Thesis/Existential Crisis Moments

It is my firm belief, evolved over the past eight years of study (and likely to change at some point, pending further study), that any notion of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive. This is one of the reasons you’ll find me defending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project (though not the only reason). We can’t wake Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries from the grave to ask them what they meant. Even if we could, we might find that they–like so many living artists today–intended nothing at all, or not as much as we would have liked.

“Oh, ‘to be or not to be’? Yeah, I always hated that one, such a pretentious bit of poetry, but we had to cover a costume change somehow, and I thought, I dunno, Hamlet’s probably pretty depressed by this point in the play. It’s not that deep, y’know? You don’t have to read anything into it” (all spoken of course, in Ben Crystal’s best OP voice).

But as committed as I am to the idea that our collective love of Shakespeare is, to a certain extent, destructible and arbitrary, I am still a beneficiary of and a participant in a system that perpetuates his propping up. Without Shakespeare’s primacy, I wouldn’t have a job.

So this is where today’s (because there is one every day) thesis/existential crisis moment comes in: if the idea of fidelity to a classic text is irrelevant, and canon is fundamentally destructible, changeable, and arbitrary, why bother studying and producing texts like Shakespeare’s at all? 

I don’t have an easy answer. Like many of my thesis crises, it comes out of a certain degree of over-thinking. The canon is, even as it continues to be destructible, changeable, arbitrary. Shakespeare is a cultural touchstone; studying how and why this came to be doesn’t make it any less true. Canonical/classical texts, too, allow us to critique them in ways that wholly new texts (if there are such things) often don’t, or can’t. To what extent does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resonate precisely because it’s a brilliant piece of intertextuality, as opposed to a stand-alone work? (Yes, of course, it is also a stand-alone work, but I think you know what I mean.) I’m currently developing a project that asks modern women to respond creatively to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I could quite easily create a piece of theatre about 21st century feminism without reference to Measure for Measure; but Shakespeare simultaneously grants me cultural capital with which to advertise the eventual performances and affords me an opportunity to create a piece in which a diverse group of women speak back to a white, masculine canon. Then again, to what extent is a piece about modern feminism necessary and timely as a result of that same canon?

I’ve procrastinated long enough, but I wanted to throw this question, this crisis, out to the universe. Is it possible, or even desirable, to escape from the grip of “authenticity” and “fidelity” in Shakespeare and early modern performance? And what would the implications be if we did? In the meantime, why continue to produce these plays?

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CFP: The International Christopher Marlowe

As you may or may not know, I’ve recently started working as a Research Assistant on an exciting early-career project led by Dr. Edward Paleit here at Exeter: The International Christopher Marlowe. We’re very excited to announce that the Call for Papers for the project conference is now available. Click the link below for full details, and get those abstracts in! 

 CFP International Marlowe

Staging Exeter Trailer

Many of you will be aware that I’ve been working on a performance-based researcher project in the beautiful city of Exeter for the past few months. Our goal when we started out was to find out more about the city’s awesome performance history, focusing particularly on the medieval and early modern periods. To that end, we recruited an amazing group of local and student actors, armed ourselves with documents from REED, and started trying to piece together the city’s past whilst creating new performances of our own. The results will be presented in an exhibition-cum-performance next week in Exeter’s historic Guildhall, which is itself an early modern performance space!

For more information on the project and/or final performance, check out our blog:
http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stagingexeter

STR New Researchers’ Network Launch

Hello, followers and casual readers of my blog!

I’m pleased to announce that today marks the launch of a project that I’ve been involved with for the past several months: the STR New Researchers’ Network! On behalf of the Committee, I invite you to read the information below and get in touch if you’re interested in joining us (or pass it on to someone who might be)!

The Society for Theatre Research is pleased to announce the launch of the New Researchers’ Network (NRN), a proactive, supportive and well-connected group of postgraduates, young/new scholars and researchers from across a variety of disciplines who are interested in theatre research, history and historiography.

We enthusiastically welcome expressions of interest from all new researchers, regardless of age or academic level, whose interests include theatre and theatre history. 

