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!

*

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.

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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*

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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.

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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.

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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.

Colloquy XV: Mediating Music in Middleton’s The Witch

Hello everyone – Liz here again to blog for Colloquy XV: Mediating Music in Middleton’s The Witch in Masonic Muilding – Blue Room. This live blogging session runs from nine to ten fifteen in the morning.The chair for this session is Linda Austen from Northwestern University. The presenters are Katherine Brokaw from the University of California, MercedScott A.  Trudell of the University of Maryland, College ParkSarah Williams of the University of South CarolinaAmanda Winkler of Syracuse University, and Jennifer Wood of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Austen thanks the attendees for their presence and turns the floor over to Trudell.

Trudell explains that this session focuses on the mediation of a song in performance within the text. He also explains his fascination with media transformations that adapt and re-imagine that bring us closer to the original performance of the song. Trudell is part of a project to create an open-source internet media to interface with to hear early modern songs. This project hopes to give archival and historical contexts for lyrics. Trudell and his team want to avoid giving the impression of original musical representations. Trudell explains that songs existed in variants, rather than one authorial version. Through this project, Trudell hopes that teachers and theatre practitioners can find, hear, and download songs for research and performance.

Trudell then gives an example of lyrics in Middleton’s work and explains different ways to view the lyrics. First, one may look at the meter of the song. One may also choose to speak the lyrics. Then, he brings the lyrics into the context of a larger song within the scene with Hecate and her followers singing. Trudell shows some early prints of the play, including a 1778 edition that has the voices “in the air.” He explains that the song itself was first printed in 1774 which numbers the voices, rather than assigning the lyric lines to characters. Middleton’s song appears, in part, in print, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1623. In 1625, the song also appears in print from scribe Richard Cane, which is attributed to Robert Jonson from the 1620s. Trudell hopes that his interface will allow users access to more modern versions of the musical score and to link to other sites that would elaborate on the performance and images of early modern witches. He states that many current links online to recordings of early modern music is of poor quality. His project hopes to work with collaborators to provide cleaner recordings. He hopes practitioners will be able to use this interface to include early modern music in their performances.

Austen then takes the stage to talk about reproduction of early modern music in today’s theatre. Music, in early modern drama, acted on the body it found to change its emotions. Austen shows an image of a recreation of the Blackfriars Theater with a third floor known as the music house. She then shows a photo of our own Blackfriars Theater. She points out a version of The Witch with the stage direction [Music] to indicate music would start before the lyrics to the song begin. She then shows a photo of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London to illustrate another location where performance of music can occur.

Austen moves on to a photo of musical notation in a songbook for the song from The Witch. She explains that this print would be for home usage and allows little room for harmony and chords. She shows a modern notation of the song and explains that modern musicians have to fill in the gaps left by early modern song books. She gives a list of all musical instruments called for by name in the second Blackfriars Playhouse. She divides these into loud and soft instruments, and explains that only the loud band instruments would be used for this scene. The introduces the violin family, associated with May Pole dances and disreputable spaces and performers. She likens violins to saxophones today. She explains that images of cats playing the fiddle abounded, rather than witches playing the fiddle. Then, she shows pictures cornettis and sackbuts with their brass and woodwind-esque sound and explains that they would be versatile. There is debate as to which voices would accompany these instruments.

Williams then takes the floor to speak on witches on the stage. England in the early modern period was less concerned with demonic possession and more concerned with misdemeanors and disruptive behavior. Middleton based his portrayal of witches heavily on The Discovery of Witchcraft. The broadside ballad trade assisted in the spread of stories of witches in a performative manner. Witches were described as hybrid creatures, half-man and half-beast, which Williams illustrates with a woodcut. Boys would play the attendants of witches and men would play the grotesque witches. She points to several textual examples of the grotesque features of witches in literature. Several Jacobean witches sing and dance, as expressed in several texts and illustrated in several woodcuts. The witches’ world was see as similar to our own, but backwards, which Williams illustrates with textual examples.

The seventeenth century illustrated hags onstage through song and dance within the bounds of the century’s language. The dance music would be rustic and abound with language reminding the audience of the bad intentions of the witches. She then introduces the first performance, informed by these evidences. The actors, including Trudell, Austen, and Josh Williams – a Mary Baldwin graduate student -, Wood, and Brokaw perform the scene, accompanied by Williams on the piano.

