Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session VII

This is Cass Morris, back yet again, this time for Plenary Session VII, moderated by Janna Segal, newest addition to the teaching team at Mary Baldwin College’s MLitt/MFA graduate program. I’ll be blogging from 1:00pm to 2:15pm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a session involving technology, held in a re-construction of a sixteenth century theatre, the session starts a bit late due to technical difficulties.

Denise A Walen, Vassar College: “The Performance History of Rhetorical Strategies in 3.4 Much Ado about Nothing

Walen prefaces Much Ado as an unusual play, in that it features two scenes comprised entirely of female characters. In one of those, 3.4, the women prepare for Hero’s marriage. Walen notes that this scene is often reduced or cut entirely from production. As early as 1674, “revised” prints of the play excised nearly half of the scene. Walen argues that “a sense of prudish propriety” led to the elimination of the bawdy jokes in the scene. Walen shares visuals of the scene not only as printed, but as manually adjusted for performance by actors or in promptbooks, with much of the scene crossed out. Towards the end of the production history, Walen notes that Kenneth Brannaugh shot the scene for his 1993 movie, but ultimately left it on the cutting room floor, dismissing it as “too frustrating”.

Walen argues that both the length and the placement of the scene indicate its importance. The scene of innocence, where Hero is ignorant of the forces working against her, augments the tragedy of Claudio’s rejection. The scene also shows Hero exhibiting some interesting characteristics, contradictory to her public persona of meek, dutiful daughter. The scene also helps recuperate Margaret’s character, demonstrating that she has no malice and that her part in the plot is, as Leonato later notes, unintentional. Walen suggests that the scene is most revelatory about Beatrice, showing a more vulnerable side of her character — engaging the audience on her behalf just before the key turning point with Benedick in the church.

Walen walks briefly through the pathos, ethos, and logos of the scene, linking its importance to its rhetorical function. “Shakespeare makes its rhetorical construct essential to the female characters.”

Nathan Jerkins, Penfold Theatre Company / Hidden Room Theatre: “Frame Characters: An Actor’s Approach to the Original Practices Movement”

Jerkins wonders aloud “What am I doing here?” — specifying that he asks that, not for lack of enjoyment, but in astonishment at himself for presenting at an academic conference. He thanks the OCS and the conference attendees for being willing to let an actor take part in the conversation.

He points out that modern actors cannot approach original practices entirely devoid of modern techniques and training, and wonders how we can take those necessarily modern actors and apply them to early modern plays and methods. He thinks the answer may lie in the “frame character”, as in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew. He thinks, rather than trying to ingrain our modern actors with anachronistic sensibilities, that we should take advantage of actors’ extant strengths. He suggests the idea of a creating a “frame” character who can guide an actor through discovering a role. He thinks this would also circumvent the stresses involved in needing a “dramaturgical referee” to pull directors and actors back when they have “gone too far astray”.

Andrew Phillips-Blasenak, Ohio State University: “The Materiality of Shakespeare’s Companies”

Phillips-Blasenak examines some of the successes of early-modern-style acting companies, including the ensemble and repertory setups. He suggests that, while this style may be enjoyable for an actor, it also presents problems for an actor’s career, as the prolonged nature of repertory and ensemble work. It encourages innovation in company structure and performance space, but . He will look at how Michael Boyd of the Royal Shakespeare Company attempted to navigate these problems, both in building the actor-audience relationship and in creating a sensible ensemble in the company, especially in regard to the reinvention of the material and physical space.

Phillips-Blasenak looks at the structure of the RSC as a company, where the personnel of the company did not change when the space did. The actors who come in, then, though working with directors who were new to them, were thus working with directors who did not necessarily use the new space in a way that augmented the actor-audience relationship. Phillips-Blasenak gives examples from two past performances which he believes were alienating, rather than engaging. Boyd has also instituted a policy of hiring actors for 2.5 year contracts, with the aim of building a consistent ensemble. Phillips-Blasenak particularly examines this practice in the recent history cycle completion project. “The company was able to adapt and work as an ensemble as they adapted to a variety of roles.” The following year, hiring the directors first and then the actors led to an experience that appeared to be confusing and frustrating for the actors, as the directors could ask wildly different things of the actors. The ensemble nature also broke down, with certain actors getting nearly all lead roles and others only supporting roles — for, Phillips-Blasenak stresses again, two and a half years.

Phillips-Blasenak then runs through an overview of the OCS’s style of ensemble-building, audience engagement, and rotating repertory. This structure “provides many of the material challenges that fulfill the goals of Michael Boyd’s intentions.” Phillips-Blasenak suggests that this is more satisfying for the actors, and may be the reason why OCS actors are more willing to return to this company rather than take their skills elsewhere.

Megan Lloyd, King’s College, and Beth Brown, University of Rio Grande: “‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’: Choreographing Props on the Early Modern Stage”

Lloyd begins by interrogating the tangibility and necessity of props in early modern plays. She uses examples first from ‘Pyramus and Thisbe” to show that Quince is concerned with the material issues behind stage performance. Lloyd suggests that today we, like Quince, are concerned with stage authenticity — and she gives examples from particularly spectacular Shakespearean performances. The early modern stage, on the other hand, relied on the imagination, not just for sets, but for props as well. Lloyd wonders if, today, we use props that the early modern audience did not see or expect to see, suggesting that our modern concern with realism may lead us to consider some props essential. James Keegan and Miriam Donald Burrows present two scenes from The Tempest to illustrate the questionable necessity of Prospero’s iconic staff. On the second run, the actors perform without the staff. While it may help the actor conjure magic, illustrate age, or otherwise demonstrate character, Lloyd argues that the text does not require it; the text does not even mention it until the very end of the play. Lloyd believes that “a staff gets in the way” of Prospero’s emotions.

Brown considers the necessary props for Hamlet, giving the example of the trail of actors who must handle the cup that ultimately poisons Gertrude. She highlights the necessity of thinking about who must handle any prop that appears on-stage. Ben Curns and Miriam demonstrate “what happens when Ophelia has too much to handle”. Miriam attempts to negotiate letters, books, and a small box, which she has to half-juggle. The second run shows “an unencumbered Ophelia”.

Sid Ray, Pace University: “Sticky Shakespeare: Testing Action as Eloquence”

Ray examines “stage business: the unscripted activities of an actor for effect”. She positions the popularity of the term and action in the 20th century, derived from improvisational theatre. She gives an example of Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth assembling a sandwich while giving instructions to the murderers — illustrating the difference between the character’s humanity and his growing monstrosity. She also mentions Ian McKellen’s Richard III performing all activities one-handed, drawn from clues in historical references and in the text. Both examples, Ray argues, convey more information to the audience about the character. Ray draws a line between stage business and “schtick”, which she categorizes as distracting, unnecessary, and without character revelation or illumination.

