Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 20 May 2011

This week’s Imprimis features several articles on non-traditional approaches to getting students to enjoy Shakespeare, as well as some thoughts on the enduring place of Shakespeare in modern culture.

  • This blog post examines different versions of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, and F1) through Wordles.
  • A new play uses Shakespeare to talk about issues of teen bullying. In “Cruel to Be Kind,” rehearsals of As You Like It are disrupted by harassment, and it’s up to Shakespeare to set things straight.
  • The BBC is running a new recitation and performance competition for secondary schools: “Off By Heart Shakespeare,” through which they hope to show that “the best way to get to know and love Shakespeare is by performing his words.”
  • “How do you get kids into Shakespeare? Get to them before they know it’s supposed to be tough” — a lovely article on teaching Shakespeare through performance. Cass says: This is exactly my philosophy, and it’s why we’re so enthusiastic at the OCS about our summer programs for teenagers and pre-teens.
  • Then, check out 7 Quirky Ways Students Learn Shakespeare for some more exciting, performance-based approaches that teachers and students are exploring around the country.
  • An article from The Huffington Post about the new Shakespeare High documentary also suggests that bare-bones Shakespeare, without elaborate costumes, sets, or lighting designs (rather like how the OCS performs…), could be the answer to keeping theatre and the arts alive in our current era of budget-slashing (when the arts are too often the first thing on the chopping block).
  • This blog post relates current technology-induced changes in the English language to the revolution of vocabulary during the early modern period. Cass says: Interesting premise, but I’m not quite sure that netspeak is as ultimately beneficial as Shakespeare’s creative inventions.
  • Finally, the Staunton Newsleader has given Shakespeare his own page. This aggregate collects Shakespeare-related news within Staunton, from the OCS, and from around the world.

The gift of the Magi(c)

I distinctly remember the first time I read O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi as an adolescent. The bittersweet irony contained in the tale of two lovers sacrificing treasured possessions in order to purchase one another Christmas presents colored my view of relationships and of gift-giving ever since. As a girl, I loved receiving tangible gifts, but opening the packages, like in the O’Henry story, never lived up to the imagined expectation … until this past week.

The story begins last fall, when two women from UVA’s Health Science Center contacted me with an idea. Kate and Laurie work for the university in positions as American Sign Language interpreters for a Deaf UVA professor, his students, and others as the community has a need. They wanted to offer the professor a chance to take advantage of his proximity to the American Shakespeare Center, and, since they would already be doing the hours and hours of preparation demanded to execute a translation for him, they offered their time to interpret for the students of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, located in Staunton, as well. This gift of talent and time taught me a tremendous amount as I conferred with them and others about approaches to bringing Shakespeare to Deaf and blind audience members.

Within a short time of their contacting me, I was able to find grant funding through the National Endowment for the Arts Shakespeare in American Communities Grant that the OCS won for 2010-11, which not only allowed me to offer the students the opportunity to attend Macbeth for free but also provided enough support for OCS actors and Education artists to go to the school to prepare the students to see the play.

At OCS Education, we firmly believe that students need little help to understand Shakespeare. We, and the teachers who bring students to our shows, have found that if people have the opportunity to see good productions of early modern plays, they find the plays not only easy but also entertaining. We think that almost two century’s practice of removing Shakespeare from the context of the Playhouse for which he wrote his plays and placing his words in literature books and classrooms has created an atmosphere in which students think the plays have little to offer them and fear Shakespeare. We think that these symptoms are the result of a curriculum more concerned with his amazing (and it does amaze) poetry than with the fact that he was writing plays as entertainment, and, if we could, OCS Education would love to wake up a world in which every teacher teaches Shakespeare as a playwright, and–perhaps more importantly–gives every schoolchild the opportunity to experience his plays produced well by good actors and artists in playhouses like ours. But the students at VSDB challenged these firmly held beliefs and that challenge turns out to be a lovely gift.

Ralph has taught Cass and me to lead workshops and lectures that are all about seeing the stage and hearing what the text can offer actors and audience alike. We work with our colleagues in teacher seminars, at No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, and at conferences to help their students see the stage when they read the page. We emphasize, with word-for-word paraphrase exercises and rhetorical study, how wonderfully the sounds of the words make audience members think on multiple levels, and how the actor interacting with both his fellow cast mates and with audience members sharing the same light creates a multifaceted prism experience in a theatre. Did you notice how many sensory words I used in that description? As we prepared for the work ahead of us, each contributing member became more and more aware of how many words we use by course that do not fit with the experience our students would be having.