Brokaw explains her experience as a professor and a theatre practitioner. She talks about directing The Winter’s Tale at Merced last February. She decided to set the first three acts in the 1950s. Then, she had acts four and five take place in the 1970s. She explains her options for the music composition with the possibility of collaborating with a composer to create the music for the show. The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 commissioned an indie songwriter to compose music for their performance. Brokaw soon realized that she did not have all of the RSC’s resources at her disposal and could not compose new works. She explains that she finally decided to incorporate modern songs into the play. She also decided to add more music where the text does not indicate music. For example, she had Hermoine and Perdita sing Blackbird at the end of the play as the reunited family looked on at a 1950s portrait of Mamilius. She states that this began a conversation within the community on music on the early modern stage. She shares that this experience allowed non-academic theatre-goers to ask about her scholarship and research. Brokaw explains that she could also have placed Shakespeare’s lyrics into a 1950s and 1970s musical score.

She then introduces the next performance, where this final option is utilized. The performance will use the original lyrics, but will incorporate the tune of a Frank Sinatra song, performed by Wood and Winkler.

Winkler takes the stage to say that working on the edge of scholarship and practice has allowed her to research in a very different way. She states that performing Hecate allows her to experiment with different versions of Hecate, including an option that allows her to emphasize Hecate’s incestuous qualities. She explains that the original text allows for the actor to infuse the song with dramatic choices that can alter the audience’s views on Hecate. She points out that everyone has an imagined version of the song from reading the text. But these imagined versions cannot all appear on the stage at once.

Winkler speaks that the witches in Middleton’s play sip on blood before singing and that by placing the lyrics within the tune of Sinatra’s song gives a shadow of Sinatra’s presence over the witches’ grotesque presence. She states that she hopes to start a dialogue on whether theatre practitioners should adhere to early modern lyrics and music or experiment with contemporary music.

A scholar asks if many audience members were upset by the use of modern songs in The Winter’s Tale, citing that many of her students were curious about the ASC’s use of modern music in the performance. Brokaw questions if we are excising anything by incorporating contemporary songs, but she also states that she feels that lyrics are easier to alter or switch out than the words themselves. Austen mentions that many times she experienced shocked theatre practitioners who did not realize that there were early modern versions of songs within the texts. Trudell speaks that the ASC’s Winter’s Tale did not use any early modern music. He acknowledges this worked very well, but he also calls for greater experimentation with early modern music and ballads.

American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project

As most Shakespeare nerds know by now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, America’s largest Shakespeare theatre, has undertaken an ambitious project they are calling “Play On!” in which 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges will undertake to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  This announcement has provoked the predictable amount of consternation throughout the Shakespeare world, enough consternation that as the Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, whose mission is to recover the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity… through performance and education, I would like to share my thoughts on this project, both positive and negative, with our many friends.

Here’s what I like about the project:

(1) To begin with, I applaud the size, scope, and ambition of the project.

Ever since Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, arrived in Ashland in 2007, he has brought to the Festival the kind of expansive vision of a theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people.  That vision undergirded his first project, Cornerstone Theatre, in which Bill and his colleagues, fresh out of Harvard, would go into communities without theatres and create a production with the citizens.  That vision – so American in its principles and in its optimism – was also the foundation for his first big project at OSF, American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, for which he has commissioned American playwrights to attempt to create a collection of plays that helps define America in the way that Shakespeare’s history plays helped to define England.  One offspring of that project, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about LBJ and the civil rights movement, has already won the Tony for Outstanding Play.

The “Play On!” project matches Bill Rauch’s other work, and in its intention to create Shakespeare scripts of the people, by the people, and for the people, it matches as well the giving and inclusiveness that informs OSF under his remarkable leadership.  To appreciate what he has accomplished, locate Ashland, Oregon, on a map, and you will see that it’s a small city (Staunton’s size) in the isolated southwest corner of Oregon, five hours from Portland.  Always devoted to first-class work, the Festival’s location trapped it more than most urban Shakespeare companies in the predominant Shakespeare audience base of affluent and aging white people – a place to get away from the world rather than a place to engage it.  I do not know how their new programming has changed their audience demographics, but the increased diversity of the actors and staff at OSF and the emphasis on musicals and new plays have certainly made the season’s offerings look less daunting to non-Shakespeare fans as well as more interesting to experienced theatre-goers who are looking for something new and would rather not see their tenth production of Macbeth.

(2) Some good that will come from the “Play On!” project.

