The End Becomes the Beginning

It’s Sunday night and I’m tired.

This week, I’ve been working with Early Modern England. I’m hoping to get through it in the next few days and then hop to Early Modern Italy/France/Spain.

After that, the puritans shut the theatres down for a bit and we do a time-leap to the Eighteenth century, but I may take a detour into Asia just to get something a bit less Western on my palate.

Over the course of the weekend, I have read no books, attended one play, and participated in a variety of leisure activities/household chores to ensure that I am at least a little bit rested and good to go for the week ahead.

It probably says something about something that when I went to go save the word document I am currently writing this blog entry in, I automatically clicked into my comps notes folder.

It also probably says something that, at brunch with a friend who is an

Me and Will at Orlando Shakes

Me and Will at Orlando Shakes

alum of my program, his friends whom I had never met before immediately gave me the sympathy eyes when he told them I was taking the exams that he had taken.

And so, I stand facing down another long week. But there will be a lot of Shakespeare! Tomorrow is Hub Theatre Company Boston’s Shakespeare Open Mic Night at Trident Books. (come join us!), Friday I have it on good word that I will be seeing Joss’ Much Ado, and of course I shall be reading. So much reading.

It was a Dark and Stormy Morning…

Scene: a rainy Friday morning in Massachusetts.

A residential neighborhood at around 9AM.

We see the front of a house.  A stoop, actually.  The house is large with a set of stairs leading up to its front door and two mailboxes.

DANIELLE a bleary-eyed PhD student zombie-walks to the front door, opens it, and takes a long unblinking look outside.  She stands and stares at the rain for a moment before we hear a voice.

HOUSEMATE: Oh, good morning!

DANIELLE: it takes a moment to register Hi.  It’s raining.

HOUSEMATE: Yes, it is.  Umbrella?  HOUSEMATE offers DANIELLE his umbrella. 

DANIELLE: barely coherent I realized I needed milk before I could have coffee, but then I was wondering how hard it was raining, because if it’s raining too hard I have to go to the garage to get my umbrella from the car to take a walk around the corner to get milk… Maybe I’ll just do the walk without an umbrella.

HOUSEMATE: Take my umbrella, go get some caffeine in you.  Almost forcibly hands her the umbrella.

DANIELLE: more than a little bewildered thank you!

….I was so out of it this morning that, not only did this happen, but I also committed a cardinal sin against fashion: I left my house in Tufts sweat pants, a Tufts sweat shirt, and imitation Ugg boots.  I’m just glad I didn’t actually run into anyone between my house and the store because good god nobody should ever have to look at that.

Still in Medieval Europe, but leaving soon.  Had to put down the books today when I realized that if I tried to push through the last 125 pages I was going to give myself another Friday stress migraine which might or might not last the entire weekend.

For no particular reason, here's a picture I took of the octopus at the National Aquarium while on break from CDC 2013

For no particular reason, here’s a picture I took of the octopus at the National Aquarium while on break from CDC 2013

On Sunday, I’m leaving town for a week to go visit family in Florida.  I probably won’t be checking in because, well, if I’m going to take a vacation, I’m taking a bloody vacation.

Have a good week; may you never run out of milk before you’ve had coffee, but if you do may you have someone in your life who cares enough to loan you his umbrella so that you may acquire more before you inadvertently do harm to yourself attempting to make caffeine happen before your brain is fully uploaded.

Happy Birthday, Will!

Tuesday was Shakespeare’s “birthday”.

I put “birthday” in quotation marks because, much like most things Shakespeare, we don’t know precisely when the man was born.  Early modern birthing and burial practices being what they were, we can hazard a guess.  Since April 23 is as good a day as any, it pleases us to tell ourselves that this is the day upon which our Will was born and, as such, we should celebrate him on that day.

To celebrate, I was invited to speak on a panel by New Hampshire’s Seven Stages Shakespeare company.  The panel was held in the most adorable little bookshop in Portsmouth (Riverrun books) and consisted of a wide array of experts: Hope Jordan, the first official slam poet master in New Hampshire; John-Michael Albert, Portsmouth’s outgoing poet laureate; myself; and a much more senior Shakespeare scholar, Dr. David Richman.  Our conversation was focused on The Phoenix and the Turtle, the role of poetry throughout time and poetry in general, but what it really made me do was remember my roots as a Shakespearean.

