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.

Measure still for Measure

For those who have been following the saga, Measure for Measure opened on Thursday.  At this point, it’s nearly halfway through a two-week run.  I was there to see the show opening night and, let me tell you, that was an interesting feeling.

I’ve been living with this project since last April when I sent an introductory e-mail to the director.  Over the course of June/July, we spent a great amount of time cutting the script and crafting an acting edition (the first time I’ve ever had the chance to do this).  Her goal was for the show to run two hours.

It ran two hours on the dot with a fifteen-minute intermission.

Getting prepped for final dress; you can see that I was eagerly telling such to my twitter feed

Getting prepped for final dress; you can see that I was eagerly telling such to my twitter feed

Since June/July, my level of involvement has ebbed and flowed.  I team-taught a text workshop to the cast (along with my colleague who was ADing the show) to get them acquainted with the language.  I called it the “quick and dirty method to opening up Shakespeare for actors who have never studied him before”.  Who says brevity is the soul of wit?

For the most part, it worked.  The product was definitely not conservatory-level, and there are notes I still would have given, but art is art and art is never finished nor is it ever completely satisfying to the true artist.  On the whole, it was a show which I enjoyed (and that’s saying something; anyone who follows this blog can attest to how harsh a critic I can be), a show which I was proud to present to my cohorts, and a show which I had the opportunity to see grow from a seed of an idea to a fully-mounted production.  That is a process which is always satisfying.

Over the course of working on Measure, I would occasionally get e-mails asking not-so-random (but sometimes seemingly so) questions.  Do Catholic churches ring out the time?  How long does it take to become a nun?  What does this word/sentence/phrase mean?  Some of these questions are things I could have predicted (seriously, “Prenzie”?), some of them I never would have imagined.  But that’s part of what was so exciting about this; in working closely with the text and the director, I had the opportunity to come to new understandings about a show I (honestly) hadn’t put overmuch thought into before.

One of the tasks which I enjoyed the most was crafting a timeline of the action.  When does this scene happen?  How much time passes between Act I and Act V?  (…the answer, for those who are curious, is somewhere between six days and three weeks depending on how much time passes between when Angelo takes office and when Claudio is arrested.  After I.ii, the rest of the play’s events occur over the course of five distinct days).  It was gratifying to be able to sift and sort the text and make some sense of it in a useful, tangible way.  This, ideally, is what my job would always be like; someone has a question which needs answering, they ask that question of me, I go through what I know best and find an answer.  Alas, if only everything were so simple!

My partner in crime, who was able to attend opening with me, told me he saw my fingerprints on the show.  That, if nothing else, is perhaps the most gratifying part of my job.  I also received a lovely e-mail from our department chair complimenting my work on the essays in the show’s program (double wonderful since those essays gave me such a headache when I was working on them).

2013-02-14 20.00.10

Opening night. Yes, I know, the set looks basically the same from final dress. Sorry for the redundancy!

So, I declare my first official project as a dramaturg to be a success.  I thoroughly enjoyed the process (even if sometimes it kept me up at night… literally.  I was up until 2AM the night before opening sending out notes to actors) and will gladly do it again.

…maybe after a little break though.  Twelfth Night is relatively time consuming and I do need to catch up on the desk-piles again.  I really wish my papers would start writing themselves.

Finals, Finals, Finals….

Multi-tasking at its best is the name of the game right now. As I begin to take the dive into deep-finals mode, here’s a list of things I have done/will do over the course of last week and this coming weekend.

  1. After much waiting, gnashing of teeth, and bating of breathe, it looks like we are a GO GO GO! for the launch of Offensive Shadows! About a year ago, my ever-wonderful partner in crime hatched the plan that we should co-host a podcast dedicated to explicating Shakespeare for the common man. He, as a normal smart
    Myself and aforementioned partner in crime during our visit to Gallow Green this summer.

    Myself and aforementioned partner in crime during our visit to Gallow Green this summer.

    person who has been adulterated by having a best friend doing a PhD in Bardy Goodness, had realized many things over the course of watching me at my work: 1) that Shakespeare (and theatre in general) is pretty neat! Like, much more neat than he had maybe at first thought. 2) That normal smart people (like himself) could definitely get into Shakespeare and connect with it if they had someone to talk to about it . 3) That I’m a good someone to talk to about it and, through the process of this talking to, we could help other people get into it as well.

So we set out on our quest. We are going to cover all of the plays in (roughly) chronological-to-being-written order (as much as we can), omitting the War of the Roses cycle for its own special run in the middle of the series. We will be releasing one episode a week and each play will have between three and five episodes dedicated to it. The episodes will include discussions of the play’s major themes, things to watch for in the play, information about dramaturgy, history, textual notes, and special readings of snippets by our very talented friends.

