Gender and Behavior in TWELFTH NIGHT

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the ASC Education Study Guide on Twelfth Night, available for purchase in our Gift Shop or through lulu.com as a PDF download or a print-on-demand hard copy. You’ve got til November 27th to see our current production of Twelfth Night and discover for yourself how ASC actors portray the confusions and complexities of gender and identity in the play.

Perspectives

Gender and Behavior

Twelfth Night is one of several of Shakespeare’s plays to feature a heroine who dresses as a man. At the beginning of his career, Shakespeare included a cross-dressing heroine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Julia dresses as a pageboy to follow her boyfriend to another city. She reveals herself at the end to stop him from marrying another woman. Julia’s disguise is a plot convenience, allowing her to travel and to observe Proteus without suspicion. Later plays push that plot device further, creating the cross-dressed woman as an object of desire. In As You Like It, written two or three years before Twelfth Night, Rosalind dresses as a boy named Ganymede to travel into the forest; when she runs into her crush, Orlando, she offers, as Ganymede, to pretend to be Rosalind so that Orlando can practice wooing. She also finds herself the object of desire of a shepherdess named Phebe. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare presses the mismatched desire even further, having a primary character, Olivia, and making that desire a central point of conflict in the play, rather than a side joke. This creates a double-play of suggested homoeroticism; Olivia is in love with Cesario, who is actually another woman, while Orsino thinks he’s falling for a boy, who is actually a woman, who was originally played by a male actor.

Twelfth Night | American Shakespeare Center

Jessika Williams as Viola and John Harrell as Orsino in TWELFTH NIGHT. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Gender issues could prompt quite a bit of social anxiety in early modern England. Many of the anti-theatrical polemics leveled at the playing companies lamented the presentation of boys as women, particularly in romantic roles. Conversely, the idea of women usurping men’s roles suggested an upending of convention. Though a female monarch had ruled England for over forty years – and for all of Shakespeare’s lifetime – women were still considered subordinate to men, legally, socially, and religiously; even Queen Elizabeth spent much of her life pressured by her councilors to find a man to share her throne. Many pamphlets published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sought to instruct women on their “proper” place – suggesting that a great many of them had stepped outside the proscribed bounds and entered spheres typically dominated by males. Only two or three years before Twelfth Night, in As You Like It, Shakespeare has Rosalind reappear in women’s garb at the end of the play, which some scholars have suggested was a deliberate method of allaying social anxiety about her ability to resume her feminine role. Viola in Twelfth Night, like Julia in the earlier Two Gentlemen of Verona, never reappears in her “women’s weeds,” remaining in a state of gender ambiguity through the end of the play.

Twelfth Night | American Shakespeare Center

Allison Glenzer as Olivia and Jessika Williams as Viola in TWELFTH NIGHT. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Today, the definition of gender roles remains a hot-button issue. Political debates continue to challenge ideas about balance between the sexes, both socially and financially. In many ways, however, the conversation has changed from determining what one gender or the other can or can’t do to debating the very meaning of gender itself. As the 21st-century begins, advocates for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights continue to push at the boundaries of the binary gender system. In 2010, a British expatriate living in Australia became the world’s officially and legally neuter person, though some cultures of the Indian subcontinent and of Southeast Asia have long recognized the existence of a “third gender.” More recently, transgender advocates such as Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black fame, have raised the profile of the transgender population – which has, in turn, led to political debates over bathroom use and legally protected classes. The ongoing gender debate suggests the existence of gray areas between male and female and in the spectrum of sexual attraction – the very sort of grey area that Viola-as-Cesario inhabits.

Twelfth Night, along with the other gender-bending comedies featuring cross-dressing heroines, suggests that, in the view of society, at least, a person’s role in life is more defined by what they wear and how they behave than it is by anatomy. How does Viola challenge or affirm the idea of strictly defined roles for genders? How convincing is her disguise? Several characters tell her during the course of the play that she behaves in a way unbefitting a man, particularly when she does such stereotypically feminine things as fainting at the sight of blood. How does Viola give herself away? How much double-speak does she engage in, allowing the audience to appreciate her duality without explicitly telling other characters about it?

To explore these issues in your classroom, download these sample activities or purchase the ASC Study Guide for Twelfth Night today!

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: “Past the size of dreaming”: Chasing Mark Antony’s Shadow

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

Matt Davies is an Assistant Professor in the MLitt/MFA Shakespeare and Performance program at Mary Baldwin College and a professional actor and director of twenty years standing in the UK and the US.. This article initially appeared in the 2015 Summer-Fall issue of the Playhouse Insider.