Already it has prompted the kind of controversy that keeps the importance of Shakespeare in the public view.  It’s made people think about their experiences seeing and hearing Shakespeare. It’s giving employment to 39 playwrights and – even more rarely – a like number of dramaturges.  And that means, inevitably, that by the end of the project, 78 very smart people, who have wrestled with replacing Shakespeare’s words (as our actors do when they try to paraphrase their lines) will be in awe of his skill, and they will approach their crafts both with more humility and with more skill.

I hope that once the scripts are all in, OSF will plan a grand convocation of these men and women to talk about their experience of trying to retain, in the words of OSF’s Director of Literary Development Lue Douthit, “the rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme” of the original.  Lue, if you’re reading this, please invite me to that occasion.  I promise not to say a word, just soak in the inevitable awe these re-creators will feel faced with what Andrew Hartley, in the answering question “Why Shakespeare?” (The Shakespeare Dramaturg, p.70), calls the “unequaled…poignancy or precision” of Shakespeare’s words and phrases “unparalleled elsewhere.”   Our actors feel it every time they play a role; our students feel it every time they study a line.  Imagine what 36 playwrights and 36 dramaturges will feel after trying to put an entire play into their own words.

(3) Clearly this project does no harm to Shakespeare, even in Ashland.

OSF assures fans of Shakespeare that over the next ten years they will produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original and that “one or more of” the plays created “may be produced along with the original canon.”  These scripts will be food for readings and discussion around the country. Shakespeare’s works have always stood up to the “translation” – in a real sense, every production is a new “translation.”  Changing words, characters, scenes, plots – none of that is new. Whenever I direct a production, I’ll change a word or twenty.  In our current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “on her withered dewlap” became “on her withered bosom”; and the fairies’ lullaby to Titania about “spotted snakes” became a soft shoe version of “By the Light of Silvery Moon.”  Am I ashamed?  Kind of.  Is Shakespeare rolling in his grave?  No seismic activity in Stratford-upon-Avon has been reported.

As our board member Kim West pointed out, this kind of “translation has been going on since Nahum Tate updated King Lear in 1681.”  Who knows how many Nahum Tates the project might produce?  In one way or another every play is only the first version of a work, changed with each production; and all of this reworking of Shakespeare in whatever language, in whatever medium, from musicals to film to comic books to TV sitcoms to Andy Griffith’s radio retelling of Romeo and Juliet, never lessened the value of his work – all of this has only given the originals more currency.

Here’s what I don’t like about the project:

(1) The OSF project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language.

The rationale for the project is that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand because his language is too far from our own and that audiences of a far wider range would enjoy the plays better if they were written in contemporary language.  I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.

Yes, we could all use larger vocabularies, but if you’re going to start simplifying language to reach those who don’t have a large enough vocabulary, then don’t pick on Shakespeare without picking on Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Williams, Churchill, Stoppard, and Sondheim.  For that matter go after Deadwood, West Wing, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. Shoot, go after Sesame Street.

The Wall Street Journal’s John McWhorter approves wholeheartedly of the project and tells us that 10% of the words in Shakespeare are “incomprehensible.”  That number vastly exaggerates the number of archaic words in Shakespeare and ignores altogether the way context – the other words being spoken and the way the actor speaks them – helps us comprehend.  In fact, 98% of Shakespeare’s words are either in our dictionaries as current usage English or as a close cousin of the current English.

(2) The OSF project robs from rather than adds to the meaning of the plays.

It ignores the pleasure of the unconscious experience of comprehending expanded meaning.  For example, here’s a passage from Macbeth that McWhorter wants updated. It’s Macbeth considering whether he should kill the King, Duncan:

………………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

so clear in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his taking-off.

McWhorter prefers this “translation” by Conrad Spoke:

………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne authority so meek, hath been

so pure in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his knocking-off.

McWhorter would substitute “authority” for “faculties” because he says he doesn’t know what “bearing one’s faculties” means. He doesn’t? Today we use “faculties” to mean “abilities,” – the very first definition in Merriam Webster – and pretty precisely what Shakespeare meant.  In fact the substituted “authority” is not what Macbeth is talking about.  Nor is the substituted “pure in office” the same as the original “clear in his office.”  Jimmy Carter was “pure” in his office; Ronald Reagan was “clear.” Shakespeare’s “clear” could hardly be clearer.

