Just a quick post to let y'all know that I was on Connections with Evan Dawson on NPR this afternoon. Evan had myself (in my role as a dramaturge), WallByrd artistic director Virginia Monte, and performer/scholar Jamie Tyrrell on the show to chat about issues related to putting on plays like The Taming of the Shrew in the era of the #MeToo movement. Jamie, Virginia, and I started the conversation 20 minutes before even going up to the studio, and continued the conversation long after the show had ended (I think the ladies at the front desk of WXXI thought we had moved into the lobby permanently, haha).
See below for a link to listen to the show, if you are so inclined, and a couple of photos from the visit!
Now back to the dissertation revision!
Link to the show: HERE
Or go to the web address directly:
In the wake of the most recent mass school shooting, the solution from the president and the NRA is a rehashing of an old idea—the “let’s arm the teachers” concept. It’s sort of like a cross between the old west and the nun with the deadly yardstick, I suppose. In the case of the president and the NRA, I am a bit cynical—I’m 100% convinced that they have latched onto this idea as a means to avoid actually doing anything about the gun problem in this country. That said, I can understand the logic of people who hear that idea and think it’s worth a try. For them, people who have never set foot in a classroom as anything other than a student, it makes sense. If a teacher has a gun, that teacher can end the attack more quickly by shooting the attacker. They don’t understand the flaw in this plan.
The flaw is the idea that shooters like the one in Florida, Columbine, Newtown, etc. are exceptions. We like to see these shooters after the fact, and say “oh look at all of those signs. We should have seen this coming.” The problem, however, is that the signs here weren’t all that rare. This was a teenager who had lost his father and then his mother, was expelled for fighting over bullying and/or issues with the opposite sex, and had an obsession with violence and weapons. To be clear, this teenager IS a monster—we know this because he killed 17 people. If we look at him BEFORE that act, however, he is not particularly rare or even uncommon. Schools, even the best schools, have MANY hard-luck cases: kids with difficult home lives, kids who have experienced tragedy, kids with emotional issues, and more. These are the kids who were in the classes most of us weren’t in back in high school. They were the kids who sat alone or with other kids like them. Most people, as students, don’t really see them. But they are there. They are kids like Jack.
I taught Jack during my very first year as a high school teacher. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. As any good teacher will tell you, we desperately want to go back and apologize to that first group of students who we taught. Even still, Jack stands out. I still remember every detail about that moment—the moment of my first major “issue” as a teacher. The bell rang, students started filing out of the room, and this one little 9th grader dropped a folded up piece of paper on my desk without uttering a word to me. I hadn’t been collecting anything that day, but I picked up the piece of paper, unfolded it, and read this:
I had no idea how to handle this at first. This was a pretty good school. Jack was a poor student, but he seemed like a genuinely nice kid. What do you do when a student tells you that he intends to kill you? In this case, I brought the note to a mentor, who walked me down to the office with a serious look on his face and made me show it to the principal. I felt awful. I was worried this student would get expelled or arrested. He was suspended—for one day—and was back in class the next week. He apologized. His mother wrote me a nice note, expressing her horror that her child would ever write such a thing, and insisting that he was trying to joke around with me. He had fallen in with a group of bad influences, she said. Within a week, things went back to normal. He did not manage to pass my class that year, but he never tried to kill me, either.
That was the only year I taught Jack, but I kept tabs on the kid. I asked him how he was doing in 10th grade the following year, and offered advice on how to approach Shakespeare. I asked him how his mother was doing, in that “I know some of the horrid details of your home life but I can’t reveal to you that I know these things” way. I don’t want to get too into specifics, as the point here is not to reveal Jack’s true name or identity, but let’s just say that there was plenty in this 15 year old’s background that could have been considered a “sign that we missed.” I lost track of Jack in 11th and 12th grade. The next time I saw him was at his own graduation. He was supposed to be lining up, but he was frantically looking around for the tie that he “misplaced.” I am reasonably certain that he never remembered to bring a tie, but he could not walk without one. I loosened the tie from around my own neck and tossed it to him. He lit up with a smile, made eye contact, and gave me the most authentic “thank you” I think I’ve ever heard. He then rushed off to line up for graduation. Other than a quick hand-off when he returned the tie, I have not seen Jack since. I went off to graduate school, and I lost track of this young man who had seen too many things in his life and who had once threatened to end mine.
