MFA Thesis Festival 2017

Good evening! Cass Morris, ASC Academic Resources Manager, here to live-blog the 2017 Mary Baldwin University MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. Tonight, beginning at 6:30pm, members of the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, the 2016-2017 MFA class, will present research conducted for and during their year of company-building:

Paul Menzer begins by welcoming everyone, introducing the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, and reminding us that the MLitt presentations begin at 9am tomorrow. Menzer stresses the unique nature of the thesis festival at MBU, designed to combat the isolating effect of thesis writing and give students the opportunity to share with and hear from “an interested and generous” audience. Each presenter will speak for approximately 7 minutes, ending with a “provocative question”, followed by a short Q&A.

Catie Osborn – Photography as Performance: Archive and/as Adaptation

Osborn begins by explaining the scholastic considerations that her work as production photographer provoked. “There is little to no research on the implications of photograph in the theatre”. She states her intent to challenge a 1956 assertion that “photographs taken during the course of production are uninteresting”. Osborn discusses two types of photographs in the theatre: marketing/publicity and archive/documentation, as well as sharing the OED definition of “adaptation”. She believes that the act of theatrical photography constitutes an adaptation of the theatrical work — the center of the Venn diagram between marketing/publicity and archive/documentation.

Osborn asserts that the photographer working during a performance becomes a storyteller in their own right. She presents some “not at all staged” examples of “That Nice Chris Moneymaker” — one photograph showing him as alone and isolated, another from a different angle showing the actor surrounded by the theatrical audience in universal lighting. The use of photos then becomes “an adapted act”. She also shares examples of photographs that photoshopped together figures from different productions in order to market a show.

Considering the potentially infinite record of production, given the storage capabilities modern technology provides, Osborn questions how to best curate those photographs for archival. She suggests that a production must “include the photographer in the production process”. Osborn states her belief that, by including the photographer in the process, it would be possible to create a record of performance that would allow someone to experience the performance through the archives.

She poses the question: “What is lost in these performances? What is gained?”

Kelley McKinnon – “We know what we are, but know not what we may be”: Engaging a Student Audience in Self-Discovery through the Mechanism of Interaction

“If you’ve spent five minutes with me, you probably know several things:” that she has a loud laugh, that she has Opinions, and that she loves to learn. She goes on to note that another five minutes will expose that she asks personal questions and loves working with students to help them learn. “There is nothing in the world that is better to men than watching a light bulb turn on” in someone’s head. McKinnon states her belief that nothing can replace the value of a personal connection between student and teacher, and she cites a viral video of a North Carolina teacher who invented a different secret handshake for each of his students, noting that his attendance and test scores seem to correlate positively with that practice.

McKinnon notes the importance of “reversing the expectation” for students of Shakespeare, fighting against the ingrained belief many have that Shakespeare is hard and that they’re not smart enough for it. Her thesis is based around how she approaches an educational tour from a director’s point of view with the goal of taking over/changing the world. “My approach as a director is to put the systems in place to build self reliance through connection.” This applies both to her cast and staff and to the audience. For student audiences, “the clarity of storytelling” is always at the forefront, but she believes a further step of personalization can be vital, particularly when interacting with under-served audiences.

McKinnon goes on to explicate why she uses Shakespeare to “change the world”, particularly by working with inner city students, with benefits including but not limited to: explorations of tyranny, nonconformists, and violence, “wrapped up with a bunch of dick and fart jokes”. Treating Shakespeare not as something inaccessible and privileged but as something that is for them augments the experience and can, she believes, be life- and thus world-changing. She finishes by asking: “Who is my audience for this?”

Joshua Richard Williams – “We will perform in measure, time, and place”: The Qualitative Effect of Spatial Architecture on Stage Combat Choreography

Williams specifies that he is looking at the development of stage combat in a touring process and how that does and doesn’t impact the performance itself. Last summer he engaged in training and certification with the American Society of Fight Directors. He discusses the concept of “violence as spectacle” that CSE explored in its touring production of Macbeth. His considerations include examining the ways in which the dimension and orientation of a performance space, and how differences in that in touring locations may change the storytelling. For his thesis, he focuses on the opening fight which establishes the violence of the play: involving eight of ten cast members, several entrances and exits mid-bout. He notes that the paratextual fight “serves as an introduction for the audience” to the play itself.

Williams then walks through the “bloody soldier” interchange from 1.2, pointing out five details which inform the physicality of the fight. While not explicitly called for in the text, these lines allow a director and fight director to make choices about the story they wish to present to the audience. In CSE’s production, it was an opportunity to show Macbeth as a fighter surrounded by violence, continually attacked from behind, instilling a sense of wariness, distrust, and betrayal. The actor playing Banquo appears to save Macbeth twice, establishing their relationship. The fight also introduces Malcolm and foreshadows the appearance of the Weird Sisters.

Williams notes that they blocked the show for two different conditions: Blackfriars-style, with use of a backstage space, and an on-stage presentation, where the actors are all in chairs and visible throughout the production. He notes that this second set-up presented challenges, and goes on to discuss one example in depth, where the company had “a lane of perhaps five and a half to six feet in width and eleven or twelve feet in length” to perform in. Williams thinks this was probably the most challenging space to work in, but also the most illuminating.

His question asks the audience for sources on found spaces for performance or dance. “What is the difference between a performance space and a theatre? What can one do that the other one cannot?”

Justine R. Mackey – “So hung upon with love”: Examining Physical Intimacy with Compass Shakespeare Ensemble

“My work… explores the many ways in which physical touch or the lack thereof” tells a story and communicates emotion. Mackey’s thesis examines touch as a means of communication in performance. She notes that, for her, physical touch ended up being a recurring theme in her roles across the CSE season (Lady Macbeth, the Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jacquenetta in Love’s Labour’s Lost). “When I refer to physical intimacy, I don’t always mean sexual or lustful touching.” Her definition covers everything from simple familiarity to passionate interaction.

Mackey cites research from the Touch Research Institute which “prove the healthy benefits of touch,” noting that touch appears to be vital not only to human interaction but to individual health. She moves on to discussing how CSE explored the process and potential of touch in their ensemble work. To foster positive energy and the sense of community they would need for their MFA year, one early exercise involved verbally complimenting each other. Mackey took the benefits of this exercise forward into the idea of physical intimacy. Osborn and Odenbrett demonstrate another exercise from the character exploration of Troilus and Cressida, creating a powerful gestural score for two characters who long to touch but are pulled apart by external forces. From this, Mackey decided to focus on how bodies travel and intersect.

Mackey ends by asking us all to close our eyes and re-imagine the process of experiencing their devised show back in September, then asks the audience to share their most memorable experience from that evening.

Clarence Joseph Finn – “Methinks you are my glass and not my brother”: An Experience of Playing the Identical Dromio Twins with One Actor Body in The Comedy of Errors

Finn begins by stating that his thesis focuses on the challenge of playing two characters in one body and the effect that it has had on his body image. He notes that, as a result of bullying earlier in life, he had never engaged in physical training, as he had never seen the point. Entering this program changed his perspective, and he particularly notes the Viewpoints exercises taught by Doreen as teaching him to think well of his body on stage.

Working through the Dromios was his greatest challenge, made moreso by the fact that this performance was part of CSE’s already highly-doubled small scale production. He had to develop different markers for each Dromio. Finn then walks us through his process of developing them, beginning with voices: he started with Linklater choices for finding each Dromio’s voice, then moved into using Laban to marry those vocal choices to physical choices. One Dromio was lighter and quicker; the other low and heavy. He then moved on to behavioral gestures drawn from Viewpoints training. Finn also notes that the relationship each Dromio has to his respective Antipholus further informed his own physicality and spatial relationship. With the help of Sczepankowski and Odenbrett, Finn demonstrates the difference in his two Dromios.

His question: Is there a clear and distinct physical difference, and how might he further develop the physicality to make that clearer?