Most alarmingly, McWhorter champions “knocking-off” for “taking-off.”  He would choose a current slang word for “murder” instead of Macbeth’s invented phrase “taking-off.”  But even children listening to Macbeth contemplate this murder would know what “taking-off” means, and they would also know – as would the actor playing the part – that it’s a feeble euphemism, that Macbeth can’t bring himself even to say “murder,” and that is the real story of this moment. The actor performing the “translated” line would lose this moment, and the audiences listening to that “translation” would lose this insight into the mind of a man for the first time considering the murder.  Shakespeare’s word – easy to comprehend in context – provides the full understanding, whereas in McWhorter’s term the substituted word gives us only a “half understanding.”

(3) The OSF project ignores the joy of acquiring language.

We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time.  The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings.  In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.

We do that too – with Stoppard and Pinter and Beckett plays; with comedians Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Stephen Colbert; with television like Key and Peele and Wired, with lyricists from Sondheim to Notorious B.I.G.  Even when some of it flies by us, we enjoy the rush of new words in new arrangements.

(4) The OSF project endorses ShakesFear.

We go to Shakespeare unnecessarily afraid, worried about missing something, worried about vocabulary as though we were taking the SAT.  That irrational and unhelpful worry I call ShakesFear, and my main objection to the OSF project is that it endorses ShakesFear, and in doing so it misunderstands the nature of theatre and underestimates the genius of audiences.  It promotes the anxiety about Shakespeare that is a primary obstacle to its enjoyment.

(5) The OSF project takes actors and directors off the hook.

Play On!” shifts the responsibility for “comprehensible” Shakespeare to these 39 playwrights and away from actors and directors who themselves are uninterested in the way the language in the plays work.

Actors who don’t know precisely what the words are can’t make up the difference with an emotional wash, and directors whose aim is foremost the imposition of a concept can sometimes make comprehension harder.  As James Shapiro writes in The New York Times, “To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse.  They will search for them in vain in the translation.”

From the day Jim Warren and I started the company, the American Shakespeare Center has made the comprehension of Shakespeare’s language and an understanding of the way the meter and the syntax work the first business of rehearsal.  We are continually looking for the ways that staging can clarify meaning for his audiences.  We don’t always get it right in our fight against ShakesFear, but repeatedly we hear from audiences, “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” or “I forgot it was Shakespeare” or – our favorite – “That was great. Who translated it into modern English?” And then we get to tell the patron that the words were Shakespeare’s and that he himself effortlessly did the “translation.”

The greatest gift of a good Shakespeare production is this kind of unconscious “translation” – an occasion when performance combines with the wellspring of our language to enlarge us.

(6) The OSF project condescends to certain audiences.

My final concern about the OSF project is the soft discrimination of its low expectations.  As I have said, the plan is meant to be a part of OSF’s admirable push to make Shakespeare of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But those people are less in need of help than OSF imagines.  Children are always swimming in a sea of new language; it’s how they learn.  For an adult, Much Ado about Nothing may be harder than The Important of Being Earnest, but for the eight-year-old, they present similar challenges – or, depending on your point of view, opportunities.  The OSF project would deprive the very audiences it’s concerned about of those opportunities by creating a kind of “separate but equal” Shakespeare.

OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous.  And it is work.  And it is worth it.”

As I said at the start, the OSF project has done all of us a favor by raising the issue of how we deal with the rich gift of Shakespeare.  First thing we do, let’s not underrate it.

Ralph Alan Cohen

ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission

 

*This post was edited on 10/10 to correct the numbering in the second section and correct “quipped” to

“equipped.”

“My life and education both do learn me how to respect you”: Teaching and the Art of Collaboration

Projects have a funny way of infiltrating one’s thoughts and setting up their own domain in  the mind.  I think this may be why research institutions want  their faculty showing the product of their labors (read: publication).  By encouraging faculty to invest time in  something–research, an experiment, a paper– they facilitate new solutions, innovations, connections. The project on my mind this summer is our No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, for which Cass and I (collaboratively) selected the theme of collaboration.  As I’ve been planning for it,  it has tickled my brain about all of the work we do and how it connects (or, sometimes, doesn’t) to that one word.  

 I was lucky enough to meet a scholar who is new to town for coffee yesterday to discuss some upcoming projects and to see if we could work together.  I’d been giving a lot of thought to our work in the Education Department even before this meeting, in which, as we were trading tales and getting to know one another, my colleague asked “What do you do at ASC?”

