Leadership Seminar: Cue Scripts and Killing Caesar

It’s IP week here with ASC Education! Since 2012, we have hosted an annual leadership training event for International Paper, a truly massive corporation producing paper goods of all kinds and total ubiquity — chances are good there’s an IP product within your arm’s reach at this very moment!

One of the most rewarding components of the week is watching our groups grow from day to day, both in the work they do on personal presentation and structuring their personal statements, as well as in the scenework we do with them. On Tuesday, small groups of three or four put together short scenes from Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew. Yesterday, groups of six and seven tackled Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. And today? Today they killed Caesar.

Killing Caesar is, as I’ve noted before, one of my very favorite things to do. What makes it extra special during IP week is seeing how far these folk have come in just a few days. On the first day, many are hesitant, both of the words and of offering their ideas. This morning, they hardly needed the coaches in the room at all. They could find embedded stage directions, make suggestions to each other, and negotiate the needs of the scene to tell a story, all with very little guidance.

They’ll have their final performances tomorrow, but for now, I wanted to share a few pics from today’s rehearsal:

Book Review: Shakespeare’s Restless World, by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeares-Restless-World-coverToday, modern Americans bring our anxieties about war, religion, race, the economy, and politics with us when we go to see movies or when we watch TV. In Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects, MacGregor explicates how the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences did exactly the same thing — just with different particulars. This book is a material history wherein the author hopes to illuminate the “mental scenery” that 16th and 17th century audiences would have brought with them into the playhouses. MacGregor uses twenty physical objects, many of them recovered from the banks of the Thames or the ruins of various theatres, to structure his chapters, and the conceit works very well. A Venetian glass introduces the chapter on London’s burgeoning status as a center of trade, in competition with Venice. Gold coins from Morocco sets the reader up for a discussion of race relations in early modern England. A silver communion cup from Stratford gives us a glimpse into the fraught state of religion in the 16th century. A humble woolen cap, probably belonging to an apprentice, opens up the world of London’s vast working class, their daily habits, and the restrictions on their clothing. Some other artifacts are paper or paint: a portrait detailing the Tudor succession, rejected designs for the Union flag, a royal proclamation, sketches for the triumphal arches used during James’s coronation parade. MacGregor ties these objects not just to their historical context, but also to Shakespeare’s plays, conjecturing on how certain props or staging moments would have held specific connotations for the original audience. Through these links, he also gives the reader a fairly comprehensive view of political, religious, and social history of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The writing throughout the book is accessible, and also quite witty on occasion — see what he does with Venus, Adonis, and the plague in Chapter Seventeen. Another great linguistic moment is in “The Theatres of Cruelty,” modeled around the eye relic of Jesuit martyr Edward Oldcorne (his right eye, in fact, placed in a silver box), where MacGregor notes that many of Shakespeare’s head-chopping, eye-gouging, tongue-eviscerating stage directions are “what we would call strictly post-watershed.” The cleverness never hits you over the head in a self-conscious way, but it suffuses the book thoroughly enough to add felicity to what could easily have been a dry tome. This is also just a nice book to hold. Since it was produced for the British Museum, it’s printed on heavy paper, with all the pictures embedded with the text they relate to, rather than stuffed into a glossy insert.

The last chapter of the book is the one of these things that is not like the other: a modern artifact. MacGregor brings the book full circle by talking about how “Shakespeare Goes Global.” He makes the important observation that while the original context of the plays clearly matters (as is the premise of the entire book up to that point), the plays also have the ability to create new context for themselves in the modern world. Two examples from this chapter are particularly heartstring-tugging: a line from Richard III echoing through the mind of a German-Polish Jew in Warsaw, 1942, and the grounding artifact for the chapter, a Complete Works owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam on Robben Island, the South African jail made infamous during the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s. These stories illustrate with poignant accuracy just how much Shakespeare’s words find ways to speak to new generations, all over the world. MacGregor also connects this universality back to the 17th century, underscoring that Shakespeare’s proliferation and posthumous popularity might never have been possible if not for the 1623 First Folio.