In short, if you like Shakespeare, or think you might like Shakespeare but have no idea where to begin, or know nothing about Shakespeare and would like to learn, or would really like to listen to the dulcet tones of my voice on a regular basis, you should definitely check us out!

The first series (released this weekend) is a set of preview episodes on Titus Andronicus. Through the process of recording these episodes, we learned a lot about the podcasting process and, by learning a lot, didn’t produce what we thought was our best work. As a result, these episodes will be a taste of what Offensive Shadows has to offer, but won’t be exactly what you’ll get in the real deal episodes.

Our first real deal stuff will be out the following Monday and will focus on Two Gentlemen of Verona.

  1. Prepping the last of my presentations of the semester. This talk is on the work I’m doing for my paper on William Brown’s 1821-22 production of Richard III. Some pretty nifty and exciting stuff if you like early American theatre.
  2. Wrapping up research on my two finals papers and transitioning into writing mode. This is one of the more difficult stages of the research process; when is enough enough? There is always something more to learn and when do you walk away from the books and begin to write? For term papers, I constantly have to remind myself that I am not writing a book, I am not expected to know everything about a topic, and I am definitely not going to be able to dig up every bit of archival evidence available. I tend to research until I can see (very clearly) my research looping back in on itself. What I mean by that is that if I’m reading the same facts or the same re-printed letters, looking at the same sketches or the same scripts, or if my sources start to reference each other, it’s pretty clear that I have enough to write a 15-25 page paper. There’s always the lurking gremlins, and generally there will be something you’ve forgotten to verify that will rear its ugly head when you’re elbow-deep in the writing process, but for the most part my philosophy should do you as a general rule.
  3. I turned in my essays on Measure for Measure for Prologue (Tufts’ Drama publication that comes out in conjunction with each of the shows the department puts on). For Measure, I had to write two 800-1000 word pieces; one a dramaturge’s essay (fondly referred to as “Page Three”, guess why?), and one a sort of op-ed piece about some issue which the play brings up (“Page One”). These essays, short as they were, caused me no undue amount of stress. Prologue is disseminated fairly widely and a good amount of eyes will be upon my work for it; it’s yet another way that we graduate students can bring honor and glory to the department. Have I done it with my pithy writing skills? Stay tuned to find out!
  4. Prepping my abstract for submission to the 2013 Comparative Drama Conference. I had a great time at this conference last year, and have been helping the conference
    The CDC conference hotel.  AWESOME!

    The CDC conference hotel. AWESOME!

    chair get an official conference twitter feed on its feet. I’m pretty excited about the possibilities that social media can bring to a national conference like this, so here’s hoping my abstract wows them enough to ask me down there to speak!

So that’s me right now. Excuse me as I take a deep breathe and head down deep into the land of paper writing. I think I’m well-prepared for it at least; and I know that I will always have my trusty French press at my side. Small comfort on this long and winding road to slay the semester’s final chimeras.

Have a great weekend!

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.

Measure still for Measure

Yesterday, I got to listen to the first full read-through of our cast do our cut of Measure for Measure.

This was a new and different experience in several ways.

Firstly, this is my first time dramaturging a production. While this isn’t the first time I’ve been on the “other side” of the table (i.e. not acting), I definitely have much more experience as an actor than I do as a member of the production team. As such, to be sitting behind that big folding table listening intently rather than partaking in the reading felt like wearing someone else’s shoes. While they were the correct size for me, they weren’t quite worn in for my feet and the shape was unfamiliar (though, really, it’s a shoe, so how unfamiliar can it be?). At the end of the day, theatre is theatre and Shakespeare is Shakespeare and, while both can supply endless permutations of difference, they are both places I know well. So, while it felt new to be sitting in the Big Comfy Dramaturge chair with all the responsibilities and privileges allotted to that, it still felt like home.

Secondly, this is the first time that I’ve ever participated in editing an edition of Shakespeare. To know that the story being told was one that I helped to shape (and one that I have some amount of control over) was absolutely thrilling.

Third, my job in this production is to be an expert. I am sitting in that room because I have a degree of knowledge about an aspect of the show that nobody else in the room has. As such, some things are my job to comment on, correct, observe, and shape. While this is, in the end, a show that belongs to the actors and the director, it is my job to make them look good and ensure that they aren’t missing something big, historical, textual, Shakespearean, etc. In other words: I am the champion of Shakespeare in that room. I am

my job, ladies and gentlemen

his sword and shield, his chosen paladin (… oh what I would give to put that on a job description or in my CV). This is an immense privilege, but also a huge responsibility. If I miss something, it’s missed. If I fail to explain something properly, it is also lost to the ether. I must be ever-vigilant, ever-watchful, and ever-articulate.