Why do I bring up Jack in this blog post? I don’t want to conflate him with the young man who did that horrible thing in Florida. Not at all. Nothing would make me happier than to hear that Jack is living a wonderful, happy, stable life right now. He deserves it. No, I bring up Jack because—until the young man in Florida decided to act on his threats—he could have been Jack. There are dozens of kids with horribly tragic circumstances in our schools. Only a handful turn out to be monsters. The rest? The rest are the special projects for teachers. They are the students we show up early for. They are the students who make the athletic teams even if they were on the bubble because we think they need the community the most. There is a phrase often associated with schools--in loco parentis—which literally means “in the place of the parent.” The phrase is usually used to indicate that teachers make decisions when the parents aren’t there. But what about the kids for whom the parents are absent altogether or might as well be? Teachers will always go that extra mile for a kid who has nobody else in their corner. It’s part of the nature of the profession.
It’s been a long time since I was in front of a high school classroom, but many of these kids stay with me: the kid who had no self-confidence and cried when she found out I called home for a positive reason; the kid who was on the path to being a massive bully before several teachers took him under their wings rather than giving up on him; the student who told me that his father beats him; the student whose parents sued the school system because he was gay and they wanted someone else to pay for his tuition at a school that could “make that go away.” These kids stay with me, even though I don’t really know what became of most of them. Every teacher has kids like this—kids with “warning signs” who we work a bit harder to help. What does this have to do with guns? Easy. No teacher—and it doesn’t matter how much training they have had or if they are former military—no teacher can aim a weapon at a student, even the toughest, most pain in the ass student that has ever graced their classroom, and pull a trigger. To point a gun at another person and pull the trigger, you have to be able to see that target as an enemy. To teachers, that isn’t “the enemy”—it’s our kid. Even in the best case scenario, there would be hesitation. Any teacher who claims to be able to do exactly that is either lying to themselves or should never be in front of a classroom or in possession of a gun.
The only thing we can expect from adding guns to school buildings is a significant increase in accidental shootings. So what SHOULD we do? I am not particularly comfortable around guns. Especially guns designed for the mass slaughter of people. I don’t think that stricter background checks will catch ENOUGH people. Some folks will always slip through. If it were up to me, I would want all semi-automatic assault rifles banned. I understand that a lot of folks feel differently. How about this as a compromise. Let’s flip the script. Instead of running checks to look for (and all too often miss) reasons why people shouldn’t have a semi-automatic assault weapon, why don’t we have a multi-step process of affirmative checks—if someone wants to buy a semi-automatic assault weapon, they need to explain why they want/need one, demonstrating that they have trained, have a clean record, have a plan for safe storage, etc. It’s not as far as I would prefer when it comes to gun control while still leaving the option there for people who are able and willing to demonstrate that they have the need, training, and stability for such a weapon.
As a solution, it isn’t perfect. But it’s a far sight better than putting a gun in my hand and asking me to end the life of one of my students. No teacher can do that. Even if a student did threaten to end my life, I could never fire a weapon at that student. I’d much rather lend him my tie.
In the interests of getting SOMETHING up on the blog, I figured I would bring out this theory I cooked up right after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the second time. I originally posted this on Buzzfeed Community, but with The Last Jedi only a few months away, I figured now was a good time to bring back my theory and see if I was right. Once I come back up for air in a few weeks, I will have a relative flurry of new posts on a range of things, including more theater reviews, a write up of my Cinematic Shakespeares class, a long overdue affirmation post, and a post about race and small town America that I’ve been working on for a while. Until then, let’s get our dweeb on with some Star Wars theories!
After seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the second time many months back, I began to notice a few details that might foreshadow a TOTAL shock moment in the next film (December’s upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
Here’s my guess: Kylo Ren (aka: Ben Solo) is NOT in fact Han and Leia's son. He is Luke Skywalker's son.
Wait, you say. That makes no sense. The film told us explicitly on several occasions that Kylo Ren was Han and Leia's son, right? Yes. It did. A New Hope also told us on several occasions that Darth Vader killed Luke's father and that Luke and Leia could be a romantic couple. The new trilogy is all about paying homage to the narrative structure of the original, and the original set up a LOT of misdirection in A New Hope in order to set up some epic reveals in Empire.