Overall, Shakespeare’s Restless World is thoughtful, well-organized, and thoroughly interesting, start-to-finish. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or in the Tudor-Stuart era, or to anyone who’s interested in material history in general. It’s an easy enough read that it shouldn’t scare off casual readers, but it showcases enough particular moments in history to hold the attention of a more advanced scholar. You don’t get a dispassionate textbook walking you through a timeline of events, but rather a series of windows into the real lives of Elizabethan and Jacobean citizens. Shakespeare’s Restless World provides a wealth of information, but in a unique format, giving the reader a panoramic view of early modern London through the varied lenses of twenty concrete objects.

“You must translate; ’tis fit we understand.”

Sarah works with students during a Little Academe.

Sarah works with students during a Little Academe.

As ever, I find myself wrestling with “Shakespeare in Translation.”  I have been invited, as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Association Executive Board, to travel to Brazil for 10 days next month to serve as an adviser on a reconstructed Globe that the Instituto Gandarela is looking to build.  Never mind that this is a trip to Brazil (!!!) or that I will get to work with the amazing Peter McCurdy, the builder behind Shakespeare’s Globe and their new indoor playhouse, The Wanamaker (and a good friend to the ASC). As I prepare for this trip, I am wondering how to get past our condemnation of “No Fear Shakespeare”-style translations (as so eloquently argued by our friends at the Folger Shakespeare Library) yet fight the good fight for Shakespeare in other languages.

Word has it (how I wish I could personally confirm) that the productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London last summer as part of the Globe to Globe celebration were stunning and amazing explorations of theatrical production.  I have personally, and to my delight, had the opportunity to see Der Brudermord, a German translation of Hamlet directed by Christine Schmidle at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  The play was fun, and I didn’t have too much trouble following the story, despite it being in German (full disclosure: I am familiar with the English version).  I thought the experience brought me closer to what German audiences seeing the play in English in the 17th century may have experienced, but I didn’t note any particularly stirring phrases or textual expertise that stirred me to embrace the play as I did when I saw Hamlet performed for the first time by Khris Lewin on our stage.  At that performance, the “nunnery” rang in my ears, the “rant” struck my senses, the players “did not saw the air too much,” and I knew why.

My original training, in Theatre Arts, should provide a clear answer to my questions about these translated productions.  Good theatre, good productions, good performances should satisfy the quandary. But, since immersing myself in the performance of Shakespeare here, I find that I cannot break those things from the text. From the words. From the arrangement of the words to form verse, to shape rhetorical figures, and to provide clues like embedded stage directions.  Our practice is so engaged with the methods we think Shakespeare and his actors engaged with (see Tiffany Stern’s Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, see the American Shakespeare Center’s Actors’ Renaissance Season podcasts, see our current education workshops list), that I don’t know where to begin with the question.  But I would love to start a conversation. Are you an ESL/ELL student who loves (or, for that matter, hates) Shakespeare? Are you fluent in language other than English and have read (or written) translations? Are you a professor in Japan or Taiwan (as some of our Conference attendees are) who is working with students? What are you focused on when you discuss or play with Shakespeare? Do you find that Shakespeare has an influence on Portuguese? Or French? Can you recommend a place for those of us engaged in building a Global network of Shakespeare theatres (including education departments) to go to find a common thread for exploration with our foreign language students and audiences?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, working with Cass and Kimberly and our fabulous interns, to finding ways to make the work with do with all of our students deeply engaging and illuminating.

–Sarah

“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.

Shakespeare’s Influence, Far and Wide

It’s April 23rd again, and that must mean it’s time for the Shakespeare Birthday Project. I’m pleased to once again be taking part in this celebration of Shakespeare’s life and the great joy he’s brought to so many people for so many years.

The thing of it is — I wasn’t quite sure what to write about this year. I’ve already devoted a post to how Shakespeare shaped my life path, and last year I discussed his inspirational power to teachers. Fortunately, circumstances aligned to provide me an avenue for discussion, because this year, Shakespeare’s birthday falls swift on the heels of an incredible eight-day stretch of ASC Education seminars. We began on Friday the 12th with our Spring Teacher Seminar, and that barreled straight into this year’s second annual week-long International Paper Leadership Seminar. Having these two events back up against each other allowed me to see the full spectrum of engagement with Shakespeare, from our super-excited educators, eagerly throwing themselves into immersion, to a group of business professionals, lawyers, and mill foremen, most of whom had little lifetime exposure to Shakespeare, and some of whom primarily spoke languages other than English.

