Immortal Longings — YCTC 2010 Session 2

I spent this afternoon at the performances of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra put on by Session 2 of the OCS’s Young Company Theatre Camp. While I’m always excited to see the YCTC shows, I was extra-enthused, since these are two of my favorite plays.

Today’s performance — in a Blackfriars Playhouse again crammed to overflowing with parents, friends, former campers, grad students, OCS actors, and members of the Staunton community — began with a choreographed pre-show performance involving all of the campers. Eastern-influenced music played as the campers presented a stylized version of Cleopatra’s death scene. A line of campers in theatre blacks and red scarves formed a chain and acted out the striking of the asp, in a development of an activity that originated weeks earlier, at their auditions. The effect was visually striking and quite impressive. After that, we saw Alexi S. as Shakespeare, trying to pen the Battle of Actium, and eventually deciding — despite actors engaging in combat and building ships out of their bodies — to leave the famous battle out of the play. The pre-show demonstrated some of the skills campers acquired in their Master Classes during the last three weeks, including Elizabethan dance, belly-dancing, combat, and details of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions. The pre-show culminated in a song based on a poem that Jane J. wrote for the “What You Will” talent show, detailing the plots of each show.

Doreen then stepped up to give her general introduction, acknowledgments, and inspirational speech. She summed up this session with the word “abundance,” referring to the prolific creativity of the campers. Having seen so many talents demonstrated in the pre-show, I think she definitely picked the right word. Two campers then presented a more traditional pre-show for the OCS. This pre-show also gave me a new favorite knock-knock joke — but there’s a physical component, so you’ll have to ask me if you see me around town. ;)

The first show of the afternoon was Julius Caesar, directed by MFA Candidate Laurie Riffe. The show began with a version of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” modified to reflect Roman patriotism. I was impressed by the energy and vigor which the campers infused into the show. While all the campers put in great performances, I particularly liked the Cassius, Rose B., who played the role with wonderfully choleric charisma. Caesar’s death was highly stylized and set to drumbeats, and it packed quite an emotional punch when Caesar, stabbed by the conspirators, stumbled into Brutus’s arms, only to receive the final blow. Another interesting staging choice was the decision to have Caesar’s Ghost watching the suicides of Brutus and Cassius from the balcony — I suspect drawing inspiration from Brutus’s line “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords in our own proper entrails”. Overall, Caesar was an exciting show — anyone who’s ever accused that play of being boring ought to take a cue from the YCTC cast.

Antony and Cleopatra, Part 1, directed by father-son team James and Thomas Keegan, opened with a rendition of “Midnight at the Oasis” that drew laughs from the crowd. In this cast, Hannah M. portrayed the fiery Queen of Egypt with mercurial excellence, and Margaret C. made a powerful pint-sized Antony. I was really impressed by — and glad for — the decision to cast a female actor as Antony. This production made fabulous use of the space and its possibilities. One great joke hinged on the use of diagonals: Cleopatra, all the way in the downstage-right corner, tells Antony, entering at the upstage-left corner, “stand farther from me”. Antony then made a wonderful “where’m I gonna go?” gesture, to audience appreciation. All of the actors used the audience well, particularly the comic Enobarbus, played by Rachel B., who aligned herself with those sitting on the gallant stools at every opportunity. This cast didn’t shy from the sexuality in the play, which seemed to shock some audience members, but clearly delighted others (myself included). The production ended, halfway through the play, at the moment of broken fellowship between Octavius and Antony, with an epilogue written by the students. With the cast on-stage, the key players from Part 2 came out to receive significant prop or costume elements from their counterparts. This technique was a wonderful way to link the productions and help the audience out for the beginning of …

