Blackfriars Conference – Plenary Session VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bear appears and takes Hyland’s paper!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Molly (@moxymolly)

Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session #3

Molly Beth Seremet here, reporting from Colloquy Session #3 at 9am on Thursday morning! The topic is Cultural Appropriation and the session is chaired by Monica Cross with presenters Scott Campbell, Raven Claflin, Angelina LaBarre, Louis Martin, and Richard Schumaker.

Louis Martin’s paper deals with Hero’s silence in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, focusing on the ways film adaptations manifest her silence. This paper focuses predominately on the Burgess, Brannagh and Whedon films. Martin first asks us to look at a clip from Burgess’ film, in which many of Hero’s lines are retained. Martin also points out that physically, Hero stands to deliver these lines and speaks quite clearly, exercising her own agency. By contrast, in Brannagh’s film, some of Hero’s lines are cut and the film depicts her physically on the ground with others towering over her. Martin then moves into exploring the Whedon film, in which Whedon depicts a Hero who is in fact not a virgin, having been in a previous relationship with the film’s Don John character. Martin describes a scene in the Whedon film in which Hero dons a Marilyn Monroe-style gown to wear for the party scene and further details a scene Whedon invents in which Hero pointedly refuses any further advances from Don John, using her own voice. In doing so, Whedon stages Hero’s agency and allows her to speak for herself.

Scott Campbell’s paper deals with original practices because, in his words, “it is the things we are most passionate about that deserve the most pressure.” Campbell interest lies in the cross-generational cultural appropriation that occurs when modern-day practitioners borrow historical practices in modern-day performance. Campbell terms this generative work, which results in the creation of something new, not a reconstruction of a historical mode. In his work, Campbell also posits that over time, modern-day companies that use original practice methodologies become facile in those practices as time passes, taking out the ‘danger’ elements that modern companies sometimes associate with original practice conventions.

Raven Claflin’s work delves into multi-modal poetics and Shakespeare. As Claflin posits, multi-modal poetics is a cross-genre theoretical approach and methodology that combines studies on Shakespeare with pop culture adaptations including comic books and graphic novels. Claflin’s paper focuses on a comic version of Macbeth, titled Macbeth the Graphic Novel and the supernatural soliciting therein. Claflin asks us to consider the placement of the Witches and ghosts across these comic book adaptations in connection with the ambiguities contained in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Angelina LaBarre’s work examines hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare. LaBarre explains that these adaptations are often considered ‘bastard children,’ criticized by both Shakespeare purists and and hip-hop theatremakers alike. LaBarre reminds us, however, that audiences love these cross-genre performances. LaBarre posits that both Shakespearean drama and hip-hop are linguistic and poetic art forms and that some hip-hop practitioners including KRS-1 approach iambic pentameter in their work. LaBarre focuses in on the production Othello Remix, part of the 2012 World Language Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. This performance was the only offering in the festival to sell out regularly. LaBarre points out that this production served as the United States’ offering in this festival, representing hip-hop as a distinct cultural language.

Monica Cross’s work focuses on Shakespeare’s language. She proposes that Shakespeare’s text melds with current-day language in modern adaptations of Shakespeare, looking closely at12 Ophelias by Caridad Svich. Cross states that Shakespeare’s language melds seamlessly in adaptation which, as Cross indicates, is a very timely concern given Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s upcoming translation initiative. According to Cross, Svich interpolates her own language into 12 Ophelias along with quotations from the past to weave Shakespeare into the present tense. In the act of remembering Hamlet. For Cross, this appropriative methodology brings Shakespeare into the present while still also staging elements of Shakespeare’s language.

The panelists now move into discussion surrounding their papers. LaBarre asks if using appropriative methodologies on Shakespearean texts serves our own ends only, or if in fact this approach can push our understanding of Shakespeare’s texts as well. Campbell wonders how much of this appropriative practice delves into the realm of translation. Claflin clarifies his belief that any transformation of Shakespeare becomes adaptive while appropriation involves a reframing of the source material into a specific cultural frame, drawing on Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood as an example. In a pedagogical sense, Martin urges us to work with multiple adaptations of a single Shakespearean source text, such as several films of Much Ado About Nothing,  to allow students the opportunity to see diverse possibilities to draw their own conclusions.