Molly Beth Seremet – “This is and is not Cressida”: Resisting Anthropocentrism in the Shakespeare of Things

Seremet begins “in the negative space” between the thesis she’ll actually be working on and the thesis she can no longer write. She intended to build upon her MLitt thesis, but notes that the exploration of the conflation of “person” and “thing” has become profoundly uncomfortable in our current political climate. While she’s still fascinated by the cyber-potential of becoming-human value in objects, but she is concerned about the inverse: making an object of a human. Seremet uses several examples from the past month, including the Oklahoma bill turning a woman into a “host” and the interaction of the “nuclear football” with guests at the “Winter White House”.

She goes on to note that the thesis she would like to write isn’t entirely hers to tell, given her own privilege and societal status, and she draws a connection to the “no-place” that Cressida exists in. Seremet hopes to continue elevating the object while also interrogating  the view from her position of privilege. She hopes to connect Cressida’s experience to the current immigrant/refugee crisis and with her own family history of displacement. She discusses her need to “focus on the real and the material in this era of alternative facts”.

Her question: What are the ethical responsibilities of a theatrical and art-making practice in the year 2017? And, in unpacking object-based feminism, how can the voice of the object be viewed through the mechanism?

Zac Harned – Arguing with Myself: Body Building Stories

Harned begins by describing his experience as a rifleman as a metaphor for the various components necessary for success in the small scale production. He will address the roles he played in the small scale production of Troilus and Cressida and how rhetoric informed his physical choices.

“Shakespeare’s characters cause plot by action,” whether that action is implied in what they say or more explicit when they stab someone. “All acting choices are based in necessity.” He keys in on the idea of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and “art” being, essentially, an action of making something; thus, “rhetoric is the making of getting what you want” — which could also serve as a definition of acting. Harned discusses his discovery that rhetorically-informed performances are not, themselves, a style of acting — so “why should an actor give a damn?” He asserts that without engaging the rhetoric, an actor misses the opportunity for intellectual depth and aesthetic appeal.

Harned continues that “most people approach Shakespeare with a doctrine,” and that almost every doctrine that says “yes” to something says “no” to something else. His focus on scansion and rhetoric is not meant to be dogmatic, but he asserts that rhetorical knowledge enables an actor to be faithful to the story of a character. Harned asks the audience if they can see ways in which this approach is inaccessible to actors.

Ryan Odenbrett – A Face “full of O’s”: An Examination of Ecphonesis in Berowne’s Dialogue

Odenbrett connects his MFA thesis to his MLitt thesis on statsitical analysis. He believes echphonesis (the exclamation) is perhaps the most easily identifiable rhetorical figure. What, he asks, does the use of ecphonesis inform us about a character? He focuses on a line of Rosaline’s, accusing Berowne of having “a face full of Os” — rather than interpreting this as a reference to smallpox scars or syphilis blisters, he wondered if she referred to his exclamatory tendencies.

The process of documenting the use of ecphonesis was “monotonous, but not difficult”. Berowne uses ecphonesis 23 times in the play, 18 of those in 4.3 alone. 11 of those take place after he confesses to having written his love sonnet. 92% of his exclamations occur in verse. Odenbrett runs through a breakdown of the syntactical placements of these instances of ecphonesis. Odenbrett then created a table of the total ecphoneses used in all of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Costard comes in second with 11 instances.

Odenbrett then wanted to know if Berowne uses ecphonesis more than anyone else in the canon — but he believes not, as Love’s Labour’s Lost only has 68 instances (in 12th place), while Romeo and Juliet comes in first with 146. He intends to compare Berowne to other male characters in Shakespeare’s comedies. He asks what information we feel that ecphonesis gives an actor about a character.

George R Kendall – Directing Shakespeare in Intimate Performance Space and the Brechtian V-effekt 

Kendall begins by connecting his work to Mackey’s and Williams’s, as it deals with physicality and physical space. He interrogates the nearness to or distance from the audience in various theatrical approaches, looking particularly at the use of two “intimate spaces”: blackbox theatres and studio spaces. He notes that the Blackfriars Playhouse, while not fitting into either of those categories, still constitutes an intimate space. Kendall characterizes a component of intimacy as the “shared space” of actors and audience which enhances the emotional experience of the audience.

Kendall then discusses the practice of direct address and how it fits into the use of intimate performance spaces. Though it breaks the flow of the action, it does so in a way that is not an obstruction in these spaces. Kendall contrasts the intimacy of direct address in the Blackfriars Playhouse and similar styles to the alienation of the audience and distancing of emotional involvement intended by Brecht.

Kendall states his belief that directors should be very aware of the production space when deciding up on their approach to a play, particularly with an eye towards audience address. The more intimate the theatre space, the more personal that audience interaction can become; direct address has a less profound effect in a large proscenium theatre where much of the audience is physically further from the actors. Kendall questions: What have those of you who are actors discovered about intimate performance space? and How comfortable or uncomfortable are you as an audience member with an actor who addresses you?

Melinda Marks – A Labour Saved: How I Learned to Get Along with Love’s Labour’s Lost

Marks, who was the dramaturg for Love’s Labour’s Lost, also cut that script, and her thesis examines the practical process of cutting, what she cut, and how she decided to cut it. She admits up front that she strongly dislikes this play, which makes telling us about cutting it an intellectually interesting challenge. Since this cutting was for CSE’s “Ren season show”, the show styled after the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, Marks notes that the dramaturg’s role then becomes complicated, as they have no director’s conceptual parameters for either guidance or restriction. Marks notes the difference between creating a product “faithful to” someone else’s concepts and creating a product with the particular goals of the CSE Ren season show. She both had to rely upon subjectivity and had to combat her own distaste for the play in order to create a coherent script that would be interesting for both actors and audience.

After cutting the play, Marks went through all her cuts and made notes on her reasons for them. This allowed her to distinguish between objective and subjective cuts. She also color-coded these cuts for ease of analysis. She describes her role not only as dramaturg, but also as the editor of her own dramaturgical thought process.

Marks asks what we think would be a valuable quantitative or qualitative addition to this process?

Shane Michael Sczepankowski – The Story of the Storytellers

Sczepankowski informs us that his project is “like a thesis… but it isn’t. But it is.” As a response to a challenge from Paul Menzer to write a contribution to the MFA book that was more than an academic paper. As such, he is working on a play reflective of CSE’s mission statement. He is creating “a soft re-telling of the ‘Shane’anigans that have transpired” during the CSE year; his adaptation of Macbeth responds to and parodies CSE’s process of creating their school touring show. The director appears as Hecate and the “salty actors” as the Witches, among other correlations.

Sczepankowski posits this play as a sort of archival compilation, retelling the process of CSE’s experience. In a scripted scene, Tyler Dale expresses concern that Sczepankowski is skirting his responsibilities as an S&P student; Sczepankowski admits that this is an unusual approach, but believes that it will reflect the unique and meaningful experiences of the CSE journey.

His question: What makes a successful adaptation and what makes an absolutely miserable one?

Summer/Fall 2014 Playhouse Insider: On Sale Now!

The seventh issue of the Playhouse Insider is now available at the Blackfriars Playhouse Box Office. Here’s a sneak peek at the articles within, exploring the shows of the 2014 Summer and Fall Seasons:SF14InsiderCover

  • What is it that most defines Cyrano de Bergerac? His panache. ASC Education Artist Natalia Razak explores “what it really means to live, love, and die without compromise.”
  • Jeremy Fiebig of the Shakespeare Standard and Sweet Tea Shakespeare examines characters as actors in Macbeth and Hamlet, with particular attention to how the titular men fit into or fight against their own stories.
  • Former ASC actor Luke Eddy, now teaching at the University of Central Oklahoma and at Oklahoma City University, discusses how playing Antipholus of Syracuse in the ASC’s 2008/9 touring troupe helped his own journey of self-discovery.
  • What makes Macbeth and other villains “break bad”? Benjamin Curns, a longtime ASC actor and fight choreographer who is now pursuing an MFA at UNC Chapel Hill, explores the nature of villainy in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • MBC student Sarah Martin discusses the rehearsal process behind the MLitt program’s 2012 production of Pericles, including the dramaturgical information on the play’s sources which contributed to the cast’s stylistic choices.
  • Bob Jones, who holds an MFA from Mary Baldwin and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Austin, discusses his experience directing Edward II at the Blackfriars Playhouse in 2008, focusing on the relationship between Edward and the audience.
  • What’s Shakespeare like at a re-creation of one of his other playhouses? Katherine Mayberry of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare shares experiences from actors and audiences at the Rose Theatre in Twin Lake, Michigan.
  • Did you know that our Director of College Prep Programs is also a champion of under-appreciated early modern plays? Kim Newton celebrates Fair Em, which had its North American premiere during this summer’s ASC Theatre Camp.
  • Last year, the ASC passed a major milestone: completing Shakespeare’s entire canon in its 25th year, and audience member Tim Hulsey has seen all thirty-eight plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Find out what keeps him coming back, season after season.