There are ways in which our Teacher Seminars are like shooting fish in a barrel, because those educators (particularly those attendees who come multiple times a year) are always hungry to indulge their love of Shakespeare. That can be a double-edged sword, however, because it means I feel a lot of pressure to give them new, exciting material. So, for this event, I was pleased to be able to give them over to our Tempt Me Further tour actors for two workshops. I think they always get different insights from such active practitioners, even if they’re covering the same material that Sarah and I would. They also got to listen to a Master Minds lecture from an MBC graduate student and had the opportunity to discuss common misconceptions about early modern female performance with her. Best of all, though, they threw themselves willingly into every activity, listening attentively, offering their own viewpoints, and feverishly scribbling notes to take back to their own classrooms. Thanks to their enthusiasm and cheerful participation, I finished the weekend feeling, as I typically do after Teacher Seminars, more energized, rather than drained.

Our Leadership Seminars are a different animal, since the people we see for those typically come from well outside the world of Shakespeare or even of education. On the first day of this program, the International Paper coordinator asked the participants to rate their impression of Shakespeare on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “would rather eat glass” to 10 meaning “have a secret crush on him.” We heard a few encouraging responses of 8+, but we also heard (not unexpectedly), a few in the 1-3 range — so we had our work cut out for us. We know that going in, though, and we’re always up for the challenge. 

The Leadership Seminar involves three major focus points: exploring Shakespeare’s examples of leadership through demos led by our actors and discussed by Dr. Ralph; writing and performing personal statements about a work-related challenge; and building short scenes in small groups through the use of cue scripts. Many of the challenge statements, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused precisely on the obstacle of communication — some of those quite literal, from those facing language barriers, others more abstract, as new leaders learn to negotiate team motivation or the transmission of information between departments. Others don’t feel like their team’s needs are always heard and recognized by those higher up in the organization. Our goal in a Leadership Seminar is to give participants the tools, using Shakespeare as inspiration and the vocal and physical techniques of the actors as a form to build around, to address these issues effectively once they return home. We examine both the technical construction of their statements as well as their presentation skills, adjusting each day. The difference from the start of the week to the end is always dramatic — and the great joy of it is getting to watch people get better at something through the coaching and exploration. We see the participants start to use their voices and their bodies to greater effect; we see them train themselves to plant their feet, stand up straight, and make eye contact; we hear them reconfigure their thoughts to be more evocative and persuasive.

What impressed me the most about our group from International Paper, though, was how game everyone was to try things out, even if they were uncomfortable, even if we were asking them to dig into something that was not their native language. It wasn’t easy work much of the time, but the participants were willing to engage and to make the attempt — and that makes all the difference. What they discovered was that Shakespeare is funny, moving, expertly constructed, and, the greatest surprise of all, often relevant to their own lives. The cue script activities taught them lessons about communication, leading by listening, and working as a team. The work they did showed the group that Shakespeare’s company faced many of the same basic problems they do in their positions. The demos, and the scenes themselves, often illustrated how those issues of communication, credentialing, and empathy speak across boundaries of time and language. Several participants ended up working Shakespeare’s lines, in direct quotation or in more oblique reference, into their challenge statements. Are all of these people likely to refer to Shakespeare often in their everyday lives? It’s unlikely. But they may think a little more positively about him — I think we converted some of those 1-3s into at least 5-7s by the end of the week, and we got at least a few lines into their mouths and into their brains. 

So, happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! Thank you for continuing not only to provide me with a career, but with the opportunity to share positive experiences with so many, so different people. May we continue to celebrate your natality for centuries to come.

