Director of Mission Response to the Globe Decision Regarding its Artistic Director

Sam Wanamaker’s success in building the Globe (Shakespeare’s celebrated outdoor theatre) provided much of the impetus for building the Blackfriars (Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, more celebrated in his day than the Globe).  For that reason, the Globe’s decision to part ways with new Artistic Director Emma Rice following next season is a matter that should be of interest to fans of the Blackfriars Playhouse and the American Shakespeare Center.

Because Ms. Rice is remarkable director with an exciting vision, her tenure has occasioned a serious conversation about the purpose of the Globe. The particular concern that sparked that conversation was her decision to add lighting and amplification to the shows in the Globe.  In doing so, she raised important questions about a fundamental reason for the careful re-creation of the building: to explore how plays Shakespeare designed for that space might work, not just to learn more about Shakespeare but to learn more about theatre as well.  

What concerns me as co-founder of the ASC and as a member of the Globe’s Architectural Review Group, is the way the press is framing the Globe’s decision.  Their easy view is that this is a battle between tradition and innovation – between those who want the shows in the Globe to be a kind of museum theatre and those who want to apply modern technology to the shows to make the plays contemporary.   

The reverse is true.  The technology that Emma Rice has installed in the Globe is the conventional lighting and sound available in every prosperous modern theatre.  She is a master of the use of that technology, but there is nothing new about it; fitting it into the Globe is a case – almost literally – of trying to put a square peg into a round hole.  By contrast, the Globe is a unique building.  Previous Globe directors – men and women – have drawn their inspiration from that building, and their exploratory work has been a wellspring of contemporary theatrical creativity.  They have helped us to look anew at the relationship between actor and audience, at live musical accompaniment, at movement, at costume, and at issues of gender and casting.

In that way, the Globe, as Sam Wanamaker intended, has reminded us of the value of the purely human in the theatrical experience.  In short, by using the space that inspired Shakespeare to look afresh at theatre unmediated by technology, the Globe has been a leader in creating unconventional theatre, and it has inspired theatre companies all over the world (most without connection to Shakespeare) to trust in the ability of actors and in the understanding of audiences to make great theatre without the support of performance-enhancing technology.  

The American Shakespeare Center is proud that the Blackfriars Playhouse is one of those unconventional theatres.

Guest Post: ‘The Sea Voyage’: On Directing a Read Not Dead Staged Reading

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

The Sea Voyage appeared in the ASC’s 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season. James Chalmers is a British actor, director, and producer who has worked with the Globe and the RSC. 


The Sea Voyage: On Directing a Read Not Dead Staged Reading
by James Chalmers

Where to begin? Shakespeare’s Globe kindly asked me to direct, or “co-ordinate,” a reading of The Sea Voyage on August 15th, 2010. Though it has now been some years since the joyous one-off event, the play has very firmly rooted itself in my mind, and I can unequivocally say it is one of the “shows” that I am most proud of having been a part of. I have attempted (through the mists of time and deterioration of grey matter – well a whole five years’ worth at any rate!), to elucidate how we approached this wonderful late Jacobean comedy by Fletcher & Massinger.

Firstly, it is important to understand the setting: The annual Read Not Dead season at Shakespeare’s Globe is a rare but vital beast. Launched in 1995, the annual series of staged readings explores and celebrates the plays performed in London Stages between 1567 and 1642, a repertoire that in playing has become greatly compressed overtime. In the UK, both Shakespeare’s Globe and The Royal Shakespeare Company have admirably dedicated seasons to Jacobean and Caroline plays; however, the number of fully-realised productions have barely made a dint in the canon of some 400 extant plays of this period. The bastion that is Read Not Dead has staged some 200 plays to date.

Shakespeare’s Globe’s website states:

“The ground-rules are simple. Actors are given a script on Sunday morning and work with a director to get the play up on its feet – with entrances and exits, token costume and music if needed. They present it, script in hand, to an audience at 4.00pm.

 These are not intended to be polished productions. There is a shared spirit of adventure, excitement and experimentation for actors and audiences who sense that they might be uncovering a hidden gem.”

For the actor, the motto is “fight or flight,” and barring a cursory glance at the scene in the brief rehearsal period before performance, the real discoveries are made collaboratively as a group through the playing of the piece: the freshness of first impulse, the choices conscious and unconscious. In this unmediated form, without the shackles of imposed interpretation, the free-thinking audience is able to take a draw on the text, like a Gauloises cigarette – unfiltered and maximum strength.

It doesn’t always go according to plan, and sometimes the most wonderful happy accidents occur. I remember some years ago, the actor playing the part of Sencer being “off” for the top of Act 4 Scene 3 of Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hoxton. After what seemed an eternity (but was probably only a minute or so of dead stage time) the realisation dawned on the actor that it was his “turn” and he exploded on to the stage with a line gifted beautifully to him in the text, “Now or Never!” You can imagine that this brought the house down!

So wrong, and yet somehow so right.

10 years ago, I had the privilege of working as an actor for the RSC for director Mike Alfreds, whose overarching mantra was that the audience should receive a “freshly cooked meal every night.” With Read Not Dead, the meal is prepared and cooked right before the audience’s very eyes – a veritable iambic teppanyaki – leading to a shared experience of discovery in the moment that heightens the artistic tension or exchange as the rollercoaster of the performance teeters between impending doom and immediate ecstasy.

In his review of the reading, Andy Kesson writes:

“Staged readings make both demands on an actor, requiring them to read as they invent, and the etymological roots of improvisation in the unforeseen and unexpected (Latin, improuisus) reminds us that the modern actor in a staged reading may be nearer than we think to the early modern player with their cue script”

To do this, you need a team of experienced actors with a highly developed sense of classical verse speaking and a finely tuned sensitivity to listening and responding.

So, to the matter in hand. The play starts in action, in the middle of a raging storm on board a boat. Without the luxury of a proper stage (the reading took place in a lecture room whilst construction was taking place on the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse), the challenge became how to open with a “tempest.” (I shall refrain from using this word again as, though often referenced alongside Shakespeare’s play of the same name, I believe the strands of colonialism and commonwealth set The Sea Voyage apart from the magic of, well, the “other’”!)