Antony and Cleopatra, Part 2, directed by Jeremy West. Jeremy described his cast as “uninhibited”, and suggested that it was something adult performers could learn from the kids. The play opened in similar formation to the end of Part 1, using lines from the epilogue set to drumbeats. These drumbeats continued throughout the production, almost beating out the remainder of Antony and Cleopatra’s lives. Daniel H. and Rebecca R. threw themselves into the tragic fall of history’s famous couple, but the production was not without humor. Shakespeare puts moments of levity around both deaths, and the campers embraced those. One particularly neat staging trick — that Jeremy West admitted had come to him from James Keegan — was the way they lifted Antony up to Cleopatra’s monument. Instead of actually bringing Antony up on the stage, Cleopatra and her handmaidens dropped a rope where they stood, but not off the front, but rather towards the back, at the same moment that another rope appeared where Antony was in the discovery space. The women pulled up on their rope as the discovery space curtains swung shut, giving Antony the time to go up the stairs and crawl under the curtain at the back of the balcony, making it appear as though he had been pulled straight up. As someone who has previously cringed watching an Antony scale the frons scenae, wondering if I was about to see disaster, I really appreciated this clever approach to a difficult bit of staging.

All three shows were wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon. I’m just sorry the summer’s over, but I’ll be eagerly awaiting next year’s camps. Best of luck to all of our campers in the upcoming school year!

He words me, girls

Language. How do we use it? How should we use it? Are dictionaries and grammaries tools for effective use, helping to guide and shape language for clear and precise use, or are they paper prisons, hemming in the English language from its natural inclination to metamorphose with the times and to assimilate new influences?

This debate has been going around the internet a lot lately, thanks in part to Ms Sarah Palin attempting to “refudiate” one thing or another. She isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, to bring up the idea of language’s fluidity, though. Whether by creating new words or by using old words in a new way, changes to the English language have long been a subject of both scholary and popular concern. The existing commentary, as with anything on the web, ranges from inane to thought-provoking, and I’ve been enjoying reading what others have to say. Thus far, however, I’ve resisted the urge to explicate my own feelings on the matter every time I see it mentioned on Twitter or on a blog, lest I develop a near-terminal case of ‘someone is wrong on the Internet‘.

Need food for thought? I offer the following:

What all of the above leave out, however, is something I consider tremendously important: rhetoric.

Verbing a noun — or nouning a verb, or any sort of similar syntactical confusion — isn’t just a modern device. Much as I’m sure some pundits would like to, it’s not something to blame on technology, the media, texting. The ability to Google something is a recent development, but the ability to use a noun in that way isn’t. It’s a rhetorical figure of speech called anthimeria, and it comes to us all the way from Classical Greece (as so many of the good things in life and language do). It can be a sign that a character is either of very high intelligence or very low, depending on whether the word-play illuminates or obfuscates meaning.

Other related devices exist — catachresis, the use of a word in a context that differs from its proper application (“the elbow of his nose” being a good example); acryon, the use of a word repugnant or contrary to what is meant; enallage, the subsitution of inappropriate grammar; metaplasm, intentional misspelling; hyperbaton, reordering of words for effect — anthimeria is just my persona favorite, and it’s also the one that’s recieved the most focus in recent years. (The portmanteau, while not a rhetorical device by strict definition, falls into this category of wordplay as well). What’s true of anthimeria is true for them all, though — there’s a difference between using such devices intentionally, to demonstrate real skill with language, and using them by stumbling unintentionally into them.

A character of high intelligence uses these word-changing devices purposefully. It demonstrates the ability to use language creatively, and it indicates that the character is capable of divergent thinking. In Shakespeare, characters who use language in this way are often rulers, monarchs, leaders, but may also be the wits and the thinkers of the play:

A character of low intelligence uses the devices accidentally. In this case, the wordplay tends to go along with what we think of as malapropisms (though the term is anachronistic for Shakespeare). The character is generally unaware that he has used a word incorrectly; the misuse derives from an incomplete grasp on the language. The character is not intentionally breaking rules; the character does not know what the rules are and so cannot use them effectively in the first place. In Shakespeare, clowns use anthimeria in this way:

  • Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet,–” says Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Odours, odours,” corrects his beleaguered director Quince. Bottom’s mistakes will continue throughout his performance, including the mistaking of “deflowered” for “devoured.”
  • Is our whole dissembly appeared?” — Dogberry, in Much Ado About Nothing. Also “O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this,” and many, many other examples.
  • “To be brief, the very truth is that the Jew, having done me wrong, doth cause me, as my father, being, I hope, an old man, shall frutify unto you— ” Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, who might be trying to say any number of words that would make sense, and instead comes out with one that means nothing He also misuses “defect” for “effect” and refers to Shylock as “the devil incarnal.”

So, Ms Palin, yes, you are like something out of Shakespeare. But not, I think, in the way you intend (or hope).

For me, I believe as I always have — before you can break the rules, you need to prove you can use them correctly, first. I think a lot of the beauty of the English language is in its fluidity, in how creatively and how inventively we can use words — but that’s no excuse to think well of onesself for ignoring the rules entirely. The thing of it is — the options are so much greater, so much better, if you do know when to play by the rules and when to throw them to the wayside. There’s so much more you can do with language, if you know what it is that you’re doing. We ought to value words, however we use them.

Conquering the Fear

A friend asked me this question, and I thought I would blog about it to get my thoughts out, and to see if anyone reading has some input:

For an adult whose only experiences with Shakespeare were in high-school (and not good), but who wants to get into it and start reading the plays, where should she start? What plays are the most accessible, the least frightening for someone who was given rather ham-handed interpretations of Julius Caesar and Hamlet more than a decade ago?

My first response to her is that, really, if she wants to get into it, she should go see some shows if at all possible. Shakespeare is meant to be seen more than read, and I think she’ll like it better, follow the plot better, understand the language better if she’s hearing and seeing what’s going on.

But, barring that — My inclination is to tell her to go to the comedies. While they definitely have their own challenges — a lot more 16th/17th-century slang, for one thing — I think they’re also less intimidating. I’m definitely going to suggest Midsummer — it’s a play that kids’ companies go to for a reason. The plot is pretty straightforward, the ideas are simple and fun, the language is beautiful but not too convoluted. I’m also inclined to suggest Much Ado, but personal preference may be influencing me there. I also feel like the earliest comedies, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors, might be a good starting place — sure, those plays have their flaws, but the comparative simplicity might work well for conquering someone’s fears of Shakespeare being too dense or too complicated. The regular meter in those plays might also help her get over the idea that iambic pentameter is a scary thing.

Any other suggestions? What do you think are the most accessible plays for an apprehensive adult?

Counselor Katie Logan on a special moment of YCTC Session 1

Katie Logan, this year’s Camp Coordinator, shares her thoughts on Session 1 of YCTC. Thanks, Katie!

***

“In the midst of a sweltering summer, 37 young people created one of the most unique sessions of camp I’ve ever witnessed. We welcomed old faces and new ones. Some campers had committed large chunks of the canon to memory, while others began camp having read a single play or two. Musicians, choreographers, and a juggler filled our ranks.

This wide variety of talent and experience excited everyone; we were all curious to learn what others had to offer and to share some of ourselves. The campers’ generosity to one another popped up every day, both onstage and off. Every camper noticed and pitched in if someone else was having a rough day. In rehearsals, they worked hard to listen to one another. When using a stage without a lighting system, one director explained, actors had to be each other’s spotlights. They had to give their focus to the person speaking so that the audience would do the same. These young performers took that advice to heart.

Session I was in Staunton during the Fourth of July, and we hiked up to Mary Baldwin’s campus to catch some fireworks. Many campers were still in the outrageous costumes they’d worn to our masquerade dance earlier in the evening. Several brought instruments. As it grew darker on our patch of hill, the guitarists began rehearsing a song they had learned for their Pre-Show performance. Soon, the whole camp was singing along. When I think about Session I 2010, that will be the moment I remember—an evening when what these remarkable individuals wanted most was to create something beautiful together.”

