Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session XVIII: Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse: The Study, the Stage, and the Classroom

This is Merlyn Q. Sell blogging Colloquy Session XVIII from the Blue Ridge Room at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel running from 9-10:15am.  This session is chaired by Bryan Herek.  The presenters are Jim Casey, Annalisa Castaldo, Sarah Enloe, Fiona Harris-Ramsby, Kate McPherson, and Rhonda Knight.

Before the session formally starts the presenters are engaged in a discussion of Lia Razak Wallace’s work presented earlier this work regarding the science of eye-contact between performers and audience.  Clearly Wallace’s ideas have generated a lot of excitement among conference attendees.

Herek begins by saying that today’s colloquy is a reunion of sorts for those that attended the summer 2008 NEH Institute.  There were twenty participants that included high school and college teachers.  The focus of the five week intensive was Shakespeare in the classroom.  Participants cut Antony and Cleopatra, split it into eight parts which were rehearsed in teams with OCS actors and culminated in a tag team performance.  The rigorous schedule included classes every day in the Blackfriars and the opportunity to repeatedly see the OCS productions at the time.  The Institute enriched the participants’ teaching and even resulted in McPherson’s students began an original practices company in Utah.  Knight returned to OCS for a sabbatical later on and has continually found the actor’s renaissance season style to be particularly useful in reaching her students.  Enloe stresses that providing a time constraint and the rules of original practices explodes creativity in students.  Herek finds that introducing the idea of solving “the puzzle” of particular staging moments allows students to forget the weight of Shakespeare and comprehend one individual moment and have tools to take on the next moment.  The presenters are all in agreement that having props on hand is essential to awaking students to the possibilities of the text.  Castaldo’s student body is made up primarily of engineering students and others who are taking the class for a GE requirement and aren’t able to devote the time out of class necessary to actually attempt a full performance themselves.  However, seeing the OCS renaissance season was equally fruitful for her students in linking the page to the stage.  Casey has always been invested in close reading and a focus on the text.  He finds cue scripts to be a very valuable teaching tool, though admittedly that is greatly dependent on the students.  There is a consensus among the panelists that performance in the classroom frequently fails but when it is successful it opens up the text in unique ways.

Herek stresses the significance of the pre-show music in a production.  During the Institute Herek had championed the participants to include a music pre-show in their production as well.  He’s continued to champion the pre-show with his students by not allowing them to stew backstage before performance.  He finds that the pre-show sets an environment that is key to connecting Shakespeare to things that are more familiar to his students.

McPherson and her students also took Shakespeare into the juvenile justice system.  Her students cut the scripts down to sixty minutes and they were then performed by the incarcerated boys.  McPherson and her students had to overcome the boys’ reluctance to cross-gendered casting but they frequently saw some really wonderful moments.

Herek mentions Ralph Alan Cohen’s book as being necessary as a touchstone to recall what they experienced so intensely at the Institute.  McPherson found the experience to be as exhausting as the conference but five times as long.

Casey points out the growth in his scholarship since the Institute and how it provided a focus for his work and created valued connections within the group.  McPherson shares that her first published article grew out of the work at the Institute.  Castaldo is currently working on a book about magic on the early modern stage and she has found that she is now able to include questions of staging in that work.  Enloe mentions the habit of “reading for the stage” is created by working within performance.

McPherson finds that her work has become infinitely more collaborative since this intensive.  Enloe reminds the group how impossible it would have been to complete the Institute’s tasks individually and that collaboration was a requirement to succeed.  Herek agrees that collaboration is also key to his work.  He also stresses the value of the network that was created by the Institute and how warm the extended Blackfriars community has been.  Casey agrees that he had previously found it very difficult to collaborate but since the institute he has published two collaborative articles and has many other collaborative projects in the work.