I’m certain that by now anyone who follows this has 100% assurance of my devotion to Shakespeare as a lifestyle.  This life choice is a debt that I owe to my amazingly brilliant Grandmother who decided that no grandchild of hers would be bad-mouthing the bard and made it her business to forcibly subject me to well-performed pieces until I learned to love them.  Since then, I’ve used her method several times on others whom I’ve wanted to instill a similar Shakes-beat into and I’ve actually found that this is the best way to convert the unfaithful.  There is, without a doubt, something about Shakespeare that touches us as human beings and, while reading it can be dull and unfulfilling, seeing it performed by anyone who has an ounce of sense and talent is something the human heart can’t forget.  We’re beings of music and stardust, metaphor and poetry.  We’re beings of emotion: love and anger, jealousy and hate, yearning and hope.  It’s all in there; every last bit.  Anything you could want or hope to feel as a human is something you will find in the canon, it’s simply a question of knowing where to look.

It would be strange of me to try and explain how Shakespeare has affected my life since I live every moment with the man.  Would I have a life without Shakespeare?  Well, sure, but it would be a completely different life.  He’s managed to creep inside my soul and speak from the darkest places there.  But here’s the thing: the more I learn about Will, the more I realize this fascination isn’t one I feel alone.  Throughout history many great men and women have felt the same; I’m in the company of Goethe, Jonson, Müller.  I’m in conversations with John Quincy Adams, Isaac Asimov, and Neil Gaiman.  I’m haunted by Voltaire, Sarah Bernhardt, and John Keats.  Shakespeare studies is inclusive; it touches just about every other major course of literary study to some extent, and it’s written all over the history of the theatre.  Because of Shakespeare, I have something to talk about with most people in my extended field (both the arts and humanities).

Shakespeare’s the great communicator and the great equalizer.  When I need to say something but can’t quite find the right words, I often turn to him for help.  When I am feeling something overwhelming, I often remember how his characters dealt with similar feelings (…though generally refrain from enacting their often bloody and complicated solutions; I have enough trouble in my life without running mad, baking people into pies, or crafting over-engineered schemes to manipulate the people around me and then wondering why they don’t work/how they could have possibly worked so well).  Shakespeare’s there at my best and my worst and, these days, is often the catalyst for such moments.  I rely on him to be a constant source of inspiration; a heartbeat to my work.  He’s with me at every conference and he’s coached me through the end of every semester.  When I feel like giving up, he alternates glowering at me and encouraging me.  He keeps me motivated and excited.  He calls me back when I’ve wandered too far astray, and he tells me to play the field when I’m being too clingy.

Shakespeare, right now, is my life.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunities which allow this.

Here’s a few snippets of the panel.  Watch, enjoy, and bid a big happy birthday to my man Will.  Also, if you were interested in how some other internet denizens have chosen to celebrate Shakespeare-day, you should check out the e-card that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust put together with folks around the world (myself included) available here.

Thanks

Hello from the finals front!

Things are really starting to get hairy here. I’ve pinned down my seminar paper topics, I’m beginning to push up on some deadlines, and the book fort is full to toppling (though I did manage to return 25 books to the library yesterday with the help of some very sturdy reusable shopping bags). In addition to my own deadlines, I have the students’ deadlines to worry about and, what with the hurricane having set all of us back, what I am certain were some very well-planned due dates have become a muddle of insanity and piles upon piles of things for me to do over the next couple weeks.

In light of this, it is difficult for me to see these next few days as holidays. Yes, campus was technically closed today; I was still in dropping off papers and picking up books. No, I

the pile of drop-off books from the other day riding securely in my passenger seat. Also, validation for when I say “Shakespeare is my co-pilot”.

don’t have to go to class tomorrow; but I have still been up since before the sun working steadily on my piles of to-dos.

Despite this, I would like to take a moment now (as I do every year) to think about the things I am well and truly thankful for.

Inter-library loan; making it so that I don’t have to drive all over the city state country to hunt down the research materials I need. Thank you, ILL and the Boston Library Consortium, for bringing books in a steady flow directly to my home library.

My family who puts up with random phone calls at odd times of the day with the usual “sorry I haven’t called in a while, been really busy, I’m working on this new project about Shakespeare as performed in the [eighteenth/nineteenth/seventeenth] century by [aristocratic hacks/black people/circus clowns]. I’m working really hard for that class I’m TAing and I have a TON of grading on my desk right now, but I have to go because I’m on my way to [class/the library/a meeting/rehearsal] so… love you! Call you later!”

