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of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive.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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Postdoc project proposal

Because I’m pretty proud of it, and I have a secret fantasy about someone awesome who hires people accidentally stumbling upon my blog, I’ve decided to post a portion of my recently-submitted postdoc application. My supervisor keeps telling me to be more confident in my work, so sharing this work publicly is part of that journey as well.  Feedback welcome, as I’d like to keep refining my ideas for future applications.

My doctoral research has focused on a re-reading of the English Renaissance playwright Thomas Middleton through the lens of his 1622 collaboration with William Rowley, The Changeling. This work is at the forefront of a resurgence of interest in Thomas Middleton and other non-Shakespearean early modern playwrights, which has its roots in post-war educational reforms and has particularly gained steam in the past ten years. More specifically, scholarly and practical interest in Middleton has grown in recent years, evidenced by the publication of the Oxford Middleton series and the RSC’s upcoming tour (with English Touring Theatre) of A Mad World My Masters—one of very few national tours of a non-Shakespearean play by that company. My research contributes to this resurgence by bringing together the fields of print and performance, and considering collisions of scholarship and production. A consideration of Middleton’s plays in performance, and particularly in modern revivals, is one of the most obvious gaps in the Oxford Middleton, which focuses primarily on the texts’ original circumstances. My dissertation makes an important contribution towards filling that gap. In addition, my work builds on the content of the Oxford Middleton by considering texts specifically in relation to performance, rather than as separate entities. This has resulted in work which questions the ways in which Middleton’s plays are edited for students, for example. By bringing together cultural performance histories and textual histories, my work bridges the disciplines of English and Drama, putting a new historicist study of particular cultural moments in the life of the play into conversation with traditional textual criticism and performance studies. This will change the field of early modern studies by providing a model with which to think simultaneously about a given play in print and in performance, broadening interpretive possibilities whilst grounding each case study production in its particular cultural moment.

In so doing, my work examines the complicated nexus of printed texts and performances in all of their incarnations. How does an early modern play progress from author’s pen to scribal sides, to performance, to printing press, to revival, to commonplace entry, and eventually to scholarly edition, university revival, and modern professional production? What happens when that production is backwards-engineered into print in the form of reviews and scholarly commentary? What is the role of the theatrical prompt-book, both as a record of performance and as a textual witness? And how can the influence of performance be traced onto scholarship and scholarly editions of the plays, and vice-versa? The answers to these questions are evidently different in different sets of cultural circumstances, and the web of influence grows as the print and performance histories of any given play expand.

As Middleton’s most popular collaboration with William Rowley and one of his most-performed plays outside of his collaborations with and revisions of Shakespeare, The Changeling is an ideal focus for this kind of study. It offers a rich and diverse post-war performance history in Britain along with a wealth of scholarly attention, especially since the nineteenth century. The trajectory of The Changeling on stage and in print over the past four hundred years mirrors the trajectory of Middleton’s own renaissance, which began in print with the Romantics and in performance with educational reforms following the second World War and continues in the present. Concurrently, general interest in Jacobean tragedies and city comedies, with all their corruption, gore, and dark humour, is also at a peak, as evidenced by the re-launch of the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company as a space for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the triumphant opening of the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at the Globe, the arrival of the Arden Early Modern Drama series, and, of course, the publication of the Oxford Middleton collection. As we approach the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, more and more scholars and practitioners are calling for a broader appreciation of the rich theatrical culture within which he lived and worked. This work on The Changeling and Thomas Middleton is therefore timely and important.