She suggests that Shakespeare’s plays indicate need for stage business, even though the term was not popularized until much later. One of the best examples is Lady Macbeth’s hand-rubbing, which has no stage direction, but is implicit in the gentlewoman’s dialogue. During the Restoration, actors may have developed “schtick” which then got passed down to the next actor inheriting the role. Ray believes that stage business has become risky business, particularly with determining whether or not an action is justified, as well as determining “how much is too much”.

Ben Curns and James Keegan perform an expository scene from The Winter’s Tale twice, once in a reserved style, second with more stage business spectacle. In the first, they simply sit at the edge of the stage to talk. In the second, they unpack a breakfast of Golden Grahams (complete with milk) and proceed to eat it while they talk. While it does give Camillo a physical reason for “Beseech you” — asking for the milk — it also slows the actors down and somewhat distracts from the words. Ray notes that she left the choice of stage business to Ben and James; they rejected wrestling, rolling cigarettes, or playing cards. Ray asks, whether or not we enjoyed the first or second version better, that teachers consider using stage business in classrooms as a way of interrogating the needs of a scene.

Jeremy Lopez, University of Toronto: “All the Fletcher Plays”

Lopez suggests that it’s difficult to see the Fletcher canon, especially in conjunction with his many collaborators, “as a jungle, rather than as so many terrifying trees”. He breaks them down by titles: those titled for women (such as The Island Princess), those titled for men (such as The Noble Gentleman), those titled with proper names (such as Sir John van Olden Barnavelt), possessively titled plays (such as The Maid’s Tragedy), idiomatically titled plays (such as A King and No King), plays titled for places (such as The Laws of Candy), with specific examples of plot from each category.

Lopez categorizes the plays as at once familiar and strange, with a combined sense of recollection and insubstance. He looks at several of the plays which may help determine “what is not a Fletcher play, and what is”. He finishes with a claim that the Fletcher plays “preserve traces of what they might otherwise have been, or what they might otherwise have liked to be.”

Blackfriars Conference 2011- Plenary Session VI

Hi, Deb Streusand here. This morning I’ll be liveblogging Plenary Session VI from 9 am to 10:15 am.

“Some by Stenography Drew the Plot”: An Experiment
William Proctor Williams, University of Akron

Williams begins by having A.J. Sclafani, Brian Falbo, Kim Maurice, and Michael Wagoner read two passages from Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody. This play was performed before August 1605, probably by Queen Anne’s Men. It was thereafter published in 5 editions in 8 years. Heywood’s later prologue, in the Eighth Quarto, recounts the play’s popularity and how some recorded it in by stenography, so that he now wishes to put it forth in correct form himself. The Eighth Quarto can therefore serve as a control text for comparison to the earlier Quartos, which reflect stenographic recording of performance. The actors read the corrected version of the same scenes they read earlier. Williams asks us to imagine that people are recording the two versions of the scene right now, to be published later.

[Edit: Apparently I misheard what Williams said about people recording the scene as it was performed during his presentation. In fact, two students from the Mary Baldwin MLitt/MFA program did record the scene at his request, and later in the day, Williams provided a handout with the original text, the transcription, and a collation of the differences.]

Did Hamlet Mean Country Matters?

Zachary Lesser, University of Pennsylvania

Lesser recounts several editors’ glosses on Hamlet’s joke about “country matters.” He asks whether, when Early Modern audiences heard these words, they actually perceived the pun we now hear in it. No major editor noted an obscene pun at this exact point in the text until Malone in 1790; previous editors had glossed the statement as a reference to the idea of country folk as crudely sexual. The exchange was cut from productions in the 18th and 19th century, but primarily because of the later punning on “nothing.” The Restoration Smock Alley Promptbook cut “nothing,” but not “country matters.” In the First Quarto, Hamlet says “contrary” rather than “country matters.” Lesser argues that scholars have wrenched their arguments to include the pun, but this distortion falsifies the history of the text and the experience of this moment. Looking at the texts in order of probable composition, Lesser argues that the Folio text expands this moment to clarify it, with Hamlet explaining the innocence of his question–“I mean, my head upon your lap.” In the First Quarto, Hamlet says “my head in your lap,” instead heightening the suggestion by specifying the body part. If there had been a sexual pun in “country matters,” such a process of clarification would not have been necessary. There is no indication of Shakespeare’s audience understanding those words to imply such a pun, and we should, therefore, “forget what our glosses have been assuring us.”

Speaking the Speeches: Speech Order and the Early Modern Performances of Hamlet
Matthew Vadnais, Ohio State University

Vadnais describes the division among scholars about whether
the longer texts of Hamlet could have been staged at full length. He draws attention to the question of whether the Second Quarto and Folio text would have been too hard to play at full length, particularly because of the use of cue scripts and the necessary speed of performance. He demonstrates that many lines end in the same or almost the same cues. He proposes, however, that like their First Quarto counterpart, the other texts were created to make performance easy. A.J. Sclafani, Brian Falbo, and Michael Wagoner perform the Second Quarto version of the conversation between Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern about Gertrude using cue scripts without actual cues, demonstrating that the speech order that gave clues to when the actors should speak. Another way of making things easier is to create two-player scenes or scenes with only two speakers. Vadnais uses the metaphor of a “speech stem” for situations in which several characters respond to a primary character, who knows that every speech will contain his next cue. Shakespeare’s plays provided the company with assistance in knowing when to speak. All three texts of Hamlet equally anticipate how they would have been performed on the Early Modern stage.

“Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign…”
Lezlie Cross, University of Washington

Cross describes her conversations with Howie Seago, a deaf Shakespearean actor. She wants to reframe the term “Original Practices” to refer to a new practice, that is, Seago’s translation of Shakespeare’s plays into movements, a kinetic language. She cites Artaud referring to a language of movement that transcends the speech on stage. When playing the ghost in 2010 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seago could obscure his statements to his son even from the audience, so that they heard was what Hamlet chose to share. Seago’s script notes where he will voice the lines, as in “I am thy father’s spirit,” using his own “imperfect” voice to show the ghost’s difficulty in being present in this world. The audience saw Hamlet take possession of the knowledge and of his revenge. Seago transformed “list, list, o list” into signs meaning “look at me, look at me, look at me.” Both Shakespeare’s language and Seago’s sign language have similar metaphorical underpinnings, in opposition to common language. For “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown,” Seago transformed his sign language into a kinetic signification of the image. His method begins with a “translated” English text and finds ways to communicate the ideas through signs, making modifications according to factors such as the length of time that it takes to sign a line. “Seago’s work in translating Shakespeare’s text goes beyond mere translation,” transforming the text from one medium to another. Cross refers to this phenomenon as “kinetic textuality,” a term typically applied to digital artistic creations. Seago’s translations are still more kinetic, being no longer simply textual, but having instead become “meaning in motion.”