The discussion now turns to ideas of ‘original’ or ‘real’ versions of Shakespeare, with Campbell flagging the common tactic of holding up some artistic Shakespearean adaptations as ‘the real Shakespeare.’ As the panelists discuss, this emerges particularly in teaching applications, in which film versions of Shakespearean plays provides an easy way in for modern students. Claflin urges us to remember that while adaptations may be harnessed in this way, this pedagogical aim may not necessarily be the adaptor’s impetus for creating the work in the first place.

Cross then leads the panelists towards us an engagement with an audience’s knowledge of the source texts in adaptive practice. Cross refers us to Svich’s introductory materials in 12 Ophelias, in which Svich details that an audience that is familiar with Hamlet may see her play as a furtherance or extension of Shakespeare’s narrative, while an audience that has not yet contacted Shakespeare will see 12 Ophelias as the story of a stranded woman making her way in an unfamiliar world. The play therefore tells a cohesive and rich story for any audience, no matter how familiar that audience is (or is not) with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. LaBarre then turns us to an investigation of poetic structure in hip-hop and Shakespeare.  She introduces the notion of call-backs, such as rhythms, lyrics, melodies that harken back to earlier songs and artists. As LaBarre points out, this self-referentiality appears in early modern drama as well. Interestingly, LaBarre also points out that misogyny becomes a thru-line in both hip-hop and early modern drama.

The discussion now moves to a discussion of Shakespeare as cultural capital, examining the function and responsibility of using adaptations of Shakespeare as first points of contact for an audience. This brings the conversation into focus on issues of an original or authoritative text. Campbell recalls a childhood memory of an adaptation of Macbeth in the cartoon Duck Tales. LaBarre springs off of this to discuss the ways that she troubles the ideas of authoritative texts for her students, asking them to study both Shakespeare’s Othello and Othello Remix.  In doing so, LaBarre holds up both texts as possibilities, allowing students to form their own conclusions.

The discussion turns now to adaptations of Hamlet. Participant and American Shakespeare Center understudy Symmonie Preston asks us consider the ways that 17th and 18th century theories and preconceptions inform our readings of Shakespeare’s drama. She calls Ophelia into focus as an example, pointing to the ways that modern productions often strip away Ophelia’s agency as influenced by a 17th and 18th century lens that dictates what less-enfranchised characters should be. Preston argues that applying an adaptive hand to these plays can re-establish these characters’ agencies by removing the 17th and 18th century referential frame. Panelists Campbell and Claflin push this argument further asking us to consider the ways that even in authorial texts are adaptations mediated through the apparatus of textual culture.

The conversation now circles back to pedagogy, thinking through the ways that we can teach appropriation productively to instill agency in our students. A participant mentions using lines from Shakespeare as tool to allow students to ‘re-write’ them in their own words, expressing Shakespeare in their own vernacular. Claflin then points out that anytime we teach Shakespeare, we are in fact teaching our own adaptation of the play and in using strategies of appropriation, we might open channels for students to do the same for themselves.

An audience member asks the panelists to consider the ways that in other cultures, adaptations of Shakespearean drama often use elements other than the English language to form their adaptations. How do non-language-based adaptations factor into this conversation? LaBarre points out that hip-hop adaptations use a verse structure of their own to tell their stories. As in Shakespearean drama, the verse structures in hip-hop dramas change to indicate changes in mood, characters, etc. with the incorporation of beats that work for and sometimes against the verse language. Campbell draws on this idea of time signatures, reminding us of Spanish Golden Age drama, in which meter equates to emotion. Campbell then calls on notions of ‘disowning’ when considering foreign language adaptation of Shakespeare, asking if it is possible to write ‘against’ Shakespeare using Shakespearean language or conventions.

Now, the discussion turns to adaptations of Shakespeare into gendered languages. When language is gendered, what is gained or lost by making decisions surrounding these ambiguities? Claflin and Campbell hone in on the ways that ambiguity factors into Shakespearean drama. This opens a broader conversation in the room

Cross brings us back, reminding us that everything we have access to in the Shakespearean sphere can become part of adaptation. Our cultural moment allows us to make meaning out of all possible options that we have as theatremakers, adapters, scholars, and teachers. Cross urges us to remember that we always see Shakespeare through our lens.

And that’s a wrap for Colloquy #3. Thanks for a riveting conversation.

-Molly (@moxymolly)

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