Assault isn’t edgy, so let’s stop pretending: reviewing Filter’s Midsummer

Last night, I had the opportunity to see Filter Theatre‘s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. There’s a LOT that I liked about the production. Midsummer is one of those plays that bores me to tears and brings out my angry feminist most of the time, and Filter’s production certainly wasn’t boring. It definitely brought out my angry feminist, but more on that later.

CN for descriptions of sexual assault

Not sure how necessary this one is, but the show is still touring, so: SPOILERS AHEAD.

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First, the good stuff. Filter’s production is really, really good at fun surprises. Oberon and Puck burst through walls, ceilings, and floors; Demetrius does a pretty spot-on Michael Jackson impersonation; and an audience plant joins the show as Bottom after a stage manager comes on to let us know that the “celebrity guest” got stuck in the lift. There’s excellent sexual innuendo with the love potion flower juice stuff. There’s a food fight. There are some good physical gags around who can and can’t see Puck and Oberon when they’re “invisible”.  And, as you’d expect from Filter, there’s some great stuff with sound. It’s a fun production. Like I said, definitely not boring.

Despite all the fun, I had two pretty basic problems with the production: 

1. Sexual assault is not cool or funny or cute. 

2. The Shakespeare was bad. And not in an ’80s way.

Let’s take those one at a time.

I shouldn’t even have to put this in writing, but as I said on my Facebook page after the show last night, I’m getting really sick of otherwise cool and/or interesting productions (especially of Shakespeare) that seem to think gratuitous sexual assault makes them “edgy”. It doesn’t. It’s gross. And it definitely should not be played for laughs.

I saw this in the RSC Cymbeline in August, and I saw it again in Filter’s Midsummer last night. I can’t tell if this is a trend, or if I’m just paying better attention because of my own adaptation project with Measure for Measure. Either way, it sucks.

For those of you who don’t know Midsummer, I’ll give a bit of context, because the plot is actually important here. In the play, there are two hetero couples with a little bit of a love triangle problem. Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other, but Demetrius also wants Hermia and has her father’s permission to marry her. Athenian law dictates that Hermia must either acquiesce to her father, become a nun, or be killed. Yay. Demetrius has previously sworn his love to another woman, Helena, who is still desperately in love with him. He’s a gentleman.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away through the woods, and disclose their plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their flight, and he pursues them into the woods. Helena follows Demetrius, despite his protestations that he does not nor he cannot love her and his threats to rape her if she keeps following him (well, his words are “do thee mischief in the wood” but he also talks about her the “rich worth of [her] virginity”, so…you do the math).

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, has a love potion that makes you desire the first thing you see upon awaking from sleep. He’s using it to abuse his wife (we’ll come back to that!), but he sees Demetrius and Helena fighting and decides she should have that man, dammit! So Oberon instructs his servant Puck to lay the potion on the eyes of a man wearing Athenian garments. Puck finds Lysander, mistakes him for Demetrius, and administers the love juice. The first person that Lysander sees when he wakes is Helena.

And that’s where Filter’s production went very, very wrong.

Helena, tired from chasing a dickface through the woods, pauses to catch her breath. She sees Lysander lying on the ground, and rouses him, concerned the he might be dead: “If you live, good sir, awake!”

And wake he does, immediately professing his love for Helena and his newfound hatred for Hermia. Helena is at first confused and then indignant, convinced that Lysander is cruelly mocking her miserable single life. But Lysander is persistent, insisting that he does hate Hermia and love Helen.

This is one of those tricky scenes in which someone wants to get away and has a very good reason for wanting to leave, but they can’t actually vacate the stage until they’ve said all their lines. Most productions get around this problem by creating energetic chase scenes, chock-full of near-misses, leapfrogs, and furniture tossing. This is, in itself, a little problematic, right? No Means No, Lysander. But I suppose the text must be served.

Filter’s production, however, takes things one step further. This time, Helena is prevented from leaving the stage because Lysander is physically and sexually assaulting her. Check out some of the lines that Filter’s Helena delivers while Lysander’s head is between her legs and she’s trying to push him away:

Good troth, you do me wrong–good sooth, you do–

In such disdainful manner me to woo.

But fare you well. Perforce I must confess

I thought you a lord of more gentleness.