Jonson’s Breaches and the Typography of Action
Claire Bourne, University of Pennsylvania

Bourne argues that theatrical innovation prompted a textual innovation that allowed printed plays to develop into their own dramatic experience. Textual evidence suggests that these texts attempted to use punctuation in a way that allowed the reader to experience the dramatic in the printed text. Jonson described such punctuation, as used in his humor plays, as “breaches,” that is, markers of gaps in the dialogue. Bourne proposes that Jonson’s breaches not only allowed replication of the action, but made it possible to read the printed text in a way that makes dramatic sense on the page. In order to put the different theatrical and textual signs into the same visual field for her audience, Bourne has Wagoner, Sclafani, Maurice, and Falbo perform a portion from Cynthia’s Revels that is especially characterized by experimentation with punctuation, with dashes signaling non-verbal interruptions. They next perform a scene from Every Man Out of His Humour that uses dashes to signify self-interruptions, in this case by puffing on a pipe. The breaches signal moments that are vital to personation. Jonson’s Folio collection of his plays retains these experiments in using typography to convey non-verbal elements of the scene. Maurice and Sclafani perform a scene from Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, in which a character replies to conversation in non-verbal signs because of another character’s requirement that he do so, performing marginal text that states that the breaches refer to signs that responded to the dialogue. Bourne suggests that the breaches did not replace the action of performance, but preserved it for the page. The punctuation grew to symbolize all kinds of action, functioning as a recognizable invitation to notice non-verbal elements of the play.

Keeping Shakespeare Real by Using iPhones: or, Original Practices Shakespeare (There’s an app for that)
Joseph F. Stephenson, Amy Simpson Grubbs, and Adam Hester, Abilene Christian University

Stephenson states that they will discuss the 2010 Abilene Shakespeare Festival’s production of Othello, which was not actually intended to be Original Practices, but grew into some original practices as it formed. Hester, as director, wanted to find a way to engage with Bard-shy audience members, and decided to use technology to reach “beyond the proscenium,” by creating a blog that they updated throughout the show, including scene synopses, definitions, or comments about the action on stage. Audience members were able to post and read comments themselves, and the blog was flooded with them. Performers were also able to receive audience’s responses, and were heard walking offstage saying “what does the blog say?” By creating this intimacy, they argue that they were able to approach the closeness to the audience that is crucial to original practice, as well as a sense of play, and lighting (that of mobile devices) that made the audience visible. Stephenson quotes two piece of evidence about early modern performance and discusses their ambiguities and the complicated audience responses. He then cites some quotes from audience members responding to their production, including discussion of the play’s ambiguities. The blog also provides a permanent archive of audience responses, which would be useful for future research into audience response to Othello.

Question Time:

A questioner asks Cross about how American Sign Language deals with puns such as “country matters.” She talks about how Seago would probably try various movements to see how they landed with the audience.

Another questioner suggests that Cross do some work with Tommaso Salvini, who spoke only Italian but performed with an English-speaking company. Cross replies that she has not yet worked on Salvini, but she is working on Helena Madjeska, a 19th-century Polish actress who worked with American actors, including Edwin Booth, speaking Polish in response to their English on stage.

Another questioner asks about when “cunt” appears in the OED in the form we know it. Lesser cites a 13th century reference. The questioner asks if there is a possibility that this meaning of the word was active in the scene. Lesser says that what interests him is our absolute assurance that that meaning is in play at the moment he discusses.

Another questioner comments about Vadnais’ presentation, talking about cultural cues and discussing scribal adjustments to a text and to cues specifically.

Another questioner asks Cross about the difference between ASL and the sign language used in Britain, and what impact that would have on kinetic representation. Cross clarifies that Seago does not really use ASL, but mostly discovers movements that work to communicate, creating a new language for each production, which is very much keyed into the character that he is creating.

Another questioner asks Stephenson and Hester about how they dealt with the possibility of distraction from the technology. Hester describes the placement of technology users behind those who were watching without using technology. A different questioner wonders about what might have been lost with the technology users during the show. Hester describes the audience eagerness to see the next blog, and actors walking back to check the blog, which he did not always find useful. Stephenson argues that visual focus on the technology actually brought back the Early Modern tradition of “hearing” a play.

Another questioner asks Stephenson and Hester about the possibility of acquiring greater connection to young students through the use of technology. Hester describes the demographics of technology use, stating that the blog users were mostly under 30. He discusses how the technological elements gained greater acceptance from all age groups over the course of the run.

Kate O’Connell of Mary Baldwin College moderates this session.

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Paper Session V

Hi! I’m Julia, I’ll be liveblogging Paper Session V from 4:00 p.m. to 5:15 p.m.

Moderator: Miriam Gilbert, University of Iowa

Roman Actors:
Meta-Theatre as Moral Compass in Phillip Massinger’s The Roman Actor and Lope de Vega’s lo findigo verdadero

Iam Borden, Carson School of Theatre and Film, University of Nebraska

According to Borden, several English plays have counterparts in Lope de Vega’s canon. In some of these, the plot, devices, characters, settings, and even performance spaces are all but indistinguishable one from the other. In his comparison of Massinger’s play to de Vega’s, Borden showed that the breaking of the fourth wall served not only to elicit laughter by reminding the audience and actors that they share the same space, but it also served to demonstrate different approaches to the moral argument of each play. John Basiulis played Paris, Patrick Midgley played Caesar, Natasha Solomon played Inez, and they were joined by Daniel Burrows in playing actors commenting on theater and on each other.

Renaissance Clowns and Early Colonialism
Bob Hornback, Oglethorpe University

Hornback discussed a 1534 play by John Redford (the Play of Wit and Science) in which an character, Ignorance, appears in blackface and speaks in an Africanized pidgin English. Hornback demonstrated a scene in which Idleness, the vice character played by Natasha Solomon, taught Ignorance, played by Daniel Burrows, to speak his own name syllable by syllable. Hornback’s purpose was to show that comedic representations of the African character as “other” were already present on the English stage, as they had been in Spanish drama for at least a century before.

The Implications of the Failed Performance of Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon
Peter Hyland, Huron University College, University of Western Ontario

Hyland discussed The Whore of Babylon and what Dekker’s actions surrounding its failure show about Dekker himself. He pointed out that Dekker apologized for the play in several ways: the prologue that presumably pre-dated the printed version because it discussed the dumb show, the epistle at the beginning of the printed version, and a later protest that the play was actually intended as a dramatic poem. Indeed, Hyland agrees, the play seems to benefit from the format of print in that what is good about it can be perused by a reader rather than missed by an audience.

