One of the great things about Facebook and social media is that it provides an informal record of what you did and when you did it. According to the Book of Faces, January 13th has, personally speaking, been a fairly eventful date for me. Two years ago, it marked my acquisition of the coolest wine-storage system in all of Henrietta, NY (see photo below). Six years ago, it marked the date of my application to the graduate program that I would eventually attend. Four years ago, it was the date that I returned from my first trip to London, which included (on January 12th) what was, to date, the best Shakespeare Production I had ever seen--Phyllida Lloyd's all-female cast production of Julius Caesar, set in a women's prison. On January 13th, 2017, after four years on the outside, I was thrilled to once again go back to prison--this time, in New York City.
Before I get into the details of the show I saw THIS weekend, I want to take a moment and set the stage. The first time I saw this cast/director was four years ago, at the Donmar Warehouse.
At that show, the set was the first thing that caught my attention. There was a sort of wire-like material on the railings in front of us. There were musical instruments, television screens and—the part I was most interested in—the performance space seemed to occupy three potential levels—the main acting space below us, some platforms and catwalks at eye level, and another set of catwalks above us. I thought it would be absolutely fascinating if they ended up using all three—I thought it would make the show feel like it was going on all around us. I couldn’t figure out how they would utilize the upper catwalk, however. When a random light from above caught my eye in the middle of the show, I looked up and realized that prison guards were patrolling the upper catwalk—and that we, the audience, were cast as inmates (the always important mob in Julius Caesar).
The prison setting helped to create a constant sense of real danger that I've never seen in a production of Caesar before. Scenes that I had previously only seen delivered as rhetorical moments were now loaded with tension and the potential for violence. One of these scenes is one often played for comedic effect, such as Caesar's wish in 1.2.190-195 to only have "men about me that are fat." Caesar mistrusts thin men like Cassius, who have "a lean and hungry look." Of course, this scene is a way for Caesar to both poke at Cassius and highlight Cassius' ambition. In this production, Caesar force-feeds Cassius a Krispy Kreme donut, while Cassius, aware of the hierarchical nature of the prison inmate power system, accepts the abuse with a look of utmost rage on her face. That sense of real danger also came through in the inspired decision to have Antony begin the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech in a prone, passive position. The prison population is one of the few modern parallels we have to the violence of the Roman mob as depicted in the play, and setting the play among that population made the production feel more dangerous and less “history channel.” This prison violence was sudden and unexpected in a play that features perhaps the most predictable violence in all of Shakespeare. Shakespeare in prison settings is not exactly a new concept, but what Lloyd does so wonderfully here is to create a more serious take on the prison/Shakespeare concept. I've seen it done before. HBO's show Oz, in its final season, featured the inmates putting on a production of Macbeth. The pseudo-documentary Caesar Must Die offers a treatment of the same play, with interviews mixed in featuring Italian inmates (some real and some actors). But while Oz was going for comedic effect (every character to be cast as Macbeth died by the end of the episode) and Caesar Must Die was going for an artistic approach, Lloyd's play was authentic. This could have been a real prison populated by real inmates.
The prison motif—particularly the big reveal at the play’s end that the woman playing Caesar was one of the guards rather than one of the inmates—also served to address my biggest fault with Julius Caesar (the play). One of the reasons I’ve never been overly fond of the play was that the title character is dead and gone by Act Three, yet the play continues (largely in dragging conversations between an increasingly whiny Cassius and an ever more pitiful Brutus). It is mentioned in the play that the conspirators see Caesar’s ghost as they prepare to kill themselves, but I’ve never seen that idea expanded upon so thoroughly as is was in Phyllida Lloyd’s production. After Caesar’s appropriately grisly prison murder, she routinely begins popping up where we least expect her. When the cloaked standard bearer is shot dead and stays prone on stage, we don’t give it a second thought—long minutes later, in a quieter moment, however, the standard bearer stands and drops her cloak, revealing herself to be Caesar’s ghost. Caesar never quite vanishes after her death—moving around the background, glaring at the conspirators and, in one fantastic moment, Caesar mans the drums, providing the drum-beat sound effects for the gun shots that take the lives of the lesser conspirators. The ghost of Caesar is present in this production in a way that I’ve never seen before, and when we find out at the end of the play that Caesar was the only prison guard in this “play”, it adds a whole new dimension to how we understand the almost omniscient constant presence. The play is rehabilitative in part—the inmates are clearly dejected that their acting time is over, and despite this, they fall in line to be taken to another part of the prison—but guard/Caesar also perpetually re-establishes authority. It’s a warning that they are always being watched, and that insurrection (i.e.- prison riot) can only end in the deaths of those who lead such insurrection.
