Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Tim Carroll Keynote Address – Confessions of an Iambic Fundamentalist

Hi, everyone! Molly Beth Seremet, eager to live-blog this morning’s keynote address. We are pleased to welcome Tim Carroll (The Shaw Festival) for his keynote address titled Confessions of an Iambic Fundamentalist. This keynote address takes place in the Blackfriars Conference from 10:30am – 11:30 and is sponsored by John Attig.

American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission Ralph Cohen begins with an introduction of our keynote speaker, Tim Carroll. He reminds us of Carroll’s Tony-award winning production of Twelfth Night and lists an impressive list of directing credits that span the world. Cohen jokes that a close look at Carroll’s resume might make us wonder if in fact this man can keep a job. Cohen of course then reminds us that Carroll is the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Cohen now introduces the provocative title of “TC’s” keynote and lets the assembled crowd know that here at the American Shakespeare Center, we are allies in the cause of Original Practices, leading to a rousing cheer of “Amen!” from the crowd. Now Cohen launches into an impassioned defense of our shared love for iambic pentameter and lets him know that, “we welcome you’re confession, Brother Carroll… in your witness against the demon trochee. Cohen asks for a “righteous Blackfriars welcome for TC” and begs him to “please come speak to [his] flock!”

Carroll begins with a wry comment: “Well, that’s the sort of welcome every performer dreads!” He then tells us that this is first time in the Blackfriars Playhouse and mentions that he thinks it is even more lovely than the Wannamaker. On that note, he now introduces his speak, sharing that his nickname of “iambic fundamentalist” was given to him by the RSC. Carroll gives us a sense of his background, mentioning that he came across Barton’s series Playing Shakespeare at the age of 18 on his way to Oxford and connected with that sense of linguistic ‘horse whispering’ that the series deals in. Carroll explains that this exposure shaped his university career, though he is a classicist by trade, leading him to direct five productions in his time at Oxford. Now, Carroll confesses that while he still agrees with Barton’s ideas, he disagrees with Barton’s approach. Carroll now moves to a discussion of Barton’s methodology of marking scansion, using stressed and unstressed markings to find the offbeats in the text. Now, Carroll says he distrusts this method because it relies on trusting actors, much to the amusement of the assembled crowd.

Carroll tells us that on his first professional productions of Shakespeare was Julius Caesar. He shows us some text from the tent scene of the play and mentions that it is one his personal favorite scenes across the canon. He calls out a moment in rehearsal in which the actor playing Brutus stressed all of his personal pronouns (Must I budge? Must I observe you?) instead of scanning the line to find and use the operative words. He describes the process of working through this with an actor who suggested that scansion “is a choice.” The audience chuckles knowingly.

Now, Carroll turns to a look at text from 2 Henry VI, exposing the same issue. Carroll explains that in real life in public speaking scenarios, we generally do not stress personal pronouns and then when we get onstage, we forget. Carroll implores the assembled crowd to not seek him out after the keynote to claim that “i’m sure I do it instinctually.” Carroll then says, “No, you don’t, which is why I’m talking about it.” Then, he uses a delightfully naughty word which I shan’t print here… but it was a jolly good one!

Carroll likens the debate over the uses and need for solid scansion strikes a sour note for him, and likens it to choral or operatic singing. In those forms, debates over singing an F when the score calls for an A would be silly. He suggests that this should be considered similarly in Shakespearean terms, because “the verse knows best.”

Now, Carroll begins a close reading of the text from the Julius Caesar tent scene. In his reading, he shows how proper scansion makes the important and story-telling words in the passage “pop.” Carroll marks this scene as a pivotal one in the development of his ideas. In working on this play early in his career, he begin to think that the model of working to understand a play before scanning it is a backwards endeavor. Carroll shares a story of a professor who used to teach a play for a few weeks before teaching  a unit on the play’s verse structure. When flipping the pedagogical approach, however, the professor found that teaching the play’s verse for two weeks first dispensed with the need to then teach the play; the students already understood the play as a result of cracking the play’s verse code.

Now, Carroll shifts to a discussion of why scansion matters in theatrical practice. He states that his desire to rely on a play’s scansion comes out of a desire to remove forced vehemence, one of actors’ favorite performance strategies. Carroll demonstrates the way that stressing personal pronouns incorrectly adds an inappropriate and untoward level of force to the language. This artificiality works against the performance, showing us prisoners of our own habits. Instead, Carroll asks us to trust the verse instead of our preconceived notions about what language does.

Carroll now has us look at a passage from As You like it, in which Rosalind actors clutch for anything that sounds extreme, “that sounds like it’s a BIG DEAL!” Carroll points out that directors share the blame for this phenomenon in a constant push to “raise the stakes.” In contrast, Carroll describes his own directing process in which he often asks actors to lower the stakes, “to solve the problem quickly and get out in time for an early tea.” He asks us to consider the way that this approach softens a mad clutching for anything that sounds vehement or forceful in the language.

Carroll now looks at the ways words like “too” “so,” and “all.” He explains that actors will naturally gravitate towards these words because they feel “big.” Carroll demonstrates, however, the infrequency with which these words actually appear in stressed positions in the line, and urges us to consider the resonance gained by using these words as springboards for the important (properly stressed) words in the line. He points out that stressing words like “so” in phrases like “it’s SO nice to see you” actually suggests insincerity and phoniness in place of real connection.

Carroll reiterates that “the verse knows best” and says that now, this is his working mantra. He uses the Rosalind’s line “who might be your mother?” as an example. He demonstrates a sassy reading of the line, letting “who might be YOUR mother” ring through the Blackfriars Playhouse. Carroll admits that this sort of snappy reading sometimes connects with schoolchildren in matinee audiences, but qualifies that this forced connection isn’t bringing audiences into the beauty and functionality of the language. He employs a further example from Hamlet to leverage his argument as well, demonstrating the ways that a simpler, less forced reading of the “my father” passage of the closet scene allows Hamlet to parrot Gertrude’s rhythms and throw them back at her in a useful and effective way.