My dear friends who make my life a happier place and remind me that despite my best efforts, I am not a research machine and do occasionally need to leave my desk in order to make eye contact with actual human beings. Special shout-outs go to my gay best friend who knows both how to hash a research problem with me and the fastest way to make me forget about whatever the day’s stress was, my roommate who knows not to make eye contact with me before 10AM and that the best way to appease the savage beast is to feed me, my girls’ weekend girls who are always there for me (if not in person then in well-timed letters and boxes of comfort-yarn), and my Partner in Crime without whom I would be well and truly lost (and much sadder for the wear).

The faith of my department (which, for those who are keeping track, hasn’t gotten rid of me yet so I must be doing something right).

Totally my fairy godfather; this was taken at my MA graduation.

The aforementioned Best Professor in the World; my academic fairy godfather who somehow knows from two to three states away precisely when I’m in my darkest hours of crisis. Without even having to send up a bat-signal, I always seem to receive an e-mail of some kind from him during my most hopeless moments.

The theatre, my man Will, and all those who are keeping him alive onstage. Live theatre makes life worth living, and the people who make live theatre are no less than great magicians of our time. This means you, Bob Colonna.

And you, dear reader, because without you I would be talking to an empty room. And, really, there’s nothing engaging about a crazy person ranting about her insane life to an empty room.

So have a good holiday, take some time off, and for the sake of all things Bardy walk away from your desk for at least a few hours. Personally, I’m going to go finish packing and then I have a date with a turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Scholarship in Practice

One of the perks of my job is that I frequently get to converse with some pretty neat people.

Today’s neat person was award-winning playwright/director Robert O’Hara (author of such works as Insurrection: Holding History, Antebellum, and The Inheritance). Robert is a Tufts alum and all-around interesting, intelligent guy.

He came in to speak to my African American Theatre/Theory class in a round-table style conversation during which we got to ask him free-form questions which he answered in an equally free-form way. What this meant was a look at theatre (and specifically some aspects that we’ve been thinking a great deal about) from a very different perspective.

He spoke for some length about research and how much research an audience/actor/playwright should do when interacting with a piece. An audience, he says,

Sometimes, scholarship looks like this…

should be able to walk into the theatre without any prior knowledge of the piece’s specific topic and still be able to connect to the show. You can’t expect an audience to do anything but pay the ticket price, attend the play, and enjoy it from their seat (wherever that seat is situated culturally on a given night). Actors, he says, should perhaps know slightly more about a piece, but not so much that their playing of the character becomes bogged down in information. He gave the example of Insurrection (a play about the Nat Turner rebellion and what happens when a modern individual winds up accidentally time-traveling and witnessing it first hand). The day-to-day realities of slavery are horrific; but for the actors (and the characters they are portraying), these day-to-day realities need to be day-to-day realities. It is the audience who must have the cathartic life-moving experience while viewing the play. If an actor becomes too enwrapped in that cathartic experience, he deprives the audience of having it. The playwright should know something about what’s going on, but even he can research too deeply. It is counter-productive for a playwright to have too many other voices knocking around in his head when he’s trying to spit a play onto paper.

In the end, the important distinction (for O’Hara) is this: you can’t stage information.

For a dramaturge and, perhaps more immediately, a theatre scholar, this idea is a bit scary. What do you mean that research impedes the artistic process? That information can be a road-block rather than something freeing?

For an artist, I see his point completely. It’s why I think that the dramaturge is an important voice to have in a production room. If it’s my job to research and know things, then the hands-on creative types don’t need to be bothered with an excess of facts. They only need to know what they need to know, no more, and it’s up to them to tell me when enough is enough. Their job is to create; my job is to provide them with the information they need to create.

Today’s conversation only enforced, to me, the necessity of having that one person. It’s like having a living, breathing filter. A wall to block the outside world of facts from the inside space of the rehearsal room. Someone to take the barrage of raw data and ensure that it doesn’t crush the fragile cocoon of creativity being created in that room. The creative process is a delicate one and one disrupted by any number of things (some articulable, some not). Having the ability to control as many factors as possible isolates items which may impede this creative process.

When asked if he read scholarship about his own work, O’Hara laughed and likened theatre scholarship to someone asking you what kind of panties you were wearing on a given day. He said it was like someone opening up the book of your soul, examining it with the precise efficiency of a medical doctor, poking it, prodding it, observing it unfeelingly, then putting it away.

And I can’t help but think that he’s correct.

It’s why I prefer to work on dead playwrights. An autopsy is much more human than a vivisection.