So why do I think Kylo Ren is really Luke's son? Let's start with the name "Ben." In the expanded universe, Luke and EU flame Mara Jade had a son named Ben (who, after being mentioned in SEVERAL of the novels, was finally born in Greg Keyes' Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, Edge of Victory II, Rebirth--the only thing longer than that child's gestation period was the title of the novel that depicted his birth). It made sense. Obi Wan Kenobi was a mentor to Luke. But why on earth would Han and Leia call their kid Ben? Leia never actually MET Kenobi, and Han only knew him for a few hours. They also BOTH knew him as "Obi Wan Kenobi." Only Luke knew him as Ben, and had the kind of relationship where he would name a child after him.
So why would Han and Leia be raising Luke's child as their own? Because Jedi aren't supposed to get married or have kids. Luke can't walk away from his responsibility as a Jedi--not when he's the only one left. My argument is that he had the child, and asked his sister and best friend to raise it as their own so that he could fulfill his obligation AND be in the life of his child. It would be important for all involved to keep it mum, though.
Connecting to this is the theory that Rey is Han and Leia's natural daughter. She is the epitome of her two parents merged together. I think she was at the Jedi academy when Ren wiped out the other students, and Luke chose to save her over the others, as a Sith must kill someone important to them to truly cross over to the dark side. This is part of the reason Vader was able to be redeemed. He THOUGHT he killed Padme, but he didn't. He also didn't kill Kenobi, who ended his own life (for just that reason, I believe). Thus, Luke sacrificed his other students in order to save his niece (and in a way, his son). He knew his niece would always be in danger if Ren knew about her survival or location, so he had to hide her.
Where did he hide her? A desert planet. With an old friend (remember the opening scene and the description of that character from the text scroll?) living just across the dune to keep an eye on her. And this old friend also happened to be the one who had the map segment that could lead to Luke… It's a mirror image of the way Kenobi stashed Luke on Tattoine. Luke himself couldn't fill the Obi-Wan role for two key reasons: he had massive guilt over sacrificing his other students to save his own family, and he had to hide Rey's presence/survival from both Ren AND Rey's parents (Han and Leia).
The connection between Han/Leia and Rey is clear. Han IMMEDIATELY takes to Rey, as if she reminds him of someone he had lost. He even tells Leia about "the girl" immediately upon their reunion (the First Order is blowing up star systems, and Han's first order of business is to tell Leia about a junk scrounger he met along the way?). Add to that the scene between Han and Maz where she JUST finishes describing how she can recognize the eyes of people across generations, and then looks right at Han and says, knowingly, "Who's the girl?" AND she gives Rey the lightsaber. It looks at first like she reacts to the saber because it is described as belonging to Luke and his father before him. This leads us to think that she is Luke's daughter. But if she is Han and Leia's daughter, she STILL has the familial connection to the saber, as it once belonged to her grandfather.
When Leia actually sees Rey for the first time, they share a real embrace (if it were one of mourning over Han, Leia would have been hugging Chewbacca, not this girl that knew her husband for about a day and a half). Leia, as a mother and as an adept of the force, IMMEDIATELY recognizes Rey as the daughter she thought dead.
So even with all this--the fact that A New Hope included these kinds of misdirections, the little details that support the theory,etc--why would they do this in THIS movie? I think they are seeding the film with fake/less important mysteries (who are Rey's parents, who is Snoke, etc etc) to distract from this bigger mystery. The payoff, much like the original trilogy (again, the stated desire to pay homage to the originals) would come in the The Last Jedi. As Luke goes to confront Kylo Ren--the latter now thinking himself FULLY crossed over to the dark side--Luke insists that Kylo can still be saved. Kylo laughs in Luke's face, and delivers a line along the lines of "You think you can turn me? I KILLED my father!" To which Luke, looking sad, responds:
"No, Ben. I am your father."
And the theater explodes in roars of nerdgasm.
I think this is how it has to work out in the next film. Search your feelings. You know it is true.
Wallbyrd is still kind of the newcomer to the Rochester theater scene. Virginia Monte’s emerging company has put on a few shows in recent years. If you saw The Winter’s Tale (MUCCC), The Duchess of Malfi (MUCCC), The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged, Romeo and Juliet (Highland Park Bowl), or The Importance of Being Earnest (Lyric Theater), then you’ve seen a Wallbyrd show. Wallbyrd productions tend to have several recognizable features. They like to do interesting things with light and stage effects, they like to re-imagine familiar concepts in new, unexpected ways, they put a priority on movement, and they go out of their way to make their shows accessible to a younger audience (this is not a “tights and ruffs” company).