(3.1.129-33, Norton)

Helena ends up on the ground, with Lysander engaging in some non-consensual heavy petting and over-the-clothes cunnilingus before she finally gets away.

But here’s the kicker: when Helena stands up, she has a moment where it seems like she kinda enjoyed it despite herself. With a little giggle and a coy look at Lysander, she bends at the hips and puts her hands over her crotch, then looks embarrassed and runs away.

The whole thing is played for laughs. The band/Mechanicals watch and do nothing. The take-home message for the students sitting next to me, as Roberta Barker and Dave Nicol once observed, is absolutely horrific: “Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun”. As Barker and Nicol go on to say, “this is hardly a productive of way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in a time and place where “rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examinations about their sexual pasts on the witness stand”.

And that’s without considering the abuse that Titania undergoes for having the audacity to stand up for herself, or the whole Theseus/Hippolyta thing, or the fact that Demetrius and Helena end up together in the end. Can we also please stop pretending like two guys kissing each other is super good comedy? K, thanks.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part, in Filter’s production, where Lysander starts a food fight by chucking buns at a defeated, prone Hermia, who has been convinced that the guy willing to flee his home with her two scenes ago now hates her guts. SO FUNNY, RIGHT?

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This leads me on to my second problem with Filter’s Midsummer: the Shakespeare bits.

Now, anyone who knows me may be surprised to find me complaining about “the Shakespeare”. I’m generally totally on board with slicing, dicing, deep-frying, digesting, and regurgitating Shakespeare as much as you darn well please. My friends and I cut the Duke from Measure for Measure for Pete’s sake. Yes, we really did. So why am I so bugged by this cut-up, no-interval, super-fun production’s treatment of Shakespeare?

To be honest, I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. But I think it’s sort of connected to the sexual assault problem. Let me explain.

What are the stereotypes about Shakespeare from people who don’t like Shakespeare, or haven’t encountered much Shakespeare? He’s boring. He’s hard to understand. Too many rhymes. So old-fashioned. Filter’s production confirmed every single one of these stereotypes. Their delivery of lines from Shakespeare was, on the whole, stilted, forced, boring, and rushed. It was like they had so much fun making the play that they forgot to do the play.

I’m going to caveat this next part by saying that I have no idea if someone who’s unfamiliar with Midsummer would’ve been able to the tell the difference between the “verbatim” Shakespeare and the paraphrased, improvised, rewritten, or newly written bits. But Midsummer has some extremely purple passages, and it’s very rhyme-y, and so it was painfully obvious to me when they were doing “the Shakespeare”. And it was also painfully obvious that they thought their material was way funnier than Shakespeare’s.

Who am I to disagree? A lot of what they were up to genuinely was way funnier than Shakespeare. Nerdy superhero Oberon and sound tech Puck watching the four-way love triangle fight from lawn chairs with snacks like they were in a cinema? GENIUS. Monty Python-style coconuts for Bottom-as-Ass walking around the stage? COMEDY GOLD. Oberon zooming around on a wheelie chair pretending to fly? WIN.

HOWEVER. That dynamic creates an impression that Filter are putting up with Shakespeare in order to have a marketable vehicle for their brand of screwball comedy. That’s absolutely fine, to an extent. But that implied relationship to Shakespeare makes it too easy to write off the stuff that isn’t funny–like that pesky sexual assault thing–as part of Shakespeare and not part of Filter.

I think that’s what I found so irritating about their failure to perform the Shakespeare bits well: it allowed them to gloss over the sticky relationship situations we find at the end of the play. Helena has Demetrius because he’s under a spell; Hermia has had her faith in Lysander seriously challenged; and Titania has basically been date-raped. None of these merit more than a passing glance in Filter’s production, because that would get in the way of the fun part where Bottom-as-Pyramus pretends to be dead for so long that everyone laughs.

My point is that it’s all well and good making Shakespeare more fun or more accessible. I’m totally and completely on board with that as a goal. But I’m not on board with productions that get away with ignoring or even endorsing the play’s really sticky politics because there was that funny bit with a spray can of whipped cream.

 

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The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?

Adaptation?