***

Katie is the Director of Education for the Empty Chair Theatre Company in D.C., a small company founded by former YCTC campers — which just goes to show how far the bonds made at OCS summer camps can take you!

Theatre is a vital part of all of us

This blog captures my thoughts on the theatre experience so well–so much more so when we think about Shakespeare’s way of doing theatre–lights on–audience there–life happening before you, with you.
Note especially audience interaction, but argue with schools/education who think it is easily dismissed. The sciences NEED/CRAVE creativity. Creative people. Everyone who reads and experiences Shakespeare will not move onto performing Shakespeare. They will move on to identifying with humanity, creative problem solving–one thing this blog leaves out is this amazing skill those who create it possess–not to mention: a love of life and all of the things that make it spring. Read it. Tell us what you think!
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-gunderson/wherefore-theater-why-is_b_626687.html

Midsummer Day Camp Performance

Last night I had the great joy of attending the final performance of our Midsummer Day Camp, part of our Life Long Learning program. I use the word “joy” very consciously, because that’s what the Blackfriars Playhouse was so full of. As I took my seat, I could see that the thirty-odd campers waiting on stage could barely contain their excitement. Their energy was reflected by Doreen Bechtol, Director of Youth Programs, and Laurie Riffe, this year’s Day Camp Director, both of whom greeted the audience with enormous smiles and buoyant enthusiasm.

This was the fourth year of the Midsummer Day Camp, and this year the camp returned to its roots by producing an hour-long version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bechtol explained that she hopes the camp will return to Midsummer every third year for many years to come. Riffe described the performance as a chance for the campers and their friends and family to “celebrate their joy and their creativity.” I could see so much of both in the campers. It was such a delight to see nine-to-twelve-year-olds embracing Shakespeare’s text with so much eagerness — and with no fear! Though counselors were on hand to prompt or to feed in lines, none of the campers got flustered when those supports were necessary. They all seemed to just be enjoying the experience of a play, in the truest sense of that word.

I hope we’ll be seeing some of these kids back for YCTC in coming years. There was some real budding talent on that stage, some ingenues in the making, and some born comedians. I’m so thrilled that the OCS has the opportunity to reach kids so young — I really think that’s the key to making sure they appreciate great words and great theatre their whole lives.

The Midsummer Day Camp was presented this year as part of a grant sponsored by the Bank of America — thanks you, Bank of America!

YCTC Session 1 All Wrapped Up!

The first session of YCTC 2010 has come to an end. The OCS’s Young Company Theater Camps are part of our College Prep program, geared towards offering high school students Shakespeare study, theatre training, and performance experience on the Blackfriars stage.

The campers from Session 1 performed on July 11th to an enthusiastic house, full to brimming with family, friends, and members of the community. I was glad I got there early enough to get a good seat! While prefacing the shows, Director of Youth Programs Doreen Becthol summed up this year’s Session 1 with one word: “endurance.” Apart from the rigors of putting up a show in just three weeks, while also attending classes and lectures, these campers did it all during one of the hottest summers Staunton has seen in quite some time. Bechtol, the OCS actor-directors, and the camp counselors could not praise their young actors enough for their energy and their determination, and the final performances showcased all of their hard work and dedication.

The first show, Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Kelley McKinnon, was a wild romp of a romantic comedy. McKinnon said her goal was to make the campers make their own choices about the show, and also to help them “understand what a gift the Blackfriars stage is.” The actors took her lessons to heart, engaging the audience at every opportunity. The action of the play reached its height during a hilarious Muscovite masque, as the young men attempted to woo their ladies in disguise. The masque featured some of the special talents of the campers, including dance, tumbling, trumpeting, drumming, knife-juggling, and a bagpiper playing “Scotland the Brave” — which I feel to be a reasonable representation of how Navarre, Biron, Dumain, and Longaville would have interpreted Muscovite culture.

