The Tempest

Since taking a post as a theatre reviewer with New England Theatre Geek, it’s not very often that I get to see a show without a pen and reviewer notebook in hand. It’s also not very often that I get to see a show with no obligation to come home and write a poignant yet witty review about it. So I find it a wee bit hilarious that the first time I’ve been out to see a show I wasn’t reviewing in some time, I immediately came home with the urge to write about it.

I’ve been waiting for the A.R.T.’s production of The Tempest since they announced their season last year. You heard me correctly; it’s been over a year that I’ve been champing at the bit for a chance to see this show. Last night, the man and I finally made it out to experience the magic and it was well worth the wait.

As a child, I spent a lot of time hanging out with magicians. As a kid, one Saturday a month was devoted to a road trip to the not-so-local local chapter of the Society of Young Magicians. There, myself and a couple of other like-minded individuals (including my brother who was the one who got us all into this mess in the first place) would sit at the knees of local magicians and learn magic tricks. It seemed commonplace to me to come home with playing cards tucked in various surreptitious pockets of my clothing (because it was a favorite game to reverse pick-pocket cards onto other people without them noticing… and actually, a great exercise in prestidigitation for the developing table magician), to look for jackets with giant pockets or loose lining in which more pockets could be sewn, to figure out whether it would be doves or rabbits that were the chosen animal of the house and, thereby, the focus of the next big trick. Eventually, we grew old enough to join the real society and because of this childhood influence, I have a soft spot for magicians and a fascination with magic in general. Despite the fact that I can’t do a card trick to save my life (trust me, I’ve tried), I am a long-standing card-carrying member of the Society of American Magicians.

Magic… plus Shakespeare. It’s a theme that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time. Would one distract from the other? Would people come to see this show just because of its famous producer (Teller of Las Vegas fame)? Would it rub up against all of my traditionalist sensibilities?

Apparently, add some Tom Waits into the mix and you get veritable alchemy.

The show I saw onstage last night was definitive for me in a way that no show has been since I had the opportunity to see the McKellon Lear at the RSC in 2007. The Tempest is a show with problems: music, which is always a challenge since there are no melody notations left from Shakespeare’s songs; long and rambling courtly scenes that if done improperly will just drag on and on and dull your audience into the same slumber that Ariel visits upon the hapless mariners; an ingénue that’s nearly impossible to play; and spirits of all types which appear and disappear seemingly at the whim of the playwright.

Prospero (Tom Nelis)  and Ariel (Nate Dendy) conjuring the storm.  Photo courtesy of the Smith Center/Geri Kody

Prospero (Tom Nelis) and Ariel (Nate Dendy) conjuring the storm. Photo courtesy of the Smith Center/Geri Kody

I’ve seen good productions of The Tempest before, but they all pale in comparison to what’s onstage at the A.R.T. right now. “Inhuman” gains new meaning, as does “American” representations of England’s playwright laureate.

There’s a sense of danger on Prospero’s island, and magic lurks in every corner. Ariel is ever-present/absent, seen and unseen, all-powerful and completely subjugated. The music is part of the island (literally and figuratively) and comes from a band that looks like it could have bubbled forth from the sea itself. The director was not afraid to cut the text; a necessity to keep the long scenes short and the short scenes pithy. Instead of losing content, this gave the show more room to explore what it clearly set out to do: re-add the “magic” back to this late Romance in a way that I don’t think the stage will see again.

Since my dissertation deals so heavily with American Shakespeare and since that project has taken so much out of me lately, I was exhilarated to be so thrilled by a landmark production right in my backyard. Enchanted by Teller’s tale, I can say with some certainty that this energy was just what I needed to get me through the current busy-times slump.

I wish I could tell you to go see it, but every show is sold out. Standing room tickets are available on the day-of performance at the A.R.T. Box office. The Tempest closes on June 15th, so if any of what I’ve said intrigues you, don’t wait for the storm to pass.

Back with a Vengeance

Hello, everyone! I’m back from a lovely one-week vacation to the South of our great land where I was able to accomplish several things (not the least of which being visiting my lovely little sister, and gallivanting around her place of employment… Disney. Yes, I know,

While I was in Disney this might have happened....

While I was in Disney this might have happened….

life is hard when you’re a Rosvally).

Today, I was back in the saddle hitting the ground running. I’m honored to be a Fellow at the Tufts Graduate Institute For Teaching program this summer and, as such, am participating in twelve seminars designed to help improve my skills as a teacher. I’m learning a lot already (today was the first day) and am overjoyed to be meeting and interacting with other graduate students from (gasp) different departments. It’s nice to have somewhere to go first thing in the morning; this kind of structure really kicks off the day right and is something that I’ve been missing in recent semesters due to coursework having come to a close. Dissertation work can be extremely isolating, and this Institute is really the perfect combination of socialization, enrichment, professional development, and personal accountability for me at this point in my graduate career.

As part of seminar this morning, one of our glorious presenters gave us a sheet of quotations about war meant to spark conversation. None of them were accredited (in an effort not to bias us) but after the exercise was over, he went down the list and let us know where each had originated. I was perplexed when he reached one axiom that we’ve probably all heard before: “all is fair in love and war”. The presenter attributed it to Shakespeare and then admitted that it’s been said by people ad infinitum the world over since the dawn of time and moved on.

