Snow Woes

My brain is a little numb.  I’ve been working very hard for a very long time, and there really isn’t a break in sight.  Well… there kinda is, but not one that I’m getting any close to (in a matter of a month I can take a pseudo-break but I can’t call it a “real” break since the semester will have just started and, thusly, I’ll be teaching at that point).  For now, I’m buried in books and, no matter how much reading I do, the book fort never seems to get any smaller (probably due to the fact that I keep piling library books on top of it even as I read them out from the bottom of the stacks).

To make matters worse, over the weekend we got our first major snowstorm here in the

From last year and with an APPROPRIATE amount of snow. Harumph.

Northeast.  This at least gave me the ability to successfully test my hypothesis that I would rather do any other task in my household than shovel.  As I suited up to deal with the icy toboggan-trail that had become my driveway, I couldn’t help but wryly remark to myself that snow days really ain’t what they used to be.

The funny thing about snow in Boston is you’d think that, since it’s a city inhabited by New Englanders, nobody would have a problem with it.  They’d go about their business without much to-do and continue on their merry ways amidst the downfall.  But no.   Somehow, inevitably, the first snow of the year transforms the city into a conglomerate of royal jerks who have all miraculously forgotten how to drive.  Additionally, even though the roads are still slippy/slidey, Bostonians think that snow on the sidewalk makes it acceptable to walk in the road rather than tromp on their nice, safe, designated walkway.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many pedestrians I almost ran down on my way home from rehearsal last night.

As an added bonus, since my driveway is uphill both ways and the nice fluffy pillows of wonder that fell from the sky this weekend froze over with about an inch of caked-on skating-rink quality ice, my back seems to have called up its union and gone on strike in protest of hard manual labor.

And we’re expecting more snow tomorrow.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my cave.  Grumbling.

Jargon

I’m at a truly odd point of my PhD process.  That is: the in-between place.

Right now, I’m not quite a “Student” not quite a “Candidate”.  I’ve passed 2/3 of my exams, but I still have 1/3 to go before I can say that I’ve completed them and, thereby, moved into the next stage of my PhD.

Explaining this to folks who are outside of the academy has been an interesting process.  There are many terms and definitions that are commonplace to us denizens of the ivory tower but sound mostly the same to folks on the outside.  As such, I’ve found myself having the same conversation over and over again (which I don’t begrudge; it’s wonderful that

...bringing this one back because it's quite possibly my favorite pic I've ever posted on the blog.  I am, in fact, a Shakespeare Paladin.

…bringing this one back because it’s quite possibly my favorite pic I’ve ever posted on the blog. I am, in fact, a Shakespeare Paladin.

folks in my life care enough about me to ask questions about this process).  However, since I’ve found that it is a common communication issue, I also think it would be useful to have an easy-access reference guide for those less-than-familiar with this process.

So, in case you have a struggling Graduate Student in your life, here’s some good vocabulary for you to know:

A.B.D.: Stands for “All But Dissertation”.  This is a colloquial term that we use to refer to someone who has passed all of her degree requirements except writing the book.  It’s also a way to refer to someone who is a….

Doctoral Candidate: Someone who has passed all degree requirements except the dissertation (generally means that the dissertation is in process).  This is not to be confused with…

Doctoral Student: (Yes, this is a different thing, only in academia….)  A Doctoral Student is someone who is in progress with the early parts of the degree (coursework, exams, etc.).  Alternately, someone who has been accepted into a program but hasn’t started that program yet.  As an aside: mixing up these two terms can be… awkward.  You are either giving someone credit for work they did not already do and thereby devaluing that work, or taking away a hard-earned benchmark.  I have, over the years, been called by well-meaning onlookers a “Doctoral Candidate” and even “Dr. Rosvally” before needing to quickly correct this.  In an industry that functions almost exclusively on the importance of words, it is not considered supportive to devalue those words by using them outside of their accepted meanings.  In short: try to use the appropriate title for someone in the process of his PhD.  Don’t worry; you have the rest of his lives to call him “Dr.”.

Comprehensive Exams: Or “Comps” (yes, if you’ve been following this blog at all over the last few months, you already know what this means).  The exhaustive, stressful exam generally administered at the end of coursework (sometimes administered in steps over the course of coursework) that proves a student is a competent generalist in her field and, thereby, is qualified to move on to the next step.

