Alright, Let’s Play

With Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations right around the corner (the known world tends to celebrate on April 23rd though we can only guess at the precise date; this year Shakespeare turns 450!), it’s natural to find a resurgence of Shakespeare-related ephemera on the internet.  This year, a friend of mine unearthed the following buzzfeed article which, in the proud tradition of internet take-downs (and, since I’m a professional paladin of the Bard), I’m going to take a moment to address.

The article’s author, Krystie Lee Yandoll, relates her traumatic childhood experiences with Shakespeare which lead to her adult disdain for the playwright.  Well, Krystie, let’s get real for a few minutes.

I can understand hating Hamlet in sixth grade and, in fact, I wonder at the wisdom of the teacher who presented it to you at that young tender age.  While I have every firm belief in the intellectual capacity of kids, with very few exceptions forced middle school readings of Shakespeare can be nothing but a horrible memory.  I apologize on behalf of Shakespeare professionals everywhere that this was your first experience with the Bard.

But your continued adherence to a blind hatred is nothing less than juvenile.  You go on to explain why reading Taming of the Shrew in high school didn’t appeal to you.  You say, “sure, it’s reflective of the time period it was written in — racial, gender, and sexual equality hadn’t yet reached 16th century England — but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to relish in what I interpret to be Shakespeare’s inherent sexism. If I don’t like reading modern stories and authors that perpetuate sexist ideals about gender, love, and marriage, why should I make an exception for Shakespeare?”  First of all, let’s get something straight; you cannot project your contemporary feminist ideals anachronistically onto a playwright whose worldview had no place for them.  You concede this, but continue on to violate your own conceit.  Stick to your preliminary guns on this one; your first instinct is the right one.

Second, who says that Taming of the Shrew perpetuates sexist ideals?  I would argue that that play portrays men as nothing less than cruel inhuman monsters.  Petruchio is the worst conception of a man when first we meet him and grows only slightly better by the end of the play.  Your determination to hate everything about this has blinded you to the facts: instead of looking at the spark notes, you should have read deeper.  Alright, perhaps you weren’t capable of this in high school, but you’re an adult now.  You can go underneath the text to project different theoretical lenses onto a piece and use your critical thinking skills to uncover readings that were previously not available to you.  But you didn’t do that; and by not doing that, you continue to spout a narrow point of view on the matter which isn’t flattering to your mental capacities.  Unpacking this information to satisfy your modern bias could lead to something more; don’t just give up and cry that this is horrible.

You continue on to claim: “The dominant narrative is, more often than not, determined by society’s elite. I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal.”

There’s a couple problems with this statement.  First and foremost: Shakespeare was neither old nor rich at the time he began his career.  Though he eventually became both (… “old” is still debatable since he died at the age of 52), you can’t project the future onto the past.

Secondly, you’re completely ignoring the history of Shakespeare in the United States (and, for that matter, England).  Shakespeare has always been a people’s playwright; from the groundlings who saw the shows during the seventeenth century, through to the groundlings who see them today.  Nineteenth century America was essentially a hotbed of popular culture Shakespeare.  He was a staple in vaudeville, hugely popular amongst minstrel acts, and stories run rampant about cowboys reciting Macbeth and forty niners walking hours to get to a play at night.  It wasn’t society’s elite that made Shakespeare into The Bard; it was common man (especially here in America).

Third, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything antiquated about Shakespeare “ideologies about society”; we still deal with tyrants (in government and our personal lives), we still deal with warring families (though perhaps not as bad as the Lear or Gloucester families), we still deal with social norms about marriage (when was the last time you saw a debate online about same-sex marriage?  And when was the last time you saw a progressively-cast version of Midsummer?)  Take a closer look and come back to argue when you have some hard evidence.  I’ll be happy to entertain your notions when you actually know what you’re talking about.

You reveal that “every time someone brings up Macbeth or The Tempest, I feel like I have a knot in my stomach because all I ever wanted in the world is to be taken seriously as a writer and lover of literature, and I never thought that could happen if I admitted to my disdain for Shakespeare.”  Frankly, it’s not your disdain for Shakespeare that makes me not take you seriously as a writer; it’s your disdain for the facts and critical thinking.  If this were a well-argued piece, I would have applauded you.  Instead, all I can see is a narrow-minded rant about why your scaring childhood experiences have prevented you from widening your focus to attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon.

You don’t have to like Shakespeare; but if you’re going to argue about him you do have to understand him.