Pick up your copy of the Playhouse Insider at the Box Office for just $5 — a perfect companion to your playgoing experience. The issue not only contains the brilliant words of these contributors, but full-color photos from ASC productions, as well as from performances by MBC students and the ASC Theatre Camp, and from the Rose Theatre.

‘Fair Em’: A Lost and Found Story

From the desk of Kim Newton

Every now and then, someone will ask me, “So, what do you do when you’re not at camp?”  As the ASC’s Director of College Prep Programs, I spend much of my summer at the helm of the ASC Theatre Camp, an intensive college-preparatory and performance program for teens.  When I am not at camp, I am preparing for camp; much of my preparation involves research for the upcoming summer sessions.  One of my ongoing tasks is to select plays that reflect clear artistic and academic goals for our campers.  Since 2007, the ASC Theatre Camp has produced at least one play each summer by a contemporary of Shakespeare in order to broaden our campers’ understanding of how early modern playwrights collaborated and of how Shakespeare found inspiration for his plays in the works of his colleagues and predecessors.

In 2013, we produced The Wild Goose Chase by John Fletcher and Volpone by Ben Jonson.  This year, I selected the anonymous play Fair Em to complement our other Session 1 play titles, Measure for Measure and The Tempest.  Session 2 will present All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry VI, Part Three. Fair Em might seem like the odd play out in this line-up.  Why would we choose to produce a relatively unknown play that has a dubious attribution to Shakespeare?  For starters, it seems that few people have given this delightful play a fair look in the last 400 years.  I venture to say that our camp production will be among the first public performances of Fair Em in the United States.  If that isn’t cool enough, then perhaps some exhilarating bibliographic details will spark a burning desire in you to check out this play for yourself:

FairEmTitlePageQ1An undated quarto title page notes that the Lord Strange’s Men performed Fair Em in London:

“A Pleasa[n]t Commodie, of faire Em th[e] Millers daughter of Manchester:With the loue of William the Conqueror: As it was sundrietimes publiquely acted in the honourable citie of London, by the righthonourable the Lord Strange his servants. Imprinted at London for T. N. and I. W. and are to be solde in S. Dunstones Church-yarde in Fleete-streete.”[1]

The plot derives in part from an Elizabethan ballad titled, “The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bednal-Green”.[2] Like many plays of the time, the title of Fair Em alludes to a popular subplot, that of the beautiful Em; however, William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, might claim the title as the play’s main protagonist.

William the Conqueror falls in love with a Danish princess, Blanch, after seeing her portrait.  He disguises himself as a knight called Sir Robert of Windsor and travels to the Danish court, only to reject the princess in favor of Mariana, a captive of the Danish King Zweno. Mariana is already betrothed to William’s friend, the Marques of Lubeck.  The ladies conspire to switch places during a rendezvous with William, and he takes the wrong girl back to England.  Meanwhile, the subplot follows Em – the daughter of a banished lord, both forced into hiding as millers. Her suitors are fumbling gentlemen, but she remains faithful to her true love, Manville. Em wards off her unwelcome suitors by feigning deafness and blindness. Manville abandons Em for another girl when he believes that she has lost her sight and hearing. In the end, the ladies stand their ground against the men who wronged them. William accepts his princess, and Manville loses both of his marriage prospects.

The play re-imagines William the Conqueror as a romantic playboy; such historic figures were often the subjects of early modern plays that refashioned familiar legends into new entertainments.

The Trouble with Ascribing Authorship

Scholars, including E. K. Chambers and W. W. Greg, date this quarto to c.1590, a time during which the Lord Strange’s Men gained much popularity and performed at court six times.[3]  The second quarto of the play comes to print in 1631.

FairEmTitlePgBoth the undated and 1631 quartos of Fair Em lack a specific authorship attribution.  Scholars have attributed the play to Robert Wilson, Anthony Munday, and William Shakespeare.  E. K. Chambers relates the first ascription of the play to Shakespeare in The Elizabethan Stage [4]:

Fair Em has been included in the Shakespeare Apocrypha on the strength of a volume formerly in the collection of Charles II, and then in that of Garrick, in which it was bound up with Mucedorus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton and lettered ‘Shakespeare, vol. i’.”

More recent investigation by Peter Kirwan reveals that Shakespeare, Vol. I was a special collection in King Charles I’s library; the volume also contained no fewer than five additional plays attributed to Shakespeare, among them, The Puritan, Thomas Lord Cromwell, The London Prodigal, 1 Sir John Oldcastle, and Love’s Labor’s Lost.[5]  This volume, Kirwan argues, evidences an already unstable view of the Shakespearean canon emerging within a decade of the publication of the First Folio in 1623.

An entry in Henslowe’s Diary dated 4 January 1593 indicates that the Earl of Sussex’s Men performed a play titled, “william the conkerer“.[6]  The play is now lost.  William the Conqueror may be the Fair Em of Strange’s Men’s earlier repertory, played under the original subtitle.[7], 8  Roslyn Knutson posits that Fair Em traveled with the players from Sussex’s Men to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which may explain why Fair Em was bound with other plays from their repertory.[8]  Inevitably, the fact that playwrights often wrote for more than one company, and that plays, like actors, shifted ownership when companies disbanded and reformed under new patrons complicates attributions of authorship to Fair Em.

An Anecdote

Chambers notes a contemporary anecdote that also associates William Shakespeare with the character of William the Conqueror. John Manningham, a London barrister, recorded the following passage in 1601:

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III, there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”[9]

The anecdote, apart from playing on William’s name, may also suggest that Shakespeare may have played a role in Fair Em some time before or concurrent with Richard Burbage’s appearance in Richard III, a fixture in the early repertory of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.8

What do all of these historical tidbits add up to? We cannot know for certain whether or not Shakespeare had a hand, or a played a role, in the first appearance of Fair Em on the early modern English stage. We can, however, cite Fair Em as an example of the complexity of deciphering play authorship and of play ownership between theatrical playing companies.

Although Chambers and other scholars reject Shakespeare as the author of Fair Em, several of Shakespeare’s known works, including The Tempest, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well, share common plot elements with the play: the story of a father and daughter in exile, the inappropriate exploits of a ruler in disguise, and a lover’s abandonment of his betrothed. While Shakespeare may not have written Fair Em, the play may have influenced his writing later in his career.  Despite its rarity and received criticism, Fair Em offers a delightful glimpse into the early repertory of the Lord Strange’s Men and possibly to Shakespeare’s earliest connections with the London playing companies.

Please join us for the ASC Theatre Camp play festivals at the Blackfriars Playhouse this summer.  Session 1 presents Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and Fair Em on July 13. Come back on August 10 to see the Session 2 productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry VI, Part 3.

–Kim


  • [1] STC (2nd ed.), 7675.
  • [2] Mannel, George. “The Source of the Immediate Plot of Faire Em”. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Mar., 1913), pp. 80-82. John Hopkins University Press.
  • [3] Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • [4] Chambers, E. K., The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford: Clarendon, 1923.
  • [5] Kirwan, Peter. “The First Collected “Shakespeare Apocrypha” Shakespeare Quarterly 62.4 (2011): 594-601. JSTOR. Web. Published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.
  • [6] Foakes, R. A., ed. Henslowe’s Diary. Cambridge [etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • [7] Greg, W. W., ed. Henslowe’s Diary. London: A. H. Bullen, 1908.
  • [8] Knutson, Roslyn L., The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1991.
  • [9] Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1930.

