A-ha: Finding the value in learning at two conferences

Conferences offer unique explorations in the teaching arena. They are often one-shot one-offs, with a completely new audience, as opposed to the classes teachers nurture through a semester or year-long class. They still offer opportunities to find “A-ha” moments, though. It is the a-ha, whether mine or a student’s or participant’s at a conference, that I look for every time I step in front of a group.

The methods to achieve that goal vary as much as the situation or the content. Sometimes, as in our workshop in January at the Texas Educational Theatre Association, we inundate students with chances for discovery by sharing snippets of every bit of mildly applicable information in one 75 minute period. A “taste” of the what and the why might include, for instance, in the case of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, the effect the following may have on preparation and performance:

    • rhetoric
    • cue scripts
    • iambic pentameter
    • diagonal staging
    • second person pronouns
    • embedded stage directions
    • audience contact

The hope for students inundated with information is that they will take it upon themselves to learn more, but because we knew that the survey method might prove too shallow for some participants, on Saturday, we dove deep into the “hard Shakespeare” of Claudius’s prevarications, the verse of Enobarbus (the barge speech), and the stage directions buried in Macbeth. Our approach in both workshops was very practical, and we heard many an “a-ha,” comments of newfound understanding and appreciation. In these sessions, for the teachers and students in the room, we modelled the methods and tools at their disposal. We, in essence, gave them the tools to unlock Shakespeare’s plays. These folks were pre-disposed to appreciate Shakespeare’s plays, but were unsure about the options and clues available within the text. We pulled back some mental curtains and showed them new/old ways to approach the material — to think about the stage as it was and the actors as they were in Shakespeare’s time. This method of teaching reveals something already present in the text, and readily available to the interested, something simply obscured by the passage of time and changes in practice.

At ACMRS, presenters challenged themselves and session participants to look for tools outside of the texts and the act of playing to “interpret” meanings in literature. Presenters approached their topics from the perspectives of literary theory and philosophy, and the names Latour (actor-network theory, which sounds more theatrical than it is), Marx (yes, the economist), Derrida (deconstructionism), and Burke (rhetoric and aesthetics) made regular appearances in papers throughout each session. I have to admit to some moments of “A-ha” as I thought of how the theory of Latour fit so nicely with the body parts in Titus and the deed box in A New Way to Pay Old Debts. In the OCS session, those theorists were not, not one of them, mentioned. Not even once. Our papers focused, like our work, on practical aspects: performance, space, sources, dramaturgy. But, I realized, as we heard papers and delivered ours, that we, the presenters, were all focused on the same objective. We were all looking for ways to get closer to the work. Ways to see what is there.

On my way to present in Texas, I was finishing a book Mom lent me at Christmas time. Cass and I would label this book “brain candy,” you know the kind… something quick and appealing that doesn’t make you think too much, but still enriches you in some way. This particular brain candy, Afternoons with Emily, fictionalizes the life of poet Emily Dickinson. It does so through the eyes of Emily’s neighbor, who is devoted to the education of children. I felt a connection to the heroine because of her passion to find the best way to help children want to learn. (I also appreciated the occasional Dickinson poem, and their place in the narrative. The author’s “backstory” helped the poems to infiltrate my conscience in new and meaningful ways.) In one passage, my personal educational philosophy poured out of the mouths of the heroine and her mentor as they discussed the school they would build:

“learning should be a process of bringing out what is already there….”

“ ‘educo,’ to lead out…”

education should give students “a sense of being valued as you learn, rather than punished if you don’t…”

Teachers and students seeking Shakespeare together, whether at TETA or ACMRS benefit from taking to heart these simple precepts. Recognizing the best methods to “bring out” what is already available to the student and to help them recognize the value in discovery drives the best teachers, classes, and conferences. Sometimes they may discover it by considering the context of player and playing, sometimes by considering it through theory and philosophy. Whatever the case, making the a-ha moments meaningful will encourage students to continue to seek and to make Shakespeare their own.

Shakespeare’s Plays as Primary Sources: The OCS at ACMRS

Last week, Sarah, former-intern Liz, and I went to Tempe, Arizona for the Arizona Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference. Their theme this year was Performance and Theatricality, so we saw it as a great opportunity to introduce the idea of the OCS to a new region and a new group of scholars. ACMRS scholars are primarily historians, not theatre practitioners, so they’re not a group that we’ve had as much interaction with. Sarah will be writing more about our experiences as practical-minded scholars in a more theory-driven world, but I wanted to share a general summary of our presentations. We decided to focus our panel around the idea of using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources, capitalizing on the idea of his plays as both products of and reflections of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England.

Liz, presenting at her first conference, opened our panel with an overview of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and how we learn about them through the plays. She discussed the indications in the texts that audience contact was not only in existence but actively planned for, incorporated into the structure of the plays. Sarah and I demonstrated by using one of our favorite “casting the audience” scenes: Portia and Nerissa describing in 1.2 of The Merchant of Venice. Liz also talked about Shakespeare writing for specific members of his company, about the early modern rehearsal process, and about the use of cue scripts. Sarah and I got up again to show how Shakespeare could lead an actor to an emotional response just by capitalizing on the effects of inserting false cues into a speech. In another example from The Merchant of Venice, Shylock speaks Salarino’s cue, “have my bond,” four times before it’s actually Salarino’s turn to speak. The effect is one of mounting frustration on Salarino’s part, entirely appropriate to the scene. Liz also discussed the primacy of language when studying Shakespeare, as his language demonstrates the efficacy of his stagecraft. She ended by talking about Shakespeare’s epilogues, which frequently ask pardon and approval from the audience.