It is still very early in the process and, as such, we have more of an amorphous blob of a show than a cohesive unit. There is a great deal of work to be done on all fronts; a first read functions only to get the words in the air and to give some sense of direction for the actors and designers. As such, there are problems that can be spotted at this juncture and corrected early (and problems that must be spotted and corrected early), and things that can only be warning signs.

Examples of things that I found yesterday which were important to note at this stage (pun intended):

*Minor across-the-board pronunciation issues. If ever you do Shakespeare, read Shakespeare, or see Shakespeare that you want to comment upon; note this: the word “doth” is pronounced “d-uh-th” not “d-aw-th”. This one drives me crazy and you hear it far too often. “Troth” is another commonly mispronounced Shakespearism (pronounced “Tr-oh-th” not “tr-aw-th”), though I didn’t hear this one yesterday so they must be doing well with it. I would say that most of my job revolves around ensuring correct pronunciation and clarity of meaning by providing definitions to obscure words (or things that have fallen out of the common usage). If you wind up working on a show without a dramaturge, just make sure you’re pronouncing things properly. The easiest way to make yourself look like a know-nothing onstage is to go up there without knowing how to say your lines.

*A few textual notes which are specific to Measure and, unless you’ve spent a great deal of time with the show, you may not notice on your own. For example: the word “whore” pops up again and again in this show and, often times, it’s internally nested. Isabella says “abhor” a whole lotta times (which is funny because she’s a nun and is constantly preaching chastity and virtue). There’s even a character named “Abhorson”. Actors need to be aware of these things and sensitive to them, but they are easy to gloss over if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Shakespeare police to the rescue!

*Some juicy ways to use the language that, again, unless you’re specially trained would be easy to miss. Shakespeare is a master of words and, as such, a master of providing words which can help you act. When you are speaking them, you need to use them. Devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, and repetition of sounds/full words can provide acting clues and, if you ignore them, you wind up delivering a flat reading of a full text. Alerting the actors to these clues is the first step towards colorful Shakespeare.

 Like I said, this show has a long way to go before it is ready to open, but luckily we have a lot of time to make that happen. I’m really looking forward to seeing this show grow and supporting it along the way. The actors are starting with a good, solid foundation; if they can build at a steady rate, the final production is really going to be something worth seeing.

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.

Into the Abyss

So I have previously mentioned that part of my process come panic time involves a giant whiteboard.

This is a survival mechanism which I developed in my Master’s.  Often, a graduate student lives in three to four different worlds an each world is represented by a separate syllabus.  Each has its own deadlines, requirements, readings, library pile, points of interest on the internet, points of contact at the department, rules, regulations, and practices.  Often, meshing these worlds together is the cause of a great deal of stress come finals time (see my momentary freak-out about over scheduling myself towards the end of last semester).  Also, because a course can contain many little assignments in addition to a large one, often things can get lost in the shuffle.

To combat this, I developed the whiteboard technique.  Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, I make a chart.  I list what the assignment is (and, if it requires further specificity which due to the nature of grad-school courses it often does not, who it is for), where to send it (if you’re talking about abstracts and publication submissions, often those e-mails can get lost in the shuffle as well), and when it is due.  Then I leave myself a place to check off when the assignment has been completed.  On the side, I create a list of ongoing projects with no due-dates, just things that I need to remember to do.

Getting it all down in black and white (and often also orange, purple, and green when I’m feeling whimsical) helps to assure me that a) I didn’t miss anything, b) I won’t miss anything, and c) I really and truly do have a handle on my life.

At the end of the semester, when all is said and done, I leave the whiteboard there for a while with all of its check boxes intact.  It gives me a sense of accomplishment to see that I’ve met all my deadlines and, at the end of a semester, one needs all the sense of accomplishment one can find.

But the other day, I took the leap.

I erased the whiteboard.

It’s pretty freeing to be able to sit at my desk and have a giant blank slate hanging over me.  Of course, my summer projects are taking up a lot more of my time than I had anticipated (I dramaturge eight to ten hours a week, German class four hours a week, study approx. ten hours a week, have been trying to catch up on my sleep, my e-mails, my reading, my knitting, my life, and my gym schedule, I haven’t really had time to touch my papers that I wanted to brush off over the summer yet but it will come).  These ongoing projects, though, the kind with no deadline, they’re not exactly whiteboard material.  It’s like looking into a great white expanse of nothing.  My time is my own again.  I’m not working under pressure, I’m not working under any imposed or hard end-stop, I’m just working as much as I can as fast as I can.

