Guest Post: Delightfully Ridiculous: Recovering the Joy in ‘Midsummer’

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared in our 2015 Fall Season. Kate Powers is a director who has worked with the ASC multiple times; her most recent project was directing Twelfth Night at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. This article first appeared in the 2015 Summer-Fall edition of the Playhouse Insider.


Delightfully Ridiculous: Recovering the Joy in Midsummer
by Kate Powers

When Artistic Director Jim Warren first invited me to return to the ASC to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 2011-2012 Almost Blasphemy Tour, my heart broke just a little because I love Love LOVE working at the ASC, but I was not especially keen to direct this particular play.

Midsummer is notoriously easy to stage badly; actors and directors frequently get sucked into a misapprehension that if they just put all those rhyming couplets to work, it will be funny.  Midsummer is nearly all in rhymed couplets, which means two successive lines of verse where the final words rhyme with one another.

6426997723_75d53b5270_oIt looks like this.  Better yet, read this aloud to yourself so you can hear it:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.  (1.2)

Or,

The King doth keep his revels here tonight;
Take heed the Queen come not within his sight;  (2.1)

In fact, if the actors do hit all those rhymes as hard as they can, they fairly quickly stop making any sense, in part because they very often also fall into one steady rhythm once they set their sails toward all those rhymes.  The actors start playing the gist of the speech, rather than fighting for what they want, line by line, word by specific word.  Then they have to create a lot of stage business to cover the fact that they don’t completely understand what they are saying, and before anyone realizes it (indeed, no one may ever realize it), the audience is laughing in spite of Shakespeare rather than with Shakespeare.  Directors also often decide that the way to create fairy magic is to use a lot of glitter instead of using the language that Shakespeare gives to the Fairies themselves.

I’ve seen many mediocre productions of the play where the actors bang mercilessly on the rhyme, slaves (not collaborators) to the iamb; where Titania and Oberon declaim rather than act; where Puck is just odd without paying attention to the clues in the text.  John Barton, director and brains behind the BBC Channel 4 Playing Shakespeare series, said, “Blank verse is probably the very centre of the Elizabethan tradition and perhaps the most important thing in Shakespeare that an actor .  .  .  needs to get help from.” As I dove headlong into my preparation and research, I discovered that there were certain speeches or moments in the play that I couldn’t recall ever seeing staged to my satisfaction.  These moments of disappointment became the kernel of my approach to directing the play.  I was determined to revivify these moments, to make them active, to make them cohere and, yes, jump.

As I worked with the actors playing Titania and Oberon to eschew magical, breathy, glitter-infused Liv Tyler / Middle Earth declamation in favor of using their heightened language as well as their full voices to passionately pursue what they want from one another, to fight like hell for what they want, as I collaborated with the actors playing the four lovers to discover how each character uses the language differently to achieve their desires, as we all dove into the world of the play, I discovered that I am not anything like bored with this nearly perfect play.  On the contrary, the reason we keep doing it is because it is so good.  I was blaming the faults of myriad productions on the play itself.  My rehearsal process at the ASC, while seeking to recover the joy for the audiences around the country, helped me to recover the joy, too.

Part of the director’s task is to ask what the play is about, to ask how each scene illuminates that ‘about’ and to collaborate with the actors to mine the text for meaning.  Directing is discovering the staging that embodies that textual understanding.  Director Richard Eyre writes, “Meaning above all.”

6427176803_ba916f1726_oWhen she first encounters Oberon, Titania has a 32-line speech that teems with adjectives and classical references; she berates Oberon for all the ways in which the natural course of human and animal life as well as the seasons have been disrupted because she blames him for the disturbances.  It is not a glittery, breathy weather report; it is not just pretty speech.  It is a scathing indictment of the tension between them:

                     … The spring, the summer
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension.  (2.1)

Titania is angry with her husband.  They are having a fight.  This is not time to breathily declaim and bat her beglittered lashes.  She needs to rally all the points that will help her win the argument and cause him to amend his ways.  And while she doesn’t win, per se, she angers Oberon further as they argue.  It is out of this fight, and her refusal to give him something he wants, that his plan to “torment thee for thy injury” grows.  Titania and Oberon’s lovers’ quarrel mirrors and refracts the passions, misunderstandings, hurt, anger, and jealousy that we see in the four young Athenian lovers, that we glimpse in Theseus and Hippolyta, and that Bottom, Peter Quince, and their company inadvertently lampoon in their play.  If we miss the fight, we might miss the resonance as well as the motor of the action.  And if the actor declaims prettily rather than using these words to fight for what she needs, then we will certainly miss the fight.

Harley Granville Barker, a director, Shakespeare scholar, and clever redhead, wrote, “Let us humbly own how hard it is not to write nonsense about art.”  He wrote this in his preface to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a kind of nonsense that becomes art.  In no particular order, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is love, sex, wooing, (spoiler alert!) wedding, upsetting one’s parents, taking the occasional woman by storm (or at least by conquest), magic, moonlight, misunderstanding, transformation, and all the domains that there adjacent lie.

It is easy to get cynical about producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream or A Christmas Carol, but we don’t just produce them because they make for good box office.  Unpack that cashbox a minute:  people buy tickets to these plays because they love them.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is gateway Shakespeare:  if people have a ‘helpless laughter, tears of joy streaming down their face’ experience with this play, they’ll come back to see more challenging pieces.

We love this play, we produce this play, we come see this play because of the rich and multi-faceted ways in which it shows us how ridiculous we are and how essential love is.  Through the four social strata of the play (aristocracy, gentry, laborers, and immortals), we discover a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the fragile relationship between order and chaos, the danger inherent in passions suppressed or denied.  Through the very structure of his language – from rhymed couplets to blank verse to intense shared verse lines and back again — Shakespeare shows us relationships fraying and fracturing, recovering and healing.

Many of us have made impulsively bad decisions in pursuit of love; we can probably all remember foolishness once upon a summer night.  Helena’s fairly clear-eyed, for instance, about the rose-colored glasses she wears for Demetrius:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transform to form and dignity,   (1.1)

but Helena wants Demetrius back so intensely that she is willing to risk her best friend’s life on one last chance at love.  Titania loves Oberon, but she’s not about to give him that changeling boy; petulant Oberon is quite prepared to force her hand by whatever magical means necessary.

6427059901_0a3e6521cb_oDreams can be wonderful stuff, but they often careen out of control.  Moonlight can be romantic, but it casts shadows.  Both can skew our perceptions in alarming ways, firing our imaginations to suspect the worst, the sexiest, the cruelest, the most frightening.  The line between a dream and a nightmare can be thin and full of fissures.  Is it a nightmare because it ends badly or wakes you with a start?  Does it remain a dream because it has a happy ending?  When or how does it cross over from one to the other?  A happily moonlit playground and a dark, scary forest can be bordered by the same trees.

Dreams and nightmares are both difficult to recall in sharp detail upon waking, drifting ephemerally away as one struggles to remember.  Like snowflakes and productions of Midsummer, no two are quite alike.  The four Athenian lovers and Titania come to a new understanding through their experiences in the forest; they find their way to a new or restored love, even as they strive to recall the details.  Bottom seems happily unaware of his transformation, but his company’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe casts into relief all of the heated emotions of the forest journey.  For all of the strife, upset and discord, no one has died; no one grieves.  The “story of the night told over /… grows to something of great constancy.”  (5.1)

The churlish Samuel Pepys saw a production of this play in 1662, and observed in his diary: “To the King’s Theatre where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”  The play is ridiculous, but we hope it is delightfully so, and filled with the rich complexity, wonder and joy of new love discovered and old love savored.

Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Plenary Session 9

Hello! It’s Mary Finch one last time to blog this Halloween morning plenary session, going from 9:00-10:15am and moderated by Terry Southerington from Mary Baldwin College.

Danielle Rosvalley, Tufts University
Before the Circus Came to town: Big Data, Barnum, and the Bard

Rosvalley began by calling to mind the classic images of circus attached to the name “Barnum.” However, Rosvalley was surprised to find that Barnum boasted of producing Shakespeare, namely The American Museum and Lecture Hall, purchased in 1861. The largest exhibit was the “Moral Lecture Room”—a theatre—which presented performances twice a day. Barnum attracted crowds that normally disdained theaters for their moral depravity.

When the museum caught fire in 1868, Barnum came under attack, specifically for the moral depravity of the Lecture Room. In a defense of his not-theater, Barnum asserted that when he performed Shakespeare he did it with the utmost care, and removed all vulgarity.

From this account, Rosvalley has since reconstructed the performances that Barnum put on at his theater. Data so far shows that only just over two percent of Barnum’s productions were penned by the Bard. Compared to other contemporary theaters, his claim seems absurd.

If Barnum was not producing Shakespeare, what was he producing? Rosvalley displayed a graph, where Shakespeare does not break the top 100 most common plays at Barnum’s Museum; at other contemporary theaters, one of Shakespeare’s plays does break the top twenty, and even top ten. By claiming the recognizable name of Shakespeare, Barnum claimed legitimacy without compromising morality.

This information about what production Barnum produced, Rosvalley is putting into a database where individuals can browse the plays and the evidence of their production. The Bear interrupted the production as Rosvalley was downloading an facsimile from the database.

Niamh O’Leary, Xavier University
The Ends of Sex: Bedroom Deaths in Jacobean Drama

O’Leary, for the sake of brevity, will be focusing on The Maid’s Tragedy looking at female agency within these bedroom death scenes. O’Leary asserts that these scenes can challenge the sexist and victimization of women in culture.

Contemporary performances can highlight women’s frustration with the sexual economy to reimagine the scene. Evadine is “a frustrating character but also a frustrated character.” She is surrounded by men—kings, mentors, and beyond—who have verbally and physically harass her sexually. In Act 3, scene 1, we see Evadine shyness might not be from the ideal of humble quiet wife but from a disgust and distaste for the male gaze. Nevertheless, Evadine is having an affair with the King. While men see it has women’s susceptibility to temptation, it might be a smart, ambitious, political move—a morally neutral move.

Most touchingly, Evadine is completely alone, surrounded by only serving women who are not confidants. By act 4, several men have threatened to kill her and she wonders at her isolation during her soliquoy. With all of this, her decision to use her body to gain control. But beyond just a body, she uses her logic, her reason, and her will to carry through her intention to kill, despite the King’s protestations.

Looking back to the mask from the second act, we can see a parallel between the events later on in the play. O’Leary was interrupted during her final remark s by the Bear.

Zoe Hudson, University of Kent
The Everyday Life of Shakespeare’s Earliest Document Reader

In Richard Stonely’s diary, on Tuesday, the 12th of the June, 1593 he recorded his purchases including Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, making him one of Shakespeare’s first readers.

Looking at the diary from an interdisciplinary approach, Hudson has analyzed Stonley’s diary as a rich source for those trying to recreate life from 16th century London. Despite the dramatic events during Stonely’s life, his diary has not received much research or attention. During his work, Stonely interacted with the powerful and the average, making this a rare glimpse into Elizabethan life.

Within his diary, we can read about family dynamics, clothing purchases, and wedding traditions. When Stonely was imprisoned, he even recounts a brawl at the prison dinner table.

The diary entries combine the emotional, political, and social curiosity that surrounds our growing interest in historically informed theater practices. These manuscripts must be research holistically, as “relatable narratives” that can reveal meaningful information about Stonely’s England.

Thomas Ward, United States Naval Academy
Shouts, Slogans, and Political Consent in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

The voicing ceremony is scene is part of the world of civic ritual that Coriolanus does not belong, but also reminiscent to parliamentary elections in Early Modern England. Coriolanus challenges this ritual and focuses on the practical force of martial law.

Accounts of EM election rituals recount the vehemence of the shouting for candidates. This “a [name]” construction was part of a war cry, making these interactions an intersection between the civic and the martial. For instance, in Henry VI part I we see soldiers call “A Talbot” in the wars as a war cry.

The overlap comes from the tradition of heraldry, which clarified social hierarchy: a main goal of elections. The danger existed that these cries might get out of control, challenging the power the elections were supposed to legitimize. Ward recounts several historical accounts of people denouncing or complaining about rioting and shouting. These cries revealed factions, and certain slogans were outlawed.

In some plays, such as Hamlet, we see crowds attempt to vote a king by shouts and riots: “Chose we Laertes shall be King!” The war cry and election shout are closely related.

Going back to Coriolanus, we see Caius cheered and shouted for after the battle as indicated by the Folio stage directions. In response, Caius asks “Make you a sword of me” again embodies the connection between war cry and election shouts.

Genevieve Love, Colorado College
The Crookbackt Prodegie

“Happy Halloween!” We might see scary things, such as bunchbackt toads. Where did these monstrous things come from? Why are they deformed and how?

Richard Gloucester reaches from a descendant uniqueness, saying “I am myself alone” even though he does have a brother. The metaphorical reading of Richard’s deformity renounces his devious acts, as well as the problems within the text. How are both the man and the text deformed?

The problems for Richard and True Tragedie reflect an issue with origins and accounts. Richard was born both too early and too late, unsettling his temporal situatedness. Not only was her mobile in time in Elizabethan England, but also in contemporary context as shown by the current modes of interpretation through the lens of disability.

The text itself also has a debated text, with varying narratives about how the text might have been “unfinished, sent before its time.” How does this text fit within the time narrative of publication?

True Tragedie contains more lines about the lack of a father, as one of the differences between the text and the Folio.

“In his likeness to his textual brother, Richard is never alone.”

Spencer K. Wall, University of Utal
Where is Leontes? Text and Stage as Sites of Jealousy

Wall presents the question about where the motivation for jealousy comes from within the text, which does not give much time or explanation for Leontes behavior. Drama has its own tricks for showing that more narrative time has passed than the stage time relates. Shakespeare uses Time to tell the audience that time has passed, but does not use such dramatic devices for Leontes’ fall into jealousy. There are no cues that more time has passed than the audience has scene.

However, there is a moment in the scene when Leontes’ appears to be absent. Although present in the scene, Leontes must ask how Hermione’s petition went. He is absent from the conversation, if not the scene, and must be staged.

One choice, could be to physically distance him from Hermione. This raises the question as to why he does not hear the conversation, and what is distracting him. MBC Shakespeare and Performance MFA actors presented the scene (Patrick Harris, Molly Harper, Maria Hart). This difference in Leontes’ attention makes him afraid of either what he saw, or what he missed.

The scene could also be staged with Leontes’ remaining near the conversation and still raises the question about why he is distracted. The choice to distance Leontes (physically and mentally) changes the character’s fall into jealousy.