An O’Henry gift I had already received from our OCS intern David Techman made the trepidation around word choice much less prevalent. David is legally blind and, when he and the OCS on Tour actors — Kelley McKinnon, Johnathon Holzman, and Chad Bradford — were preparing a tour workshop, we all learned from David for the first time that there was a “language barrier.” Having never seen–or, rather, experienced– a play the way David does, I didn’t know the best way to phrase questions to get at his experience and to consider the best approach for the workshop. We muddled through and eventually discovered a workable language that relied on discussions of when stage action works–in short, it must be big enough to be clear, but specific enough to be believable. Interestingly enough, we discovered in our conversations that textually based information is often more effective than a director’s invention. For instance, David attended a Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe in which Lavinia was raped with a dagger at the end, rather than just stabbed. This choice has no textual basis and it did not read at all to David, he found out the gist of the action only after the play’s end when his colleagues discussed it and he had an “a-ha” (though not an “uh-huh”) moment. Learning how to talk about “good fights” or good “moments” for David, helped us to figure out how to approach the workshop. When we finally met with the students, their enthusiasm and joy immediately pushed away any lingering doubt as they swash-buckled and died with gusto. Watching them enjoy the play a few days later was all the more vibrant for having seen them experience for themselves what the moments onstage felt like for the actors.

The day after sword-fighting with the visually-impaired, Cass and I returned to the school with our adviser and interpreter, Mike Ernst. Mike came to our rescue when we hosted our 2009 conference at the Blackfriars, and one of our scholars was Deaf. He bravely stepped in to interpret hours and hours of papers and shows — I never realized just how brave and kind he had been until the tables were turned at VSDB. American Sign Language is its own language, and, as such, our regular approaches to dwelling in Shakespeare’s words for workshops were not going to fly at VSDB. For one thing, as Mike, Kate, and Laurie patiently explained to Ralph and me, the play that the students and our other Deaf audience members would see was a translation. The action was all there, but the words and their arrangement were going to be different.

I, foolishly, had thought: “Well, the kids are reading the play, also we can still approach it in the same way we always would–use the text to stage a scene.” I thought we’d have a lot of fun with the banquet scene — the murderer, the ghost, the seeing and not-seeing. I thought we’d look at the text to find all of this out. When I arrived, I quickly found that the kids couldn’t look at the text and “listen” to me at the same time, so we adjusted. Rather than play the entire scene, we went for just the first 20 lines. 20 lines in a scene of Shakespeare is about one minute of playing time — and this is an exercise that we use often in our graduate program, as a great way to consider the infinite choices theatre offers.

And, boy, did we get some wonderful choices, but, boy, did we over plan for the time we had. The students eagerly jumped in as one of the VSDB interpreters, Rene, gamely balanced the room by placing himself opposite Mike so that a student in any position could visually link up with an interpreter, and so that we could work in “thrust.” Some of the choices they made were completely instructive — our Lady M in the second workshop busily gave instructions to the attendant so Macbeth would have impetus to speak “our hostess keeps her state.” Continuously, the kids came up with amazing solutions, though, sometimes, a little too amazing. In one instance of playwrighting, for example, that occurred in our first class –“ We can just have the murderer say….” Cass and I had to draw the line, citing meter, and authority of the text, but loving the heart behind it. That first group did add some action that, while not in the text, could have worked — the blood-thirsty murderer in that group, not satisfied with killing just Banquo and the other two villians in the previous scenes, upon his first entrance, also slashed the throat of the nearest servant and replaced him at the door. Surprising, dramatic, creative.

Then, they came to see it. They talked afterward about the choices the actors made versus the ones they figured out. They spoke with authority and passion about, yes, Shakespeare and the magic of Theatre. They inspired us with their passion and creativity and made us eager for the next opportunity to explore theatre with them. You can hear our actor’s responses to playing for them in our Macbeth podcast, you can chat with me anytime about my hopes to keep this relationship going–and the funding that will require. Meanwhile, I will relish remembering what a wonderful array of gifts we received. The generosity of Kate, Laurie, Mike, Kelley, Chad, Johnathon, Rene , and those wonderful students, all made our mission achievable for a new audience.

The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education.

“In the Force of his Will” : Shakespeare and Star Wars

Today is Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you all), and, in honor, I would like to take a look at some of the Shakespearean inspiration that George Lucas used when creating the Space Western we all know and love. The OCS’s Actors’ Renaissance Season dramaturgy intern for Henry VI, part 3, Paul Rycik, has already explored the parallels between Episodes 1-3 of the Star Wars saga and the Henry VI trilogy, but this only scratches the surface of the potential Shakespeare/Star Wars connections. Lucas’s memorable characters, epic plot, and quotable scripts share traits with many of Shakespeare’s plays, and knowledge of their synchronicity only adds enjoyment to the experience of either.