“Past the size of dreaming”: Chasing Mark Antony’s Shadow
by Matt Davies

Two years ago, Ralph Alan Cohen gave me the opportunity to perform Mark Antony in his most cherished of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra (no pressure, then), for the Baltimore-based Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. This summer, I will return to the play as Antony’s trusted general, Enobarbus, for Virginia Shakespeare Festival. So, when the ASC asked me to share my experiences of performing Antony for the Playhouse Insider, I positively leapt at the opportunity to indulge in a bit of reflection and projection. As I began to reminisce, however, nostalgia quickly turned to confusion, and then to paranoia. Amid the vivid memories of performing with wonderfully talented actors on balmy nights to appreciative audiences and mercifully few mosquitoes, my Antony “bestrid the ocean” like a … a what? Searching through the memory stacks I couldn’t, I can’t, find him. I’m vaguely aware of his presence but I don’t see him. He’s a smudge in my mind’s eye; a silhouette against the Technicolor backdrop of the neoclassical ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, where we performed. It’s as if I’d walked through the performance like a shadow, or perhaps in pursuit of one.

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James Keegan and Sarah Fallon in rehearsal as Antony and Cleopatra, 2015. Photo by Jay McClure.

Although perfectly plausible, neither of the two obvious diagnoses for this alarming lacuna — early onset dementia and abject failure — quite holds. While, like many professional actors, my overdeveloped short-term memory retains lines like water through a sieve, I pride myself on never forgetting a face, even if it’s one I only see in the dressing room mirror, and I can conjure the figures of twenty-five years of past performances by recalling a gesture, a verbal tic, or even a smell. And while theatrical success resides just as much in the eye of the beholder, the residue of personal failure — as painful flashes of my steampunk Romeo from the early Nineties sometimes remind me — might be forgiven but are never quite forgotten. Yet my Antony obdurately resists conjuration and thereby avoids censure. I can’t possibly judge how good or not I was when I can’t recall what, or who, I was meant to be good at being.

As I grope to comprehend how this mighty figure could leave such shallow prints, I am reminded that Antony, beaten by Caesar and betrayed by Cleopatra, ponders much the same question. In a rare moment of introspection, he considers the evanescent, transformative nature of clouds (much as Hamlet does) that “mock our eyes with air” and melt upon inspection. “That which is now a horse,” Antony tells his enfranchised slave, “even with a thought / The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct / As water is in water.” Conceding that he possesses a persona as runny as a watercolor in the rain, Antony admits, “My good knave Eros, now thy captain is / Even such a body. Here I am Antony, / Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.” Having made the cataclysmic choice to reject Caesar’s sister Octavia for his Egyptian mistress, Antony’s center, his “shape,” cannot hold and, both figuratively and physically, he begins to fall apart.

The actor’s job is to create that “visible shape” at the play’s opening in order to dismantle it, often, with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, in quick order. And he uses the text’s many indicators to furnish this initial image: what a figure says about himself and about others, how he says it, and what others say about him – character lists, Stanislavsky terms them. But herein lies the problem, or, in actor parlance, the challenge. For Antony’s lists are almost entirely comprised of statements rendered in the past tense that focus on radically different, sometimes opposing, aspects of Antony’s declining reputation. Confronted with his advancing years, Antony obsesses over his crumbling stature.

Sounding suspiciously like a man facing a mid-life crisis (or so I’ve been told), Antony declares his intent to live in the moment — “Here is my space!” — while at the same time rejecting pressing news from Rome: “Grates me! The sum.” He clearly prefers the ‘here’ to the ‘now,’ for the present is poorer than the past and promises little by way of a future. “He at Philippi kept his sword e’en like a dancer, / While I struck the lean and wrinkled Cassius,” he recalls bitterly of the “boy” Octavius Caesar, following the disastrous sea-fight at Actium, before concluding, “Yet now – no matter.” Now, moment-by-moment, Antony is becoming immaterial, non-matter. Cleopatra, contemplating the vain hope of Octavius accepting Antony’s challenge to single combat, captures the temporal crisis of a man caught out of time and running out of options: “Then Antony — but now –. Well, on.” She alone keeps a weather eye on the future.

Antony’s tendency to fall back on his fading reputation as a soldier, a statesman, and a lover is largely supported by those around him, who judge him almost entirely by past renown rather than on present reality. The renegade Pompey’s assessment of Antony’s “soldiership [as being] twice the other twain” (Lepidus and Octavius) is little more than juvenile adulation, and Antony proves a pale imitation of the heroic commander remembered admiringly by Octavius for beating a successful retreat across the Alps from Modena by drinking “the stale of horses.” Deaf to advice and reckless in bravery, his Herculean fury goaded only by taunts and jealousies, Antony succumbs to an ignominious defeat, a botched suicide, and a reputation “’stroyed in dishonour,” his present behavior so egregious, he fears, as to rewrite history, as in his story. “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack,” laments Octavius upon hearing of Antony’s death, which clearly, he infers, made no great noise at all.