 — Mary Finch
MLitt Student at MBC Shakespeare and Performance

American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project

As most Shakespeare nerds know by now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, America’s largest Shakespeare theatre, has undertaken an ambitious project they are calling “Play On!” in which 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges will undertake to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  This announcement has provoked the predictable amount of consternation throughout the Shakespeare world, enough consternation that as the Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, whose mission is to recover the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity… through performance and education, I would like to share my thoughts on this project, both positive and negative, with our many friends.

Here’s what I like about the project:

(1) To begin with, I applaud the size, scope, and ambition of the project.

Ever since Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, arrived in Ashland in 2007, he has brought to the Festival the kind of expansive vision of a theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people.  That vision undergirded his first project, Cornerstone Theatre, in which Bill and his colleagues, fresh out of Harvard, would go into communities without theatres and create a production with the citizens.  That vision – so American in its principles and in its optimism – was also the foundation for his first big project at OSF, American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, for which he has commissioned American playwrights to attempt to create a collection of plays that helps define America in the way that Shakespeare’s history plays helped to define England.  One offspring of that project, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about LBJ and the civil rights movement, has already won the Tony for Outstanding Play.

The “Play On!” project matches Bill Rauch’s other work, and in its intention to create Shakespeare scripts of the people, by the people, and for the people, it matches as well the giving and inclusiveness that informs OSF under his remarkable leadership.  To appreciate what he has accomplished, locate Ashland, Oregon, on a map, and you will see that it’s a small city (Staunton’s size) in the isolated southwest corner of Oregon, five hours from Portland.  Always devoted to first-class work, the Festival’s location trapped it more than most urban Shakespeare companies in the predominant Shakespeare audience base of affluent and aging white people – a place to get away from the world rather than a place to engage it.  I do not know how their new programming has changed their audience demographics, but the increased diversity of the actors and staff at OSF and the emphasis on musicals and new plays have certainly made the season’s offerings look less daunting to non-Shakespeare fans as well as more interesting to experienced theatre-goers who are looking for something new and would rather not see their tenth production of Macbeth.

(2) Some good that will come from the “Play On!” project.

Already it has prompted the kind of controversy that keeps the importance of Shakespeare in the public view.  It’s made people think about their experiences seeing and hearing Shakespeare. It’s giving employment to 39 playwrights and – even more rarely – a like number of dramaturges.  And that means, inevitably, that by the end of the project, 78 very smart people, who have wrestled with replacing Shakespeare’s words (as our actors do when they try to paraphrase their lines) will be in awe of his skill, and they will approach their crafts both with more humility and with more skill.

I hope that once the scripts are all in, OSF will plan a grand convocation of these men and women to talk about their experience of trying to retain, in the words of OSF’s Director of Literary Development Lue Douthit, “the rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme” of the original.  Lue, if you’re reading this, please invite me to that occasion.  I promise not to say a word, just soak in the inevitable awe these re-creators will feel faced with what Andrew Hartley, in the answering question “Why Shakespeare?” (The Shakespeare Dramaturg, p.70), calls the “unequaled…poignancy or precision” of Shakespeare’s words and phrases “unparalleled elsewhere.”   Our actors feel it every time they play a role; our students feel it every time they study a line.  Imagine what 36 playwrights and 36 dramaturges will feel after trying to put an entire play into their own words.

(3) Clearly this project does no harm to Shakespeare, even in Ashland.

OSF assures fans of Shakespeare that over the next ten years they will produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original and that “one or more of” the plays created “may be produced along with the original canon.”  These scripts will be food for readings and discussion around the country. Shakespeare’s works have always stood up to the “translation” – in a real sense, every production is a new “translation.”  Changing words, characters, scenes, plots – none of that is new. Whenever I direct a production, I’ll change a word or twenty.  In our current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “on her withered dewlap” became “on her withered bosom”; and the fairies’ lullaby to Titania about “spotted snakes” became a soft shoe version of “By the Light of Silvery Moon.”  Am I ashamed?  Kind of.  Is Shakespeare rolling in his grave?  No seismic activity in Stratford-upon-Avon has been reported.

As our board member Kim West pointed out, this kind of “translation has been going on since Nahum Tate updated King Lear in 1681.”  Who knows how many Nahum Tates the project might produce?  In one way or another every play is only the first version of a work, changed with each production; and all of this reworking of Shakespeare in whatever language, in whatever medium, from musicals to film to comic books to TV sitcoms to Andy Griffith’s radio retelling of Romeo and Juliet, never lessened the value of his work – all of this has only given the originals more currency.

Here’s what I don’t like about the project:

(1) The OSF project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language.

The rationale for the project is that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand because his language is too far from our own and that audiences of a far wider range would enjoy the plays better if they were written in contemporary language.  I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.

Yes, we could all use larger vocabularies, but if you’re going to start simplifying language to reach those who don’t have a large enough vocabulary, then don’t pick on Shakespeare without picking on Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Williams, Churchill, Stoppard, and Sondheim.  For that matter go after Deadwood, West Wing, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. Shoot, go after Sesame Street.

The Wall Street Journal’s John McWhorter approves wholeheartedly of the project and tells us that 10% of the words in Shakespeare are “incomprehensible.”  That number vastly exaggerates the number of archaic words in Shakespeare and ignores altogether the way context – the other words being spoken and the way the actor speaks them – helps us comprehend.  In fact, 98% of Shakespeare’s words are either in our dictionaries as current usage English or as a close cousin of the current English.

(2) The OSF project robs from rather than adds to the meaning of the plays.

It ignores the pleasure of the unconscious experience of comprehending expanded meaning.  For example, here’s a passage from Macbeth that McWhorter wants updated. It’s Macbeth considering whether he should kill the King, Duncan:

………………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

so clear in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his taking-off.

McWhorter prefers this “translation” by Conrad Spoke:

………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne authority so meek, hath been

so pure in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his knocking-off.

McWhorter would substitute “authority” for “faculties” because he says he doesn’t know what “bearing one’s faculties” means. He doesn’t? Today we use “faculties” to mean “abilities,” – the very first definition in Merriam Webster – and pretty precisely what Shakespeare meant.  In fact the substituted “authority” is not what Macbeth is talking about.  Nor is the substituted “pure in office” the same as the original “clear in his office.”  Jimmy Carter was “pure” in his office; Ronald Reagan was “clear.” Shakespeare’s “clear” could hardly be clearer.

Most alarmingly, McWhorter champions “knocking-off” for “taking-off.”  He would choose a current slang word for “murder” instead of Macbeth’s invented phrase “taking-off.”  But even children listening to Macbeth contemplate this murder would know what “taking-off” means, and they would also know – as would the actor playing the part – that it’s a feeble euphemism, that Macbeth can’t bring himself even to say “murder,” and that is the real story of this moment. The actor performing the “translated” line would lose this moment, and the audiences listening to that “translation” would lose this insight into the mind of a man for the first time considering the murder.  Shakespeare’s word – easy to comprehend in context – provides the full understanding, whereas in McWhorter’s term the substituted word gives us only a “half understanding.”

(3) The OSF project ignores the joy of acquiring language.

We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time.  The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings.  In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.

We do that too – with Stoppard and Pinter and Beckett plays; with comedians Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Stephen Colbert; with television like Key and Peele and Wired, with lyricists from Sondheim to Notorious B.I.G.  Even when some of it flies by us, we enjoy the rush of new words in new arrangements.

(4) The OSF project endorses ShakesFear.

We go to Shakespeare unnecessarily afraid, worried about missing something, worried about vocabulary as though we were taking the SAT.  That irrational and unhelpful worry I call ShakesFear, and my main objection to the OSF project is that it endorses ShakesFear, and in doing so it misunderstands the nature of theatre and underestimates the genius of audiences.  It promotes the anxiety about Shakespeare that is a primary obstacle to its enjoyment.