Most of the time, when I answer that question, I tend to start with our divisions — College Prep, Educator Resources, Research and Scholarship, Life-Long Learning.  I talk about the programs in each, what they mean to me.  Depending on the day, one or the other may be my favorite.

But the programs we run are not, really, what we do.  We bridge a lot of territory here in our little world — or, as we often say, we wear a lot of different hats. Kim and I are administrators, wrestling with budgets, staffing, communications.  Cass and I are curriculum developers: we worry with Common Core, clear instructions, and quelling ShakesFear. All of us write and market and edit and network and schedule and (some days it feels like more than anything else) answer emails.  Each of us have been performers at various point in our lives, and we still enjoy the aspects of our jobs that entail performing and putting together scenes and plays. We don’t get to act so much at the office or day-to-day like our colleagues a block away at the Playhouse, but we do get to teach — and in a way, that is the most collaborative and rewarding kind of performing.

We talk a lot about collaboration in theatre, but  not so much in the classroom.  It is a buzzword in one part of my job because the folks in the arts need to be collaborators in the most essential sense of the word: from the OED (you know it is a good day when I get to open that baby up) col- together + labōrāre – to work.

The word seems to be so essential in theatre that I am a little surprised (okay, disappointed) that the OED doesn’t credit Shakespeare with being the first to record it.  Instead, it first appears in print a good two and a half centuries after his death,

To work in conjunction with another or others, to co-operate; esp. in a literary or artistic production, or the like.

Shakespeare does record the concept in some of his plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck describes the how the Mechanicals “were met together to rehearse a play” and we see their first production meeting as they discuss the ins and outs of staging Pyramus and Thisbe. But one doesn’t find the same acknowledgement of learning, teaching, or educating together. In Shakespeare, those activities generally occur with singular pronouns — “I” or “you” or “she” or sometimes the royal “we/our.”

On the best days, the Education team gets out from behind our desks and go into a room full of people and we teach. We teach Shakespeare, history, acting, teaching.  We do it in a particular way that we learned from watching our boss, Ralph Alan Cohen, when he teaches, and from watching other teachers, who include both faculty in the Mary Baldwin Shakespeare and Performance program and the actors who work on the stage at the Blackfriars.  We teach students who are with us for one hour or one week or one semester.

We learn something every time we stand up in front of a group of people. We are lucky that the people in our classrooms, unlike those, say, in a typical public school English/Literature arts class, have chosen to be there. They want to hear what we have to say. We are doubly lucky in that our classrooms have resources that win interest instantly — actors and the stage. We are triply lucky that in our classrooms we have the opportunity to take a collaborative approach to learning.  We are not lecturers or authority figures so much as facilitators. We take pride in showing our students paths and helping their navigation and exploration. In raising genuine questions and discussing them. In exploring options and working together to achieve the best result for that moment, that group, that classroom. Knowing full well that the next moment, group, and class may resolve the exploration in a completely different (and exciting) way. That collaborative journey and its different landing points is part of why Shakespeare stays fresh on stage and in the hands of students invited to think like (and given the tools to work like) performers.

Little Academe

 

Over at the Playhouse, the artistic staff and actors spend time in a room together from the beginning of rehearsals until the closing night. Whether they are closely studying the text in table work, getting up on their feet and blocking it, or taking their curtain call, they are giving space and sharing credit with one another. They discuss the colors of the costumes and the period of the props, the movements and gestures that will unify or create the feel they are looking for from a particular moment. They will try things in different ways and work through challenges and disagreements with conversation.  They will, essentially, model an ideal environment for learning and creating: an environment that the best teachers and businesses are interested in making the norm.

In the quote from Othello that forms the title of this post, I see the three essential pieces at the heart of any genuine collaboration: life (experience), education, and respect. I think it is the last one that causes the most problems for teachers and others looking to work in a collaborative way.  For some reason, respect is a feeling that is hard to conjure up for some people with a lot of life experience and education. In the recent past I’ve noticed that the ability to collaborate with our students or with our co-workers is inversely related to how much more life experience or education we think we possess relative to theirs–or, in short, to how much we respect what they bring to the effort.  Sometimes, those in  a collaborative may need to ask: how much effort we are willing to give to showing respect? What will make this collaboration a success?