So basically — and just go with me here — the Star Wars Saga (if retold using Shakespeare characters) goes a little something like this:

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – For Anakin Skywalker’s side of things, the story plays out like the last half of The Winter’s Tale. Camillo (Qui-Gon Jinn), Polixenes (Obi-Wan Kenobi), and Florizel (Padme Amidala) find Perdita (Anakin Skywalker) in Bohemia (Tatooine). Camillo realizes that there is something special about Perdita and takes her with him back to Sicilia (Coruscant). On the political side, the story follows Richard II with the overthrow of Richard II (the Galactic Federation’s Supreme Chancellor) by Henry Bolingbroke (Senator Palpatine), who becomes King Henry IV (Supreme Chancellor).

Episode 2: Attack of the Clones – Anakin’s older now, so for Episode 2, he’s mostly Hamlet with a little Romeo at the end. Hamlet (Anakin) is awkwardly in love with Ophelia (Padme) but has some personal, mother-related issues to work out first. So, he goes home to Denmark (Tatooine), where his mother dies. In a fit of anger, he kills quite a few people over it (but not himself, and there’s no Osric, which is really a shame). At the end of the film, Anakin (now Romeo) and Padme (now Juliet) are married in secret on Naboo (in fair Verona), but instead of Friar Lawrence, they have C-3PO and R2-D2 as witnesses. Politically, this episode is when things start getting Henry VI-ish. Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) convinces the Earl of Warwick (Darth Sidious) to work for him instead of against him. Further, Jack Cade (Count Dooku) leads a Separatist faction that gives Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) the excuse he needs to put together a powerful army.

Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith – Here is where Anakin Skywalker joins the Henry VI plotline, but he has a little Macbeth in him, too. Like Macbeth, Anakin has let supernatural consideration (witches’ prophecy for Macbeth, the Force for Anakin) color his thinking, but within the politics of the story, he enters Episode 3 as Richard Plantagenet, with the decapitated head of Somerset (Count Dooku) in hand. Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) has taken over for Obi-Wan Kenobi as his father figure, and Anakin is quickly on his way to a white rose (or a black helmet). Richard Plantagenet (Anakin) revenges Clifford’s (Mace Windu) attack on Richard, Duke of York (Chancellor Palpatine) and, by submitting fully to the Dark Side becomes a Darth Vader who “can smile, and murder while I smile.”

Episode 4: A New Hope Again, the story starts like The Winter’s Tale and Tatooine is still Bohemia (at least Tatooine has the climate and topographical features it’s reputed to, which is more than can be said for Bohemia). This time, though, a different Camillo (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Polixenes (C-3PO), and Florizel (R2-D2) find a different Perdita (Luke Skywalker) and realize that she has got something special about her. At this point, Luke Skywalker transforms into a sort of Prince Hal, unprepared for his filial future. So, they go to The Boar’s Head (Mos Eisley) and meet Pistol (Han Solo) and Nym (Chewbacca). Luke, like Hal, is intimately related to, but outside of the rebellions against the government that his father runs. We will not discuss the Luke/Leia business, however, because that all gets a little too much like John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back – In both Henry IV and in The Empire Strikes Back, rebellions rage. However, the most important parallel I want to draw is between Yoda and Owen Glendower – both are vital to the rebellions of which they are a part, both are thought of as magical (or Force-ful), and both speak with funny accents. I think I’ve made my point. That said, Prince Hal (Luke Skywalker) must come to terms with the future in store for him and make the choice about what sort of power he will choose to yield, thus approaching the turning point in his story. Meanwhile, Beatrice (Princess Leia) and Benedick (Han Solo) enact their merry war of words – Leia’s “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee” versus Beatrice’s “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow” and Han’s “Your worshipfulness” versus Benedick’s “Dear Lady Disdain.” Just as Benedick agrees to fight Claudio for Beatrice, Han joins the Rebellion, not out of strong political beliefs, but because he wants to satisfy the woman he loves.

Episode 6: Return of the Jedi – Little known fact, there are no Ewoks in Shakespeare. However, here is where Hal, now Henry V (still Luke Skywalker) becomes a strong leader. The final battles are fought and England (the galaxy) finds peace. Also, Leia does as Rosalind, Imogen, and Viola do and disguises herself as a man in order to take care of herself and the people she loves.

As a culture, we love an epic, the rise of the weak against the strong, the fruition of forbidden love, and the fall of the over-ambitious; both Shakespeare’s canon and the Star Wars Saga provide these oh-so-satisfying tropes in spades. The influence of Shakespeare (along with samurai history, Frank Herbert’s Dune, mid-twentieth century spaghetti westerns, and so much more) pervades the very fabric of the Stars Wars Universe. In my imagination, Shakespeare reached out his gloved hand (he was a glovemaker’s son, after all) to George in a dream and spoke these fateful words, “Lucas, I am your father.”