(5) The OSF project takes actors and directors off the hook.

Play On!” shifts the responsibility for “comprehensible” Shakespeare to these 39 playwrights and away from actors and directors who themselves are uninterested in the way the language in the plays work.

Actors who don’t know precisely what the words are can’t make up the difference with an emotional wash, and directors whose aim is foremost the imposition of a concept can sometimes make comprehension harder.  As James Shapiro writes in The New York Times, “To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse.  They will search for them in vain in the translation.”

From the day Jim Warren and I started the company, the American Shakespeare Center has made the comprehension of Shakespeare’s language and an understanding of the way the meter and the syntax work the first business of rehearsal.  We are continually looking for the ways that staging can clarify meaning for his audiences.  We don’t always get it right in our fight against ShakesFear, but repeatedly we hear from audiences, “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” or “I forgot it was Shakespeare” or – our favorite – “That was great. Who translated it into modern English?” And then we get to tell the patron that the words were Shakespeare’s and that he himself effortlessly did the “translation.”

The greatest gift of a good Shakespeare production is this kind of unconscious “translation” – an occasion when performance combines with the wellspring of our language to enlarge us.

(6) The OSF project condescends to certain audiences.

My final concern about the OSF project is the soft discrimination of its low expectations.  As I have said, the plan is meant to be a part of OSF’s admirable push to make Shakespeare of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But those people are less in need of help than OSF imagines.  Children are always swimming in a sea of new language; it’s how they learn.  For an adult, Much Ado about Nothing may be harder than The Important of Being Earnest, but for the eight-year-old, they present similar challenges – or, depending on your point of view, opportunities.  The OSF project would deprive the very audiences it’s concerned about of those opportunities by creating a kind of “separate but equal” Shakespeare.

OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous.  And it is work.  And it is worth it.”

As I said at the start, the OSF project has done all of us a favor by raising the issue of how we deal with the rich gift of Shakespeare.  First thing we do, let’s not underrate it.

Ralph Alan Cohen

ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission

 

*This post was edited on 10/10 to correct the numbering in the second section and correct “quipped” to

“equipped.”

“So sensible seemeth their conference”: On Academic Conviviality

There’s a danger in academia, and in theatrical practice, of sometimes letting yourself get into an echo chamber. When you live and work with so many people who are all focused towards the same mission, its easy to feed off of each other’s brains and lose sight of other perspectives. This, I think, is the main reason we have conferences. (The other reason, so far as I can tell, is that it’s beneficial to one’s sanity to realize that, no, you aren’t the only one crazy enough to care with fervid passion about the placement of stage directions or punctuation marks). Leaving our home base and trekking to far-off climes can reinvigorate our own studies and pedagogical practices. Sometimes, getting out introduces new concepts. Sometimes, it reminds me that — yes, I do think the way I think for a reason, and I’m sticking to it. Both experiences are valuable.

This spring has given me a lot of opportunity along those lines. In April, Sarah and I went to Vancouver for the Shakespeare Association of America conference, an annual gathering of hundreds of scholars and graduate students from the US and beyond. The conversation is large and robust, a mix of the venerable and best-known scholars with the up-and-comers. Each year, particularly among the young guard, there’s more conversation about digital approaches to Shakespeare, about community outreach, and about how Shakespeare speaks to different diverse populations. It’s great to know that so many people are so invested in using new technology and opportunities to breathe continual life into the plays we’ve all loved for so long.

The trouble with such an enormous conference, though, is that you can often feel like you’ve missed out on a lot. There are only a few plenary presentations, and a dozen or more seminars run concurrently. I’m grateful for the thriving conference hashtag — widely proclaimed the best on Twitter — #shakeass15. Tweeting sessions not only helps me take notes for myself, it puts me in conversation with other scholars and students with similar interests — and following the hashtag helps me know what I’ve missed due to scheduling conflicts. It’s nice to have a sense of what everyone’s working on, even if I can’t get all the details. Just knowing what conversations are ongoing is an important awareness.

By contrast, the Halved Heart Academic Conference at Shakespeare’s Globe was an intimate affair. A dozen presenters, two keynotes, and an audience of roughly forty scholars and students, all focused on a single topic: friendship in early modern drama. Because of the tight focus of the conference, we all came in with even more of a shared vocabulary than early modernists typically have. There are few other places, I think, where references to Cicero, Erasmus, and Montaigne could get thrown out quite so casually, with such little footnoting. While being at a large conference can sometimes leave me feeling a bit at sea, that communal focus at Halved Heart helped me to feel immediately part of a group, welcomed and warmed. A small conference is, by its nature, exclusive, though. We shared ideas passionately and with brilliant conversation, but it’ll be harder for those ideas to keep propagating. (We had a hashtag there, too: #HalvedHeartConf, if you’d like to see what we were on about). We can each bring what we learned back to our home institutions, and I’ve made some wonderful friends I look forward to connecting with in the future, but it’s just naturally more of a closed loop than a larger conference.1479469_10151906077508347_1988637814_n

In October, we’ll welcome a few hundred scholars and students to the Blackfriars Conference. We hope to strike a happy balance between the broad-reaching topics and the intimate, friendly atmosphere. Towards that end, most of our sessions are plenary. While a large conference might have only six to eight papers with no competing programming, the Blackfriars Conference has sixty-six. This allows for a wonderful exchange of ideas, where everyone gets to hear the same papers and join in the conversation. But then we also have our colloquy sessions, each focused on a single topic, to further the detailed conversations and to encourage scholars with similar research interests to connect with each other. (And yes, we’ve got an official conference hashtag, too! Follow #BFConf15 for updates as we organize and for information from the conference itself once October rolls around).

All of these conferences serve different purposes, and they’re all great in their own ways. I’m definitely looking forward to SAA 2016 in New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in the world; I hope I’ll be able to head back to London (another favorite city) for another Globe conference sometime; I look forward to welcoming all our friends to our home, here in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

Guest Post: E. J. Saul, Galax, VA

Periodically, the ASC Education blog will offer guest posts by teachers of Shakespeare, to show how educators across the country are applying Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions in their classrooms. If you are interested in contributing a guest post to the blog, please contact Academic Resources Manager Cass Morris.

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One of the perks of raising a child is that you have a socially acceptable reason for re-reading your favorite children’s stories. One of the drawbacks of raising a child is that you sometimes wind up reading children’s stories that you don’t like over and over and over and over again. And for a good number of years, my nighttime family reading was haunted by a dark creature named Amelia Bedelia. Amelia Bedelia was a storybook maid with a strange sort of disorder; she was completely incapable of comprehending figurative language. Amelia’s employers would tell her to do something like punch the clock, and she would shrug and walk off and start hitting the grandfather clock in the living room. That kind of thing. And it might be that one reason I found these relatively inoffensive stories so annoying is that I am an English teacher in the age of the multiple choice test, and I seem to find myself with an increasing number of students who hate any answer that isn’t simple or any language that isn’t literal.

The most extreme case was a student I had a couple of years ago, and while I don’t think she would mind if I talked about this, I will call her Yvette instead of her real name anyhow. Yvette was not Amelia Bedelia – she was a very smart young woman and could recognize time honored expressions perfectly well – but she had some kind of difficulty and/or mental block about thinking metaphorically that was a pretty big deal because Yvette was a straight A student until she took my class (something she reminded me of quite frequently), and Yvette actually got a C when we spent six weeks on a poetry unit. Clearly some kind of apocalypse was in the making, and I was its prophet.