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James Keegan as Antony, 2015. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Although Antony remains capable of “Roman thought” and handles himself well enough in his summit with Octavius, we also see little of the great statesman and orator who rhetorically outmaneuvered and theatrically outperformed Brutus and Cassius in the Capitol. In Shakespeare’s main departure from Plutarch, the scholar E.A.J. Honigman once noted, “It is Cleopatra who rails and mocks, and Antony is always at the receiving end. […] She laughs, he glooms.” The ostentatiously sensual ‘Asiatic’ speaking style Shakespeare created to distinguish Alexandrian from Roman seems better suited, and thus sounds more sublime, coming from Cleopatra than Antony, who moves us rather in moments of gruff simplicity: “Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates / All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss.” Yet even these romantic utterances are strikingly rare. A mature couple past their salad days, they are more likely to bicker than to coo. Enobarbus, not Antony, offers the glorious paean on Cleopatra arriving in her barge; Cleopatra fantasizes of her “demi-Atlas” only in his absence; and Antony frames their passion in the submissive terms of conquest: “Egypt, thou knew’st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’strings / And thou should’st tow me after”. As Peter Hall told a fretful Anthony Hopkins during rehearsals at the National in 1987, “I think he’s past great feeling for her. He’s like a dead man, talking of one who’s alive.”

While Hall perhaps overstates the case, for me his bold direction gets at the nub of the crisis that confronts every actor playing Antony. For how do you play a “dead man,” the shadow of a former self, a pale imitation of a prestige personality that never really existed, or only as a fantasy? “Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?” the mourning Cleopatra asks Dolabella, one of the few decent Romans, who replies: “Gentle madam, no.” Although she vociferously rejects his answer, her conceit damns the future actor: “t’imagine / An Antony were nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy, / Condemning shadows quite.” And indeed, the play’s production history is littered with condemnations by reviewers who found Antony too poetic (Edmund Kean) or too intellectual (Phillip Kemble); too stolid (Frank Benson) or too showy (Lawrence Olivier); too manly (Wilfred Walter) or too effeminate (Kyrle Bellew); too young (John Gielgud) or too old (Baliol Holloway); too large (Conway Terle) or too slight (Donald Wolfit); too lusty (Michael Redgrave) or just too damned English (Richard Johnson); and so on: a litany of disappointments.

Rather than finding fellowship in failure with these great actors, however, I want to suggest that disappointment is written into the DNA of this role; in every sense it’s the point of the performance, for Antony is and must remain “past the size of dreaming.” Everyone possesses their own vision of an Antony that fades on contact: Egyptians and Romans, directors and audiences, even, or especially, actors. Numerous times during rehearsal I caught myself thinking: “James Keegan would do this bit well. And this.” If anyone can reach past the size of dreaming, it’s Keegan. We each have our image of Antony.

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.

*

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.

*

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*

*

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.

*

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 2015 — Scenes from Tate’s LEAR: Scholar/Practitioner Collaboration with Tiffany Stern and Hidden Room Theatre

Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance Director Paul Menzer introduced Tiffany Stern of Oxford University to speak of her work on Tate’s Restoration Version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”  In her brief introduction to the Hidden Room Theatre’s performance on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage, Professor Stern explained to the audience that her work includes both scholarly study as well as that of study in performance.

Nahum Tate undertook his adaptation of “King Lear” in 1681, Professor Stern informed her listeners, because he found Shakespeare’s tragedy “too tragic and upsetting” for his audience.  He removed the character of the Fool from the play for being “vulgar.”  He sanitized motivations and actions in Shakespeare’s play and “cleaned up” the verse, to make it “beautiful” in accordance with his aesthetic and puritanical values.   His version held sway on the stage over Shakespeare’s original “Lear” for one hundred and fifty years. This bowdlerized version is the one that made America take to Shakespeare in the first place, Professor Stern informed her audience.  She added jovially, “So, remember that!”

Restoration movement has a very different feel from Early Modern Theater, Professor Stern continued. It sought for an “elegant, beautiful” performance style in an effort to edify the audience. She relied upon illustrations of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century gestures, paintings and drawings for her research. The audience would get to see these gestures in practice momentarily.  Nahum Tate’s practices and his “improved” version raise a number of questions concerning adaptation, both of “Lear” and other Early Modern dramatic works as well as those of other periods and styles.

Professor Stern then introduced the Hidden Room Theatre Company in a dress rehearsal performance of Tate’s version of “Lear.” She qualified what her audience would witness presently with a kind of apologia: “This is a skeleton crew,” of the full company production, she explained, shortly before the troupe of Restoration period-costumed actors took the stage.  Each costume was elaborate and meticulous in detail, creating spectacle which, along with the Hidden Theatre Company’s recreation of mannered performances including detailed hand gestures, faithfully represented a late Seventeenth Century theatrical experience for today’s audience.