I was dubious about accrediting this quotation to my man Will because, first thing’s first, the syntax really doesn’t scream “Bard” to me. Secondly, and this is where things get hazy, I wasn’t recalling it from any of the plays off the top of my head (this is often a good source of information but not necessarily definitive; while I can probably quote more than is healthy for a human being, I’m not going to claim an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire canon…yet).

The attribution was really a minor point and I didn’t want to hang the class up with something completely tangential to what we were actually talking about. However, the factoid kept wheedling me after we left seminar (so much so that I was inclined to look it up on my own and determine where this famous phrase came from).

Sure enough, I was right. It’s not a Willism. The first round of answers I got were mixed; some attributing it to English novelist and playwright John Lyly and some to English novelist Francis Edward Smedley.

Further investigation proved that both of these answer are, after a fashion, correct. The Lyly derivation is actually a paraphrase of a line from Lyly’s 1579 novel, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. Lyly actually wrote: “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war” (you can see where the paraphrase is a bit more elegant for today’s syntax).

pretty flowering tree I found on campus today

pretty flowering tree I found on campus today

Which left the Smedley question. How did he get mixed up in this? I looked into things a bit more and discovered that, in fact, the first appearance of the quote as-is was in the 1850 novel Frank Fairleigh by Francis Edward Smedley (who apparently, in addition to one of the funniest names in literary history, also had a flare for the axiomatic).

Neither of these people are Shakespeare (though, funny enough, Lyly is noted for having written pretty copiously for the child companies, popular amongst upper class Elizabethan audiences and notorious for “stealing” audience members from the adult companies such as Will’s). So there you go! While it’s often a safe bet to attribution quotable quotes to Will, it’s never a sure-fire thing (as proven by this, your little bit of pop up dramaturgy for today). I hope that your week is off to an incredible start! Mine certainly is.

Weekend Adventures

Some weekends, I come back to my desk and feel like I’ve been in a completely different world for a few days. Some weekends, I feel like I’ve never left (…some weekends I don’t actually leave). This weekend was chock full of activities through which I wore a variety of different hats (literally and figuratively), and enjoyed some really awesome theatre!

Friday night, the man and I caught the opening performance of “Trapped in a Room with a Zombie”. This is a site-specific interactive piece in which an audience of twelve is invited into a room and the door is locked behind you. In the room with you is a zombie. All around the room are clues designed to help you open the door (there are five “steps” to the final process, each of which has several clues which must come together for the group

Our group shortly after being zombified

Our group shortly after being zombified

to figure it out). Oh and every five minutes, the zombie’s chain gets a little looser. You have one hour before the zombie rampages and kills you all.

The “show” (for lack of a better term) is a piece which began in Chicago and now has ten locations nationwide. The Boston location just opened and it’s in a warehouse at the industrial end of Chelsea. Just walking into the building is like stepping into a zombie flick!

We had a blast solving the puzzles. I have been sworn to secrecy by the staff of the attraction, so I won’t go into any detail here; but suffice to say that it’s quite challenging. I would highly recommend the experience to anyone with even the slightest interest in zombies, teamwork, problem solving, or fun.

Saturday, I led a swing and foxtrot tutorial for a group of dancers in New Hampshire in preparation for an awesome forties-themed photo shoot that a good friend is coordinating next weekend (don’t worry; there will be plenty of amazing pictures!). The highlight of this event, for me, was having the opportunity to be dancing again.

I worked my way through my Master’s as a ballroom dance instructor (no joke; I’m a woman of wide and sundry talents). Before that, I danced on and off for most of my life. Dance is a thing that I don’t do enough of here in Boston and it was absolutely amazing to spend an afternoon kicking up my heels. I love to teach ballroom to an appreciative audience; and this group was as eager to learn as I could have ever hoped for. Because they were already dancers, they picked up the steps quickly and asked good, productive questions. Also, it made me really think about my basic steps again (a task which I used to do a great deal of but haven’t much anymore since when was the last time I had to break down a foxtrot basic for a group of inquiring minds? Heck, when was the last time I even danced a foxtrot?) What a treat!

On Sunday, we caught Seven Stages Shakespeare Company in the encore production of their ShakesBEERience series. The ShakesBEERience performances are truly a joy: semi-rehearsed staged readings of plays which take place in taverns, breweries, and restaurants all around Portsmouth New Hampshire. These performances are free and audiences are invited to come for as much (or as little) as they like. This weekend, Seven

Artsy rendition of my drink plus playbill

Artsy rendition of my drink plus playbill

Stages performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gas Light in Portsmouth. What was really great about this show was that it was the direct result of a collaborative effort between several different Portsmouth-based artistic groups. The Dorks in Dungeons (a role playing game inspired improvisation troupe) performed as the Rude Mechanicals. The Neoteric Dance Collective was on hand to play the fairies. There was magic, there was music, and there was so much beer.

What I really love about the ShakesBEERience effort is that it keeps Shakespeare extremely accessible. Free performances happening in low-pressure environments with a come-as-you-are attitude encourage new audiences to consider Shakespeare an experience within their reach, and even an experience that could be enjoyable. If you want to talk about new audience curation, these guys have that in the bag. Their work is community-oriented and reaches out to bring the outside in. I would highly recommend catching one of their shows (they’ve got two coming up this summer; Taming of the Shrew and Comedy of Errors).

So now I’m back at my desk, preparing to dive in to the next steps of my current project (read: dissertation). Maybe not as tried and true as foxtrots or Midsummers in bars, but definitely at least as exciting.

So… how was your weekend?

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.

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.