If you don’t have the budget for special effects wizardry, you should hide in plain sight; if played with conviction, the audience quickly buys in. Armed with rainsticks, thunderboards, and the voice – be it piercing whistle or swelling moan – the company provided a wondrous choric storm. This meant that the actors on the “boat” (delineated by a heavy rope in the shape of a prow, and littered with large sections of heavy cloth to denote broken sails) had to pitch their voices to be heard. This also gives something for the Master to rail against:

Master: We have sprung five leaks, and no little ones.
Still rage! – Besides, her ribs are open,

The missing beat or caesura in the line filled with an appropriate peal of thunder, giving a call and response. For this first scene, I insisted half-lines had to be picked up quickly, and through playing at full tilt added a rhythmic intensity.

To counterpoint this, I asked the actors playing Sebastian and Nicusa to completely undercut the storm in the next scene (ii), insisting they were rooted to the spot through weariness and their own sense of fatalism, and that we should feel through them a suffering through passage of time – such suffering that, when the French encounter them in Sc. iii, they brand them monsters, wretches, ghosts; to be pitied rather than feared.

This weariness of life would mean their internal rhythms would be diminished, and so I gave them a degree of freedom with the half-lines, allowing for suspension through giving the full value pause of the ‘missing line’. This adagio gave a wonderful melancholic tone to the scene.

The Sea Voyage is abundant in half-lines or shared lines; just as Fletcher and Massinger constantly shift focus in the plot, so too do they “gear up or gear down” through the use of the sharing of lines.

One particular example demonstrates the self-perpetuating frenzy as the Surgeon, Morillat, Franville and Lamure prepare their ridiculous cannibalistic onslaught on Aminta:

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Ginna Hoben, John Harrell, and Aiden O’Reilly in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

Surgeon:                               Come, gentlemen,
                     Who are for the hinder parts?

Morillat:                                         I.

Franville:                                                 I.

Lamure:                                                      And I.

Surgeon:            Be patient,
They will not fall to every man’s share.

The rising tricolon shows that Franville and Lamure attempt to ‘top’ the proposition of the man before, giving an accelerated rhythm to the moment and providing the Surgeon with the necessary madness to quell.

Stage directions occasionally replace the caesura – ‘She binds his wounds with her hair’; Horns within’; ‘The women draw their bows’; ‘Enter ALBERT, TIBALT and the rest with treasure’ – adding intensity. One moment that I felt demonstrated this well was in Act 2 sc. i, where Aminta tends to Albert’s wounds.

Aminta:                                                Pray give me leave
                        To play the surgeon and bind’em up;
                        The raw air rankles ‘em.

Albert:                                                  Sweet, we want means.

Aminta:                        Love can supply all wants

 She binds his wounds with her hair

Albert:                                                  What have ye done, sweet?

Here the moment between the lines given by the stage direction must be given its full value. We were able to find a suitable hairpiece for the actress playing Aminta that could be “cut off” by a dagger. The actors beautifully played the ceremony of the binding of the wounds, giving the impression of a contract or marriage. We could see the shift in Aminta from the formality Act 1 sc. iii where she addresses Albert as “Noble Captain” and acknowledges his “dear tenderness”, before finishing her speech with:

Aminta:                        So far I am tied and fettered to your service.
                        Believe me, I will learn to love.”

The tenderness and solemnity of the ritual reveals Aminta’s acceptance and love of Albert, leading to her vow:

Aminta:                                                                        O Albert, I offer
                        This sacrifice of service to the altar
                        Of your staid temperance, and still adore it.

When the stage directions cue the hunters’ horns to sound (both times at the midpoint in Albert’s lines), this has the effect of shifting the focus, and the gear change prompts “hope” for survival.

I like to think of these joins between shared lines as “seams,” where sometimes a pause is justified, though it must be active; sometimes a stage direction or action impacts, and sometimes the second line trumps the first, as a new thought supplants the old. The approach to the playing of these “seams” very much helped inform the “music” of the piece in the reading, and provided a key in for the actors to the rhythm of each scene.

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Lauren Ballard in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

Another “device” in the text that I asked the actors to respond to was where there was enjambment of the lines – where the phrase and sense of the line carries over the end of the line and is not end-stopped (punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc). By surrendering to this, the actors found that there was increased forward animation in these lines, and that gave a greater intensity and urgency to the relevant moments.

As a director of staged readings with the aforementioned time restrictions, these textual clues given in shorthand are what you hope to arm the actors with so that they can key in to each scene, moment by moment, providing a framework of “rules” as a baseline from which they can then feed off of their impulses and truly play. The discovery when watching the performance was that when the actors surrendered to the text and to the “rules of the game,” it punctuated the comedy of the piece. Andy Kesson picked up on one of my favorite moments in his review:

The actor playing Albert [must] enter and collapse, but the actors playing the female characters need to decide not only how to respond but when. In the intimate space of the Nancy Knowles Lecture Theatre, Darcy’s [Albert] entrance forced him between and amongst the women, and their stunned silence followed by Juletta’s exclamation, ‘‘But stay, / What’s here cast o’th’ shore?’’ was a comic revelation.

In contrast to the feeble, impotent Portuguese men on their sterile island, we meet the Portuguese women as they burst forth in pursuit of their quarry – headstrong, attractive and fertile. In the midst of ruminating over Crocale’s erotic dream, a wounded Albert enters and collapses at their feet.

Here I asked the actors playing Juletta and Hippolita to share the experience of the vision that Crocale conjures up through the telling of her dream, so that the silence could be charged. But the timing of the line comes down to the actor’s impulse feeding off of the pulse and rhythm of the piece. I feel it is particularly important in a staged reading that the actors not only render unto, but also render images for the audience. In this moment we (as audience) need to see the creation of the dream in the faces of the actors, and their reactions to the images flashing before their eyes, before they summon up the very thing they speak of.