I called my "theater adventure" cousins (Brenna, Al, and Katie--we had forged our NYC theater adventuring back in 2013 with a trip to see Alan Cumming's one man Macbeth. See photo below of me with Cumming. Then be jealous, haha), and we started planning our next adventure. This trip would be split on my end, half with the biological family crew and half with my theater family. My friends Jilly and John Christensen moved to NYC a year or so ago, and graciously offered to host my weekend visit. Jilly was the director of my first ever show as an actor (I joke about how she took my "theaterginity") and she showed me around her new city with a grand tour, which included an amazing view of the city and multiple trips to the most mouth-watering pizza places. But, as fun as the touring was, I didn't come to NYC to eat pizza (well, not just to eat pizza). I came to NY to return to prison.
The venue at the St. Anne's Warehouse is just stunning. The view from their patio is worth the price of admission alone (and on that point, the price point on this show was absurdly low. I snagged primo seats and the tickets were under $60 each after fees). This theater is tucked right under the Brooklyn Bridge in the DUMBO neighborhood. As the start of the show arrived, I admit that I started to get a little nervous. The bar had been set so high by the Donmar production in 2013. What if this show seemed derivative? What if it not only didn't live up to the prior show, but also somehow tainted my feelings/memory about that earlier experience? I needn't have worried. The easiest way to sum it up is with the words I said to my cousin Katie immediately after the curtain call. "They did it again!"
I could literally write a blog post on each of the major actresses in this production. There was not a weak performance in the entire show. That said, this is already likely to be one of my longest blogs, so I will try to limit myself to just the performances that drew strong reactions from me personally.
Jade Anouka's Ariel was absolutely flawless. The character was simply alive on the stage, and Anouka's performance gave Ariel the sort of mercurial presence that is often gilded over with a more waifish/other-worldly aesthetic. The Ariel of this production was anything but otherworldly. She was rooted firmly in modern culture and this was reflected in the way Anouka deployed a variety of dance and musical genres. It is rare for a show to add to Shakespeare, because the modern additions often feel out of place. Anouka's Ariel shifted from a more R & B sound to an island beat, to an absolutely haunting "Full Fathom Five" with so much skill that anyone not already familiar with Shakespeare's play would likely have difficulty figuring out which music was from Shakespeare's Tempest and which was added by the inmates of St. Anne's/Donmar. Anouka's costume changes were frequent and effective, and she had a particular talent for moving about the venue unseen so that it appeared as if she could transport herself via magic (there were no secret passages in this venue, so movement happened in plain sight). Finally, she often moved to a sort of "crinkle" sound (I'm not entirely sure what to call it, to be honest), which indicated her magic at use. It was a nice touch, and allowed Anouka to continue to use her movement (a definite strength) to portray magic. Her character reminded me of Morgan Freeman's character in The Shawshank Redemption. The skills at her command seemed to be part magic and part "being a person who knows how to get things."
The three clowns of the show, as is usually the case with The Tempest, were favorites. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar had brilliant chemistry as Stefano and Trinculo (respectively). They even managed to add a bit of power-hierarchy to the show (via their underpants) as Clune's British Stefano took command over Caliban and Dunbar's Scottish Trinculo. There wasn't really any particular moment that these characters had on stage that stood out. It was more that these characters truly seemed to be having fun with each other in a way that could not be faked. Sophie Stanton's Caliban was another revelation. She played the role in a far more reserved tone than what I'm used to seeing. It worked wonders for this production though, as it kept the comedic spotlight on Clune and Dunbar, and helped to build to another moment that I'm going to discuss a bit below. On a total side note, Clune and another performer (Liv Spencer) came out to the lobby while we were still milling about. They were both extremely warm when I gushed a bit about this show (and the one I saw four years prior). Clune broke my heart a bit with her first question for me though (she asked if I had seen their 1 Henry IV. Still kicking myself over that one).