Orals: Sometimes, the comps include an oral examination as well as a written examination (this is the case in my department).

Dissertation: The large piece of writing you produce as one of the final steps in your PhD process.  This is an exhaustive, original piece of scholarship and (presumable) a PhD’s first long-term project.  It is sometimes colloquially shortened to “diss”.  It is not to be confused with a…

Thesis: This generally refers to the culminating project of a Master’s degree.  It is shorter than a dissertation and with less expectations of originality.  The big difference between a Master’s degree and a doctoral degree is that a Master’s degree shows that you have mastered a given field while a doctoral degree shows that you have added something to the field.  The capstone writing projects for each degree exhibit this difference; the thesis is based upon work that has already been done and the dissertation is something completely new.

Home Institution: The place where a scholar calls “home”.  This implies that the scholar is somehow in residence at the institution, either as a student, candidate, or professor.

 Committee: An assembled group of scholars (who, ideally, have some expertise in the field which the candidate is writing about) who evaluate the dissertation for its worthiness

alternately, you could find a partner to go dance in a bookstore with.  No word of a lie, this is a past time of mine.

alternately, you could find a partner to go dance in a bookstore with. No word of a lie, this is a past time of mine.

as an original piece of scholarship.  Generally, this group consists mostly of scholars from the candidate’s home institution with one outside reader for consistency/fairness/representation of the field at large.

So now that you’re able to use the lingo, your academic street cred just went up by at least 10%.  Seriously.  Go have a latte and stand on the steps of the library chatting about your most recent re-read of a major canonical work and see if I’m wrong.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

Autumn is Coming

As August winds down and the summer comes to a close, I am nearing the completion of my study-time.  I’m also nearing the completion of my list of things to study.

Lately, when I talk to people about the study process, pretty much everyone has the same thing to say about it: “Well, it’s almost over.”  The smart people then revisit this statement, look at me with a wide-eyed sheepish gaze, and add “…which is both good and bad.”

It’s both good and bad that I’ve, at this point, combed through every chapter in Brockett except the one devoted to contemporary theatre (which I might not get to and, honestly, that’s probably okay given the amount of contemporary theatre I see and have lived through).  It’s both good and bad that I’ve been through every section of my reading list and ordered/read the books from each of them (I’ve just done the last round of book-looking for the “North America” section; I’ll be picking those up at the library tomorrow).  It’s both good and bad that I’ve even started to return some of the beginning-of-the-summer ILL acquisitions (ILL books tend to have a sooner due-date than those borrowed from my home institution, and they are unavailable for renewal so I don’t have much by way of choice here and with 135 books sitting on my floor and more to come I can probably use the cycle-out time; if I haven’t gotten to them by now chance are I won’t get to them anyway).

This is, by far, the largest book in the book fort.  It is literally bigger than I am and 300 pages long.  It nearly killed me.

This is, by far, the largest book in the book fort. It is literally bigger than I am and 300 pages long. It nearly killed me.

I’m feeling oddly serene these days (though exhausted).  Granted, it is the beginning of the week and I tend to be more at peace with the universe before Thursday morning.  However, there is a consistent feeling of calm; I’ve learned a lot this summer.  I know a lot of things.  I’ve forgotten a lot this summer, but I’ve scheduled review time into my study habits.  I continue to look at old exams and think “well, it’d be a struggle but I think could manage this”.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting used to the stress load (there’s only so long you can run around feeling like Atlas before your shoulders become stronger).  Whatever it is (and I don’t want to say this too loudly in case my body figures out that I’m onto it), I am grateful for the respite from the physical symptoms of stress.

I’m definitely experiencing the trifecta of exhaustion (physical, mental, and emotional).  I’m definitely still in the weeds.  But, for whatever reason, the end of summer isn’t (at least at this moment) causing blinding panic and paralyzing terror.

I’m looking forward to the start of the semester.  I’m looking forward to teaching my acting class.  I’m looking forward to taking the next step on the journey towards Doctorhood.  I’m looking forward to returning the book fort only to re-model it with shiny new books.  I’m looking forward to doing something new and different with my days.  I’m looking forward to boots, sweaters, scarves, and the return of my favorite seasonal jacket.  I’m looking forward to pumpkin flavored treats.