Sarah, on her third conference since 2011 started, presented on using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources for social history. She suggested that early modern theatre reflects early modern English societal customs in many ways, and that if the conventions on the stage were wildly different from those practiced in reality, the audiences would have known that and perhaps found the plays less compelling. Her paper narrowed the broad range of social history down to courtship, particularly the rituals of obtaining (or evading) parental permission for marriage. Sarah looked at, among other scenes, Petruchio’s wooing of Katharina and the dowry negotiations at play in The Taming of the Shrew.

My paper, and also my first presentation at a conference, was on the use of Shakespeare’s history plays to teach British history — not only as a structural outline for learning about the monarchs of the medieval and early modern periods, but also as a kind of historiography to learn how the English of Shakespeare’s day thought about their own cultural heritage. I built this paper off of a project from last year’s pedagogy course, where I designed a semester-long class around the subject. As I’ve worked further on the concept, I’ve aligned it strongly with the “Perspectives” section of our Study Guides, which encourages students to make connections between the world of the plays, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In my proposed course, I posit comparing modern American cultural myths to those that the English propagated about their own heritage. Finding the similarities and examining the differences could be a powerful way for students to relate emotionally to the past, and Shakespeare’s histories, filled with such captivating personalities, are an advantageous way to engage students with the concept.

I think the attendees received our panel quite positively. Several scholars stuck around after we finished, wanting to talk about the Playhouse, our programs, and the ongoing process of research and learning that occurs as we continue to work through early modern texts in our space. We also got to have, at the closing reception, a nice chat with the director of ACMRS, who wanted to know if we had any material for pre-schoolers. (Not just yet, but our new OCS Family Coordinator, Ben Ratkowski, may have something along those lines for us soon). I’m hoping we’ll see some of our new friends at the Blackfriars Conference in October.

James Shapiro on Shakespeare and the Development of Language

WNYC’s Radiolab interviews Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro (1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Contested Will) in this episode on the development of language. Where did Shakespeare succeed in inventing the English language? And maybe more interestingly, where did he fail? How and why do words work in the human mind? My fellow philologists won’t want to miss this episode:

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Book Review: Ruled Britannia

On yesterday’s #AskShakespeare day on Twitter, someone asked for recommendations on Shakespeare-related books of fiction. As it happens, yesterday I was about 50 pages from the end of an excellent alternate-history thriller featuring Shakespeare as the main character. I finished last night, and so now I’d like to recommend it to you all.

The premise of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history tale, Ruled Britannia, is that the Spanish Armada did manage to take over England in 1588. Philip II installs his daughter Isabella and her consort Albert on the throne of England, imprisons Elizabeth in the Tower, and returns England to Catholicism. Ten years later, Philip is dying, Elizabeth is yet imprisoned, and while most of the populace complies with the will of their Spanish overlords, a current of discontent still runs beneath the surface.

The driving plot of the book centers on William Shakespeare, presented as a humble playwright and an actor of middling skill, whose talent for composition gains the attention of those in high places. First, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, commissions Shakespeare to write a play to inspire the English people to an uprising. Loyal to Elizabeth, Burghley has been planning a revolt to occur after Philip’s death, but he wants words to inspire the masses to back his maneuver. For the topic, he chooses a story out of Tacitus: Boudicca, the Iceni queen who revolted against the Romans in the first century. At nearly the same time, one of the Spanish dons requests that Shakespeare craft a play to be a fitting epitaph to King Philip. Shakespeare writes both, and the company rehearses both, not knowing which they’ll actually mount. During the process, Shakespeare finds himself wishing the task had been given to another man — especially as the bodies of those who might impede his progress start piling up around him.

Turtledove includes lots of nice historical touches, and the cast of characters is well-researched and comprehensive. The book does a wonderful job bringing the world of early modern theatre to life, even with the adjustments made for the alternate history. Burbage and Kemp are major characters, with references to Burbage’s family’s theatrical history and to Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder. Marlowe’s still alive and writing plays at the beginning of the book, and he seems torn between admiring Shakespeare’s talent and sourly resenting that it has eclipsed his own. His probable historical murderers, Ingram Frizer and Nicholas Skeres, play shadowed but critical roles, clearing the path for Shakespeare’s success and Cecil’s rebellion, as does Thomas Phelippes, historically one of Francis Walsingham’s intelligencers, here a cunning double-agent. Robert Devereaux, known to our history as the traitorous Earl of Essex, makes an appearance towards the end of the book. Shakespeare’s opposite number throughout the book is Lope de Vega, one of Spain’s most prolific authors, whose reputation there is second only to Cervantes. Turtledove takes him out of his native land and brings him ashore with the Armada. The English theatre fOCSinates de Vega, and he becomes friends, of a sort, with Shakespeare and Burbage. His presence threatens the production of Boudicca, however, as the company clearly cannot rehearse with him hanging around. His presence augments the tension behind Shakespeare’s dilemma and keeps the action clipping along at an exciting pace.