Winter-Spring 2014 Playhouse Insider Now On Sale

The Winter-Spring 2014 issue of the Playhouse Insider, celebrating the shows in the Actors’ Renaissance Season and the World’s Mine Oyster Tour, is on-sale now in the Box Office and will soon be available for purchase through our online shop. CoverWith this magazine, we hope not only to introduce readers to the fascinating shows in these seasons, but also to provide a spectrum of viewpoints from the wonderful scholars, artists, and audience members who love these plays as much as we do.

In this issue:

  • Frequent ASC patron and blogger Adrian Whicker discusses his love for the Actors’ Renaissance Season and chronicles his reviews on the Mid-Atlantic Traveler.
  • Amanda Trombley, Director of Education at the Southwest Shakespeare Company and MBC MFA graduate, delves deep into her experience playing the role of Evadne in a 2011 production of The Maid’s Tragedy.
  • Jade Eaton, ASC patron and No Kidding Shakespeare Camp participant, compares Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters with Richard Bean’s adaptation One Man, Two Guvnors and tells us why she’s so excited to see The Servant of Two Masters at the Blackfriars Playhouse.
  • Eliza Hofman of Chicago’s Two Pence Theatre, another MBC MFA grad, shares her insights on the role of Celia in As You Like It from the 2009 MFA production directed by Ralph Alan Cohen.
  • University of Delaware Professor Emeritus Lois Potter analyzes the performance history of Othello, with special attention to how the central roles have developed over time.
  • ASC actors René Thornton Jr. and Benjamin Curns talk about playing Othello and Iago with an MLitt class in a conversation recorded by Kim Newton, ASC Director of College Prep Programs.
  • A Dramaturg’s Corner features five things you might like to know about Henry IV, Part 1, including a family tree to help you keep all of those dukes and descendants straight.
  • Former ASC actor Daniel Kennedy relates his discoveries and experiments in directing Richard II for the 2013 ASC Theatre Camp.

Would you like to write for an upcoming issue of the Playhouse Insider? Email Cass Morris to find out more.

Colloquy Session VI: Methods II: Pedagogy and Staging: 2013 Blackfriars Conference (10/24/13)

Good afternoon everyone –

This is Molly Zeigler, back again, to live-blog Colloquy Session VI: Methods II: Pedagogy and Staging for the 2013 Blackfriars Conference.  This colloquy session is being held at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Salon A on Thursday 10/24/13 at 3:30 on a sunny, if chilly, afternoon.

This is my first time inside the Stonewall Jackson Hotel; it’s a lovely venue.  The Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the Blackfriars Theatre, of course, have something of a close relationship, coming up together as financial successes here in historic Staunton.

Colloquy Session VI:

Chair and Presenter: Rhonda Knight 

Presenters: Christopher Fettes; Bryan Herek; Alan Hickerson; Garry Walton; Jane Wells  (Please note that, unfortunately, Meg Powers Livingston was unable to attend today’s colloquy.)

The session began with introductions and statements regarding panel members’ work and interests:

Bryan Herek is aligned with Chowan University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  His experience and interest is in working with Shakespearean works and materials with minority students.  It has been his experience that working with minority students requires a wide range of approaches and pushes the search for innovation forward.

Alan Hickerson is a school teacher. For 20 years he taught in Charlottesville and now he is out of Athens, Georgia (where he has switched from public education to private).  He has worked with entities in England including the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (both in Stratford-upon-Avon).  In Mr. Hickerson’s class the students are responsible for shaping much of the performance based portion of the curriculum.  His students work with plays and sonnets in performance and presentation.

Rhonda Knight is out of Coker College in Harstville, South Carolina.  She is interested in exploring how to incorporate modern students familiarity and love of the Harry Potter texts with their study and comprehension of Early Modern works, namely Doctor Faustus.  Many students today are so enamored of the Harry Potter stories – quoting it incessantly, referring back to it constantly – that they view other literature through the lens of the love they have for these modern works.  The Harry Potter works may be seen as representative of any current popular trends in literature that may shape today’s students’ views of Early Modern texts.

Jane Wells is aligned with Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.  She is exploring the tension between modern staging practices, Early Modern practices and conventions, and modern expectations of theatre and performance.  There is a tension between the desire to be original while adhering to perceived expectations of ‘Early Modern’ stagecraft.  Ms. Wells is interested in several questions: What does it mean to view these texts as having multiple meanings and what meaning do we – as readers and audience members and theatre practitioners – impose upon the text?  Does meaning get ‘closed off’ as choices are made – have to be made – in the course of performance?

Christopher Fettes is a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas (he comes from a strong English literature background).  As a busy dramaturgical intern with the theatre on campus at the University of Central Arkansas, Mr. Fettes was surprised to find that he was expected to perform in a variety of fashions outside of his literary/English-based ‘comfort zone.’  He has been involved with the theatre at the University of Central Arkansas writing program notes, working on lobby displays, and other activities.  He is interested in how the dramaturg is viewed and how the dramaturg’s role is expressed.

Garry Walton is with Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Meredith College is a women’s liberal arts school.  He teaches Shakespeare every semester and it is ‘never boring.’  Part of his teaching is sharing information about productions he has seen with his students.  Sharing production information opens up the body of relate-able information for students (especially students who may not have ever seen a production of a Shakespearean work).

The floor was open to questions to welcome all into the colloquy (the following material is paraphrased – first person will be used when possible):

Please keep in mind that this colloquy (as dictated by the sometime discursive structure of colloquy panels) was fast and loose.  We had excellent conversations and the passion and fervor of today’s educator was evident. I have tried to capture some of that spirit (as best I can). 

Question for the panel from an audience member: What are your experiences teaching Shakespeare to and working with Shakespeare with minority students?

Herek: It is really true that minority students approach this material from a unique vantage.  Many students will immediately go to the well of ‘other.’  They will explore these texts through their own experiences and through the construct of the ‘other.’  I have explored other ways into the texts.  I strongly recommend getting the material on its feet and allowing students to physically engage.  The comedies are best suited for such physical exploration and engagement.

Audience member observation:  Working with a group of students that represents a broad cross-section of society makes for challenges just as it allows for a deeper exploration of possible double or alternative meanings an interpretations of the texts.

Question from the audience: How does space impact the teaching process and the ease of getting these works on their feet (and how does it impact interpretation)?

Knight:  I use both the classroom and theatre spaces with my students.  Using the theatre space allows for a ‘hands-on lab’ experience where different options can be explored.  I often assign a paper wherein students are expected to engage with a possible (and specific) staging issue or difficulty.

Question from the audience: What are some proactive methods for encouraging exploration and engagement?

Walton: Some success is seen with film.  Students often respond positively to working with and writing about film.  Film is a medium that students are comfortable with and it is an easy ‘launching pad’ for discussions of acting, acting choices, characterization, and performance.

Hickerson: I often have my students keep an acting and writing journal.  A journal allows students to keep a record of their process and discoveries while personalizing the experience for them.

Audience member observation: I work with ninth graders and I have found that play is a great way to get these students to a place where they feel comfortable to really explore the material.  Students who are comfortable often find meaning for themselves.

Wells: I love play. It is a great way into this material.  Consider when I learn a piece of Beethoven or Mozart – that work becomes a part of me.  I am then free to play with it (play has served to bring me closer to a piece initially, and it then continues to offer insight).  We are looking for that sort of familiarity and approach-ability.  Once we have that sense of connection, we can continue to easily play and engage with a piece.

Topic suggestion (suggested by audience and direction of conversation): Purpose of teaching these materials; and the language as obstacle.

Fettes:  As an English major I do not come to these materials from a performance perspective.  When I go to the theatre I do not have issues or difficulties with the language.  Dramaturgs engage with many different aspects of text and performance – not all of which are clearly demonstrated in a specific production.

Knight:  Teaching these materials engages students’ critical thinking skills.  Teaching this material can create strong critical thinkers and interested individuals.  Part of this process is to teach students how to be good audience members (as they are expected to be good students or ‘audience members’ in the classroom).  If we want good audiences, we need to explore what it means to in fact be a good audience member.

Question from the audience:  Thanks to the ASC, I teach my students rhetoric. I see it as a way for students to engage mentally and physically with the material.  Do you do much with rhetoric?

Knight: No, I do not do much with rhetoric.  However, I do much with physicality and movement.

Audience member (to Knight): Your work predates our obsession with rhetoric.  (Appreciative laughter.)

