‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Study Guide Now Available

The OCS Study Guide for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now available on our website. And, I promise you, this one’s a lot of fun. Midsummer has so much potential for playing, and I think we’ve found some ways to really bring that to life in classrooms.

Here is a ten-page preview. The Study Guide contains the following activities:

  • The Basics: Getting your students on their feet, working with iambic pentameter, paraphrasing, exploring rhetoric, and turning your classroom into an early modern stage. These sections include, for your benefit, the first 100 lines of text, already marked-up, to use as a model in the classroom.
  • Line Assignments: A way to give your students ownership over a small section of text, which they will use in further language-based activities and staging explorations.
  • Metrical Magic: Examines the performance clues provided by the shifts between normal iambic pentameter and the unusual trochaic tetrameter, the rhythm of spellcasting. The moments when a speaker transitions from one form to the other provide the basis for performance choices. Does the unusual meter call for music? A different physicality? How can actors emphasize the mysticism of what’s going on in those moments?
  • Staging Challenges: Titania’s Bower explores the opportunities presented by the early modern stage. When Titania falls asleep on stage, where can she be placed? She can’t be too much in the way of what’s going on, but she also needs to be close enough for Oberon to ensorcel her and for Bottom to wake her. Students will experiment with different options and determine which they think is most effective.
  • Perspectives: Courtship Rituals examines the social context of the romantic troubles in the play. How would Shakespeare’s audience have perceived Egeus’s ruthless inflexibility and Hermia’s defiance? What implications of pre-contracted betrothals are in the play?
  • Staging Challenges: Actors Playing Actors. The well-meant shenanigans of the Mechanicals can illuminate some potential clues about Shakespeare’s own theatrical world. In this activity, your students will first explore the rehearsal process that Quince, Bottom, and the rest display, and then will prepare their own production of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. We expect the result to be far more mirthful than tragical.
  • Perspectives: Fairies explores the changing nature of the fae in literature, from its darker origins in English folklore to the benign transformation effected by the Victorians and Disney. Students will choose a source as inspiration for costume design in their vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Textual Variants: Examines a curious difference in speech prefixes between the Quarto and Folio versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which I discussed in my last post).
  • Creative writing exercises based on the play, involving imitating Pyramus’s questionable poetry or giving relationship advice to one of the lovers
  • A guide to producing a 1-hour version of the play in your classroom

If you would like to purchase a downloadable copy of the study guide for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or any of our other available titles, please visit our website. Next up on the slate: Henry V.

Call Philostrate and/or Egeus

Working on the OCS Study Guide for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve had my first chance in a while to examine differences between Quarto and Folio versions of a text. Intern Kim Lenz prepared the Textual Variants section for the Hamlet study guide, and everything else I’ve worked on since the end of last season has been a text which only exists in the Folio. I knew that, looking at Midsummer, I wanted to find a Quarto/Folio variation, rather than looking at a choice made by modern editors. I found a great opportunity for exploration in 5.1, when Duke Theseus is debating who to select for the post-nuptial entertainment. In the Quarto edition of the text, Theseus reads off the list of potential entertainments and responds to himself. His servant Philostrate responds to the idea of watching the Mechanicals’ version of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe.’ In the Folio version of the text, however, Lysander reads off the list to Theseus, and Egeus attempts to dissuade him.

Quarto Version

Folio Version

What interested me about this isn’t just that the speech prefixes get reassigned — what I find particularly intriguing is that almost nothing else changes between the two versions. Throughout the conversation and the itemization of theatrical endeavors, most of the spellings and puncutation remain consistent between the editions. Even the least-orthodox of the spelling variations — “muſicke”, “Wee’l”, “tipſie”, “vſuall” — remain the same between the Quarto and the Folio. At Philostrate’s/Egeus’s speech beginning “A play there is,” inconsistencies begin to appear, but until that point, it looks as though whoever did the typesetting for the Folio copied the Quarto nearly identically — except for the prefixes.

The striking similarities in typesetting, despite the considerable change to the speech prefixes, really makes me wonder what the cause for that change was. Could this be an example of the Folio text reflecting a change to the play-as-produced? Somewhere between 1600 and 1623, did Shakespeare the author, or the King’s Men as a company, decide that the scene worked better as a dialogue between Lysander and Theseus? Did a new doubling mean that whoever played Philostrate in 1.1 could not be available for this section of text? This change seems too large and too deliberate to have been an error, since it involves not only reassigning speech prefixes but also breaking a monologue into a dialogue. There must have been a reason — but we’re not ever likely to find out what that reason was. This textual variant offers a tantalizing opportunity for speculation — just the sort of intellectual and imaginative experiment that makes working with early modern texts so intriguing.