The book is a goldmine for the Shakespeare-lover. Turtledove sprinkles his characters’ dialogues with lines from Shakespeare’s plays, and recognizing them can be a bit of a game to go along with following the main plot. I almost wish I’d kept a tally of how many I found while I was reading. While extremely clever, however, they could be a bit overwhelming in places, and occasionally they did seem somewhat forced, as though Turtledove just really wanted to include that line no matter how. He managed not to stray into seeming kitschy or cutesy with the references, however (which is not something that can be said of all novels featuring Shakespeare as a character); on the whole they were quite sly without feeling obnoxious. I also took issue with a few of the choices Turtledove made — for instance, having the company play Macbeth in 1597. I’m not arguing the date itself — in an alternate universe, I’m willing to entertain all kinds of shifting around of chronology. But Macbeth would just plain never have been written without King James on the throne, so that element jarred me out of Turtledove’s mostly-seamless historical diversion. I’m also not positive that Turtledove fully understands what iambic pentameter is and how it works, that it’s more than just ten syllables to a line — some of the lines he invented for Boudicca and King Philip don’t scan properly at all, even though he discusses them as though they’re perfect iambic lines. Despite those nitpicks of mine, however, his alterations generally hold together as a reasonable presentation of the early modern theatre world under slightly different conditions than we know it.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Ruled Britannia. Turtledove does an excellent job of relating the ability of language to move hearts and inspire an audience. He also gets his reader emotionally invested in the characters and their dire straits; by the end of the book, I passionately wanted to see Shakespeare and the company present Boudicca, and I wanted the rebellion to succeed, but I also cared about what happened to de Vega and the other side characters. Turtledove presents the humanity on both sides of the conflict quite well. The climax of the book is thus both thrilling and emotionally moving. I can cheerfully recommend Ruled Britannia as a delightful read to Shakespearean enthusiasts and other Anglophiles looking for high-quality brain candy.

Actor-Scholar Council, 28 January 2011

This week we are focusing on the Actor-Scholar Council — Since 2007, OCS actors have met with scholars to discuss the unique experiment of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. The mission of the Council is to provide participants with the opportunity for discovery related to the process of mounting plays and performing them at the Blackfriars Playhouse, to provide participants with the opportunity to explore their overlapping areas of expertise in order to garner avenues for para-professional friendship, and to create a record of conversation for future study. Tune in to our podcasts to hear our other meetings for yourself. I’ve compiled these notes, with the help of Christina and interns Natalie and David, to bring you a comprehensive summary of last week’s discussion.

On January 28th, the Actor-Scholar Council met to discuss The Malcontent. The actors present were Ben Curns (Malevole), Patrick Midgley (Ferneze and Guerrino), Alli Glenzer (Maquerelle), Miriam Donald (Bianca and Maria), John Harrell (Mendoza), and Jeremy West (Pietro). The scholars present, drawn from the MBC MLit/MFA program, were Asae Dean, David Santangelo, Rachel Ratkowski, and Johnathan Haas. Paul Menzer, head of the Master’s program, was this session’s moderator.

The session began by questioning what the appropriate collective noun for a group of actors is. Suggestions included “an affectation,” “an arrogance,” or “a conceit” of actors. Paul then prefaced the conversation by considering the unique theatrical style of the Actors’ Renaissance Season, which exists “in stark contrast” to the rest of the artistic year. He suggested that the easiest place to begin might be with the “prosthetic personality” of the ARS — meaning the tendency, more than in the other shows of the year, to use wigs and exaggerated makeup as character signifiers. As examples from The Malcontent, Paul mentioned Ben and Jeremiah Davis in wigs, Alli’s bawd makeup, Paul Jannise’s wig and makeup combo making him look “like a powdered doughnut,” and John “in a moustache that I think can only be described as icky.” Paul asked, “Is that deliberate? Has it evolved?” and wondered if the reliance on external augmentations might be a product of the compressed rehearsal period, as a shortcut to character.

Ben spoke first, about his choice to use an auburn curly wig (the same as he has used in and in Cymbeline and in The Revenger’s Tragedy), primarily because the wig is easily removeable and reattachable for reveals. Alli commented that, for characters for whom the choices were not related to disguise, the over-the-top costumes and makeup indicated “something about the world in the play breaking down, no longer living up to something… Ever since we lost the Duke, we’ve been a society that care about the wrong things.” She also noted that, for her character, the makeup is written into the text, as the artifice of the bawd was a common theme in Jacobean dramas. As for the troubling moustache, John admitted that he was “flummoxed by the character” for a while, that he “couldn’t figure out what Mendoza’s deal was.” The moustache became a way, not only to differentiate John-as-Mendoza from John-as-gallant seen at the beginning of the play, but also to signify Mendoza as someone “trying for style but not quite ‘hip’ with style.”

Paul pressed further on the question of to what degree the creation of theatrical style is a conscious decision versus an organic growth. John commented on the freedom of being “not answerable to someone who may not match with you aesthetically.” The tendency to go towards stock-character-based interpretations, he says, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially because plays of this period “were written before the concept of stock characters came under fire.” He explained it more as a use of semiotics to convey ideas to the audience. Jeremy stated that the company discussed thematically the frivolousness of the society, and then, when they pulled costumes, they gravitated towards the opulent look of Restoration and French pre-Revolution era costumes. This contributed to what Paul called a “creeping coherence of design” that still retained “a provocative incoherency.” Miriam noted that while Patrick’s costume as Ferneze, leather pants and sunglasses, comes from a different world, it still fits in, somehow, to the overall play. In response, Patrick said that his costume makes it apparent that Ferneze is “an outsider, lOCSivious, like I’m a charade.” This incoherence, in Jeremy’s words, “bleeds into the acting style,” because the nature of the ARS, with actors learning from cue scripts and then putting the pieces together in rehearsal, creates “less necessity for acting style cohesion.” He notes that his character, Duke Pietro, is “kind of in the wrong play” theatrically, as a melancholic figure, which gives him the freedom to embrace a different acting style.

