having a team assemble them into a new costume and run right back out onstage.  One of the reasons Earnest is such a joy and so relaxing and light and airy is, when you’re backstage, you can actually sit down and listen to the play for a little bit.  Some of our venues have video monitors so you can actually watch the play.  You actually get to sit and see a scene you’ll never get to see the whole year other than that one time I don’t listen for cues in Henry; I just know when I’m done getting dressed I have to enter.  That’s it.

ZOE: Oh my gosh, playing one character [in Earnest] versus like seven in [Henry] alone.

ANDREW: No one plays more in the season than Zoe.

ZOE: Yeah, I do have the largest number in total.

ANDREW: What is the number?

ZOE:  Sixteen.

ME: Wow, that’s impressive!

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ME: Because the language of The Importance of Being Earnest is a more “modern” English, does that change the way you approach the play?  Does it make it easier to learn your lines, or is there no difference?

ANDREW: I think — tiny little ASC soapbox moment for me — I think one super important distinction to draw for anyone that is going to see Shakespeare is that Shakespeare wrote in modern English, just as Wilde wrote in modern English, just like David Mamet writes in modern English. We have that whole thing that 98% of the words are the same, and all that is true, and maybe experience does play a role in this.  I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, and so I don’t notice a huge difference.  The difference is in syntax; there’s a little syntactical complication with Shakespeare.  Depending on who you are playing and what the show is, it can be more than ‘little,’ so for me, syntax is what determines memorization.  [I play] Fluellen in Henry V, whose syntax is absolutely bonkers on purpose.  He doesn’t speak like any human being has spoken in any time period at all, conjunctions sprinkled into the middle of sentences and subjects in the middle of predicates.  Anything where the thoughts are clear and well structured, for me, is really easy to remember.  Lady Bracknell’s thoughts are just super clear.  It was much easier to memorize Earnest for me, not because it’s more modern, but because it’s much more straightforward.

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ME: Earnest is full of social commentary.  Does that affect the way you approach your characters and the way you approach the play as a whole?

ZOE: Yeah, one of the challenges for me with memorizing and then getting the hang of Earnest was the quality of the humor and the comedy kind of affects the structure of Wilde’s sentences.  Jokes don’t happen in one sentence for him, or at least for my character, they are usually strings of three.  If you obey your punctuation and let sentences end, then take a breath for the next one, you’ll lose the joke.  The biggest thing for me was learning how to let things not effect you as emotionally and deeply as you would as a wife trying to convince her husband not to go out because she’s seeing his death in her mind [as in Julius Caesar].  We go from doing that show to something very light, and then all these kind of sad things happen but if you play them emotionally you kill the humor.

ANDREW:  I think a big part of the humor and a big part of the point of what Wilde was saying was that this class of people, this non-working class of “born rich, die rich, don’t have to work a day in your life” people — that their problems are not really problems.  They manufacture problems because it’s what they have to do to keep their lives interesting.  They have to make up drama.  Not worrying about having to feed your family or where are you going to get work the next day.  You just had to worry about, “I just want to marry someone who is specifically named Earnest; that is my concern.”  The fun is that you have to see on some level they understand these are manufactured problems.

ZOE: Otherwise they would be horribly unlikeable characters, and I don’t think, despite all the crappy things they do to one another, any audience member walks away thinking, “I really didn’t like Algy or Jack or Gwen or Cecily.”  Because what makes them likeable is everything Andrew was just saying.

ANDREW: The real winner is Lady Bracknell.

ZOE: Always.

ANDREW: Everyone comes away loving Lady Bracknell.  She’s the voice of reason.

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ME: Andrew, you’ve played Algernon before.  What is it like for you having played Alegernon first, and then to now be playing Lady Bracknell, with the cross-gender casting?

ANDREW: I’m grateful for the part because I think it’s one of the greatest parts ever written.  Just a gem of a part.  It’s my favorite thing that I’m doing this year.  But it is tricky, being a dude playing a woman in an industry where there are already so many men’s roles and so few great women’s roles.  To have to actually be a guy and have female colleagues and have this one great part that could have been one of their parts, instead it’s one of my parts.  I’m torn about feeling like, “Yeah, I totally deserve this part because I’m awesome and this is a great part and I should have it!” with also the idea of “Should men be playing women’s roles?”  I know we cross-gender cast as part of the Shakespearean staging conditions, but then there’s that weird sort of gender argument, it’s one thing to give women men’s roles, but in this industry is it still kosher to give men women’s roles?  And I don’t know.  So there’s that, and I’m a little torn about it — but not during the show I’m not because it’s so fun.  It’s my favorite kind of part!  I played Dogberry last year and it’s the same kind of part.  These parts where when you walk onstage…

ZOE: Applause!