Their production of Macbeth is right in line with all of this. In Wallbyrd’s production, Scotland is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, filled with cannibal witches, warring tribes, and a mishmash of surviving aspects of culture. It is a world where someone who is 30 is old and 40+ is unrealistic, and it is a world where the ability to procreate is incredibly important. The post-apocalyptic Scotland is staged at the Lyric Theater, and utilizes a minimalist set, with few non-weapon props and a stage area filled with risers and platforms that could have easily been seen in a junkyard. Basically, picture a world that is one part Peter Pan and the lost boys and two parts Mad Max, and you’ll have a pretty decent idea of the world of this production.
One of the things Wallbyrd has always done particularly well is approach classic texts in an off-center kind of way. They did this last summer in their production of Romeo and Juliet, where their Friar Laurence, usually played by a venerable old man, was played instead by Carl Del Buono as a “fresh from the monastery” friar who wanted to change the world. This change led to several heart-breaking moments, such as the one here when Laurence discovers Romeo’s dead body, realizes his role in the death, and can’t bear to look at the corpse of his young protégé:
In Macbeth, there are several such moments, though two stood out to me more than most: the “banquet” scene and the funeral procession. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the title character throws a formal banquet, at which he sees the ghost of a man he’s just had murdered. It unnerves him, and he disrupts the mirth of the dinner party, giving the gathered nobles a first reason to start suspecting Macbeth’s role in the murder of the former king. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the play, primarily because there are so many different ways to do the scene. Does the audience see what Macbeth sees or do they see what the nobles see? It’s also a scene that lends itself to quite a bit of dramatic experimentation. The production at the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival last year added a second ghost (Duncan, the murdered king) to further torment the title character. I was eagerly anticipating this scene in Wallbyrd’s production, and for the first time in ages, I didn’t see it coming. With little warning, the actors all stormed the stage in a highly choreographed dance number, complete with strobe lighting and a bit of mosh pit action. I initially had no idea what was going on. In fact, I turned to my neighbor to ask if we had fallen into an episode of In Living Color. Only when the ghost appeared did I realize that we were in the banquet scene, and once that connection was made, it made perfect sense. Wallbyrd loves to incorporate dance and contemporary music into their productions (as you can see from the attached clip of the Capulet Ball from last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet), but this wasn’t superfluous in any way. A world with, effectively, no old people WOULDN’T have a formal, sit down banquet. What would a group of tribal teens and 20-somethings have as a social gathering? A rave, and that’s exactly what Wallbyrd gave us.
The other scene that really stood out was more of an addition to the Shakespearean material than anything else. After Duncan is killed, a solemn funeral procession is performed. The scene opens with a priestess chanting a familiar tune (more on this below). The body of Duncan is brought in, and his signature battle axe is then handed to another priestess. A ceremonial passing of the torch of authority (in this case the “torch” being a pendant that is passed from Duncan’s corpse to Macbeth) follows. Finally, all of the cast files out through the audience, led by Duncan and his pall bearers. Two things impressed me about this scene. First, it is another example of Wallbyrd finding meaning between the lines. Second, it put the rock star cast on display. There were well over a dozen actors on stage for this scene. I don’t think any two actors were conveying the same emotion. Jonathan Lowery’s Lennox was stoic, with a set jaw. Eddie Coomber was beside himself with grief. Ged Owen’s Banquo was mourning, yet preoccupied, lost in his own thoughts. This was not a scene where everyone went out and just “acted sad.” Each actor—from star to unnamed extra—clearly had an idea as to how their character was specifically reacting to Duncan’s murder. This show rewards those who pay attention, as the characters along the margins are always doing something (I was particularly delighted by Jackson Mosher in the rave scene—he is desperately attempting to dance with a woman who has no interest whatsoever. It’s a minor play within a play, and these kinds of moments are scattered throughout the production).