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Book Review: The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

The Great Night is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008. A group of humans stumble into a disaster implemented by the Faery Queen, Titania, who is in the throes of deep sorrow. Following the death of their latest changeling child, Titania and Oberon had one of their marital spats — but this time, Oberon doesn’t seem to be coming back. Desperate to get the King to show himself and so absorbed with her grief that she loses all sensibility, Titania lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreak havoc in the park. (The greater world is protected by walls of air — nothing, mundane or fantastical, gets in our out of the park while those walls, presumably conjured by Oberon, are up). The mortals trapped within are: Molly, recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend; Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago; Henry, who can’t remember any of his life before the age of thirteen, and whose obsessive-compulsive habits drove away his boyfriend; and a group of homeless people rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green, led by Huff, who believes the Mayor of San Francisco is feeding the indigent population to each other in the soup kitchens. These mortals get wound up in the actions of the faeries, who are either giving over to sensual indulgence in what they presume to be their last hours, or who are seeking ways to put the Beast back under control.

There are things about this book which are really great. It’s definitely at its best when the faeries are the main focus. Titania and Oberon are sweeping, dramatic figures, and Adrian describes the lesser faeries in a way that balances nicely between whimsical and grotesque. The flashback section where Titania and Oberon have to watch their changeling child die is the strongest portion of the book. Because their magic cannot work on anything they care for, they have to turn to human medicine to try and save the Boy. They’re also struggling to deal with the emotional consequences of actually caring for a mortal child, as their self-absorption usually prevents such deep attachments to their changelings. Adrian does a great job showing how mortals perceive the faeries when they enter the mundane world, how the little magics affect them. He also — through his own background as a pediatrician — is able to evoke the tormented feelings of parents watching a child die with great sympathy and precision. The emotionality of this section is strong and compelling, and it paints a very clear picture.

As for the humans, their stories generally start off well enough — Molly, Will, and Henry, at least, inhabit complex emotional and psychological worlds. Huff and his tribe I could have done without. They seemed extraneous, none of them besides Huff developed any real personality, and I can’t figure out the purpose of the Soylent Green trope. Not having enough of a familiarity with that source material, I don’t know if there’s some larger theme at work there, or if the fixation is just a way to demonstrate the extent of Huff’s delusions. Regardless, it seems like that subplot only exists as a tacked-on way to have an analog for the Mechanicals, so that Titania has a fool to dote on when the Beast places her under an enchantment. But the lover-analogs are fOCSinating, if not wholly likeable. They all enter the story in liminal states, hedging between decisions, scared to take decisive action in controlling their lives, hesitant and varying degrees of pathetic. In this way, they’re precisely the opposite of Shakespeare’s lovers, who take to the woods for very specific reasons, but their ambiguity serves the opening of the story, because it makes them vulnerable to ethereal interference.

The second half of the book degrades into confused chaos, though. As the humans fall deeper under the faeries’ spell, the narrative quickly becomes jumbled and hazy. Molly and Will, whose stories had been compelling, get lost entirely in the enchanted shuffle. Henry’s experience is only somewhat clearer. The reader does learn some more pieces of the backstory, some threads that tie these seemingly unrelated people together, but there’s no real sense of a greater point to it, no driving force behind what’s happening, and no ultimate goal for them to work towards.

And perhaps that’s all to the author’s purpose. Perhaps that chaos is precisely what Adrian is aiming for, to portray the senselessness of the whirlwind the Beast creates. Which is why I say, if that’s the case, then it’s extremely well-done. But even well-done, it interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. I like a good, solid story, some sense of cohesion, which The Great Night lacks. As the mortals falls deeper into the madness of the night, their experiences become clogged with symbolism. Adrian takes it a step too far, I think, laying the metaphors on a bit too thick, and the story loses both coherence and emotional engagement as a result.

The ending of the book is a problem. Abrupt and anticlimactic, it circumvents any kind of resolution for the characters. The mortals’ stories, set up so well at the beginning, reach no conclusion. They don’t even move along — we don’t see any indication that they’ve been changed by their time in the woods, that they’ll go back to real life different than before, because we don’t see them at the end. There’s no sense of alteration or growth. No one has a dramatic arc except Titania, perhaps, and even her story ends ambiguously, with no denouement. Adrian throws the reader into a maelstrom and then never calms the seas. Again, this confusion might be intentional, but it’s unsatisfying.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book. I always enjoy seeing how other writers interpret Shakespearean themes, and sections of The Great Night are quite strong and worth reading. The story as a whole, however, just doesn’t hang together. The disparate threads never reconnect, too many characters never reach resolution, and too much seems extraneous. The Great Night is an interesting experiment, but the book would have profited from more tightening and precision.

Imprimis: Link and Tidbits, 29 April 2011

A birthday and a wedding have dominated the Shakespearean news cycles (and my Twitter feed) over the past week — Did you celebrate either? Both?

Finally, I want to wish all the best to the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Their Royal Highnesses Prince William and Princess Kate. “Heaven give you many, many merry days!”