Enloe says they only had two days to cut Antony and Cleopatra, which Herek found it very difficult.  There was a lot of dissension within the groups regarding the cut.  Castillo says she ultimately took their script and cut it herself so that decisions were made by the deadline.  The cut had to follow OCS’s rules regarding cuts: 1. Liposuction not amputation. 2. Can’t cut entire scenes. 3. Can’t cut entire characters.  Herek  walked away from the process with a greater understanding of the purpose of comedy within tragic plays.  He finds that the comedy is also a great hook for students as well.  Enloe correctly guesses that he worked with  OCS actor John Harrell in the intensive.

Knight recalls a session taught by Roz Knutson wherein they were tasked with writing a scene based solely on the title of a lost play.  These scenes were eventually performed.  In this instance, Knight found that again it was important to trust the people that had the idea and make a decision.  Everyone agrees that once a decision is made you can move forward much easier.

Castaldo has found the tools learned at the Institute is particularly empowering for students, especially those who are afraid of Shakespeare.  The original practices staging, the cue scripts, and a specified end goal has given the students control of the work instead of merely reading.  Casey points out how it also awakes for students the idea that there are multiple solutions to any staging problem.

Enloe requests some more information as to what the pedagogical purpose of exercises like Knutson’s might be.  Knight found that the exercise allowed them to apply the knowledge they already had of original staging practices.  It provided an outlet for creativity and made students aware that there are many plays we no longer have.  Herek says that these techniques have become a model he uses when discussing teaching.  Enloe suggests that these types of exercises do more than simply teach Shakespeare, they also teach collaboration and creativity.  There are many skills required in a renaissance style production are applicable in many avenues outside of performance and Shakespeare.  Casey concurs, noting that these skills are the exact things currently being sought by employers.

Blackfriars 2015 – Staging Session with Tina Packer and James Lochlin

This is Merlyn Q. Sell, at the Blackfriars Playhouse once again, blogging now about today’s staging session featuring Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company, James Lochlin of University of Texas – Austin, and the OCS actors. This session is moderated by Sarah Enloe. The actors will be working scenes from Antony and Cleopatra based on suggestions from conference attendees. There was only one suggestion from attendees so Packer turned to the actors asking if there are portions of the current OCS production that they are stuck in and would like to work with in this session. The actors wisely demur. From the house, Dr. Matt Davies inquires about how actors can stage a broken heart. Packer says that is a moment that will be worked later. James Keegan finally responds to Packer’s request for problematic moments with a particular line of Antony’s that repeats the word “well”. Packer does admit that this staging session won’t be able to accommodate an attendees request to investigate raising Antony aloft, a moment that’s of particular interest after Bob Jones’ paper yesterday. Actor Rick Blunt offers up two moments wherein Enobarbus speaks to characters who are not on stage.

Staging begins with the first scene of the play. After the actors run through the scene as it is currently being performed, Packer explains her belief that the first scene provides first an explanation of how the world views Antony and Cleopatra and is immediately followed by the truth of the situation. Lochlin echoes the idea of two frames of reference competing for the audience’s focus and belief. The typical reception of the play seems to be about the tragedy of Antony – that he fails to keep his position through this relationship.

The actors next take on the scene where Antony chooses to fight by sea. As Packer points out, this scene can be problematic as Antony must know he is less likely to win by sea than by land but he makes that decision anyway. This scene holds the line Keegan had mentioned earlier. Packer initially talks to Sarah Fallon and asks that she portray Cleopatra not like Cleopatra the seductress, but as though she is trying to prove in this moment that she is as capable a military strategist as the men in the room. Packer then asks Keegan to support Cleopatra in this and that his decision is made because he’s prioritizing her wants. The redirect does immediately alter the blocking. The audience responds favorably to this stronger Cleopatra. The change seems to give Keegan more to play in the moment as well, both placating his soldiers and supporting Cleopatra. Keegan and Packer disagree a bit about whether the idea of Cleopatra as a general in this scene is consistent with Cleopatra’s flight from the battle later on. Eventually the disagreement seems to boil down to whether or not Antony’s ultimate allegiance lies with Cleopatra or the army. The spirited debate highlights the great deal of thought both have put into the role and their passionate defense of their positions is invigorating.