Breaking News: The Internet is Here to Stay

Over the weekend, my dearest friend and I celebrated the silly holiday by attending a performance at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum.  The performance was a staged reading called “Unfeigned Love: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams” and it was, essentially, everything you might think from that title.  Some very apt performers played the parts of John and Abigail and, with the help of a narrator, led the audience through a tour of this great couple’s love via the contents of their letters.

The performance was well done and enjoyable, but I took great issue with something the

The stage-setting for our performance on the evening

The stage-setting for our performance on the evening

narrator said in a nearly-offhand moment of his tale.  At one moment, the narrator chose to ask his audience what their legacy would be; when had they last put pen to paper?  When had they last spent time crafting a letter rather than composing via keys and screen?  “Real” letters, his rhetoric ran, were much more lasting than the fleeting updates one places on the internet and digital technologies cannot be trusted for information permanency.

This fallacy is one which I combat on a daily basis.  Distrust of technology is notorious and rampant; people seem to think that things put on the internet simply fizzle into thin air.  Because these things are not tangible, they are not permanent.  The paper letter is superior in form and longevity.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong mister narrator.  Just…. So very wrong.

Let me put it to you this way: how often do we warn our children against the dangers of putting things on the world wide web where they can be found?  How often do we caution the eager youth against rampant facebook posting for fear that it may be brought to bear against them at some point later in their career?  (say… when looking for a job…?)  Information put online, I would argue, is more permanent and more public than any single piece of paper knowledge crafted since the dawn of the digital age.

So let’s go through these false notions one step at a time: the fallacy would have us believe that digital information is fleeting, impermanent, impersonal, and inferior to something written on a piece of paper.  Additionally, digital communications are entirely replacing hand-written correspondence.

Digital media is far from consumable.  It is nearly impossible to well and truly wipe a hard drive of all traces of information, and doing so requires special equipment (…rare earth magnets, for instance).  Data stored “in the cloud” is actually (generally) stored in physical form at a data center with one (or several) points of redundancy.  Public-facing websites are also considered something of public domain; once the information is available, anyone is free to access or archive it (and people do).  In essence: to erase every trace of something off the internet, you would have to hunt down every physical copy of whatever it is you are looking to destroy, and utilize an obscure process to clean the multiple machines upon which it is stored (generally in more than one physical location).  That doesn’t sound consumable to me.

And how about the notion that gmail auto-archives all of my outward correspondence?  I can’t say that about the paper letters I’ve received and sent.  The truth is that a hand-written note is much more likely to be lost in the shuffle or otherwise destroyed by the ravages of time than a digital one.

Oh and paper is really easy to destroy.  Just ask the good librarians at Alexandria.

As for the impersonal nature of digital media, I will grant you that computer interfaces can often seem cold.  Who hasn’t bemoaned the lack of a “sarcasm font” on one occasion or another?  But I will say that a healthy digital presence can tell more about a person than almost anything else.  Do you want to know who I am?  Then read my blog in conjunction with my twitter feed; google my name and you’ll find pictures of me as well as stories about me scattered through cyberspace; you can even find youtube videos of me doing various things if you want to hear my voice.  Don’t you think that will get you closer to me than a letter can?  The internet allows for a variety of expression that, before the digital age, were all but a dream.  So sure, maybe one brief e-mail isn’t as heartfelt as a gushing hand-drawn letter, but you can’t take the letter out of its context.

Also; the ship was REALLY pretty on the water.

Also; the ship was REALLY pretty on the water.

As for digital correspondence completely replacing the “superior letter”, it will only do so if the individual allows it to.  Despite writing a blog, various e-mails, text messages, social media updates, and all kinds of pixilated content in my day-to-day life, I still maintain a long-term pen pal connection to several of my close friends.  Additionally, even this week I took the time to write my best beloved a hand-written note, sent by old-fashioned post, in celebration of Hallmark’s Holiday.  E-mails don’t kill letter writing; people refusing to write letters kills letter writing.

And, for the record, digital technologies will only make the job of future historians an easier task.  Can I please tell you how much simpler it is to search digitized archives than it is to page through stacks of broadsides or (even worse) hand-written letters?  It’s a true joy to handle written material, but it is (by no stretch of the word) “easy” and I’m certain that much more gets lost in the cracks.

So on the whole, “Unfeigned Love” was an enjoyable event.  I would, however, rather like the historians at Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum to reconsider their stance on digital technologies.  There’s no reason to privilege the written word and put down the typed one; especially since social media makes great (free) advertising.  Encourage your audience to tweet, facebook, and blog to their friends; not forsake the evil computer for the romance of the fountain pen.