“A Cynic and a Hater of Humanity”:
Distinguishing Modes of Satire through Performance

Rusty Jones, Murray State University

Jones discussed different kinds of cynicism as evinced by characters such as Timon and Apemantus in Timon of Athens. He showed that Juvenalian satire is most like characters such as Apemantus, who hates no man but man’s impiety, and exposes vice rather than attacking individuals. Timon, on the other hand, does not truly seek to right society, but only rejects others when he himself is rejected. Brett Sullivan Santry performed as Jaques and Timon, and Bonnie Morrison played Duke Senior and Apomanthis.

Moral Agency in Hamlet
Lars Engle, University of Tulsa

Engle opened with Michael Bristol’s work on the evaluation of characters as people. He says that an emotional response to fiction can show the audience’s deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. Engle goes on to say that in moral accounts of themselves, people stress their own agency. He discussed such agency and Hamlet, who in dying leaves Denmark with Fortinbras, but his own story with Horatio. Throughout the play, Hamlet is trapped in an unsatisfactory existence, merely reacting to stimuli, but in Act 5 he develops greater agency compelled by his conception of nobleness in himself.

Bell Ringing in Shakespeare
George Walton Williams, Duke University

Williams, currently serving as one of four councilmen this year on the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers pointed out that Shakespeare was almost silent on bell ringers, which is surprising because he would have heard bells both at Stratford and London. Shakespeare’s only bell ringer is Bullcalf in Henry 4 part 2, who begs off when Falstaff tries to press him into service. He also mentions Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s madness “Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh,” and he uses that quote and one from Fletcher’s The Pilgrim to educate a modern American (and non-bell-ringing) audience in some of the things that English bell ringers have known for centuries and would easily recognize in Early Modern plays.

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session IV

Hello from the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse, nestled in a Staunton resplendent with Autumn colors. I am Christina Sayer Grey, Marketing Associate for the American Shakespeare Center, and I will be your live-blogging tour guide for Plenary Session IV from 1:00pm – 2:15pm on Thursday, October 27.

Moderator: Catherine Loomis, University of New Orleans

Staging Anatomy in The Athiest’s Tragedy
Caroline Lamb, The University of Western Ontario

The Athiest’s Tragedy features an unintentional self-execution – D’amville, the play’s athiest, grabs an executioner’s axe and accidentally applies it to his own head “In lifing up the axe has knocked his brains out.” D’amville then continues to talk for 17 lines after the stage direction. No staging directions nor any staging history from 1611 on.

Discuss two related questions. 1. Might we infer that early modern spectators may have seen D’amville’s brain onstage? 2. What effect would this staging have on audience’s understanding of D’amville’s body and brain onstage?

The playwright Tourneur’s preoccupation with “brains” throughout the play, using it many times during the play, turns that body part into a fetish object. The play eventually gives the audience what they want – a visible human brain in vivisection. Evidence implies that the scene could have potentially been shown in a realistic way onstage. Animal viscera and blood could be employed to give the illusion of human innards. Spectators would have anticipated and possibly expected a display similar to what they might have seen in an anatomy theater.

1994 production – director Anthony Clark. “The dying D’amville dissects himself, wrenching out a chunk of bleeding brain and displaying it to the audience.” Reveals to the audience that D’amville’s brains needed inspection, anatomizing.

Eviscerated grey matter can serve as a corporeal correlative to the personal information that D’amville is making public for the first time. His 17 lines are used to reveal his plot and labels himself a murderer. He “spills his guts,” if you will. Intellectual, moral belief, and identity are revealed in full physicality. D’amville’s brain is exposed and so are his psychological innards. Early Moderns thought of the brain as the physical repository of knowledge as well as the center of intellect.

D’amville’s blunder fulfills two conditions that anatomists wanted to realize in their practices – performed on a live subject and with minimal surgical interference. The play caters to a fantasy of vivisection – the viewing of the brain of a live human subject.

The Theatre and Its Cripple
Genevieve Love, Colorado College

How do disabilities function on the Early Modern stage? Reliance of the representation of loss.

‘Larum for London (1602) a graphically violent play about the Siege of Antwerp. A series of violent episodes – onstage military killings, stabbing of a citizen, torture of an Englishman, a hanging, shooting of a woman, stoning to death, and the killing of young children (who beg for their lives for 60+ lines). Scene after scene of bloodshed.

At just over 1,100 lines, the play is quite short and a “grueling exhibition.” The play’s excesses are seen to mark its artistic shortcomings. The show, however, filled the need of the contemporary audience as topically apt, as Londoners feared a Spanish invasion.

Lame soldier, Stump, is a valorous soldier, but his prosthetic limb is described as “rotten.” Stump’s saving of a fat burgher links their two bodies as a corporeal representation of the relationship between too much and too little that runs throughout the play. The two-legged actor playing Stump has too much body (three legs total when Stump’s stump is added) and the actor playing the fat burgher has too little (augmented by padding).

Playing with Paper
(A Love Letter to Tiffany Stern)
Carter Hailey, The College of William and Mary

Pre-performance, paper was required for all the documents of performance.
During performance, plots, props, and other ephemera were required. Believe as You List, for example, calls for 9 paper properties. Paper properties on the EME stage as quasi-corporeal representatives for an absent character – “paper players.”

  • OCS actors Blythe Coons and Rene Thornton, Jr. perform a scene from The Merchant of Venice. “The paper as the body of my friend…”
  • Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy calls specifically red ink to represent Bel-Imperia having written her letter in blood.

Henry VI, part 1 – Hotspur reads a letter aloud and interjects non-letter lines into the reading. (OCS Actor Chris Johnston reads the example)

Tearing a scroll onstage – the power of destroying a missive. The letters that are torn are blanks. No tearing of “reading” scroll examples have been found by Hailey. An example of a pre-torn scroll where it is a “reading” scroll, but the elements on the “reading” half are cut-off at a specific point (scene performed by OCS Actors Jeremy West and Blythe Coons).

The unification of page and stage.

How Many Children Had Banquo?
Brett Gamboa, Dartmouth College

Doubling – absences of characters like Mercutio and Lear’s Fool during large chunks of their plays. Other characters, however, go missing without much attention (Lady Montague, for example). Lady Montague’s death doesn’t necessarily add to the weight of the tragedy. Romeo’s mother dies of theatrical necessity, she does not appear onstage because she is already there as another character. Her absence must be explained away by another character because she is expected to be there. Maria in Twelfth Night, the Queen in Cymbeline, and many other examples of the disappearing character exist. These examples all happen in their play’s “limiting scene” – the scene that has the most number of speaking character (i.e. minimum number of actors required for the play). Suggestive absences are common in Shakespeare, but they appear to be practical considerations.

Macbeth 4.1 calls for more than 12 actors. “A show of 8 kings and Banquo”(plus Macbeth and witches) – the play calls for 8, but that is not enough for the purpose of the scene. The 8th king carries a mirror to show the future kings to Macbeth – Kings that cannot be embodied onstage. Representing abundance with an abundance of actors and then represents more abundance without any actors at all with the mirror.