Costume in staged readings can only ever be suggestive. There simply aren’t the resources and time to assemble a full wardrobe, and doing so would contradict the point of discovery and openness to interpretation. The usual garb for the men is a suit or jacket and white shirt. It is amazing what can be achieved with simple pieces of material,: a bandana for a pirate becomes a sash for a statesmen. The plethora of accessories available at Shakespeare’s Globe (crowns, swords, daggers, bottles, bags of gold, jewels, shrouds, stools (and even for this a Hog on a platter!), well arm the actors to present any piece.

However, I felt it was important to put a little bit of thought into the presentation of the ‘Amazons’ in The Sea Voyage.

Crocale:             But here’s our governess.
                        Now I expect a storm!

The second ‘storm’ of the piece comes in the form of Rosellia – the governess that forbids us/On pain of death the sight and use of men (Act 2. Sc. ii 21-22). With 6-8 pages build up (version dependant) to her entrance, when she did arrive, it was as an unstoppable force of nature as the commander in chief of the tribe. To facilitate the crescendo, it was important thematically to establish the commonwealth of women from the outset.

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Lexie Braverman in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

The word “Amazon” for many conjures up a scantily clad siren à la Robert E. Howard, but this image falls short of the mark of capturing the strength of the women in this play. Whilst the men barely survive, the women thrive, and so I wanted to position the commonwealth more inline with the fearlessness of the Dahomey Amazons, an all female regiment, that terrorized Africa for more than 150 years.

To achieve this, I asked that all the actresses playing the Portuguese women come dressed (where possible) in boots and trousers, not skirts, as if they were on expedition in the jungle or were contestants on a survival show. This gave an effective uniformed appearance, a sense of order and strength, and again, the ever-so-handy pieces of material were used to great effect as headbands or headscarves to heighten the feeling of militia.

When Rosellia did appear, it was as a force to be feared, respected, and reckoned with.

That, as they say is that. Bar picking out clues in the text, determining mostly minimal costume, and working out entrances and exits, a director can achieve little else in the 4-5 hour rehearsal period. The rest is with the actors and their ability to respond instinctively to the play.

Shifting and unpredictable narratives, with a heavy underscore of rhetoric, are a mainstay for Fletcher and Massinger as they keep us at bay from second-guessing the plot, and the pendulum swings between romance and farce, through the many happy and convenient coincidences. Characters betray their own convictions when challenged with new circumstances; allegiances are complex: they form, break, and reform; and running through the core of the narrative is love and romance leading to the final resolution that leaves us on a high note proving that the Beatles were right after all: “All You Need is Love.”

The Sea Voyage is like a rollercoaster: the joy is found in surrendering yourself to the ride. I truly hope you enjoy this remarkable piece.

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Patrick Midgley in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

References
Andy Kesson (2011) Review of Fletcher and Massinger’s The Sea Voyage
(co-ordinated by James Chalmers for the Read Not Dead Series, Globe Education), Nancy W. Knowles Lecture Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, 15 August 2010, Shakespeare, 7:3, 358-360, DOI: 10.1080/17450918.2011.589068

*Editor’s Note: The ASC’s own Staged Reading series was born out of the Globe’s Read Not Dead series. Join us next year for The True Chronicle of King Leir and His Three Daughters, George a Greene, and Antonio and Mellida.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Academe

 

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Study Guides for TWELFTH NIGHT and ROMEO AND JULIET now available

I’m pleased to announce that the ASC now has Study Guides available for Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to the excellent feedback that we get from teachers who use these materials, ASC Education is able to tailor our resources to the activities that are best-suited for active classroom exploration. Here’s a sneak peek at what is included in these brand-new Study Guides:

Twelfth Night

  • Staging Directions: Twinning: In putting twins into several of his plays, Shakespeare breaks all the rules of verisimilitude and classical drama — but how important is it that stage twins actually look alike? In this activity, your students will uncover how much Viola and Sebastian reflect the theatre of the imagination that Shakespeare so loves to play with.
  • Perspectives: Gender and Behavior: Twelfth Night is famously full of gender-bending and confused sexuality — issues which are not just politically “hot”, but which may be crucial to some of your students as they explore their own identities. The activities in this section will help you navigate these considerations in your classroom by looking at ideas of gender presentation on stage.
  • Rhetoric: Corrupter of Words: Feste the Clown is a famous fool — but what is it that puts him into that category? Your students will explore Feste’s wit and wordplay, discovering how he twists words to show off his quick and clever mind.
  • Textual Variants: Embedded Stage Directions: Modern editors frequently move or insert stage directions, based on what they think readers need to know about the scene. But how necessary are these editions? Shakespeare gives clues for action within the dialogue of his plays. Changing an entrance, exit, or action may make a world of difference to the story that a scene tells.
  • Staging Challenges: Gulling Malvolio: The “box-tree scene,” where Maria, Toby, Andrew, and Fabian team up to deceive Malvolio, is frequently one of the funniest scenes in a production of Twelfth Night — but, it has a lot of moving pieces. Your students will actively explore the potential for comedy in this scene, while wrestling with the requirements imposed by the text and Shakespeare’s staging conditions.
  • Perspectives: Music: Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays. In his own time, the tunes played during or before the performance would have resonated with his audiences — they would have been popular and familiar. In this activity, your students will explore ways to recover that touchstone in the modern day.

Romeo and Juliet

  • Metrical Exploration: The Conversational Sonnet: Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare plays with the familiar form of the sonnet, working it into his prologues as well as into the lovers’ conversation. This activity provides an introduction to the poetic form as well as an exploration of its function in Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting.
  • Staging Challenges: Stage Combat: From the first scene to the last, Romeo and Juliet is full of opportunities for violence. How do fight choreographers determine how to stage these fights based on information in the text? Your students will examine Mercutio and Tybalt’s combat to find out.
  • Rhetoric: Emotional Highs and Lows: Romeo’s wild mood swings and hyperbolic emotions may be familiar to your teenaged students — but how does Shakespeare construct that hormonal rollercoaster? Explore his rhetorical structure to find out.
  • Staging Challenges: Parts and Cues: Theatrical companies in early modern England used “cue scripts” when producing their plays, rolls on which an actor would receive his own lines and only a few cuing words, not the full script of the play. Your students will explore what performance clues may be hidden in those cues.
  • Textual Variants: Quarto and Folio: Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s plays that exists in multiple early modern forms, including an early and much-altered quarto. In this activity, your students will explore the differences between the First Quarto and the play as they probably know it, looking at key differences in speech length, speech prefixes, stage directions, and more.
  • Perspectives: Comedy and Tragedy: Though one of the world’s most famous tragedies, Romeo and Juliet is a play with a surprising amount of comedy in it. Where does that thin line between the genres live, and how does Shakespeare challenge and subvert audience expectations? Your students will find out in this thought-provoking activity.