For the Children

As you may or may not recall, I’ve just come off a project at the Charlestown Working Theatre.  It has been my pleasure to fight direct their Advanced Youth Ensemble’s production of Macbeth.  The show opens on Saturday the first and runs weekends through the ninth (for more information, check out the CWT website).  This production has given me the opportunity to think about a great many things (not the least of which being “What’s the best way to kill a child, but not the infant he’s carrying, onstage?”; “How badass are the Banquos?”; and “If I were the King of Scotland, what would my signature broadsword move be?”).  One of the more poignant issues came up the other day in rehearsal, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss it.

This show is a production with teens.  The cast is (mostly) aged 13-18.  CWT plays host to several youth programs for children of varying ages and it’s truly a family place.  As a result, the director mentioned to me that she has been asked by parents if this show is appropriate for their younger children.

Alright, look.  Macbeth is a violent show that deals with adult themes.  Depending on the production company and the director’s imagination, sometimes the show is more violent than other times.  This version of Macbeth happens to be “bloodless” (by this I mean that, while murders are staged, we are not using blood or gore effects) and the violence is relatively straightforward (the murders are “clean” without being psychotic or sociopathic; the murderers take no apparent relish in their task but rather perform it as a duty).  Honestly, I think that this Macbeth is extremely appropriate for children of a certain age.

 

Me working with the cast.  Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Me working with the Macbeth cast (specifically Macbeth and Young Siward). Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Because bad things do happen in the world; and sometimes they happen to good people.  There isn’t a single news channel that wouldn’t show coverage similar to what we’re producing onstage.  This world is not always a safe place to be, and coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.

We go to the theatre to be transformed.  The old adage that philosophers unto ancient times have touted is that good theatre is meant to educate and entertain.  What better way to teach your children about violence than to expose them to violent acts in a safe space, where no one will really get hurt, and where the consequences are reversible?  Will young children feel disturbed by what they see in Macbeth?  I hope so.  If you can witness these kind of deeds without feeling some kind of stirring in your gut, then I don’t think you’re fit for humanity.  But what a teaching moment for them; what a place to learn is a theatre.

Besides which, there’s nothing we are showing that they can’t see in to even greater extreme on television, in movies, or in video games.  Did you know that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985?  I’ve seen enough faceless murder victims on the big screen to know that killing isn’t a thing Hollywood takes seriously.  Blood, gore, assault… these are issues which we should be discussing with our children.  And, luckily, they are issues which Shakespeare takes seriously.  I think that Macbeth is a learning opportunity.  It’s an outlet for conversation about some BIG TOUGH issues which are and are not pieces of our daily lives.  Because, let’s face it, even though we are confronted with depictions of violence on an almost-daily basis, how often do we talk about it?

So I encourage you to take the opportunity that theatre has presented.  Teach your children about violence in a meaningful way in hopes that they can come to respect it and, in turn, realize how impactful it can be.  And, hey, maybe come see Macbeth.  Just to find out what that signature move I invented might be.

Back Into the Fray

First of all: hi!  I’m back!  My much-needed break was much-needed, but being back is a vital portion of keeping myself afloat with my studies.  While I was away, I came across several things that I think would make great posts (don’t worry, those ideas are all safely tucked away under my cap), but none that made me more angry than this blog post I stumbled across while mucking about on facebook.

Paul Mullin is a Seattle-based self-professed “recovering playwright”.  And apparently in 2011 he had some things to say about my man Will.  Let’s start here: go read Mullin’s post; otherwise what I’m about to say is not going to make any sense.

Mullin writes with all the bitterness of a contemporary playwright whose works have been sidelined for more “classical” material.  One of the many things I took issue with in this blog is the tacit assumption that Shakespeare is, in Mullin’s words, a “cash cow” that theatres return to in order to support their other repertory.  This is, at least in this country, absolutely not the case.  Except for very rare circumstances (most of those being Shakespeare-specific companies), Shakespeare is not a moneymaker.  If you want to look at cash cows, cast your gaze to the American musical.  I guarantee you that the odd foray into Grease or Rent will gross a theatre more dollars than the pet-project Hamlet.

A pretty shot of the lobby at Trinity Rep.  Because I've got nothing else to put here, and I love this picture I managed to get.

A pretty shot of the lobby at Trinity Rep. Because I’ve got nothing else to put here, and I love this picture I managed to get.