Leah Harvey's Miranda and Sheila Atim's Ferdinand, the young couple at the center of the romantic plot, were energetic and charming. Atim brought an awkward but roguish charm to Ferdinand coupled with a clear sense that this inmate had NO idea what he was doing, either in her interactions with Prospero or her flirtations with Miranda. The focus of Ferdinand's love, Miranda, was delightfully petulant, walking a line between being the dutiful daughter and being independent and in love, which was, of course, the transition being explored both in this production and in Shakespeare's play. The energy of this pair (combined with the similar energy of Ariel, Trinculo, Stefano and more) set off the sometimes dour, perpetually reflective aspect of Dame Harriet Walter's Prospero. It also made this two hour play fly by, with the well-deserved standing ovation seeming to come right on the heels of Walter's opening monologue.
The little bit of acting that I have done has mainly been on the "bit player" end of the dramatis personae (case in point, when I was in the Tempest, I played an amalgamation of three different characters. All three of those characters were cut from Lloyd's production). As such, I tend to really watch how the smaller roles are functioning in the play. As I was doing that during this production, I picked up on something astounding, and that I want to be sure to mention here. The sardonic guards, Liv Spencer in particular, were one of the highlights of the play for me. Not because of the dry humor and the insults. While funny, those additions would not have stood out if they just seemed like a way to move the plot forward or reinforce the prison theme. No, what hit me, initially as I watched the play and then with full force as I was processing it the following day, was the realization that Spencer and the other guards were the island. They led the inmates this way and that in a seemingly random pattern. They took these pampered nobles and removed the comfortable notion of control that they valued. This metaphor would have been so easy to "over-do," but Spencer presented it with such deft skill that I almost missed it at first. It must take extraordinary skill to be both comic relief and the metaphorical representation for the entire concept of the production. The more I work through what I saw, the more I feel that Spencer's performance was one of the highlights for me.
I want to culminate this absurdly long blog post by mentioning two key scenes. These are the two moments that really made the play for me. The first happened during the wedding celebration wherein Prospero "conjured" up spirits to entertain Miranda and Ferdinand at their wedding. The spirits, disguised prisoners wearing masks made out of cardboard toothpaste boxes, played music and followed it up with a lively and energetic dance. The masks matched the rest of the props, which were all constructed from garbage and the sorts of things that might be found in a prison. The "wedding feast" was a mishmash of food items that might be found in a prison commissary, including a cake, which appeared to be a massive stack of granola bars. As the dancing commenced, large white floating balloons were brought out and placed around the stage, each anchored to a water bottle. Suddenly, with a wave of Prospero's hand, every inmate stopped in awe as video images were projected onto the balloons. These were images of the outside world. Nature, cars, fast food (a McDonald's logo got a raucous cheer from the inmates), and more. In a play defined by prison-issue costumes and props made from leftover garbage, this singular moment was as beautiful as it was unexpected. In the midst of prison life and prison production values, the show dropped a little bit of magic for just the briefest of moments. A distraught Prospero, in perhaps Walter's finest scene, pops each one of the balloons. In this production, she doesn't stop the pageant because of a sudden remembrance of Caliban's forthcoming betrayal. Here she stops it because she is projecting for the gathered inmates that which she cannot have for herself--hope.
Prospero is not alone in her hopeless state, however. At the end of the play, in an incredibly powerful scene, Walter's Hannah character sits on her prison bed, reading. One by one, each of the other prisoners appears in civilian clothes, offering final words of thanks to the woman who got them through to their release dates. It is a moment that is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. Hannah has done good work for these women and increased her own suffering as a result (getting close to people she knows she will lose). But there is an even more subtle moment of sadness and loss presented in this final scene. Caliban, revealed to be Prospero's cellmate, is also still in prison. She spends the final scene vacuuming Prospero's cell. Casting Caliban as another "lifer" brings new light to an old (and favorite) passage from this play. I've always loved Caliban's lines to the clowns about the sounds of the island:
"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again."