Herek:  I do use hip-hop as a way into examining constructed language.

Wells:  Slang can offer a method of approach allowing students to access a small way into the material.

In the interest of time, Rhonda Knight, here, used her ‘chair prerogative’ to re-direct the conversation to Alan Hickerson’s sonnet assignment:

Hickerson:  Students are expected to select one sonnet and memorize it.  It is worked on in depth and paraphrased and explored slowly so that students can see progress.  The sonnet is viewed as a small, complete play – a play that can be handled.  Students engage physically with the sonnet.  Students treat the sonnet as a performance piece and bring it alive.  There are true a-ha moments available within such work and engagement as students begin to understand and see the process from a broader vantage point.

Audience member observation: More a-ha moments are to be found by engaging with the text in small chunks and through a smaller, tighter focus.  Rhetoric can be approached easily and simply by first looking at single words.  Starting small and focused engages students’ critical thinking skills.

Rhonda Knight thanked everyone for their participation and we broke into small groups to touch base before dispersing. 

It was an intriguing discussion.  The educators present were all ‘alive’ with their passions and focus.  It was an interesting afternoon.

 

Plenary Session V – Blackfriars Conference 2013

Good Evening from the Blackfriars! I am Clare and will be your blogger for Paper Session V of the conference 2013.

Moderator: Michael Hirrel.

Ann Pleiss Morris: Patient Auditor to Gentle Reader: Transforming the Introduction from Playhouse to Printhouse

Annalisa Castaldo: “Your majesty came not like yourself”: Staging and Understanding the Glove Episode of Henry V

Andrew Carlson: Performance as Public Dramaturgy

Steve Urkowitz: Shakespeare Shaping Richard in Versions of Henry VI 2 &3, or “The Bard Licking the Boar”

Ann Jennalie Cook: Life in Shakespeare’s London: A  First-Hand Account

Pleiss Morris:

Previous to the invention of the printing press, plays were primarily known as plays, and not as books.  Therefore, the audience members did not move from “page to stage.”  When presses started printing plays, they also printed epistles describing how the reader should react to a play text, and how they should move from stage to page.  Some scholars believe that the prologue and epilogue was a means for the actors, playwright and audience to construct theater together.  Some actors felt that the publication cut at the artistry, and highly limited the plays. Playwrights and actors were also concerned about the difference between the play and the theatrical experience, and the ways in which the editors could change, cut or misprint the text.  Some epistles suggested that audience members think back on the text as they saw it performed.  Publishers could easily intend printed plays therefore, to solicit nostalgia and not for a first encounter.  Beaumont was particularly concerned that the reader recollect the atmosphere of the playhouse in the plays.  Beaumont wrote to Jonson to voice some of his concerns. Introductory epistles also lay out the “correct” reception of a play and teach readers how to read it “properly.” Fletcher does so by laying out the scene and wishes that it could act more as a prologue did. Playwrights concernedly sought to shape the experience of the readers and can help re-envision the movement we undergo from page to stage.

Castaldo:

Henry V’s use of the glove to trick Williams, is perhaps the most problematic instance in Henry V.  The joke often appears not to work, so Castaldo looked at why Shakespeare kept the scene in his script.  Directors often cut the scene because it is problematic.  Scholars often overlook the scene as well, especially in political readings of the play (which keep the first Williams encounter, but the not second).  Audiences see a discontinuity when a King in full armor plays a practical joke. The moment falls in the middle of a set of clearly solemn moments.  Henry also appears to set up for mockery and possible execution one of the soldiers who has just won the battle for him. The fact that the beginning of the scene is inundated with the repetition of the idea of a traitor and impending punishment, offsets the honesty of Williams. The way Henry offers a payment to Williams frames the treatment of other major themes in the play. The ASC touring troupe actors presented the scene first as lighthearted, and then as sinister. Even when presented humorously there is a threat, and even when sinister, there is some humor in the scene.  This scene may also remind audiences/readers of Jack Cade.  (Time and the ASC bear cut the paper short).  Shakespeare wrote his plays knowing how things will be resolved, which is another reason for the strangeness of this moment.

Carlson:

Disparagement in the reading of a text and what some audience members perceive in the text and the performance can be used as dramaturgy. The audience and actor can build a character together.  Over-clarifying and tagging particular characters and motives through Shakespearean study leads to the problem of trying to present the “correct interpretation.” Striving for “correctness” is dissatisfying for audiences and actors.  Stanslavski methods say actors should “do” not “think” and that actors should not over-think characters but react. Actors must “not think” in order to act and simply try to obtain something from another character, or affect a change in the scene partner. This approach cuts out playing a state of being.  However, audience members can think that characters are types and bring qualities of the character to mind rather than what the character does. What audience members experience is neither inherently correct or incorrect, but a version of the story to which the audience can respond with different adjectives.  The audience proscribes what the character is rather than the actor trying to do so, the actor acts on an objective. It takes extensive textual work to get to the point where the actor has the objectives he wants to use and is able to use them in continuity with the text. Actors often struggle with directors who give direction based upon a state of being (ex. “you’re being too _____”) rather than helping to shape the objectives.  Directors have to shape their direction according to the language of the actor.  Using performance as a public dramaturgy is not “the right textual analysis” but a shared process of collaboration to create the art.

Urkowitz:

Urkowitz began his talk by asking everyone to gather the handout he provided that they might fill it out during the presentation. Theater, like an etching, is a form of visual arts, and there are many different kinds of changes which take place between any two productions of the same thing. (Urkowitz directed our attention to two different preparatory etchings by Rebrant for one of his works).  Each of Richard III’s brothers present the blood of their enemies to their father, and Richard presents the head.  Each is praised for his work, and Richard addresses the dead head, asking it as if it is dead (much like a child’s joke when a child addresses an inanimate object).  Richard appears to take delight in examining his handiwork. This same joke appears in Mucedorus when a character addresses the body of a dead bear and ask if it is dead. Severed head jokes must have been circulating in the theater at the time. Many textual adaptations to revised texts of the Henry plays highlight Richard III in monstrous ways. For more information please contact Urkowitz (the ASC bear took his paper too). There is an anxiety of humor to the plays and movement through degrees of sympathy.

Cook:

John Stow is a prolific writer, and commenter upon Shakespearean England.  He titled himself “gentleman” and was able to comment on the court as well as the town.  Even though scholars often turn to certain areas of Stow’s work, the annals provide a better idea of the play-going culture.  Scholars often overlook the surveys and Stow’s works with regard to theater.  Stow is able to comment on theater in the noble’s houses and he also uses the theater as a locale for many of reports.  He is extremely helpful in establishing the area around the theater.  Audience members often observed whippings, beatings, hangings, beheading, etc in their culture.  Therefore, they had a different visceral response to the violence the actors presented on stage.  Things actors presented on stage were able to be directly compared with real life experiences (such as the queen’s garments).  The sets of associations are very different for the playgoers then and now.  Many of the details of what actors presented in plays can be fleshed out with concurrent similar instances of historical events from the time period in the annals. Stow gives us great accounts of the life he shared with Shakespeare.

New Matter and Infinite Variety

There have been a spate of articles lately questioning the continual worth of Shakespeare. It’s a media trend that comes around every once in a while, and I suspect the most recent fad for it is related in some way to the UK’s ongoing debate about how much Shakespeare to include in the curriculum. We understand the argument on this side of the pond, too, where Shakespeare, and the humanities in general, are frequent targets for those who believe that STEM subjects are the only ones with intrinsic value. Today’s entry into the conversation is “Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?” from Michael Reisz at Times Higher Education, an article examining Shakespeare’s role in critical theory throughout the ages, wondering if scholarship has simply exhausted itself on this topic — if we’ve tapped out Shakespeare’s reserves. The article considers several different viewpoints, academic and practical, both from the ivory tower and from the trenches, and it got me thinking: my instinctive reaction to that question, “Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?” is “Yes, absolutely, and furthermore there will never stop being new things to say about Shakespeare.” But how do I back that up?