Next; let’s tackle Mullin’s primary thesis: “Shakespeare would hate us”.  In Mullin’s world, Shakespeare comes via time machine (DeLorean, TARDIS, or otherwise) to the twenty-first century, stays for a while, and has a few things to say about the theatre scene here.  All of them are bad.  Shakespeare, contends Mullin, would hate everything about being a working American playwright and many things about the theatre scene in general.

The bottom line is this: Shakespeare would have no sense of perspective about the twenty-first century American Theatre scene, even if he could somehow magically be transported here to stay for a while.  There is nothing about any of the things that Mullin takes issue with via his Shakespeare avatar that Shakespeare could have even hoped to fathom as making sense.  Saying that Shakespeare would hate us is like saying that Jane Austen was a feminist – there is no cultural context for these people from their own times to have the modern interpretations of opinion which we impress upon them from our 20/20 historical hindsight.  The world, after all, has changed a lot in the past four hundred years.

These kinds of arguments (and I see my fair share of them) recursively glamourize the same unchanging past that they strive to break free from.  By romanticizing the Bardic Avatar, we create a Shakespeare who judges from his untouched perch at the heart of historical perfection.  By putting the ultimate judgment about our theatre today in the hands of a long-dead playwright, we give that playwright the authority over our theatre.  In this way, we privilege Shakespeare’s stage as some kind of perfection which we have strayed away from.  This, you will note, is exactly what Mullin is explicitly attempting to fight as the first half of his post is dedicated to establishing a theatre outside of Shakespeare.  In struggling to remove the agency from Shakespeare’s hands, Mullin strays right back to them.

Another issue I have with this article is a purely historical one.  Mullin’s facts are, for the most part, blatantly wrong.  His assumptions are formed around some few elementary notions about the Elizabethan theatre which don’t hold up to careful scrutiny: that all Elizabethan playwrights were actors (not the case; Thomas Kyd and John Lyly just to name a few off the cuff who put pen to page but never acted professionally), that Shakespeare spoke as eloquently as he wrote (where can we even begin to prove this?  Anecdotal evidence: does everyone you know speak exactly like they write?), that “new” plays were and ought to be privileged over “old” plays in Elizabeth’s London (… because the Elizabethans surely didn’t worship old material.. you know… like any of the stuff they ripped plots from on a regular basis).

What really gets me going is when people try to put words in Will’s mouth.  Mullin’s most

Adventuring in Boston

Adventuring in Boston

blatant instance of this occurs when he claims: “Shakespeare may have envied his social superiors, but he also knew at his core he was better than them”…. Uh…. What?  I can’t even fathom where the seed of this information is coming from.  How is it even possible to ascertain this from the few facts we have about Shakespeare’s life, none of which come from Shakespeare himself?  Making any statement about how Shakespeare “felt” about anything is far-fetched at best, but this is flat out fantastical thinking worthy of a set of wings and a magic wand.

So can we stop dredging him up to put words in his mouth?  Can we talk about him and not for him?  Meaningful conversation can only be placed upon a firm foundation of fact.  Lacking that, all we have is opinion.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for someone to unearth Shakespeare’s diary from the bindings of some age-old book; but until then let’s not speak for him.  It’ll only anger his already-restless spirit and make him devour us all-the-quicker when he takes over the world as a super zombie (…hey, if you can fantasize about Shakespeare’s afterlife, then so can I).

Rejuvenated

I have just returned from Shakespeare Camp and OH MAN am I excited.

In this case, “Shakespeare Camp” is the 2013 Blackfriars Conference.  Held every other year, the conference is hosted by the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.  On odd numbered years, this sleepy little town (charming to us city-folk) plays host to the hoard of Shakespeareans who descend en masse to give papers, hear keynotes, drink copiously, and network network network.

This year, I gave a paper on my work surrounding the African Grove Theatre’s production

A particularly dramatic moment of my presentation  captured by the wonderful Amy Wratchford of the ASC

A particularly dramatic moment of my presentation
captured by the wonderful Amy Wratchford of the ASC

of Richard III.  It was received extremely well and I spent the rest of the conference in scholar heaven with loads of encouragement, plenty of questions, and oodles of intellectual fodder.  Sometimes, it really takes another eye to help take your work to the next level.  In this case, I had a couple hundred eyes and I’m so excited by all the questions and feedback that I got.

This was a very long conference.  I didn’t make it down until Wednesday afternoon, but it technically begins on Tuesday evening and stretches until Sunday.  Essentially, that’s a week’s worth of work that we all miss to come and play with each other at the Blackfriars.  By the end of the conference, you’re tired (sessions begin at 8AM and often don’t end until midnight, and that’s not even counting post-panel drinks and networking at the hotel bar which is amongst the most important part of what we do at conferences), you’re stressed out by the amount of work that’s lurking on your desk and has accumulated since you’ve left, but you’re invigorated.