Hamlet Study Guide now available

I am pleased and proud to announce that the Hamlet OCS Study Guide is now available for purchase online!Here is a ten-page preview, for your viewing enjoyment. This Study Guide covers the following:

  • Our Basics: getting students on their feet, giving them ownership of specific sections of text, exploring iambic pentameter and the rhythms of prose, discovering acting choices, paraphrasing, introductory level rhetoric, how to turn your classroom into an early modern stage, and the hidden guidance of embedded stage directions and audience contact
  • 15 questions your students will ask (Did Ophelia kill herself? Is Hamlet in love with his mother?) and how to deal with them.
  • Staging Challenges: Darkness — The opening scene of Hamlet is one of the best examples of how Shakespeare uses his staging conditions and the talents of his actors in order to set a mood. Your students will explore the information Shakespeare provides about how to “act darkness.”
  • Perspectives: Catching Consciences — Did early modern theatre improve the moral judgment of its audiences, or did it lead them into lives of sin? How did this viewpoint influence Hamlet’s attempt to learn Claudius’s guilt through The Mouse-trap? And how does media continue to influence behavior — or does it?
  • Staging Challenges: Heard and Overheard — Hamlet’s most famous monologue, “To be or not to be,” is not, as it often gets portrayed in media, a soliloquy. Ophelia, Claudius, and Polonius are all listening — but is Hamlet aware of that? Your students will explore the different opportunities presented by this scene and how those choices can affect the audience’s perception of Hamlet’s “antic disposition.”
  • Staging Challenges: Placed to the View — Hamlet ends in a bloodbath, so what do you do with all of those bodies left on stage? Your students will explore the staging of the play’s final moments, working through both the technical requirements and the emotional potential.
  • Rhetoric: Matter and Art — Polonius talks a lot, and how he says something is often as important as what he says. Your students will look in-depth at his use of two different rhetorical figures to examine what that can tell an actor about his character.
  • Textual Variants — Hamlet exists in several early modern editions, with notable variations between them. In this activity, your students will examine some differences between Quarto 1, the supposedly “bad” quarto, and the Folio-standard text.
  • Perspectives: Revenge Tragedies — Hamlet fits in with the popular early modern genre of the revenge tragedy, a tradition which gave the stage a number of bloody spectacles and philosophical quandries. Your students will explore Hamlet‘s similarities and differences to two other early modern revenge tragedies, The Spanish Tragedy and The Revenger’s Tragedy, looking at ghosts, poisoned skulls, and the on-stage presence of death.
  • Production Choices — How did Shakespeare’s company actually go through the process of putting on a play? How does the OCS negotiate those same challenges today? Your students will explore cutting a script, doubling, casting, and other technical aspects of production. This activity also includes instructions for producing a 1-hour version of the play in your classroom.

If you would like to purchase a downloadable PDF of the Hamlet Study Guide (or any of the others currently available), please visit our website. I’m plugging away at the guide for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I hope to have available soon!

Echoes and Ghosts

I had the good fortune last week to be able to watch a dress rehearsal for Henry V, which opens on the 16th. It got me thinking about the performance echoes that resonate in that building. I don’t mean the actual quality of the sound (although our wooden space is quite nice for that as well) — I mean the almost metaphysical residue of past performances, the ghosts floating along, superimposed over the present.

With our company, the echoes are always present in some form. It’s impossible not to encounter them, especially when you see all of the sixteen plays we present each year. The cast performs in ensemble and in repertory, the same actors in different plays not just in the same season, but often returning year-to-year. When you’ve seen them take on dozens of roles, there are always some funny quips or interesting comparisons to draw. Watching Henry V, however, there were two moments that struck me particularly hard. They seem to echo a bit louder than they might otherwise, thanks to the Rise and Fall of Kings series that the OCS has been producing for the past few years. The characters in Henry V exist not in isolation, but stretching back, into the Henry IVs, which we’ve produced in our Fall Seasons since 2008, and forward, into the Henry VIs, which have been part of our Actors’ Renaissance Seasons since 2009. This, I think, is the real benefit to doing the history cycles the way we’ve done them: the connections weave in and out of each other, creating a richer and more complex theatrical experience than seeing any one of those plays in isolation would be.