The Hidden Room Theatre Company’s performance lasted approximately forty-five minutes and included selected scenes from Tate’s “King Lear.”  Professor Stern introduced each scene, telling her audience briefly what had transpired between scenes, helping to set the stage for the next one.  After the performance concluded, there followed a ‘Meet the Actors’ session upstairs in the Cutaia Lounge.

–Bill Leavy

Blackfriars Conference 2015: Brunch and Buck Fizzes: “The Body’s Knowledge: Merging Multiple Ways of Knowing in Shakespeare’s Plays”

Following Sunday Brunch, Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen of the American Shakespeare Centerand Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance introduced Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company to speak about what she termed as “body knowledge” in performing Shakespeare.  Professor Packer began her presentation by leading the audience of conference attendees in a breathing exercise, instructing them to engage in breathing with “the whole of your body.” She then had her audience members take their pulses and count the number of pulses per individual breath.  The most common response from individual audience members was five heartbeats per breath.  She likened that ratio to that of iambic pentameter in a line of verse. “Iambic Pentameter is an extension of what we do in our natural state,” Professor Packer informed her listeners.  “Your body is who you are.  You are impulse with an “im-” in front of (your pulse).”  She then advised her listeners, “Remember the intelligence behind every figure of speech.”

Professor Packer applied her insights to the plays overall: “The power of the story lies in what’s going on with the storyteller or with the actor,” she said.  “The line endings in a speech reveal the speaker’s psychological development.”  Perhaps in reply to Professor Tim Carroll, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival’s keynote address conference on the subject of Iambic Fundamentalism the day before, in which Carroll stressed that in Shakespeare as in public speaking, the speaker should not, as a matter of form, stress ‘I’ or ‘me,’ Packer in contrast, gave actors the green light to hitting ‘I’ and ‘me’ in a line as long as actors also follows up those first person descriptions by hitting the active verb in the same lines in which they appear.  She also gave a key piece of advice to actors: “To hell with the operative words!”

Professor Packer then introduced ASC actors Sarah Fallon and Allison Glenzer to play a scene from “Othello.” She set the stage by discussing how Othello’s and Desdemona’s bed sheets symbolized the couple’s (interrupted) Wedding Night.  Othello and Desdemona could not consummate their marriage on their Wedding Night, she said, because Cassio’s brawl which opens the play prevented such an event from taking place.  She then directed Glenzer, playing Othello, to slap Fallon, playing Desdemona.  Fallon’s Desdemona cried out in pain when Glenzer’s Othello struck her.  Immediately, Professor Packer surveyed the audience and asked for its response to what it just witnessed.  Several members of the audience expressed that they “felt” Desdemona’s cry of pain instead of simply having heard it.  Packer explained, “The visceral response is in the body.” She continued, “You have to get to the form before you can ever get to the content, and in Shakespeare, the silences are in the audience’s body as well as those which the actors express.”  Professor Packer elaborated how Shakespeare in his later works began to shift the characters’ emotional feeling behind the words, as well as how the line of dialogue sounded to an audience. The actor shifts the thought, intellectually and emotionally, she concluded.

Bill Leavy

Lunch and Learn: Masters of the Space (Crystal and Rusher)

Hello! It’s me, Mary Finch, one last time to live-blog today’s Lunch and Learn session presented by Ben Crystal and Warren Rusher of Passion in Practice.

“I love space. I’m fascinated by, what I would call, an original practice space.” – Crystal

What is an original practice space? It is a space with a similar dynamic to the space that Shakespeare’s actors would have used. These spaces are becoming more common, with pop-up Globes and container Globes; there’s a growing fascination with these spaces.

Crystal’s fascination began with the language and the meter, going to see shows at the RSC as a child and asking his father about the actors aren’t moving. Crystal thought “surely there must be a way to marry” movement and voice-work. That fascination grew to include an interest in ensemble work, similar to how Shakespeare’s company must have worked–the group equivalent to the similarity of the Folio and the Blackfriars.

Crystal plans to demonstrate some of the practices and disciplines he uses with his company to explore how the space can effect the work the company does.

This first example is similar to Viewpoints work, which always uses music.

Crystal turned on some instrumental music, and using a bamboo stick, Rusher began in a neutral standing position balancing the stick on his finger, and then began walking across the stage. When the stick falls (which it will as this is not a balance exercise), he will catch it, hold, and reset, and continue walking with eyes fixed on the top of the stick.  Crystal then demonstrated as well. They do this “for hours” as a litmus test for tension that needs to be released to facilitate fluid movement.