Though director Dennis Henry warned the house that the second show, Richard III, would be quite a change from the comedic Love’s Labour’s Lost, the actors managed to bring some black humor through the darkness nonetheless. I always enjoy it when a show proves something of what we teach about the value of “doing it with the lights on.” Richard’s relationship with the audience is so crucial to the success of the play, and universal lighting creates an extraordinarily different atmosphere. In this case, it encouraged some ironic laughter – either nervously, as the audience became his unwilling conspirators, or a touch vindictively, as we were allowed to enjoy his downfall. Contact with the audience also increased the pathos for the play’s many tragic victims. Boiling Richard III down into a one-hour format made for an intense tragedy, with a body count that spiraled rapidly towards the show’s thrilling final combat between Richard and Henry Tudor. The campers also took the opportunity to show off their musical talents with three songs at the beginning, mid-point, and end of the show.

The last show of the day was As You Like It, directed by Josh Carpenter. This performance highlighted physical comedy and lots of action; the campers were not at all afraid to throw their whole bodies into the production. I was really impressed by the good use the As You Like It cast made of the Blackfriars stage, with actors demonstrating what they had learned about the blurring of the distinction between audience-space and actor-space: Orlando scaled a column to pick apples, and the shepherd Corin spent one conversation fishing off the edge of the stage. These actors were really thinking creatively, giving this production of As You Like It a unique flavor. I particularly enjoyed the addition of sheep to 3.2, who wandered onstage to eat Orlando’s poetry (probably the best possible thing to do with it). Enthusiasm and energy never flagged in this pastoral comedy, which ended in a lively dance.

As all the campers took their final bows and gathered for pictures on the Blackfriars stage, I saw actors laughing, hugging, and crying. At the beginning of the afternoon, Ralph Cohen had told us, “When you’re working and having fun at the same time, there’s a place where you can’t tell the difference.” I think those two conditions had truly become inseparable for these campers. The actors of Session 1 had both worked hard and played hard, and none seemed ready, at the end of the day, for the experience to end.

I’m already looking forward to YCTC Session 2, for campers ages sixteen to eighteen, which begins on Sunday, July 18th, with final performances on August 8th.

Pictures from Session 1 can be found at our College Prep Flickr group.

No Kidding Shakespeare Camp (for Adults)–What a week….

It’s only been a couple of days since we wrapped up our inaugural No Kidding Shakespeare Camp but I already miss our “campers” and the time we spent together studying Shakespeare’s plays and the clues for reading the stage that they, and the historical culture surrounding their composition, contain. We had a FANTASTIC group of 19 fans, teachers, professors, and friends who listened to lectures, participated in workshops, dances, acted, clowned, played, and, ultimately performed–if I could spend every week this way, I absolutely would.

This one week is the result of many requests (from our other camper’s parents, and from teachers) and previous successes with other programs. For instance, we were sad to hear, last year, that UVA would be changing up its Summer on the Lawn program, a program OCS had been delighted to partner with UVA on for several years. We were grateful to Jim Baker and UVA, though, for giving us permission to offer a program in their “slot.” The UVA program was a well-oiled and well-run machine which offered participants the unique opportunity to lodge in the Lawn rooms at UVA–talk about history! Our architectural offering of the Blackfriars Playhouse sans Lawn Rooms was enough to attract some return campers from UVA–and they seemed to enjoy the options we provided at both Mary Baldwin College and local hotels, all walking distance from the playhouse. Other campers included teachers and parents who’d heard about OCS programming via our website and emails and teacher seminar weekends. The resulting group was a wonderful combination of people with a wide variety of interests and experiences. Couldn’t have gotten a better group if we’d paid them to come (not that we wouldn’t like to try that method of recruiting!).