Carroll now moves to a look at line endings and mid0line breaks. He leverages examples from The Winter’s Tale to show the way that stressing the last word of the line allows us to hear a character get an idea. Carroll introduces us to another of his mantras to actors which is to “wait until the last possible second to get that idea. How long can it take for the idea to drop in?” He allows us to hear the natural urgency that this tactic brings out in the play’s language. He also discusses mid-line breaks as well, urging actors to consider each mid-line break as an opportunity for another actor to try to “grab the speaking stick.”

Carroll exhorts, “let us try to speak iambically until it kills us.” He mentions that he is very nearly at the point of asking actors to say words like “faMISHD’ly,” because he explains that he has never really felt that this iambic approach goes too far for an audience’s ears. Carroll shares an anecdote in which an audience member saw Carroll’s production of Richard III which employed these approachs to language, and the patron sought out a box office staffer to ask what other productions in the season were being done in “modernized language.” Thus, rigorous use of Shakespeare’s verse structure pleases our modern aural sensibilities.

Now, we turn to trochees. Though trochees exist, Carroll asks his actors to consider returning to the iambic structure as early as possible after the displacement of the trochee.  He suggests activating the second syllable of the word to work back into the iambic structure. Carroll says that one question he is asked frequently is if he expects 100% adherence to the verse in his productions and he explains that he does, because he knows he will never get it. If he insists on 100%, he gets 70%. For him, this approach opens up productive conversations in the rehearsal room with skilled practitioners who already have thoughts on the matter. As Carroll concludes, he says that a foundational question in his directing practice is “what are we doing about the verse?”

Now, we move to some questions from the assembled audience. A scholar asks Carroll to clarify his position on vehemence, asking if that means vehemence is forbidden in his productions. Carroll clarifies that he means that he asks his actor to “not try to be vehement. Vehemence isn’t a choice.” He further explains his position on trochees, stating that he urges actors to not decide something is a trochee. As Carroll states, “Soldier, there are no trochees for you. If a trochee happens to you, however, we’ll deal with it then.”

The keynote concludes with warm applause and cheers throughout the playhouse. Thanks for following along on our blog! I will return to the blog for this afternoon’s plenary session. It has been a pleasure to share this keynote with you!

-Molly (@moxymolly)

 

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.”

Keynote: Ayanna Thompson

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining the ASC blog for today’s Keynote speaker today, Liz is here to blog this session from ten thirty in the morning until eleven thirty in the morning. Our Keynote speaker today is Ayanna Thompson of George Washington University. Today, she will be speaking on Reading Backwards from Morrison to Shakespeare: Desdemona/Othello. John Attig sponsors this session.

First, Sarah Enloe, ASC Director of Education, comes out and introduces our very first conference sponsor, John Attig. We thank him for all of the really cool new events. Enloe also encourages everyone to get to the Lunch and Learn at Masonic as soon as possible after the Keynote ends at eleven thirty today. She also encourages scholars to fill out some prompts from Antony and Cleopatra to help with the staging session tomorrow. Finally, she advises presenters to email their presentations to kim@americanshakespearecenter.com.

Next, Dr. Ralph Cohen introduces Thompson, a Professor of English at George Washington University and Trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. He enumerates her published works, both as an author and editor, most of which focus on race and Shakespeare. These include Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America, and Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance. Her current focus is on two in-progress books, one of which centers on Peter Seller’s form of directing. Dr. Cohen emphasizes that Thompson brings her research and scholarship puts her findings into practice in the real world. He ends his introduction and points out the largely white audience at the conference today and stresses the need for Thompson’s work today.

Thompson thanks Dr. Cohen for “possibly the best introduction she has ever had” (a rough paraphrase) and jumps right into her speech. Thompson points to Desdemona as an empowered and empowering female character, yet also disempowered and complicit to the Moor, Othello. Most performances choose to place Desdemona on one these two poles. Thompson mentions the misogynistic tendencies in both Iago and Othello throughout the play and shares an example of Iago’s flawed logic. She then states that scholars have grappled with how to portray these tendencies to modern audiences along with how to portray Desdemona.

This talk focuses on a specific form of adaptation of Othello, that of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona. Thompson clarifies that she believes that appropriation has a more direct and pointed purpose than adaptation. She then explains that she believes that re-vision takes appropriation a step further by breaking new ground. Thompson follows this up with an introduction to several late twentieth century adaptations and re-visions of Othello, including Goodnight, Juliet, Good Morning, Desdemona and Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief.

Morrison and Sellars collaborated to give Desdemona a full voice in the actress Rokia Traoré, who plays Barbary. Desdemona, in this production, is enigmatic, but also beautiful. Here, Desdemona’s voice dominates the play. The original intent for this production was for Morrison and Sellars to create a companion piece to Othello to show at secondary schools.

Thompson shares a story where she talked with Sellars’ The assistant told Thompson that the production team asked her to come in based on her research and work on casting. Thompson jokingly states that when she saw what was happening, she said, “Oh shit!”

Thompson explains that Morrison wanted to create a Desdemona that was different from any Shakespearean production with a great emphasis on music because “if Othello is about vision, Desdemona is about sound.” The goal was to unbind the story from time. The play takes place after death, in a “timeless” world. Desdemona knows more after death than she did during her life. Morrison’s response in this re-vision helps the audience reconcile with the tragedy of Othello that Iago brings to the life of Desdemona and the other characters.

Thompson explains that she offers a less optimistic view on the Othello/Desdemona binary. She believes that the lack of dialogue with other feminist writings has stunted development of new re-visions of Othello. She states that she sees the play as more of an event than a play, which impacts the play’s reproducibility. In addition, Thompson questions the ultimate utility of revisiting Othello.

As a performance product, Desdemona is a great experience. She describes the mostly-bare set, with the actress Traoré playing her guitar with teenage backup singers. Thompson describes these backup singers as upbeat and “in their own… play.” The stage is black with white costumes for the performers made of Malian linen. Projections on the background translate the text into the language of the location of the play, such as French. The actress playing Desdemona plays all of the other characters, with the exceptions of Cassio, who appears as a projected voice and Barbary – whose name is revealed to be Sa’aran [sic] – played by another actress. Thompson then plays a short clip of the performance with a song by Traoré for the audience.