Because it’s true: there is a lot of scholarship out there, and it’s been accumulating for a long time. As Reisz’s article points out, a lot of it is outdated, or repetitive, or erroneous, or simply out-of-fashion, yet still, there it all sits, a looming Golgotha of the supposed wisdom of our forefathers and our peers. And, despite being a scholar of Shakespeare, in possession of an advanced degree on the topic, and someone who does devote most of my waking hours to his plays, I am all too aware that the scholarship can, itself, intimidate and put people off the subject. The sheer weight of all that analysis can feel oppressive, impossible to negotiate around — which is why, at the ASC, we put so much emphasis on exploration of the plays themselves. Dramaturgy and critical theory are great tools, but they should be a means, not an end. The scholarship should be there to help, not to terrify.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an educator more than a scholar, really. My focus is primarily on getting students to find things to love in Shakespeare, only secondarily on making my own contributions to the miasma of scholarship (and even when I make the attempt, as I’ll be doing at the upcoming Blackfriars Conference, it’s still with an eye towards improving accessibility). I’m more interested in a student’s personal background than I am in the history of a certain type of critical theory. I can find new ways of hearing Shakespeare’s words by listening to what high school students, without knowing new-historicism from a hole in the ground, deliver and discuss monologues that have personal meaning for them. And I can watch Dr. Ralph, who’s been teaching Shakespeare for forty years, become overwhelmed with glee at finding something new in a passage he’s visited a hundred times.

When will you have learned everything there is to learn from Shakespeare? When you have scanned every line, analyzed every rhetorical device, played every part. And then done it again. When you’ve done it at a different age, in a different location, in front of different audiences who are feeding different emotions back to you. When you’ve done it as a different gender. When you’ve done it as a member of a different race. When you’ve done it as a member of a different economic class. When you’ve done it in a different political climate. When you’ve done it in a prison, in a school cafeteria, in an open field. When you’ve experienced the words of his lovers immediately after having your own heart broken, and immediately before getting married. When you’ve experienced the cares and concerns of his parental figures as a rebellious teenager, as a new parent yourself, while celebrating, while grieving.

My point here is that Shakespeare will never stop having new things to teach us, because we bring ourselves to Shakespeare. As there will always be new people, there will always be new Shakespeare — and no one person is ever going to experience absolutely everything his plays have to offer, though we can (and should) listen to and learn from each others’ experiences. So too do our societal, cultural, and political conditions cast a different reflection on the plays: Julius Caesar plays far differently now than in 1813 or 1613; who knows what it will have to say for us in another twenty, fifty, hundred years? There is no amount of scholarship that can account for all the variables which humanity has to offer.

A way of examining Shakespeare might grow stale, a particular production might be uninspired, but — well, Shakespeare has something to say about that, too. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. Someone who hasn’t found something new in Shakespeare — if not new to the world, then at least new to an individual experience — just isn’t trying hard enough, or perhaps just isn’t open enough to the possibility of discovery, in art or in himself. Remove the prescription of Shakespeare as medicinal tonic, which I think so much scholarship can engender in the casual participant or new student, and you get back to joy of what his words help us find in ourselves. All the mountains of literature written about Shakespeare’s plays do nothing to diminish the brilliant flame of a teenage girl discovering for the first time that Beatrice is speaking her language and her heart. I rather think the latter is more beautiful and more valuable than anything you’ll find on JSTOR.

So yes, Virginia, there is something new in Shakespeare — but I can’t tell you what it is, what it might be for you, whoever you are, wherever you come from. I sure hope you’ll find it and tell me about it, though.

“If’t be summer news, smile to’t before”

Accolades for ASCTC 13 Session 1 CampersWhoever dubbed this time of year “the lazy days of summer” sure didn’t work for ASC Education. We’re much more about “the very Midsummer madness”. Perhaps most prominently, this is the time when we host the annual ASC Theatre Camps for high school students. We’re in the  middle of Session 2 now, with students deep into work on The Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Their final performances are on Sunday, August 4th. Though it can sometimes feel like the camps dwarf all other activity during the summer, they are far from the extent of ASC Education’s aestival programming — and this year, we seem to have more going on than ever before.

Since 2010, we have also held a summer camp for adults, the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp. This summer, we’re taking the show on the road and heading to London for a week exploring Shakespeare’s old haunts. Several friends of the ASC, including MBC Professor Mary Hill Cole, archaeologist Julian Bowsher, eminent Oxford scholar Dr. Tiffany Stern, Globe Education Director Patrick Spottiswoode, craftsman Peter McCurdy, and director and actor Nick Hutchison, are graciously sharing their time and expertise with the group. Our travels will take us to many important London monuments, as well as some lesser-known gems, including: the Bloomsbury and Covent Garden districts, the Globe, the new Wanamaker Theatre, Shoreditch, St. Bartholomew’s, St. Paul’s, the National Portrait Gallery, several of the colleges of Oxford, the Blackfriars District, Guildhall, the Inns of Court, Southwark Cathedral, the Museum of London, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where Ralph is delivering a lecture on the early modern Blackfriars Theatre and our Blackfriars Playhouse as part of the “Shakespearean London Theatres” series. We’ll see A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth at the Globe and One Man, Two Guv’nors at the Haymarket. We’ll also be exploring London’s culinary delights, from traditional pubs to Thai and curries. It hardly seems possible with all of those scheduled wonders, but we’ll also all have some time to explore the city on our own. (I’m hoping to catch a musical in the West End on one of our free nights, since, as I’ve confessed before, musical theatre is another of my great loves). Since I’m something of a photo-hound, I’m sure I will return with many, many pictures of our adventures, so look for those on Facebook and in an upcoming blog post, and if you follow me on Twitter (@ASC_Cass), I’ll be posting real-time updates with hashtag #NKSC13.

Summer is also a great time for Educator Resources. In 2011, we began hosting Summer Seminars in addition to our already-established school-year programs, and two weeks ago, we hosted the 2013 Summer Special Teacher Seminar, welcoming teachers from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Michigan. This seminar was a “Class to Cast” special, focusing on methods of producing a Shakespeare play in the classroom or as an after-school activity. We covered everything from cutting and doubling to audition techniques, from tablework to blocking and embedded stage directions, from marketing to music. You can hear the playlist we built for The Comedy of Errors on Spotify, and the Study Guide we used is available on Lulu. Here are just a few of the comments we received from teachers who attended this seminar:

  • “This was the best and most useful workshop I have ever taken.” — Martin Jacobs, Lincoln High School, Ypsilanti MI
  • “I would love to attend Class to Cast again. I feel comfortable with Shakespeare as an English teacher, but I knew very little about directing. This seminar gave me a good sense of the overall process of putting on a show, including things like stage management and marketing, which, as an English teacher, I probably would have overlooked. I learn something new and understand my prior knowledge even better every time I come to a seminar, so I would definitely come back. … Most of my other professional development experiences have been full of generalities without actionable suggestions. I can see direct applications of the techniques from this seminar, such as scansion, reading from cue scripts, and cutting the text, to my classroom.” — anonymous
  • “AMAZINGLY helpful! I would recommend this (and have!) and will be returning.” — Jeffrey Cole, Director of Education, Henley Street Theatre/Richmond Shakespeare
  • “I am used to attending seminars that are presented in a strictly academic manner. This seminar called upon me to participate fully, heart, mind, and , body in exciting ways. … I would not hesitate to recommend the seminar to a high school drama or English teacher. My first thought at the end of each day was that I didn’t want it to end. My first thought at the completion of the seminar was, “When can I take another ASC seminar?” The instructors were extraordinarily knowledgeable, creative, and articulate. Now, I understand why so many of the people taking the seminar return again and again.” — Barbara Johnson, Drama Instructor, Faith Christian School
  • “I will be back for sure! This was an AWESOME workshop! … Cass and Sarah were exceptional hosts and provided a wide-reaching program that really helped to capture and address some of my hesitance with approaching Shakespeare. With greater confidence, I plan to embrace the Bard this upcoming fall!” — anonymous

We were thrilled to welcome so many enthusiastic educators, and we thank them for being willing to step outside of their comfort zones for a few days. Best of luck to them as they take on the challenge of directing in their schools! And we hope to see everyone back for future seminars.