ANDREW: You’re sort of the centerpiece for what’s happening when you’re out there.  Every line you say is intended to be a laugh line or a gem of wisdom and the minute that the line ends, you walk off stage.  There’s not a lot of standing around, not a lot of exposition or incidental conversation.  It’s just, “Boom!  I’m here.”  I love everything about it aside from the actual process of putting on the make-up, which I don’t like.  I have very sensitive skin; it makes my face feel terrible.  But other than that, I love once it’s on because it’s such a gorgeous costume.  When you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s like, “Oh my gosh!  I’m beautiful!”  The cross-gendering, when you are onstage, it couldn’t matter less.  During the show there’s not a single thought in my mind that, “I’m playing a woman!”  That doesn’t even dawn on me.  I’m just a person that has thoughts and ideas, and this is how they’re being expressed.

ZOE: It’s great to watch, too, because at first we started with Andrew in heels.  He had heels to rehearse in but he still had his shorts and his t-shirt on but the heels changed him.  And then he had a petticoat that he put on, and that changed him a little more.  The first day he rehearsed in his corset with the petticoat and his cane and his heels, it was like the voice started to change, and the mannerisms started to change.  Then by the time we really opened it with the full dress, full costume, hair, make-up, the giant hat, and the gloves, especially.  It’s amazing how ladies’ gloves really affect your whole body.

ANDREW: It’s a good cover-up, because there’s not much you can do for a man’s hands; they don’t look like a woman’s hands.  I remember a month in Susie saw me backstage without my gloves on and was like, “Wow, you have really manly hands.  How come I never noticed that onstage?”  I said because I wear gloves, and she was like, “Oh wow I never noticed.”

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Andrew Goldwasser as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

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ME: You mentioned playing Dogberry, and I think Dogberry’s lines and Lady Bracknell’s lines are both onstage very serious and confident in themselves, but a lot of what they say comes off as very humorous.  How do you approach playing that?

ANDREW: I think it’s awesome when in life you are confronted with this rigid ridiculousness.  When someone says something, and they mean it from their gut, but you think it’s the most absurd thing in the world.  Earnest is so wonderful is because you get to actually laugh at those people onstage.  Lady Bracknell has the most absurdly rigid and conservative ideas about life and society and how every single person should live and should be married and should work.  Her way is the only way she knows exists.  When you hear someone in life talk like that, and people do, you can’t just bust out laughing at them, because it’s just rude.  But when you go to the theatre and you watch Lady Bracknell do it, you can bust out laughing.  That’s what’s just so fun, and that’s what Wilde understood.  Lady Bracknell is a real person, there are real people, even today, that say things every bit as close-minded and rigid and strict.  As Bracknell-y as she is, there are people who are just that Bracknell-y in the world today, and it’s great to get to come out and laugh right in her face.  A lady actually flipped me off.

ZOE: Oh my gosh, it was great!

ANDREW: A gallant flipped me off.  I have a line I take to the audience — toward the end, so you’ve already gotten to know Bracknell — and I say, “Algernon, never talk badly of society; only people who can’t get into it do that.”  And I take that line to a gallant and I point to her as the person who can’t get into it and she just went, *throws up his middle finger*

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ME:  Is there anything about The Importance of Being Earnest that you would want audiences to know going into it?

ANDREW: I think knowing a little about Wilde would be cool, because I do think it could take awhile for your brain and your ears to hear, like Shakespeare, to hear the Wilde dialogue and make sense of it.  You’re hearing people say things in a way that maybe are not conversational, and also the thing we’ve been talking about where people are being very nonchalant about seemingly very serious things.  It can throw people off.  “Is this real?  Is this fake?  They’re not acting like it’s real.”  I think that knowing the basic tone, if they could see like a two-minute clip of our show before coming to see the show, I think that would be very beneficial.

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ME: At the Blackfriars Playhouse, audience interaction is a huge part of the experience and the shows.  How do you guys find that audience interaction works with the different venues?  Is it received well on the road?