This, frankly, is another thing Wallbyrd seems to do well. They find amazing local actors. Many of the actors playing secondary and even bit parts have played leads in Rochester area productions. This trend goes in the other direction as well, as actors like Andy Head, who played the relatively minor part of Paris in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet, turned in a strong performance as Macbeth. I’m reminded of one of the arguments made by Bart Van Es in Shakespeare in Company, about how Shakespeare’s distinct style could be traced, in part, to the fact that he had an entire company of excellent actors to write for (an oddity at the time). This production featured several stand-out performances. Head’s Macbeth drove the action. The highlight moment, for me, came in what is Macbeth’s one big “Hamlet” speech (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”). It features one of the most quotable lines in the play: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Head began that line and then paused for a significant period of time before blurting out “by an idiot.” It was his character’s moment of realization—the first point since he actively decided to clutch the dagger and murder the king that he thought about what he had done and realized that none of it was worth it.
Another stand out was Shawn Gray, who played Ross. Gray, who played a manic, almost childish Benvolio in last summer’s Romeo and Juliet was the consummate warrior in Macbeth. He played one third of the Macduff family unit—in this post-apocalyptic world, the family unit has been reimagined as collections of warriors and those who can still reproduce; Macduff (played by Caitlin Kenyon) is played as an infertile warrior woman who serves as the husband to Charlotte Moon’s pregnant Lady Macduff (with Gray’s Ross as the brother in arms, breeding male, and third member of the marital trio). In the text, Ross is a relatively minor character. In this production, Gray’s performance is impossible to ignore. While there were several other excellent performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the tandem of murderers played by Eddie Coomber and Kiefer Schenk. These two local actors—who played the leads in Wallbyrd’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year—simply belong on stage together. They are Beavis and Butt-head but with an absurd ability to simultaneously convey affect and nuance while they play such roles. Somewhere out there is a buddy cop movie with their names on it, and I’ll be the first in line to go see it.
Many of the best moments of the play featured the young actress who played Banquo’s child, Fleance. Andy Head’s Macbeth and Fleance (played by Serene Selke-Fisher--thanks to Diana Louise Carter for the help with the name!) have a playful “uncle/niece” kind of relationship. One scene, before the murder of Duncan, shows Fleance trying to sneak up on her father—unsuccessfully. Moments later, Macbeth does succeed in sneaking up on Fleance and grabs her from behind. Macbeth, Banquo, and Fleance all clearly revel in this kind of game. Only a few scenes later, after the murder of Duncan, Banquo and Fleance prepare to leave on a short trip when Macbeth again grabs her from behind. Only this time, Banquo’s hand goes to the hilt of his sword. It is the first clear indication that he no longer trusts his once beloved comrade, and it adds to the trauma of later scenes in the play.
I also enjoyed the casting of a girl to play the role of Fleance—traditionally portrayed as Banquo’s son. The role is an important one, textually, because of the prophecy the witches speak that states that Banquo would not himself be a king, but he would sire a long line of kings. King James I, who ruled England during the second half of Shakespeare’s career, famously claimed to be a descendent of Banquo. As such, Fleance is a key character because even though Malcolm is king at the end of the play, we know that Fleance will, at some point, do great things (and pay attention to the final moments of this production—Fleance offers the audience a glimpse of things to come).
On a side note, there are a couple of fun little “Easter egg” moments in this production, connected to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. The tune the priestess chants to begin Duncan’s funeral procession is the same tune as the “Mist and Shadow” song that Pippin sings in Return of the King, and several of the battle cries uttered by the cast as they (frequently) engage in battle are Dwarvish words (again from LotR). This is a fun tip of the hat by Wallbyrd to the idea that Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings in part due to a dissatisfaction with the way Shakespeare cheated his way out of the prophecies in Macbeth (Tolkien had Ents marching and a woman kill the witch king, as opposed to Shakespeare having the army cut down bits of trees to hide their numbers and having Macduff born via Caesarian section).
Although there is much to praise, there were some things that didn’t necessarily work in this production. The witches were a mixed bag. I loved the idea of a post-apocalyptic witches’ coven, particularly the idea that they would only be capable of speech when enough of them had gathered.* I also enjoyed the move to replace several servant characters with Hecate, played by the delightfully evil Alma Haddock. But the concept soon became overly complicated. In one scene, the witches have a choreographed, ballet-like dance number that feels entirely out of place in this post-apocalyptic world. There is another scene—the one where Macbeth returns to the coven to hear more prophecy—where puppets are utilized. It is a moment of prop-heavy action in what had been, to that point, a fairly barren stage. It might have been more effective to do the effects for the prophecies with light, as Wallbyrd has done so often in the past, or to have constructed more terrifying puppets. The movement in the puppet scenes was suitably eerie, but the puppets themselves, particularly the large one with a "monstrous" face just didn't convey terror. The scenes with the witches thus became some of the best and most flawed scenes in the play, because they had a phenomenal concept, but it felt like the concept was a little over-thought and possibly a bit too ambitious (regarding the puppet construction) for the time constraints of community theater.