I’m being kind of flippant about it, but Yvette’s anger and panic and frustration were quite real. Yvette was a grade A memorizer. She took meticulous notes. She was always the first person to raise her hand and ask a question, and that question was almost always: “Is this for a grade?” The thing was, Yvette was an anxious person, and she hated English class because she didn’t like questions that didn’t have one right answer, or assignments that did not have completely controllable outcomes.

Now opinions may vary, but even though I’m an English teacher, I’m really not some psychic vampire who feeds off emotional anguish and suffering. It is also true that it offends me when I see a student working hard and not achieving what they want to achieve, if only because I also have students who don’t work hard for the barely passing grades they’re content with. And it seemed likely to me that Yvette’s really good grades were going to land her in a really good school with a really good freshman English class that she was going to do really badly in. So I made helping Yvette think critically a kind of personal quest, with an emphasis on exploring symbolism.  I thought that if Yvette had some small successes and built up her confidence a little, she might stop fixating on that shrill voice in the back of her head going: “I have to get an A I’m not going to get an A how do I get an A just tell me what I have to do to get an A so I can study something that actually matters!” And then she would be fine and stop using my classes as therapy sessions.

Since there are supposedly seven styles of learning (visual, aural, physical, logical, social, verbal, and Google), I tried a variety of approaches. Besides just explaining that symbolism could work on a visual or logical level, I tried to illustrate that point with songs, charades, Rorschach blots, epigrams, anthropocentric sketching exercises, talking while tossing a ball back and forth, and so on.

One time I played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for Yvette and asked her what the titular yellow rose represented.

“It’s a woman,” Yvette said.

“Excellent!” I exclaimed. “Why?”

“Because he calls it a her,” Yvette said.

“Great!” I enthused. “But the singer doesn’t really call a yellow rose a her. He calls a her a yellow rose. Why does he call this woman a yellow rose?”

“I don’t know!” Yvette said. “She smells nice?”

“She probably does,” I agreed, “What else?”

“She’s pretty?”

“Good! What else? What kind of pretty? How is a rose pretty? Especially a yellow rose in Texas?”

Yvette never did really suggest anything else. Instead, I did that thing that teachers do and made the mistake of giving Yvette increasingly specific questions trying to get her to state the answers that I already had in mind. Eventually we questioned and answered our way around the possibility that the woman might be a blonde and might be named Rose, but seemed rare and precious to the singer in any case because a yellow rose in a Texas climate would be a rare thing. But when I asked Yvette to apply that kind of questioning and thinking for herself, it didn’t seem that I had helped her at all.

“Can you think of something else rare and pretty and precious that the singer might have compared this woman to instead of a yellow rose?”

“A purple rose?”

“…”

“Oh God, I suck.”

“No, that answer’s just probably a little too similar to a yellow rose. Can you—”

“A purple violet?”

Yvette finally got symbolism for herself, by herself, at a random moment. Yvette’s class was studying Hamlet, and we were doing an exercise where the students had to stage the play within a play that Hamlet writes in order to trap Claudius, the only proviso being that they couldn’t use any words, words, words (this was the very first exercise I ever did at one of the ASC’s educational seminars by the way, so there’s a plug). Yvette was watching another group do this scene, and a student was pretending to pour poison into another student’s ear, and I would like to lie and say that Yvette suddenly got really excited and stood up and interrupted the scene with a big dramatic moment, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, Yvette came up to me after class with this kind of shy smile on her face and asked me if the poison that the actor poured in another actor’s ear was gossip. And she was beaming and kind of excited. And I didn’t really know what she was talking about, so I asked her what she meant, and Yvette mentioned a scene where Claudius refers to gossip as poison in the ear. And Yvette went on to say that Claudius killed his brother with poison in the ear, and gossip went in the ear, and Claudius was afraid that gossip about Claudius killing his brother would be just as deadly to Claudius as the poison Claudius used on his brother.

“Actually, you’re wrong,” I said. “He referred to gossip as a kind of infection in the ear. Get out.”

No, just kidding. I was thrilled. It was a pretty sophisticated argument once I untangled it, and it came out of the blue.

That’s one of the things I like about teaching Shakespeare. It always provides moments that take me completely off guard (and often in a good way). That’s good for the students, and it’s good for me because it keeps the class from feeling like a factory floor. (I just had a mental image from that Pink Floyd “The Wall” movie where kids are being marched into a sausage grinder by the way.)

I’m not claiming that Shakespeare is some kind of miracle cure for everything that ails public education, or that Yvette went on to love English and later became Poet Laureate. I’m not even claiming that teaching Shakespeare is always fun — though it can be. I love Shakespeare, but the bard is actually kind of hard for me to teach sometimes because I don’t like sharing something I love only to have it ignored, put down, complained about, or dismissed. I had a year where I taught MacBeth to my 4th period class and it was MacDeath. I would then teach the same play the same way to my 5th period class, and it was like a fresh MacBreath. There are no guarantees.

What I am claiming is that teaching high school is a lot like dropping coins in a slot machine. Just doing the same thing over and over doesn’t guarantee the same result every time, big tangible pay-offs that draw a lot of attention to themselves are rare, I have to keep plugging away while groping around for change, and I’m no longer allowed to do it in the state of Nevada.  (Ummm…again, just kidding about that last part). And Shakespeare’s writing provides lots of coins to work with because when you add the performing aspect it makes Shakespeare personal and fun and pretty much uses all of the learning styles. Kids who are visual can see the lines performed. Kids who are kinetic learners can jump around and play with staging and body language. Kids who are aural can play with soundtracks or sound effects or just listen to the different intonations when they try lines different ways. Kids who are social learners can enjoy the play as the thing. Kids who are logical can puzzle out the language, and so on. If nothing else, playing with Shakespeare takes those lesson plans where teachers have to document what standardized state objectives they are accomplishing and lights them up like Christmas trees. But that’s a cynical and pragmatic note, and Shakespeare is not about nothing else, or even what else. It can be about everything and anything else once you unclench a little and let the words speak through you.

So that’s my piece, my Shakespeare teaching moment. If any here I have offended, content yourself, my blog is ended. Piece out. 🙂

EJ Saul teaches English at Galax High School in Southwest Virginia.  He is a Leo and likes walks on the beach, warm sunsets, puppies, and Jazz. Oh, and Shakespeare.

The Benefits of Summer Camp: “Here’s a change indeed!” — Othello, 4.2

Summer camp marks an important time of growth in the life of teens, and the effects of camp reverberate with them long after they leave a summer program. The ASC Theatre Camp provides more than just an intensive theatrical performance program for the students who study with us. ASCTC also meets teens’ developing social and psychological needs in an environment that provides more individualized and positive support than what most students receive at school alone.  Campers gain skills that are essential to spreading their wings as independent thinkers, no matter what they end up studying in college.

From ASCTC13's Pericles; photo by Miscellaneous Media

From ASCTC13’s Pericles; photo by Miscellaneous Media

Anyone who has been to the ASC Theatre Camp performances can attest to the incredible depth of skill, heart, and bravery that the campers bring to the stage during each of their shows. The performance festivals are just the capstone to what many campers describe as a life-changing transformation. The challenges which campers face in the three weeks that they spend here help them to grow into better performers and set them on a path to being conscientious leaders and artists.