Or, is Banquo the 8th king, the one with the mirror. This solution makes the limiting number 12 instead of 13 – the number of actors for which the company had a patent at the time. Using the actors playing the Thanes in the lines of future kings rather than journeymen, since Malcolm makes them Earls in the play, is a nice link, as well.

Why are there no blowjob jokes in Shakespeare?
Matt Kozusko, Ursinus College

Pyramus and Thisbe (“plausible although a stretch, perhaps”) – Rene Thornton, Jr. plays the Wall, standing on a block; John Harrell plays Bottom/Pyramus; and Jeremy West as Flute/Thisbe. The Wall is genitally assaulted, causing the chink (the space between two fingers) to cover that area. Pyramus and Thisbe then kiss through the chink (Pyramus in front and Thisbe at the back). “I kissed the wall’s hole and not your lips at all” “my part discharge”

The Winter’s Tale – Hermione: “come on then, and give it to me in mine ear” as a mis-entrendre. The meanings have shifted over time and so we experience the phrase differently than E.M.E. audiences would have.

Sex acts are a dynamically social thing. There are no blowjob jokes in E.M. writings that we can identify because E.M. people either did not talk about these things publicly or not in ways that we can recognize. The promising candidates are not defensible because they require misreadings.

Distinctions, for example, between irrumare and fellare disappear when translated from Latin into another language and over the course of time.

Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale – Absalom’s kissing of Alison’s arse “savorly” – what is being talked about – cunnilingus or analingus? An involuntary oral sex act of some sort is indicated.

A discourse on the parts of the body, especially when it requires circumspection, are not fixable and are easily movable. Williams’s book “Dictionary of Sex Acts.”

Sound Trumpet
Alisha Huber, independent scholar

O.P.’s focus on sight – we think about going to see a play. The focus in O.P. is related mostly to sight. What about hearing? Shakespeare and his contemporaries frequently use auditory signals in their stage directions. More than 250 calls for trumpets in E.M. stage directions – information conveyed by military signals served both for verisimilitude and a narrative purpose.

Alarum, appeal, parley, advance, and retreat were the basic ones used for E.M. plays.

Julius Caesar – a scene where the characters respond to offstage trumpet signals. The signals are part of the conversation. (Blythe Coons and Rene Thornton, Jr. perform the scene)

Rare in Shakespeare’s plays for the stage directions to just generally call for “Sound Trumpets.” The plays call for specific, indicative, and informational musical signals. Characters explain military signals, in fact, less than characters explain the tolling of a clock. Audience members would very likely have recognized all the military signals and those that didn’t would have been quickly conditioned to recognize the consistent indications.

Unfortunately, because the signals were so familiar, players and real military members did not write them down. They were learned by rote by both groups. Therefore, no records remain of specific musical patterns.

Diverse country’s signals would have recognizable by different groups, but there were distinct differences. The French, perhaps, marched more slowly than the English, for example.

Tucket – a heraldric badge of sound – an aural logo for a character. The Imperial March accompanying the entrance of Darth Vader – the aural logo plays before his entrance every time. The tucket, once learned, prepares the audience for that character’s entrance.

All of these sound signals, when used consistently, conditions the audience to expect certain things along with certain sounds.

Q for Matt Kozusko: Henry V – Fluellen’s forcing Pistol to eat a leek. “Eat this leek or I’ve got another leek in my pocket…”
A: Chewing of a leek, not particularly erotic. The leek already stands for Welsh honor and many other things.

Q for Alisha Huber: Are you arguing that soundtracks can be used to create an auditory experience?
A: Soundtracks create an emotional response and music underscoring text makes the text hard to understand. The signalling intends to create an intellectual response.

Q for Alisha Huber: Does the sound make the meaning?
A: Overly specific examples, like Darth Vader, have a dangerous potential to distract or create a parody of itself.

Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

We return for the third and final session of the Spring 2011 Thesis Festival.

Characters Performing for Characters in the Plays of Philip Massinger, by Brian Falbo (MLitt candidate)

Brian begins with a quick introduction to The Roman Actor and the scene presented by Katie Crandol, Elizabeth Rentfro, and Liz Lodato. Brian then states that he divides performance-within-plays into two major categories: frame performance (plays, masques, religious ceremonies, and legal proceedings) and natural performance (deceit, manipulation, disguise). The Roman Actor contains examples of both types, often layered upon each other. He also distinguishes the on-stage, in-play, scripted audience from the in-theatre audience (who, he notes apologetically, matters less for the purposes of his thesis). In The Roman Actor, the eponymous actor, Paris, presents an idealized version of theatre, with the ability to instruct virtue. Brian then looks at the arbitrary political executions and murders of retribution, relating them to the frame devices and examining Domitian’s use of theatre as thought-control on his audience. Domitian’s attempts fail entirely, because “theatre is suggestion and not thought-control,” and Domitian has to resort repeatedly to his only real power – that of life and death over his subjects, executing those who displease him by failing to get the message of the performance. After Massinger displays Domitian’s failure three times, he moves to the Empress, whose failure is different in that “she attempts to make the theatre conform to her life,” to the extent that she genuinely fears the death of the actor in whom she is interested; the Empress is incapable of separating role from actor. The blurred lines culminate when, during another performance, Domitian takes a role and then uses a real weapon and kills the actor Paris. In Paris, Domitia, and Domitian, Massinger presents three extremes of theatre, all of which critically fail, suggesting that “a compromise of all three viewpoints is a possible” reconciliation — though Massinger does not suggest how to go about finding that middle ground. Brian suggests that this play, Massinger’s first as a house playwright, may be Massinger’s “manifesto,” a demonstration of three extremes of theatre which he vows not to stray too near to.

“Perchance to Dream”: Shakespeare’s Dream Imagery within Early Modern Dream Culture, by Melissa Tolner (MLitt candidate)

Melissa begins by introducing the concept of dreams, in personal, scientific, and historical terms. She cites several sources for dreamlore in early modern England: Greek and Roman sources, medieval English folklore, and religious texts. She also notes the overlap of dream symbolism with sympathetic magic and the occult. Additionally, she covers the history of publications of books on dreams and dream interpretation in the 16th century, which included such strange notations such as “if one ate lettuce in one’s dream, death would follow.” Melissa suggests that dreams on stage bridge the gap between realistic story and overt allegory. She examines dreams within Richard III, beginning with Clarence’s dire premonition (presented by Bobby Byers and AJ Sclafani), full of macabre imagery, designed to move audience sympathies to align with Clarence. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Melissa examines Shakespeare’s inheritance of themes from medieval traditions and Chaucer’s, with Nick Bottom’s dream speech presented by Angelina LaBarre. Melissa also notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains only a single actual dream — Hermia’s nightmare in Act Two (which Angelina also presents). Melissa then moves to Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio’s speech about “the fairy’s midwife,” better known as the Queen Mab speech (presented by Elizabeth Rentfro and AJ). She compares this discussion with Romeo’s description of his ironically optimistic dream in 5.1, where the audience witnesses Romeo analyze his own dream. Melissa concludes by commenting on the point of intersection between Shakespeare’s audience and our own as the key place for finding the transcendent meaning of dreams on the stage.