As a [insert position here], I would anticipate working to publish my dissertation as a monograph. In addition, I propose a project which broadens and builds upon the work of my doctorate. Titled ‘Playwrights and Place’, this work would result in a second monograph-length study, this time considering the influence of place on early modern drama written by people other than Shakespeare. More specifically, the project will look at productions of early modern plays which take place outside of London and the RSC, including locally-produced work and regional tours. Whilst most of the current work on productions of non-Shakespearean early modern plays has been focused on major producing companies and venues in London and Stratford—including the Globe and the RSC—very little work has been done so far which gives specific attention to the regions. Producing companies such as Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, as well as touring houses and theatres which both produce and receive tours, are an integral part of the theatrical culture of Britain and have been largely ignored with regard to the ways in which they produce, promote, receive, and archive early modern plays. In addition, whilst projects such as Claire Cochrane’s history of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (2003) provide in-depth studies of particular theatres, there is still work to do in terms of trends across the country. Casting back to consider how early modern touring and performance patterns outside of London map onto twentieth and twenty-first century models, the project will be structured around three key research questions: 1) how and why are particular plays produced in or toured to the regions? 2) how are they received by a given community? and 3) how are they archived and remembered?

Primary research involving newspapers, prompt-books, programmes, oral history, and other ephemera of performance will be my main research method, using collections held both in London and across the UK. Details about funding from the Arts Council and other sources, educational outreach, and broader cultural programmes will also be relevant. I am primarily interested in thinking about the ways in which non-Shakespearean early modern drama functions culturally for a community: how is a touring production of, for example, The Changeling, received differently in London, in Bath, in Glasgow, in Cardiff? How does a tour differ culturally from a local production? How does a place’s history of early modern performance impact upon and shape its present and future?

The relationships between print and performance explored in my doctoral research will also be important here, as many of the productions I will examine exist only as fragments of print, rather than as ephemeral performances. Even where it is possible to see a production in person, printed materials such as reviews, prompt-books, programmes and even scholarly writings are crucial to any academic consideration of a given production. In this way, I will continue to investigate and question the ways in which the disparate forms of print and performance intersect and interact.

Such a project would make an original contribution to the field of early modern studies by considering both long trends and specific moments in the cultural life of plays performed outside of London and Stratford. It contributes to a significant gap within the study of early modern drama’s place in present-day theatres, which largely ignores regional theatres besides the RSC and does not adequately consider the special circumstances of a touring production. It builds upon my doctoral research whilst broadening its intellectual scope, continuing the work of connecting performance and print whilst questioning the long-standing focus on London and Stratford as the dominant producers and consumers of early modern drama.

And finally,  (I hate that I have to say this, but…) this is my intellectual property. No stealing, or I  will send Liam Neeson after you.

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??

Research Musings: Frustration and Productivity

It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted here, despite my initial resolve to write something every day. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt completely submerged by my research, to the point that I struggled to find any kind of meaning in all the data that I had collected. I referred to it as ‘research nesting’ to a friend last week, but now I’m not sure that was the right way to describe the feeling: it’s more like research hoarding. There was an awful lot of gathering and collecting and holding on to potentially insignificant things, but I couldn’t discern any sense of order or meaning in what I had accumulated; I think this is why everything I read felt simultaneously fascinating and entirely useless.

As my wonderful supervisor kindly reminded me when we met last week, I’m only two months in: it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious to begin the ‘real’ work of writing the dissertation (although, objectively, I’d like to believe that the research is as much an end as the written product of the research. But that’s for another post, perhaps). As Kate and I talked through the work that I had done so far, we could both see themes and potential hypotheses emerging that I hadn’t been able to see whilst I was working on my own. It was a huge relief to realise that, actually, my research hadn’t been nearly as aimless and meaningless as I had perceived it to be   and to realise that I could trust myself to know what to do.

So what were those themes and hypotheses, you ask? They all stemmed out of my insistence on combining theory and practice: I truly believe that practice without theory is impotent, and theory without practice is blind (thanks for letting me bastardise your quotation, Albert Einstein!). Apparently most people studying Middleton and/or The Changeling disagree with me, since there is a huge gap in the research around scholarly analysis of the play (any of Middleton’s plays, really) in performance. From Bawcutt, Scott, Neill, and others one can piece together the bare bones of a performance history, if one defines ‘performance history’ as a list of which productions occurred where and when and a basic outline of their aesthetic and/or thematic components, but little, if any, analysis of what these things actually mean when considered together with scholarship on the play, socio-political contexts, and available edited editions.