…but maybe it needs to look more like this… (yes, yes, more As You photos… that’s me and my best Gay Angelo playing Oliver in the front and the lovely Ashley as Celia looking concerned behind us)

This is something that plagues me about literary criticism. All throughout my Master’s, I continually found myself hung up on one thing: oh, sure, it’s all well and good for us to apply Marxist criticism to Mary Shelley, but there’s no way that one author could have written into a piece everything that scholars read out of that piece. At a certain point, you’re dealing with lenses which may tell you something about the piece, but not anything what the author intended. Yes, I know, to be a true literary critic you have to let go of most sense of author intention… but it bothered me. And it still does, to some extent.

In the Drama department, I deal with history. I deal with things that actually happened, things that might happen, or things that will happen. My work isn’t solely based on a text (though there’s nothing shameful about a text). That’s part of the strength in this sort of work: you learn more from it than you might from theory alone.

O’Hara’s observation about scholarship is not unfounded. Art is a piece of ourselves; a part of our human soul that we choose to bare to those around us because we feel that the audience could benefit from seeing it. Scholarship often takes this humanity and reduces it to cold equations or (perhaps worse) bends it to some greater argument that the scholar contends about the world at large.

But if this is so, how can we do both? I would say without hesitation that all of my departmental compatriots consider themselves theatre practitioners as well as theatre scholars. How can we justify this kind of slaughtering of our own young?

Well, it’s slightly different when a practitioner becomes a scholar. When you know both sides of the table, you are more likely to be gentle with the art. We don’t want to kill it, but rather understand it better. Theatre practitioners make keener scholars since we see things that book-learners don’t tend to; what are you actually looking at here? What are you looking for? What are you seeing but not seeing that only some knowledge of the other side of the curtain could give you?

So yes, we poke and prod, but I would like to think that scholar/practitioners at least do it with human hands rather than cold metal instruments.

Mostly, what O’Hara instilled in me today is a sense of hope. His ideas about theatre are inspiring, his opinions about story-telling are resonant, and his thoughts on the industry are both entertaining and moving. I know that O’Hara teaches and I can only hope that his students walk away from his class with ideas similar to those that he gifted to me today.

Three is Company

Right now, I’m living with some really interesting roommates.

You may recall last year at about this time when I announced that my current couch-surfer was RSC director Peter Brook. This is a similar situation. I find that, when you’re truly in the thralls of research, the process takes on a body of its own. It whispers to you in the night, alternately taunting and teasing you, sometimes telling you things you had never thought of before (though for me, it usually waits to do that until I’m in the shower).

Right now, my research doesn’t have a face (it’s so much easier to personify when it does). More, it has a body. I’m living with a few different projects and, consequently, a few different plays.

As you know by now, I’ve been serving as dramaturge for Tufts’ February production of

book piles next to my desk… teetering dangerously on the brink of collapse

Measure for Measure. Over the summer, the director and I put hours into creating a two-hour cut of the script (no small task, especially for a text-purist like yours truly). Now, we’re girding to enter the rehearsal process. This also means that it’s time for me to send my deep thoughts on the play to the theatre manager for inclusion in the program/department newsletter thingy. I’m also preparing to teach what we’ve lovingly dubbed “Shakespeare Boot Camp” this weekend; a three hour text workshop tag-team-taught by myself and the AD in order to ensure that our cast doesn’t go into the rehearsal process without some tactics to deal with Shakespeare’s language. All of these things should be a lot of fun, it just means that dystopian governments and broken chastity vows are constantly at the back of my mind. Not the most pleasant backdrop for your day, let me tell you.

There’s a lot at stake in Measure (and certainly a lot at stake which speaks to us particularly in an election year). We’re dealing with a city built on crumbling foundations. We’re dealing with an aging government that can no longer connect to its people. We’re dealing with extremists; extreme absolutists, extreme libertines, and extreme fundamentalists. We’re dealing with characters who disguise themselves for various reasons and utilize that disguise to trick each other into pursuing courses of action which would otherwise have proved impossible (or at least unpalatable).

We’re also dealing with a comedy that isn’t all that comedic. The ending seems a mere nod at the conventions of comedy (every one of the play’s four marriages are forced/arranged either by law or circumstance). Death is an ever-present force on the stage and at least one character suffers a grisly demise during the play’s action. The play includes a rape or near-rape (depending on how it’s staged). Oh certainly we have a few clowns to lighten the mood, but there is nothing airy or fairy about Measure‘s deeper themes (or even its not-so-deep themes).