Leadership Seminar: International Paper

Last week, ASC Education embarked on a bit of an experiment by holding our first-ever week-long Leadership Seminar. We’ve been holding shorter seminars, anywhere from a quarter-day to two full days, since 2003, but this was our first go at expanding that model. A group of professionals from International Paper joined us Monday evening through Friday afternoon for a week examining persuasive techniques in Shakespeare’s plays, practicing communication and presentation skills, and exploring problem-solving techniques in teams.
The group consisted of individuals from many facets of the company – sales, IT, marketing, transit, legal, food services – and was truly international, with members from China, Venezuela, India, and Poland. Most of this group had little to no experience with Shakespeare, and for those international participants, it was literally a foreign language to them. So we had quite a challenge ahead of us, to get this group not only to see what Shakespeare could teach them about leadership, but to get them to have a good time doing it.
It totally worked, and in large part precisely because of Shakespeare’s stagecraft. All we had to do was show them the tools; once they got those down, they could see all the directions that he writes into his plays – everything from prop needs to movement to emotions to status markers. With that empowerment behind them, they easily grew out of their fear and into not just appreciation of but enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s plays.
Leadership Seminar participants from International Paper, back three rows, with ASC coaches and staff, front row.
Photo by Ralph Alan Cohen
 We structured our week as follows: Each morning, we examined “Shakespeare’s Models of Leadership,” examples of effective or ineffective leaders in Shakespeare. This included everyone from the obvious examples and heavy hitters – Henry V, Richard III, Antony – to less-overt or less-well-known examples of leadership and communication: Claudius, Feste, Jack Cade, Beatrice. The IP group got to watch our talented actors present scenes and monologues, and then Ralph talked through them, drawing attention to particular points of persuasion, audience appeal, personal presentation, and other aspects of communication. These examples gave us a ground level to start from and a common experience to point back at as examples throughout our other activities.
Early in the week, the group also heard from a few real-life, modern-day experts in communication and leadership, including Ronald Heifetz, the co-founder of and senior lecturer at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and author or co-author of several important books on leadership, including Leadership without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line, and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. In his lecture, Heifetz talked about a leader needing to be able to “look down from the balcony” – referring to the ability to step back and look at the big picture. That language stuck with the group throughout the week. Again and again, they considered the benefits of standing apart from a situation, taking up residence on that imaginary balcony and exploring the advantages the new viewpoint provided them. Several of the participants mentioned Heifetz’s lecture as a critical component to the week, providing them with inspiration and with some concrete ideas to return to as they worked through their own leadership styles.
In the rest of the day, we explored language analysis and presentation in two ways. The first was by having the participants construct, practice, review, and alter “challenge statements” – brief descriptions of some challenge they are facing in their professional or personal lives. Confused? Here’s one that one of our actor-coaches, Gregory Jon Phelps, wrote during our planning sessions, which we gave to the IP group as an example:
When presented with the task of writing this Challenge Statement, it seemed at first to be an easy assignment; its purpose clear, structure simple, and design helpful toward fully understanding the participants’ experience. However, the actual creation and construction of this statement, given all the possible subjects from which to choose, has, indeed, proven to be a challenge. The solution is simple: set aside the time it will take to write the statement, be alert and focused, and a subject will come to mind. It still seems easier said than done, though, since it is the actual deed itself, not the theoretical planning, that must be completed. Once the time has been blocked off, all other distractions have been dealt with properly, and an environment conducive to writing has been established, I’m confident that I will be inspired with a subject, that it will be effortless to write the statement, and that it will prove to be no challenge at all, but, in fact, quite fun.
The goal is to be simple, succinct, and persuasive – to be concise, but to make a strong point. We gave our participants a lot of different things to consider. Who might their intended audience be? How can they appeal to that audience? Are numerical details important? Or a personal anecdote? Do they want to present a problem and then suggest a solution? Or just focus on the problem itself? There are a lot of options; the goal is for the participants to find the approach that will work best for them, to find the way to tell the story they most want to tell. Working through these, we asked the participants to consider both their physical and vocal presentation, using lessons learned from the coaches as well as from Doreen Bechtol’s morning warm-up sessions, as well as the structure of their thoughts, their word choice, patterns of speech, and specificity of language.
The second exploration challenged the participants to put together scenes out of cue scripts. In many ways, this involved leadership in practice more strongly than anything else they did during the week. Due to the nature of cue scripts, each member of the team only had part of the information necessary to build the scene, so they had to figure out how to communicate their needs to each other. The exercise also stresses the importance of listening, since one character might have embedded stage directions not in their own lines, but in what someone else says.