The week was about much more than the right combination of architecture and people–although some might argue that Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later the King’s Men, was JUST THAT, a great combination of sharers, theatres, and (yes, it must be said) playwrights. What we were doing was investigating the clues provided in Shakespeare’s plays and his playhouses to gain insights into appreciating them on the page and the stage. With our Director of Mission and the Gonder Professor of Renaissance Studies, Ralph Alan Cohen, we studied Rhetoric, Meter (see notes below from super intern David Techman on those topics), the history of directing and actor agency, and Audiences. With Bob Jones, OCS actor and Richmond Shakes director, we heard and saw the effect that simply acknowledging and engaging with Shakespeare’s embedded stage directions can have on performance. Our own Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, shared his insights on casting, doubling, and every thing that goes into script and pre-production preparation (in the words of one participant “The Best”). We heard lectures from prominent scholars Carole Levin from the University of Nebraska and Paul Menzer from Mary Baldwin College on Backgrounds and Echoes in Othello and Taming of the Shrew and on textual variants, respectively. And then we observed rehearsals of OCS’s next show to open in the Summer season (On Friday July 23) Wild Oats, played with cue scripts, entrances and exits, staging conditions, Elizabethan dance (Doreen Bechtol rocked), costume (the amazing Erin West), combat (thanks to Colleen Kelley), the history of Shakespeare’s theatres, and too much more to mention–all in the span of 5 days. And I didn’t even talk about the plays (participants, however, couldn’t stop talking about the artistic quality–one said it was the best Othello she’d ever seen). The actors were so generous with their time at both the talkbacks and the cast party, and Sarah Fallon’s and Ben Curn’s visit to our last session on Friday was just inspiring.

I am out of time, but next time I will dwell on our field trips (to a vineyard) and social activities…all in all, a wonderful week that I can hardly wait to repeat. Hope you will agree and join us–if you will, what else would you like for us to cover?

A peek into a few of our classes, as observed by David Techman:
6/29/10
In the first afternoon lecture, Dr. Cohen discussed figures of speech. Every boy who went to grammar school (as Shakespeare did) would know rhetoric, including many figures of speech. The schools forced them to repeat the figures of speech until they were deeply engrained in the boys’ brains. The figures of speech that a character uses provides information about that character and even the surrounding action. That gave original actors, who only had sides, hints of how to portray them.
Dr. Cohen then gave a slideshow on Elizabethan and contemporary audiences. The anti-essentialists argue that we can’t know and can’t replicate the experience of original Globe, and even if we could, today’s audience would have a completely different reaction. Cohen doesn’t agree, and points out that lines intended to be funny then are still intended to be funny today. He cites Ben Johnson and the ancient Greeks as evidence that in some ways humanity essentially doesn’t change. Modern audiences figure out the conventions and how to react to audience interaction just like the original audiences did; some incidents when the Globe opened parallel anecdotes we have from Shakespeare’s day. A convention, such as asides not being heard by other characters, can be learned instantly and automatically. Audiences may be moved to interact by four factors: text, space, actors, and directors. Even if the anti-essentialists are right, it is still work to attempt to make an authentic atmosphere by interacting with the audience because it leads to wonderful theatrical moments and tells us things about present audiences regardless of whether or not that mirrors past ones.