Summer is also, as Sarah noted back in June, high tide for our flow of interns. Our offices are teeming over with eager students, working on a variety of different projects. Just this week, we welcomed Ellington, a rising senior at Oberlin University, who will be working on media and technology for us. Jess, who will be with us through the fall, is preparing dramaturgy packets for the upcoming Actors’ Renaissance Season. Emily has joined the World’s Mine Oyster troupe, preparing materials for The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as helping with their workshop prep. Self-described “jack of all trades” intern Sadie is helping out with Hospitality, Development, and the Box Office, and Sara has delved into our archives. To keep up with our fabulous interns and their research, following the ASC Interns’  Blog.

So, once the summer ends, do things slow down at all? Not in the least. As soon as schools are back in session, we begin welcoming groups for tours, workshops, and Little Academes, as well as starting our regular Student Matinee schedule and the Blackfriars Lecture Series. Our Fall Teacher Seminar is October 4-6th, focusing on Romeo and Juliet and All’s Well That Ends Well. And, of course, the 7th Blackfriars Conference occurs at the end of October. Acceptance letters for plenary papers and colloquy sessions will go out next week, and then we set to work finalizing the schedule, arranging banquets, preparing entertainment, printing programs and nametags, arranging catering, and shepherding all the other miscellany that go into making the Blackfriars Conference a unique and valuable experience for all of the scholars and practitioners who attend. Like the ASC’s Artistic Department, performing shows 52 weeks a year, ASC Education is truly a year-round institution, and we hope that you’ll come to the Blackfriars Playhouse soon — or talk to Sarah about bringing our Education Artists to you, wherever you are.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Rehearsals – Special Effects

Just because the Blackfriars Playhouse is a theatre which embraces Shakespeare’s staging conditions doesn’t mean that we don’t use technology in our shows; it means that we use technology that would have been available to Shakespeare and his company, and in many cases, those techniques can produce dazzling effects. Watching the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season troupe rehearse Julius Caesar allowed me to see the wonderful resourcefulness and creativity that goes into creating a spectacle on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage.

Dan Kennedy and Rene Thornton Jr.;
photo by Jay McClure

I talked in my last blog post about the traffic patterns backstage, and those patterns are particularly important during the storm scene in Julius Caesar — which actually crosses over parts of four scenes, from 1.3 through 2.3. Even when only two or three characters appear on-stage, every actor in the troupe has something to do, either creating special effects or preparing to enter — or, very often, one and then the other, in rapid succession. It puts me in mind of a swimming swan: the surface image may be polished and serene, but underneath the water, there’s an energetic whorl of action. Conversations during the storm creation process then depended largely on who could be where when and for how long. Alli Glenzer, for example, is creating a visual effect using the Rose Window, which is a bit of a hike from the stage, and so she had to figure out how much of the storm she could create that effect for in order to leave her enough time to make her entrance in 2.1. Who could take over the thunder sheets so that Ben Curns could get downstairs for his entrance in 2.2? How long should the ocean drum keep going before it becomes distracting? Is this “thunder and lightning” cue long, short, or medium? The troupe had to negotiate all of these considerations to form a coherent scene.

Many of the special effects also demonstrate the benefit of a repertory troupe. While putting the storm together, I heard John Harrell say, “Remember what we discovered last year, about the bass on the piano?” He set to work re-creating that sound, and Friday night, I heard another audience member commenting on it as part of the soundscape. Other influences came from recent productions both in Ren Seasons and Summer and Fall Seasons, from The Tempest, from Dido, Queen of Carthage, from The Roman Actor. Conversely, for the battle noises in Act Five and the flourishes throughout, the troupe consciously chose not to use the same effects they have been using in the past. For four years now, the Ren Season has featured the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, and those plays have used similar soundscapes, creating a coherent thread throughout the tetralogy: identifiable trumpet calls for coming and going, the clashing of swords backstage accompanied by shouts to create the alarums. For Julius Caesar, the troop decided to use different musical cues for flourishes and to keep up a military stomping backstage during the battle scenes. The effect is striking, invoking the lock-step precision of the vast Roman legions without ever needing to see more than a few soldiers on-stage. The march took a lot of practice, though, and as Alli Glenzer pointed out, several scenes’ worth of stomping gave her character Strato a perfectly good reason to be falling asleep while Brutus is trying to find someone to assist his suicide. When the soldiers in 5.5 enter tired, the off-stage needs of the show have informed their on-stage performance in an unexpected way.

Ronald Peet, Chris Johnston, and Grant Davis; photo by Jay McClure

Almost all Shakespeare plays call for more sound cues than I think most of us are aware of when we just read the play, and it isn’t just for the “big” moments like storms or battles. All of those stage directions for flourish, sennet, tucket, alarum just sort of fade into the background. As I sat watching our troupe walk through the cue-to-cue Julius Caesar on the Thursday afternoon of their three-day rehearsal process, I became consciously aware of just how much has to go on back-stage to make the story on-stage make sense. In order for Cassius to say “the clock hath strucken three,” someone has to be upstairs striking a chime. Before Brutus can tell Lucius to see who’s at the gate, someone has to knock. Almost every scene has some such requirement, and at the ASC, none of those noises are electronically-generated or automated. Music forms part of the soundscape of the play as well, both during the pre-show and interlude and within the play itself. Julius Caesar opens with “Clap Your Hands” by The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a wonderful piece which calls for clapping, stomping, and cheering from the audience, setting the mood perfectly for the jubilant chaos of the first scene. As Lucius in 4.2, Ronald Peet plays Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” as a “sleepy tune,” and the lyrics (“It’s not what you thought when you first began it,” for example) perfectly suit Brutus’s increasingly difficult situation.

Not all of the special effects in Julius Caesar are auditory in nature or occur from off-stage. While in many plays, you can get away with leaving blood out of murders and battles, in this play, the text calls too much attention to the viscera. At least in Caesar’s assassination, the audience needs to see the red run. While some productions in recent decades have chosen to stylize the blood, using cloth or ribbons, our actors opted for liquid. It makes sense with the text, since Shakespeare makes so much of the ability of blood to transfer visibly from Caesar’s corpse onto various hands and daggers. In order for those “purpled hands” to “reek and smoke,” in order for Antony to shake all those “bloodied fingers,” the audience needs to see what a mess an assassination makes. Our Caesar, Ben Curns, worked with Costume Manager Erin West to create a trick shirt — identical to the white dress shirt he wears throughout the rest of the role, but in which he can conceal six blood packets, one for each conspirator. In Shakespeare’s day, these blood packets might have been actual bladders filled with pig’s blood procured from the local butcher’s shop. Today, we use a laundry-friendly syrupy solution.

Chris Johnston, Sarah Fallon, Ben Curns, Grant Davis,
and John Harrell; photo by Jay McClure

The effect when all six blood packets pop is delightfully gruesome, but getting all six to pop took some practice. It adds an additional level of difficulty to the combat of that scene — already tricky, given the number of people involved. Each of the actors not only has to be exquisitely precise about how they place their hands and daggers, but they have to find a way to squeeze, smack, twist, or otherwise puncture the blood packets, and they only have a brief second or two in which to do so. The picture at left shows what happened during the first attempt, when several of the cast members had trouble. By Saturday night, however, they had it — all of the packets popped to great effect, allowing Ben to clutch at his supposedly spilling guts, then touch René Thornton (playing Brutus), leaving a visible streak on his face. The conspirators had plenty of blood to bathe their hands in, and the scarlet sheen glinted off of their daggers. It makes their exit a more striking image, and I realized, from a practical standpoint, why Shakespeare might specify that they exit “waving [their] red weapons o’er [their] heads” — it keeps them from touching any doors or curtains before they have a chance to wash up. Caesar lay bleeding on the stage for several minutes more, and when Antony and a servant dragged him off at the end, a vivid smear trailed behind him.