“I told you, if those should holde their peace, the stones would cry”: Drama and the Emergence of a Caroline Culture of Censorship, by David Ashton (MLitt candidate)

David begins by reminding us of the dates of the Caroline reign (1625-1649, Charles I’s beheading) and of Carolina drama (1625-1642, the closing of the theatres). He then introduces his focus: what did playwrights have to say about censorship and how did they contend with it? As a point of reference, James I exercised censorship twice as often as Elizabeth had, but Charles I exercised censorship five times as much as his father. David details the various (and numerous) institutions which Charles directed or constructed to deal with matters of censorship. He then contrasts these methods with the actions of Parliament over the authority of the King, first banning playing on Sundays in 1641, then closing the theatres entirely in 1642. David introduces the scholarship of Annabel Patterson, who focused on the idea of examining “functional ambiguity” within early modern drama. He then shares his working definition of censorship. David then moves into looking at specific hearings on censorship of printed works and the 1000-page polemic against theatre, Histriomastix, written by William Prynne, for which Prynne was tried in Star Chamber for slander and libel against the King and his people. David identifies this trial (late 1632-early 1634) and its judgment as the turning point for censorial efforts in the Caroline era. Prynne’s downfall found its way into several plays of the period, as playwrights enjoyed themselves at his expense, and James Shirley, who went on the attack against Prynne, rose to a prominent position in court. David notes that this sequence of events shows that the theatre was not always at odds with the censorial authorities, but sometimes benefited from their actions. David concludes by linking these events to the idea of a “culture of censorship” in the Caroline era.

What a marathon of a day it’s been — Congratulations to all of the presenters for their fine work!

(Read more from Session 1 and Session 2).

Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 1

Good morning, all. Today at the Blackfriars Playhouse, thirteen students from Mary Baldwin College will give presentations on their MLitt and MFA projects. These presentations are a required portion of the thesis project for all candidates. The OCS education team will be live-blogging throughout the day-long event. The first session runs from 9:30 to 12:25.

Mediated Dramaturgy: Using Technology to Improve Different Forms of Dramaturgy, by Paul Rycik (MFA candidate)

Paul begins by apologizing for the pun in his title, noting that his thesis focuses on the use of media technology, but that “mediate” as a verb does not necessarily include components of media. How, then, Paul posits, is a dramaturg a mediator? Paul then explicates the job of the dramaturg within the Actors’ Renaissance Season and the specific needs and requirements of the actors working under the ARS’s rehearsal conditions. These demands led him to create a combination of social media, web material, digital videos, and conventional dramaturgy packets. Paul moves on to describing his process in producing material for 3 Henry VI: a packet for glossary of terms, costume suggestions, video biographies of major characters, websites built for the pertinent historical background and geographical details, and a blog documenting his ongoing research. He then demonstrates how he used the blog to answer questions for actors during the rehearsal process, giving the example of exploring a possible textual variant in King Henry’s lines. He also showed the audience his video biography of Richard, Duke of York, with Michael Wagoner (an MLitt first-year) narrating over a series of portraits, battle illustrations, family trees, and other visual information. Paul explains how the combination of visual and auditory information allows for greater fluidity in presenting information than a traditional packet would. Another aspect of Paul’s project, playing deformity, involved information from his MLitt thesis, offering a production history of Richard Crookback. Paul concludes by speaking on the responsibilities of a dramaturg and by noting that dramaturgy is, by its nature, a continuing process.

Shakespeare’s Chaucer, by Matthew Charles Carter (MLitt candidate)

Matthew prefaces his project with a critique of source studies, suggesting that simply knowing what Shakespeare used as a source for a given play isn’t enough. He says his thesis includes three arguments “that the proverbial book is not yet closed.” He begins with the parity of literature on the subject, as only two main books on Shakespeare’s sources currently exist. He discusses the many possible sources for Troilus and Cressida, then introduces Geoffrey Chaucer (Kimberly Maurice) and William Shakespeare (Maria Hart) to discuss the biographical similarities and differences between the two authors. Matt then moves to looking at a linguistic and rhetorical comparison between the texts, specifically looking at the character of Pandarus and the devices erotema, anthypophora, and interrogatio. Kim and Maria, along with Paul Rycik, Monica Tedder, and Riley Steiner present scenes from Shakespeare’s play along with staged segments of Chaucer’s poem. Matt then relates the use of rhetorical devices to the sexual euphemisms and circumlocution prevalent in both the poetry and the play. Matt then relates the play’s sparse production history to its literary origins, presenting arguments that the play “right from the start, was seen as a literary artifact” rather than as a playing text; Matt, however, argues that Shakespeare recognized the performative elements of Chaucer’s original and brought them to the stage. He concludes by restating his belief in the value of source studies.

Recovering London: Editing a Forgotten Script for Performance and Study, by Glenn F. Schudel (MFA candidate)

Glenn begins with the unusual publication history for A Larum for London, then asks the question, “Why would I spend so much time on a play no one cares about?” His answer: “This play is a lot of fun,” featuring bloodthirsty Spaniards, devious Belgians, a cannon discharging, lots of violence, and “a violent, jaded, one-legged protagonist named Stump.” Glenn connects his love for this play with the OCS”s tendency to revive obscure scripts. He moves on to the question of why anyone should edit an early modern playscript, and he suggests that a fair bit of it has to do with job security for “specialists in a fairly small field.” Glenn discusses the tendency of these specialists to gloss over the printing oddities and idiosyncrasies of early modern text while reading. While experts make these changes somewhat automatically, casual readers may not be able to adjust as swiftly — thus, the need for the production of edited texts. He introduces the frequent use of the long-s in A Larum for London and the confusions and potential embarrassment it could cause for teachers using an un-edited text where an “s” might easily look like an “f”, with the example, “the babe that sucks.” Other difficulties include inconsistencies in speech prefixes, syntactical errors, and unspecific directions. Glenn sums up his job rather neatly: “Every bit of clarity one can get is helpful.” Glenn calls for volunteers to do a cold reading, one of an unedited prologue and one of an edited epilogue: Bonnie, reading the prologue, stumbles through the reading, despite being, as part of this program, familiar with textual oddities, while Angelina, reading the edited epilogue, has no trouble either understanding the words herself, nor relating them to the audience. Glenn admits that “this is probably not a radical point that I’m making,” but it nonetheless proves that the job needs doing. His textual difficulties, he states, began with the title page, indeed, with the title of the play itself: A Larum or Alarum? How accurate is the subtitle, The Siedge of Antwerp? As Glenn notes, the 1914 Seige of Antwerp is notably absent from Renaissance drama; the 1576 Spoil of Antwerp, also known as the Spanish Fury, however, was a well-known event and a touchstone for Englishmen full of anti-Spanish sentiment. Glenn then calls up two more volunteers to read a passage, then says, “I’m going to dramaturg you. Don’t worry, it’s painless, usually.” He explains that the odd phrase “a Faulcon and two Harguebuz of Crocke” has several historical connotations lost on modern readers, which he would need to footnote in his edition. His visuals demonstrate that the “faulcon” is a rather solid and respectable type of small cannon, while a “Harguebuz of Crocke” appears to be “a goofy guy firing a gun on a stick,” explaining a character’s consternation at its use. Glenn concludes by noting that there is a lot of work left to be done in bringing this text up to standard.