Additionally, both guides include:

  • The Basics: Getting your students on their feet, working with iambic pentameter, paraphrasing, exploring rhetoric, and turning your classroom into an early modern stage.
  • Line Assignments: A way to give your students ownership over a small section of text, which they will use in further language-based activities and staging explorations.
  • Advice for how to use film in the classroom judiciously and effectively.
  • A guide to producing a 1-hour version of the play in your classroom.
  • Guidelines matching these activities to Virginia SOLs and U.S. Core Curriculum Standards.
  • Full bibliographies for further reading.

Both of these Study Guides are available for purchase at Lulu, along with guides for ten other plays. You can also view 15-page previews of the guides on that site. Coming soon: The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

"Let each man render me his bloody hand": Blood on the Ides

On the Ides of March last year, I explored the rhetoric of what is possibly my favorite speech in all of Shakespeare: Antony’s funeral eulogy for Caesar, in which he whips the plebeians into a murderous frenzy. As I was last year, I remain a little in awe of the strange cultural phenomenon surrounding this day. Quotes from Plutarch and Shakespeare are everywhere — and I wonder how many people are consciously aware of whom they’re quoting, or if those phrases have so permeated our world that they’ve detached entirely from their original context.

I make my living now with my head in the early modern era, but I’ve always kept one foot trailing in the classics, particularly in this fascinating period where the Republic crashed and metamorphosed into the Empire. Fortunately, Shakespeare gives me fertile territory on which to indulge both of my historical obsessions. And I’m not alone — those of us in the Shakespeare world seize on the opportunity that this cultural awareness provides (carpe occasionem?). Twitter is full of our enthusiasm today, and a video on Pursued by a Bear explores the play’s place in the common consciousness as well as providing an interesting analysis the dearth of really good productions of the show.


This year, I thought I’d take a look at a particularly interesting staging moment which precedes the great speech I explored last year: when Antony greets the conspirators just after Caesar’s murder. Two of the most visually striking moments in Julius Caesar are Caesar’s assassination and the subsequent decision of the conspirators to wash their hands in the corpse’s blood. This scene can pack quite a bit of power — especially in a theatre like the Blackfriars Playhouse, where the actors share light with the audience — but it also lends itself to quite a bit of mess. Blood is something that actors and production companies have to negotiate with, deciding how much to use, what kind to use, where to hide blood packets, whether or not it can get on clothing (and if so, how to get it out; if not, how to keep that from happening). Often, productions choose to stylize the blood in this scene, for those very practical reasons. I will always champion the use of live blood, however, because of what happens later in the scene.

CASSIUS
Where is Antony?TREBONIUS
Fled to his house amaz’d:
Men, wives, and children stare, cry out, and run,
As it were doomsday.

BRUTUS
Fates, we will know your pleasures:
That we shall die, we know; ’tis but the time
And drawing days out, that men stand upon.

CASSIUS
Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life,
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.

BRUTUS
Grant that, and then is death a benefit:
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty.’

CASSIUS
Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?

BRUTUS
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust?

CASSIUS
So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

First of all, this is weird. There is just no getting around that this is a really strange thing to do with someone you’ve just killed. This is not a bit of a historical culture, not something Romans just did when they killed someone. To me, it reads as Brutus coming a little unhinged. Then, think about how deep you would have to plunge your hands into a dagger wound — likely a puncture far more than a rending gash — to get up to the elbow in blood. It’s pretty gruesome, and I think that the more real and visceral the blood appears, the more the audience is going to feel the grotesque aspect of the scene, rather than dismissing it as, “Oh, a thing people just did back then.” Live blood also gives the other actors a lot to work with — physically as well as figuratively — in terms of how much they are on board with Brutus or not. If at least a couple of the conspirators are visibly uncomfortable with smearing themselves up to the elbow in blood, that also transmits some important information to the audience.

Secondly, it’s ambiguous whether or not Trebonius washes his hands in blood along with the rest of the conspirators. He’s on stage at this point, but as someone who did not actually take part in the stabbing, I think there’s justification for not having him join in the literal bloodbath. You could certainly choose to have him wash in blood at this point, but I think there’s more money in having him hold back, because of what happens when Antony — whom Trebonius detained outside the Senate, whom he kept from coming to Caesar’s aid — enters.

Enter ANTONYBRUTUS
But here comes Antony:
Welcome, Mark Antony.

ANTONY
O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.
I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank:
If I myself, there is no hour so fit
As Caesar’s death hour, nor no instrument
Of half that worth as those your swords, made rich
With the most noble blood of all this world.
I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard,
Now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke,
Fulfil your pleasure. Live a thousand years,
I shall not find myself so apt to die:
No place will please me so, no mean of death,
As here by Caesar, and by you cut off,
The choice and master spirits of this age.

BRUTUS
O Antony! Beg not your death of us.
Though now we must appear bloody and cruel,
As by our hands, and this our present act
You see we do: yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done:
Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful:
And pity to the general wrong of Rome,
As fire drives out fire, so pity, pity
Hath done this deed on Caesar. For your part,
To you our swords have leaden points, Mark Antony:
Our arms in strength of malice, and our hearts
Of brothers’ temper, do receive you in,
With all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence.

CASSIUS
Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s
In the disposing of new dignities.

BRUTUS
Only be patient till we have appeased
The multitude, beside themselves with fear,
And then, we will deliver you the cause,
Why I, that did love Caesar when I struck him,
Have thus proceeded.

ANTONY
I doubt not of your wisdom:
Let each man render me his bloody hand:
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next, Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now Decius Brutus, yours: now yours, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and my valiant Casca, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius.
Gentlemen all: Alas, what shall I say?