ANDREW: I think people love it.  It’s one of those things, when I first came here and had never seen a show here, read about it, heard about it, thought it was weird.  But right away, just like here, once people experience it, it’s always delightful.  The issue on the road is really lighting.  We have it set up to try to get as close to the Playhouse as we can, we have all the house lights up, but some theatres are just not built to do that, so their house lights even at max are extremely dim.  It does sometimes feel your playing at a regular proscenium theatre when you look out.

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Zoe Speas (Gwendolen) in rehearsal for The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Jay McClure.

ZOE: Yeah, as the lighting person — we all have production jobs, [and] my job is to try and recreate the Playhouse, and that never happens.

ANDREW: A lot of people’s house lights are fluorescents.   Everyone looks bad under fluorescents.  But what can you do?  You can’t require all of your theatres to have chandeliers.  So we do our best.  I’m a big fan of the Blackfriars Playhouse lighting.  A lot of people think it’s too dim.  I do not.  I think it’s awesome and romantic and beautiful, and I wish we could do that more on the road.

ZOE: Are you saying we look better when there is less light on us?

ANDREW: I do.

ZOE: Great.

ANDREW: I think in general people look better in the dark.  *laugh*

*

ME: What is it like to open shows here at the Blackfriars Playhouse, perform them at so many different places, and then come back and perform at the Playhouse again?

ZOE: It’s crazy.  It’s like tour is hectic and it’s hard but, a lot of the times it’s really intense spurts of work you know like for getting the set put up, and then you have breather time and then the show and striking it and then you have hours to kill whether that’s driving or at home.  Coming back here feels like, “Oh, great, I’m back at home, and I’ll have time of my own again, and my car is here,” but this is so much crazier than any of the schedules we have on the road.  Rehearsing for two or three shows and getting used to that schedule is tricky, but it’s also got its own sense of thrill and ownership.  I’m looking forward to being back in the spring with these shows that we will have lived with for a year and being able to treat them the way we are treating Christmas Carol.

ANDREW: I think it’s different for different ones of us.  I’m in a different group because my family is here, this is really my home.  It’s not just a place I happen to be staying because I’m working here.  My fiancé is here, my cats are here, and my life is here, and I’m getting married at the end of this month, so being home is a very different feeling than being out on the road.  I’m much more relaxed here and much happier at home, but, you know, there’s nothing I’d rather be stressed out doing than acting.

ZOE:  Yeah, I like what Andrew just said about it.   It’s true, it’s a very stressful thing, but what else could you ask to be stressed out about than something you wouldn’t be doing unless you really loved it.  Just remembering that it’s supposed to be fun and you’re supposed to be bringing something fun to people who are going to see you, it’s important to remember that.

ANDREW: Patrick Earl, by the way, superstar celebrity, he used to say, “We’re not saving lives here.”  And it’s totally true; you completely lose sight of that.  I think in life, your issues and your concerns become the issues and the concerns, and you end up realizing just how stupid it is [worrying about] whether you can get eight or ten gallants on a stage in a road house.  You just have to take a minute and go, “Wow, that doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things.  You have those moments of clarity where you realize oh this is just fun and you know the work part is kind of all in your head really.

ZOE: One thing about being back in Staunton and being able to perform here is that the stage never changes.  The width of the stage it what it is; the depth of the stage is what it is; the backstage is what it is; we are used to the house entrances and exits; we know what the balcony is like; we know what our dressing rooms are like.

*

ME: Performing at different venues all of the time, do you guys run into staging hiccups with the way the stage is set up?

ANDREW: The biggest issue is with fights.  We make the choice — which I think is an admirable choice — to not plan things any differently for the road shows than we do for the home shows.  We do whatever we would do at the Playhouse.  We have a big fight in Caesar, quarterstaff fights, Cassius fights with a flag pole, so it requires a ton of distance.  When you don’t have the room, or when you have a stage that ends with a sharp thirty foot pit, and there’s no railing or anything, it’s risky.  Thankfully, Patrick Poole is our on-the-road fight captain, and he does a great job of making sure we have enough time for fights calls in spaces that are unique so that we can adjust.

*

ME: With the tour gaining a wider audience is there anywhere you wish the tour would go to that it hasn’t been to?

ANDREW: Um, Greece…

ME: That would be nice!

ANDREW:  Or Northern Italy….

ZOE: I think if we went to every Shakespearean location that is in Shakespeare.