Next the group approaches the Enobarbus moment previously requested by Rick Blunt. Packer suggests that Enobarbus is in love with both Antony and Cleopatra. Packer directs Blunt to consider when he has done something he knows was stupid, and keep this in mind to understand that Enobarbus completely understands why Antony and Cleopatra have made their mistakes. Blunt ultimately interprets this direction as Enobarbus experiencing disappointment in people he loves dearly. When running the scene again, Blunt’s performance is decidedly more emotional and this Enobarbus is not the stoic soldier seen previously. Certainly it is a different performance, which most of the audience seems to respond to favorably, thinking those choices set up Enobarbus’ death in a more believable way. Packer asks Blunt to perform his final speech, keeping in mind the work that was just done. Almost immediately Packer takes Blunt back to further investigate the word “life”. Packer states that she is not yet believing that Enobarbus wants to die. Blunt responds, “I didn’t know I wanted to die.” He goes back to the top of the speech again and Packer stops again and asks Blunt to pay a little more attention to specific words. Packer commends Blunt bravery in taking the direction and working the speech in front of an audience. Lochlin commends Blunt’s final run at the speech as adding the layers and intensity without simply being bigger. Blunt seconds that, and adds how much work and preparation is required by an actor to be able to access an authentic feeling in each performance. Packer agrees and cautions that actors taking on this challenge have to exercise their skill in order to be able to recreate these performances in an authentic and safe way. The trap is always that an actor can be come indulgent and in Packer’s words do the “wanky, wanky, wanky thing”. Packer feels that the authentic presentation of feeling is an integral part of the creation of empathy between actors and audience. Packer cautions against an approach that disregards the empathic nature of theatre. Packer argues whole-heartedly for actors that embrace the pathos of the story and don’t become distracted by the logos of the work.

This session provides a lot for attendees (and no doubt the actors as well) to consider. As the floor is opened to the audience one attendee finds a way to unite the scholarship on this play with the work we’ve seen today. Does the play champion the love-based story of Antony and Cleopatra over the rational politics of Caesar? Packer suggests that Shakespeare wrote a string of lovers where men and women have equal agency and that that equal agency is the key to success in these relationships and potentially politics as well.

Blackfriars 2015 – Honorific: Barbara Mowat

This is Merlyn Q. Sell blogging this year’s Honorific from the Blackfriars Playhouse. The honorific will be starting a little later than originally scheduled at 1:20.

Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen begins the honorific by reminding us of the beginnings of the OCS as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and the support that endeavor received from scholars centered at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Cohen shared Stephen Booth’s glowing 1992 review of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Barbara Mowat was the editor who printed that review and has continued through her work to make Shakespeare’s works available and inviting to everyone.

Inspired by Mowat’s work, Cohen and Sarah Enloe invite a panel of scholars to audition OCS actors with Mowatt’s Folger Shakespeare Library editions as a guide for performance. The first actor to step up to the plate is Chris Johnston. Given elaborate direction to awake some of the archaic terms in his speech, Johnston admirably performs the verb “flapdragon” to the delight of the crowd. Abbi Hawk is the next to take the stage. Ann Thompson directs Hawk to communicate to the audience the importance of Saint Martin’s Day – right down to the date, November 11th. Rick Blunt is next with a Puck speech. Paul Menzer asks Blunt to pay particular attention to playing the size of fairies that are small enough to “lurk in gossip’s bowls”. Blunt achieves this by adopting a “monstrous little voice”. Tiffany Stern takes on James Keegan’s Leontes, specifically requesting more detail in his description of Hermione’s hand play with Polixenes. Keegan gamely tackles that and the suggestion that his reference to his brows might be a reference to cuckold’s horns. Sarah Fallon performs Cleopatra. The panel requests that Fallon sing or hum to evoke the music of the spheres that she claims is in Antony’s voice. Patrick Midgeley is next with a bit from Florizel. Tiffany Stern suggests that the piece may be bettered if it was performed “a bit more nude”. Next we saw John Harrell performing Oberon. Mary Hill Cole suggests there needs to be more specificity with the words vestal virgin and its connection to Queen Elizabeth. Gregory Jon Phelps accepted a redirect to his Caesar monologue with a focus on geography and geneology. Allison Glenzer gives the panels a monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Glenzer attempts to integrate the notes to make clear that “chiding” is a type of barking and that the hounds of Sparta were known for their hunting ability. Renee Thornton Jr has the luck (misfortune?) to receive direction via punctuation. Patrick Earl’s Hamlet seems inspired by the previous actors’ notes. The panel determines their work is done.