My Birthday Tribute to Shakespeare

Today, bloggers from all over the world are celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday by sharing how Shakespeare has impacted their lives — Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for putting this project together.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at the age of eleven, when I picked up Romeo and Juliet on a whim. I was vacationing with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, strolling through a shop that had a table full of “required summer reading” — encouragement for vacationers to get a start on schoolwork. Never one who needed much encouragement to read, I decided Romeo and Juliet looked like something worth trying, and my mother, far from expressing bemusement at my choice, agreed, saying she thought I’d really like it. I started reading my first Shakespearean play on the sandy shores of Corolla Light, and by the end of the week, I was standing on the back deck of our rental house, declaiming Juliet’s balcony speech in my swimsuit for the benefit of my parents and a gathering of seagulls.

And that was pretty much it. From then on, I was hooked, and I couldn’t get enough. My mother started searching out Shakespeare productions every summer, and we toured all across Virginia in pursuit of new delights. I appropriated my father’s Riverside Shakespeare and spent hours poring over it, stretched out on the floor of my bedroom, reading King John, the Henry VIes, and Troilus and Cressida, just because I wanted to. I begged my 8th grade teacher to let us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream out loud, and I thoroughly frightened all the boys in AP Brit Lit 12 with my perhaps over-enthusiastic rendering of Lady Macbeth. In 2004, I made my first trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t my first exposure to the company — I’d seen them as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express years earlier, doing Much Ado about Nothing in Charlottesville — but I was giddy at the realization that I could sit on the stage in such a gorgeous theatre. In college, I took up with an extracurricular Shakespeare performance troupe, which not only gave me the opportunity to act in and to direct some great shows, but which also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve had in my life — amazing people I might never have met if we hadn’t shared a love for Shakespeare’s words.

Fourteen years after that first encounter on the beach, I live in what was once a dizzy daydream for me: I got my BA in English and History at William & Mary, I hold a Master of Letters in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin College, and now I get to work for the American Shakespeare Center, where what I do all day long isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. I get up excited to go to work in the morning, and I’m happy to go to bed tired at night. I’m far from alone in this — I don’t know how many places there are where so many people voluntarily work so hard for so many long hours, just out of sheer love for what they’re doing. I feel so privileged to be part of a truly wonderful and dedicated community — and here again, as at William & Mary, I’ve made incredible friends, who are part of my world wholly due to our mutual love for Shakespeare.

With all of that, the impact that Shakespeare has had on my life is clearly huge. Shakespeare gave me not just a source of entertainment or a focus of study, but a career. My eleven-year-old self had no idea what she started when she opened up that text for the first time, and there are still some days I can’t believe my good fortune.

That impact goes far beyond my scholastic path and my budding career, though. I’ve come, over the years, to appreciate so much about Shakespeare — the wordplay, the rhetoric, his clever use of the space — but what attracted me at the first, and what still sticks with me more than anything, are his characters. Shakespeare populated his plays with such vibrant people, who are so real and so very human. Their words, their thoughts, and their emotions have thoroughly permeated my life. As a teenager, I looked to Beatrice, Kate, and Silvia for strength, for assurance that wit and spirit were valuable traits in a woman. I’ve long borrowed Helena’s words about Hermia to describe myself: “She was a vixen when she went to school, and though she be but little, she is fierce,” and the quote accompanying my picture in the yearbook as a senior in high school came from Beatrice: “But then there was a star danc’d, and under that was I born.” Last year, suffering from a broken heart, I took comfort from Adriana and Julia. In higher spirits in more recent months, the great queen Cleopatra has been my inspiration. I think about the rhetorical cleverness and persuasive power of Mark Antony and Henry V when I speak and write. These magnificent characters always have something to say to me, and there’s always something new to discover within them.

So, happy birthday, Bill. Thanks for bringing so much delight into my life, for filling my world with the most amazing people, both fictional and real, and for providing me with a passion worth giving myself over to. Here’s to your next 447 years.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 22 April 2011

Just a few tidbits from the past couple of weeks:

  • Ever wondered what your brain looks like on Shakespeare? Now you can know! Scientists have conducted neurolinguistic experiments to suss out just what Shakespeare’s rhetoric does to the processing centers of your brain. It turns out that the brain enjoys the challenge of unusual syntax and receives a satisfying reward when it unravels Shakespeare’s linguistic riddles. Cass says: Scientific proof that my obsession with rhetoric is well-founded!
  • This article on Shakespeare and leadership cites our very own Director of Mission, Ralph Alan Cohen. The OCS works with the Federal Executive Institute several times each year to train government officials in leadership techniques, and we welcome any other corporate institutes to sign up for our leadership workshops.
  • This thoughtful essay examines the poignancy of Shakespeare’s perspective on parenting in The Tempest.
  • A new approach to Shakespeare and queer theory: “Rather than referring exclusively to homosexuality, ‘queer’ should encompass everything and anything odd, eccentric, and unexpected, such as the fairy queen Titania falling in love with the donkey-headed Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or King Lear’s complicated take on the limits of the human.”
  • An appeal for aid from a substitute teacher, hampered by educators who are letting their students get away with reading “modern translations” of Shakespeare. Sarah says: This breaks my heart. What I want to do more than anything in the world, is reach the teachers who fear Shakespeare and get them past it and into the realm of comfort, so that their students–our future audience members and–more importantly?–leaders will be able to speak well and appreciate deep text and the humanity Shakespeare so well portrays.