The next exercise involved Crystal and Rusher traversing the space together, each with their own bamboo stick. This forces the actors to begin listening to each other as well.

The Passion in Practice shows are never blocked, “for better or for worse” (Crystal) and instead relies upon the relationship between the actors on stage.

As a tactile society, productions sometimes use touch without considering status or exclusivity. So Passion and Practice uses what Crystal calls the “Sphere of Contact,” which is approximately two arm length’s apart and is inclusive. Using the sticks as a measure of closeness, creating limits of proximity, far and near. Pressing the sticks between their hands, they demonstrated dynamics of power, depth, nearness, speed, and height.

Dropping the sticks, they presented “Push, Pull, Yield, Resist” by standing palm to palm, showing the different dynamics of tension. They then dropped their hands and did the same exercise using only visual cues.

“It’s a question of tuning into each other and listening to each other” (Crystal).

Turning specifically to the architecture, Crystal began acknowledging the lighting, the stage shape, the pillars, the gemoetric shapes within the space. The spaces can make more sense of the plays, such as in Twelfth Night works better in a traverse space illustrating how not everyone on stage could see all the characters.

Marking out the smaller dynamics of the Wanamaker playhouse, the presenters then used smaller sticks to compensate for the more intimate structure. They also have to compensate for different lighting–they use candles, sometimes different candles for different productions and different locations in the playhouse.

They discovered that the strongest point to stand is not where it traditionally falls in a proscenium stage. It depends upon the lighting, the pillars, and the ability to see the audience which flanks three sides. At the Wanamaker, being too far downstage makes communing with those near the upstage area was difficult, and was actually a very intimate location. Therefore, upstage was more powerful and more public.

The traditional stagecraft is flipped on its head in spaces like the Wanamaker playhouse. Transposing proscenium shows to original practice spaces is very difficult for that reason.

How can we adapt to these spaces to improve our original practice playing in these spaces?

Without the scholarly work, actors and directors would not be able to take the original practice stage craft work forward. Scholarship makes a perfect marriage for actors and original practice ensemble and production work.

Blackfriars 2015 – Staging Session with Tina Packer and James Lochlin

This is Merlyn Q. Sell, at the Blackfriars Playhouse once again, blogging now about today’s staging session featuring Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company, James Lochlin of University of Texas – Austin, and the ASC actors. This session is moderated by Sarah Enloe. The actors will be working scenes from Antony and Cleopatra based on suggestions from conference attendees. There was only one suggestion from attendees so Packer turned to the actors asking if there are portions of the current ASC production that they are stuck in and would like to work with in this session. The actors wisely demur. From the house, Dr. Matt Davies inquires about how actors can stage a broken heart. Packer says that is a moment that will be worked later. James Keegan finally responds to Packer’s request for problematic moments with a particular line of Antony’s that repeats the word “well”. Packer does admit that this staging session won’t be able to accommodate an attendees request to investigate raising Antony aloft, a moment that’s of particular interest after Bob Jones’ paper yesterday. Actor Rick Blunt offers up two moments wherein Enobarbus speaks to characters who are not on stage.

Staging begins with the first scene of the play. After the actors run through the scene as it is currently being performed, Packer explains her belief that the first scene provides first an explanation of how the world views Antony and Cleopatra and is immediately followed by the truth of the situation. Lochlin echoes the idea of two frames of reference competing for the audience’s focus and belief. The typical reception of the play seems to be about the tragedy of Antony – that he fails to keep his position through this relationship.

The actors next take on the scene where Antony chooses to fight by sea. As Packer points out, this scene can be problematic as Antony must know he is less likely to win by sea than by land but he makes that decision anyway. This scene holds the line Keegan had mentioned earlier. Packer initially talks to Sarah Fallon and asks that she portray Cleopatra not like Cleopatra the seductress, but as though she is trying to prove in this moment that she is as capable a military strategist as the men in the room. Packer then asks Keegan to support Cleopatra in this and that his decision is made because he’s prioritizing her wants. The redirect does immediately alter the blocking. The audience responds favorably to this stronger Cleopatra. The change seems to give Keegan more to play in the moment as well, both placating his soldiers and supporting Cleopatra. Keegan and Packer disagree a bit about whether the idea of Cleopatra as a general in this scene is consistent with Cleopatra’s flight from the battle later on. Eventually the disagreement seems to boil down to whether or not Antony’s ultimate allegiance lies with Cleopatra or the army. The spirited debate highlights the great deal of thought both have put into the role and their passionate defense of their positions is invigorating.