The first moment which pulled at those threads for me was almost at the very beginning of the play, in Henry’s first scene, when he enters and takes unquestioned command of his surroundings. His nobles fall in ranks behind him, and he sits in the throne with full and unwavering ownership of it. Gregory Jon Phelps plays Henry for us in this production, and this scene reminded me, immediately and strikingly, of watching him play Henry VI earlier this year, in Henry VI, Part 3 during our Actors’ Renaissance Season. The visual made for a striking contradiction: bold, assured, confident Henry V versus weak, uncertain, yielding Henry VI. Henry VI never seemed comfortable in his throne, never quite gave off that aura that he knew, in his marrow, that it was his. Henry V has no doubt. Even when he contemplates what it means to be a king, what burdens that means he has to bear, he doesn’t question what he is. There’s a grounded certainty to Henry V that his successor lacks. With Phelps playing both of those roles in the same year, they both, in a way, exist on stage at the same time. Trailing along beside Henry V is the faint shadow of his yet-unborn, but already-seen, son.

The other moment which I thought striking was Fluellen, played by James Keegan, in the following exchange:

I speak but in the figures and comparisons of it: as
Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his
ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in
his right wits and his good judgments, turned away
the fat knight with the great belly-doublet: he
was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and
mocks; I have forgot his name.

Sir John Falstaff.

That is he.

There’s something both sad and a little alarming there — because, of course, Keegan played Falstaff for us the past two years, in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The line “I have forgot his name” would be meaningful from any actor, at least for anyone who’s seen the Henry IV plays — because who could forget a character John Falstaff? But to have that line come from the mouth of the actor who played Falstaff, who laid down his stuffed doublet in the epilogue, saying, “This is not the man,” it’s somehow that much more poignant. It helps, too, that Gower is played by Allison Glenzer, who also plays Mistress Quickly (and has done in the earlier shows in this history cycle as well). The moment of vague remembrance here, towards the end of the play, recalls the earlier scene when Quickly, Pistol, Nim, Bardolph, and the Boy mourn Falstaff, weeping and laughing and telling tales. Falstaff’s ghost hovers more prominently than does Henry VI’s, because Shakespeare wrote the awareness of his death into the play — but Keegan as Fluellen augments that memento mori tremendously.

These intangible connections between shows are part of why I always hope that students will come to see us not just for one play, but over and over again — I think if they can watch the ghosts, as I do, and see the same actors doing something completely different, they’ll realize more fully how the magic of theatre lies not solely in the text, flat on the page, but in those words given life by the relationship created by an actor’s skill and an audience’s attention.

One if by PDF, Two if by Print

The study guides are coming, the study guides are coming!

Not just yet, but hopefully we’ll be rolling out the first two new study guides, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, sometime in the next week or so. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, and Richard III will follow between now and mid-October. Last year’s guides were already an upgrade from our previous offerings, but this year, we’ve expanded the material even further. Our Basics section now includes in-depth instructions on getting students intimately familiar with their text and how it works, with lessons on scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, working with the audience, and transforming your classroom into an early modern stage. My favorite concept that goes along with these lessons is Line Assignments. We’re encouraging teachers to give each students a segment of text, between 25 and 100 lines, depending on the student’s skill level, to take ownership of during their Shakespeare unit. Teachers have their own Line Assignments — the first 100 lines of the play, to use as examples and for group exploration. Those are the segments I used in my previous posts on scansion and Wordles earlier this summer.

Beyond the Basics, we’re thinking more critically and creatively than ever about how to get students engaging with the text up on its feet. Staging Challenges in Julius Caesar examine mob dynamics and how Shakespeare crafts the feeling of unpredictable violence into the script. We also examine the visually striking moments surrounding Caesar’s assassination and the conspirators dipping their hands in his blood — and what important character choices that blood can reveal. In Hamlet, we look at playing darkness, at the impact of realizing that Hamlet’s most famous speech is not actually a soliloquy, but overheard by several people, and at the challenge of dealing with all those dead bodies left on stage at the end of the play. We also examine Perspectives, to help students link the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and our modern world. In Julius Caesar, this means looking at adaptation throughout the ages, whether it’s Shakespeare borrowing from Plutarch or Christopher Nolan rebooting Batman, as well as examining ideals of honor and virtue. In Hamlet, we examine revenge tragedies, then and now, and their vicariously vengeful appeal, as well as the idea of media influencing behavior, whether it’s a conscience-catching play or a violent video game.