Cohen reads a letter from Bruce Smith, which praises Mowat’s good judgement, diligence, and tact. Cohen then calls Mowat’s co-editor, Paul Wurstine, to the stage. Wurstine stresses the breadth of Mowat’s scholarship. Mowat takes the stage to a standing ovation. Mowat recalls her first exposure to Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and the unbelievable growth from that point to today’s 2015 Blackfriars Conference. Mowat receives her own honor by graciously expressing her admiration for Cohen and the amazing work of the American Shakespeare Center. Cohen stresses that Mowat has modeled the integration of scholarship and performance, and the OCS was built on her example.

Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session XIII: Magic in the Early Modern Stage

Merlyn Q. Sell here, blogging Colloquy Session XIII: Magic in the Early Modern Stage from the fourth floor of Staunton’s Masonic Building.  This session runs from 9:00am to 10:15am.   The session is chaired by Annalisa Castaldo and the presenters are Jim Casey, Michelle Danner, Brittany Proudfoot-Ginder, Patrick Harris, and Stephanie Howieson.

The session starts with a recap of the presenters work.  Castaldo is interested in the intersection of magic and gender, specifically in Macbeth.  Castaldo has identified some links between the presenters works, focusing on how magic may destabilize or disrupt gender, how magic might be staged, both in early modern playhouses and today, the importance of the magic book on stage, and finally how magic and the magical differ onstage.  Proudfoot-Ginder is joining us via Skype.  Her work is also concerned with magic and gender, specifically how magic performed by women is viewed as black magic as opposed to the beneficent magic of men.  Harris’ work is focused on the role of literacy and education is perceived as a stepping stone to magic in early modern works.  Howieson is interested in the impact of religion on an early modern audience’s perception and fear of stage magic and how modern productions can stage magic in ways that inspire a similar fear in their audience.  Danner’s paper is focused on Cassius in Julius Caesar and the possibility of Cassius as a Sybil character.  Casey is looking at the doubling of fairies and mechanicals in Midsummer Night’s Dream and how playing the supernatural and transformative nature of the fairies can set off the mechanicals inability to transform as actors.

The conversation begins with Danner and Proudfoot-Ginder discussing the disruption of gender through magic.  Proudfoot-Ginder points out that the typical staging of the witches in Macbeth and Prospero in The Tempest provide a visual example of the gender divide.  While the witches are usually embodied with a hunched posture seeming to pull their power from primal, natural forces, Prospero is frequently seen standing quite erect with his power coming from his education and magic books.  Danner has been looking at the possibilities of Cassius in Julius Caesar as having shifting gender throughout the play.  Danner notes how this staging choice can complement the two extremes of femininity that exist in Portia and Calpurnia.  Castaldo troubles the idea of Prospero as a mOCSuline beneficent magician and points out that the text does frequently feminize Prospero via his relationship to Miranda and the background of his power being not only his magic book but also his female precursor.

Castaldo invites Howieson to speak to the idea of how gender might influence her investigation of how modern productions can stage the terror of magic.  Howieson points out that at the time Macbeth was written views towards magic were shifting from one of good and bad magic as opposing forces to one where all magic was black magic.  Harris adds that Dr. Faustus and The Tempest can function as a late morality play with the moral being “don’t practice magic”.  Casey wonders if early modern audiences would have shared that view as Prospero gains from his magic.  Harris points out that Prospero has to abjure his magic in order to resume his place in the world outside of the island and that it is through his obsession with magic that Prospero is initially banished.  Harris believes that perceived magicians had a very precarious position within early modern society as it was a slippery slope to damnation.