Conversation turned next to the masque at the end of the play. Asae asked how those stylistic choices worked with the masque, which had, in the Jacobean period, its own distinctive set of conventions. John’s answer was to go for something incongruous to the rest of the play, something “inescapably a different world.” Ben stated that the masque is yet another layer added to the levels of artifice in the play: “Marston seems to be saying that your job as a thinking human needs to be to see what’s underneath. This play seems to say, rather than slaughter everybody in your way, the harder job is to get them to fix themselves.”

Consideration of the masque segued into a question posed by one of the OCS’s followers on Facebook, Clifford Garstang, who wondered how the actors deal with the requirements of such a complex scene without a director. John stated his belief that it’s “a misnomer to say ‘undirected,’ they’re self-directed.” The actors are open to input from each other, but “also totally comfortable ignoring each other.” Particularly for the complex scenes, though, it’s helpful to know that someone is keeping an eye on business. For the masque in particular, Alli noted, they “all knew it needed to happen,” particularly since dialogue occurs during the masque, adding another degree of challenge. As Alli was not primarily involved in the masque, had studied the pavane, and had music to choose from, she took charge of that scene. The repeatable nature of the pavane made it easy to learn and to plug into the scene, and the movement of the dance, allowing different couples to come to the forefront at different times, made it a good choice for highlighting dialogue. During the ARS, as Ben noted, the actors tend to choose “crazy stuff” when dance is called for, such as the swing dancing in Romeo and Juliet or the hip-hop in The Changeling. With that in mind, “the craziest thing we could do is a period pavane.”

The pavane choice generated a lot of conversation. John noted that a prevalent idea exists that “that style of dance is lame,” which Jeremy thought is because it gets associated with boredom and which Paul thought grew out of the use of pavane-style dances in theatre and film as “a short hand for a kind of restriction.” The reality, however, the actors discovered to be quite different. “Dancing it is a lot sexier than you would think it is,” Miriam said. “There’s a lot more warmth than I had anticipated.” Ben stated that “the grace of the dance is deceptive to what is happening.” The actors also thought there’s a lot to be said for the stage picture that the pavane creates, with eight people on a stage as intimate as the Blackfriars’s.

Paul next brought up the “gestural vocabulary” of the ARS. John responded that he thinks it’s more of a different “floor pattern vocabulary” which he seeks to “really deliberately destroy.” He used the example of the “quincunx” (think of the five on a die) which is easy to “flop” into. Ben talked about how thinking about these stage pictures makes him consider the difference between lays written for the Blackfriars as opposed to plays written for other spaces. Plays like The Malcontent, Paul noted, feel more like chamber-pieces, “at home in the Blackfriars.” On the other hand, Look About You, which the actors are currently rehearsing, in Ben’s opinion “probably had a much bigger space, probably had pillars to hide behind.”

Paul commented on The Malcontent as a play that “excites an audience expectation that’s not satisfied… which is blood.” MFA student Glenn Schudel, who assisted John in cutting the script, commented that the play is “not what it promises to be,” and Asae questioned the difficulty created when the play holds out so long on providing important characters. Mendoza only appears at the end of the first act, and Maria, much-discussed but little-seen, comes in much later on. When Asae asked how the actors gave presence to those parts when the characters were so absent, Ben replied that it had been a problem, and that they had revisited Maria’s first scene after the preview performance. “I guess the answer is we’re not done,” Miriam added, speaking to the ability in the ARS to respond to what’s not working and fix troublesome bits over the course of the season.

Wrapping up the discussion, Paul asked what audiences should be looking for in Look About You. John suggested that the discussion on style might be even more relevant after Look About You goes up, as it relies even more heavily on typed characters and overexaggerations. Jeremy suggested that audiences look for the incongruities. “I knew nothing about this play coming into it,” he said, but working through the play has given him the idea that the anonymous play may have been a collaboration between two or more authors.

The next Actor-Scholar Council, focusing on Look About You, will be recorded for podcast on February 11th, featuring John Harrell (Skink), Chris Johnston (Redcap), Miriam Donald (Lady Marian), Jeremiah Davis (Prince John), and Paul Jannise (Henry II and Block).

International Shakespeare

The past week has given me several occasions to consider Shakespeare in an international context. On Friday, we had visitors from the International Leaders in Education Program, who are currently spending a semester at James Madison University, come down to the playhouse for a tour, a couple of workshops, and a production of The Comedy of Errors. The group was wonderfully diverse — Morocco, Kenya, Senegal, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Brazil, that I can remember. Most were teachers of English in their home countries, and most had been introduced to Shakespeare at the university level. What surprised me, though, was the selection of plays that foreign students receive the most exposure to: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and… The Merchant of Venice, of all things. Those were, far and away, the three that most of our visitors had had experience with, regardless of which country they came from. The choice surprises me because The Merchant of Venice tends to be a play, because of the culturally prejudicial difficulties presented by the text, that American schools don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. You’ll get the occasional brave teacher, of course, but on the whole, we shy away from it here. It made me curious as to why that play has so much appeal in other countries.

More broadly, however, talking with these teachers piqued my curiosity about teaching Shakespeare outside of the US, the UK, and other English-speaking nations. What is Shakespeare like when taught to those learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language? What is a production of a Shakespeare play like when presented in a country where English isn’t the primary language? I wonder if foreign students approach Shakespeare with more or less trepidation than American students often do. Are the “thee”s and “thou”s that so intimidate modern students more or less of a problem? I suspect the concept might come easier in those countries whose languages still retain the formal and informal pronouns. I’m curious what challenges might arise as well — would they be the same as we face in American classrooms, or entirely different?