Another moment that concerned me was the level of violence in the murder of Macduff’s family. It is effective, and it is disturbing, and it is visceral. I completely understand the point of that scene and what it is supposed to do. It does, however, take this play to a very dark place—it is the darkest and most violent of any of the many productions of Macbeth I have seen—and I would be wary of bringing small children to see it (very “Red Wedding” for those of you who are Game of Thrones fans). A final concern/critique is one that the cast and crew of Wallbyrd couldn’t do anything about: the acoustics. The Lyric is a beautiful venue, and having a new venue for local theater is always a good thing. But it was a church in a past life, and the acoustics are designed to carry ONE voice through that domed roof. The odd part is that the echoing was worse when the acting was best—when actors changed pitch to convey emotion and nuance, the pitch changes created echoes. This was especially true of the scene where Ross reveals the fate of Macduff’s family (though Kenyon’s primal scream of anguish was powerful and believable) as well as the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff.
Ultimately, this was a show I had long been looking forward to seeing. Virginia Monte’s concept for the show was everything that makes a Wallbyrd production worth seeing and her all-star cast of local talent took that concept and made it a reality. To be honest, this show doesn’t quite hit the same highs as last summer’s Romeo and Juliet--though it will likely be a while before anything does hit that mark; Wallbyrd's Romeo and Juliet set a standard for quality in Rochester community Shakespeare--but Macbeth felt like it had the potential to be even better with a little more time and some editing. That, in itself, is remarkable, and what they DID achieve is still an excellent show, and well worth seeing if you are in the Rochester area.
Ticket info HERE.
* Disclaimer—I was the dramaturge for this show. Virginia and I had several conversations about the links between Banquo and James I, as well as many coffee-fueled talks about the witches. I was basically the walking reference text in the early stages of the show’s conception, and was not involved in any of the rehearsals or world-building. As such, my review is based entirely on my experience watching the show for the first time.
This will be a short one, as this is a post I hadn't planned on writing (I've been working on a more positive post for a bit, and I will likely add a post soon talking about the summer class I just finished teaching). As a Renaissance scholar, it's been impossible NOT to follow the story about the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar. To be perfectly clear up front, this blog post is NOT going to re-hash all the points that have been made by others in my field. Yes, the rage from Republicans regarding this production is misplaced. This is a matter of fact, not one of opinion. Sarah Neville has shown how the play is, by design, not about sending a singular political message, but rather how it, through its "interpretive instability" leads people to see what they want in the text, appropriating it along those lines. Jyotsna G. Singh offers an historical context for the play, pointing out similarities between Caesar in Shakespeare's time and the political situation today. Singh notes that "Shakespeare had inherited over 1,600 years of ambiguity, with little consensus over whether Caesar's killing was justified." The result of such ambiguity was a play where heroes and villains are painted in tones of gray. Finally, Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic has shown the absurdity of being outraged at the Public Theater's production due to the fact that it's not the first, second, or even third time such an angle has been taken with this play. A 2015 production put Hillary Clinton in the Caesar role. A 2012 production put Barack Obama in the Caesar role. Earlier productions featured JFK and Reagan.
So I wasn't going to write about the Caesar outrage. It seemed that it had all been covered. But a combination of humidity induced insomnia and the fact that I am literally writing this from the scholar residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library has made me change my mind about joining the fray. There IS one aspect of this issue that I have yet to see anyone address (not saying it hasn't been, just saying I haven't seen it). Almost every character in this play exists on a razor's edge of morality. Caesar may have been a tyrant, and he may have been a savior. Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius may have been acting in the name of friendship, and they may have been acting in the name of self-interest. Each conspirator falls along the spectrum of morality in terms of their motive, and at the very least, you must admit that good men and bad men alike stab Caesar. In a play replete with such moral ambiguities, there is one scene that is clearly a depiction of immorality: the murder of Cinna the Poet. It's a short scene, and one that the education wing of the Folger Library uses frequently (another reason, perhaps, this scene came to mind tonight). You can see the scene HERE if you aren't familiar with it.