Castaldo points out that the conversation began with gender and magic and that the conversation becomes complicated by the introduction of a third concept, morality.  How might morality intersect with gender and magic?  Proudfoot-Ginder believes morality is an important element in the relationship between gender and magic as early modern women were considered closer to sin.  However, Proudfoot-Ginder admits this connection is disrupted, or at least complicated, by characters such as Puck and Ariel that are gender-fluid.  Casey points out that in the text and in early modern performance these characters were not gender-fluid, they were specifically mOCSuline.  Castaldo wonders if the casting of a boy actor in these roles wouldn’t have made these characters gender-fluid for the original audience.  Harris troubles the idea of assigning gender at all to some characters, specifically Ariel and the Weird Sisters.  Harris adds that in the case of the Weird Sisters the text links the characters to the Fates, who are female, but at the same time the text assigns them beards and Macbeth himself has difficulty parsing gender.  Howieson also points out that some of these elements may have been coincidental when the texts were written.  Shakespeare wrote to a specific company of actors and had to deal with the actor bodies they presented on stage.

Moving towards a discussion of the magical versus actual magic, Danner points out that in plays such as Julius Caesar, magic exists in the world of the play and it influences that world and characters even if nothing we identify as magical occurs on stage.  Casey asks if the supernatural and magic are the same.  Harris says no, but that they are a part of the same occult world.  An audience member further troubles the boundary between the supernatural and the unnatural.  Definition of these terms seem to be key to understanding these concepts.  Howieson points out that for the early modern population there was no supernatural.  The magical and the occult were considered a part of the natural world.

Castaldo brings up Hermione’s waking in the end of The Winter’s Tale.  The moment is always magical but staging choices can make it a product of actual magic or not.  Howieson also points out the stage direction requiring music at that moment and that there is a precedent in Shakespeare’s work for music to invoke magic.  Harris and Castillo discuss the possible intersections but also disagreements between Hermione’s supposed death and the potion that puts Juliet in a state that appears as death.  From the audience, Terry Southerington points out that this differentiation between magic and the magical was unlikely to be perceived by an early modern audience that accepted magic as science.  Howieson ties this idea back to the gender question earlier, by pointing out that male magicians are typically seen as in control of their magic while it would have been believed that female magicians can’t hold magical power themselves but must be under the sway of Satan.

The panel turns their attention to Prospero specifically and how murky his power really is.  How much power does he wield and how much is due solely to Ariel and the other magical inhabitants of the island?  Castaldo points out that the text is not clear about the nature of the island and its inhabitants in the first place.  Are the island’s inhabitants naturally magical?  Or is it Prospero’s (and previously, one assumes, Sycorax’s) power that imbues the inhabitants with magic?  As the panel continues to unpack all the possible sources of Prospero’s magic, Harris points out that while Prospero’s magic books are discussed the text does not require they be seen onstage.  This, plus our understanding of early modern views on magic, make it seem to Harris that magic can be learned and once learned practiced at will.  The magic books provide the knowledge but are not in and of themselves magical.  This view ties magic indelibly to literacy.  This view is troubled further by Rafe and Robin who are able to summon Mephistopheles without being able to accurately read and interpret Faustus’ magic book.  Harris points out a distinction between magicians who obtain their power via learning whereas witches receive their power through a pact with Satan.  Faustus is a problem then in how he crosses those boundaries.

Closing with a discussion of examples of effective magic onstage, there’s a great deal of debate as to what constitutes magic for each person as an audience member.  The panel does seem to agree that the one required element is the actors’ investment in the belief of the magic.  Audience member Renee Thornton Jr. hints that audiences may see the fruits of this panel onstage this coming actor’s renaissance season at the American Shakespeare Center.