In Desdemona, Desdemona and Othello’s mothers speak to each other. While the two women come to no clear resolution, but do come to an understanding about the different worlds from which they come. However, they cannot connect through religion. Desdemona’s mother wants to kneel and pray for her daughter, while Othello’s mother desires to make sacrifices for her son’s death. This found understanding comes through dialogue and appears again and again.

Thompson further talks about the character of Desdemona in the production Desdemona. Desdemona is the focus of the performance. Her parents named her “misery,” but she will not be passive to the misogynistic society which she was born into. Her character is “inquisitive, forceful, and direct.” Her insights alone are more hollow and shallow than in her conversations with other characters. These engagements with other characters allow her to explore herself and others. Here, Desdemona and Emilia gain a greater understanding with each other and Desdemona moves from judgment to understanding with Emilia. Time also allows Desdemona and Othello to gain a greater understanding of each other. Othello, in Desdemona’s afterlife timeline, tells his wife of his days in the army on the field. Othello describes to Desdemona how he and Iago raped a woman with a young boy viewer. He reveals their shame from this act, but also states that the memory will live in another: that of the young viewer. While Desdemona does not forgive him, but states that she will remain committed to him.

Here, in Desdemona, “we are not simply left with tragedy.” Thompson stresses that we get the apologies we have waited years for in this production. This re-vision allows for a resolution and the concrete possibility for another world. Desdemona’s interactions with other women creates a “queer space,” particularly with Barbary. Desdemona attempts to connect with Barbary; however, Barbary does not reveal an interest in further engagement with Desdemona. Desdemona includes her own suffering with Barbary’s suffering, which invites several interpretations of the connection of the suffering between these two women, including cultural appropriation.

Thompson states that the performance mode of Desdemona does not bridge the gap between sound and vision. Here, the potentials for the play contract, rather than expand, due to this limited scope. In addition, Thompson describes Traoré as the cornerstone of this production, and points out that currently the play does not have a run outside of her. In contrast, the production changed the actress for Desdemona at one point. This text, like many other re-visions, remains insulated and does not connect with other re-visions of Othello.

Thompson further stresses that Desdemona attempts to give a voice to the absent black woman in Othello through Traoré’s portrayal of Barbary.

Thompson, in quoting a woman who did not want her husband to play Othello in a performance, states that “This play is a struggle.” She then reflects that perhaps that should be the tagline for Othello, garnering a huge laugh from the audience.

Most revisionists have turned a blind eye to the breadth of Othello re-visions, particularly female-written re-visions, who seem to resist reading other re-visions of the play. Thompson notes that there is less of an intertextual dialogue between multiple present texts and a greater focus on the past original text, the Shakespearean text, and the present text in creation by the re-visionist.

Thompson notes that Traoré often talks about her travels between Mali and France and the greater death in childbirth among her friends in Mali. She has several concerns about death, a topic which she sings about a great deal in Desdemona. Thompson wonders if the play is the proper venue for these concerns that Traoré portrays within the contexts of Shakespeare’s story. She concludes by suggesting the possibility that Othello must stay on the shelf for this purpose, in order to fully explore this voice.

Blackfriars Conference 2015: Welcome address and Keynote: Paul Prescott

This is Merlyn Q. Sell live blogging from the Blackfriars Playhouse.  Today’s Keynote Address is The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Sam Wanamaker presented by Paul Prescott from 11am to 12pm.  First, however, Dr. Ralph Cohen delivers a heartfelt welcome.

Cohen begins by remembering the late Tom Berger.  He recalls a time when Berger stuck his head into a firehouse and shouted “Theatre!”. The audience greatly appreciates the joke.   Cohen mentions that the best and worst part of the Blackfriars Conference is that there is too much to do.  He blames Sarah Enloe.  He introduces ASC resident actor, Allison Glenzer, who reads an email from Jim Warren.  Warren is currently on the ASC’s audition tour, seeking actors for upcoming seasons.  Warren points out the conference’s special focus on the intersection between academics and performance.  Mary McDermott, chair of the ASC board, also welcomes conference attendees.  The Blackfriars is a particularly fitting venue for such a conference in this legacy year.  McDermott makes a point of welcoming home students and alumni of Mary Baldwin’s graduate program.  The ASC staff introduces themselves from the balcony to the much-deserved appreciation of the audience.  Mary Baldwin College president, Pamela Fox, takes a moment to celebrate the fifteen year partnership between Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance graduate program and the ASC.

Cohen throws down his gauntlet in welcoming attendees to the only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse and reminding us that the Sam Wanamaker is not a recreation.  Cohen introduces Steve Owen, Staunton city manager.  Owen lives up to his self-proclaimed role as a “ham sandwich”. After recounting some of Staunton’s claims to fame, Owen praises the ASC for the magic it has brought to the community.

Sarah Enloe takes the stage to accept a bouquet of roses and the gratitude of the audience. For the remainder of the conference attendees can look forward to hearing her before every keynote for changes to the conference schedule. With the help of Mary McDermott, Enloe retires the 2013 conference bear and introduces the 2015 bear and her signature pearls. After a few housekeeping items from Enloe, Cohen introduces Dr. Paul Menzer.

After a quippy rumination on time, Menzer welcomes attendees on behalf of the current MBC Shakespeare and Performance students. Menzeer warmly introduces today’s keynote speaker Paul Prescott.

Prescott provides an overview of the keynote’s main concerns at the outset. The address encompasses creation myths, ancestor worship, the stories we tell, the keeping of annals, the conditions under which theatres get built, and global mobility. Prescott believes that Charles Marowitz’ biography of Sam Wanamaker in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the best biography we currently have for Wanamaker. Prescott’s investigation of Wanamaker’s archives finds that that biography has one glaring error. Its assertion of Wanamaker’s lifelong devotion to Shakespeare is inaccurate. Prescott is interested in the background that led to Wanamaker’s eventual devotion to Shakespeare and the foundation of the Globe Trust.