Next the group approaches the Enobarbus moment previously requested by Rick Blunt. Packer suggests that Enobarbus is in love with both Antony and Cleopatra. Packer directs Blunt to consider when he has done something he knows was stupid, and keep this in mind to understand that Enobarbus completely understands why Antony and Cleopatra have made their mistakes. Blunt ultimately interprets this direction as Enobarbus experiencing disappointment in people he loves dearly. When running the scene again, Blunt’s performance is decidedly more emotional and this Enobarbus is not the stoic soldier seen previously. Certainly it is a different performance, which most of the audience seems to respond to favorably, thinking those choices set up Enobarbus’ death in a more believable way. Packer asks Blunt to perform his final speech, keeping in mind the work that was just done. Almost immediately Packer takes Blunt back to further investigate the word “life”. Packer states that she is not yet believing that Enobarbus wants to die. Blunt responds, “I didn’t know I wanted to die.” He goes back to the top of the speech again and Packer stops again and asks Blunt to pay a little more attention to specific words. Packer commends Blunt bravery in taking the direction and working the speech in front of an audience. Lochlin commends Blunt’s final run at the speech as adding the layers and intensity without simply being bigger. Blunt seconds that, and adds how much work and preparation is required by an actor to be able to access an authentic feeling in each performance. Packer agrees and cautions that actors taking on this challenge have to exercise their skill in order to be able to recreate these performances in an authentic and safe way. The trap is always that an actor can be come indulgent and in Packer’s words do the “wanky, wanky, wanky thing”. Packer feels that the authentic presentation of feeling is an integral part of the creation of empathy between actors and audience. Packer cautions against an approach that disregards the empathic nature of theatre. Packer argues whole-heartedly for actors that embrace the pathos of the story and don’t become distracted by the logos of the work.

This session provides a lot for attendees (and no doubt the actors as well) to consider. As the floor is opened to the audience one attendee finds a way to unite the scholarship on this play with the work we’ve seen today. Does the play champion the love-based story of Antony and Cleopatra over the rational politics of Caesar? Packer suggests that Shakespeare wrote a string of lovers where men and women have equal agency and that that equal agency is the key to success in these relationships and potentially politics as well.

Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Keynote #3: Gina Bloom

Hello, everyone! I’m Cass Morris, back on the blog for our third keynote session from 10:30am-11:30am on this sunny Friday morning.

Gina Bloom, University of California – Davis
Every Body Can Act: Reclaiming Histrionic Gesture through the Digital Theatre Game Play the Knave

Sarah Enloe introduces our next keynote speaker, Gina Bloom. She begins by noting that facility of language is common in this room, yet many of us still have some trouble with technological terms. She then rattles off a list of jargon far too quickly for this humble blogger to keep up with. “We need some help with all of that. Fortunately for us, there are people like Gina Bloom” who can connect the world of early modern drama with the world of modern technology, as well as connecting theatrical and academic organizations.

Bloom has been at UC-Davis since 2007, focusing not only on technology but on gender studies and sound studies, among other topics. Enloe shares a list of Bloom’s august publications, as well as noting that she is responsible for “expanding the digital canon” through the Luminary project. “Bringing worlds together in promising and thrilling ways.”

Enloe then passes off to Bloom.

Bloom begins by thanking Enloe and Cohen for bringing her to the ASC and to the whole technology team for helping her to get her “post-late-modern technology to work in this early modern theatre”. She cautions us all that if the technology is testy today, it’s because “it’s unhappy. Computers have emotions,” and this program has been moved around and demonstrated at many different locations, and is expressing displeasure at its tumultuous life.

Bloom is here to discuss and demonstrate a video game called “Play the Knave” being developed at UC-Davis: a Shakespeare simulator game, where the player is performing in a Shakepseare game. She describes it as a mixture of “karaoke and machinima”. Players can choose their characters, plays, the theatre they want to perform in (early modern and modern). When all of the components are set up, they perform their scene karaoke style. But there’s a twist — it’s not just karaoke, but motion-capture karaoke. The player’s own gestures inform how the avatar moves.

Bloom notes that the experiment is interesting because the avatars are always inhabiting a model of a theatrical space and because the game is generally played with an audience (similar to Guitar Hero or other musical performance games). “When people play, they tend to gather a crowd around them” — and that crowd watches both the digital and the analog performances. The motion-capture technology and the code written for it rewards players who use large “histrionic” gestures. “Although not all players think about gesturing… the ones who are ready to gesture, they inevitably end up using these exaggerated, big motions, that interestingly recall the declamatory style developed by ancient rhetoricians.” She notes that this happens regardless of the player’s experience with acting — both novices and professionals — so it’s less the player’s training that produces this style of acting, but rather the digital machine. As such, players feel like they’re puppeteering the avatar, but the digital machine is also puppeteering the player, getting a certain kind of performance out of them.