Early Modern Murderesses, by Asae Dean (MLitt candidate)

Asae prefaces her presentation with readings from murdering females (and a hapless victim), given by Linden Keuck, Amanda Allen, Katie Crandol, and Johnny Adkins. She notes that early modern authors had their templates from Greek and Roman (specifically Sencan) dramas, and then distinguishes between the murderous woman and the murderess. The murderous, working through a proxy, takes after Electra, the murderess, taking action herself, takes after Clytemnestra. She then lists examples of each type, then goes into the victims (lovers, would-be lovers, husbands, rivals, etc) and the reasons for murder (revenge, fury, greed, etc). She notes her surprise that more of her murderesses are stabbers than poisoners, considering the cultural fear of marital murder via poison. Asae then presents a few examples of the murderesses of early modern drama. Her first example, Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy, does not begin as a murderess, but initially seeks another form of revenge. Asae suggests that Bel-Imperia demonstrates both excessive grief and heated passions, and that Bel-Imperia “learns to dissemble” from her murdering brother. She contrasts Bel-Imperia with Evadne from The Maid’s Tragedy, who begins sexually deviant and unrepentant, married to an honest man to cover her affair with the king. Where Bel-Imperia’s brother is the (inadvertent) source of her darker thoughts and actions, Evadne’s brother brings her back around to virtue — which she then expresses by murdering her royal lover. As Asae points out, “For Evadne, murder is an act of penance.” Both Bel-Imperia and Evadne stand by their murderous actions, however. In The Bloody Banquet, Thetis initially regrets her murder of her former lover; her husband then offers her the choice to eat her lover’s hewn limbs or starve, and Thetis chooses to eat. If her husband wants her dead, he will have to kill her. During the Q&A, Asae expands on the differences between the murderous and the murderess and on the gendering of murder.

The Physics of Contranymy: Indefinition, Sublim(inal)ity, and Play, by Zachary Brown (MLitt candidate)

Zach begins by prefacing the struggles of “meaning-making” in language. He states that he wants to investigate the signifiers attached to the word “pharmacon”, meaning most simply ” a drug,” noting that it can mean either “remedy” or “poison,” which does not do justice to the variant nuances attached to the original Greek term. He connects this idea to Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet in his 2.3 speech regarding the dual uses of certain flowers. Zach then discusses the complications of meaning that can arise from grammatical errors or ambiguities, using the example of the lack of definite aural difference between “insincerity” and “in sincerity” in Measure for Measure. Further passages out of the play suggest that the ambiguity in language mirrors the weaving-together of sincerity and insincerity in the characters’ words, actions, and intentions. Zach explores the contranymy of many words in the English language, where words that sound alike mean opposite things, which would be obvious on the page but may not be easily distinguished in speech, including “raise/raze.” He also examines the various meanings attached to Lucio’s name, meaning “light” in Latin, and with “light” bearing several variant connotations in early modern English (illumination, lack of weight, promiscuity), and finally connects all of the ambiguity to the actions of the Duke. During the Q&A, Dr. Menzer points out that, by telling us about the sincerity/insincerity difference which Zach argues depends on its subliminality, he may have erased that effect for anyone who has listened to this presentation or who reads this thesis; Zach suggests that, in action, the subliminality will take over again, that it’s possible to watch the play without consciously thinking about the ambiguities.

That’s it for Session 1 — We’ll be back at 1:30pm for Session 2, with five more MLitt candidates.

(Read more from Session 2 and Session 3).

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.

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 2

So we’re back, after what Dr. Menzer hopes was “a substantial lunch, for a zesty palate cleanser of scholarship.”

Ford, and Jonson, and Middleton, Oh My!
presented by Carolyn R. Alvarez

Carolyn introduces her presentation by stating that she was attracted to the idea of looking at early modern authors who are not Shakespeare. She questions the societal influences that have made Shakespeare the “poet of the millennium.” She then brings out “Gary Taylor” (presented by Bonnie Morrison) and actors portraying a number of early modern authors: John Ford (portrayed by Riley Steiner), Thomas Middleton (Stephanie Tschetter), Ben Jonson (Katie Crandol), and William Shakespeare (K.C. Capron) — chosen in part due to revived interest in production or publication of their plays. (Kit Marlowe also appears, briefly, only to be told that he died too early to be considered in this thesis). Carolyn takes a few moments to provide biographies for these authors, while ‘gentlemen’ themselves snipe and snark at each other in the foreground (Crandol’s Jonson, nipping liberally from a flask, gets in a few particularly good zings, as does Steiner’s geriatric Ford).

Carolyn uses the contrasts between these authors to circle in on the idea that what’s made Shakespeare popular throughout time has been people — actors, publishers, readers, and scholars. She suggests that Shakespeare’s exclusive attachment to one company had a lot to do with his enduring success. She then touches briefly on the idea of the editorial hand, comparing Shakespeare’s publications to those of Jonson, who took a stronger hand in making sure what went into print were the precise words he intended.

She moves on to looking at the idea of Shakespeare as a brand, leading to the labeling of certain texts as “bad” quartos, or of questioning the validity of “lost” plays. This concept also connects to the relationship between art and money, legitimizing the plays through their monetary value. At this point, Marlowe reappears, only to be stabbed in the eye by “Gary Taylor” — allowing Carolyn to make the point that timing was important, too. Shakespeare made an impression on the publishing world before his death, and by the time the other authors on stage died, his first complete works was already on the market. Carolyn then questions the motive behind the compilation of the First Folio, and she suggests, in conclusion, that there may have been a great deal of personal emotion behind the publication, as opposed to merely financial reasons.

X-Treme Casting
presented by Jeffrey Chips

Jeff is looking at the possibilities engendered by breaking the traditional rules of doubling: allowing doubled characters to meet on stage, performing shifts by changes in posture and voice rather than by use of costume and props. He begins by presenting a scene out of King John, with only five actors presenting (by my count) eleven characters. The actors are in blacks, with only a few props (a lion-skin, a sword, a couple of crowns) either to help them change characters, or to stand in place of those not currently being portrayed.