Through a series of exciting events–including theatre-related visits, lectures, and social outings–NRN will encourage members to share ideas, engage in discussion and develop a network of helpful contacts within the field of theatre research.

Upcoming events include: 

15 October- An informal social dinner prior to the STR lecture

7 November – Events at the Bristol Theatre Collection and the Bristol Old Vic, including a lecture from Catherine Hindson (University of Bristol)

12 March – Guided tour of the Guildhall Art Gallery, London

20 May – Our first Annual Symposium. More information will be available soon.

For more information and details on how to join us, visit:

www.str.org.uk/research/nrn

or email the NRN Committee at:

nrn@str.org.uk

Lessons from Teenagers

My friends and I spent today today teaching drama workshops to 120 fourteen-year-old students.

Meanwhile, Boston is on lockdown. I’m horrified by the seemingly pointless violence perpetrated there and by the images of the city as a ghost town. I’m saddened by the idea that someone taught those men that it’s acceptable to kill people for a cause. I’m broken by the knowledge that the country issuing my passport authorises drone strikes that result in similarly needless deaths. I’m equally sickened by the knowledge  that people all over the world experience what Boston is experiencing–and much, much worse–every single day.

But my friends and I spent the day teaching kids about drama. I always feel good about teaching drama because I feel good about the values that it teaches. And today I was reminded of why I really like working with kids.

At the start of each session, we split the students into groups and forced them to work with kids they didn’t know, from schools that were not their own.

In my workshop, I asked them to create a short movement sequence based on an image of their choosing. They were working in pairs, and I purposely paired people who were not friends or classmates. These pairs–most of them strangers before the workshop– worked more openly with each other than most postgraduate students I’ve worked with. Every idea was met with approval; not a single suggestion was shot down. Each and every pair created something worth watching, and much of the work was highly creative. They were able to play together really wonderfully.

There was a beautiful moment when I asked them to talk about the inspirations for their movement pieces. One pair, who had done some excellent work, commented that their piece grew out of disagreement between them about whether their chosen image communicated strength or lightness (in Laban’s sense). Rather than fight about which was ‘right’, they incorporated both into the movement in order to reflect the apparent ambiguity in the image.

When it came to devising a slightly longer performance to present back to the larger group, everyone has something to contribute, and no one’s contribution was devalued. Nobody was devoiced. By and large, they were able to take each other’s ideas and run with them, build off of them, and create something great.

(Okay, so my first group’s presentation was based on Harry Potter, but it was inspired by the ‘magical’ experience they had doing drama with us all day! And it was adorable.)

When it came time for the groups to feed back to each other about their performances, not a single cruel or harsh comment was made. They critiqued each other intelligently and asked great questions, without the bile that so often can be felt in peer-led critique at higher levels.

My point is that these students were able to do something that I’ve seen very few adults able to do in the past few years: work together peacefully. No heads were bitten off, no one was mocked, and no one was devoiced ALL DAY LONG. I’ve only experienced one devising process that even approached that level of cooperation. And I know the skeptics will say that it’s good to question everything and it’s best not to take the first idea that comes along in process and that disagreement creates healthy debate and variety, and they’re absolutely right. Critique helps us to grow. But it’s also important to take others’ ideas into account, to disagree without hating, and to critique with empathy. These kids were able to do those things. They weren’t perfect, and there were times when their insecurities and immaturities definitely showed. But they weren’t cruel to each other.

So in the midst of chaos in Boston and drone strikes God-knows-where and threats from North Korea and who knows how many corrupt governments, maybe the lesson from these students is that it’s okay to disagree and still be friends–that it’s possible to communicate effectively and passionately without bombs or threats or cruelty.

I mean, come on–if 120 fourteen-year-olds can manage it, what’s wrong with us?

Julius Caesar: dress rehearsal

Tomorrow’s the big day! That gender-bending production of Julius Caesar I wrote about a few weeks ago opens tomorrow, for one night only. It’s been such a fun production to work on, and I can’t wait to see it all come together.