This scene follows shortly after the famous "dueling speeches" scene where first Brutus gives a speech that gets the mob riled up in favor of the conspirators, and then Mark Antony gives a response that turns the Roman mob against the conspirators. By the time the two orators--both of whom seem to truly believe that they are acting in the best interests of Rome--are finished, the Roman mob is out of control. They don't trust anybody and, following the lead of their politicians, they are filled with suspicion, doubt, anger, and violence. That is their state when they encounter gentle Cinna the Poet, who unfortunately shares a name with a conspirator. The angry mob gangs up on Cinna, intimidates him, interrogates him, and finally kills him. Note the final lines of this scene, however. This is not a case of mistaken identity. Cinna the Poet does reveal that he is not one of the conspirators. That he is Cinna the Poet, not Cinna the Conspirator. The mob seemingly takes that information at face value. And then they kill him anyway, for his "bad verses."
The mob wasn't trying to achieve a goal. They did not believe in a particular ideology. Not really. They were enraged, that rage had to be vented, and it ultimately didn't matter who was on the receiving end. This, too, has been happening in our current politically charged theatrical situation. The Boston Globe ran a story this week reporting that Shakespeare theaters across the country, from Lenox, Mass. to Dallas, Texas and several more in between, have been receiving dozens of unhinged threats from people offended by the Public Theater's production. These theaters, which have nothing to do with the Public's production, received dozens of messages, "including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater's staff is 'sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.'" These threats were fueled by the intentional fanning of those initial flames of rage. Long after it was clear that the play isn't about what people had been told, folks like Donald Trump Jr. tried to blame the production for the shooting in Virginia. Some of the actions were those of cowardice rather than those of opportunism. Delta and Bank of America, rather than standing firm and highlighting what the play is actually about, stepped aside and withdrew their support, lending the perception of credibility to a protest about nothing.
But let's pause for a moment and ask an important question: What was the Roman mob actually angry about? Were they angry at the conspirators for killing Caesar? Were they angry at themselves for cheering Brutus after his speech? Did they feel deceived by Brutus? Does it have anything to do with Brutus, Antony, Caesar, or any of the rest? That's the question of this play, because anyone who has been paying attention lately can see that that's where we are right now. Mobs of people protest and counter protest. They dox people online and send death threats. And it doesn't matter if the person (or in this case the play) is ACTUALLY doing what they've been told it does. Someone from their "side" has pointed at it and declared it the enemy. And, just like the Cinna the Poet scene, the mob isn't even going after the right target. We aren't thinking. We are segregated into packs who follow blindly and attack whichever target is identified, regardless of the facts. We are the Roman mob, and we are killing Cinna the Poet by the thousands because we are all too willing to mindlessly vent rather than stop and think.
We, as a society, needed the message that the Public Theater's production was putting forward. Those who came out in droves to protest this production (and sent death threats to many other companies simply because they turned up in a flawed Google search) need to take a moment to look inward and figure out why they are so very angry. It isn't because of this play. As so many others have pointed out, that logic doesn't stand. The play literally ISN'T doing what the mob has been told it does. Yet they protest it anyway. They kill Cinna the Poet regardless of whether or not that target makes any sense, and it has to stop. We need to figure out why we are ACTUALLY so damned angry and why we are so content to be a mob whose unfixed rage can be manipulated so easily by so few for such selfish reasons. Our elected leaders need to decide if this cut-throat game of win at all costs via violent rhetoric is worth the inevitable result. And remember that "inevitable result" is precisely what Julius Caesar is about. This play shows us what happens when society reaches such a point. Rome (the United States) falls into ruin and despotism. And while the dream of Rome survives elsewhere, Rome itself never truly recovers. It isn't a play about one side violently deposing the other. It's a play about the collapse of democratic society where everyone from every side loses. Think about that next time the occasion to "kill Cinna for his bad verses" presents itself. And then maybe see the play rather than wishing death upon others.