Prescott provides a snapshot of Wanamaker’s background, including his childhood and teenage years. In 1943 Wanamaker visited the Chicago World’s Fair with his father and experienced a version of the Globe in the “Merry Olde England” section of the fair. In the Wanamaker archives a program from this event includes a post-it note on which an older Wanamaker had written “The beginning”. Later on Wanamaker acted on a Globe stage in Cleveland. Wanamaker was performing “tabloid” versions of Shakespeare, fifty minute populist reductions of the original texts in rep.

Wanamaker began spending time in London in response to his uncertain position in America as a communist. In preparing an affidavit for McCarthy, Wanamaker blamed his preparation to play the role of a young Russian soldier for his joining the communist party. Under these circumstances, Wanamaker moved to London. Because of his position in the United States, Mi-5 eventually placed Wanamaker under surveillance and even recommended his imprisonment in the event of emergency. In surveillance records Wanamaker’s interest in Stanislavsky’s methods was noted. Eventually the United Kingdom grants Wanamaker permanent residence.

In 1957, Wanamaker took over Shakespeare Theatre Liverpool. When the public was solicited to suggest new names for the theatre the winning title was The New Shakespeare Theatre. Wanamaker’s programming for the New Shakespeare Theatre focused on the antithetical combination of banned plays and popular family fare. Wanamaker had hopes that the theatre could become a “cultural community center”. Unfortunately after twenty months the New Shakespeare Theatre ran out of money and the venture ended. Wanamaker found a home at the New Shakespeare Theatre and even slept at the theatre. Wanamaker said of his work in Liverpool that it was particularly meaningful because it merged his selfish desires with a higher purpose.

Wanamaker’s Method style notes for his performance of Iago in 1959 are in his archives. He created detailed backstory for Iago including syphilis, possible bastardy, the loss of children, and marital infidelity.  His Macbeth was seen through the lens of the Cold War and was based primarily on a pervasive feeling of fear.

In the 1960s Wanamaker turned towards opera with mixed results. He also worked with Bertolt Brecht at this time. Looking at retirement and wishing to finally anchor himself in London, Wanamaker turned to the idea of the Globe. In a 1972 interview Wanamaker pointed out his desire to become a permanent fixture of a community. From 1972 to 1975, three seasons of performances were done under tents on the Globe site. During this time Wanamaker was curating a rough and tumble, populist approach to performance. Wanamaker’s expectations for the Globe did not include early modern performance traditions in any major way. He hoped for work that blended Brecht and Stanislavsky.

Inspired by someone’s rock opera idea for Macbeth, Wanamaker brainstormed couplings of Shakespeare plays and popular rockers. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to his combination of David Bowie with Hamlet. Wanamaker’s association of Sting with King Lear does not go over as well.

Prescott concludes, reminding the audience that the line from Sam Wanamaker to London’s Globe theatre is not a simple straight line but a collage of influences.

Blackfriars Conference 2013 — Keynote Russ McDonald

Hello, I’m Charlene V. Smith and I’ll be live blogging Russ McDonald’s keynote: Shakespeare and the History of the Bookish.

McDonald opens by admitting a kind of fatigue evident in his title, using the work “bookish,” and confesses that today he is taking on the role of “Mr. Fussy” and complaining about both bibliography and performance, at the risk of offending everyone in this room.

1. Doubting the Text

Recent books and articles have over-filled the hole found in Shakespeare studies twenty years ago: the book trade and the culture of early modern print. In this section of his paper, McDonald questions the supremacy this topic currently has in Shakespeare studies. McDonald wishes to cast a skeptical eye on some of this scholarship and some of its “dubious orthodoxy.” Though scholars have paid much attention to the book, they have paid little attention to the text. McDonald confesses to being irritated for two decades by the well-known and frequently cited essay, The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text by de Grazia and Stallybrass. The arguments in this essay have achieved and maintain importance in our field, shattering textual certainties. In their essay, de Grazia and Stallybrass argue that “word,” “work,” “character,” and “author” are vexed terms. McDonald points out that these words are changeable and complex, but not incomprehensible. He warns that we must not allow the history of the book to erase the text itself.

2. Cutting the Text

McDonald next objects to the despotism of modern directors; in particular, the way they cut the text. Recent productions of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream  have lacked wonder and a sense of transfiguration, partially caused by the excising of some of McDonald’s favorite speeches. Next McDonald points to the lack of Queen Margaret in Mark Rylance’s current production of Richard III, running in New York. In 2012, the BBC announced the production of The Hollow Crown. While initially excited by the idea and the line up of actors and directors, McDonald views the resulting TV movies as acts of vandalism. McDonald feels the cutting was too ideological, such as the lack of references in Richard II to the king’s guilt in in the Duke of Gloucester’s murder. McDonald feels the most damaged play in this series was Henry IV, part 2. This long and leisurely work of 3300 lines was reduced to 1 hour and 52 minutes. A colleague of McDonald’s pointed out, “It’s a pity the BBC didn’t make this series for the people who would watch it, instead making it for those who won’t watch it anyway.”

3. Reading the Text

McDonald asserts the importance of reading the text in order to experience scenes which you wouldn’t see on the stage. Directors frequently cut scenes that do not advance the plot. If they seem to have no function, McDonald points out, they must have a function. Shakespeare had a reason for including these scenes, which often add to the texture of the play. McDonald then discusses 4.3 of Coriolanus, a frequently cut scene between a Roman and a Volsce, two characters we haven’t seen before and won’t see again. McDonald argues that the scene is thematically rich, especially in fire and heat imagery. McDonald also looks at 3.1 of The Winter’s Tale, a scene, again, with two characters we haven’t seen before: Cleomenes and Dion. According to McDonald, this scene sets up the possibility of magic and establishes the oracle of Apollo as something special. The two characters feel diminished, “I was nothing,” in the wake of their experience, an idea that stands in direct contrast to Leontes’ hubris. These lost scenes give depth, layers, and texture to a play.