Then, over the weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Globe Education’s Ryan Nelson, who is their digital media guru. He told me about the Globe’s 2012 project, which will be presenting all 38 plays in the Shakespeare canon in different languages, by companies from around the world . The project is part of the Cultural Olympiad leading up to London’s hosting of the Olympic Games (see the Globe’s press release or Twitter hashtag #Globe2012 for their updates). I’ll be so interested to hear how this project goes. Will curiosity drive audiences in to see a familiar play in an unfamiliar language? How easy would it be to follow along? I have to confess my own deficiencies here — I never learned a spoken foreign language. One year of French did me in, but I wonder if my many years of Latin would help me understand an Italian Julius Caesar or a Spanish Henry VIII. Knowing the source, and having that background to the Romance languages, would I be able to keep up in some fashion? It would be fOCSinating to find out — and if I somehow end up in London in the spring of 2012, I’ll certainly try to find out.

The idea of performing Shakespeare in languages other than English brings up its own interesting point. At the OCS, we believe that the heart of Shakespeare’s works lives in his text in performance, and we talk so frequently about his mastery with the English language — how many words he added to it, how freely he played with grammatical expectations, how deft a wordsmith he was. What is it about his mastery that can transcend that language, to continue to have appeal in Italian or Portuguese, in Urdu or Maori? And do other cultures perceive different messages from his plays than those of us in an English, Western background do? As Sarah discussed back in October, there’s a lot to consider when translating Shakespeare into another language.

I’d be interested to hear if any of our readers have had experience with Shakespeare in a foreign language, or have seen a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays presented in English in a country where English isn’t the dominant language. How is it different from Shakespeare in the US or the UK?

Blackfriars Conference — Planning, Call for Papers, and Early Registration

As the new year starts, the education department is getting ready to gear up our preparations for the 6th Blackfriars Conference, which will be held October 25th-30th, 2011. Our special Google calendar for the event is already filling up with deadlines and scheduled meetings, and we spent hours of our last education department workday coming up with to-do lists and project ideas. This project is both exciting and a little intimidating for me — I was still a student in the MLitt program during the 2009 Conference, so I only saw a little bit of the work that goes into making the Blackfriars Conference one of the best venues in the world for discussing early modern theatre. I’m in awe of my colleagues Sarah and Christina, knowing now how much they handled for the 2009 conference, and I’m looking forward to stepping up to the challenge myself. I’ll be documenting the progress of our preparations on the blog and on Twitter, so those of you following along will hear quite a bit about it between now and the end of October.

One of the primary focuses of the Blackfriars Conference, which sets it apart in many ways, is the relationship between scholarship and practice. How does one inform the other? How can we put research into play on the stage? What can staging, especially in an early modern space like the Blackfriars, teach us? We have a lot of ongoing dialogue at the OCS about this relationship and about how to improve the lines of communication between scholars and actors. A trouble that Sarah tells me has come up in the past, though, has been an under-representation of practitioners at events like the Blackfriars Conference. One of our goals for this year is to figure out why that happens and to determine how to fix it — What can we do to encourage more practitioners to engage in this conversation? If you have any ideas, we’d love to hear them. The Blackfriars Playhouse is not a museum, and the Blackfriars Conference is not solely a congregation for academics. Our space is a living tool for us, and we learn so much from the production of plays there, and some of the most exciting and thought-provoking sessions that I witnessed from the 2009 conference came from practitioners, examining staging choices or audience response. Because we know there is so much to be learned from the plays as performance, we hold staging sessions during the conference, where interested parties can use our actors, in the Playhouse, to examine a variant direction, a staging choice, or another crux that can only be thoroughly examined by bringing the words to life, rather than by reading them on a page. Last year’s staging sessions were so successful that we’ve added time for a few more this year, and we’re looking forward to seeing what challenges our presenters want to explore.

Here is our call for papers and abstract submission form. We’re looking for papers on audience contact, meter and rhetoric, rehearsal, playhouse conditions, visual design, history, architecture, Shakespeare’s relation to politics, the playing companies of early modern England, or other topics exploring Shakespeare’s words and his world in new and exciting ways. We’ll also be holding breakout roundtable sessions on shared language in the actor/scholar conversation, producing non-early-modern plays in early modern spaces, pedagogy, the economics of playing, Shakespeare and the web, props, politics, dramaturgy in practice, onstage silences, music, and prologues and epilogues. We accept submissions from college professors, high school teachers, theatre practitioners, graduate students, independent scholars — anyone with something thoughtful and exciting to say about Shakespeare, his contemporaries, his plays, or his world.

Conference Registration is now open — register by May 31st to get the special early rate. Please note that early registration has no effect on paper selection — but, by no means do you have to submit a paper to attend our conference. We hope to see attendees from all over the country, from many different disciplines relating to Shakespeare studies.

"But give me leave to try success": Goals and Achievements from 2010 to 2011

Yesterday, I served as the recorder for the OCS’s strategic planning meeting, which meant I had the privilege of listening in on several of our department heads and board members as they decided how we want to most focus our company’s efforts. Between that and the expected slew of New Year’s Resolutions I’ve been seeing around the Internet, I’ve been thinking a lot about goals and planning. I’ve been with the OCS for just over six months now, so this seems as good a time as any to look back and see what I’ve done so far as a part of the OCS Education team.