When I wrote my MA dissertation on adaptation and The Winter’s Tale, I thought that I was leaving that particular branch of theatre studies behind for a while. Not so! The Changeling and adaptation is one of my more recent obsessions. So here, ladies and gents, is the germ of a possible article/chapter/section of my dissertation (maybe all of the above!) on what ‘adaptation’ means with relation to The Changeling and other relatively well-known non-Shakespearean early modern plays. What’s here is sort of just the extension of a question I’ve been dealing with for a couple of months but haven’t had a lot of time to dig into. I welcome any thoughts or ideas for improvement, even if you tell me “this is total crap!” or “someone’s already done this!”. All information is useful information. 

 

 

The 2012 production and revival at the Young Vic is perhaps the most mainstream production to substantially alter the text of the play, and choices such as cutting the character of Franciscus, making major textual changes but cutting, rearranging, and conflating scenes, and re-writing jokes to make them relevant to a modern audience all attest to the adaptive spirit of this production. This is also the only production I have studied in-depth which does not explicitly set the play in Spain or a Spanish colony. Although lines referring to Alicante remain in the script, the physical space of the production is more ambiguous. These techniques are all familiar in productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but usually within the context of productions specifically marketed as ‘adaptations’. Certainly this production can be seen as one of the most adaptive stage productions of The Changeling, but there is no mention of ‘adaptation’ in any of the publicity or press about the show, including the reviews. Reimagined as a production of Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello, the strategies employed by Hill-Gibbins, Svendsen, and the rest of the creative team would undoubtedly be read as adaptive, particularly because such substantial changes were made to the textual structure of the play. As Margaret Jane Kidnie notes in Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, Warchus’ (1997) production of Hamlet at the RSC generated bitter criticism for his decision to cut the opening lines. Aebischer and Prince note this problem in their introduction to Performing Early Modern Drama Today, suggesting that ‘While the performance history of some early modern plays is now growing, their still-sparse performance record overall leads to considerable latitude in the ways that the notion of “a performance” is applied to what would, in the case of Shakespeare, be classified as an adaptation’ (3)

A common theme running through most modern theories of adaptation is the idea that a production must be recognised as an adaptation by its audience. Kidnie notes Ruby Cohn’s, Linda Hutcheon’s, and others’ assumptions that an adaptation is, at least in part, an ‘acknowledged transposition of a recognizable work or works’, an assumption which honours the ‘critical ability to discriminate between Shakespeare and Shakespearean adaptations, whether these judgements are made by academics, students, theatregoers, theatre practitioners, or interested general readers’ (3, 5). It seems plausible, then, that Middleton and Rowley’s “otherness”—the inescapable fact that their plays lack the widespread notoriety that Shakespeare’s plays enjoy—materially affects an audience’s ability to read any production of The Changeling as an adaptation. Aebischer and Prince interrogate the idea that The Changeling and other plays that it tends to be associated with, such as Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Duchess of Malfi, and Volpone are not canonical, worrying whether these plays’ ability ‘to stand in a binary, dialectical relation to the “mainstream”, implicitly conservative, institutionalised Shakespearean canon’ is jeopardised by the very recognition that would grant the Young Vic Changeling status as an “adaptation” as opposed to a “performance” (2-3). 

Beyond the criterion of recognisability, the Young Vic production(s) are undeniably adaptive in their approach to the text. Other requirements for a production to be considered an adaptation include Hutcheon’s criterion of an ‘extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work’ and Cohn’s need for ‘the addition of new material alongside substantial cutting and rearrangement’ (Kidnie 3). It is my belief that the textual treatment of the play, as well as the staging and practical treatment of it, reads as primarily adaptive in its approach, whether or not the theories of adaptation support such a reading. 

 

 

Works Cited:

Aebischer, Pascale, and Prince, Kathryn. Introduction. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Aebischer and Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. 1-16. Print.

Kidnie, Margaret Jane. Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.

The Changeling. By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins. Perf. Jessica Raine and Daniel Cerquiera. The Young Vic. Maria Studio, London. 26 January 2012. Performance. 

The Changeling. By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins. Perf. Sinead Matthews and Zubin Varla. The Young Vic. Main House, London. 20 November 2012. Performance.