And don’t forget: Shakespeare’s 447th birthday is tomorrow! Join us at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton on Saturday, from 10:30am-1pm, or at the Playhouse on Sunday, from 4:30pm-6pm, to celebrate with the OCS.

"A fine volley of words, gentlemen, and quickly shot off" — Two Gentlemen of Verona

Yesterday afforded Stauntonites a rare opportunity — not just the chance to see the little-performed (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the chance to see two different productions of it in the same day. Mary Baldwin College’s MLitt/MFA Acting I class undertook a new challenge this year: mounting a 90-minute production as a culmination of the semester’s work. Directors Matt Davies and Colleen Kelly split the class into two casts, and both directors worked with both sets of actors at some point during the rehearsal process. I entered the Playhouse full of excitement, because — as my colleagues know and don’t hesitate to tease me about — Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of my pet favorite plays. I have a bizarre affinity for it and will vehemently champion its worth to any nay-sayers. Because companies produce this play so infrequently, however (it joins Cymbeline and Pericles as the least-performed comedies at the OCS), I haven’t had the chance to see a production in several years. As such, this opportunity was a real treat for me. The day reminded me just why I love this play so unabashedly, but it also reminded me why I think it deserves more study, to tease out the troubles it contains.

Seeing the play twice in one day illuminated the challenges that Two Gentlemen of Verona presents. I’m not just talking about the very odd relationship dynamics in the final scene — though I will get to that — I’m talking about the play as a whole, which juxtaposes quick, snappy banter with moments of real emotional searching and distress. Two Gents uses, more than any other play of Shakespeare’s, the device of stichomythia, the rapid alternation of lines between characters. You can see it at play in sections of The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors comes close to using it as overwhelmingly as Two Gentlemen of Verona does, but nowhere else do as many characters volley words back and forth so much and so often. Both productions kept up the speed, using the stichomythia as an indication for delivery, but it was the first production that took that as their cue for the whole play. The first production had a broadly comic, slapstick sort of feel. They embraced the ridiculous situations, the bad puns, and the delightful humor of the clowns Launce and Speed. This approach definitely highlights the laughter, and it makes for enjoyable viewing

The trouble, though, is that the play also has real poignancy to it, and the rapidity of the language can sometimes overwhelm the need to let the characters have a little space to breathe. It’s easy, certainly, to play Two Gents just for laughs, and all of that stichomytha encourages the temptation. When your focus is on speed, on the back-and-forth of quips and cutting remarks, you can get a barreling-on effect. This approach is good in some ways, but I think that it ultimately undersells the characters.

For anyone unfamiliar with the play, what happens is this: Valentine and Proteus were best friends back in Verona. Valentine left first to join the Emperor’s court in Milan, where he fell in love with the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Silvia. Proteus initially stayed at home with his love, Julia, but when his father sends him along to Milan, he also falls in love with Silvia, and he decides to betray both Valentine and Julia to get her. Proteus exposes Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia and gets Valentine banished. Julia, meanwhile, dresses like a boy and takes off for Milan to find Proteus. She discovers Proteus wooing Silvia (who is having none of this nonsense), but, despite her anguish, becomes his page in order to be near him. Silvia runs off to the forest to find Valentine, but gets kidnapped by brigands (the same who have made Valentine their chief).

This play is consumed by relationship dynamics — lovers, friends, parents, masters and servants — and in order for relationships to sell, the actors can’t succumb to the temptation to play only for laughs. There are too many moments that lay open the characters’ hearts and minds to the audience, and I thought the second production of the day hit these quite nicely. Julia’s decision to crossdress and to flee to Milan becomes less a gimmick and more a dire decision when you see her maid Lucetta genuinely worried for her safety, and it comments on her relationship with Proteus to hear Lucetta telling her, in stark honesty, that he’s just not worth it, warning her that (as the audience by now knows he has) he might have changed his mind. Silvia demonstrates fierce loyalty, not only to Valentine, but to Julia, a woman she doesn’t even know, as well. Her language when she chides Proteus for his deceit is as delightfully invective and as strong as anything that comes out of Kate’s or Beatrice’s mouth. Valentine has to convey his love for Silvia whole-heartedly, especially in his woeful post-banishment speech, or else he just comes off as a dope. Proteus, more than anyone, needs to show some emotional depth, or else he’s an entirely unsuccessful protagonist. We need to see him struggle with his decision to betray his friend and his lover, and his monologue in 2.6 walks an actor through his rationalization. During that monologue, the audience needs to see the discovery happen within him — to see him brush off hesitation in favor of lust, to see him talk himself into doing very bad things.