2010 Achievements

  • New study guides. When I came on in June, I took this project over from Christina, who had already started us down the new road. These guides were my first project at the OCS, and I’m ridiculously proud of them — they’re so much more directed towards our mission than the earlier generations of guides were, and they’re designed to help teachers get the students on their feet so they can explore the plays as they were meant to be experienced.
  • The Playhouse Insider. This is a huge thing, because we’ve never done something quite like this before. I’m so pleased with how it turned out — the articles are great (thank you, contributors!), the layout is beautiful, and there’s so much room for growth.
  • Growth of the blog — That’s right, this blog. We now get almost 900 hits a month, and that average is rising all the time. So thanks for reading, everyone! I’m so glad to have you all here.
  • Increased confidence in leading workshops, seminars, etc. I’ve gone from basically shadowing Sarah to feeling capable of developing and leading workshops on my own, and it’s been a blast. Whether it’s talking to high school students or retirees in the Road Scholars program, I make new discoveries each time I have the opportunity to share Shakespeare with a new group.
  • Tracking web mentions of the company. This project is ongoing, but I’ve been using Google Alerts to let me know whenever someone out there in the ‘tubes is talking about the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s been fOCSinating to see where we get mentioned (it’s a great way to keep track of our touring troupe, for one thing!), and it’s also made sure that I get to see what people are saying about us in blogs and reviews from outside the Shenandoah region.
  • I’ve learned how to use Google Docs. This program has made such a huge difference to how education has been able to build documents, refine language, and otherwise communication.
  • Twitter presence. Brand-new for the OCS this year, the whole education department got on Twitter back in the summer. I currently have 53 followers from all over the US and the UK, and the whole experience has been wonderful so far.
  • Facebook growth — Together with the marketing and development teams, we’ve seen steady and significant growth in our “likes” and followers on our Facebook page over the past six months. I use Facebook a lot to redirect to our website or to this blog, and it’s definitely increased traffic.

Not bad for six months, I think. I’m feeling particularly pleased because so many of the projects under my purview contribute to one of the company’s main strategic goals, of enhancing our company’s visibility in the world at large. OCS Education had a great year overall in 2010 — our summer programs were nearly at capacity, we had thousands of students in for school matinees, our seminars and Little Academes all went so well — the whole department has a lot to celebrate.

So, with those things achieved, or at least put into action, where do I want to be by this time next year? Here are my professional goals for my work in OCS Education in 2011 — things I’d like to improve on, expand, or achieve.

2011 Goals

  • 6 new study guides in enhanced format. With help from the rest of the education team, I’ll be building guides this year for Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Richard III, Much Ado about Nothing, and Julius Caesar, and ideally, I’d like them all in the spiffy format our Othello guide was in this year.
  • Online resources for students. Our study guides, as they are, are geared towards teachers; we’d like to re-purpose some of those activities and to build some new projects that we can put out on the web to help students who are looking for resources on Shakespeare.
  • Expand The Playhouse Insider. I’m so excited about this project, and I want to make it even better in 2011. More articles, more world-class scholars as contributors, and, hopefully, a wider readership.
  • Read the Complete Middleton. Okay, this goal isn’t strictly professional, but I’ve had the Middleton Complete Works since last Christmas, and I’ve only cracked it open a few times. This year, I want to read as many of his plays as I can — especially since the OCS has started producing so many of them.
  • More Twitter followers — I’d love to break 100, at the least.
  • Continued growth of blog popularity — Since we went from practically zero to 900 views per month in just the last five months of last year, I’m going to aim for 2000 views a month by the end of 2011.
  • Use all of these social media connections to further relationships with other Shakespeare organizations, both in the US and internationally.
  • Host a successful Blackfriars Conference. This is obviously far from my sole responsibility, but OCS Education will be busy with this through much of the year. I want the conference to run as smoothly as possible, for all of our visiting scholars and other participants to enjoy themselves, and for everyone to learn a little something and come away with some new ideas.

I think it’s going to be a great year. We in OCS Education have so many exciting plans and things we want to make happen, and we definitely have the drive to get to our goals. I love working with Sarah, Christina, Doreen, and our interns, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the interns that will be starting in January, as well as newest team member Tom, who’s recently come on to help with our summer programming.

How about you folks? Any Shakespeare-related resolutions? I know there are several reading challenges floating out on the Internet, or maybe you’ve set a personal goal. Share, if you have — I’d love to hear about it!

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed…" — The Holiday Season at the OCS

Staunton’s a winter wonderland today, coated in a thick blanket of snow, which makes it feel like just the right time to share my thoughts on the OCS’s holiday season with you. Each December, the OCS embraces wintry celebrations, and we guarantee there’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a joyful family outing or are hoping for some more grown-up entertainment. Either way, the holiday spirit is alive and well in Staunton, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three of our December productions.

First up is the family-friendly A Christmas Carol, which the OCS has produced every year since 2002. The production is frothy and delightful. The OCS touring troupe does a wonderful job bringing the exuberant spirit of the show to life. Maybe I’m just an incurable sap, but I can’t help wanting to dance at the Fezziwigs’ party, and I always tear up about Tiny Tim at the end of the show. But if you can’t indulge a sentimental nature during the holiday season, when can you? I got to watch this show during one of our school matinees, and it was a great day for it — we had a younger group, 3rd-5th graders, and I had almost as much fun watching them as I did watching the show. The girls sitting on stage shrieked and clutched at each other when the ghost of Jacob Marley emerged from the trap, rattling chains and howling in agony — and the little boy sitting next to them leaned so far forward he nearly fell out of his seat, exclaiming “That was awesome!” when Marley descended again. The kids were delighted by the frequent interactions of the cast with the audience, whether to use them as hat-racks or scarf-holders, or as the recipients of the candy canes that the Narrator (Chad Bradford) whips out of his hat as though by magic. Something about the enthrallment of little kids makes this show even more special; it’s a different experience, and just that little bit more magical.