It's a surprising moment of poetry from an otherwise bestial creature. I love this passage because it always drives home the idea that everyone has that place/thing that they love and can describe better than anyone else. No matter how bestial Caliban is, he is of the island, and he loves it as a result. But in this production, I can't help but think that this speech is now reflecting the institutionalization of inmates (i.e.: when inmates are in prison for so long that they are afraid of living anywhere else).
Which brings us back to the prison theme. They did it again. They used this concept to mine a VERY frequently performed work of Shakespeare for brand new angles and ways to get at the text. All of what they found and presented on that stage is in that play. We've just missed seeing it (or seeing the potential for it) for a few centuries. It's like the balloons: pure magic.
Next week's blog WILL be shorter. I'm going to write a bit about a pedagogical technique I've been playing with for the last few years. Until then, if you're able, go see this play (it runs through February 19th at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn). It is so worth it.
Ticket info Harriet Walter's new book about her performance in this trilogy
The trilogy of plays involved collaboration with the Clean Break Program.
I want to rewind a little bit this week, and talk about something from last month. On December 13th (the last day of the semester at the University of Rochester), the Rossell Hope Robbins Library (i.e.: the non-circulating medieval library on campus where I work a few hours each week) put on a dramatic reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was a risk. Even though food was promised in the poster, trying to pull off anything at the end of a semester is hit or miss. Our new-ish director at the Robbins Library, Marie Turner, cooked up the idea, and brought in a rock-star group of medievalists and hangers-on to perform sections. Russell Peck, Steve Rozenski, and Sara Higley all wowed the full audience with their lyrical delivery of Middle English passages. Thom Hahn, having been assigned a modernized section, tried to join the Middle English fun by bringing along his own copy of the text. Several grad students (including myself and first year Rose Zaloom) helped out as well, and the pieces were all stitched together via narration by the incomparable Alan Lupack.
My section was a narrative bit from the Third Fitt, mostly involving the hunt for Reynard the Fox. I played up the suggestive sexual humor in the scenes between Gawain and Lady Bertilak. After the show, Marie came up and said that she was pleased with how it all went, and that she was hoping that I would spice up my section with a bit of humor (to which Alan Lupack responded, "Oh, so you needed a ham and went to Scott? Good call." Oh Alan. He knows me so well). The section that I read featured a bit of the Romance and a bit of the Realistic. And I couldn't help but spend several days thinking about the incredibly odd structure of Gawain.
I've always been fascinated by Gawain and the Green Knight. It's such a perfect balance of the magical perfection of medieval Romance and the grim reality of more modern genres. I think that's why it's so hard to stage/film without venturing towards the ridiculous (Sean Connery, I'm looking at you and your sparkly green chest hair on this one). As a text, it's generically muddy, and that very muddiness has been one of the things I've loved about Gawain. W.R.J. Barron ("Arthurian Romance: Traces of an English Tradition," English Studies 61.1 (1980): 2-23) noted the ambiguous line between the real and the fantastic in Gawain as an indicative feature, arguing that "subtly controlled, realism can be an aid to perspective--as in Gawain's journey out of legendary Logres into the concrete geography of North Wales and back into the Never Never Land of Romance beyond the Wirral" (Barron 18). And it really is a journey from magic to reality and back again. Gawain is the Romance knight in Camelot, but his journey to Chapel Green is detailed, painful, and arduous. Gawain on several occasions comes close to death just getting to Chapel Green. He goes through things that one doesn't usually expect a Romance character to go through. In a way, Gawain almost engages in an inverted dream vision allegory, traveling from a fantastic world to a more visceral one and back again, learning a spiritual/moral lesson along the way.