Coda

McDonald ends by arguing for disciplinary balance: an awareness of what others in the field are doing. He promotes the value of pluralism: page and stage, book and text. McDonald praises George Walton Williams, the honoree of this conference, for always maintaining this balance in his teaching.

Blackfriars Conference 2013–Keynote: Peter Holland’s A Critic and a Gentleman: Publishing Performance

Hi again! Sarah Martin here to liveblog the first Keynote Address of the Seventh Blackfriars Conference: Peter Holland’s A Critic and a Gentleman: Publishing Performance.

Peter Holland, Associate Dean for the Arts and McMeel Family Professor in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Notre Dame is, as Dr. Cohen said in his introduction, “a great get” in terms of a Keynote speaker. Professor Holland began his presentation with the images of the title pages of two different editions of Hamlet: one the early modern title page with a record of the first performance and the second, an edition inspired by the Michael Grandage production of Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse which starred actor Jude Law. Professor Holland explained that the reader of the 1676 edition thought he was getting “all of Hamlet“–the play as written and the play as performed, but the edition neglects to state that it is also heavily revised while the Grandage edition has been significantly shortened.

Professor Holland pointed out that, for the type of souvenir playtext exemplified by Grandage’s edition to be published in time for audience members to buy it, the text must be fixed in print well before the production actually begins performances. While an audience may believe that they are buying a true “performance text”, there is inevitable variation between the text in codex and the words spoken onstage.

Professor Holland discussed the role of what he called, “the theatrical edition” and asked what the intended use of such an edition is.  He explained that theatres always produce several editions–rehearsals scripts and so on that are not necessarily intended for publication, but are the material products of the theatre itself.

Professor Holland the discussed the role of the actor as critic and the censor as author. The “gentleman” in Professor Holland’s address is Francis Gentleman, who chose which moments of Shakespeare’s plays he thought ought to be included in editions and which should be omitted. Gentleman, Professor Holland argues, provides the “first performance commentary” on Shakespeare’s plays.  Professor Holland argues that such performance commentary is a “companion to the theatre” and no more. The Bell’s Editions (influenced by Gentleman and actor David Garrick) sold better than other scholarly editions in the eighteenth century. This, Professor Holland, argues has set the precedent for subsequent editions which include illustrations of performance and other theatrical or actor-centric images.  These images, however, are not necessarily representative of the plays in performance, but are of actors placed in suggested settings (such as an actress portrayed standing in the countryside) that are the product of editors rather than the actual performance history of the plays.

Professor Holland  argues that extensive performance commentary can actually be a hindrance to performance as it, “implies a right way of performing the play, not a range of possibilities”. Professor Holland argues that, while such extensive performance commentary shows impressive scholarship, it does not provide meaning. Professor Holland’s discussion of the Samuel French Acting Editions was particularly interesting and amusing to the audience as he compared the staging diagrams present in the editions to “IKEA self-assembly”. Such editions, Professor Holland argued, make the play no longer Shakespeare’s, but rather the product of the publishing house. Professor Holland’s Keynote Address, which explored the relationship between performance and the printed text, presented in a theatre that seeks to do just that, was the perfect start to the Blackfriars Conference.

How did I get here?

Do you ever take a look around you, and ask yourself: “Now, how did I get here?” I found myself doing that a lot during the last week of October. The question wasn’t the kind of thing that wakes you in the middle of the night in a cold sweat (though in the weeks leading up to October 25, there were plenty of those). Rather, it was a query of wonder. As I stood in the Blackfriars Playhouse October 25-30, I felt as though I had super-glued rose-colored glasses to the bridge of my nose and couldn’t shake that amazing feeling that comes when one is surrounded (at home, no less) by dear friends (new and old), excellent conversation, amazing scholarship, and the joy of the work of two years coming to fruition in a beautiful way.

Ah, the Blackfriars Conference 2011.

My parents have a difficult time understanding me when I say “I won’t be really available for a few weeks, the conference is coming up.” What, exactly, could be keeping me so busy? To be fair, when we were separated by only 90 miles, as opposed to the 1300+ that divide us now, my life was pretty hectic. In my occupation as a high school Theatre teacher, teaching five classes daily, producing six shows a year, with set-building, costume construction, tech rehearsals, I was never as consumed as I am when Conference time rolls around in the odd-numbered year. It’s different, a different kind of busy – an all-consuming, all-anticipating, all-energizing, and yes, all-exhausting kind of feeling that builds for 24 months and culminates in a week of shared excitement, with faces both new and familiar. And the joy of overhearing as the answer to “How did you get here?” not “Bus, train, car,” but “I heard about it from…” or the even more gratifying “I come every time, wouldn’t miss it.”

My first conference was at its third incarnation in 2005, when I was in my first year in the Masters Program at MBC. Two months into the program, and I found myself in the same room with the authors of my textbooks and all of the articles I was looking up in Shakespeare Quarterly.

Why, hi there, Russ MacDonald (*RUSS MACDONALD?!?!?*). Oh, you’re from Texas, too? How nice to meet you!

Well, hello Tiffany Stern (*TIFFANY STERN!!!!*) I love that skirt.

And over there is Stephen Booth, George Walton Williams, Roz Knutson, Leslie Thomson, Alan Dessen. And some friends no longer with us, Bernice Kliman, Arnie Preussner, and Barbara Palmer, whose absence we have felt with sorrow since our last parting.

I knew, in that moment at my first Early Arrivers’ party, that this place was special. What other grad program gives its students the opportunity to network on their home turf? In this case, the turf of the Blackfriars playhouse, always a space of generosity and intimacy and, for one week in October on odd-numbered years, a space of enviable scholarship and flourishing ideas. How was I lucky enough to get here?

My previous conference experiences were all in my undergrad discipline, Theatre Arts. Those conferences featured more workshops than papers, more seminars than presentations, more off-the-cuff speaking than formal delivery. It was a shock to my system to see people reading from a lectern on the stage. But then, the ASC actors arrived. Their contributions linked the two worlds as no other glue or bridge could. They are proof that seeing is the quickest path to believing, whether one needs to be shown a character or helped to understand a presenter’s thesis. In the years since my first conference, it has been my privilege to work with those talented actors to improve interactions between presenters and their actors, to improve communication, to improve the general affect of the conference. We’ve come a long way, and though I know we still have some way to go toward a perfect system, the coming-together of actors and scholars in the way the Blackfriars Conference encourages makes me exclaim: how did I get here and how long can I stay?