Autumn is coming.  You can try to run from it, or embrace it.  And I, personally, look great in fall colors.

I hope your semester-start prep is going well; keep plugging!  We’re nearly there!

The Care and Feeding of your Comps-Taking PhD-to-be

As we launch into August, it has come to my attention that I will have to take the comprehensive exam.

“Well, duh!” You say, “Isn’t that what you’ve been studying for since June?  Isn’t that the cause of your extreme stress, and the true root of every single nightly anxiety dream you’ve been experiencing?  Don’t you already know this?”

…yes, I know this.  In theory.  Comps, much like any other part of this process of becoming, is something that is effectively fiction until it’s reality.  You know that it’s listed as a degree requirement in the Graduate Student Handbook, you see its wake in the eyes of your senior colleagues, you understand that it is a thing that does happen, but until you have some confirmation that it will happen to you it still seems like you roommate’s imaginary Boyfriend who lives in Canada*.

For me, the concrete proof came in an e-mail from our department admin this week announcing the dates of the exam, some details about the exam, and the locations where we will each be subject to our individual torture hell anguish trial.  This, combined with the realization that it is, in fact, August and thereby the summer will, at some point, end has added some heat to the proverbial fire and kicked my already-overblown stress level into overdrive.  The anxiety dreams have gotten more pressing (though, sadly, more routine and so affect me less when I wake up), the fatigue has gotten more dragging, and the day-to-day realities of comps studying have

Another cute picture of a cat that's not mine with books that are mine.

Another cute picture of a cat that’s not mine with books that are mine.

gotten more mind-numbing.  I’d love to say I was in the final stretch, but I’m really only cresting the mid-point.  I’ve got about a third of the way left to go.

This in mind, I would like to take a moment to address the care and feeding of your beloved PhD student.  If you’re reading this, there is (in some capacity) someone in your life who has, will, or is gone through or going through this process.  As such, please bear in mind the following fundamental truths of comps studying:

Truth the first: every small adjustment, change, or mishap is suddenly a GIANT CALAMITY.  Right now, there are very few things that we can control.  Changing a SINGLE THING which falls inside that realm is simply disastrous.  In the past week, I’ve burst into tears over eggplant because it wasn’t in the fridge when I expected it to be.  No joke.  Treat your PhD student gently and if something ABSOLUTELY HAS TO CHANGE, make sure it has the smallest effect on his/her existence.

Truth the second: We don’t have enough hours in our day.  Do not expect us to go above and beyond for anything right now (note: “above and beyond” can just mean “hey, can you take out the trash AND recycling because of completely reasonable reason y?”  See truth the first for further explanation on this point).  Also, do not expect us to be capable of organizing, planning, being in charge, helping, assisting, or taking care of anything no matter how menial it may seem.  We simply can’t do it.

Truth the third: Small words.  Please.  Use small words.  And unless you’re talking to us about our field, don’t expect to engage us in any conversation that requires more than grunts, nods, or Neolithic fist pounding.  If you do expect such engagement, also expect that we will almost immediately find a way to turn the conversation back to whatever it is we’re studying.  Example: I found clear references to eighteenth century acting technique in Pixar’s Monster’s University.  When my companion asked what I thought of the film, it was about all I had to add to the conversation.

2013-07-28 21.36.58

and another picture of my desk. This time in PANORAMA!

Truth the fourth: Any small kindness will be taken as earth-shatteringly wonderful.  This includes meal-cooking/meal-providing, hugs without conversation, and pretty much any unobtrusive reminder that you’re there, you love us, and you understand we’re going through a rough time but don’t worry it’ll get better soon.

Truth the fifth: Treat plan-making with us as a precarious process which may or may not come to full fruition, and please PLEASE don’t take it personally when we have to stay home and read, work late for some reason, etc.  This also includes unanswered/unreturned texts or phone calls.  We still love you and we promise that we’ll get back to you come September when this ordeal has come to its inevitable conclusion.