For me, A Christmas Carol took on a new tenor this holiday season, in light of the economic difficulties so many people have faced over the past year and more. When Scrooge (presented with scowling excellence by John Harrell) asks “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” or when he calls the unemployed “idle people,” it’s hard not to hear echoes of the recent debates over tax breaks and unemployment benefits. Of course, all of that is likely to sail right over the heads of the children in the audience, but adults may find Dickens’s classic more relevant than ever.

Second, an annual favorite, the adults-only Santaland Diaries. This year Rick Blunt hitches up the candy-cane stockings as Crumpet the Elf in David Sedaris’s one-man-show about the experience of being an elf at Macy’s Santaland. I got to watch John Harrell in this role the past two years, and with Rick in the elfin knickers, it’s definitely a different show. Rick inhabits the role with self-mocking glee, shamelessly changing into his elf costume on stage and, the night I saw it, pausing mid-monologue once to hike up those striped stockings. Particularly excellent is Rick’s way of playing off of the audience, incorporating them and their reactions into the story. What I’ve always loved about this show, however, and what Rick brings across particularly well, is the kernel of tenderness underneath all the cynicism and biting wit. The contrast particularly relevant for the modern holiday season, over-commercialized in a period of recession, when so many people feel the pinch even more tightly than during the rest of the year, when it’s become “cool” in plenty of circles to eschew the saccharine celebrations and settle in for a good snarking instead. Amid all of that, it’s nice to be reminded, through Rick’s excellent performance, of the real holiday spirit, the desire to make someone smile, to make someone feel special.

Finally, the OCS is pleased and proud to offer the world premiere of The 12 Dates of Christmas, written by and starring our own Ginna Hoben. Based off of her own experiences, Ginna presents the story of Mary, a woman who sees her fiance making out with a coworker on national TV during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The audience follows her through a year’s worth of bad dates and family feuds. The show is refreshingly honest. The sparkle may be off the snowflake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at the absurd way that life falls apart, falls together, and constantly reassembles — because Mary’s experiences are, while idiosyncratic tales particular to one woman’s life, also universal. Almost everyone’s suffered a heartbreak, often a humiliating one. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to face a holiday, whether Christmas or New Year’s or Valentine’s Day, alone. That association we all share, combined with Ginna’s open and inviting demeanor, makes it easy for the audience to relate to Mary, to want to cheer her on and to see her succeed. Ginna also uses the audience to wonderful effect, calling out for advice, looking for sympathy or agreement, or cocking an ironic eyebrow whenever we think we know where the story is going. I think what I like best about the show, however, is that it doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow. Mary’s story is going to go on, offstage, post-monologue — and that’s real. Life’s major events and excursions rarely end on neat little capstones.

All three of these shows continue through the end of the month, so you’ve still got plenty of opportunities to catch them if you’re within traveling distance. And lest you think that the OCS becomes a Shakespeare-free-zone during the holiday season, the touring troupe will also be giving performances of their three traveling shows, Macbeth, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure, during the first week in January.

Ophelia, Desdemona, and Juliet vs Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola — Is the Tragedy Bias in Schools Sexist?

This post is credit in part to Duane at ShakespeareGeek, because the idea came to me after perusing the responses to a post of his asking “What Shakespeare did you read in high school?” (And if you haven’t popped over there to tell him your experience — do so). The responses have been more or less what I expected — a lot of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, occasionally subbing in Othello or King Lear. Only infrequently does a comedy make the list, almost always A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It — but even those are rare appearances in the curriculum.

It’s long perturbed me that so many high schools will insist on only beating kids over the heads with the tragedies. Now, don’t get me wrong. The tragedies have great material, obviously, and most of it is not beyond your average high-schooler’s capacity to grasp. I just think that you’re more likely to get the kind of excited, engaged reaction we hope for out of teaching the comedies. (I know plenty of folk may disagree with me and think that the comedies rely too much on obscure jokes and convoluted language; flatly, I just believe those naysayers are wrong). I think it’s far easier for teachers to fall into traps with the tragedies, and to get bogged down in the doom and gloom that might be off-putting. Ignoring the comedies causes teachers to miss out on so many opportunities — clever wordplay, cross-dressing heroines, puns galore, and the bawdy, earthy, genuine sexuality that would give teachers a better chance to hook kids on Shakespeare and to keep their attention. Then, once you’ve convinced them it’s good stuff, you’ll have better luck getting them interested in the tragedies.

But that particular pet peeve of mine is a fight for another day. What’s just occurred to me on reading Duane’s post and its responses, however, is the notion that there might be something a little more insidious clinging on to these curriculum choices. The tragedies, far more than the comedies, are boy-centric, peopled with male figures, concerned with the problems and personal journeys of men. I have to wonder — Is the dogged adherence to teaching the same few tragedies in high schools perhaps the legacy of centuries’ worth of education as a male-dominated institution? Teaching, at least at the pre-collegiate levels, has become a more female domain, but that certainly has not always been the case. Do we teach Hamlet and Caesar simply because that’s what has always been taught, never minding what cultural norms might have influenced those decisions centuries ago?