The teens that find a home-away-from-home at ASCTC know that being part of our community will imbue them with a spirit of creative generosity, which is something that they can apply to any discipline. Some of our incoming 2014 campers already know their “dream jobs”; many applicants indicate that they want to be actors, but many more share that they are thinking of other paths – being musicians, anthropologists, teachers, writers, psychiatrists, journalists, lawyers, engineers, computer scientists, and astronomers.

Performing Shakespeare is just one way for all of these talented young students to celebrate their collective diversity and their inherent need to communicate about all the complexities and challenges of life, things that Shakespeare can capture in the turn of a phrase. Shakespeare speaks to teens in a way that sometimes their parents and teachers cannot.

At the conclusion of each camp session, we survey our campers about their experience. Sometimes, they write to us to share their heartfelt reflections on their time in Staunton:

“One of the first things I remember hearing at camp was “I am enough.” This was a phrase that constantly resurfaced in my mind while at camp and even now three months later and 900 miles away from Staunton …At the American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp, I experienced abundant support from each person with which I made contact.”

Many teens come to camp burdened with the social weights of high school peer pressure. Although our students are already bright, confident, and mature, they leave camp with an extra boost of self-assurance that propels them to another stage of independence – that stage where being yourself is cool, nerding-out is acceptable, and Shakespeare’s words transform into personal mantras. “We have heard the chimes at midnight” is one of my favorite quotes from Henry IV, Part II, which ASCTC produced in 2006. I might not be as old as Falstaff, but recalling the days of youth and summer will always remind me of the transformative power of camp.

“It’s a place where you don’t have to worry about being judged. Camp takes you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way. It really allows you to be yourself as well as figure out who you are.

My self-confidence improved monumentally during the time I was at camp. I went into camp shy and quiet, constantly fearing that I was going to be judged negatively. By the time camp was over, I truly believed that it didn’t matter if people judged me because I am enough just how I am.

The support that our campers receive from our staff, counselors, and guest artists reverberates through their lives, especially as they prepare for college and the daunting experience of starting their careers. Building positive, professional relationships with trusted adults helps campers learn to articulate their own ideas as well as fostering self-efficacy.

From ASCTC13's Volpone; photo by Miscellaneous Media

From ASCTC13’s Volpone; photo by Miscellaneous Media

“Every single one of the teachers seemed very concerned with giving us all the advice, guidance, and knowledge they could offer so as to improve our theatrical craft; the classes, rehearsals, and performance experiences truly helped me grow as an artist in so many ways. I feel ASCTC was the perfect vehicle for college preparation for me.”

“ASCTC has helped me further discover who I am and what I love to do. The environment and people have helped me thrive into becoming a more confident and happier individual.”

Perhaps the most profound impact that camp has on our students is that they leave inspired to continue to share their joy of Shakespeare with others. We do our best to stay in touch after they “graduate” from our program. Many campers return as counselors in following summers to share their knowledge with the next crop of young Shakespeare enthusiasts. Here are some of the other great activities that our alums have been doing after they leave our program:

  • Managing and working for many professional theatre companies across the country
  • Working as engineers, computer programmers, filmmakers, librarians, business managers, producers, and entrepreneurs
  • Teaching Shakespeare to middle and high school students
  • Forming and sustaining collegiate Shakespeare companies at Exeter University, Yale University, New York University, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and many others.
  • Touring Shakespeare’s plays to schools
  • Pursuing graduate work in many disciplines, including Shakespeare and Early Modern Studies at Mary Baldwin College and King’s College London.

The ASC Theatre Camp is a community of students, young professionals, and seasoned teachers and artists who continue to create theatre, to support each other’s artistic and educational goals, and to build professional opportunities long after the summer fades away. My hope is that we enrich the lives of the campers who study and perform at the Blackfriars Playhouse and that we always cherish the contributions of young artists to the rich history and new horizons of Shakespeare in performance.

This summer, Session 1 campers will perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Measure for Measure, as well as Fair Em by Anonymous on July 13. Second session campers will perform Henry VI, Part 3 with two casts along with All’s Well That Ends Well on August 10. We hope you can join us.

“I will return to camp next year because camp is the most wonderful place in the whole world. I learn so much, I make so many friends, and I get to be 100% of my nerdy self 24/7. It’s fantastic!”

 

-Kim Newton

MFA Thesis Festival 2014

Session 1

Riley Steiner: To Find the Mind’s Construction: Masks in Macbeth: Steiner discusses masks in performance as “not a concealing device, but rather a revealing one.” Masks, she suggests, can be particularly useful to draw the audience into the fractured world of Macbeth, with its thematic focus on the dissociation between seeming and reality and the “equivocal language” used throughout the play. Her presentation focuses on the use of masks in the Rogues’ rehearsals for Macbeth (which Steiner directed) and the production choices that came out of them. Steiner discusses how the neutral masks, despite obliterating identity in one way, also helped three actors to differentiate the physicality of their Witches. Within the language, they identified a “hierarchy” of prophetic abilities and drew that into their production choices. Melissa Huggins demonstrates the “menacing” nature of her witch. Steiner comments that they also used neutral mask for Banquo’s ghost, allowing “the audience to impart their own fiction, their own fear” onto the blank face of Banquo, rather than using stage blood. Cyndi Kimmel demonstrates her actions as the Ghost of Banquo. Steiner concludes by stating that working with a mask encourages an actor to “find the mind’s construction … well beyond and deeper than the face.”

Celi Oliveto: Challenging Social Gender Typing through Performance: Oliveto begins by commenting on an embedded stage directions scene conducted during the Rogues’ tour of Macbeth, where two seven-year-olds nearly came to blows over which of them would have to read the female role of Lady Macbeth. Oliveto suggests that using Shakespeare to bring issues of gender roles and gender coding into the classroom is imperative, in order to help students “interrogate, define, and recognize their personal experience of gender in the present cultural moment”. She posits that seeing female actors play both male and female characters will help them to re-assign character traits as gender-neutral, rather than as strongly codified for one gender or the other. Oliveto introduces the survey given to students before and after viewing Macbeth and has the audience in the Playhouse answer those questions, then walks through the students’ responses. She concludes by addressing the punching boys in her first anecdote, noting that girls and women are used to being asked to identify with male-figured characters, and that a stronger female presence on the stage would be a benefit, allowing girls and women to have more to identify with, and perhaps shifting their perceptions of gendered character traits.

Jessica Schiermeister: “If it were made for man, ’twas made for me”: Faustus Re-gendered and an Exploration of the A-Text: Schiermeister begins by noting the gender disparity of their company’s composition (11 women to 1 man) and explains that the company decide to examine re-gendering for one of their plays: Faustus, with the character of Joan Faustus. Re-gendering involves actually changing the gender of the character, as opposed to cross-gender casting, having an actor play a character whose gender is opposite of their own. She notes that Huggins commented on how re-gendering presented something unusual for the stage: a woman whose main goal in life is not pursuit of a romantic relationship. Schiermeister explains that audience reception ranged from “never giving Faustus’s new gender a second thought” to audience members becoming more involved with the story because of the new gender. Schiermeister notes that some in the audience found Joan’s transformation during the play as revealing how modern culture views female power as a sort of fetish. Re-gendering, Schiermeister says, forces us to question the status quo of “male as normative and male as more important”. She links this to the opportunity for theatres to expand their audiences and create more inclusive works of theatre.