After our performance at Robbins (which was aided by a full house and some absolutely delicious Lebanese food), I kept turning these ideas over in my head, and I couldn't help but think that this generic confusion, this conflation of both the positive and the negative, the real and the magical, is what makes Gawain so special. It seems as if, particularly today, our entertainments are either dark and gritty or artificial and whimsical. Just look at two recent and popular television programs depicting pseudo-medieval worlds: Galavant and Game of Thrones. The former is clean, funny, and full of people with nary a hair out of place. Racial and gender equality is portrayed with a smile and a song, regardless of how anachronistic it may be (a point they make light about). The latter is dark and gritty. It is teeming with death, disease, deformity, and betrayal. Characters who trust and love tend to be the characters that die the soonest and in the most grotesque fashion.
I know those two examples are a bit random and could easily be cherry picked. So lets pull something from my own wheelhouse: Shakespeare's Henry V. Textually speaking, this play is just as generically confused as Gawain. There are several tragicomic elements throughout, and the wooing scene at the end has been described by Donald Hedrick as "violence to genre." There are, however, two productions of this play that universally get mentioned: Olivier's and Branagh's. Olivier's production, filmed in the midst of a World War and striving to inspire a war-weary English population, showed a Romance Henry. He was clean, morally and wardrobally (that is officially now a word). After Agincourt, a spotless Olivier credits God, forgives an adoring Montjoy, and proceeds to an adoring populace. Branagh's production, responding to a century of morally complicated wars, was anything but clean. After Agincourt, Branagh, caked in blood and earth, carries the murdered boy (who would still somehow grow up to become Batman) from the field of battle amidst an array of corpses. Whatever Romance might be seen in Branagh is depicted as deviousness and manipulation. These two productions illustrate the thoughts I was having after our reading of Gawain. Too often, our texts are EITHER Romance or Gritty Realism.
This is what makes Gawain special to me. I've always been particularly moved by the ending. Gawain, through much trial, returns to Camelot and tells the honest tale of what happened to him against Bertilak. He is not telling a heroic story. He is confessing his own shame, and displaying the badge of that shame. This was the response of his fellow knights:
"Then the king comforted the knight, and the court laughed loudly at the tale,
and all made accord that the lords and the ladies who belonged to the Round
Table, each hero among them, should wear bound about him a baldric of
bright green for the sake of Sir Gawain. And to this was agreed all the
honour of the Round Table, and he who ware it was honoured the more
thereafter, as it is testified in the best book of romance."
They don't get it. Gawain's Round Table brethren don the green to mitigate Gawain's unique shame and announce their own honor. In my head, I always picture Gawain here in a similar situation to Isabella at the end of Measure for Measure--a character who seems stuck in a world with people who just don't get it. Trauma happened. Gawain has been changed at the core of his being. Having journeyed to the "real world" and seen his own imperfections, he can't go back to living normally in a Romance. Robert Margeson ("Structure and Meaning in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Papers on Language & Literature 13.1 (1977): 16-24) described this change in the character, arguing that "perfection, once lost, can by definition never be regained. For him the circle is broken, and his quest has been a linear movement into an as yet unknown world of fallibility and remorse" (18-19).
This is why I like the idea of generically muddy texts. Trauma is real, and it changes people in ways that prevent them from simply returning to the world as they knew it before the traumatic event. By overemphasizing texts that drown in a world of trauma (Game of Thrones which, to be clear, I still love, although I get angry every time they kill a direwolf) or texts where trauma doesn't exist (Galavant, again, I still enjoyed it. Is it awful that I kind of want to see Galavant in Westeros and Ramsey Snow in Galavant's world?), we miss out on the opportunity to see characters heal.