Both of these challenges made some of our participants pretty nervous on the first day. I could see the standard markers of hesitation and fear. We strove to combat those reactions by creating safe spaces for experimentation, and part of that meant starting in smaller, non-threatening groups. We started the week in small groups of three or four participants, attached to one coach (myself or one of the six actors working with us through the week: Miriam Donald Burrows, John Harrell, Daniel Kennedy, Gregory Jon Phelps, René Thornton Jr., and Jeremy West). Those small groups worked through both the challenge statements and the cue scripts on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, we teamed up into groups of five and six, with two coaches: slightly wider range of feedback for challenge statement, slightly larger and more complex scenes to work through. Thursday, we glommed further into groups of ten and twelve, with three or four coaches, and on Friday morning, the entire group presented their final challenge statements and final scenes. This structure allowed the experience to build from simple to complex, as well as fostering the participants’ increased confidence each step of the way.
IP participants rehearse a scene from Julius Caesar,
with acting coach Daniel Kennedy visible, lower right.
Photo by Cass Morris
It was amazing to watch. On Tuesday, my group members needed a lot of help from me. The coaches weren’t meant to direct, but I found that I did need to ask a lot of leading questions about both the challenge statements and the scenes. Is there another way you can try that? Was that a conscious choice, or an accident? Is there a place you can choose to move? What in the text tells you that? Who are you saying that to? So, too, my group had a lot of questions for me – about the language, about pronunciation, about character relationships. I gave them only the bare necessities, nudging them to look in the text for clues.
And they got there. By Friday morning, with four coaches in the room, they barely needed us at all. Many times, I would notice myself or one of the other three coaches in the room start to open our mouths to suggest something or to ask a question – only to shut them again because the group had already gotten there, had already found the clue in the text. The language was no longer a barrier. They were hunting out clues, listening for embedded stage directions, considering the stage picture and the requirements of the scene, making decisions about who could and should stand where, and when they should move. I could hardly keep from bouncing with glee, it was such a thrill to watch them, knowing how far they had come in just a couple of days. What’s more – they were laughing their way through it, enjoying even the errors, making big and bold choices and delighting in the process. I love things like this, because it verifies what we claim about Shakespeare – that he wrote those clues into the text, that he wrote for actors, with the ideas of staging in mind.
Over the course of the week, we coaches became pretty attached to our groups. Having the privilege of seeing a group through from Day 1 to Day 5 was incredible, and when one of “mine” nailed something in a presentation, I felt a burst of pride (and sometimes couldn’t stop from doing a joyous fist-pump in the air). As we merged with other groups, it was also great to see how their members had evolved, what challenges they had faced that were similar to or different from ours, and how they integrated those ideas when working together.
The final challenge statements were a world apart from where the participants had started at the beginning of the week. Instead of mumbling voices, shuffling feat, hunched shoulders, and aimless sentences, we had bold tones, clear enunciation, excellent posture, straight backs, and focused statements. From hesitancy and obfuscation, we got confidence and clarity. (And, as a bonus, I think we all learned something about both the mechanics and the business of producing paper). The best part, though, was that I could sense the confidence our participants had gained over the week. At the beginning of the week, it had been a bit like drawing teeth to get anyone to volunteer to speak. By Friday morning, they were queuing up, eagerly anticipating their turns to take the stage.
One of the most touching moments was when one of the Chinese participants gave her final speech. She hadn’t been in any of my working groups, so I hadn’t had the opportunity to see her through that process of evolution. Instead, I got to see a night-and-day difference. The first day, she had been shy, uncomfortable with presenting in a foreign language, apologizing for herself (even though, as we pointed out, absolutely no one was judging her, since she certainly knows more English than any of us know Mandarin). On the last day, she delivered her challenge statement in Chinese, rather than in English. Having no Chinese myself, I didn’t understand a word, but I could still see a world of difference in her presentation. She was confident, she stood tall and straight, and even though I didn’t know what her words meant, I could tell which ones were important. She was choosing places to pause, choosing where to get louder or softer, and using her body to tell the same story of emphasis as her words. It was remarkable, and I know I wasn’t the only one getting a little choked up, seeing how far she – and all the others in the group – had come.
Following those scenes, we had one last conversation with the whole group, and here, the participants confirmed a lot of what I’d been seeing in practice. Getting to hear, in their own words, what this week had meant for them and what they had learned was incredibly valuable, and also quite touching. Several of them found the cue script exercises to be valuable, particularly for what it taught about giving and receiving focus, about when it’s a leader’s job to speak, and when it’s a leader’s job to listen. Others had awakened to the value of trying out a speech different ways, with different inflections or different word choices, of playing around with the language, and of giving themselves permission to try something that might not work in order to find the thing that would. Still others appreciated the opportunity to be vulnerable and to go through the process of self-auditing and reflection. They talked about the value of asking questions, of showcasing different aspects of communication, of learning about different kinds of leaders, and of finding inspiration in unexpected places.
One of the greatest joys in my job is getting to see people awaken to both the great value and the great joy of Shakespeare, and last week demonstrated both of those as thoroughly as I could imagine. Expanding the Leadership program to a full week gave me and the other coaches the opportunity to see the transformative nature of this kind of work. Best of all, throughout the entire week, I never heard a single person say, “No, I can’t do this” or “No, I won’t do this.” Skeptical as they were at the outset, they were still willing to try – and once they took that first step, the infinite variety lay ahead, just waiting for them. I can’t wait to do it again.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 24 February 2012