Julia Nelson: Early Modern Staging Conditions and Improvisation in the A-Text of Dr. Faustus: Nelson begins by stating that her thesis has its genesis in a paper by Dr. Robert Hornback at the 2013 Marlowe Conference. She suggests that theatre companies should consider treating certain scenes in certain plays as improvisation within a scripted text, specifically looking at the clowning scenes in Dr. Faustus. In performance, the actors used three approaches of implementing improvisation to examine what improvisation does for actors, how it affects audience reception and audience interaction, and whether it will draw in more or different audiences to a production. Her responses thus far come from talkbacks of Dr. Faustus, and she intends to implement an online poll to gain responses from a wider audience. While most audiences enjoyed the improvisation, she notes that they were split on whether or not the modern language of the improvisation was jarring or was something that enhanced the experience.

Dane C. T. Leasure: Playing Mephistophilis through Special Effects: Leasure introduces himself as the actor of Mephistophilis in the Rogues’ Spring 2014 production of Dr. Faustus. He discusses the types of special effects that would have been used in the original productions of the show: squibs for fireworks, citing Philip Butterworth’s study on the topic. He also notes that the unpredictable nature of original squibs made them impractical and inappropriate for the modern stage, fire codes, and the safety of actors. Leasure then links his challenge to the Actors’ Renaissance Season-style nature of Faustus in the company’s year. He identifies three types of spectacle, and in this presentation, focuses on the addition of sound effects and on the implementation of the fireworks stage direction. He came up with the idea to use a flint starter and potentially a flash fire to suggest the fireworks, then shows off a starter kit including a flint starter, flash cotton, and sparkle additive. Once he had the technical aspect down, Leasure had to address the character angle: his desire to use the cane from the company’s earlier devised piece, which then lead to an exploration grounding his physicality. Spectacle, he notes, helped him find his character. Turning to sound effects, Leasure noted that the company decided to add additional sound effects to augment Mephistophilis’s conjuring and other “magic moments on stage”. Leasure ends with a plug for the company’s upcoming book of their thesis papers.

Kelly Elliott: The Insatiate Countess as Sexual Satire: Elliott opens with a short scene from the induction of The Isle of Gulls depicting varying opinions on what should be on the stage, with characters favoring poetry, bawdiness, or critique, and then relates this to faculty opinions of The Insatiate Countess. She notes that the play is, from its 1st and 3rd quartos, “A Tragedy”, a title which sets up considerable expectations for the audience — but that the play itself undermines these expectation with its emphasis on the supposed sub-plot. Elliot posits that the play is, instead, “a debate about sexually appropriate behavior in both women and men examined through satire with both tragic and comedic moments”. She notes that genre confusion is not an oddity in early modern drama, but that modern thought tends to attach too much meaning to the genre as stated. Elliott expresses her pride that the Rogues’ production “did not live up to the proscribed” set of characteristics for a tragedy, particularly thanks to the concurrent comic plot. Elliott notes that the extreme casting of the play also enhanced the comedic aspects of the play. Rehearsal and performance assisted Elliott to see Countess as “a multi-genred social debate on sex.”

Session 2

Cyndi Kimmel: Mujeres Varoniles: Female Agency in Performance: Kimmel notes that her thesis is largely dependent upon the upcoming production of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, but that she has begun work by comparing the characters in that play to other women displaying agency on-stage. Mujeres Varoniles is a Spanish term referring to women who act, in one way or another, like men. Kimmel first discusses Lady Macbeth as an initiator of action, noting that Oliveto, who played Lady Macbeth in the Rogues’ production, sees the character as responding to the overwhelming masculinity of the world she lives in. Second, Kimmel examines Isabella of The Insatiate Countess, a woman capable not only of earning the love of multiple men, but of inciting them to violence on her behalf. Third, the Duchess in Richard II, who uses gestural language of submission as a way of getting her way with Bolingbroke. Finally, Queen Isabel, whom Huggins, playing the role, sees as “greatly dependent upon a man” — her husband, King Ferdinand. These stand in contrast to Laurencia, a peasant woman who calls other women to action in response to injustice perpetrated by men. Kimmel hopes to “tease out female agency” in the various plays of the Rogues’ season.

Charlene V. Smith: Aural Identification in Richard IISmith notes her desire to use something other than costumes to differentiate between characters for the extreme casting production of Richard II, particularly in light of a desire not to imitate the choices made by the previous year’s company. She introduces the markers of extreme casting as stated by the 2012-2013 Rovers in their theses, and notes that her production of Richard II did not meet all of them. She worries about the use of prescriptive language when it comes to describing the methodology behind extreme casting. Smith interrogates the definitions and conditions set forward by the Rovers, by Jeffrey Chips, and by several theatres currently exploring extreme casting in their own productions. She questions whether or not it is necessary to “embody” a character with some sort of holding signifier when the actor is portraying a different character on-stage at the same time. She hopes that her full thesis will help future MFA companies to explore additional approaches, looking “not at what has to happen… but what could happen.”

Rebecca Hodder: Costume as Identity in Richard II: Hodder begins by discussing the idea of “identity as shaped or moderated by clothes”, noting the overlap in what clothing communicates between the early modern period and today. She examines accents of historical clothing as augmenting modern dress, clothing as status marker, and clothing as indicator of relationship. Hodder notes that fully realized historical costumes would not be practical in an extreme casting production like the Rogues’ Richard II. Base costumes allow minor variations to indicate changes in character, and Hodder intended to use modern dress for the base, not least because that made for an easier and cheaper choice than a historical base. While not “historically accurate in the traditional sense of the word”, the shape of the long-sleeved, tunic-length red shirts worn by the company still suggested something vaguely medieval. She notes that early modern costumes may have worked similarly, with 16th-century modern dress as a base, with a few historical accents added overtop. She then moves towards fabric as suggestive of status, comparing the early modern idea of high-quality fabrics to their modern-day equivalents. Finally, she discusses the ability of color combinations “to link characters together in meaningful ways”. Hodder finishes by noting that she did not set out to emulate early modern thought on costumes, instead focusing on the practicalities of performance, but realized that her “approach could be seen to reflect several early modern attitudes”. She expresses her hope that future MFA companies will continue to find “ways that early modern thought may influence modern performance.”

Mary Beth Geppert: The Collaborative Rogue Company Model: Geppert examines the collaborative approaches of past and present MFA company members, drawing both from concrete materials such as posters and programs, and from interviews with both Rovers and Rogues. Geppert discusses the idea of company identity, noting that the company’s idea may not always be what others outside the company identify. The Rovers created a company logo, whereas the Rogues created a particular icon for each play in their season. Geppert then presents both companies’ group photos, noting that they seem to represent the inverse of the posters. She quotes from variant experiences of the devised piece and its influence on the rest of the season, the notes how the dynamic changed when moving from the first large show (The Comedy of Errors for the Rovers, Macbeth for the Rogues) into the smaller units of the extreme casting shows. Geppert also notes company opinions relating the collaborative nature of the devised piece as preparatory for the ARS-style show. Geppert concludes by noting how each company in turn has the capacity to inform and advise those that follow it.