Art reflects the human experience. Gawain, defined at the outset by his membership in a brotherhood, realizes that he can only heal from his trauma independently. There are some texts lately that have been doing this well. Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker created a pair of comic book mini-series back in 2013/14 called Avengers Arena and Avengers Undercover. The former involved a group of teenage heroes forced to fight each other in a death match (I know, I know. I really expected to hate it, but it ended up being fantastic. Check it out). Many of them died. Of the ones that remained, they had to live with the realization that they weren't the heroes they thought they were. Some of them killed. Some allowed others to kill for them. And the follow up series was all about the survivors coming to terms with that trauma. Going back to Henry V, I saw an amazing local production here in Rochester last year. Kate Sherman played Henry V, and her performance was a tight rope walk of trauma and performed strength. Sherman's Henry saw the horrors of war after Agincort. She recoiled from a defeated Montjoy who had not adoration, but clear hate in his eyes for the English monarch who had destroyed France. She struggled with the reality of the trauma that she saw all around her while balancing the necessity of maintaining a show of strength out of duty. Imagine a king with an awareness of Branagh's world and the realization that her people needed to see Olivier's moral simplicity. That's the Henry that Sherman delivered, and it was one of the more powerful productions of the play that I've seen.
I could talk about these sorts of things all day and then some (Shakespeare, Gawain, comic books, Game of Thrones, and Galivant? I'm impressed I kept it as short as I did, haha). This is one of those posts where the point isn't overly clear even to me. I suppose that it came from a place where, due to current events, trauma is on my mind. Certain aspects of the world aren't quite like I had thought/hoped them to be. I keep waiting for some Galivant to pop into the picture, but Ramsey Snow keeps rearing his head. Trauma is real. Our art and drama does a fantastic job of depicting, producing and sensationalizing trauma. I guess my point with this post is just that I want to see more art/drama depicting characters recovering from trauma and re-adjusting. The world can never become what it was before. But it doesn't have to drown in the trauma. #BetheGawainYouWanttoSeeinThisWorld.
As a heads up, next week, I'm going to NYC to visit with some awesome cousins and some dear friends AND we're going to see the all-female cast production of the Tempest at St. Anne's Warehouse. I am beyond psyched. Be well.
When a person buys a house, something funny happens. Suddenly, that person becomes more obsessed with the tiniest things that he/she has literally never thought about before. This happened with me when I bought my condo several years ago (note to other grad students--It's actually just cheaper to buy in Rochester than it is to rent. Rest assured, I am still mightily poor and remain in povertarian solidarity). Seemingly overnight, bathroom faucets became the most fascinating thing I'd ever seen. I spent hours upon hours at Home Depot and Lowes comparing models and styles, for a remodeling project that would not happen for at least a couple of years (if at all). Weird.
Branding a website, I've learned, is similar. I never thought I would ever have a "professional website" and I certainly hadn't thought much about what I would name it. Much like the faucets, I spent hour after agonizing hour weighing the options, and decided that "Blue Collar Scholar" would be the perfect name, for reasons that I will explain below. One problem. Someone else had the idea first. So now my blog is called "Blue Collar Scholar" and the site is called "TheRenaivalist.com"--with the latter being a conflation of "Renaissance" and "Medievalist" as a result of the fact that I work across that particular line (in other words, I still heart Stephen Greenblatt, but I won't read The Swerve). TheRenaivalist won out over "Scottspeare," a short-lived nickname I picked up in my first year of the program at U of Rochester (one of the better nicknames I've been tagged with, joining the decidedly less fun "Shaq," "April," "BeamMeUp," and an unfortunate nickname from my undergraduate fraternity days that will never be spoken of again).
But why "Blue Collar Scholar"? Before the name was taken off the table due to the realization that it was already spoken for, one of my dearest friends actually cautioned me about it. She noted that, while people who knew me would get it, people who didn't know me might make assumptions. Assumptions about that farm country background, and whether it put a chip on my shoulder. Assumptions about whether or not I might be a hick and have a raunchy sense of humor (I don't. I do love horrible puns, however). She noted that she knew none of those things were true, but that she worried about what "someone who doesn't know you might think."