A few notes and points of interest from the world of Shakespeare studies this week:

  • London’s Globe Theatre has awarded its first PhDs to Sarah Dustagheer and Penelope Woods. These women are both friends of the ASC: Woods presented on audience studies at our 2009 Blackfriars Conference, and Dustagheer observed an Actors’ Renaissance Season, giving presentations to the MBC MLitt/MFA program on the differences between playing the Globe and playing the Blackfriars Playhouse. Congratulations to them both, and to the Globe for enacting this joint degree-awarding venture with Queen Mary, University of London, and King’s College London.
  • The new “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” exhibit at the Folger Library challenges the notion that early modern women didn’t write (or, as Virginia Woolf famously asserted, that, if they did, they must have been driven mad by the frustrations of it). The exhibit celebrates such notable female authors as Veronica Franco, Lady Anne Clifford, Lady Mary Wroth, the Mancini sisters, Aemilia Lanyer, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, and (my personal favorite early modern woman) Lady Mary Herbert. If you can’t make it to DC to see the exhibit in person, selections from it are also available online.
  • This week, the ASC welcomes alumni from Dartmouth College for a weekend of entertainment and scholarship. Peter Saccio, the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth College, was the editor of A Mad World, My Masters for the Middleton Complete Works. Saccio gave a public lecture last night, detailing some of the textual oddities of the script and what that can mean for the stage, and will give several private lectures to the Dartmouth group throughout the weekend.
  • Education Week featured an article on the challenge educators face when attempting to tie their lesson plans to Core Curriculum Standards. “Their current materials fall short, and there is a dearth of good new ones to fill the void.” ASC Study Guides (now available on lulu.com!) feature not only guidelines for fulfilling Virginia’s Standards of Learning, but also the U.S. Core Curriculum Standards.

As a final note, remember that you still have a few days to get in your nominations for the 2012 Shakespearean March Madness. I’ve already heard support for Hotspur, Cassius, the Duke of Cornwall, and Richard II. Pitch your pick for this no-holds-barred brawl here.

How did I get here?

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

Ah, the Blackfriars Conference 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will you remember?

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session XI

Hi! I’m Julia, I’ll be liveblogging Paper Session XI from 9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.

Moderator: Tom Berger, Saint Lawrence University

“Lyke unto a right weather woman”:
Prophecy and Performance in William Percy’s Mahomet and His Heaven

Daniel Keegan, University of California, Irvine

Keegan’s main purpose in discussing Mahomet and His Heaven was to show that the play is worth studying by students of Renaissance drama, although perhaps not worth performing. He showed that the Weather Woman element is an important key to the theme of hybridization in the play, a theme that is important to understanding characters within the play, and also to understanding Islam.