All of that emotional investment pays off — or, at least, it should — in the final scene. Proteus, following after Silvia, “rescues” her from the brigands, but when she delivers him another stinging set-down, he tries to rape her. Yes, rape. Yes, in a comedy. Valentine rescues Silvia and berates Proteus for his betrayal. Proteus repents, and Valentine (in strict accord with the rules of homosocial male friendship) accepts his apology and offers Silvia to him. Yes, he offers his fiancee to the man who just tried to rape her. Julia faints, then reveals herself, Proteus decides he loves her after all, and they all live happily ever after.

This is a weird scene, but the underpinnings of the relationship dynamics can clear up a lot. I could go on and on about it, as it formed a large portion of my Master’s thesis (and if you ever want to get me chatting for a good uninterrupted forty-five minutes or so, just ask) — but here I’ll confine myself to the considerations that were in my head last afternoon and evening: There are two ways to stage this. You can either move really fast, embracing absurdity, sending up what appears to be a completely ridiculous reversal. Or, you can let the moments be awkward and uncomfortable. You can let it be troubling. In my opinion, the latter is the better option. I see Two Gents as having as much of a problem ending as, say, Measure for Measure — and the great thing about problem endings is you don’t have to solve them. They have permission to be conflicting.

I was delighted when the second performance’s Silvia reacted so strongly, so negatively, to Valentine attempting to give her to Proteus. Silvia has no lines after Proteus’s attempted rape, but I don’t think that’s an error or an oversight on Shakespeare’s part, nor do I think her silence necessarily implies consent to what’s going on — either the attempted handing-off or Valentine’s reclaiming — not any more than Isabella’s silence in Measure for Measure implies her consent. I think her silence is conspicuous. Valentine acts precisely as he should in the dogma of male friendship, which had been, since the time of Aristotle, a codified relationship, considered the purest and most fulfilling of any human bonds. Many philosophers promoted the idea that “friends hold all things in common” — including, sometimes, wives. Not that you could have them at the same time (usually), but if your friend falls in love with your girl, the honorable thing to prove your devotion to him is to offer her up, as Valentine does. The supremacy of this homosocial dynamic was a familiar trope throughout the Middle Ages, and you can see it at work in other plays of the early modern period — Endymion, Damon and Pithias, The Maid’s Tragedy — but during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was starting to fall out of fashion as a desirable relationship model. Throughout Two Gents, Shakespeare twists the standard language of male friendship around in a way that I believe is satirical. The end scene is not a promotion of this ideal, but rather an exposition of the trope’s flaws. Silvia’s silence calls attention to the problem of leaving women, romantic love, and sexual desire out of the equation. Sending the final scene up for pure comedy not only glosses over the very real problem of the attempted rape, but also discredits the underlying complexities of Shakespeare’s criticism.

I don’t know if the Acting I class will attempt the same experiment again next year, with two directors sharing two casts of the same play, but for this year, it definitely provided me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on one of my favorite plays. Seeing two different productions throws a lot of moments into stark contrast — and one of the main tenets of OCS Education is to try scenes different ways, discovering what effect different choices can have. Congratulations to both casts on all their hard work!

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 8 April 2011

Greetings, all — I hope your April has started well. This week we have a smattering of links, several focusing on Shakespeare’s influence outside of the scholastic world:

  • We’d like to give a shout-out to the Empty Chair Theatre Company, a production company based in Arlington, Virginia, founded in 2007 by Julia Sears and Elizabeth Nearing, both veterans of our OCS Theatre Camp (Young Company Theatre Camp, or YCTC, as was). Many of their staffers are also alums of our program. This summer, they’ll be producing Twelfth Night and Titus Andronicus, and word is they’ve even snagged a night performing at the Folger Theatre. The company also has a blog, if you’d like to keep up with their projects. We are so proud of our camp alums, and we wish them so much success and joy in their endeavors. Doreen says: I can attest to the professionalism and high standards that these women value in their work, and I respectfully consider them colleagues and collaborators, both philosophically and creatively, in the endeavor of making of dynamic Shakespearean theatre.
  • The NY Times claims that Shakespeare invented teenagers — What do you think?
  • Utah Shakespeare has delved into using performance to teach Shakespeare. One teacher comments that students who normally “would be sitting in the back twiddling their thumbs or punching someone next to them” are engaged by and interested in more active learning processes. Imagine that!
  • This article details some of the ways scholars attempt to date Shakespeare’s plays. It has an Oxfordian bent, though, trying to re-date plays to correct for de Vere’s 1604 death. Cass says: And blatantly ignoring topical references and plain common sense, while they’re at it.
  • is hosting a month of “How to Think Like Shakespeare.” The project is designed to imagine how “studying Shakespeare enriches the various disciplines—from neuroscience to business to psychology and beyond.” Author James Shapiro is among the panel of experts commenting on Shakespeare’s applicability to many different realms of life.