In 2007, 2009, and again in 2011, the Conference gave me the opportunity to work along side my mentor, and, I am glad to say, my friend, Ralph Alan Cohen. When I took over from Sarah Pharis (aka Sarah #1) in 2007, I had big shoes to fill. Sarah’s organizational structure — her daily work flow chart is still the basis for everything that happens behind the scenes — made it possible for me to step in and to help Ralph to achieve his goals: good papers, good friends, good food, good times. It’s not as easy as it sounds. This year, I began to think of it as akin to planning a 6 day party for 250 of my dearest friends. Each hour of each of the 16 hour days just needs to be scheduled with events, food, drink, and plays. I’d just need to contact each of the 100+ presenters, the 50 grad students, the 15 actors, the 5 caterers, and the 5 venues to give them individual instructions for each minute of that time, get the invites and the publicity out, and then make sure everyone feels pampered and loved while they are here. Not so hard. It’s not, really.

Not this year, anyway. For the first time since my 2005 conference (when I was merely a volunteer), I had a full team in place and on board so early with planning and strategizing, that I actually got to watch my friends, both presenters and actors, in every session, and I watched the rest of my friends in the audience enjoying every minute.

How did I get here? Well, for that, I have loads of people to thank. Ralph, for trusting, the ASC actors and artistic staff for being so generous and sharing their talents in the highlight event of each day, Cass, Ben, Christina, Asae, Kim, Anne, bear wrangler Brian, Clara, Paul (Menzer and Rycik), the entire admin staff at ASC, the wonderful box office staff, the artistic staff and actors for making each session and evening performance memorable, the MBC students who exceeded their colleagues at past conferences in both volunteering and contribution of scholarship. They made it look (and feel) easy, and I am tremendously grateful.

Some highlights for me at the 2011 conference included:
• The delicious food at the early arrivers’ party.
• Stephen Booth’s paper on Shakespeare and Audiences.
Go Dog Go, as devised and performed by Chris Johnston, John Harrell, Jeremy West, Dan Kennedy, Greg Phelps, Miriam Donald, and James Keegan.
• Hearing about the new Indoor Theatre in London from Neil Constable (Heck, meeting Neil Constable).
• Bill Gelber’s ‘ A “Ha” in Shakespeare….”
• Ben Curns sleeping onstage (as directed) in Casey Caldwell’s paper (and then using lightening quick reflexes not to knock over the 100 champagne glasses set behind the curtain as he exited).
• Chris Barrett.
• Joe Ricke and Jemma Levy in a morning session to rival all others.
• George T. Wright and James Keegan’s mutual admiration discussion.
• Finding out “Why are there no blowjob jokes in Shakespeare” from Matt Kozusko.
• Beth Burns and the Hidden Room.
• Stuart Hall’s participation, thanks to Brett Sullivan Santry.
• Natasha Solomon and Dan Burrows acting in Bob Hornback’s Renaissance Clowns paper.
• Seeing our Conference Attendees see John Harrell’s Hamlet.
• Our late night shows (wow).
• William Proctor William’s experiment.
• Seeing ASC actors at every paper session (even the EARLY ones).
• Watching worlds come together in Scott Kaiser’s keynote.
• The bear(s).
• Talking teaching.
• Tiff.
• Colloquies.
• Insights on our space in session X.
• The Banquet.
• Doreen Bechtol in everything she did, but especially Lady M as played by Sarah Siddons (pregnant).
• Hamlet Conversation.

And so, a little over a month past the last day of the conference, I have a little time to reflect. A little time to look around at the people I work with, the place I work for, and thank heavens that, however it came to be, I landed here.

What will you remember?

Tiffany Stern Keynote

Hi, I’m Julia, I’ll be liveblogging Tiffany Stern’s Keynote from 10:30-11:15 today.

Tiffany Stern – University College

Dr Stern gave a talk in three parts about fairs in England and their relationship to theater of the period. First, she discussed some of the differences and similarities between Early Modern theater and fairs. Fairs were highly sanctioned, approved by both the local government and the private aristocracy, and they had their own internal legal system including courts, and juries made up of booth-holders. Theaters of the time could only wish to be as legitimized as the fairs. On the other hand, both theaters and fairs were places of entertainment and commerce, and they tended to attract a certain low-life stratus in the form of pickpockets, and prostitutes. The second part of her talk covered several references to fairground activities within Early Modern plays, including trained monkeys who played dead and came back to life if certain names were evoked, (as Romeo is conjured by the name Rosaline), a performer called an “interpreter” who narrated puppet shows (Hamlet could interpret if he could see the puppets dallying), as well as several references to shadow puppets (“life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player..”). The third part of her talk went further into Early Modern puppetry, as puppetry was the one form of theater allowed to remain open during the Interregnum in England. Stern also showed how certain of Shakespeare’s characters developed a new life as puppets in future hodgepodge works.

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Scott Kaiser Keynote

Hello, all! Cass here again to live-blog the Scott Kaiser Keynote Address from 10:30 to 11:15am on Friday, October 28.

Ralph introduces Kaiser by discussing his delight in discovering Kaiser’s book, Shakespeare’s Wordcraft. He says, though, that by removing the classical Greek and Roman terms for rhetorical devices in an attempt to make the topic more accessible, “you have underestimated the appeal to word-nerds”. He half-jokingly suggests, along with his grad students, that he consider reinstating those terms in the second addition. Ralph thanks Kaiser for joining us on behalf of “all the other word-nerds here”.

Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft
Scott Kaiser, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Kaiser prefaces his speech by introducing his assistant actors, Dan Kennedy and Doreen Bechtol. He’ll be talking today about “how to act Shakespeare’s figures of rhetoric” by demonstrating how he works with them in rehearsal. Kaiser defends his choice by stating that the classical terms are almost always an impediment for actors — that his book “is primarily not a scholarly book, but a book for actors and actors-in-training.”