The Canonical Bard:
Ninagawa Yukio’s Attempt to Dismantle the Altar of Shakespeare in Japan

Sara Boland-Taylor, University of Illinois

Boland-Taylor presented Ninagawa as an interesting Japanese director who struggled against the way his countrymen viewed and performed Shakespeare as a pageant of Western culture. In his work, he made great strides in owning Shakespeare, using such creative tactics as setting The Tempest in a rehearsal at a prison, which eliminated the need for extraneous elements (such as blond wigs) that otherwise were considered necessary for performance of Shakespeare plays. Ninagawa crossed the ancient with the avaunt-garde in an attempt to embrace Shakespeare, and encouraged his audiences to do the same.

Rousing the Audience in the Sleep-Walking Scene:
Lady Macbeth as Faustus Figure

Anne Gossage, Eastern Kentucky University

Gossage posited the idea that instead of a crazy or asleep Lady Macbeth, she should wake up during the sleepwalking scene, so that her hysteria and anxiety are not from false visions but from the realization that the reality she fears is her reality; she has not dreamed it. Gossage also showed Lady Macbeth as a vice character, descending through the pit at the end of the scene while the Doctor and the Gentlewoman watch as the good and bad angels from above.

“I Have Given Suck:”
The Maternal Body in Sarah Siddons’ Lady Macbeth

Chelsea Phillips, Ohio State University

Phillips discussed the career of Sarah Siddons, who in the 18th century performed many of Shakespeare’s female roles while pregnant with her various children. Phillips focused on Siddons’ portrayal of a pregnant Lady Macbeth, because this choice in particular highlighted and transformed many of the references in Macbeth to children and motherhood, and also brought the subject of Banquo’s children’s succession to the throne to an interesting question.

“Dearer than a friend”:
The Satire of Relationship Dynamics in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Cass Morris, American Shakespeare Center

While many productions try to rush past the awkward ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or somehow correct for its strangeness, Morris suggests leaving the troubling moment as it is. She believes that Shakespeare was deliberately bringing to light the problems with the classical model of a divinely inspired male friendship, and she showed in her paper that Proteus and Valentine are following that model perfectly. Morris suggests that Sylvia’s silence after the attempted rape and after Valentine’s offer of her to Proteus is so far out of character that she could only be doing it on purpose to draw attention to the strangeness of the situation.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 20 January 2011

This week in Shakespeare: the Stratfordian defense, using technology to open up new avenues for learning, and promoting literature in education.

  • Bardfilm is on a mission, and we’d like to support it. In an attempt to show why anti-Stratfordians are, tragically, misinformed, the blog takes on first the Oxfordian conspiracy, then the Marlovian, then produces a list of resources for anti-anti-Stratfordians. Sarah says: Thank you for this reasoned critique of the argument. Cass says: I hope I see the day these anti-Stratfordian arguments get quashed once and for all, because it’s just sad, really. I do still think the Marlovian conspiracy would make a great movie, but the trouble is, if it got made, more people would believe these theories than already do.
  • Following up from the past few weeks of the Huck Finn censorship controversy, the Shakespeare Standard has an op-ed on why using sanitized texts is teaching a lie.
  • Remembrance of General Education Past. Sarah says: A lovely personal argument for the values of humanities courses.
  • Stolen Shakespeare Folio on Display in Cardiff. Cass says: I confess, when I first read the headline, my immediate thought was, “Wow, that takes a lot of nerve.” But no — it’s a Folio that was stolen but was then recovered, which makes far more sense.
  • Another idea about using technology to enhance the study of Shakespeare – this article on “Gadgets for Small Businesses” also includes an interesting Shakespeare-related use, specifically, the ability to read a scene and then, at a touch, being able to pull up several different versions of that scene in performance.
  • Touting the philosophy we whole-heartedly believe in, this British blog advocates actually seeing the plays you study.
  • And finally, for a little international flavor (following up after our last post), a refreshing take on the value of literature and its place in the school day… in China. “They were jumping up and down, telling the other kids what they read, and why others should read it. Every kid was dying to talk.” Would that all classrooms could have that energy!

I hope everyone’s had a lovely week. At ASC Education, we’re getting ready to hold our first Actor-Scholar Council of the year today, discussing The Comedy of Errors — stay tuned for the podcast of the event, which should be available sometime next week.