…so I guess on the other hand not having white-board deadlines also means that I’m probably working more in between all the other things I do, but at this point I’ll just relish the change of pace.



Alright, now that I’ve been distracted by zombie Hamlet, I suppose I should actually check in about this giant project I keep alluding to.

Tufts Drama does three department shows a year; one in the Fall, one in the Spring, and one bridging the gap between the two semesters.  This year for show number two (the gap-bridging show), we are doing Measure for Measure and I have been appointed the project’s dramaturge.

Besides being one of the best words in the English language, “dramaturge” is actually a really fun and exciting position to hold.  The dramaturge is the person on the creative team who does all the research for a given show.  That research can be pretty expansive and weird at times; how do you pronounce this word?  Is this prop period?  What did they mean when they said this?  Where would this character have gone to school?  Would that character have read this book?  In addition, as resident scholar, the dramaturge is often asked to help edit a playscript of a show to create a performance edition.

As resident Shakespearean, I was called upon to lend my brainpower to the project and, as you can imagine, I’m having a blast.  Over the summer, we’re creating our actor’s edition which, while this may sound like a tedious and boring task, is one of the funnest incarnations of work I’ve ever had the pleasure to deal with.

My director has requested that the final show run no longer than two hours.  As Measure for Measure is a show of 2,938 lines which runs approximately three and a half hours in performance when uncut, this is no small task (especially to a text purist like me).

To make these trims (and to make the show read to a contemporary audience when the actors are going to be undergraduates with no specialized training or expansive experience), our process so far has been as such: we meet for three hours once or twice a week and read the entire script aloud to each other.  As we go through, we have found ways to either cut, trim, or keep lines.

 So, basically, for three to six hours a week plus the time I spend adjusting the actual text afterwards, I go into work, read Shakespeare aloud to my director, explicate the passages with her, bat around ideas about how to make this work onstage, find ways to explain what some of the more archaic words and concepts are, and try to figure out if these words/concepts will read to a modern audience and, if not, how can we alter or cut them to do so?

Yea, it’s pretty much my dream job.

The cutting battle is slightly blood because I, as I mentioned, am a text purist.  My director is not.  She is very open to hearing my ideas and defenses about why something should remain, but it does mean that I have to go into a session prepared with sword and shield to defend the text.  This, honestly, is my favorite part and really why I got into the field I am in.  In order to make something stay, my director must understand why it’s important.

My director is a very experienced very talented woman, but not someone who has had extensive experience directing Shakespeare and not someone who has had my experience training with and utilizing the text.  We come at things from very different angles and this makes for a more-than-interesting battleground over the text itself.  She works in the extremely practical (or, as she puts it, “popular”) mindset.  I work in the more traditional (but not stodgy!) mindset.  Together, we represent two sides of a divide which has plagued my field for generations.

Shakespeare Studies as a field is divided into two battlegrounds: the English department and the Theatre department.  As a subset of the theatre department, you also have the scholarly thespians, and the practical thespians.  All of these factions bring different mindsets to bear upon the text.  The English people are all about the book and text analysis, sometimes edging over into history (not of performance techniques or even performance in general, but rather of the events surrounding both the writing of the play and the play’s events).  The scholarly thespians deal with history of performance as well as contemporary performance, edging into how this is of use to actors.  The practical thespians are all about performance.

So we’re not of COMPLETELY different camps (at least I’m not in the English department), but we are definitely on two sides of the scholarly/practical divide.  Coming together to create this project is really what I wanted when I decided to get my PhD.  I love Shakespeare.  Period.  I love everything about his plays, how they’re performed, and how audiences react to them.  Having the opportunity to craft both a set of amateur actors’ experience with Shakespeare as well as an audience’s experience with Shakespeare is the ultimate gratification for me.


This process is also teaching me a lot about theatricality and the meeting of the great divide within my field (something which, honestly, I thought I had a better handle on having been an actor in a past life).  Where does literary studies meet performance studies and how far can one straddle the boundary without falling into it?  Also; how can we communicate meaningfully across this boundary without smothering the other side’s instincts and without disrespecting the other side’s experience?

As a field, I think these are giant questions which we are going to be working on for many years to come.  I certainly don’t have readily available answers.  It is all too easy for both sides of this divide to go into expert mode and disregard the other side entirely and, because of the odd power structure of a theatrical production, this can result in a lot of hurt feelings and bruised egos.  Any of us can choose to cover our ears and sing loudly “I’M RIGHT!”.  But what do we learn from that?  And, more importantly, what do our students learn from that?