She was being a true friend and looking out for me, but I was still reluctant to part ways with this moniker. Not because it rhymed, but because I think it is important to hold on to where I come from. I was raised in farm country in NE Pennsylvania by a single mother who went to work immediately after graduating high school (who is also one of the smartest people I know). People from my hometown--people from my socio-economic background--didn't really think about going to an Ivy or striving for an academic career. I struggled to get where I am now, not only through economic and family concerns, but also mostly through my own misguided sense that people like me weren't "welcome" in prestigious academic settings. Melissa Scholes Young explains this feeling brilliantly in her May 6th 2016 article in The Atlantic:
"When the College of Arts & Sciences at American University organized a
first-generation faculty meet up, I hesitated to join. Who would be in the
room? Would I be outing myself and confirm their suspicions that I really
didn't belong? Instead, I found administrators, department chairs, and
accomplished scholars sitting around a conference table unpacking their
brown-bag lunches. We talked about the masks we often wear with our
colleagues and how even our achievements still feel unmerited."
Owning that "Blue Collar Scholar" moniker is about owning that anxiety. Even Facebook quizzes seem to recognize that anxiety--in a recent quiz that would reveal my Hogwarts house, wand, favorite class, club, etc, it notified me that I was a Hufflepuff who was also in the Slug Club. You can try (and fail) to hide it, or you can own it. Marcus Belby or Ginny Weasley. I choose the latter.
What that means is that I always try to write and speak in a way that reflects those roots. James Shapiro, in an interview included in the post-script of the paperback edition of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, revealed that "The intellectual confusion I had often experienced--in high school, college, even graduate school--made me a lot more sensitive to students and readers who feel lost, and had a profound impact on what I write about and how I write. I don't have a lot of patience for those who condescend to readers (or students) or write in an impenetrable style." I don't want to speak for professor Shapiro, but I'm reasonably sure that his lack of patience for those scholars with impenetrable styles is not because HE finds those scholars difficult. He simply wants to be the kind of scholar who writes for the kind of student he was. That's what I want as well. I don't always succeed, and I get honestly terrified when I see myself slipping into that dense, field-specific jargon with a potential audience of a few dozen people. To me, that doesn't mean I'm succeeding. It means that I'm restricting. I'm restricting my work to a handful of people, and I think the work that we do is too important for that. If people from farm country Pennsylvania can't latch on to some part of what I'm writing and make sense out of it, I think I'm doing something wrong.
That attitude shows up in my writing (I once explained the humor in The Merry Wives of Windsor by comparing it to the comedic structure of the Schwarzenegger film Kindergarten Cop--you might also recognize the subtitle of this blog post as a gem from that cinematic masterpiece, haha). I utilize common sense metaphor in my writing classroom as well. That's how people operate where I grew up. In my hometown, if I stopped and asked someone for directions and that person gave me longitudinal coordinates, I'd look at them like they had horns coming out of their head. It doesn't matter that it's more accurate. In my neck of the woods, "directions" involve turning right by the Pump 'n Pantry and then hanging a left right after the big rock that sort of looks like fat Elvis if you squint.
The reason my blog is named "Blue Collar Scholar" is that, despite my dear friend's very well-intentioned and considerate advice, I can't present myself as something that I'm not. It does a disservice to me, my co-workers, and most especially my students. Melissa Scholes Young passionately lobbied for first-generation faculty to be open about the struggles we faced along the way, noting that it "doesn't hurt our credibility. It helps build it." She argues for this openness to show our first-generation students that there are people who have "navigated similar paths" and succeeded. She said that one of the benefits to her "not knowing the rules" was that "in college and my career, I didn't know not to knock so I learned to knock louder." That's where I'm at right now. I'm at the beginning of this blog. The beginning of my career. The beginning of the perilous academic job market. And I'm not going to try and pretend to be someone I'm not. I'm proud of those blue-collar struggles. I use them in the classroom, where I feel I'm at my best working with student populations who might also feel a little out of place: first generation college students, international students, military veterans, etc. I try to help my students thrive in this new and unfamiliar setting, and realize that the best person they can be in college is themselves. I own the fact that I'm an unlikely Shakespeare nerd from the depths of farm country because I need my students to see that I AM a Hufflepuff in the Slug Club. Despite my anxiety about that fact, I DO belong here. And I'm going to knock louder.
Welcome to the site and my blog.
Welcome to the "Blue Collar Scholar" blog at TheRenaivalist.com (i.e. Scott O'Neil's personal and professional blog).