Stephanie Howieson: The Demons of Faustus, the Witches of MacbethHowieson opens by noting that the company’s season includes two plays featuring the supernatural and by noting the difference between early modern attitudes on such elements in real life and our own views on the paranormal. She runs through the “veritable parade” of supernatural personages in Faustus and notes them in opposition to the three Witches of Macbeth, presenting less of a pageant. Howieson notes that the cutting of Macbeth down to a one-hour runtime impacted what information the audience receives about the supernaturality of the Witches. She also notes other superstitions embedded in the play, familiar to early modern audiences but lost to the modern, such as the idea that the recently departed (such as Banquo) might return in search of food or to keep appointments (such as Macbeth’s feast). Moving to Dr. Faustus, Howieson notes that though they used the full A-text, there would still exist a disconnect between the early modern audience’s experience of supernaturality and the modern audience’s. Howieson questions how to contextualize the demonic: as horrifying or as comic, suggesting that both interpretations can co-exist. She suggests that the choice to portray certain supernatural elements as puppets emphasized “the separation between the human and non-human world” in the play. Howieson concludes by noting that the portrayal of the supernatural “will continue to fascinate audiences” given the enduring popularity of the plays in question.

Melissa Huggins: Translating Original Practices into the Spanish Golden Age: Costuming Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna for the Blackfriars Stage: Huggins notes the flexibility of the word “translation”, initially pertaining not only to languages, but also to the act of reclothing, incorporating new identity along with a new costume. She notes that, in her capacity as master of the build team for Fuente Ovejuna‘s costumes, she had to begin by identifying her parameters: original staging, a modern audience having an early modern experience, consistent w/ creator’s intent, a sense of authenticity, and speaking to the present. She notes the problems with several of those guidelines, particularly given the impossibility of knowing authorial intent. Huggins notes the similarities of early modern Spanish costuming practices to those used in England. Spanish theatre may have trended more towards idealism and romance in costuming. Huggins then presents examples of the costumes-in-progress for the show: Laurencia, the Musicians, and the Calatrava. Huggins explicates the thought process behind each costume, as well as the process of construction. Many of the costumes re-use and re-design fabric and costume pieces already in the company’s stock.

“‘Tis more difficult to Save than ’tis to Kill”

Nahum Tate’s 1681 adaptation of King Lear is somewhat infamous among Shakespeare scholars and enthusiasts. This 1681 revision turns the tragedy into a history, eliminates the King of France in order to manufacture a love story between Cordelia and Edgar, gives Edmund nefarious sexual intentions (as though he didn’t have enough of those already), restores Lear to his throne, and drops the Fool from the play entirely. Preparing Tate’s Lear for our Staged Reading series has gotten me thinking about this play’s tattered reputation — is the ridicule and mockery really so deserved?454px-LearTate

I think a little historical perspective here helps. I’m always surprised to remember that this was such an early adaptation, since the constructed happy ending smacks so much of the Bowdlerization of the Victorian era. The Restoration, though, had plenty of its own theatrical quirks. Parliament had closed the theatres in 1642, objecting to them on the grounds that they propagated vice and deception (after all, what do actors do besides stand up there and lie about who they are for two hours?). The playhouses would not re-open until Charles II’s reclaiming of the throne in 1660. Thereafter, the most popular plays were comedies featuring witty lovers, and considering the restrictive and culturally confined atmosphere that England was rising out of, this is hardly a surprising preference. Restoration theatres did revive Shakespeare’s plays, but judging by Samuel Pepys’s Diaries, a series of social observations written throughout the 1660s, companies favored his comedies over his tragedies, and by the latter part of Charles II’s reign, plays by new authors increasingly crowded out the pre-Cromwellian offerings. Shakespeare was not viewed in such rarefied fashion as he is now, but simply as one of many playwrights whose works had merit, but wanted revision in order to suit the tastes of new audiences, nearly a century removed from the original staging of the plays.

Tate’s own words explicate this mindset, giving justification for his emendations in his introductory epistle in the 1681 printing of the modified play:

Sir,

You have a natural Right to this Piece, since, by your Advice, I attempted the Revival of it with Alterations. Nothing but the Power of your Perswasion, and my Zeal for all the Remains of Shakespear, cou’d have wrought me to so bold an Undertaking. […] ‘Twas my good Fortune to light on one Expedient to rectifie what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale, which was to run through the whole A Love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia, that never chang’d word with each other in the Original. This renders Cordelia‘s Indifference and her Father’s Passion in the first Scene probable. It likewise gives Countenance to Edgar‘s Disguise, making that a generous Design that was before a poor Shift to save his Life. The Distress of the Story is evidently heightned by it; and it particularly gave Occasion of a New Scene or Two, of more Success (perhaps) than Merit. This Method necessarily threw me on making the Tale conclude in a Success to the innocent distrest Persons: Otherwise I must have incumbred the Stage with dead Bodies, which Conduct makes many Tragedies conclude with unseasonable Jests. Yet was I Rackt with no small Fears for so bold a Change, till I found it well receiv’d by my Audience; and if this will not satisfie the Reader, I can produce an Authority that questionless will. Neither is it of so Trivial an Undertaking to make a Tragedy end happily, for ’tis more difficult to Save than ’tis to Kill: The Dagger and Cup of Poyson are alwaies in Readiness; but to bring the Action to the last Extremity, and then by probable Means to recover All, will require the Art and Judgment of a Writer, and cost him many a Pang in the Performance. 

I have one thing more to Apologize for, which is, that I have us’d less Quaintness of Expression even in the newest Parts of this Play. I confess ’twas Design in me, partly to comply with my Author’s Style to make the Scenes of a Piece, and partly to give it some Resemblance of the Time and Persons here Represented. This, Sir, I submit wholly to you, who are both a Judge and Master of Style. Nature had exempted you before you went Abroad from the Morose Saturnine Humour of our Country, and you brought home the Refinedness of Travel without the Affectation. Many Faults I see in the following Pages, and question not but you will discover more; yet I will presume so far on your Friendship, as to make the Whole a Present to you, and Subscribe my self

Your obliged Friend
and humble Servant,

N. Tate.

Tate’s revisions played up to what Restoration audiences wanted to see — love triumphant, and a monarch rightfully restored to his throne. It’s also well worth noting that Tate’s adaptation was wildly popular — so much so that it virtually replaced the original Lear until well into the 19th century. From the 1740s on, various productions would add back some Shakespeare or contribute more new material, but it wasn’t until 1823 that a company dared perform the original Shakesepare — and then, it wasn’t well-received. Only towards the end of the Victorian era did the early modern version of the play re-assume its dominance. The biggest problem for Tate, ultimately, isn’t that he altered the story — it’s that he kept so much of the original. Placing his verse alongside of Shakespeare’s necessitates comparison, and that doesn’t work out well in Tate’s favor from a critical perspective, though audiences across three centuries enjoyed it anyway. Indeed, the internecine clash between scholars and practitioners may well date to Tate, as he received criticism from the onset for altering Shakespeare’s verse, for undercutting the tragedy of Lear’s death, for weakening Cordelia’s character by burdening her with a love story, and for the overall sentimentality of the piece.

Ironically for those critics who cry for authenticity, Tate’s Lear is actually closer in some regards to the original story of Leir from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, where the king does defeat Goneril and Regan to recover his throne. He rules for three years until his death, at which point Cordelia takes the crown. Cordelia would, in turn, be overthrown by her nephews, the grown sons of her deceased sisters, who would divide the kingdom between themselves before devolving into civil war (profitable ground for a sequel, in my opinion).

So, does Tate deserve the mockery of the modern age? Or has history unfairly maligned him? In a few weeks, you can decide for yourself if the play has, as Tate himself allowed, “perhaps more success than merit”. The Staged Reading of The History of King Lear, Reviv’d with Alterations by Nahum Tate will take the stage of the Blackfriars Playhouse on March 16th at 7:30pm.

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.

Book Review: Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

16245157Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.