The instinct to call Measure a “problem play” and leave things at that is one that I find horribly simplistic. It’s like calling Richard III a history. While I understand the need for short-hand categories, reducing Shakespeare’s more complicated works to one catch-all word does them a disservice. Yup, Measure has its problems, but the play is so much more than those problems. The problems open avenues of exploration through which we can delve into something deeper; what makes a comedy? What does a comedy need to have? If a play has all those things, can it still be something else?

My desk right now with books and sundry stacked work

In addition to this, a second specter has been haunting my footsteps similar to its iconic title character’s father. Hamlet seems to be everywhere I turn (more so this semester than usual). In a little over a week, I will be in Nashville at ASTR speaking about a paper I wrote which involves Garrick, Hamlet, Shakespeare, and the canonization of all three. Hamlet remains the most-referenced play in my studies, there are at least two productions of the show going on in Boston right now, and I’m relatively certain that the other night I dreamed I was performing the “too too solid flesh” speech in front of an audience of extremely intelligent (and extremely receptive!) chimpanzees…

Is Hamlet is in this fall? Is it my personal bias? Or is there just something about Hamlet?

That’s not even to consider the two research projects/seminar papers which are still in their budding stages at the moment. I haven’t yet immersed myself in them completely enough to be having haunting visions or dreams, but it’ll happen sooner rather than later.

Suffice to say that things are getting pretty crowded over here. I’m pretty sure that I could build a fort with the library books on the floor next to my desk, and (as usual) the deeper I plunge into the semester, the more appealing this course of action becomes.

Password is “foul fiend flibbertigibbet”. No boys allowed.

…except my man Will. And maybe a certain Danish Prince.

Con Men

My trusty partner in crime by my side, this weekend past I was cajoled into visiting my first SF/F convention.

Okay, before you close your browser window, point at your monitor, and laugh yourself silly, let me get a few things straight: 1) No, I wasn’t in costume.  2) Neither was anyone else for that matter. 3) Yes, I’m a nerd, but I was definitely the best-dressed nerd there. 4) Even though no one was wearing a costume.  Especially because no one was wearing a costume.

The con was readercon, an extremely local convention which prides itself on being more “literary” than other SF/F conventions.  What this really means is that instead of attending panels to discuss which pop-culture vampire is the hottest, you go to panels with useful information on being a writer, reading stories, and interacting with books.  The con is well-attended by some pretty well-known SF/F authors who participate in panels and also offer readings of their up-and-coming works throughout the weekend.  Perhaps the coolest offering of this particular convention is what they call a “Kaffeeklatsche”, an intimate gathering between a designated author and up to 15 conference attendees.  You sign up in advance for an hour in a special lounge with a small group of other con denizens and whomever you’ve signed up to klasche with.

As a result, I got to meet and talk to some really neat people (including Elizabeth Bear  and Scott Lynch… fan girl squee!).

I also got to hear some really solid advice on becoming a SF/F writer.  And so, since it is my wont as a blogger to blog about my experiences, I’m passing this advice on to you.  This is culminated from my weekend of listening, discussing, and observing and is not from any one source (direct or indirect) other than the con as a whole.  Suffice to say with the amount of publishers, editors, and authors running around doling out the advice, I feel that it’s pretty solid (though of course, can neither personally confirm nor deny any of it as… well… I’m a blogger, not an author… at least for now).

 Thing 1: Don’t quite your day job.  Writing does not pay.  Even if you get that book contract, it could be a long time before you see any money and chances are it won’t be enough to live off of.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule (Twilight, Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Gray, etc…), but it’s a rule for a reason.  You won’t be the exception, so don’t bank on it.

 Thing 2: Write the stories you want to read.  If they sell, great!  If they don’t, at least at the end of the day you won’t be sitting there with a gun to your head (seriously, I heard and re-heard the story of depressed-to-death writer this weekend).  Writing is art and in no other profession based upon art do you hear people give up simply because it’s not making money.  How many hobbyist painters do you know?  Actors?  Musicians?  Same thing with the written word.  And, since you took Thing One under advisement, you won’t even have to move into a cardboard box.