Bloom introduces actors who will play the game for us — but will first perform as they would in any theatre, to get a sense of the difference between the acting style that is more natural and the acting style that the game produces. ASC Dangerous Dreams actors Zoe Speas and Josh Innerst perform a scene from Hamlet, wherein Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost.

Before having the actors do the scene a second time, through the game, she notes that while they have not done this scene before, they have played the game to get a sense of its operation — but that in doing so, they proved her point! Bloom also notes that they are adding new theatrical spaces from participating organizations, such that actors at the Stratford Festival were able to play the game with their own spaces.

(Encountering some difficulties with the program running in Windows 8, Bloom jokes that, “The real problem here is that all of us are Mac users”)

Prepping us for the scene, Bloom states that “Coarse exhibitionism gets a better response from the game.” She wants to examine what is digital about that declamatory acting style and what might be significant for theatre history in exploring that inherent digitality of bodily motion. Declamatory acting has gotten “a bad rap” — and Bloom relates this to the derogatory comments made in modern society about emoticons and emoji. (We’re unable to get the tech to cooperate, but Speas and Innerst testify to what Bloom says regarding the necessity of large gestures to get a good response from the avatar.) She presents a picture of a 1644 gestural language next to a field of emoji — and the two are remarkably similar.

Bloom moves to discussing how the system actually works: the Kinect sends out infrared dots, which the player’s body interrupts. The software then translates this information into “discrete and stable datapoints”, reconstructing what the camera thinks is the skeleton of the player’s body. The skeleton then drives the movement of the avatar. “Precision is largely a function of the granularity of the data”. She notes that the Kinect works well for the public playing aspect of the game. The information is not quite as precise when it comes to nuances of gesture, but does not require multiple cameras or for the player to put on a suit of reflective markers in order to play — a trade-off they considered worth it. To get the full-body capture, they have to forego smaller elements like the hands and the face.

Bloom notes that this challenges an assumption of modern acting regarding the importance of the face as a locus for emotions. She relates her discoveries via the game to other early modern and modern theories of movement and action in acting. She comments on Hamlet’s advice to the players — and Innerst provides a humorous moment in making the same gesture for “saw the air thus” as he had attempted when trying to get the game to pick up his form for the screen. Bloom points out that Hamlet’s advice advocates subtlety over declamatory style. The latter, connected to the rhetoric that might have been learned in the classroom, might have been more accessible and efficient for the younger boy actors — thus connecting it with an amateurism. Bloom suggests that Hamlet’s comments might have been calling upon common criticisms of that style, particularly in light of a professional company looking down its nose at less experienced players.

Bloom connects this to the modern idea that while singing and dancing are social activities, acting is still considered something best left to the professionals. Few people put on Shakespeare in their living rooms — though she jokes that this might not be true in this room. There are no theatrical motion-capture games the way there are games for singing, dancing, and playing instruments. She suggests this is because we now consider acting as something that can’t be done without refinement through training.

The game, she notes, often makes tragedy funny — emotions tend to slip into a comedic mode. She thinks this is because calling attention to the emotions as codified feels like an ironic move. Bloom posits the question: if “we should be encouraging everyone to perform Shakespeare if the result is countless bad productions?” She comments on the phenomenon of YouTube Shakespeare, which may corroborate those fears. Digitality has the potential to democratize acting, but it can also threaten to reinforce a generalzed view of acting and emotions. She hopes that Play the Knave might mitigate that by adding context to the digital-visual elements. Players’ gestures are digital artifacts, but not only digital — spectators get a unique experience of the declamatory style because they watch both the digital and analog performances. Bloom thinks this may help participants understand the historical importance of gestural acting even while they are laughing at what they produce through the game.

She returns to Hamlet’s critique of the declamatory style: “Such a snob, that Hamlet.” Bloom thinks his comments indicate that “naturalistic” acting, requiring training, reduces the diversity of bodies on stage. Play the Knave’s digital components may distill and even erase differences between playing bodies, but the analog components can remain diverse.

Bloom concludes by stating, “Perhaps there is something to be gained if we sometimes take Shakespeare performance a little less seriously.”

Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Colloquy VIII: Practical Rhetoric

How can rhetoric help students?  How can actors use it?  Colloquy Chair Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager with the American Shakespeare Center introduced the session’s format as a conversation, as she put it, rather than that of a lecture, and she then had the presenters seated around the meeting room table introduce themselves and state exactly what it is that they do with rhetoric.  Tom Delise with the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory teaches his students fifteen rhetorical devices to help them in their acting.  Marshall Garrett, Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance MFA candidate mentioned how his thesis on “Measure for Measure” focused on rhetoric, and stated that he is interested in helping actors who are not familiar with rhetoric to be aware of it and be able to work with it.  Sign language interpreter Lindsey D. Snyder of Gallaudet University said she is interested in making rhetoric understandable for the hearing-impaired.  Annette Drew-Bear teaches Shakespeare courses at Washington and Jefferson College, and she said she wants to discover more effective teaching techniques, including ways to improve her students’ assignments.  The other presenters included Collin Bjork with Indiana University, Scott Crider with the University of Dallas, and Kathleen Quinlan, English Teacher with Stonewall Jackson High School.  