Collaboration is not easy in the best of situations — as I think the ASC has learned in the act of putting up plays since 1988. At various times, whether while running productions by two to three troupes simultaneously, or because we added new initiatives like our College Prep camp (1997) and the Actors’ Renaissance Season (2005), we have discovered that it takes time and energy to establish the system that will make the collaboration fly. And, it hasn’t always worked right off the bat. Within a system, collaborators have to be willing to acknowledge when something is broken and to work together to fix it. Otherwise they risk, in the words of one of our recent Leadership participants, that “a problem for some can quickly devolve into a problem for none.” If one person alone is not forced to deal with an issue, then it never gets addressed at all, as everyone it bothers will assume someone else will handle it.  The challenge for groups working in a truly collaborative way is to show respect for one another by recognizing an issue and bringing it to the group, working on a plan to solve it, and taking steps to do so.  Once is not enough, though; newly rising issues require the same approach whether they occur once a month or once a day.

As I watch our partner program experiment with this notion with their new MFA third year, I am learning just how important both the systems and the dogged determination to deal with situations as they arise is to the healthy functioning of a group.  And how difficult it is to build truly collaborative work into the day to day tasks we do to DO our work.  Our new third year demands collaboration of 11-12 souls for a year of their lives, and has set up some guidelines and tools to make that possible. It is the ultimate melding of pedagogy and art–a model of how to teach collaboration through process.  It has taught me that Collaboration needs not just invitation, but also stakes–something that we MUST accomplish together.  Something that gets us out from behind the devices and into one another’s space, something that has a deadline and an audience, something that we can feel pride in together.

At No Kidding Shakespeare Camp this year, our study will focus on the collaboration we find evidence of in Shakespeare’s company, the collaboration we engage in daily at the ASC, and the discoveries about collaboration we are making in the MFA third year company. We will experiment with models of collaboration drawn from what we know of Shakespeare’s rehearsal process, explore musical collaboration to see if we can compose something together, and discuss the implications of Shakespeare’s collaboration with other artists. I hope we will find new ways to engage and “work together” that feed our campers when they leave and our organization as we continue to mount productions and learn about the world of  early modern theatre. Won’t you join us?

Staging Session II: Auditory Worlds Onstage: Hearing, Overhearing, Eavesdropping, and Stage Whispers – Blackfriars Conference 2013

Good afternoon from Clare at the Blackfriars! I will be blogging on the second staging session of the 2013 Blackfriars Conference.

Staging Session II: Auditory Worlds Onstage: Hearing, Overhearing, Eavesdropping, and Stage Whispers

With little to no practice, the ASC residence cast and their facilitators will work through complicated staging situations. Please see: Staging Session II Handout

Moderator: Sara Vazquez, ASC stage manager

1. Much Ado Masked dance: Conducted by Walter Cannon and Nova Myhill (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1)

2. Eavesdropping in Measure for Measure: Gayle Gaskill (Measure for Measure, 3.1)

3. Public vs Private speech in Hamlet: Laury Magnus (Hamlet, 3.2)

1) Myhill and Cannon will look precisely at the moments of hearing and non-hearing, and how the scene changes when characters over-hear, and when they fail to over-hear each other.  They also want to gives special attention  to the way that masks which usually give individuals power over each other, or render each other powerless. The actors will first play the scene all masked and then time with only the men in masks.

The first time the actors played the scene, they all danced and only the head couple spoke to each other.  The other actors were not distracting themselves from hearing, but also did not appear to react much to the head couple. They were all masked.

The second time, the women wore no masks and again only by the two interlocutors heard the conversations.  Each couple broke off from the dance to their individual conversations after they spoke to each other in the dance for their own private conversations. The women also played the scene as having more agency over the men who are unable to answer for themselves when the women confronted them about themselves while the women enjoy displaying their wit.

2) Differing editions of Measure for Measure have the duke and the provost exit in a scene 3.1., or stay on stage and eaves drop during the conversation in which Isabella confesses to her brother that she must sleep with Angelo to save her brother’s life. Does the duke upstage the other actors if he is seen overhearing the actors?

The first time, the duke and the provost left and then the duke reappeared listening from the balcony. Claudio’s initial support of Isabella’s chastity gave the duke in comfort, but at Claudio’s first request for Isabella to save him by sin, the duke rushed out of the balcony and reappeared later to stop the two from their argument.

The second time, the duke and the provost remained on the apron of the stage, downstage left, and listened to the conversation,  The duke even inserted a few non-verbal auditory reactions. He then chooses a specific instance to insert himself. His motivation for reappearing appeared to change.