ANDREW: In all honesty, I would love to arrange a scenario where we could get to do some sort of sister program where we get to go to London.  I would love to do the shows in England, or at the Globe, just somewhere where we could share same commitment to trying to do Shakespeare’s staging conditions.  Sometimes people think American Shakespeare just doesn’t have that focus on the words, and I think we do, and I’m proud of it, and I would love to do it in England.  But as far as America, my family is west, so let’s keep pushing west.  Let’s get over to the Rockies, Oregon-Trail-style.  Let’s ford the river.

ZOE: I’m fairly certain than anyone who has a family somewhere would love to be able to go back to their hometown.  I was lucky in that our second tour stop in Farmville, VA is the town next to where I grew up.  I would love to be able to go farther with what Andrew was saying, about being able to perform places that don’t get a lot of access to Shakespeare, especially with the teaching element of what we do.  My mom is a high school teacher in inner city Cleveland, and when I show up to a collegiate school and all these students are asking questions, and they already knew about rhetoric so we can have a dialogue about it, and isn’t that exciting?  But in the back of my mind I feel spoiled, because I wish I could go to her classroom and be able to perform in some of these places that wouldn’t ordinarily bring our company to them.

Blackfriars Conference – Plenary Session VII

I’m Molly Beth Seremet and I am so pleased to be back, live-blogging this afternoon’s incredible plenary session! This session takes place on the Blackfriars stage and is starting a bit late due to some technical difficulties earlier in the day.  We will be getting under way at 2:20pm and will run until approximately 3:30pm. Amy Cohen of Randolph College moderates this session, with scholars Joseph Stephenson (Abilene Christian University), Patricia Wareh (Union College), Katherine Schaap Williams (New York University – Abu Dhabi), Peter Hyland (Huron University), Julie Simon (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and Gretchen Minton (Montana State University).

Joseph Stephenson (Abilene Christian University) –“Kill Claudio” and What Followed: When a Woman Asks Her Man to Kill His Best Friend 

Stephenson begins his paper by recommending that we all check out Folger Digital Texts online, harkening back to last session’s honorific for Barbara Mowat. Now Stephenson moves into an introduction of that “little known” text Much Ado About Nothing. He introduces us to American Shakespeare Center touring troupe actors Jessica Lefkow and Chris Bellinger who perform the post-wedding scene from the play for us, portraying Beatrice and Benedick respectively. Lefkow delivers the climactic line “Kill Claudio!” and Bellinger chuckles. Lefkow leaves the stage, leaving Bellinger to puzzle over her departure. Stephenson takes over, reminding us that this line in question in often played for laughs, turning Benedick’s textual “ha?” into more of a “ha! ha! ha!” Stephenson calls the actors back to the stage and ask them to play the seriousness of the line, in a similar manner to that used when ASC actor Sarah Fallon played Beatrice did in 2009. The actors do so, playing this moment in the scene for broke. Lefkow and Bellinger achieve a moment of seriousness in this quick exchange.

Stephenson now moves into a discussion of the significance of this moment in the broader play, calling on notions of homosocial and heterosocial interaction in the play. Further, Stephenson puts a finger on this “Kill Claudio!” moment as the hallmark of this play’s tragi-comedic plot. He compares this moment to Fletcher as well.

Now, Stephenson turns to an investigation of Marston’s Dutch Courtesan. He first asks to consider Beatrice in this play, who is a bit more like Hero in Shakespeare’s text. He also calls our attention to Marston’s more Beatrice-like character, Crispanella. Lefkow performs a Crispanella monologue for the crowd, aptly demonstrating Crispanella’s bawdy and pleasantly rude language and Beatrice-like character. Stephenson connects Crispanella’s language to Beatrice, having Lefkow demonstrate some of Crispanella’s dirty jokes, including my favorite – “I slept on my back last night… and had the strangest dreams.”

Stephenson now moves to a scene from The Dutch Courtesan, featuring a different character, Franchesina. Now, Lefkow and Bellinger perform this scene for us, in which Francesina is propositioned. Bellinger swears his service to Franchesina and the scene includes a passionate kiss and a debate over the potential of love at first sight and a promise of death for Franchesina’s enemy.

Stephenson examines the way that rhetoric of this scene in Dutch Courtesan practically demands a laugh, as compared to the potential for serious ambiguity in the similar moment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Stephenson points out that variations in this scene can be found in other plays including Massinger’s Parliament of Love. 

The Bear enters, just as Stephenson brings up the subject of male-female duets, in a nice moment of art imitating life.