Blackfriars Conference 2015: Welcome address and Keynote: Paul Prescott

This is Merlyn Q. Sell live blogging from the Blackfriars Playhouse.  Today’s Keynote Address is The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Sam Wanamaker presented by Paul Prescott from 11am to 12pm.  First, however, Dr. Ralph Cohen delivers a heartfelt welcome.

Cohen begins by remembering the late Tom Berger.  He recalls a time when Berger stuck his head into a firehouse and shouted “Theatre!”. The audience greatly appreciates the joke.   Cohen mentions that the best and worst part of the Blackfriars Conference is that there is too much to do.  He blames Sarah Enloe.  He introduces OCS resident actor, Allison Glenzer, who reads an email from Jim Warren.  Warren is currently on the OCS’s audition tour, seeking actors for upcoming seasons.  Warren points out the conference’s special focus on the intersection between academics and performance.  Mary McDermott, chair of the OCS board, also welcomes conference attendees.  The Blackfriars is a particularly fitting venue for such a conference in this legacy year.  McDermott makes a point of welcoming home students and alumni of Mary Baldwin’s graduate program.  The OCS staff introduces themselves from the balcony to the much-deserved appreciation of the audience.  Mary Baldwin College president, Pamela Fox, takes a moment to celebrate the fifteen year partnership between Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance graduate program and the OCS.

Cohen throws down his gauntlet in welcoming attendees to the only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse and reminding us that the Sam Wanamaker is not a recreation.  Cohen introduces Steve Owen, Staunton city manager.  Owen lives up to his self-proclaimed role as a “ham sandwich”. After recounting some of Staunton’s claims to fame, Owen praises the OCS for the magic it has brought to the community.

Sarah Enloe takes the stage to accept a bouquet of roses and the gratitude of the audience. For the remainder of the conference attendees can look forward to hearing her before every keynote for changes to the conference schedule. With the help of Mary McDermott, Enloe retires the 2013 conference bear and introduces the 2015 bear and her signature pearls. After a few housekeeping items from Enloe, Cohen introduces Dr. Paul Menzer.

After a quippy rumination on time, Menzer welcomes attendees on behalf of the current MBC Shakespeare and Performance students. Menzeer warmly introduces today’s keynote speaker Paul Prescott.

Prescott provides an overview of the keynote’s main concerns at the outset. The address encompasses creation myths, ancestor worship, the stories we tell, the keeping of annals, the conditions under which theatres get built, and global mobility. Prescott believes that Charles Marowitz’ biography of Sam Wanamaker in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the best biography we currently have for Wanamaker. Prescott’s investigation of Wanamaker’s archives finds that that biography has one glaring error. Its assertion of Wanamaker’s lifelong devotion to Shakespeare is inaccurate. Prescott is interested in the background that led to Wanamaker’s eventual devotion to Shakespeare and the foundation of the Globe Trust.

Prescott provides a snapshot of Wanamaker’s background, including his childhood and teenage years. In 1943 Wanamaker visited the Chicago World’s Fair with his father and experienced a version of the Globe in the “Merry Olde England” section of the fair. In the Wanamaker archives a program from this event includes a post-it note on which an older Wanamaker had written “The beginning”. Later on Wanamaker acted on a Globe stage in Cleveland. Wanamaker was performing “tabloid” versions of Shakespeare, fifty minute populist reductions of the original texts in rep.

Wanamaker began spending time in London in response to his uncertain position in America as a communist. In preparing an affidavit for McCarthy, Wanamaker blamed his preparation to play the role of a young Russian soldier for his joining the communist party. Under these circumstances, Wanamaker moved to London. Because of his position in the United States, Mi-5 eventually placed Wanamaker under surveillance and even recommended his imprisonment in the event of emergency. In surveillance records Wanamaker’s interest in Stanislavsky’s methods was noted. Eventually the United Kingdom grants Wanamaker permanent residence.