Antony comes in and shakes each man’s bloody hand, one by one, and as he names them, it’s hard to feel that he’s doing anything other than marking them down for retribution. And then, at last, he comes to Trebonius, who did not stab Caesar himself, but who was nonetheless instrumental to the plot, the means by which Antony was not there to defend his friend. So if Antony has just shaken six other bloody hands, his own would be quite smeared with blood by this point — which he then transfers to Trebonius. If his hands have been clean till that point, Antony’s gesture makes a powerful statement: Trebonius is, in his eyes, every bit as guilty, every bit as culpable, and Antony is every bit as determined to take him down. So, while you could have Trebonius engage in the blood-smearing earlier on, I think you get greater payoff from saving it for this moment.

An exploration of this and other staging challenges in Julius Caesar can be found in our Study Guide — and the play will be part of the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’m going to be serving as dramaturg for that production, so I’m sure next March 15th, I’ll have something new to share. Until then, cavite idus Martii, everyone!

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 3

Welcome back for the afternoon session of the 2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. This session will feature six presenters and runs from 1:30-4:30pm.

Dori Koogler: “Upon a True Contract: Handfasting and Clandestine Marriage in Shakespeare’s Plays”

Koogler opens with a discussion of the conditions of marriage in the early modern period, focusing on the physical components of a “spousal contract”: vows, joining of hands, kiss, and the exchange of rings. Made in the present tense, these components constituted a marriage; in the future tense, they constituted a betrothal, which was still considered legally binding. Koogler offers evidence not only from historical realities but also from clues within Shakespeare’s plays. In early modern England, while marriage might have legal entanglements, and while paperwork could be useful in a dispute over validity, all that the Church required was mutual consent; this changed with the Marriage Act in 1754. The Church did require, however, the presence of witnesses; without witnesses, a marriage was considered “clandestine and irregular”. Due to common cultural awareness of these irregular marriages, Koogler notes that it became fertile ground for exploration on the early modern stage. Shakespeare treats in some manner with these irregular marriages in a third of his plays. Adkins and Malicki present several instances of espousal contracts and handfastings in Shakespeare’s plays.

Koogler gives a deeper examination to the idea of betrothal in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In 2.2, Julia and Proteus make vows, exchange rings, join hands, and “seal the bargain in a holy kiss”. Koogler argues that, because the “cultural experiences of betrothal have changed so much in the past 400 years”, modern audiences may not as easily grasp the depth of the situation. The transgression, she argues, would have resonated more strongly with an early modern audience, who saw Proteus not only breaking up with his girlfriend, but breaking a legal bond and a scared vow. Koogler further speculates on the suspected betrothal between Florizel and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Though this play does not include lines detailing the ceremony, as The Two Gentlemen of Verona does, Koogler argues (and Malicki and Adkins demonstrate) that it may be possible for Florizel and Perdita to enact the entire ceremony during a 6-line monologue of Camillo’s. Koogler finishes by stating that using modern marriage signifiers, particularly with regard to the exchange of rings, modern productions can amplify the importance of these betrothals to better approach the weight they would have had for an early modern audience.

Stephanie Tschetter: “In the Closet: Unstaged Staged Directions during the Interregnum”

Tschetter opens by surveying the audience’s awareness of closet drama. She positions her exploration during the Interregnum, while the theatres were closed, and notes that closet dramas were initially intended for readers to imagine, rather than for actors to perform in a theatre. Tschetter notes that both early critical and modern conceptions seem to consider closet dramas as undesirable, without a reason to take the dramatic form that they do. Tschetter challenges the idea that closet dramas ignore theatrical realities and conventions of the stage; rather, because of their inherent form, the stage directions “are clearly conceived for the conditions of the early modern theatre.” She focuses on those plays written during the Interregnum, which suggest that the plays may indeed have been meant to be played, but were legally prevented from public presentation. Tschetter’s actors (Monica Cross, Jessi Malicki, Michael Wagoner, Jamie Weaver, and Liz Lodato) read stage directions from these plays, demonstrating their potential connections to the actual stage.

Tschetter offers an example from William Chamberlain’s Love’s Victory. She notes the difference between the embedded stage direction an actor could rely on and the explicit directions needed to make a visual picture clear for a reader’s imagination. Tschetter argues that writers expected these readers to have familiarity with the picture of the stage, as those audience members would likely, before the 1642 closing of the theatres, have seen plays on the stages they now had to imagine.

Further directions inform the reader not only of early modern staging conditions but of the tricks of the trade, such as the concealment of blood within sponges tied to the middle finger and concealed in the palm. In this way, Tschetter points out that closet dramas deserve attention for what they have to teach us about early modern staging effects.

James Byers: “Concealing the Mere Irish: An Analysis of English Performance of Irish Ethnicity on the Early Modern Stage”

Byers opens with a presentation from Ben Jonson’s Irish Masque (with help from actors Jonathan Haas, AJ Sclafani, and Jarom Brown); Byers notes the long, complex, and often contradictorily-characterized nature of the millennium-long conflict between the English and Irish. He gives a short history of the conflict, dating back to Henry II’s initialization of the conquest of the island. The original colonists in the Pale became isolated from the English and eventually came to occupy a liminal state between the native Gaelic Irish and the English on the other side of the Irish Channel. By the 1500s, Henry VIII and other monarchs had sent more colonists to reinforce English presence in and control of the island. After a period of relative peace in the late 16th- and early 17th-century, rebellions crested again in the 1630s; Cromwell moved in during the Interregnum to re-establish control. The idea of the “barbarous Irishmen” served as a source of apprehension and fear for the English, with wild myths springing up around their supposed possession of strange patterns.

Byers moves to examining characteristics of Irish characters on the English stage. First, the accent, which is not necessarily the be-all and the end-all of an Irish character, but which are a signifier and which provide a mean of “tracking the evolution” of such characters. He also examines the various character types, including rebels, military captains, criminals, bawds, servants, and apprentices. The latter of these “represent the subservience of the Irish in England.” With the help of his actors, Byers presents examples of all of the various types for the audience. This exploration carries weight, Byers notes, not only for better understanding of the early modern plays, but, with consideration for the ongoing nature of relations between the two nations, by way of “exploring the nature of reactions” to ethnic representations and to our own concepts of stereotypes.