6/30/10
The group sat in on a rehearsal of Wild Oats this morning, so Dr. Cohen discussed the rehearsal process. A director is there to “keep a lid on things.” If the director has an idea and an actor does something different that still works, the director usually shouldn’t take up rehearsal time to make the actor explore his idea too, for time is very valuable. In this company, most of the actors are veterans whom the director can trust. Actors should very seldom show any resistance to what a director says—it shouldn’t happen more than once a rehearsal. Being nice and collaborative is more important than acting skill and proves invaluable to actors finding work. Directors also shouldn’t micromanage actors’ readings of specific lines. Sarah revealed that, after we left, Mr. Warren started to give the actors more notes that he didn’t want the viewers to overhear. That rather surprised me and seems it could be a problem for the open rehearsal process. Next, Dr. Cohen and Sarah led a workshop on casting the audience. Sarah and Cass began by playing the scene listing the suitors in Merchant of Venice twice, once in a proscenium staging and once as a thrust staging indicating a viewer as each suitor. Needless to say, the second time was better. For most of the time, we focused on the St. Crispian’s Day speech from Henry V. It starts out talking to Westmoreland, but to be effective and rousing, parts of it must be delivered to the audience. We went through it line by line, deciding which ones should be said to onstage characters and which to audience members, then exploring how to best deliver the audience-directed ones. We don’t have historical anecdotes saying that actors addressed the audience like that, but Dr. Cohen provided enough textual examples to convince anyone. I didn’t know that actors could gauge whether or not to select a given person for contact, and this was the first time I learned the actual definition of an aside: an aside is heard by the audience and not the other characters, whereas most lines said to the audience are heard by both.

Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions with Rick Blunt

Our recently featured Rick Blunt led a workshop in Shakespeare’s staging conditions for 50 Bath County High School students, and I thought it might be fun to drop in and take a look at the ways our actors help further the educational mission of the American Shakespeare Center.

Blunt begins by asking the students to list some of the ways the OCS uses Shakespeare’s original staging conditions to present his plays. Blunt combines the answers of leaving the lights on and thrust staging into our overall theme of audience inclusion. That’s how we try to make Shakespeare’s plays accessible, but what are the barriers to this access?

Blunt’s next exercise involves saying “Shakespeare” and asking the students to think of a word. “Old,” “smart,” “Stratford,” “plays,” and “poetry” are popular choices, and Blunt seizes on this description of old and introduces the idea of Shakespeare’s modernity. One of the students in the group points out the years of Shakespeare’s life, to which Blunt responds that to us the texts are old, but Shakespeare was writing for, what was for him, modern times. The plays of Shakespeare are meant to be living things performed on the stage.

But how do we make the plays come alive? Blunts classroom is configured in a U-shape, which simulates the Blackfriars’ thrust-stage; he then performs a monologue from his role as Rafe in Knight in the Burning Pestle using an imaginary Susan on the stage. To illustrate how Shakespeare’s staging conditions are different, Blunt then performs the same monologue as he does in the performance, identifying a young lady in audience as Susan: this always gets a laugh in the show, and it gets a bigger one in this group. When Blunt asks them why it’s funny, the universally offered answer is that it was because of the audience reaction. Asked who they were looking at, the students respond that they were watching their classmate. Blunt explains how this makes for a different performance every time.

Of course, audience inclusion is only one aspect of Shakespeare’s staging conditions, another key element is the lack of large sets and lighting effects to create the world of the play. Blunt has a student volunteer perform the first two lines of Romeo and Juliet’s prologue (“Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), and then asks the students where they are. As a chorus, the students in the workshop respond that they are in “Verona.” Blunt explains this is only one way that Shakespeare uses language to indicate how to perform his plays.

Blunt asks for another volunteer, and introduces him as “a friar who trembles, sighs, and weeps” (Romeo and Juliet 5.3). Blunt asks the student volunteer how he thinks he should be acting if he (Blunt) introduces him as “a friar who trembles, sighs, and weeps.” They perform the entrance again, and the student volunteer suits his entrance to the Blunt’s lines, and Blunt then offers an explanation of embedded stage directions.

Of course, embedded stage directions require a further understanding of the way in which the directions are both given and received. Blunt illustrates the point by choreographing the opening street fight of Romeo and Juliet and comparing the effects of Benvolio telling them to “part, fools” and the Prince calling them “rebellious subjects.” Benvolio is ignored, but the prince is obeyed; and thus Blunt introduces the way that Shakespeare can use the status of the speaker to direct the action of the scene. Blunt goes on to demonstrate how actors can reinforce the status of Shakespeare’s characters by having his student-volunteer-cast turn and kneel to the prince as he enters. He describes this as the OCS’s way of using actors to put other actors in the proverbial-spotlight.