Patricia Wareh (Union College) – Courteous Performers and Audiences in Love’s Labour’s Lost

Wareh begins her paper by reminding us that in the early modern period, social expectations for courteous behavior were real and influential on a theatre-going audience. In this way, playwrights incorporated the familiar language of courtly interaction into their plays and also reached out to audiences through tropes of social performance. According to Wareh, early modern plays demonstrate apt use of exposed and implied courtly behaviors and relationships.

Wareh refers primarily to Castiglione’s manual of courtly behavior, and asks us to consider how much the behavior of the men in Love’s Labours Lost demonstrates the failures of the titular love’s labors. Wareh points out that the men’s choice to dress as Muskovites signals a failure in Castiglione’s eyes. As Castiglione points out, masquerade entails a necessary distance between performer and costume – in short, there is no pleasure in a prince playing a prince, doing in sport exactly what he should be doing in good earnest.  By pretending in sport to be true lovers, Wareh urges us to remember that it becomes very hard to take their performance of love seriously in the play at large. Thus, theatre and courtship are closely aligned in Love’s Labours Lost, though as Wareh jokes, the wooing men should not worry about brushing up on their Castiglione.

Now, Wareh turns to questions of authenticity, considering the tug between actor and disguise, player and played, in the course of the play’s action. She advises that the onstage audience of the play is encouraged to watch the action of the play but also to watch the larger audience watching them. Wareh suggests that courtesy factors in here in the behavior of the audience as well, in addition to considering the ways in which the characters act courteously in their enacting. The play as a whole delights in exposing the efforts behind courtly behavior, reinforcing the parallels between onstage and offstage audiences, and the success of the courtly play in satisfying (both) audiences. By pretending to stage a failure of a play, Wareh argues that Love’s Labours Lost succeeds in staging Castiglione’s conceptions of courtly behavior in a manner that delights an audience in all its self-deprecating pleasure.

Katherine Schaap Williams (New York University – Abu Dhabi) – Characterizing Monstrosity

Schaap Williams begins her paper by quoting Trinculo and Stephano’s first 10 lines regarding Caliban in The Tempest, including extreme repetition of the word “monster.” Schaap Williams questions this exchange, putting pressure on exactly what Stephano and Trinculo see when they look at Caliban.

Schaap Williams argues that the monstrous body and monstrosity are often used as ways into reading disability back into the early modern canon, as an analogue. The spectacle of the extraordinary body becomes especially vexed in these texts. Schapp Williams considers the technology of the actor’s body to ask how might the early modern stage challenge our assumptions regarding the performance of the monster on the early modern stage. For Schaap Williams, staging monstrosity through the technology of an actor’s body risks removing the distance that is required for wonder’s emergence.

Schaap Williams refers to an account of Merlin’s birth, in which his monstrosity body and precocious birth asks us to think about the utility of his body within our conceptions of the monstrous body. In this account, Merlin will not be silent and his body cannot be interpreted in our usual interpretive frames. Now, Schaap Williams considers a similar example in an early modern play in which Timothy is described as a spectacle, an extraordinary sort of half-human, half-fish, “my feet made flounders.” As Schaap Williams indicates, however, poor Timothy is actually a human suffering from the very human malady of a hangover. In fact, his monstrosity lies in stage props that lend him alterity, while at his core, he is human.

Schaap Williams now turns to an investigation of the monstrous body as a site of appropriation. She calls our attention to Stephano and Trinculo’s desires to exhibit or charge people to look at Caliban’s monstrous body. When a body is described as monstrous, it is necessarily a site of replication in a dramatic context.  As Schaap Williams points out, theatre technology is one of embodiment and therefore, monstrous bodies are made through actor bodies, night after night. The character described as monstrous is an opportunity for the making of bodily difference in time.

Peter Hyland (Huron University) – Stumped: Alarum for London and Henry V

Hyland begins his paper by calling our attention to the first staging of Alarum for London in 1599 and suggests that it is probable that Shakespeare would have had an interest in this play, though he was very unlikely to have had a hand in its writing). Hyland describes the play’s plot, depicting the cruelty of the Spaniards during the seige of Antwerp and the unlikeability of the play’s victims, and suggests that the play may have been written as a warning for English citizens.

Hyland notes that the play has little performance history until the past decade, much of which focuses on the play’s character of Stump, leading to readings surrounding portrayal of disability and prosthesis. Due to the potentiality of these readings, Hyland posits Alarum for London as a potential prosthetic companion to Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Hyland calls our attention to the passage in Henry V in which the King pledges atrocities at the French gates. As Hyland suggests, this instance from Shakespeare’s text serves as a neat summary of the full plot of Alarum for London.