These special effects under the creative constraints of Shakespeare’s staging conditions illustrate clearly the blend of practicality and theatricality that dictates production at the ASC all year, and which drives shows during the Ren Season in particular. The actors are looking for simple answers to their problems, yes, but without sacrificing impact to the audience. Sitting in the rehearsal room during the building of the storm, I could feel the actors’ excitement building over the discoveries they were making and the solutions they were building. There was a current of satisfaction as it came together, with several of the actors commenting on how very “cool” the effects were. This is part of why we, in ASC Education, encourage teachers to explore the value in Shakespeare’s technology. Sometimes the challenge of working as Shakespeare’s company would have yields results that are all the more impressive and more satisfying.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Rehearsals – Taking Shape

Julius Caesar is now up on its feet, and as dramaturg, I bore witness to the orchestrated frenzy that put an entire show together in three days of rehearsal. For any readers unfamiliar with the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, it is the time of year when we employ some of Shakespeare’s rehearsal conditions in addition to the staging conditions that we embrace year-round. Our actors direct themselves, determine their own schedules, plan their own music for the preshow and interlude, pull their costumes from our stock — and do it all in a fraction of the rehearsal time as the shows in our Summer and Fall Seasons. Since we began the accelerated start-up and short rehearsal time for the first show of the Ren Season in 2009, that first show has typically been a popular comedy that our actors are familiar with and can put up quickly (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado about Nothing). This year, the actors take a crack at Julius Caesar in the first slot, a show which was last performed by the 2006-2007 touring troupe, and which has not been part of a Summer and Fall Season since the opening of the Playhouse in 2002. This choice thus provided a few extra challenges for the troupe: a historical tragedy, complete with multiple fights, suicides, and an assassination involving a minimum of seven participants, and a show that the ASC has not put on since 2007.

Alli Glenzer, Dan Kennedy, and Ben Curns; photo by Jay McClure

Time is at a premium, particularly for the first show of the season. The troupe had eight hours Tuesday, eight hours Wednesday, and four hours Thursday before their first dress rehearsal, followed by another four hours to tweak and clean up on Friday before the first Pay-What-You-Will preview Friday night — and after opening weekend, there’s no respite, as they held their first read-through of The Country Wife Sunday evening. Scheduling becomes hugely important. For this show, one actor (René Thornton, playing Brutus) volunteered to take charge of plotting things out — and then made adjustments based on what the rest of the troupe thought necessary. As a sample, here’s the schedule for the first day of rehearsal:

10-10:45 – Morning Meeting
10:45-12 – violence – suicides, Caesar kill, Cinna the Poet, Act 5 skirmishes
12-12:30 – 1.1
12:30-1 – 1.2 A and C
1-2 – 1.2 B and D (stage) – music (Tyson)
2-3 – lunch break
3-3:30 – 2.1 C and D (stage) – 1.3 A and C (Tyson)
3:30-4:15 – 2.1 A and B
4:15-5 – 2.2 A (stage) – 4.2 B (Tyson)- 2.4 (lobby)
5-5:15 – 2.2 B
5:20-7 – 3.1 A-D

So that was the first half of the play, shot through in eight hours. The morning meeting was longer on the first day than any other, simply because it was the beginning of the season. The entire production team — including Artistic Director Jim Warren, Associate Artistic Director Jay McClure, Costume Shop Manager Erin West, Properties Manager Chris Moneymaker, and dramaturg yours truly — had some notes to give to start things out. They also started throwing together a music list on the whiteboard, knowing that music rehearsals during the Ren Season can often be catch-as-catch-can, and that the earlier they had some ideas to start on, the more prepared they could get by Friday.

This schedule also points to what the issues of largest and most pressing concern often are: the most complex scenes, with the most bodies on stage and with more elaborate blocking needs. Anything involving combat takes additional time to choreograph so that it will be both safe and entertaining. Ben Curns took responsibility for fights for this show and had already blocked some things out in his head, but they still needed to set aside a lot of time for the actors involved to learn the movements — and for adjustments to occur.

Sarah Fallon, Ben Curns, Rene Thornton Jr.; photo by Jay McClure

As I watched the rehearsals, the phrase I heard over and over again was: “That’s a shape.” The actors would invoke this phrase when they had gotten to the end of a scene with something workable, usually in regards to the blocking. The scene wasn’t finished, it wasn’t perfect, but it had a shape — a general outline, an idea of who needed to be where when. Hearing that phrase over and over again got me thinking about the ways in which shape and place matter, both on-stage and off-, during the Ren Season.

Often, more time goes into rehearsing entrances and exits than into the meat of the scene itself. (This only works, of course, because ASC actors are already well-trained in textual matters, and it’s part of the reason all members of ARS troupes are veterans of the Blackfriars Playhouse). Julius Caesar features a lot of group entrances and a lot of scenes with between 6 and 12 bodies on stage. Looking at that schedule for the first day shows that: 1.1 only has four characters on stage, but the audience is involved as well, one actor had to change into a costume from the pre-show, another had to get downstairs after playing music, and the actors had to negotiate props on top of it. 1.2 involves a ceremonial entrance and exit Caesar and his train, off-stage shouting, a flurried re-entry of all the characters who just went off, and their final exit. It also involves a long conversation between Brutus and Cassius, but, while René and Sarah Fallon worked that on their own, the most stage rehearsal time went to choreographing those group entrances and exits. 2.1 involves all of the conspirators coming to Brutus’s house — another mass entrance, with specific costume and prop needs — as does 2.2, and 3.1 is the largest scene in the play, with the most characters entering simultaneously, several exits and re-entrances, and, of course, the assassination of Caesar. (1.3 through 2.3 also involve a storm, but more on that in another blog post). And that’s just Day One — the second half of the play features the famous plebeian mob and a whole lot of combat.

It takes a lot of work and communication to make all of that run smoothly — and actors won’t always nail it on the first try. Some of those entrances they re-worked Friday afternoon, after the dress rehearsal, and some they tweaked along the way. The flow on-stage isn’t the only problem, after all, and some issues only became apparent during the dress. Grant Davis and Ronald Peet, for example, realized that they needed more time after their exit in 1.1, so on Friday afternoon, they worked with Alli Glenzer and Dan Kennedy to figure out a way to hustle them off-stage faster, giving them more time to change. Other problems are architectural in nature, examples of the space itself influencing the work. Greg Phelps, as Antony in 3.2, only has about two lines to get from the balcony down to the stage, and he has to be there in time for the plebs to notice him and crowd around him. The plebeians had to test out a few different ways of delivering their lines in a way that gave Greg enough time to get down the stairs. Altogether, they probably spent more time on 3.2 than on any other scene in the play. The timing of the plebeians’ responses and movements has to be so precise in order to work the way they were hoping for, and as a further complication, many of the lines sound so similar or provide repeated cues. “Wow. That’s a lot of ‘will’s,” Greg observed in the middle of one sequence where he heard the word “will” from the plebs eight times, correctly cuing him only twice out of the eight. Finding the right rhythm for the scene took quite a bit of time, effort, and reiteration, but the resulting shape drives the audience along an exhilarating path.

Greg Phelps, Tracie Thomason, Abbi Hawk, and Grant Davis;
photo by Jay McClure

Blocking is a concern off-stage as well. Traffic patterns backstage can be as complex as those on-stage. Especially during Act 5, which involves a lot of rapid entrances and exits, skirmishes, and dragging dead bodies off-stage, I heard the actors discussing who could be in the discovery space or not at which times. But beyond that, the space in the rest of the theatre matters as well. As anyone who has ever taken a Playhouse Tour knows, the actors and production team arrange props and costumes methodically backstage. Chris Moneymaker had to remember to move the ARS props-gathering table away from the area of Tyson inhabited by the Tempt Me Further tour until they head back out on the road, to avoid any collisions or mix-ups.  I heard John Harrell refer to the “band corner” — a section of the downstairs area set aside during this time for instruments and music rehearsals. All of these little considerations build together into the background flow of the play, the moving pieces that the audience never sees but which are absolutely critical to a smooth performance.

Throughout the rehearsal process, what struck me most was the blend of communication and organization that makes the Ren Season run. These actors work well together and share a common language, making them a well-oiled machine — even though this precise troupe has never worked together before. Sarah and Dan are returning after seasons away from the ASC, and Ronald, Grant, Abbi Hawk, and Tracie Thomason were all here in 2012 but are new to the Ren Season. The ASC embraces the ensemble nature of theatre and performs in repertory year-round, but the Ren Season brings all of the necessary components into sharper focus. The result is a season unlike any other, full of its own special (and sometimes frenetic) energy.