Is This the Beginning of Zombie Shakespeare?

I just got done with a dramaturgy session with my director for Measure for Measure (the show I’m dramaturging this year at Tufts and keep promising to fill you in on).  During the drive home, I was all prepared to write a nice long post about the process, how things are going, what a dramaturge actually does, etc.

…but then one of my friends posted this trailer on my facebook wall which clearly made it all but impossible to do anything but comment upon it.

I’m so egregiously excited that I’m having trouble formulating words.  Zombies?  Hamlet?  Spoof movies?  These are a few of my favorite things.  Add chocolate peanut butter, yarn, and shopping and you’d have a giant ball of Dani-crack.

I will begin with the following confession: I have seen nothing more about this film than this trailer.  I’ve done a small amount of research just to try and ground myself in some film-facts and figure out when it will be released to the general public (no answer as of now, by the way, much to my chagrin and dissatisfaction).

But based on what I’ve seen, I couldn’t be more excited if I tried.  A movie that deals with Shakespeare reverently but playfully?  A movie that makes fun of itself while simultaneously touting some good old fashioned Shakespearean values?  A movie that has the potential to be one of the most hilarious Shakes-scene of our times?

The film’s basic premise is that a group of indie film-makers want to make a version of Hamlet but lack the budget for a Kenneth Brannaugh-esque period piece.  Jokingly, they say the only thing they could make on their given budget is a B zombie film… so they solve their problem with a creative re-mix of both.  Midway through, their backer is found dead and so they become enrapt in a plot to cover up her death to ensure a green light for their film.  I’m sure that this causes plenty of outside complications as well, but I’m less concerned about those at the moment.

With the prospect of a zombie Hamlet, My mind immediately jumped to the possibility of the Norwegians being zombies led by a sort of lich-lord Fortinbras.  Denmark could almost literally become a prison due to high security measures set in place in order to prevent further zombie invasions and, upon the collapse of the court at the end, the zombie masses enter to find the corpses of the Denmarkian royalty.

The inclusion of zombies also problematizes death within the play.  What kind of outbreak are we dealing with?  Runners or Shamblers?  Nanovirus or witch doctors?  If nanovirus, then Claudius could well be made into an arch-villain having infected King Hamlet with the virus and making him patient zero of the outbreak.  Hamlet’s ghost could instead be a return of the shambling King as a sort of covert super-zombie come to wreck revenge upon the individual responsible for the attack.  If Witch Doctor induced, there could still be a measure of this creation-against-creator as King Hamlet would be unable to lift a hand against his Lord and Master now-King Cladius and thus must have his son act as agent.  Alternately, in a world where zombies are created by magic, ghosts become equally plausible.  King Hamlet could be a sort of revenant, requiring a flesh body to perform deeds upon the living and thus spurring his son to the task.

 This also complicates Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, as when he hears a rustling in the curtains of his mother’s bedchamber he could potentially believe it to be an undead foe and, thereby, shoot said foe in the head before it leapt out to attack.  Polonius becomes an unfortunate victim of the country’s political strife as opposed to the sacrificial lamb of Hamlet’s madness.

Ophelia’s death is similarly complicated, and the possibilities innate in a zombie-infested Denmark make richer her last scene in which she appears onstage having run mad.  Perhaps she has been bitten by her risen-from-the-dead father and her not-quite-a-zombie-yet fever is the cause of her madness.  Alternately, anyone can go crazy in the world of the zombie holocaust.  The uncaniness of the walking dead and the permeation of casual death into society will just do that to a person.

Also; what does this mean for Act V?  Does the royal court lay dead at the feet of the zombie invaders only to rise themselves as mindless brain-nommers?  Is Horatio the only human left alive in a world now peopled by the walking dead?

Since the film isn’t actually a zombie version of Hamlet but rather about the making of a zombie Hamlet, I don’t truly expect my questions to be answered.  I do, however, very much look forward to seeing it and firmly believe that I will have found a new go-to “bad day” movie.

…and if anyone has the money and inclination to actually direct a production of Hamlet set

“…Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”

during the zombie holocaust, please oh please oh please hire me.  I’ll do anything to be involved in that production.  I’ll even put myself on your line and audition to be a piece of meat… I mean… actor.  But mostly, I want to find a reason to have to research what kind of duel you would possibly be able to stage while the zombie hoards were shambling at your door.  Pistols won’t cut it due to the multiple touches, but I could definitely see claymores or battleaxes coming in handy and thereby the Princes being versed in their usage… or maybe bludgeoning weapons are the way to go since cricket bats are definitely a staple of the zombie genre.  That, however, would complicate the poison premise, but we could maybe make it work somehow…