Thing 3: If you want to write, write!  If you want to publish, submit!  An editor can neither accept nor reject a manuscript if it has not been submitted in the first place.  Just do it.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Thing 4: Less writing advice and more general tip for courtesy during Q/A sessions/small groups meetings: do your research first.  Don’t waste the time of everyone in the room (who, by the way, has done their research) by asking questions which could easily be answered with one google search.  Similarly, we know you’re excited about your own work.  We know you fancy yourself an artiste.  But unless you have a “participant” badge, I did not come here to hear you talk.  I don’t care about what you’re writing, how hard you’re trying to get an agent, or your insecurities about your work (and frankly, neither do the panel participants).  Don’t waste our time listening to you blather about these items (or, really, yourself at all unless it’s pertinent information and, in that case, keep it concise).  If you feel you must talk about this stuff with the participant “on-stage”, catch him/her in the hotel bar/elevator/hallway between panels and don’t inflict your dithering upon the rest of us. (…can you tell how grumpy this made me?)

 Thing 5: Especially if you come to make networking connections, dress like you’re headed to an interview.  Leave your super hero tee shirts at home.  I’m not saying you need to bust out the three-piece, but at least look a bit polished when you’re trying to oh-so-covertly slip your card/manuscript to the editor.

 Thing 6: Panel moderators take note!  You have fifty minutes to accomplish what your panel description says you are going to accomplish (actually more like thirty-five to forty if you want to have a Q/A at the end).  You have between four and six people on your panel.  That means that each individual (including yourself) is allotted approximately eight minutes of talk-time spread over the entire session, during which you probably want to make three or four points/present that many rounds of questions.  This means that, for each question you present, each individual should be allowed no more than two minutes of talking.  Wasting this time with preamble, summation of why we should care about the issue at hand, and/or lengthy introductions is going to make it such that you can’t get to the real meat of your panel (and, by the way, what we came here to listen to).  Slim down, think hard about what you really need to say, and be ready with extra (not necessarily vital) material which you should be fairly certain you will never get to.

Thing 7:  Plan for all temperature conditions.  Though it was well into the 90s outside this weekend, the panel rooms ranged from comfortable, to sauna-hot, to arctic.  I made good use of my shawl collection (as blankets sometimes!).

Thing 8: If you, like me, are easily distracted and find it difficult to focus without something

in lieu of a “dealer room”, this con has a bookstore! Scored some swag pretty cheap (i.e. more books to read…. oh the horror)

to do, bring knitting or other unobtrusive crafts.  I saw embroiderists, seamstresses, fellow knitters, crocheters, and doodlers at this convention all quietly doing their thing while folks were presenting.  There’s nothing wrong with needing something for your hands to do, but it is really rude to not be attentive.  As a result, I finished an entire sock over the course of the weekend (and could probably have finished its mate if I didn’t refuse to knit during kaffeeklatsches… somehow that feels more intrusive than knitting in the grand ballroom).

Thing 9: Drink water, eat well and at regular intervals, sleep as much as you can.  Trust me, you’ll need it.

Well, that’s that!  I’m excited about all the things which I was able to see this year, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be back next year (…maybe even with participant badges… stay tuned).  Happy conning!

News from the Front…

A few brief updates to make one large update…

First: I wrote a guest blog for gradshare.com, you should go check it out!  While you’re there, poke around gradshare a little bit.  It’s a great project; basically a wiki for graduate students by the graduate community where folks can ask questions/post advice either anonymously or semi-anonymously.  That ability makes it a wonderful forum for those awkward questions that we are so bad at asking each other (you know, the ones that uttering could kill your career if someone overheard them).  I’m a firm believer in transparency within the academy and truly hope that projects like this can help move towards a profession no longer run behind closed doors.

We’re all in this together.  Really, we’re future colleagues.  We’re going to be peer reviewing each others’ work.  We’re going to be compiling volumes of each others’ papers for publication.  We’re going to be listening to/speaking with each other on conference panels.  Why shouldn’t we talk about the uncomfortable bits of the profession?  Why shouldn’t we support each other in this incredibly stressful career we’ve chosen to enter?

Through the years, I truly hope to see more forums like gradshare.

Second: I just finished reading this book (Surviving your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School by Adam Ruben PhD).

A confession; there were parts of the book which struck me as laugh-out-loud funny.  I definitely sat in the coffee shop chortling my way through the middle of the volume while desperately trying not to laugh too horribly loudly.

However, that being said, the rest of the gook left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.  Dr. Ruben has a PhD in molecular biology and, as his outlet through his PhD, he performed stand-up comedy.  Much like this blog is my way to express my discontent, discernment, and discombobulating, it seems that Dr. Ruben worked through his via his act which then produced this book.