Speaking of lighting: how does one play darkness when we leave the lights on? Blunt introduces the balcony scene as a challenge to OCS actors because the scene is dark. It takes place at night, after all. Blunt has another student volunteer recreate their own personal experience of darkness by asking them to demonstrate what happens when they wake up in the middle of the night to get a snack. The student volunteer tries to “feel” his way through the space to the door and walks carefully. He also uses a cell phone to help him see the floor. Blunt explains that actors can create the darkness by the way they move, and Shakespeare can help them by giving them a prop, or using language to describe the environment.

Blunt ties these elements together for the students in the balcony scene. Having two more volunteers perform the roles of Juliet and Romeo, Blunt shows them how Juliet can begin by talking to the audience, but needs to use the darkness of the environment to not see Romeo, who (in the current production) hides among the audience. Romeo’s questions are directed to the audience, which involves them in the conversation. Both of the lovers are talking to the audience, but neither one knows that the other is talking to the audience. “[Shakespeare] makes you a confidant in this relationship,” says Blunt, excited “it’s unbelievable!”

Shakespeare’s language is sometimes perceived to be an obstacle, but Blunt reminds his students that 98% of Shakespeare’s vocabulary is modern. The words may be unfamiliar, but you know what “be-screened” means without having to look it up. He also points out the heightened nature of Shakespeare’s language: “if you’re Romeo, and you just got caught creepin’ in some girls yard, and she asks you what you’re doing here, you better come up with something good.” The average Renaissance-Londoner didn’t ask for a glass of water by making classical allusions, but Shakespeare’s characters use heightened language to talk about their heightened circumstances. This language directs the circumstances of the actors.

Blunt also touches on the cross-gendered casting that we use at the OCS, and describes some of the ways that Shakespeare made us of the convention of an all male acting company. He uses more student volunteers to illustrate the idea of a boy actor playing a female character who dresses as a boy and then pretends to be a woman in As You Like It. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays under the presumption that, in 400 years, they would be able to get it right and use female actors to play female roles, he wrote his plays specifically to take advantage of the conventions of the time, which is why it is essential that we cross-gender cast our plays.

“This guy Shakespeare was a smart man,” Blunt concludes.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the ever ebullient Blunt’s workshop was the way he engaged the students, especially the ones who were shy or trying to remain uninvolved. Participation is not an option in Rick Blunt’s workshop, and while not every student got a chance to perform, the number of volunteers increased every time he asked for them. Getting our audiences to want to engage Shakespeare on his own terms is one of our core principles, and Blunt’s success with this group is a testament to that mission.

Bring ’em Back Alive presents "Love’s Fire"

In 1998 seven modern playwrights were commissioned to write new plays inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the resulting collection, Love’s Fire, was presented as part of the American Shakespeare center’s Bring ’em Back Alive staged reading series.

The Bring ’em Back Alive series was conceived to help bring new voices and less performed works to the Blackfriars, and last night’s readings realized that goal on a whole new level. OCS resident and touring troupe members combined forces with Mary Baldwin College graduate students, The Hamner Theatre, the University of Virginia, and the Maryland Shakespeare Festival to bring six of these plays to the Blackfriars Stage.

Inspired by the transcendental music of Shakespeare’s greatest love poetry, a painter tries, and fails, to paint his lover; a couple finds romance through jazz, and a group of students try to understand two sonnets and discover the roots of the Tree of Knowledge.

We hope you’ll join us for the next reading in our Bring ’em Back Alive series will be Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters, on Sunday, October 20, 2010 at 7:30 PM. If you would like more information, or would like to volunteer as a reader, please contact Colleen Kelly, Director of Training, at [email protected]