Jeff goes on to describe production companies that use “x-treme casting,” noting that the challenge lies in telling the story clearly and efficiently. He contests that this may be “entry-level Shakespeare,” not merely an exercise for advanced and experienced actors or scholars. Jeff has his actors present instances where characters within the play actually tell stories by means of casting themselves as other characters. Sarah Keyes Chang then presents a scene out of The Comedy of Errors where one character (Dromio of Ephesus) presents a conversation between himself and Antipholus of Syracuse, including engaging in stage combat with herself; AJ Sclafani does the same for Bottom presenting Pyramus and Thisbe, and Paul Rycik goes on to present Lance, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, who tells a story involving six characters, casting his own shoes as two of them.

Addressing the “entry-level” issue, Jeff suggests that younger audiences actually respond more favorably to x-treme casting than do their elders, perhaps because their experiences of Shakespeare have not already been fixed. He then presents a scene out of a reconstruction of Cardenio where a key character, who is in the process of being described by another character, is portrayed by a hat up until the moment when the character speaks and an actor takes over.

Jeff goes on to suggest that professional skittishness about x-treme casting derives from fear, particularly the fear of asking too much of the audience. The audience, however, by Jeff’s assertion, desires a higher degree of involvement with theater, that the actor-spectator relationship is crucial and that x-treme casting can be a new and exciting way into that dynamic. To illustrate the importance of the audience’s imagination, Jeff has his actors present a scene out of 2 Henry IV, using no costumes or props, but only their own bodies and voices to draw character distinctions. Jessi Malicki presents five characters in rapid succession; the device works well because Shakespeare’s words give such a strong indication of each of the supposed soldiers being considered for Falstaff’s army, giving Malicki plenty to work with in drawing each of the five.

Quoting from a number of actors and production companies who have experimented with x-treme casting, Jeff considers both the possible losses and possible discoveries inherent to this form of doubling. Some actors find that cutting plays to make these doublings possible necessitates a flattening of some characters, while others discover nuances when forced to distinguish between two characters present on stage at the same time. He also nods to the economic benefits of a smaller cast and minimal reliance on costumes and props, but he asserts that this is not a reason to use x-treme casting. He concludes by voicing his opinion that x-treme casting can enhance the imaginative qualities of Shakespeare’s plays, and that fears of alienating the audience should not keep a company from experimenting with the choice.

Performance within Performance
presented by Clara Giebel

Clara begins by defining her focus for this presentation: looking at the interperformativity of actors and musicians with both on-stage (in-play) and off-stage (in-theatre) audiences. She considers first the “catch-singing” scene of Twelfth Night, looking at how the on-stage performances can affect the off-stage audience’s perceptions and sympathies. The scene transforms Andrew (Michael Wagoner) and Toby (Liz Lodato) from drunken fools to more nuanced characters, genuinely absorbed in and moved by Feste’s (Zach Brown) song. Clara considers the linguistic differences in Andrew’s and Toby’s speech here than elsewhere in the play, particularly Andrew, who so often fails to use complex vocabulary appropriately, but here gets out “mellifluous” both accurately and out of his own imagination, rather than from following Toby’s lead. It seems to be “a transformation springing from Feste’s performance” — and Clara suggests that this is a nice thought, that we could all be bettered by seeing good performances (indeed, an engaging thought for those who make a life out of creating theater).

Clara moves from this performance, with Feste, universally recognized within the play as a skilled performer, to that of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the on-stage audience indicates that the aritsans are far from proficient actors. She points out that Shakespeare spends more time having characters discuss “Pyramus and Thisbe” by way of introduction and interjection than he does on the play-within-a-play itself, by a good 100 words. She hypothesizes that bad performances within performances need more explanation than does a good performance within a performance (like Feste’s). Lodato presents Quince’s prologue, with Wagoner, Brown, and Katy Mulvaney acting the hecklers; Clara uses this to comment on the theatrical practice of a prologue excusing a play, as well as the necessity of conveying intended meaning to the audience. She then has Lodato present the prologue again with altered punctuation to portray more accurately what we can assume Quince meant to say, thus demonstrating that there is nothing wrong with what Quince says, only with how he says it.

Presenting a number of other examples where characters use music or performance to affect their own emotions: Hermione restored to life, Lear restored to sanity, characters staving off madness or despair. These transformations then net in the audience as well, bringing them along with the emotional shifts or tests of endurance. Clara sums up her ideas on performativity quite elegantly: “Through the influence of performance, the audience can lay hold of miracles.”

The Dramaturg as Director: Reviving The Misfortunes of Arthur
presented by Rachel L. Kohler

Due to the nature of Rachel’s MFA project, wherein she acted as dramaturg in charge of an Actors’ Renaissance Season- style performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur, this presentation is less lecture-formatted and more a re-enactment of certain portions of her experiment. Rachel begins by recapping information about her MLitt thesis, which had examined the presence (or, rather, absence) of plays about King Arthur in early modern theater. She determined to use the sole surviving Arthurian play as the basis for her dramaturgical exploration. Rachel describes the process of putting together the play, including the challenges of replacing actors at the last minute. She deliberately provided no dramaturgical information before the initial “Ren run” of the show. Brian Falbo, Liz Lodato, Dan Trombley, and Elizabeth Rentfro re-enacted a bit of the fumbled initial run (to general amusement).

Rachel then describes what her dramaturgical packet entailed: everything from vocabulary to historical references and costuming. She relates that her actors, having stumbled through the initial run of the play, found the packet helpful for moving forward with the play. Dan Trombley comes out to describe how he used Rachel’s information to put together the characters of Gawain and Gildas; then Rin Barton does the same for Cawdor and Constantin, explicating that knowing familial relationships, never mentioned in the play, made those characters make a lot more sense.

Rachel explains how, throughout the rehearsal process, she attempted to let the actors make their own decisions, facilitating but not directing. Rentfro and Lodato present a scene, and Rachel then explains (via Dan Trombley acting as a director) how a director might instruct actors both on character motivation and specific actions and timing; Rin Barton then steps in, presenting the persona of dramaturg, to illustrate providing characters with historical notes and options for performance choices, rather than making those choices and telling the actors what to do.

Among the greatest challenges in The Misfortunes of Arthur were the highly stylized, and frankly, quite bizarre dumb-shows between each act. Rachel explains her dramaturgical notes helped the actors make sense of the convoluted descriptions for those dumb shows, transforming them into something with greater clarity. Rachel finishes by asserting that, as far as experiments go, she considered this one a success. The Q&A involves not only Rachel, but also her actors, as their experiences are crucial to analysis of the experiment.

And now it’s time for a tea break! I’ll be back at 4:35pm for the third and final session.