Of vital concern to the actor working with rhetoric is “to illuminate the figure to the audience through voice and body.” He begins with the “speech measure”, using a quote from Stanislavski to explain his meaning: to break down a speech by thought patterns in order to get to the meaning and to make the speech more graceful in form and content. A speech measure, then, is a moment for a choice, “a unit of sense that contains one inhalation, one operative word, one focal point, one image, one action, one moment of human behavior.” He then invites Dan and Doreen up to work through some examples.

Dan: “Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius.” Kaiser calls this one parcel of text, bookended with ‘Cassius’. Doreen: “I see you what you are; you are too proud.” Kaiser calls this two speech measures, pointing out Doreen’s inhalation between the two phrases. Dan: “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems.” Kaiser delineates this as three speech measures, connected by the “seems” on either end, with “is” as a fulcrum in the middle. Doreen: “Come weep with me, past hope, past cure, past help.” This Kaiser identifies as four speech measures, but notes that this is not necessarily the only choice — but that it may “illuminate ‘past’ in a different way.” Dan: “Oh Helen! Goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!” Kaiser points out that this line mostly comes out as one exhalation, and asks Dan to try it again as five speech measures. Kaiser points out that this then differentiates each speech measure, automatically conferring greater emotional variety to the line.

Kaiser then moves on to finding the “operative word” — the one word in the measure that is key. It can be created through pitch, volume, or duration. Dan: “What lusty trumpet thus doth summon us?” Kaiser asks Dan to pick one word to make the operative; he chooses “trumpet”, using volume and pitch to key it. Kaiser has him try again, this time with “summon” — he helps Dan out by giving him the incipient action, having him imagine the actual trumpet before delivering the line. Kasier points out that he “stacked the deck” against Dan by giving him a line full of schwas — and that holding that vowel “would make it Transylvanian”.

Dan: “One woman is fair; yet I am well; another is wise; yet I am well; another virtuous; yet I am well.” Kaiser identifies this as three measures, and says he heard three operative words from Dan’s first reading: one, wise, and virtuous. He redirects Dan to make the new word in each phrase the operative: fair, wise, and virtuous. You then hear the operative word “build in a staircase”. Kaiser points out where Dan held his breath during the line, rather than inhaling as he could have to break it into 6 measures.

Doreen: “I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, who he stands still withal.” Four measures, and Kaiser points out the different operative verbs. Doreen used what Kaiser calls “a Ted Wright ladder”, with a build of three and then a drop in pitch for the fourth. He has her do it again, this time bringing the “tell” down so that it doesn’t overwhelm the “amble”.

Kaiser then examines “focal points” — a visual target, “at which you can inhale, towards which you can ascend your energies”. Doreen: “Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayest win. Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayest lose. Father, I may not wish the fortunes thine. Granddam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive.” Kaiser asks Doreen to try it again without breaking into new measures at the commas. The result is “greater drive; it could not bear all those breaks.”

Dan: “Put out the light, and then put out the light.” The focal point changes between the candle and the sleeping Desdemona. Kaiser states, “It’s the movement of the focal point that makes the figure work.”

Doreen: “Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural, provokes this deluge, most unnatural.” Kaiser says she’s working with two focal points, which he calls “panning and scanning” mid-measure. He suggests that each measure should have a single focal point for greatest clarity on the stage. He wants the first part to focus on Richard, the second to focus on the body. “The reason I coach this way is because, if your eyes are darting back and forth,” the meaning can be lost, especially for audience members farther form the stage.

Dan: “Boldness be my friend! Arm me, audacity, from head to foot!” Kaiser says that Dan’s focal points slipped around. Kaiser points out the figure of personification, that Dan is literally talking to Boldness and Audacity, not to himself — he asks Dan to choose a focal point for each. Finding a specific point for each brings the emotion forward more clearly and makes the point easier to arrive at for the audience; Kaiser points out, “I didn’t tell him what to imagine. I just asked him to structure it in a way that would be clear to the audience.”

Kaiser then moves to the “image” — a complete mental creation, which invokes the imaginative aspect of all five senses. Doreen (as Constance in King John): “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, / Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, / Remembers me of all his gracious parts, / Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form; / Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?” Kaiser thinks it communicates more clearly the depth of her despair when she doesn’t shift her focal point; he asks her to try it again with one single focal point, letting the pressure build up there. Kaiser explains this as finding a single focal point and adding a new layer to it with each measure. “The inesntiy of that single focal point… is so strongly communicated by a single focal point that you understand what all the men are talking about when they call her crazy.”

Next: actions — played in pursuit of objectives against obstacles. Each measure should have one and only one. Dan: “Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.” Kaiser asks Dan to encourage himself in the first measure, then admonish himself in the second. He further examines the shift, particularly with regard to where the inhalation is positioned and where it comes from — “from his imagination” rather than from the text.

Doreen: “Sweet, sweet, sweet Nurse, tell me, what says my love?” Kaiser says that Doreen has made this three measures, and suggests that the second measure tends to have the same emotion as the first. He asks her to find three wildly different things to play in the three measures (and comments that this tactic is typical of thirteen-year-old girls).

Kaiser then adds the idea of subtext to the lines, which he calls “the realization.” Dan: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” Kaiser has Dan break that into two measures, asking Dan to realize in the middle, at the comma, that he’s now going to die without having accomplished his goals. “The figure is illuminated by the realization at the comma in the middle of the line,” by the reversal of emotions that the active silence causes — “a moment of human behavior that is atextual.”

Doreen: “Seeming, seeming! I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for’t.” Kaiser suggests that Doreen realize the depth of Angelo’s corruption at the comma between the two “seeming”s. Kaiser points out that the repetition requires a variation in delivery, discussing the reasons why people repeat themselves.