Our Study Guides will be available for purchase online soon — and they’ll always be included as a perk of our Teacher Seminars and of bringing your class to a student matinee. In the meantime, you can see a sneak-peek 10-page preview of the Julius Caesar Study Guide on our website.

Wandering through Wordles

As one of the activities in our Study Guides, we ask students to examine closely Shakespeare’s vocabulary — because what they’ll discover is that it actually isn’t as alien as they fear. Shakespeare’s language is their language, not antiquated, not Old English, not in need of translation. One of the ways we introduce this idea to students, in our Study Guides as well as in workshops and lectures, is through the Wordle. The Wordle program allows you to create a visual representation of a speech, a scene, or even an entire play, if you’re so inclined. The more times a word appears in the text, the larger that word will be relative to others on the page. Wordle automatically excludes articles and most pronouns (though it doesn’t recognize “thou” as a pronoun). Wordles help to show students that Shakespeare’s language is not really that far removed from their own — typically students are hard-pressed to find unfamiliar words in the bunch, apart from character or place names. What makes Shakespeare “difficult” is not the vocabulary, but rather the syntax and word order, the way he constructs his ideas, and that is almost always to a purpose (which we explore further in the rhetoric section of the Study Guides). Wordles can also provide an insight into other aspects of the language, especially if you look at a single speech or a smaller portion of a scene. They might point to a dominating concept or idea. They might tell you what characters are the focus of the selection. They can even impart a sense of mood, based on the vocabulary — on whether there are a lot of names, or an abundance of informal pronouns, or almost entirely active verbs.

To help teachers with this idea, we created Wordles for the first 100 lines of each of the plays I’m building a guide for this year. So far, I’ve taken a good, close look at Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry V. When preparing the text for conversion, I edited out the speech prefixes and stage directions, so that the Wordle would include only those words that the audience hears. I was surprised, looking at some of them, to see what that exercise told me about the first five minutes of these plays. In many cases, it’s easy to see just what the focus of the scene is — who’s important, what they’re talking about, what issues are at stake. These Wordles crystallize the ways in which Shakespeare introduces the audience to the world he’s bringing them into.

First: Julius Caesar, which opens with two tribunes, Flavius and Marcellus, attempting to scatter plebeians who have gathered to watch Caesar’s triumphal parade. The Wordle gives a clue as to the nature of the struggle in the scene:

The two largest words are “thou” and “sir” — indicating, just at a glance, that the conversational partners are not of equal social status. “Sir” is a term of respect (even if it might be sarcastically delivered), and “thou” indicates informality, either to an intimate or an inferior. The juxtaposition with “sir” would make me think, even if I didn’t know who the characters were, that this “thou” marks a status distinction, not intimacy. The next biggest word is “Caesar” — unsurprising, since even though he does not have the bulk of the play’s lines, he is the focus of the play’s action. Everything that happens in it derives from his actions, his importance, his dominance over Rome. The audience hears his names many times before he even appears on the stage.

Next, in Hamlet, the largest words give a fairly good indication of the mood of the opening scene:

Horatio is the highest-ranking person in the first scene, but, unlike with Caesar, the repetition of his name does not directly reflect his status or relative importance. Instead, it stems from Barnardo and Marcellus calling on him to interact with the Ghost, pushing him forward as the earthly representative to their supernatural visitor (an element I’ve always found highly humorous). Another interesting thing to do with this Wordle is to go through and pick out all the words related to some sort of sensory perception: look, hear, speak, eyes, appear, etc. Deprived of sight in this dark scene, the characters nonetheless seem obsessed with seeing and visions — but they also compensate for the impairment of one sense by relying heavily on another. This scene is also full of imperatives, as the Wordle shows — all of the characters issue commands. Taken together, these clues provide insight into the pace and mood of the first scene.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Wordle for the first 100 lines reveals that the issues at stake are all about people and how they relate to each other:

Several names feature prominently: Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia — and many of the other large words describe relationships: father, child, wed, marry, love. Right from the start, this play is a tangled mess of who relates to whom (and who would like to). I’m also intrigued by the relatively large size of the word “may” — a word that could mean so many things. In this scene, I believe it refers both to permission and to possibility — what Hermia may do, as allowed by her father, the duke, and Athenian law, and what may happen in the future, whether she obeys those rulings or not.