Perhaps the most interesting element of this production, for me, has been the work on Caesar’s death. Simultaneously playing Caesar and coaching the cast in contact improv (CI) work has been quite a challenge–it’s not always easy to see or sense how your own body is working in relation to others’ (which is one of the reasons I’m very grateful to have had such a wonderful director and assistant director!). It requires a special kind of spatial awareness to surrender control and body weight to another person while still remaining conscious of aesthetic. After all, it doesn’t matter how cool the movement feels if no one can see it or it looks ridiculous. It’s one of the reasons that Laura (our director) decided to use CI in the first place: it can help to create stage violence that has a dance-like aesthetic, resulting in something simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, aesthetically pleasing and psychologically terrifying.

I think that this kind of work is going to pay huge dividends for this particular production because it makes more sense that the scripted stabbings for the world that we’ve created for this play. There’s an old theatrical/literary saying that men stab and women poison when they want to kill. This is meant to suggest that men kill with force and women kill with cunning–it’s a violent twist on the mother’s line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: ‘The man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck.’ So what happens to that dynamic when it’s a woman heading the ‘family’–or in Caesar’s case, the country–and her husband is sterile?

One of Laura’s answers–and consequently one of the production’s answers–is that Caesar is killed not with knives, but with unarmed hands. There’s a kind of primal brutality to beating someone with fists rather than with weapons, and a clear message that the perpetrators are physically stronger than the victim.

In our version of that scene, I, as actor and as character, am not in control of my body in the sense that I’m bound, by the rules of the CI game, to follow impulses given to me by my fellow actors. I’m also required to give them my body weight and allow them a measure of control over that. And while as an actor I’m conscious that I’ve made the choice to participate in a stylised movement sequence, as the character of Caesar I feel that it’s far more violating  and humiliating to be denied control over my body in this way than to be stabbed or poisoned. The aesthetic we’ve created will (hopefully) give the illusion that my power over my own body is being forcibly taken from me, which provides a huge power rush for the conspirators as well. In addition, each of them has a moment or two with Caesar all to himself, giving them the opportunity to get personal about their involvement in the assassination. Each of the men (and they are still all men) doing the killing has, at some point, individual control of Caesar’s body. They don’t just assassinate Caesar in this production, they torture and humiliate her. The fact that Brutus gives the death blow after watching most of the scene from the sidelines makes it all the more horrible, and yet oddly beautiful. The final position for Caesar and Brutus looks like nothing so much as a ballroom dance dip.

I’m very excited to see how all of these things read to our audience tomorrow. That’s the fun of this kind of experimental work: you never know if anyone will “get” it or not. Fingers crossed on tomorrow’s audience!

 

Now Write Something

Writer’s block: it comes to us all. Despite the fact that I churned out a little over a thousand words in less than four hours yesterday, today I found myself with nothing to say.

It’s times like these when I’m really grateful that I went to theatre school. Anyone who says a drama degree will not help you in “real life” clearly has never held a drama degree. In this case, it was a trick for character that was taught to me by several different people in several different contexts: stream of consciousness writing.

The basic idea in drama terms is that you can create an awful lot of character history and really “get inside” a character simultaneously by writing, non-stop, for about ten minutes. I’ve also seen this used as a creative writing exercise. You start from a single word, phrase, or idea and simply write whatever comes into your head for the duration of the exercise. For me, the first minute’s worth of writing is usually complete nonsense or, in the case of my first go at this technique, comments on how stupid and useless the exercise will be. But eventually, faced by ten uninterrupted minutes of constant writing, I begin to settle into the exercise and just let my mind wander where it will. Amazingly, it usually wanders on-topic and brings up bits of research I’d forgotten or connections that I hadn’t consciously realised were there.

Of course, the writing style is very casual and sometimes completely fragmented; you can’t actually use the product of stream-of-consciousness writing as anything more than a starting point. But it certainly does help to get the ball rolling, particularly when I’m really struggling just to start something. I’ve found it equally useful for writing papers, working through a character, and solidifying ideas for a production I’m directing. It’s almost like mind-mapping (which I also love!), but with a more linear structure.

Who ever said drama training wasn’t useful??