Angelina LaBarre: “Hip Hop Pedagogy and Shakespeare: Performative Verse, Then and Now”

LaBarre and her actors (Elizabeth Rentfro, AJ Sclafani, Jarom Brown, and Melissa Tolner) slouch their way onto stage in hoodies and sunglasses. LaBarre begins by acknowledging the racial and cultural history of hip-hop, then stating that those origins have no direct relevance for the scope of her thesis. Rather, she intends to focus on the linguistic similarities between hip hop and Shakespeare and how those similarities can provide an advantage for modern teachers. She argues that early modern theatre occupied the same cultural space as hip hop does today, as a rhythmic verbal performance tradition. She relates the squaring-off between the Caesarian faction and the Liberators in 5.1 of Julius Caesar to “The Dozens“, an insult contest of personal power, valuing quick responses and verbal acuity.

LaBarre delineates some of the similarities between rhythm and vocabulary. Rentfro demonstrates “flowcabulary” — a method which translates Shakespeare’s language into modern vernacular. LaBarre notes that this teachers students nothing but the plot. Tolner then presents a quote from a modern hiphopper, and LaBarre points out that almost no one in the audience understood what she was saying. This, she states, provides a teachable moment about the use of slang and colloquialism in verse. She describes an exercise which compares today’s slang to Shakespeare’s, asking students what people four hundred years from now might make of the word “gangsta”. LaBarre’s actors then demonstrate the iambic pentameter rhythm of modern hiphop verse, and LaBarre points out the presence of irregularities and caesuras in the lines. These breaks in the rhythm serve both the plot and the emotional mood of the verse. Her next example relates to alexandrines, with natural mid-line breaks, as well as demonstrating several rhetoric devices employed by the rapper.

LaBarre ends her presentation by expressing her hopes that these connections between Shakespeare’s language and modern hip hop will provide fertile ground for educators seeking new ways to make Shakespeare relevant and interesting to their students. The lyrical inventiveness and rhetorical dexterity of both forms provide a strong basis for comparison. She is currently developing a curriculum based around these concepts for a teacher in Richmond, VA.

Jonathan Haas: “Virginity and the Problem Plays: An Investigation”

Haas’s presentation examines the moral, social, and spiritual ambiguity of virginity’s importance in Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. He begins by examining the idea of the pre-contract and the idea of whether or not a formal betrothal allowed for sexual congress. Using David Cressy as his source, Haas notes the double standard: that many considered varying degrees of sexual liberties acceptable, despite potential legal and religious consequences.

Haas moves to an examination of Measure for Measure and the ambiguity of Claudio’s and Juliet’s exact nuptial state. He presents various opinions, both from libertines and the supposedly virtuous characters, about the acceptability of post-contract pre-nuptial sexual contract. Even Isabella, who professes to hate the sin of lust, expresses approval of the activity and her hope for the child that will come of the union. Haas posits this as representative of the tension between cultural and legal/religious expectations in early modern society. Haas also notes the differences between Catholic and Protestant opinions on virginity. After the Reformation, the veneration of virginity faded, and many patriarchal views condemned the chosen permanent virginity of a nun as “a dangerous and disruptive thing”, a way out of the strictures and expected roles for women. Measure for Measure explores both sides of the argument, demonstrating both characters who view virginity as a noble and appropriate choice and as an inferior, subversive, or dangerous choice. In this way, the problem play engages the cultural conflict over “the messy standards of virginity”.

Maria Hart: “Munday Seeking More: Religion, Politics, and Biography on the Early Modern Stage”

Hart’s presentation examines how Sir Thomas More contains reference to a political agenda by its primary author, Anthony Munday. Hart believes that, in this selection of More as a topic, Munday revealed a sympathy for English Catholics, in relation to the martyrology of Thomas Becket and Thomas More during the early modern period. Hart gives a short history of More’s political history and his conflict during the English Reformation. She continues through the shifting religious allegiance of England as a state during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, following the narrative of English recusants and secret Catholics in particular. This tradition included a print culture which propagated stories of Thomas More “as martyr and saint” — one of several famous for their refusal to renounce Catholicism. These traditions linked More to the earlier martyr Becket, assassinated under the reign (and ambiguous instructions) of Henry II for his refusal to submit to the king more than to the Church. The Protestant view, by contrast, considered the Catholics as heretics, and those Protestants that they burned the martyrs.

Hart follows this up with Munday’s personal history, who on the surface may appear a “flip-flopping opportunist”, as well as a government informant on recusants, but who Hart believes reveals himself in his plays as having stronger convictions. Her actors (Liz Lodato, Jonathan Haas, Rachel Ratkowski, Brian Maxwell, AJ Sclafani) present More’s execution scene, which Hart notes as portraying More with definite sympathy. The rest of Munday’s plays, she explains, likewise treat with issues of the Catholic/Protestant divide in England. At the least, she sees in Thomas More “a reverence and sympathy for the ex-Chancellor,” suggesting that Munday may have felt some guilt in himself for his role as an informant, and sought to exonerate that guilt dramatically.

We’re off for a dinner (or, perhaps, tea) break now — back at 5:30 for the final session of the festival.

For the rest of the Festival, see these posts:
Session 1
Session 2
Session 4

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 2

Good morning, scholars — We’re back again, bright and early, for Session 2 of the MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. This session runs from 9:30am to 12:00pm.

Clara Giebel: “Playing Paper”

Giebel’s presentation begins with an interesting tableau: Katy Mulvaney, Linden Kueck, and Amanda Noel Allen on-stage, crafting — rather than, as we might expect, sitting on the gallant stools holding scripts. Giebel explains that sometimes a tradition should be broken “just because there’s something we’d rather do,” and that she hopes their presence will provide a meaningful counterpoint to her ideas.