The Henry V Wordle, by contrast, is interesting to me not for what it reveals about the play, but for what it conceals:

This is the only Wordle out of the set I’ve been working with where I wouldn’t immediately know which play it’s from just by glancing at it. No names feature prominently — a stark contrast to the three previous examples. Still, the Wordle does give you a sense of the matter at hand through the two larges words: “king” and “like.” The first 100 lines of Henry V covers both the Chorus’s prologue and about 60-odd lines of the opening conversation between the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely. Both the prologue and the dialogue concern themselves with one main topic: what is the king like? What did he used to be like, and what is he like now? Both the Chorus and the Bishops offer the audience any number of analogies and examples with florid vocabulary — the reason why there seem to be fewer larger words here than in the other Wordles. The vocabulary of the first 100 lines of Henry V is more diverse than in the other plays I’ve looked at so far.

Wordles aren’t a catch-all. They won’t always cut straight to the matter or offer particularly valuable insights, and they certainly shouldn’t become a substitute for actually studying the lines of the play and looking at the words in context. They can, however, be a useful supplementary tool, providing avenues of creative exploration. For this reason, we recommend them to teachers, to help combat ShakesFear in their students — and I recommend them as an interesting graphical toy to any readers who are always looking for new ways to play around with the text.

Scansion Discoveries

I have begun work in earnest on the OCS Study Guides for the 2011-2012 artistic year. One of my first projects has been formulating our “Basics” section, the building-block skills of exploring Shakespeare: scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, using the stage, and using the audience.

As part of this process, and in conjunction with OCS Education’s intention to develop Unit Plans for teachers to follow, I’m preparing the first 100 lines out of each play as an example of the Basics for the teachers. I just completed the scansion for all six of the plays I’m building Study Guides for this summer — Hamlet, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, and Much Ado about Nothing, from our upcoming artistic year, plus Julius Caesar as a bonus. Doing these small blocks of text has reminded me why scansion is so important. It illuminates so many subtleties that could easily pass a reader or an actor by otherwise, and many of those distinctions give actors choices and opportunities to work with.

The first scene of Julius Caesar volleys between verse and prose, as Flavius and Murellus chastise the plebeians who have decked out for Caesar’s triumph. The interesting bits of scansion here are subtle, but crucial. Some telling pronouns fall into stressed positions — Murellus and Flavius stress “you” and “thou” more than is typical, indicating their accusatory tone. These instances could also give an actor the opportunity to single out an audience member: “Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft / Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements.” The first 100 lines bleed over into 1.2, and the oddity I noticed there is something that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not, but either way, it amused me: Caesar uses an awful lot of caesuras (mid-line breaks). This doesn’t seem to be any key character indication, and I haven’t scanned enough of the play to know if the trend continues past the first few lines of 1.2, but, if this was intentional on Shakespeare’s part, I think it’s a pretty cute joke.

The most interesting thing about the first 100 lines of Hamlet, at least from a metrical perspective, are the number of shared and short lines. In many places, characters — particularly Barnardo and Marcellus — share lines, especially when discussing the Ghost or questioning Horatio. In some instances, the split occurs mid-foot, which indicates that the second speaker’s line really has to follow rapidly upon the first’s. In other places, the shared lines, put together, form an alexandrine — a 12-syllable line — which could indicate some overlap in speech. These lines have to come quickly, and that, in turn, creates the sense of panic, right on the edge of hysteria, that the watchmen experience when the Ghost appears. In contrast, in other parts of the scene, some lines fall short, indicating the potential for a pause. These irregularities seem to work with the darkness of the scene, allowing space for the watchmen to confirm identities when someone new enters. The other significant short lines fall around the Ghost’s entrance and exit, which makes me wonder if those breaks leave room for the trap opening, or for some special effect.

Henry V opens not with a scene, but with a prologue. The speech is a little trochee-heavy, but other than that, there’s not much irregular about it. The scansion does bring out some sly little delivery indications, however. Consider the following lines:

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?