Finally, Kaiser comes to decisions, a different type of subtext. Dan: “She sees not Hermia. Hermia, sleep thou there, and never mayest thou come Lysander near.” Kaiser suggests the first focal point be on the audience, and that he then make the decision “to leave Hermia there, by herself, unguarded, in the dark.” Dan’s callous deliberation makes the decision hysterically funny, and Kaiser suggests that seeing the choice happen is what makes that humorous for the audience.

Doreen: “What if this potion do not work at all? Shall I be married then tomorrow morning? No, no, this shall forbid it.” Kaiser points out that Doreen has several focal points operating, talking to herself but also indicating the dagger that she will use to kill herself. He asks her to make a decision between the two “No”s. Kaiser notes that this speech complicates delivery, because it layers the decision on top of multiple actions, moving from measure to measure.

Kaiser wraps up by saying that effective theatre lives in these decisions, “not in when the giant neon apple flies down out of the ceiling.”

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – George T. Wright Keynote Address

Greetings! I’m Charlene V. Smith and it’s 10:30 am on Day 2 of the 2011 Blackfriars Conference. George T. Wright from the University of Minnesota is giving the Keynote today, entitled “Climbing Shakespeare’s Ladder, and Other Sound Patterns.” Wright is well-known among the both the conference attendees and the graduate students at Mary Baldwin due to his seminal work Shakespeare’s Metrical Art.

After some announcements from Sarah Enloe, director of Education at the ASC, Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen takes the stage to introduce Wright. Wright is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Minnesota. Besides Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Wright has also written Hearing the Measures: Shakespearean and Other Inflections and Poetical Craft and Authorial Design.  Dr. Ralph says that when the graduate Shakespeare program at MBC began, he really wanted to use Shakespeare’s Metrical Art as a classroom textbook. He was worried that some students, less familiar with Chaucer and poetry, might find it difficult. He says he made the mistake of using a different book, but for year two of the program Ralph “switched to the Wright/right book.”

Wright begins by noting his growing interest in ladders in Shakespeare’s text, and that years ago he noticed too many actors underplaying long verse speeches and rhetoric. They were being cheated of their force, brought down to the prose moments of the play.

Wright grew aware of growing interest amongst British actors and directors in speaking Shakespeare’s verse. Wright was interested in how verse was heard by the ear of the audience. These actors and directors were looking for guidance and rules for shared lines, pauses, enjambed versus end stopped lines, etc. Wright cares much more about the weight given to stressed and unstressed lines as they are critical to the emotional intensity of the text.

Wright notes that there are three kinds of people interested in the meter of the verse: Actors, editors, prosodists. The questions each group asks are how shall we speak the lines, how shall we print the lines, and how shall we hear the lines, respectively. Wrights says that editors and actors must print and speak the lines in a way that allows us to read and hear the lines as metrically coherent.

Wright has consulted many texts of Shakespeare’s verse and has not found much dealing with the ladder. As an example, he presents an early speech from Julius Caesar, a speech Wright says in a perfect example of a ladder.

And do you not put on your best attire?
And do you not cull out a holiday?
And do you not strew flowers in he way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
(1.1.48-55)

The first four lines step up, and the last three lines step back down the ladder. A ladder is sequences of clauses that keep elaborating on a topic until it’s been exhausted and then the actor has to run back down.

After 1593, Shakespeare’s line really find their range. Wright says we have the plague to thank, as it caused Shakespeare to write the sonnets. With the sonnets, Shakespeare was training himself to compose verse speech in a larger four line unit. Though many sonnets are end stopped at the end of each line, usually do to the rhyme scheme. The end stopping of the lines halts the rising of the verse. There is an inherent rise and fall in the structure of the sonner. The quatrains build up and then down.

Shakespeare then used more ladders in his blank verse. Wright demonstrates Shakespeare’s powerful buildup via ladders with Richard II’s “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,” John of Gaunt’s This England, and Henry V’s famous St. Crispin Day speeches. Shakespeare had found a new way to be seriously expressive. Why say a thing once, when saying it differently and again and again will make it more memorable?

Wright notes that the performance of these ladders is not always the same, nor is it a continuous rise. The voice likes to back track a little, or down track a little, before it continues to the next level of the speeches. Wright speaks some of Macbeth’s speech, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment?” This speech goes up and down constantly, as if Macbeth doesn’t know where he wants to be.

Wright launches into Claudio’s speech from Measure for Measure, “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,” a speech Wright calls, “one of the finest of all ladder speeches.” This speech goes up for many lines, and then steps down powerfully. The imagery is as over the top as the dramatic structure of the ladder, and Wright suggests that Shakespeare intended that.

Wright notes that every actor will not perform ladders the same way, but that the device should be recognized as respecting it creates a powerful effect. Shakespeare was an extraordinary writer but also an extraordinary listener.

Wright loves the increasing attention given in recent years to the performance of verse, but the more he reads about it the more questions he has. Metrical variations add texture to Shakespeare’s verse. Readers, editors, and voice professionals need to note these variations. Not just the normal variations such as trochees, but the rarer ones such as hexameter, broken-back lines, and epic caesuras, should be considered. Shakespeare uses these irregularities more than the other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and we should wonder why.

Wright then takes a few questions from the audience. One person asks about Wright’s suggestions that we have some reservations when we hear a ladder, and wonders if that is connected to a feeling that the ladder is calculated. Wright likes the idea and the suggestions it gives for performance. Another scholar asks about evangelism and whether Wright thinks Shakespeare could have picked up some of the ladder technique from church. Wright thinks it is completely possible and beautifully quotes a poem of John Donne. Mary Baldwin professor Matt Davies mentions that the sonnets were metrically regular, and that so were the examples, there weren’t a lot of inverted feet in them, which might cause a trip in the ladder.  He asks whether regularity is essential to building a ladder. Other audience members respond to this idea and ASC actor James Keegan says he notes that sort of thing a lot in Tamburlaine. Keegan then notes that he feels contemporary actors are afraid of pitch, of singing the pitch, and has anxiety about it. Wright agrees, and says that they are afraid of going of the top. But Wright says he’d like to hear actors going over the top a bit more and notes that you can find fine examples of this, nodding to Keegan’s fine performance as Prospero in The Tempest the night before.