In 1957, Wanamaker took over Shakespeare Theatre Liverpool. When the public was solicited to suggest new names for the theatre the winning title was The New Shakespeare Theatre. Wanamaker’s programming for the New Shakespeare Theatre focused on the antithetical combination of banned plays and popular family fare. Wanamaker had hopes that the theatre could become a “cultural community center”. Unfortunately after twenty months the New Shakespeare Theatre ran out of money and the venture ended. Wanamaker found a home at the New Shakespeare Theatre and even slept at the theatre. Wanamaker said of his work in Liverpool that it was particularly meaningful because it merged his selfish desires with a higher purpose.

Wanamaker’s Method style notes for his performance of Iago in 1959 are in his archives. He created detailed backstory for Iago including syphilis, possible bastardy, the loss of children, and marital infidelity.  His Macbeth was seen through the lens of the Cold War and was based primarily on a pervasive feeling of fear.

In the 1960s Wanamaker turned towards opera with mixed results. He also worked with Bertolt Brecht at this time. Looking at retirement and wishing to finally anchor himself in London, Wanamaker turned to the idea of the Globe. In a 1972 interview Wanamaker pointed out his desire to become a permanent fixture of a community. From 1972 to 1975, three seasons of performances were done under tents on the Globe site. During this time Wanamaker was curating a rough and tumble, populist approach to performance. Wanamaker’s expectations for the Globe did not include early modern performance traditions in any major way. He hoped for work that blended Brecht and Stanislavsky.

Inspired by someone’s rock opera idea for Macbeth, Wanamaker brainstormed couplings of Shakespeare plays and popular rockers. The audience responded with great enthusiasm to his combination of David Bowie with Hamlet. Wanamaker’s association of Sting with King Lear does not go over as well.

Prescott concludes, reminding the audience that the line from Sam Wanamaker to London’s Globe theatre is not a simple straight line but a collage of influences.

Blackfriars Conference 2015: Colloquy Session I: Audience and the Actor

Good morning, this is Merlyn Q. Sell live blogging from the Tyson Center.  This is Colloquy Session I: Audience and the Actor, running from 9:00am to 10:15am.  This session is chaired by Ralph Alan Cohen and the presenters are Heidi Cephus, Greg Fiebig, Amanda L. Hughes, Henry D. McHenry, Julia Nelson, Brittany Renard, Lisa S. Starks-Estes, and Natalia Razak Wallace.

The session begins with the presenters singing a tribute to Dr. Cohen’s pre-party and requesting audience interaction to complete the final verse.  The audience largely fails to pick up on the rhyme scheme but is engaged none-the-less.

Cohen advises us that the audience is the “third leg” of performance and the importance of thinking about the audience in the theatre and in the classroom.  The presenters have prepared responses to a set of questions regarding the audience and the actor and we’ll begin by hearing those.

Wallace is the first to speak.  Wallace’s interest is focused on the effects of eye-contact between audience and actor.  In researching this topic, Wallace has started looking at neuro-science to discover more about the biology of that contact.  Wallace points out that the current theatrical practice of putting the audience in the dark changes their role from participant to observer, which impacts how their memory of the event is created and stored.

Renard’s work investigates the staging of dismemberment and how that impacts the relationship of the audience to the actor.  She is looking at examples from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Changeling.  A realistic staging of these moments would have disrupted the audience’s understanding of an actor versus the thing their body parts become.

After working on a book regarding Shakespereare’s use of Ovid, Starks-Estes believes that early modern performance was heavily influenced by Ovidian metamorphosis.  Starks-Estes feels that early modern audience’s knew this and expected this in the theatre.

Nelson is interested in the use of vice in early modern domestic dramas.  The villain can be an avatar for the audience at the beginning as they share in the villain’s plotting.  As the plays continue, through audience interaction with soliloquies, the audience also influences the restoration of moral order.

Cephus speaks about the fleshy impact of performance.  Richard II allows the audience to experience the communion of actor body with historical figures.  As an audience’s loyalty transfers from Richard to Bolingbroke they are physically transformed.  Science backs up the idea that there is a biological impact linked to the act of forgiveness.

McHenry is interested in the audience as commonwealth.  Henry VIII is theatre within theatre as the theatrical audience views the characters perform for each other.  Woolsey’s behavior specifically is observed and commented on by other characters.   The audience is implicated as a commonwealth by joining these characters in observation.