Hyland now moves to descriptions of atrocities in Alarum, including deaths of innocent women, children, and blind men whose lives cannot be saved by impassioned pleas. In this play, the slaughter of innocents is staged in the manner that Henry threatens in Henry V.  Hyland now explores moments in both plays in which characters count the lives lost on both sides of both wars, finding analogous moments in both plays.

Now, Hyland introduces the character of Stump, who in his first appearance in the play, does not speak but is instead referred to by other characters as he limps across the stage. He then exits, not to appear for several scenes. Hyland points up the significance of allowing an audience to take in a disabled character’s body before the character is able to speak. Hyland than describes Stump the solider as a representation of something more than human, indicating that perhaps the actor playing Stump might also double for Time earlier in the play. Further, Hyland indicates that Stump’s rage is the play’s rage; Stump is forced into martial violence but manages to never lose his magnified humanity.

The Bear appears and takes Hyland’s paper!

Julie Simon (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) – Interpreting Shakespeare: Literal versus Figurative Translation

Simon begins her presentation with a message of congratulations for the American Shakespeare Center on their recent receipt of a grant for research on sign language interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays. Simon then segues into her paper, introducing her background as a sign language interpretation and foregrounding her interest in translating Shakespeare’s language into American Sign Language.

She introduces four challenges to sign language translation. First, implcit vs. explicit language. Here, Simon argues that an interpreter must know all possible readings and meanings of phrases, concepts, and words and then make clear choices in the moment of interpretation to get the emssage across to the audience. She mentions that American Sign language relies heavily on active voice while the English spoken language makes heavy use of passive voice, especially when a speaker wishes to conceal who is doing the action. Further, Simon notes that an ASL interpreter can sign two phrases simulataneously, one with each hand, while spoken English is a linear language.  She points up the inherent difficulty in signing comedy, in which an interpreter must not give away so much information as to get to the punchline before hte end of the joke.

Now, Simon turns to the notion of sign selection. She describes choices made regarding concepts of money. A character of high social status might indicate that they have a lot of money by signing a bag of money, which a lower status character might sign a coin or two in their hand. In this way, the sign itself adds layers of meaning for a deaf audience that enrich the world of the play.

Simon’s third point relates to humor in translation, especially with regard to double entendre and bawdy language in Shakespeare’s text. She points out that many signs for bodily functions may actually be readable to all audience members and not only those who know sign language and the audience laughs with recognition at this complication. Simon also discusses the challenges posed by double casting and “twinning” in Shakespeare’s texts, indicating the challenge posed to interpreters in keeping everyone straight.

Simon then moves to an exploration of prose versus verse. She mentions that it is possible to show meter and rhyme in sign language with repeated gestures, though the specific beat count cannot be performed without sacrificing meaning. Simon also calls attention to the particular needs of a deaf audience, who need both a clear view of the stage and the interpreter.

To help interpreters, Simon suggests providing interpreters with accurate copies of the play’s text and inviting them into rehearsal as early as possible. She further reinforces that interpreters share the same goals as directors and actors: to make plays understandable and enjoyable to the largest audience possible.

Gretchen Minton (Montana State University) – ‘A Quant Piece of Beauty’: Dressing Up Gloriana’s Skull

Minton begins her paper reminding us of the scene in The Revenger’s Tragedy in which Vindici uses the skull of his dead fiancé to enact his revenge. Minton draws a comparison between Vindici and Hamlet, likely both played by Burbage on the early modern stage, stating that we read Vindici as already dead when the play begins.

Minton now reminds us that the stage directions in The Revenger’s Tragedy indicate that the skull is ‘wrapped up in tires’ and also at one point, enters masked. Minton questions how possible it might be that this skull might be mistaken for and/or read as a beautiful (presumably alive) courtesan. Minton refers to a moment in the text in which the skull is referred to as a “quaint piece of beauty” in consideration of the aesthetic quality of stage props, even the grotesque ones.

Now, Minton calls on actor Jessica Lefkow to demonstrate. Lefkow and Bellinger enact a portion of the text, using Minton’s skull prop. This skull wears a mask that suggests skin, has long flowing auburn hair, and a blank cloak that covers Bellinger’s arm. Bellinger removes the mask and wig from the skull’s “face” and an audible gasp courses through Blackfriars. This unmasking reveals a rotted skull, which Bellinger touches tenderly throughout the scene. This unmasked skull lends special resonance to the lines regarding hiding madness “in clothes.” At times, Bellinger strokes the skull gently and concludes the speech by re-masking the skull as well.