I will be the first to admit that I write a lot of negative things on here.  However, for every realistically negative and hyperbolic hypercompensative remark I make, I’d like to think that I also say something positive.  I truly believe that I blog the highs and lows of academia, no matter how high and how low those get.

Well… Dr. Ruben got the lows part, but he failed to mention the highs.  Reading this book was like bashing the skull of the academy into the ground repeatedly while screaming “TAKE THAT, JERK!” at the top of one’s lungs when academia was already having a particularly bad day anyway.  I’m not saying that Dr. Ruben’s observations aren’t based in truth, but he takes that truth to such an alarmist extreme that it often moves past the realm of “funny” or “sad” and into “bullying”.  If the academy was a person, I’d call Dr. Ruben’s book slander and be tempted to sue him for libel of character.

In the words of the immortal Edmund Kean (well, attestation of the quote is debatable, but someone else has done the legwork on that): “Dying is easy, Comedy is hard”.

I worked the New York stand-up circuit for a while.  Trust me, I know how difficult it is to be funny.  But humor isn’t always just taking something to its ridiculous and negative extreme (though, granted, sometimes it is).  After reading Dr. Ruben’s book, I wasn’t left wondering about my own life choices.  Instead, I was left wondering about his.  If he truly had such a hideous, horrible, no-good, very-bad time in graduate school, then why did he do it?

Sure, plenty of people get into the PhD having no idea what they’re in for (I would argue that this is anyone and everyone who goes for a PhD, I certainly fell into this category), but nobody says that you have to continue if you’re truly that miserable.  Depending on your field, the rate of attrition is approximately 20% – 30% (higher for mathematics and physical sciences, lower in the humanities).  Plenty of people enter into doctorate living, decide it’s not for them, and leave.

The most important thing for a graduate student to remember while doing her PhD is that THIS IS YOUR LIFE.  It’s not a piece of your life, it’s not something you can just do then do something else afterward, you are training for the rest of your life.  While you are doing so, you are incurring a great deal of debt, stress, and personal strife.  Why would you sacrifice so much for something if you weren’t absolutely in love with it?

Now, I will grant you, I have my bad days.  I, in fact, have my awful days.  But never, since I started, have I ever once thought that I would be better off doing something else.  The

problems I have, while large problems and really tough to deal with, are problems that I would rather have than any other problems in the world.

So, if you must, read Dr. Ruben’s book… but do so with the understanding that a) he’s not a stellar writer, b) he’s not a stellar comedian, and c) if his life were truly that miserable, he should have done something about it other than complain.

…though his commentary on dealing with undergraduate students is dead-on.

Zowie, Powie, Holy Cow

This week, instead of engaging in post-semester flop, I’ve actually had a fairly busy schedule.  Two adventures in particular stand out as being blogworthy…

On Wednesday as a sort of post-mortem field trip, my eighteenth century professor organized an outing to the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale to see their current exhibit “The God of Our Idolatry”: Garrick and Shakespeare.  The Lewis Walpole Library is a collection of materials pertaining to British Eighteenth Century Studies.  It began as the private collection of Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (a loyal and noble son of Yale), whose fascination was drawn by eighteenth-century eccentric genius Horace Walpole (sidebar: Walpole wrote what many deem to be the first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764 and also built himself a gothic castle just south of London which he called “Strawberry Hill”.  He decked it out with turrets, towers, false walls, staircases leading nowhere, and a dwarf butler.  Strawberry Hill is open to the public today, though probably sans dwarf butler).  The Library boasts over 32,000 manuscripts, some of which are theatre-related (playtexts, broadsides, drawings/pictures of actors in character and out, etc.).

The library is on beautiful, lush grounds.  Two buildings (the archive itself and the resident scholars’ house (the “root house”)) actually date from the eighteenth century.  A croquet set was arrayed on the lawn upon our arrival.

We were welcomed into the root house to have lunch (it’s furnished in old-school New England style and simply charming) before being ushered into the New Library.

That’s approximately when I decided that I would like to drop everything and live there.

The New Library is an oaken room furnished with bookcases in every corner, leather

I WANT TO LIVE HERE!

wingback chairs, and a baby grand piano.  It’s lit by a chandelier hanging from the cavernous ceiling, and a large arched window at the far corner.  I felt like I had walked into the library from Beauty and the Beast.  I would have been content to just sit in this room all day (perhaps with a book of my own and a snifter of brandy) and pontificate on life’s finer qualities.