She moves into discussing the typical structure and tropes of fairy tales, and she shares illustrations from some classic fairy tales via a Powerpoint presentation. She explains that these images are not only beautiful but “look right to our eyes”, with conventional tropes reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts. She expands the idea further, referring to how Disney’s fairy tale movies often open with the frame narrative of books, giving images of pages turning before the animation begins. Giebel explains these frame devices as important because of the “time of textual transmission” we currently exist in. The movement of page to screen, first scene from books to movies, is now prominent in the idea of moving from books to e-readers. She demonstrates various “skins” and covers for e-readers which attempt to recover the tangible and visual elements that are lost in the transmission to digital text. She posits that the two most important elements lost are the paper itself and the “codex”, or non-textual visual information, which she demonstrates through a reading of “The Monster at the End of This Book” and through a consideration of pop-up books, which “glory in the paper-ness of paper”. Giebel talks about the importance of sound, smell, and texture to the experience of reading, and relates those concepts to ideas of crafting.

Giebel then brings her ideas around to the early modern period, looking at the history of textile handwork, particularly with regards to gender assignations of various tasks such as embroidery and knitting, seen as female tasks both in the early modern period and in the 21st century. She notes, however, that these tasks no longer have the same cultural significance, thanks to mass marketing — similar to the fading essentialism of paper in books.

Teachers, parents, and the media, as Giebel points out, teach fairy tales to children, but particularly to girls, emphasizing the female character “as the object of other characters’ acts and desires”, not as the agent. She notes that Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well both draws on and inverts these fairy tale tropes, featuring not just one, but several active women. Helena has to mangle her own sentences to try and fit herself into the expected passive role. All’s Well is “a fairy tale, but a problematic one… a deliciously messy one” in contrast to the neat, happy endings of Disney’s fairy tales. Giebel has worked with Linden Kueck to design a paper-based set for All’s Well That Ends Well based on these concepts, particularly as an exploration of the gender issues at play. She ends by foregrounding the need to examine, in this concept of textual transmission and shifting gender roles, what we want to keep from the past and what we want to move on to — a world where we can both read blogs on our cellphones, but also enjoy the texture and physical reality of paper, “where boys can learn embroidery and girls can be the king”.

Brian Maxwell: “The First Generation: The Dawn of American Shakespeare”

Maxwell’s presentation begins by interrogating our awareness, in the American Shakespeare Center, of the history of Shakespeare in America. Actors Jarom Brown, Brian Falbo, Rebecca Hodder, and Zach Brown assist by taking on the personas of various 19th-century American Shakespearean actors. Maxwell contrasts the various acting styles of these historical actors: Forrest, Cushman, Booth (Edwin, not his infamous brother), and Jefferson. Forrest represents the emotional style, requiring the actor to give himself over entirely to the affect of the character. Maxwell notes that this style was incredibly popular in the first half of the nineteenth century in America and drew in the working-classes to the theatre. By contrast, Booth and Jefferson display the style which became popular in the second half of the century. This style was a “launching point for Stanislavski’s method”, praised for its naturalism, but less popular with those of the working classes seated in the galleries and a bit too far from the gaslit stage to appreciate the nuances.

Maxwell then encourages Forrest and Booth to dueling monologues. The contrast, with Forrest’s bombastic style and Booth’s understated delivery, makes plain the differences between the early and late methods. Maxwell credits both styles as important to American theatrical heritage. He also posits that these actors, others like them, and their companies gave America cultural credit on the world stage. He shares a 1902 video of Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle and an 1890 wax cylinder audio recording by Edwin Booth.

Daniel Kennedy: “From Place to Space: The Abstraction and Diminution of Hell on the Renaissance Stage”

Kennedy begins by coaxing us all into singing “Happy Birthday” to Christopher Marlowe. He then discusses the ASC Actors’ Renaissance Season production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and the dismay of the actors when, each time they revealed the painted-plywood hellmouth, the audience chuckled. Kennedy sketches out the history of the hellmouth, with its roots in medieval representations of Biblical stories. Early illustrations envisioned “an open pit” to invoke Hell; later a volcano, initially considered appropriate for its fiery and sulpherous nature, but later rejected as too passive; later the heads of beasts, particularly dragons. He positions the evolution in relation to attempts to convert the Danish pagans of north England: “Now, if I know Vikings, at least one of those bad motherf*ckers has walked out of a volcano. I don’t think any have walked out of a dragon’s mouth.” Clearly, this imagery would have had a resonance for the England-occupying Danes.

The hellmouth became a convention of the morality plays, an intricate construction, but one which, Kennedy notes with some dejection, audiences found “amusingly wonderful” rather than terrifying or awe-inspiring. He shows an illustration of the stage mansions of Valenciennes, the elaborate decorated carts used for these plays. He notes that, while the hellmouth itself disappeared, the opposition of Heaven and Hell remained prominent. While the structure of the medieval stage mansions positioned Heaven and Hell in horizontal opposition, the early modern audience was conditioned to think of up, the balcony or “heavens”, as good and down, through the trap, as bad. The stage pictures became less religious spectacle, less a stylistic presentation, and more an interpretation of inner struggle.

Kennedy moves on to a discussion of the various texts of Doctor Faustus, noting that the A text, earlier published, lacks elements present in the later B text, considered the version closer to Marlowe’s intended play. The stage direction “Hell is discovered” indicates that, reminiscent of the medieval morality plays, Hell must be visibly represented on the stage. Where, however, remains ambiguous. Kennedy presents it first as revealed in the discovery space, drawing on the image of a dragon’s head gaping open to consume Faustus; then a second time, using the trap. In the second version, the Bad Angel’s description becomes more critical to feeding the audience’s imagination as the means for invoking Hell, rather than an actual stage depiction. Kennedy notes that while Shakespeare never directly calls for a hellmouth as Marlowe does, he still visually invokes the concepts of Hell, demons, and the afterlife in several plays (Hamlet, Macbeth, 1 and 2 Henry VI). He suggests that the accepted convention of the trap as Hell can inform the interpretation of the ghost of Hamlet’s father; if he enters from the trap, the audience may assume him as a demonic figure. He also relates the concept to certain resonances in Macbeth to the idea of the Harrowing of Hell, particularly as relevant in the Porter scene.