For me, the beauty of a good conference is the amount of inspiration it provides.  I always know that a conference was worthwhile if I come home really ready to attack my work so that I can meet newfound goals provided by the conferencing atmosphere.  Especially given the amount of mental drain that I’ve experienced over the past several months due to the examination process, this was a much-needed rejuvenation.

Another very neat aspect of these things is that since everyone goes to them you get to meet people from fellow graduate students all the way to superstar academics.  On Friday morning I sat in a keynote given by Russ McDonald.  It was interesting and he was absolutely charming, but here was the best part:

Another presentation shot; this one courtesy of Eric Johnson of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Another presentation shot; this one courtesy of Eric Johnson of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Six years ago, in my undergrad, I spent a summer researching in Stratford upon Avon.  It was one of the first times that I had a taste of what “real” research is like, and certainly was the first time I had been given the opportunity to do archival work.  It was the first time that I really realized this could be a life choice, that I could possibly spend the rest of my life doing this.  I’d say that, while it wasn’t my first date with Will, it was definitely the moment when things got serious.

As preparation for that trip, I had to read several introductory articles and books (including things by McDonald… Russ, not Old).  I will be honest and say that it’s not something I think about every day, or even every week, but as I sat in that keynote address, I suddenly remembered the feeling of reading that work.  The over-arching wonder that I was going to be visiting (and living in) Stratford; that I would walk those streets; that I would see those shows in that place.  When I remembered that, everything just clicked into place and I had a feeling of vertigo.  How far had I come in six years; how much had I experienced.  It all flew past me like some sappy eighties montage culminating with a thunking landing on that seat in the Blackfriars playhouse.

So here’s to the last six years; and the next six years; and all the intervals in between.

A shot of the last panel of the conference starring the infamous ASC bear which chases you offstage if you go over your allotted time

A shot of the last panel of the conference starring the infamous ASC bear which chases you offstage if you go over your allotted time

Let’s see how productive I can be in the interim between Blackfriars so that next time (October 2015) I can re-encounter old acquaintances with new vigor, new stories, and new bylines on my CV.

So now: back to your regularly scheduled programing.

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/william_shakespeare.html and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of biographyonline.net which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.

 

The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

The Summer of Love

Thanks to Joss Wheedon, it’s been a Much Ado summer.  Without any intention of collecting an exclusive list of Much Ados in the New England area, I’ve personally seen four productions so far (two full productions, the film, and one staged reading).  Since I don’t have any more on the docket (unless something unexpected pops up, which it might), I thought I might take a moment to make some general observations about the play from my privileged Much Ado-steeped dramaturgical brain while the shows were fresh in my mind.  I suppose this could also serve as a basic primer for theatre makers looking to create a production of Much Ado and not looking to hire a dramaturge (big mistake, but the benefits of having someone around to serve that role are fodder for another post).

1)   The most hard and fast rule about producing Much Ado About Nothing is that your Beatrice and Benedick ABSOLUTELY have to work.  They essentially carry the production and without them, you’re sunk.  I’ve seen some tolerably good performances this summer, but none that were well matched (one show had a strong Beatrice and a weak Benedick, another show vice versa, etc.).  These actors need to be charming and deep.  The audience needs to love them despite their quirks.  They need to be experts with the language.  They need to have chemistry with each other.  Lining up these factors is nearly as difficult as convincing the stars to align (especially in the world of amateur theatre where your talent pool is your talent pool and there’s not much you can do about it), but vital to the health of your production.  Trust me, this will make or break your show.

2)   The part of Hero is perhaps the most difficult part in the show to play (Claudio and Dogberry make close seconds).  Honestly, one of the strongest performances of Hero I’ve ever seen was performed by a dressmaker’s dummy passed around to various cast members when Hero herself needed to be.  There’s a danger of making Hero too ingénue.  She absolutely has to be sweet and pretty and obedient, but she has some fire in her that, if allowed to come out, will add dimension to your production.  Think about the gulling of Beatrice; Hero is both smart and saucy (she demonstrates this as well in the ball scene when she sasses the masked Prince).  A further point of caution: if her part is cut too severely, she comes off as nothing but an airy fairy sugar-spun object.  Careful with this one.