Hughes’ company, Rocket City Shakespeare, is a “resource-driven” company that goes into the audience and requests direct audience interaction within performance.  She links this work to Wallace’s statement regarding leaving the audience in the dark.  Breaking with that tradition has a profound and exciting impact on the audience.

Fiebig is particularly interested in how audience’s construct meaning.  He feels the most important part of performance is that audiences comprehend what is being performed.  Based on a theory by Bernard Pierce, Fiebig finds that within the conversation between actor and audience the audience creates the performance reality.  Considering this, a dialogue between the audience and actor is preferable to the monologue encouraged by proscenium staging.  Fiebig introduces the idea of a “performance afterlife” or the discussions, responses, and impact of a performance after the curtain comes down.

Moving into discussion, Cohen asks the audience to respond to the posters lining the walls and points out that while eye-contact seems to be an integral part of the images, the audience is not included in the images. The presenters then move into a conversation regarding how an audience is taught new play-going conventions. The presenters mostly admit that a curtain speech is the most inefficient, but also an unsatisfactory, solutions.

Cohen brings the discussion back to the ideas of communion and dismemberment brought up by Cephus and Renard respectively. Nelson points out that beautiful theatres often inspire the same awe as a church building. Cohen notes that church-goers understand the expected behavior at churches throughout the world and theatre-goers understand the same thing. Cohen is interested in “the inconvenienced audience” as they experience disruption through dismemberment. Renard responds bringing up Fiebig’s earlier idea of a performance’s “after-life” and how live-tweeting and other technological engagement might influence that. Starks-Estes troubles the consensus that the movie theatre doesn’t allow for audience engagement and points out that the “after-life” may be more extensive for movies. Going back to Cohen’s comment regarding dismemberment, Starks-Estes believes the audience has a pleasurable response to dismemberment because it is so jarring.

Cohen wants to put some pressure on the “afterlife” concept. Wallace’s research has found that eye-contact is one of the most memorable aspects of performance for an OCS audience member. Cohen addresses the idea of muscle memory as audience’s learn and relearn how to experience theatre. Linking to McHenry’s discussion of the audience’s implication in the events of Henry VIII, Cohen points out that the real divorce trial between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon occurred at the Blackfriars, the same space where the play of those events premiered. The audience had to have known that and responded to it accordingly.

Cohen steers the discussion back to Nelson’s idea of vice characters as audience avatar. Cohen wonders how the audience’s alliance with the villain might link to the ideas of metamorphosis and transubstantiation. Nelson believes that through these vice characters the audience is able to experience taboo acts with the safety blanket of knowing that within five acts the moral order will be re-established.

Fiebig asks about Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ experience in teaching audiences their style of performance. Cohen points out that repetition is key to managing audience expectations. At this point if the OCS turned the lights out it would be just as disruptive as it was to turn the lights on in the first place. Fiebig goes back to the curtain speech and how from a semiotic perspective relying on the curtain speech to guide audience behavior is a crutch. Fiebig mentions Christopher Sly from Taming of the Shrew and Hughes mentions Henry V’s chorus as characters that can be integrated into the audience to assist in directing audience behavior.

Cohen asks for final comments before opening the discussion to the audience. Cephus suggests that the influence of audience’s experiences of prior performances on future performances may be a part of performance afterlife. Fiebig is concerned about the introverts in the audience and admits to his own discomfort as an audience member. The actor has a responsibility to read the audience and respond accordingly. Nelson wonders if the audience self-selects by choosing their seats.

McHenry turns to the audience but is met with discontent by an audience member responding to the fact that the audience has been literally seated outside the discussion. She also echoes the idea that the audience exercises a choice in choosing particular seats, theatrical companies, and their own engagement with the performance.

Cohen throws it back to Wallace for the final word as promised. Wallace reiterates her ideas that eye-contact biologically impacts the audience’s recognition that they are human, just like the actor speaking to them.