Since the release of the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton, however, there has been at least one production of The Changeling every year in London, and a significant increase in the frequency of production of other Jacobean tragedies as well. This indicates to me a potential relationship between the printed, edited text and the staged and performed text of The Changeling. I have a feeling that this relationship might be more direct than is usually supposed, although I know that I’ll have a hard time proving that. At best, the increase in productions since the release of the Collected Works is correlative, and I learned in Psychology 100 that a corollary relationship must not be mistaken for a causal relationship. So how to go about testing my hypothesis? One strategy is to look for other spikes in productions that occur close to major publications, and vice versa. Another is to seek for relationships between productions and contemporary printed texts: is it possible to find ways in which a particular production responds specifically to the version(s) of the printed play which is used as its script? More specifically, can connections be made between a print version of a play and the productions that are staged close to its release?

I have a feeling that these relationships are more complex than I  would like them to be. For example, most producers choose a season based on a wide variety of factors, including their target audience, their ticket take from the previous season, and their budget. If they expect or desire school audiences, they have to look at the curricula of the age groups they’re targeting (The Changeling was added to the AQA A-level curriculum within the last three years, incidentally). Early modern and other out-of-copyright plays become more appealing when the budget is tight, particularly if the director is willing to a modern interpretation or at least use costumes, props, and set already in stock. And plays have a way of becoming contagious: if one theatre successfully produced The Changeling in the 2011 season, it’s more likely to show up at other theatres in 2012 and 2013. So it’s not as easy as saying that the Oxford Collected Works catalysed The Changeling‘s recent popularity on London stages; I will (hopefully) argue, however, that the publication of new editions of the play might have more of an influence on a theatre’s season than is usually supposed. It’s still very early days on this, so I’m afraid I can’t say much more specifically at this time. 

 

Another theme that emerged from my hoarding was that of the tension between specificity and chaos, or order and disorder, in the play, both on the page and on the stage. In discussing Joe Hill-Gibbins’ soon-to-be-revived production for the Young Vic with Kate, I talked about how his version of the ending struck me as a perfect commentary on the play as a whole. It had the appearance of complete and total chaos: bits of food were everyone, most of the characters and the stage were covered in strawberry sundae sauce and other consumables, the cacophonous noise of overlapping lines from Isabella and Vermandero competed with Alsemero’s epilogue, which was shouted into a microphone whilst ear-splitting, discordant electronic music played over the top of it all. It was a chaotic image, aurally and visually, and yet the practitioner in my knew that something that appearance of disorder on the stage masked a precision in direction, a specific choreography of sounds and motion. This same tension between seemingly chaotic but actually ordered scenes and images runs throughout the text of the play as well, and this is the subject of the written work I’m doing this week. Despite depicting the breakdown of established social codes (‘You must forget your parentage to me’, De Flores says to Beatrice) and the disastrous consequences of mad excess and unbridled desire, the play has an impressively precise dramaturgical structure. A simple example is in the distribution of hospital (subplot) scene and castle (main plot) scenes: after the first scene, the only scene which actually takes place outside Vermandero’s walls, there is a stable pattern of one scene set in the hospital followed by three scenes set in the castle; this holds true even when the plots converge in 5.2 and 5.3. While the quarto doesn’t divide the acts into scenes, there is a stable ratio even in the numbers of lines associated with each location, irrespective of the number of editor-determined scenes. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that Middleton and Rowley’s (or at least their 1653 printer’s) lineation is not always as regular (read: Shakespearean) as their editors would have it be; I’m currently crunching numbers to investigate whether some kind of ratio holds when quarto lineation is used rather than edited lineation. In any case, it’s still just a suggestion of order rather than something totally concrete: no manuscript exists for The Changeling and even if it did, we probably wouldn’t know what the playwrights actually “intended” for the mise-en-page of the play.

What is clear, however, is that I’ve come through the first of many tunnels to find a little bit of light. And I promise to be better about updating here from now on (or at least until Christmas…).