Elizabeth Rentfro: “For I Am She: The Development of Margaret of Anjou in Performance”

Rentfro’s presentation opens with a presentation from Richard III, with most of the cast (Liz Lodato, Brian Falbo, Mel Johnson, Dane Leasure, Deb Streusand, Jessica Schiermeister, Stephanie Tschetter, Kelly Elliot, and Rachel Ratkowski) on-stage, and Rentfro, as Margaret, moving in from the audience. Following Margaret’s intrusion into the body of the scene, Rentfro details her experience having played Margaret in both full productions and staged readings across the “Margaret canon” of Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III. She prefaces that the presentation will work through the scene with a few breaks for her to explain her exploration as a self-evaluating performance study.

As they progress through the scene, Rentfro notes that while Margaret harbors special hate for Richard III and is the first person to see him for what he is, she also feels a kinship with him due to some of their inherent similarities. Likewise, she sees a reflection of herself in Elizabeth, the “poor painted queen” she mocks. Rentfro moves on through Margaret’s exit, leaving the Yorkists behind to “muse why she’s at liberty”. She then relates her experience to that of Sarah Fallon, someone else who has seen Margaret all the way through her arc. She notes the experience as fairly rare, since so few companies perform the full tetralogy.

Jared Fair: “The Grieving Parent in Shakespeare and the Early Modern English Children’s Epitaph”

Fair begins by positing the opinions of Laurence Stone as to the emotional distance between parents and children in the early modern period, which he views as necessary due to the high child mortality, depicting these parents as detached and unemotional even upon the death of a child. Fair juxtaposes this with the ideas of David Cressy, who claims that early modern people were deeply emotional and loving, with a great capacity for tenderness both in their families and their communities. Cressy uses diaries and letters as examples that early modern people experienced intense emotions upon the death of a loved one.

Fair presents (through actors Jarom Brown and Dr. Julie Fox) epitaphs from the early modern period, which demonstrate the emotions felt by parents upon the death of a child. These epitaphs imagine sleep as a death, which Fair suggests as a coping mechanism to soften the blow. They also suggest that “death is not the end, that life continues for the child.” He presents an epitaph written by Ben Jonson on the death of a child actor, the first epitaph to so commemorate an actor. Jonson also wrote an epitaph when his own daughter died at 6 months and when his son died in the plague of 1603. Fair points out that Jonson describes himself as possessed by his own emotions; the epitaph serves as method to “loose” the bonds that hold him in thrall to grief. Fair then moves to considering Shakespeare’s experience with a child’s death, particularly in the proximity of the composition of King John to the death of his son Hamnet. Constance’s grief “is anticipatory”, upon Arthur’s disappearance. Fair argues that if Hamnet suffered an illness rather than a sudden death, Shakespeare’s own emotions may have informed this sense of anticipatory dread. He notes that Constance sinks into a suicidal depression, haunted by her son’s image, reminded of him everywhere. She later dies “in a frenzy”, inconsolable. Fair links this depiction of dramatic pain to Shakespeare’s personal experience as a parent.

For the rest of the Festival, see these posts:
Session 1
Session 3
Session 4

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Study Guide Now Available!

At last! I get to share the Study Guide for my very favorite play, Much Ado about Nothing. As I noted in a previous post, I’ve enjoyed this one tremendously, and I’m already super-excited about getting to work through these activities with attendees at our Winter Teacher Seminar.

Shakespeare Education: Much Ado about Nothing Study GuideHere is a ten-page preview for your enjoyment. This Study Guide includes the following activities:

  • The Basics: Getting your students on their feet, working with iambic pentameter, paraphrasing, exploring rhetoric, and turning your classroom into an early modern stage.
  • Line Assignments: A way to give your students ownership over a small section of text, which they will use in further language-based activities and staging explorations.
  • Too Wise to Woo Peaceably: Benedick and Beatrice are one of Shakespeare’s finest couples, witty and brilliant and endearing. Better than all of that, however, they’re both fantastically smart — and in this activity, your students will explore the rhetoric of their scenes and discover how Shakespeare uses their language to show the audience that they deserve each other and belong together.
  • Perspectives: Slanderous Tongues. Much Ado about Nothing‘s plot revolves around an issue that your students experience every day in high school life: rumors. Your students will examine the language of slander in Much Ado and will relate Hero’s unfortunate situation to their own lives. What words hurt the most? On what basis can a girl’s reputation become ruined? How is reputation different from a male perspective?
  • Dogberry: Before malapropism was malapropism, it was something else entirely. From everlasting redemptions to odorous comparisons, your students will discover the comic gold that is Dogberry’s creatively mistaken vocabulary.
  • The Gulling of Benedick and Beatrice: Your students will explore the staging requirements of two of the play’s best comic scenes, when Benedick and Beatrice each hear their friends conspiring against them. Where can you hide the eavesdroppers so that the audience can see their reactions — critical to the success of the scene — without breaking the imaginative fiction that allows Benedick and Beatrice to believe that their gullers are unaware of their presence? These scenes take advantage of early modern staging conditions in creative ways, and working through them will get your students thinking actively about thrust staging, universal lighting, and audience contact.
  • Staging Challenges: Kill Claudio. Shakespeare’s plays rarely fit neatly into the categories of comedy and tragedy that we’ve created for them, and a key example of this in Much Ado about Nothing is the moment when Beatrice challenges Benedick to prove his worth to her by killing the man who dishonored her cousin. Through active staging, your students will explore different potential interpretations of this scene and will determine which version they feel tells the best story.
  • Textual Variants: The earliest printed versions of Much Ado about Nothing have several textual oddities — oddities which reveal that this play may be more closely related to Shakespeare’s original manuscript than any other in the canon. Activities on speech prefixes and stage directions will walk your students through an examination of the transmission of text in early modern London.
  • Production Choices: A guide to producing a 1-hour version of the play in your classroom.

If you would like to purchase a downloadable PDF of this or any other ASC Study Guide, just visit our website. I’m already well into work on the Study Guide for Richard III — the last for this artistic year! After which, my plan is to bring the 2010 set up-to-date with the modifications we introduced for the 2011s, and then I will start work on 2012.