The stressed “this” interests me because it places such immediacy on the physical space in which the actor delivers these lines — all the more intriguing when you consider that Henry V was probably the first play performed at the Globe. In the new building, reconstructed from the stolen framework of the Theatre, Shakespeare puts the stage itself foremost in his audience’s mind during this prologue. I also like the stressed “can,” which puts such strong emphasis on that question. An actor could do a lot with that little stressed “can” — it could be a real concern, with the actor looking to the audience for support, or it could be cheeky, a tease. The prologue is full of these little gems, and they’re particularly great when performing Henry V in an early modern space. The words call attention to the inherent qualities of the space and the staging conditions, giving the prologue a layer of meaning which loses force in a production that relies on elaborate sets and lighting designs. I don’t have as much to say about the 1.1 portion of the first 100 lines, except that Canterbury’s lines require some really odd elisions in order to scan something resembling normally. I would be interested to see if this remains true in his infamous “Salic law” speech in 1.2.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first thing I noticed is that while Egeus retains regular meter while he’s talking to or about Demetrius, his scansion suddenly goes wild whenever he has to talk to or about Lysander. Hermia, meanwhile, is the only character who remains perfectly regular throughout the scene (or, at least, throughout the first 100 lines). Her father is threatening her with death, the ruling Duke is telling her her only other option is a nunnery, her boyfriend is about three seconds away from engaging in fisticuffs with her father’s favored suitor, and yet Hermia remains completely composed. Those are both great clues for actors. Something about Lysander, clearly, just rubs Egeus the wrong way, to the point that he can no longer control his speech patterns. As for Hermia, it gives the actress a great choice to make — Is she just so sure of herself that she can remain entirely unflustered, or is she so scared that she’s gone numb, and can only allow herself to express emotion once her father, Demetrius, and Theseus have left the stage?

The scene as a whole also has a higher than usual percentage of stressed pronouns, in a way that focuses a lot of attention on possession, particularly of Hermia, but also of love, desire, and rights. Egeus can’t stress enough times that Hermia is his property: “As she | is mine, I may dispose of her” … “And what is mine my love shall render him. / And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.” Lysander and Demetrius throw some stressed “him”s and “his”es around as they jockey for the Duke’s favor, while Hermia stresses her right to full knowledge of her circumstances, and ultimately, her right to make her own decision, whatever the consequences: “But I beseech your grace that I may know / The worst that may befall me in this case, / If I refuse to wed Demetrius.” The high number of stressed pronouns in the scene subtly underscores the interpersonal conflicts driving the plot.

In the opening of Richard III, the only thing that seems regular is the irregularity. Richard’s verse halts and limps as much as he does — or is it just that he disdains the proper way of speaking as much as everything else? His most frequent variants seem to be feminine endings, alexandrines (6-foot lines), and oddly-placed trochees — as though, while telling us that he is “deformed, unfinished… scarce half made up,” he compensates by cramming his lines full of extra syllables. Many lines have more than one irregularity, as in “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes,” which piles a spondee, a mid-line trochee, and a caesura together. There are also many lines with ambiguities, that could easily scan more than one way. Bardweb’s analysis and mine, for example, disagree on several points, largely because I try to stick to the iambs wherever possible, and they’re a bit free with the pyrrhics. Even with conservative application, however, there are still far more pyrrhic-spondee combinations and more mid-line trochees than seem usual. I’ve also never wished I believed in medial stresses as much as when working with this speech. The discrepancies, though, leave room for choice, depending on what an actor wants to emphasis in performance. The opening of this play is definitely one of those moments when there is no single right answer, just myriad possibilities.

As for Much Ado about Nothing — Well, its first 100 lines are in prose, like most of the play, so I didn’t have any scanning to do there. That doesn’t mean I won’t have plenty to get into with the other Basics, though, so Much Ado fans (like myself) have plenty to look forward to as my work continues.

Preview: The Playhouse Insider – Summer 2011

Summer at the American Shakespeare Center is an exciting time, with two troupes in rehearsal, preparing three seasons’ worth of new shows. The Summer issue of The Playhouse Insider will offer readers an exclusive look at the making of the eight plays that comprise these seasons. The issue will be on sale in the Box Office or by mail order in a few weeks, but for now, I thought I would give our blog readers a special preview of what will be in the issue.