Minton discusses the historical difficulties in staging this skull “wrapped in tires.” She discusses ways in which famous productions work to ’embody’ Gloriana, including using an actor’s own legs or a beheaded teddy bear to stand-in for the missing body. Minton asks us to consider what the staging of this skull signifies for an audience and the larger resonance in the space of theatrical performance itself. As Minton indicates, Vindici gives the skull an identity and a memory by dressing it up and endowing it with gendered trappings. Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy foregrounds a theatrical property much in the way theatre itself uses objects to conjure collective memory, making “a thing of no thing.”

And that’s a wrap for another glorious session of Shakespearean scholarship. It has been a true pleasure to blog this session and I hope you will continue to join us for the rest of the conference. Keep reading!

-Molly (@moxymolly)

Guest Post: E. J. Saul, Galax, VA

Periodically, the ASC Education blog will offer guest posts by teachers of Shakespeare, to show how educators across the country are applying Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions in their classrooms. If you are interested in contributing a guest post to the blog, please contact Academic Resources Manager Cass Morris.

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One of the perks of raising a child is that you have a socially acceptable reason for re-reading your favorite children’s stories. One of the drawbacks of raising a child is that you sometimes wind up reading children’s stories that you don’t like over and over and over and over again. And for a good number of years, my nighttime family reading was haunted by a dark creature named Amelia Bedelia. Amelia Bedelia was a storybook maid with a strange sort of disorder; she was completely incapable of comprehending figurative language. Amelia’s employers would tell her to do something like punch the clock, and she would shrug and walk off and start hitting the grandfather clock in the living room. That kind of thing. And it might be that one reason I found these relatively inoffensive stories so annoying is that I am an English teacher in the age of the multiple choice test, and I seem to find myself with an increasing number of students who hate any answer that isn’t simple or any language that isn’t literal.

The most extreme case was a student I had a couple of years ago, and while I don’t think she would mind if I talked about this, I will call her Yvette instead of her real name anyhow. Yvette was not Amelia Bedelia – she was a very smart young woman and could recognize time honored expressions perfectly well – but she had some kind of difficulty and/or mental block about thinking metaphorically that was a pretty big deal because Yvette was a straight A student until she took my class (something she reminded me of quite frequently), and Yvette actually got a C when we spent six weeks on a poetry unit. Clearly some kind of apocalypse was in the making, and I was its prophet.

I’m being kind of flippant about it, but Yvette’s anger and panic and frustration were quite real. Yvette was a grade A memorizer. She took meticulous notes. She was always the first person to raise her hand and ask a question, and that question was almost always: “Is this for a grade?” The thing was, Yvette was an anxious person, and she hated English class because she didn’t like questions that didn’t have one right answer, or assignments that did not have completely controllable outcomes.

Now opinions may vary, but even though I’m an English teacher, I’m really not some psychic vampire who feeds off emotional anguish and suffering. It is also true that it offends me when I see a student working hard and not achieving what they want to achieve, if only because I also have students who don’t work hard for the barely passing grades they’re content with. And it seemed likely to me that Yvette’s really good grades were going to land her in a really good school with a really good freshman English class that she was going to do really badly in. So I made helping Yvette think critically a kind of personal quest, with an emphasis on exploring symbolism.  I thought that if Yvette had some small successes and built up her confidence a little, she might stop fixating on that shrill voice in the back of her head going: “I have to get an A I’m not going to get an A how do I get an A just tell me what I have to do to get an A so I can study something that actually matters!” And then she would be fine and stop using my classes as therapy sessions.

Since there are supposedly seven styles of learning (visual, aural, physical, logical, social, verbal, and Google), I tried a variety of approaches. Besides just explaining that symbolism could work on a visual or logical level, I tried to illustrate that point with songs, charades, Rorschach blots, epigrams, anthropocentric sketching exercises, talking while tossing a ball back and forth, and so on.

One time I played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for Yvette and asked her what the titular yellow rose represented.

“It’s a woman,” Yvette said.

“Excellent!” I exclaimed. “Why?”

“Because he calls it a her,” Yvette said.

“Great!” I enthused. “But the singer doesn’t really call a yellow rose a her. He calls a her a yellow rose. Why does he call this woman a yellow rose?”

“I don’t know!” Yvette said. “She smells nice?”