3)   Dogberry is extremely difficult to make read to a modern audience.  If he’s played too smart, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played with too much status, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played by someone who does not have an absolutely command of the language, he doesn’t make sense.  Dogberry and the watch need to come off as well-meaning, sweet, regular guys whose logic sometimes doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most important thing to remember is that Dogberry is striving, with every fiber of his being, to have status he just doesn’t know how to make it work.  He’s trying, by virtue of “being is becoming”, to make himself into a real leader and a true soldier… he just can’t quite get there.

4)   The third-act wedding scene needs to be a punch in the gut bordering

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don't have anything else to put here

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don’t have anything else to put here

on melodrama.  This scene changes the entire tide of the production.  Suddenly we go from a rollicking comedy to something which (if ended prematurely) could more resemble a classic tragedy.  You really need to set this change of pace up for an audience and draw them into the mood.  Claudio really needs to manhandle Hero.  Hero really needs to have a reason to faint and look dead.  Beatrice really needs to have a reason to be weeping into the next scene.  These are strong, dynamic characters capable of extreme emotional manipulation and extreme emotional reaction; if this is not expressed, your production suddenly no longer has purpose.  The entire second half doesn’t have a reason to exist, and (most importantly), my favorite scene in the canon falls flat.  If there’s no real given reason for Beatrice’s famous utterance, the audience just won’t buy it.

5)   Speaking of duels, if you choose to modernize your production make sure the gender and status dynamics still make sense.  See my previous post on this point.

6)   Another note about status: the Prince needs to have an easy sort of control over every situation he’s placed in.  Though a guest in Leonato’s house (and in act four certainly emotionally indebted to Leonato), he is still the Prince.  Despite anything which may be happening (including, as he believes, the death of Leonato’s daughter which is at least in part his fault), he must maintain that status.  This is particularly important because modern American audiences do not understand status.  If you work hard through the course of your production to create status, any chink will make the entire illusion crumble.  Don’t give the audience a reason not to buy into your world.

7)   For god’s sake can someone please come up with a creative solution to Don John?  I have yet to see anyone in the role who doesn’t make me think of Keanu (though granted, Sean Maher’s performance came close to banishing this image – he was pretty sexy).  Textually, he’s a problem.  He’s obviously brooding and quiet, angry with his brother and ready to revel in any misfortune that he can cause because of this.  But is there any way to make this into a villain that we love to hate?  I’m so sick of stoic-faced Princes who turn into whining, petulant grumps in the presence of their henchmen only to plot a revenge which they obviously take no joy in.  Someone, please, fix this and invite me to your show so I can stop wondering if anyone will get the Prince a surfboard.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things I see, just bits which tackle some of the play’s bigger issues.  If you’re planning a production and are looking for a dramaturge, I highly encourage you to contact me.  I always love to participate in crafting good Shakespeare and this play has a special place in my heart.

And now, back to the comps grind.

And Knowing is Half the Battle

Since I seem to be writing nothing but theatre reviews lately (…mostly because I’m seeing SO MUCH THEATRE!), I figure it may be time for a reprieve from the “mundane” (or at least routine) around here.

Here is an unexclusive, incomplete list of things that I learned this week.

Thing one: Cyrano De Bergerac is a tragedy… and actually really sad.  This would be fine except I saved it to read for when I needed a pick-me-up… suffice to say it’s been a rough week for many reasons (only one of which being the sheer amount of maudlin tragedy I’ve had to choke down this week).

Thing two: Peanut butter, when put in a saucepan, burns really quickly.  If you want to melt it to… say… pour over your ice cream, you need to do it low and slow.

Thing three: Early Russian theatre sometimes consisted of “serf theatre”.

Shot of my desk... and my book fort.  Yup.  It's a book fort.

Shot of my desk… and my book fort. Yup. It’s a book fort.

The Russian feudal system persevered long after it was abolished in other countries (my mostly uninformed hypothesis about this entails factors such as geographic distance from anywhere that may have been interested in creating a mercantile class, a sure-fire way to abolish feudalism, and the many puns one can create using the word “serf”).  Russian landowners, for lack of better things to do, sometimes trained their serfs and created theatre companies with them to perform for said landowners’ amusement.  This, for some reason, is both fascinating and wonderful to me.  Probably because I’ve never been a Russian peasant.

Thing four: When held in contrast with other nineteenth century pieces and scholarship about said nineteenth century pieces, melodrama actually makes for surprisingly engaging reading.  Go go Pixerécourt.