The Chair then talked of methodology and strategies in rehearsal and in the classroom.  Delise distributed around the room his “Rhetorical Devices Worksheet,” explaining that he gives this to his students/actors to help them prepare for a role.  The worksheet calls upon the student to name the rhetorical device, give an example of it from the text, and then asks the question, “How Can It Inform an Acting Choice?  What Questions Does It Raise?”  Garrett discussed his work on “Measure for Measure.”  He said he discovered that the flow of rhetoric in Shakespeare’s play reveals that the prison characters use almost no rhetorical devices at all, while by contrast, the character of Isabella uses rhetoric to render her antagonist Angelo speechless.

The Chair next proceeded to the topic of Dramatization of Rhetoric, mentioning that Crider’s paper in particular explored the “performativity” (performance conventions and audience perceptions) of rhetorical devices.  Some of these, such as “epizeuxis,” or the immediate repetition of a word, are definite cues for the actor.  Snyder demonstrated through signing how different words and expressions utilize different hand signs.  She also discussed how the meaning and the meter of the verse are affected by the actor’s breathing.  Crider asked the sign-language interpreter if she had worked in gesture and if so, how it relates to Early Modern acting.  Gesture, Snyder replied, didn’t appear in print until sometime in the mid-1600’s.  There is some documentation which still exists today, she added, but there is not much writing on how it was used on the stage.  She suggested that some actors were not as declarative as we now believe they were, and that the practice of using gesture became more established over time.  Snyder continued on a related subject, stating that physical training and classroom training should not be separate and distinct from one another.  Instead, rhetorical instruction should synthesize both of these approaches.

Garrett discussed Shakespeare’s use in “Measure for Measure” of the rhetorical device known as “anadiplosis,” which is the repetition of a clause or sentence’s last word or phrase at the beginning of the next line, clause or sentence.   “Do we stop Angelo’s action to try to get a word in,” Garrett asked, “or do we just let him keep on going in the scene?”  Rhetorical devices can be translated into actors’ actions as well as into words and emotions, he explained, as when one character in a scene mirrors the posture of another, indicating to the audience love and attraction between two characters.  “Souls and hearts start beating together; characters start to move in tandem,” he noted.

Quinlan shared her insights as an English Teacher on the performativity of rhetoric as well.  The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello” uses a device known as “aposiopesis,” or a sudden breaking off in mid-speech, as a kind of innuendo, she explained, to imply to Othello his wife Desdemona’s fabricated infidelity.  Quinlan also discussed another kind of omission, “ellipsis,” in storytelling.  Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart,” she illustrated for her listeners, intentionally leaves out the names of the characters.  Her students comment on this omission in her class, remarking that the narrator refers to his antagonist/victim simply as, “The Old Man.”  The reader is left to fill in the blanks by using his or her imagination.

Garrett in addition discussed his staging for “Measure for Measure,” particularly in ways to communicate to the audience a sense of balance and also the sense of miscommunication.  Bjork then shared an anecdote from his days as an actor.  He was rehearsing a scene in which his character uses alliteration, in this case it was a repetition of ‘f” sounds.  His director explained to him that the rhetorical device informs the actor’s face in performance.  The director told the actor, “You are making a kissy-face!”  Bjork said the repeated ‘f’ sounds in his character’s language was his cue to pucker up to his lady scene partner.

The Chair then asked her presenters the question, How does rhetoric figure in writing and composition?  Crider mentioned that rhetoric helps his students in their composition, and that learning rhetoric develops them into better readers of Shakespeare and in general.  Morris next asked, “Students may learn the correct term, but how can an actor use it onstage?”  The Chair proceeded to describe as an example of practical rhetoric, how emphasis on rhetorical usage in ASC’s leadership workshop helps workshop participants, who have included leaders in the business community as well as in politics, become more persuasive leaders through its use.

The Chair opened up the floor to “gallery” questions shortly before the session concluded.  Lia Wallace, ASC Educator, talked of how she taught rhetorical devices to younger kids, such as “anthimeria,” or nouns as verbs.  Wallace remarked how younger children are able to learn rhetorical devices and their names with great facility because they haven’t yet learned from cultural bias that it is supposed to be so “hard.”

Morris admitted to the colloquy’s attendees that what it is she needs to know now is what is the “next step” in the practice of rhetoric as she brought the session to its conclusion.

–Bill Leavy