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

My Problem with the Wanamaker (maybe)

I’m writing a lot lately about the complex relationships between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (a phrase I hate, actually…they could just as easily be Middleton’s or Jonson’s contemporaries, surely?). One of the problems that has come up again and again is the message implicit in major companies’ policy on producing Jonson’s or Middleton’s or Marlowe’s plays: particularly in companies that include ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, any early modern play not written by Shakespeare is considered a commercial risk. The Bard sells the tickets. Consider the RSC’s stance on the issue: Coen Heijes notes in his chapter for Performing Early Modern Drama Today that ‘Performing Shakespeare’s contemporaries was something of an unaffordable luxury for the RSC as long as it had only one theater to operate in Stratford’, whilst ‘The Swan opened up the possibility of finally exploring Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a more consistent manner’ (71, 73). According to Michael Boyd, the twenty-first century Swan provides ‘an opportunity for something to prove itself […] and grow much more effortlessly to have a life in the main house’ (qtd. in Heijes 84). The RSC sees Shakespeare’s plays, then, as being pre-screened: there is no need for a production of Hamlet to ‘prove itself’ before being allowed into the main space.

Never mind that this binary has been completely shattered by the success of  Doctor Faustus at the Globe in 2011 and The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012 and…I could go on and on.

The problem has extended more recently to the Globe’s new indoor playing space, due to open in January 2014. Although many of Shakespeare’s late plays would have been produced in the Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse similar to the one the Globe is currently constructing, this new theatre has not been advertised as belonging to Shakespeare. Instead, it is either the ‘indoor Jacobean playhouse’ or, more officially, ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, after the current Globe’s late founder and benefactor. While it could easily have been ‘Shakespeare’s Blackfriars’ or ‘Shakespeare’s Indoor Playhouse’, in line with the name of the parent company and the main playing space, the marketing for this new theatre has been deliberately non-Shakespearean. The inaugural season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will include The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent, handily balancing a more popular non-Shakespearean early modern tragedy against two lesser-known plays, along with an Italian baroque opera and several concerts. Dominic Dromgoole’s statement on the inaugural season is diplomatic, suggesting that ‘in time, we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there’, but expressing his delight at ‘opening this theatre with three such shining jewels’ of non-Shakespearean early modern drama.  On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards inclusion of a wider variety of plays and playwrights within the current early modern performance canon. Consider, however, the implicit coding: the Wanamaker is a smaller, and more expensive, theatre space, comprising 350 seats with prices starting at £10 and running up to £75; in contrast, the Globe offers 700 £5-tickets at each performance and caps prices at £39. This alone results in greater accessibility for plays produced in Shakespeare’s Globe as compared to the Wanamaker. While former artistic director Mark Rylance opened Shakespeare’s Globe with a season containing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in equal measure, the only non-Shakespearean early modern play on that stage during Dromgoole’s term so far was Doctor Faustus in 2011. The first season at the Wanamaker could therefore be read as a segregative message: the Globe is for Shakespeare, but the Wanamaker is for other playwrights; and furthermore, Shakespeare should be accessible to everyone, but his contemporaries need not be.

Future seasons at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be telling in this respect. I’m the first to acknowledge that more productions of early modern plays that were not written by Shakespeare is an amazing thing–but I do think that the way they’re produced and where they’re produced can be as important as the mere fact of their production.

Heijes, Coen. ‘Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Royal Shakespeare Company’. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print. pp. 70-84.

‘The Duchess of Malfi to open Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’. BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 22 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.

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?

Research Musings: Dramaturgy is difficult

Today was a classic example of my English literature brain clashing with my drama brain in an epic battle for dominance. I’m supposed to be writing a short essay for my next supervision meeting on the dramaturgical structure of The Changeling. Dramaturgy, by nature, involves using a play’s construction to make comments about how it might present in performance or, in the case of a particular production, commenting on the performance text as related to the scripted text. It’s therefore rather difficult to avoid the slippery slope that leads to close reading the text without attention to the performative possibilities it offers. 

This happened to me today: there I was, merrily writing about editorial differences in scene assignments and lineation, and I got to over 2000 words before I realised that I had yet to say anything at all about how this might apply to a performance of the play. In fact, I hadn’t even considered how it might apply. 

Fortunately, I didn’t have to ditch everything I’d written–I just had to assume a twentieth or twenty-first century, cast, creative team, and audience in order to make comments on the overarching structure of the play relevant to performance: actors working from cue scripts and without a director probably weren’t concerned about or even aware of the fact that the turning point, a crucial scene for De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna, falls smack in the centre of the play, for example. 

Hopefully it all comes together…wish me luck!