But the fun didn’t stop there.  The exhibit was exciting and interesting, of course.  I had just finished writing a paper on Garrick, Shakespeare, and Hamlet, how could I not have fun in a roomful of Garrick paraphernalia?  And let me tell you, the more I learn about Garrick, the more I love that man.  He was simply so delightfully impressed with himself (and, by the way, because of this, the rest of London was as well).

But that wasn’t all!  Then they took us into the reading room where (as usually happens when a group of visiting scholars is being shown an archive) they had pulled materials related to our research interests.

And there, sitting on the table, just waiting for me, were two volumes of the Johnson/Steevens edition (London: 1773).

It doesn’t matter how frequently I handle archival materials, getting to touch documents and books which are hundreds of years old always always gets a rise out of me.  I sat down and lovingly paged through the volumes (they had pulled the index and volume two).  I used the book snake copiously (because book snakes are STILL awesome!).  I reveled in the book cushions.  I tried not to drool on it.

JOHNSON/STEEVENS EDITION!

Oh yea, there were other really interesting things on the table (photograph files, original editions of The Constant Lovers and other plays, eighteenth century satire pictures, etc.), but JOHNSON/STEEVENS EDITION!

So, yes, it was absolutely worth the two-hour-each-way drive to get there.  The exhibit, by the by, is free and open to the public during their normal gallery hours (Wednesday 2-4:30), or may be viewed by appointment if you’re really interested.  Really nifty stuff, but likely not worth the hassle to get there unless you’re a super dork like me.

Adventure two: took the best friend to see Little Shop of Horrors for his first time last night (can you imagine, he hadn’t heard the music, seen the movie, or seen the play!  There are still people in this world like that!).  We caught a production by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

I’m having trouble finding shots from the Broadway Revival, but here’s a shot of a regional show which used the original puppet plant from the ’82 off-broadway production to give you a sense of the scope of the thing, and how all-encompassing it should be.

On the whole, the production was fairly solid and traditional.  Unfortunately, I have an extremely soft spot for this show and did manage to catch the 2003 Broadway production which was spectacular so it’s really hard for Little Shop to impress me.  This was a pretty good training-wheels show, and if I hadn’t seen the Broadway production I probably would have been more impressed.

The Charles Mosesian Theater is a big awkward space.  It’s a raked-house proscenium style stage with an audience pit that fans out to the side, creating really awkward sight lines at the extreme angles (which, unfortunately, we were seated in).  In addition, the space is large enough to be good for most musicals, but I truly feel that Little Shop requires a fairly small space.  In order to instill the real terror that the show demands, you want an intimate house that feels like the action can truly leap off the stage and attack you.  To pull off the show’s ending, you need to be able to engulf the theatre in energy and that is extremely difficult to do in a house that’s over one hundred seats.

This production, unfortunately, did not deliver that.  It felt like I was watching a film and didn’t really reach out and grab me.

The performances were solid, but didn’t go above and beyond.  Particularly disappointing was Blake Pfeil’s Seymour who, while he was able to conjure sufficiently weasley and lovable, copped out of every major song-capping note he was given.  Rather than belting that last, glorious, musical-theatre note, he instead chose to speak the last line of his songs.  This may be partially due to the show’s direction which also erred on the safe side of traditional.

On the whole, if this production had just been pushed to the next level, it would have been fantastic.  Even barring the awkward sight lines.

Theatre isn’t safe.  Acting is perhaps the most horrible profession someone can go into.  An actor is paid to tear open the inner recesses of himself and explore his deepest, darkest parts publicly, before an audience, eight times a week.  Little Shop is a campy, comedic romp in the macabre and a study about greed, desire, and the extremities of humanity.  If you play it safe, it becomes a hackneyed walk in Poe’s garden with some songs that everyone already knows.

Little Shop of Horrors plays through May 20th at Arsenal Center for the Arts.  For more info and tickets, check it out here.

Podcast of the Black Swan: Episode 5

When we last left our heroes, they had been broadcasting from a quasi-functional blackbox in a hotel room in Orlando, fondly reminiscing about the now-defunct “Jaws”  attraction at Universal Studios, Florida, and only occasionally interrupted by the blackbox’s previous contents.  Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the hotel room was infiltrated by a group of surly pirates who promptly attacked with their advanced technologies and rendered our heroes unconscious.  For the full low-down, check out our last episode here!

Today, the adventure continues with the exciting new installment of our Podcast mini-series: “How We Spent our Winter Vacation”.  Click here to check it out.

As always, many thanks to the ever-talented Matt Rosvally and once again thanks to the voice talents of Billy Maloy.

Enjoy!