Truth the sixth: As odd as this may look from the outside, this is a life-changing process which (literally) determines the fate of our future.  Our entire careers will be changed by the outcome of this exam.  Dealing with that reality every day is daunting, dizzying, and frankly terrifying.  We are essentially training our brains to think like professional academics and this is something we will use for the rest of our lives.  Please don’t compare our stress over this to your bad day at work, the failures of your dating life, or burning dinner.  It will just make us angry and frustrated that you don’t really understand what we’re going through.

Truth the seventh: Pretty much just treat us like cranky three-year-olds and you can’t go wrong.  Simple things that provide amusement are appreciated, tasty treats will always be greeted with gratitude, ignoring us when we’re having a temper tantrum is perfectly acceptable.

I assure you, we will repay the favor tenfold when we’re no longer living in the seventh circle.

*Please Note: My current roommate doesn’t have one of these, but I understand from contemporary satire (i.e. Avenue Q.) that it could be a thing which a hopelessly single person might say in order to convince his/her friends that he/she is not, in fact, hopelessly single.

Lateral Thinking

My friends, I have discovered the secret to comps study longevity.

Lateral Thinking.

“Lateral Thinking” is a concept introduced to me by the great John Basil when I was studying with him at the American Globe Theatre.  John contended that it was the key to comedy.  He had a hard time defining it, but gave us the following example to help understand it:

He once saw a televised game show akin to family feud in which contestants had to reply to a prompt with something which they think might be a popular answer.  So for instance, if the category was “things you would take on an airplane”, the contestant could say “suitcase”, “neck pillow”, etc.  There was a time component to this particular round so the contestant had to be the first to press his buzzer and answer.

The category was “things you sit on.”  One contestant, feverish in his

Working the other day while hiding out from the heat.

Working the other day while hiding out from the heat.

pursuit of fame, fortune, and a cruise, instantaneously pressed his buzzer and shouted the first thing which came to his mind: “BROCCOLI!”

“Lateral Thinking” it turns out is a fairly recent development in logic.  A phrase coined by Maltese physician Edward De Bono, it refers to the method of solving problems by way of creativity.  Rather than a “vertical” approach (solving a problem step by step, with each step logically leading to the next) or a “horizontal” approach (throwing out idea upon idea without concern for implementation, a process often linked with imagination over logic), lateral thinking encourages ingenuity and attacking a problem via completely indirect means.

In terms of comedy, we can see how this appeals.  Comedy, the axiom goes, comes from recognition and surprise.  We laugh at something because we either recognize the situation which is being presented to us, or we are utterly surprised by the seemingly illogical response of the individuals/things within the situation (think of every Charlie Chaplin sketch ever).

In terms of comps, Lateral Thinking is key.  I can spend several hours a day with my books, but when I recognize that I’ve hit brain-melt o’clock, it is time to implement something drastically different.  Often, I can work for six to seven hours at a clip before I just can’t work anymore.  At this point, I need to walk away from my computer and engage in a physical activity of some kind.

Because of this, my running schedule has been wonderfully regular, and I’m picking up some extra party tricks to add to my “fun, cool-looking, dangerous things that Danielle does because she was allegedly raised by circus gypsies”*.  I’m learning to spin poi (…mostly so that I can light them on fire and add this to my list of fire tricks; I already breathe and eat fire so really, what else is there to do but weave the stuff around my body in complicated and death-defying ways?), and my sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law have finally convinced me of the merits of the bull whip as a viable form of physical relaxation (Okay, I know what you’re thinking, and it probably has something to do with corsets and

my haul from Tisch complete with HELLOPHANT!

my haul from Tisch complete with HELLOPHANT!

dungeons, but please believe me when I tell you that bull whip is actually more of a martial art than a… ahem… personal art form).  If you consider the fact that I have to bike about a half mile to get to anywhere where I can legally play with the whip (and where it’s safe to do so), that’s a fair amount of physical activity I can sneak into my day.

I’ve found that this serves as a combination stress-reliever, mood enhancer, and diet-booster.  I’ve also found that if I take a break like this for about an hour, I can come back and sneak in another few hours of work.

So there you have it: physical activity saves brains, and always eat your vegetables.

Lateral thinking: not just for problem-solving logicians anymore.

*only partially true; we’re more like the Partridge Family meets a Renaissance Faire

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.