And no, I’m not even acknowledging that Anonymous travesty.

Pluck It Down — Experiencing 3 HENRY VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse

Overheard at the Playhouse last Saturday night, in escalating probability of physical violence ensuing:

  • “Yeah, I’m not sure I can sit with you. Not if you’re wearing that rose.”
  • “There are way too many Lancastrians in this building. We need to even the odds.”
  • “Is she wearing one of each color?” “Must be a Warwick.”
  • “I side with winners, thank you.”
  • “Traitor!” “Oh, you can talk.”
  • “Oh, sure, wear the murderer’s color.”
  • “I can’t believe you’re wearing Henry’s colors.” “I’m wearing Margaret‘s colors.”
  • “Who won in the bracket?” “Well, no one, yet!” “But who won the semi-final? Richard didn’t win. Margaret. Margaret won.”
  • “Who wins? Tell me who wins!” “We do!” “You do not! Henry of Richmond is not a Lancaster! He’s from a totally different house!”
  • “Who is left standing at the end of this play? Who is left standing? You answer me that!”

As we say in the South, “Them’s fightin’ words.” The occasion which precipitated these verbal volleys was the closing night of 3 Henry VI, from our Actors’ Renaissance Season. To encourage the rivalry between the Houses whose conflict drives the plot of the play, the box office sold white Yorkist and red Lancastrian roses, so that any and all could proclaim their loyalties. The box office staff informs me that they sold over 60 roses that night, so it would appear that many of us feel quite strongly about the question of which branch of a centuries’-extinct dynasty should wield monarchical authority. I witnessed two fistfights (mostly joking) nearly break out, saw lovers managing to sit side-by-side while wearing different colors, and overheard, during both the pre-show and the interlude, any number of slurs, challenges, and insults, thrown about by a proud and suddenly partisan audience.

What fOCSinated me about the ambiance of the evening was seeing how involved nearly everyone in the audience had become with the family drama of the play. Admittedly, a closing night audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse can be a bit of a stacked deck, because it tends to draw in a lot of regulars, a lot of MBC students, a lot of friends and families. Last weekend, we had the OCS’s touring troupe in the house as well, along with large Little Academe groups in from Penn State Harrisburg and Baldwin-Wallace College — so it was an audience predisposed to be riotously joyful. Certainly this success speaks to our wonderfully skilled actors — I also overheard several people saying they’d never seen better performances out of this group, that the show left them constantly and literally on the edges of their seats, that they were exhausted by the sheer emotionality of the performances. 3 Henry VI is definitely an ensemble show, and this ensemble did a thoroughly captivating job making such a large cast of characters compelling. Rather than following a single, straightforward rise and fall, where causes have prescribed effects, 3 Henry VI exists in a more chaotic and haphazard universe. The play is a series of great moments, all belonging to different people, and so the cast must work together to wring emotional response from the audience each time someone new triumphs or flounders. The twists and turnabouts, rocketing from extremes of sympathy to revulsion, would test the ability of any actor, and ours met the challenge admirably.

Another reason for this active audience engagement is that the story itself is just so good. Shakespeare was working with great material, so it’s easy to see why history plays were among the most popular and most-often-produced in the sixteenth century. Admittedly, the Henry VI plays, written so early in Shakespeare’s career, do have their flaws, but a large gulf can exist between the technical merit of the script and the visceral enjoyment experienced by the actors and the audience. If the OCS has proven anything in the last three Actors’ Renaissance Seasons, it’s that these plays can be just as crowd-pleasing and energetic as the more widely appreciated plays in the canon. Even at the OCS, we perform fewer histories than any other genre, because of the popular perception that the public won’t receive them as well as effervescent comedies or psychologically wealthy tragedies, but so many recent productions, 3 Henry VI among them, have put the lie to that assumption. On Saturday night, the Playhouse was electrified, sizzling, the audience members enraptured by the events unspooling in front of them. The feeling at intermission was more akin to that of a major sporting event than a typical theatrical performance. I’m so glad that I live and work in a place where I can heatedly argue the succession of the English crown in the fifteenth century on a Saturday night — and have dozens of others in on the discussion as well — a place where these events still resonate through their theatrical mirrors, where people have come to care enough to pick one rose over the other and to defend their choice vigorously.

For what it’s worth, I do have to confess a personal stake in the affair: I am a descendent by blood of the House of York, I wear the white rose, and I wear it proudly.