“She probably does,” I agreed, “What else?”

“She’s pretty?”

“Good! What else? What kind of pretty? How is a rose pretty? Especially a yellow rose in Texas?”

Yvette never did really suggest anything else. Instead, I did that thing that teachers do and made the mistake of giving Yvette increasingly specific questions trying to get her to state the answers that I already had in mind. Eventually we questioned and answered our way around the possibility that the woman might be a blonde and might be named Rose, but seemed rare and precious to the singer in any case because a yellow rose in a Texas climate would be a rare thing. But when I asked Yvette to apply that kind of questioning and thinking for herself, it didn’t seem that I had helped her at all.

“Can you think of something else rare and pretty and precious that the singer might have compared this woman to instead of a yellow rose?”

“A purple rose?”

“…”

“Oh God, I suck.”

“No, that answer’s just probably a little too similar to a yellow rose. Can you—”

“A purple violet?”

Yvette finally got symbolism for herself, by herself, at a random moment. Yvette’s class was studying Hamlet, and we were doing an exercise where the students had to stage the play within a play that Hamlet writes in order to trap Claudius, the only proviso being that they couldn’t use any words, words, words (this was the very first exercise I ever did at one of the ASC’s educational seminars by the way, so there’s a plug). Yvette was watching another group do this scene, and a student was pretending to pour poison into another student’s ear, and I would like to lie and say that Yvette suddenly got really excited and stood up and interrupted the scene with a big dramatic moment, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, Yvette came up to me after class with this kind of shy smile on her face and asked me if the poison that the actor poured in another actor’s ear was gossip. And she was beaming and kind of excited. And I didn’t really know what she was talking about, so I asked her what she meant, and Yvette mentioned a scene where Claudius refers to gossip as poison in the ear. And Yvette went on to say that Claudius killed his brother with poison in the ear, and gossip went in the ear, and Claudius was afraid that gossip about Claudius killing his brother would be just as deadly to Claudius as the poison Claudius used on his brother.

“Actually, you’re wrong,” I said. “He referred to gossip as a kind of infection in the ear. Get out.”

No, just kidding. I was thrilled. It was a pretty sophisticated argument once I untangled it, and it came out of the blue.

That’s one of the things I like about teaching Shakespeare. It always provides moments that take me completely off guard (and often in a good way). That’s good for the students, and it’s good for me because it keeps the class from feeling like a factory floor. (I just had a mental image from that Pink Floyd “The Wall” movie where kids are being marched into a sausage grinder by the way.)

I’m not claiming that Shakespeare is some kind of miracle cure for everything that ails public education, or that Yvette went on to love English and later became Poet Laureate. I’m not even claiming that teaching Shakespeare is always fun — though it can be. I love Shakespeare, but the bard is actually kind of hard for me to teach sometimes because I don’t like sharing something I love only to have it ignored, put down, complained about, or dismissed. I had a year where I taught MacBeth to my 4th period class and it was MacDeath. I would then teach the same play the same way to my 5th period class, and it was like a fresh MacBreath. There are no guarantees.

What I am claiming is that teaching high school is a lot like dropping coins in a slot machine. Just doing the same thing over and over doesn’t guarantee the same result every time, big tangible pay-offs that draw a lot of attention to themselves are rare, I have to keep plugging away while groping around for change, and I’m no longer allowed to do it in the state of Nevada.  (Ummm…again, just kidding about that last part). And Shakespeare’s writing provides lots of coins to work with because when you add the performing aspect it makes Shakespeare personal and fun and pretty much uses all of the learning styles. Kids who are visual can see the lines performed. Kids who are kinetic learners can jump around and play with staging and body language. Kids who are aural can play with soundtracks or sound effects or just listen to the different intonations when they try lines different ways. Kids who are social learners can enjoy the play as the thing. Kids who are logical can puzzle out the language, and so on. If nothing else, playing with Shakespeare takes those lesson plans where teachers have to document what standardized state objectives they are accomplishing and lights them up like Christmas trees. But that’s a cynical and pragmatic note, and Shakespeare is not about nothing else, or even what else. It can be about everything and anything else once you unclench a little and let the words speak through you.

So that’s my piece, my Shakespeare teaching moment. If any here I have offended, content yourself, my blog is ended. Piece out. 🙂

EJ Saul teaches English at Galax High School in Southwest Virginia.  He is a Leo and likes walks on the beach, warm sunsets, puppies, and Jazz. Oh, and Shakespeare.