In this issue, our Artists section features two directors and two actors. First, Nick Hutchison shares his experiences directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the OCS back in 2004. Producing Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play presents different challenges in an early modern space like the Blackfriars Playhouse, and not all of them stem from Wilde’s expectation of lights and dropped curtains. The text also asks different things of actors and directors: “Where Shakespeare has unfathomable depths, Oscar is all surface, and rejoices in the fact. Start to try and analyse the text as you would in Shakespeare, and it doesn’t work, but when you luxuriate in its brittle elegance, its superficial brilliance, it comes alive, clearly and hilariously.” Hutchison confesses that he was initially skeptical of Earnest‘s playability on the Blackfriars stage, but that he ultimately found that “the play doesn’t just survive the transfer to the Blackfriars but rejoices in it.”

Our second director’s piece comes from our own Ralph Alan Cohen, who will be directing Henry V for the Fall season. Cohen explains his admiration for the play he describes as “an odd work.” He sees Henry V as Shakespeare’s first experiment with deconstruction and as his “great essay on the power of an audience.” After all, the Chorus explicitly instructs the audience on what they will have to do with their imaginations to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Cohen sees this play as Shakespeare saying to his viewers: “Here are some Lego pieces – a bunch of well-written speeches and a few great, stand-alone scenes. Make a play, Audience, have some fun.”

Rounding out the Artists’ section, touring troupe actors Rick Blunt and Denice Burbach share their experiences of life out on the road. They discuss issues both professional and personal, from the challenges and opportunities for discovery presented by having to adapt to new spaces to the sense of community they build in towns across the country, from the reality of living out of a single suitcase to the great adventure of traveling the United States. The Almost Blasphemy Tour takes off for the first leg of their run in September, returning to the Playhouse for the holiday season in December. Summing up their experiences on tour, both Rick and Denice express that the process is an ongoing one, a continual process of learning and of change. Rick says that he continually strives to discover “how to get better, how to be better,” while Denice states, “It’s unlike any job you will ever have in your life. I forget sometimes how unique a path we’ve chosen.” For ongoing details on where the tour is headed, friend us on Facebook or check out “OCS on Tour” on our website.

Since the OCS focuses so strongly on research and education, we ask leading minds in the field to share their thoughts on our upcoming plays in our Scholars section. Roslyn Knutson, Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Arkansas and President of the Marlowe Society. Knutson shares what makes Tamburlaine so fOCSinating for her, from the visually striking stage moments to the challenge of a modern actor who must “negotiate with [Edward] Alleyn’s ghost” in performing this larger-than-life role. Tamburlaine is Knutson’s hero, she says, because “his exceptionalism is not just the testosterone of Marlowe’s mighty line. It is also the charisma of the over-achiever.”

Our second scholar is our own Christina Sayer Grey, who examines the storytelling patterns in Shakespeare’s Romances, two of which the OCS will have in production this year (The Tempest, opening June 24th, and The Winter’s Tale in the Almost Blasphemy tour). As Grey explicates, the thread that links the Romances is “a shared concern with the stories of lapses in historicized time – the space between something being lost and its being found, the time between Before and After.” While The Tempest and Cymbeline dramatize only the gap itself, Pericles provides a triptych of Before, During, and After, and The Winter’s Tale shows a diptych of Before and After. Grey examines how these different structures bend the typical expectations of Comedy and Tragedy, creating the nebulous generic classification of the Romances.

Finally, our Audiences section in this issue focuses on our student audiences. Two teachers, Kerry Kisa of Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, VA, and Linda Nicholson of Highland Springs High School in Henrico, VA discuss how bringing students to see shows at the Blackfriars Playhouse and using the OCS methods of teaching through performance has enriched their learning experience. Kisa describes how her students last year explored the staging of Othello, arguing over the intricacies of bed placement and actor blocking. “As I stood watching my students quarrel over the scene, I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’ve got them.'” Nicholson talks about the “Blackfriars Fever” that has taken over her school, where students scramble to be the first to sign up for field trips to the Playhouse. “One young lady told me she went the first time as a means of missing classes, but after the show, she wanted to hide in the bathroom and live in the playhouse.” While we’re pretty sure the Playhouse staff would have some strong opinions about that, we love the enthusiasm! Both Kisa and Nicholson share their students’ opinions about an active exploration of Shakespeare in their own words, and it’s wonderful to see how much they’re enjoying what they once dismissed as boring or irrelevant. If you’re a teacher who would like to bring your students to the Blackfriars Playhouse, read up about our matinees or contact Group Sales Manager Ben Ratkowski.

Putting this issue together has me excited for what’s coming up at the Playhouse over the next few months, and I hope it will imbue all of you with the same eager anticipation. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the issue goes on sale — look for the announcement early in July.

"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!

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.