3)Just before the play within the play, Hamlet is playing the harlequin which keeps him from culpability while simultaneously insulting the characters (possibly without their realizing they are being insulted). The actors have their hearing visible by their onstage reactions, and the actors are free to respond as they will to the speech. This scene has an elaborate architecture of seeing and hearing.

The first time, the scene began with Hamlet putting on a harlequin disguise for the sake of the court. Before the play, the characters who were not interlocutors played mostly sock and disgust regarding Hamlet’s words, but little reaction to the dumb show, and were not watching each other watch the play, with the exception of Hamlet on a diagonal downstage of them and able to see them.

The second time, Hamlet did not put on a disguise and appeared in earnest, acting more like the typical Romeo character, and when he was speaking with one individual, the others broke off to have their own private conversations which allowed Hamlet to comment on people without the subjects of the comments aware he was speaking of them. This staging also allowed the actors to watch each other watch the play and each others’ reactions to the play. During the break in the play, when the characters comment on the play, Hamlet got up and pulled characters to the side to have conversations with them about the play and direct specific ideas toward them. This allowed him to be much more manipulative and direct in his comments, but lead to some discontinuity when other characters commented on the individual conversations.

The audience was divided on the positioning of the duke. Many felt that his position on the apron of the stage found it difficult to see him and divided their attention.  There was also a lot of debate on whether or not the Duke, or Isabella and Claudio should be the focus of the scene.   Most of the staging today used dumb show conversation to indicate not listening.  They also talked about the difficulty of having to listen for cues while also pretending not to listen.  The actors posed the example of Malviolio reading the letter in 12th Night.  In this scene the actor must be extremely aware of where the other characters are hiding, and how they are reacting to his speech so that he does not look at them, while simultaneously pretending to be oblivious. The actors stated that the presence of the provost was difficult.  They also stated that it is particularly difficult to find ways of NOT doing something (such as not listening).  They said that in Hamlet it can be difficult for the King and Queen to not see the play and then be startled, but by having Hamlet pull people to the side created more for them to respond to.  In Much Ado, the actor playing Claudio (Chris Jonston)  found that the private conversations gave him more to use as an actor when he watched Pedro and Beatrice flirting.  The actor playing Benedick (Ben Curns) found that it was frustrating to play a stupid Benedick.  This comment opened the question of whether or not the women are masked.  Textual evidence suggests that women could be masked or not without working against the text. One of the actors raised the question of what constitutes the harlequin character, how it should be played, and how the scholars present would have liked to see the responses and actions of the characters on stage for the Hamlet scene. They also asked if there is something that the other players should be doing.  Another question was the way to play NOT hearing, in any way other than doing something else, or being distracted.  The scholars were hoping to achieve a “sneak attack” by Hamlet on Claudius. Some audience members felt the private staging of the Hamlet scene was much more powerful than the public version of the staging.  Audience members also requested what a good balance could be between the public and private versions of the scene.  The scholars and actors found it difficult to map who hears what lines. The private version placed an interesting highlight on the lines about the chameleon.  Hamlet (Dylan Paul) found that the public version trapped him in a type, whereas in the private version he felt able to play tactics and work individually on specific people. Everything needs to be based on deciding what story the production wants to tell and what is the best way to tell the story they have.

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: Twelfth Night

In this edition of the Blackfriars Backstage Pass, ASC actors Lexie Helgerson, Jacob Daly, Seth McNeill, David Millstone, and Andrew Goldwasser discuss their work on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen. This podcast was recorded on May 3rd, 2013.

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: Twelfth Night
File Size: 48 MB; Run Time: 50:01

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2013)

In this edition of the Blackfriars Backstage Pass, ASC actors Patrick Earl, Andrew Goldwasser, Rick Blunt and Liz Lodato discuss their work on William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost with ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen. This podcast was recorded on May 3rd, 2013.

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: Love’s Labour’s Lost
File Size: 48.1 MB; Run Time: 50:04

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: The Duchess of Malfi (2013)

In this edition of the Blackfriars Backstage Pass, ASC actors Stephanie Holladay Earl, Patrick Midgley, Bridget Rue, Patrick Earl, and Rick Blunt discuss their work on John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi with ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen. This podcast was recorded on May 3rd, 2013.

Blackfriars Backstage Pass: The Duchess of Malfi
File Size: 57.3 MB; Run Time: 47:46