Thing five: I think if Victor Hugo had actually written the playscript to Les Miserables rather than just the novel that it was based on, it would have been markedly more wonderful, decidedly more Spanish, and never would have run on Broadway for a record 6,680 performances.  See for evidence: Hernani.

Thing six: If you hope hard enough, despite all natural barriers to the contrary, you can make it be autumn in New England even in July.

Thing seven: You could very feasibly murder people utilizing nineteenth century stage technologies and hide their bodies in places that would never be found, even within the theatre itself.  Unfortunately, once I had this thought, actually enacting such things was the only notion on my mind as I flipped through my well-illustrated guide to the nineteenth century French stage.  As such, I’m earmarking this idea for a potential future novel; sounds like a great historical detective case to me.

This is a REALLY cute kitten taking a nap (about palm-sized for the record).  He's not mine, but I like him better that way. I don't have to clean his poop.

This is a REALLY cute kitten taking a nap (about palm-sized for the record). He’s not mine, but I like him better that way. I don’t have to clean his poop.

Thing eight:  I wasn’t just whistling Dixie when I told people that German would be a useful language to have in my back pocket in the field of theatre history.  Just this week I’ve encountered several books and one play (the play, unfairly enough, was Russian in its original language) which entail lengthy/important passages in both French and German that the scholar/translator couldn’t be bothered to render into English.  Academic superpowers activate!

Thing nine: For this reason, I will really be screwed when I enter into the land of Japanese theatre.

Thing ten:  I’m really grateful to have friends who will push me to tell them about what I read on any given day.  Also friends who will go with me to the theatre.  Also friends who will pester me via text message until I leave my cave and socialize in the real world.  Also friends who will let me call and cry/whine/complain about neoclassicism and why it’s an abomination against art… even if they don’t really understand what neoclassicism is.  Also friends who speak Shakespeare to me as a means of comfort.  Thank you, friends!

Thing eleven:  Restoration comedies are WAY funnier performed than on the page.

Thing twelve: I should probably consider taking a break sometime soon lest I devolve into some sort of Gollum creature mindlessly repeating pertinent names, dates, and phrases that would only make sense in the context of theatre history.

The Love Boat Goes to Verona

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending opening night of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston common.

After last year’s middling Coriolanus, I didn’t have high hopes for this (…that may also be the comps brain talking since I’m not sure I could work up the energy to have high hopes about anything right now).  Especially after reading that the concept was “rat pack”.  I just wasn’t sure things would work out; Two Gents is a notoriously difficult play to make read to a modern audience, Shakespeare on the Common is notoriously not the sum of its parts for whatever reason, and Boston weather patterns make outdoor evening theatre a gamble at best.

But somehow, despite all this, the cosmos aligned and it was truly a production worth seeing!

Jenna Augen’s Julia was absolutely adorable (even in the face of a tragic act-one kerfluffle in which Mimi Bilinski, her Lucetta, failed to come onstage at her cue and left poor Augen to live out the actor’s nightmare: scrambling to cover for a co-star while under the pressure of rhymed iambic pentameter).  She had some sauce and spice and a decidedly different take on the Act V reversal (which I won’t ruin for you since I want to encourage you to go see the show).

our blanket: a still-life.

our blanket: a still-life.

Rimo Airaldi’s Speed and Larry Coen’s Launce were a comic duo that actually made sense.  They played the jokes to a T and, despite any misgivings I had about an older more august Speed, I was quickly charmed into their clutches.

Rick Park’s Duke of Milan is the best I’ve ever seen.  His portrayal of an incensed father in III.i (the scene during which Valentine is outcast) was real enough that I truly believed he would kill Valentine (Andrew Burnap) if given half the chance.  And this, my friends, caused dramaturgical magic.  Because the threat of death was so real, Burnap was able to launch into the most transcendent rendition of the “what light is light” speech that I have ever heard.  I, the notorious curmudgeon, was moved to tears and could only be revivified by the liberal application of the annual CSC signature Ben and Jerry’s sundae (this year’s creation: the Crabbe Bag…. Eat one.  You won’t regret it.).

In terms of the concept, it worked a lot better than I expected it to.  The outlaws in the woods became Wild West clowns/menaces and Act V devolved into a road-runner style farcical chase complete with door-swinging and dance-hiding.  Because of this, the general tone of disingenuousness led to a ready acceptance of the notoriously hard to stage Act V reversal.  Well done, CSC.  Well done.

I have only two complaints.  The first is that there was no fight director or violence coordinator billed in the program while I certainly saw some onstage violence.  If you need to understand the importance of this, let me guide you self-promotionally to the following youtube interview with some people who know what they are talking about in this regard.