Of course there are women in the tragedies — but, in most cases, hardly women we’d want high-school students emulating. Half the women in the tragedies are the bad guys, after all — Lady M, Goneril, Regan. The heroines of these plays, in the meantime, come off as a little weak. Ophelia is most effective in poignancy, and Gertrude is either astonishingly naive, or her strongest moment is in drinking poison. Portia and Calpurnia barely get any stage time at all in one of the most-frequently-taught tragedies. Cordelia may be sweet and well-intentioned, but her dramatic purpose is pretty much to die to make Lear feel bad about himself. Additionally, the women of the tragedies almost universally act only in reaction to the male central figures. Lady Macbeth may be an exception at the beginning of Macbeth, but she loses that dynamism and that ability to affect events as the play goes on. Juliet is perhaps the most proactive female among the commonly-taught tragedies, but we’d hardly want our fourteen-year-old students following her example. Most of the tragic women, however, don’t have agendas of their own, they don’t take initiative — they respond (usually by dying).

And even when those women do appear, they hardly get the stage time or line counts of their male counterparts. The largest female role in a tragedy is Cleopatra, with close to 700, and she is the exception to pretty much everything I’ve said about women in tragedies so far — and she’s the central figure of a play most high schools don’t attempt. Juliet comes in 2nd, a little over 500, but after that it’s down to Desdemona, just under 400, and Emilia and Lady Macbeth, at around 250 each. Gertrude, Ophelia, all three of the Lear sisters — none of these ladies bank more than 200 lines. Compare that to Iago’s 1100, Othello’s nearly 900, Lear at close to 800, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra) at around 750, Brutus at about 700, Romeo and Macbeth topping 600, and, of course, Hamlet trumping them all at over 1400 lines, nearly as long in his one role as some of Shakespeare’s shorter plays.

The girls, overall, get a much fairer shake in the comedies. Rosalind speaks more than twice as much as her male counterpart, almost 700 to Orlando’s almost 300. Helena speaks almost 100 more lines than Demetrius, and Lysander only has Hermia by about 10; Helena has the third-most lines in the play, falling only just short of Nick Bottom and Theseus. Viola and Olivia top 300, about the same as Feste and Sir Toby, and far more than the romantic heroes of Twelfth Night. Benedick only outstrips Beatrice by about 60 lines. There also tend to be, overall, more women in the comedies than in the tragedies. Midsummer has Helena, Hermia, Titania, and Hippolyta; Much Ado has Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula; Love’s Labour’s Lost has the four ladies plus country-girl Jaquenetta; As You Like It has Rosalind, Celia, Phoebe, and Audrey. These women also tend to be in more scenes, making the female presence on stage far greater in the comedies than in the tragedies.

Furthermore, the women of the comedies make their own decisions and act as their own agents. They are, if not always the sole central characters, sharing the stage much more evenly, and they are certainly the characters whose decisions drive the plot in many of the comedies. They often act in defiance of men’s wishes or of societal expectations, rather than succumbing. And, perhaps most importantly, they live. Fiery and feisty and resilient, they live. They survive shipwrecks, heartbreaks, wildernesses, outlaws, exiles, threats of execution — and they go on to triumph. For this, I find the women of the comedies just plain more interesting that the women of the tragedies. Shakespeare seems to give them a lot more credit.

So why don’t we showcase Beatrice’s wit to our high-schoolers? Viola’s eloquence, Rosalind’s spirit, Hermia and Helena’s passions, Titania’s magic, Kate’s fire, Portia’s cleverness? Why does our focus default to the male perspective?

I wonder if it has something to do with something that’s more generally pervasive in our culture — the notion that it’s the male viewpoint that’s considered universal. This debate came up recently in the film world with Disney’s decision first to rebrand the film Rapunzel as Tangled, then to stop making fairy tales all together, because they don’t market as well to boys. Boys, after all, don’t want to go see a movie about a girl, but girls will readily see movies about boys, so Disney’s turning to the Pixar model of the male universal viewpoint. There was also a minor hullabaloo in the literary world this past summer over the marginalization of female authors and female-dominated genres. Publishers and production companies routinely appeal to male readers and male audiences, despite that women go to more movies and purchase more books — precisely because they know they can bank on the women turning up and forking over cash anyway. The bias continues to get validated.

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that this trend has carried over, even subconsciously, to how we teach Shakespeare and which of his plays we select. We can get a 16-year-old girl to consider Hamlet, to dig into his words and his psyche, even to identify with him and his struggle, but a 16-year-old boy is far less willing to extend that courtesy for Beatrice or Rosalind. Even within Hamlet, I’m sure it holds true — I’d love to hear from teachers about how many boys choose to write their essays on Ophelia or Gertrude, versus how many girls do. I know as a student in high school and college, I wrote my assignments on the female characters whenever possible, looking closely at Lady Macbeth’s language, trying to coax out Gertrude’s backbone, attempting to vindicate Goneril and Regan, positing Juliet as the far stronger character than Romeo — not out of any desire to make a stand for feminism, but simply because those were the characters, the arcs, and the issues that most interested me. It would’ve been nice, however, to have had the opportunity to consider a female character who was central, rather than marginal, who was the main focus of the play and the instigator of action, rather than a sidelined role.

The good news is that I don’t appear to be alone in desiring an appeal on behalf of the comedies. A few of the teachers who replied to Duane’s post say that, despite having been fed all the tragedies in their own high school years, they now turn to Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, mixed in with the typical tragedies and a few histories. I’d be glad to see this turning of the tide as a continuing trend. Students should get a broader sampling of Shakespeare’s works as early on as possible, and we should be celebrating Shakespeare’s women as much as his men.