The second is that in order to serve the concept, the director chose to include a liberal amount of extra-textual music numbers.  Julia burst out with “fever”, Launce sang “ain’t that a kick in the head?”, etc.  These music numbers, though well executed, slowed the pace of the first act to a crawl.  It would have served just as well to include half the number of musical interludes and I think it would have kept the audience more engaged not to be bursting into non-Shakespeare song every ten to fifteen minutes.

As I said, on the whole this was a very good rendition of a hard-to-perform piece.  If nothing else, it’s a free evening of entertainment, the common is beautiful this time of year, and you can enjoy your own picnic libations with some good company while waiting for curtain.

Though if you, like me, get the sudden urge to fox trot when any of the rat pack tunes are played by a live jazz band, be prepared to bring some dancing shoes.

Much Ado about Joss

So I finally got around to seeing Joss’ Much Ado last night.

I had some deep hesitations about it after having seen some clips of Joss talking about the script.  I am a HUGE devotee to Wheedon’s work and I adore most of his actors, but wasn’t sure that A) he had an understanding of the text deep enough to serve this project (this concern was primarily founded on his remark about the only way to explain the characters’ actions through the tale is via rampant drinking); B) Much Ado could really be slotted in to the short time-span famously available to this project; and C) Amy Acker had the chops to play Beatrice.

On the whole, I was right.

The film began slow and dark and there’s no reason Much Ado should be that

A shot I got of a friend's Italian mask.  It just seemed to fit here.

A shot I got of a friend’s Italian mask. It just seemed to fit here.

way – the show, like all Shakespeare (especially the comedies) is fast-paced and driving.  Especially when cuts are made (and Joss made some cuts, most of them graceful but a few of them clunky), things should progress at a good clip with a lot of energy.  The actors didn’t seem to find that energy or comfort level with their characters until the gulling scenes deep in Act II/at the beginning of Act III.  For that, the gulling of Benedick is one of the best I’ve ever seen onstage or screen and that really served as a springboard off which the movie flew.  The second half was markedly better and the actors seemed much more at ease with the text, the project, and each other.

Amy Acker was a lackluster Beatrice who seemed more fragile than feisty and more brooding than “born to speak all mirth”.  Alexis Denisof as Benedick had his moments of brilliance, which generally served to eclipse the moments during which he was far too low-energy and ominous.  Sean Maher was a brilliant Don John (it’s not his fault that I can’t hear anyone say the words “I thank you… I am of few words, but I thank you” without thinking it in Keanu’s voice).

Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry was problematic.  Things seemed to fall in for him during Act V, but until then his performance lacked a certain crucial justification.  Dogberry is a difficult character to play; much like Elbow from Measure for Measure this character type (the “learned” constable who’s actually a common man clown but tries so hard to be of good breeding that his speech comes out word salad) is one that doesn’t resonate horribly well with modern audiences.  There needs to be a reason for Dogberry’s confusion.  He’s not stupid, his logic just doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most successful Dogberry I’ve ever seen played the character as someone who had maybe been hit on the head one too many times or dropped in several instances as an infant.  This issue, may I point out, is one that a good dramaturge can really help with.  This kind of textual diagnosis takes experience to suss out and someone who is already intimate with the text can save you weeks of rehearsal discovery time by giving you the parameters Shakespeare himself set.  Especially in an environment like the one which produced Wheedon’s film, the dramaturge can be an invaluable resource to the project.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think that Hero is an unplayable character.  This is nothing against the Heroes I’ve seen recently (most of which have had some talent and understanding of the text), but the best Hero I ever saw was actually played by a dress-maker’s dummy.  No joke.  She’s so silent most of the time and, essentially, an object to the men around her.  Playing the part with enough pizazz to make her likeable (especially when most of her already few lines are cut, as in Wheedon’s film) requires some spark that I just haven’t seen yet.  Unfortunately, the audience liking Hero is central to us buying in to the main plot arc.  For the most part, we like Hero because Beatrice likes Hero rather than Hero being a likeable character.  Which is not to say we dislike Hero, just that she’s more sweet and plain than a nilla wafer.

So I didn’t dislike Joss’ film, it just won’t go into my books as the PARAMOUR OF MUCH ADOs.  On the whole, I see it as a fine case study in reasons to hire a dramaturge and what happens when a project is rushed.  I think Wheedon fans will enjoy it, and Shakespeareans will find it a good excuse to sit in an air-conditioned theatre on a disgusting summer day.