After a total of five flights, including several tornadoes, one highway fire, a Midwestern hailstorm, and a faint earthquake, I have ventured to and returned from the 2017 Shakespeare Association of America conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I'm somehow simultaneously energized and completely exhausted, so I'm going to go full listicle on this entry. So here are my four big takeaways from SAA 2017 (or rather, one MASSIVE takeaway and three carry-on items):
This was definitely one of the more interesting conference travel stories thus far in my career. In the week prior to SAA, one of Atlanta's major highways caught fire and collapsed. A few days before the start of the conference, tornadoes swept through the area. On the day before the conference, "travel day" if you will, the tornadoes returned and, for a time, the Atlanta airport was shut down completely. My own planned simple trip--Rochester to Baltimore to Atlanta--was supposed to be a quick jaunt down, putting me in Georgia at about 4pm. When I arrived in Baltimore, however, I quickly learned that my flight to Atlanta had been canceled. I was told that they could put me on a plane to Detroit, and catch a flight to Atlanta from there, assuming the airport re-opened in the interim. This was a gamble. I'm related to roughly 72% of the Baltimore/DC area. If I were to be stranded at BWI, there would be no shortage of beds and home cooked meals available to me. Detroit? I don't even know anyone out there. But my panel was the next morning, so I took the gamble and got on the plane.
When we landed in Detroit, naturally it started hailing with massive flashes of lightning, one of which scared a flight attendant so much that she nearly fell out of her seat (not a great sign, I gather). Regardless, the airport in Atlanta had re-opened and we took off for the last leg of the trip. I arrived in Atlanta at about 10pm none the worse for wear, and the delays were made bearable by the non-stop Twitter posts about Shakenado, complete with choice lines from The Tempest and King Lear.
There were MANY folks who were not as fortunate as I, and most of the panels were missing members. It's the kind of thing that, in most situations, would make people turn into pits of negativity, but not here. Everyone was laughing and optimistic. There were jokes that the dissertation prize should be awarded to the best travel story. One of the seminars I audited decided as a group to move their session to Saturday because a participant was en route from Abu Dhabi and they wanted to give that person the best chance of making the seminar. Another seminar I audited had four members participating via video chat. It's not like SAA was filled with negativity or anything last year (my first SAA), but the travel difficulties seemed to bring everyone together and put us all in the mood to embrace the absurd.
On a side note, and I'm not entirely certain how this all began, there was a Furry convention in the hotel next to ours. As such, more than once, furries and Shakespeareans were interacting and engaging in jovial conversation. This was most evident on social media, where furries were explaining their culture to curious Shakespeareans while also expressing their appreciation for the SAA hashtag (my sense was that many of the furries had expected "Shakespeareans" to fit an old, stodgy, humorless image, and they seemed tickled that our humor trended more towards the fifth grade level at times). Andy Kesson blogged about it a bit--and had some great responses from the Furry community.
SAA is one of the only conferences I know that utilizes the seminar format, and with my second SAA under my belt, I'm loving that format more and more. I attended three seminars this year: Cognition in the Early Modern Period (the one I participated in), Alternatives to the Term Paper, and A Digital Textbook for DH Shakespeare. I had initially planned to go to the seminar on John Marston--both because of my scholarly interest in Marston's Antonio plays and to say hello to Jason Gleckman, a scholar I met at my very first conference several years ago. Unfortunately, the Marston seminar was missing several people (including Jason Gleckman), and they decided to push it back to a later time slot. While I was trying to figure out which seminar to attend instead, I ended up in a short but productive conversation with James Bednarz, who suggested that I look at a recent book by John Kerrigan (Shakespeare's Binding Language) as I continue to revise my paper on Love's Labour's Lost.
Being that this is only my second SAA, I don't have a huge frame of reference, but there seemed to be an enthusiastic interest in the pedagogical side of our field this year, which I found both refreshing and engaging. Two of the seminars that I audited were pedagogical in nature. After the official postponement of the Marston seminar, I found my way to the Alternatives to the Term Paper session. Participants in the seminar shared the various ways they were engaging students, including via performance, creative projects, editorial activities, and more. Some of the participants brought along examples of student work, and the seminar organizers invited the auditors to participate in the discussion and breakout sessions. Dana Aspinall, one of the official participants in the seminar, made several key points regarding the importance of thinking about what it is a term paper accomplishes and how to make sure that any substitute is of equal pedagogical merit/impact.
The pedagogical theme continued into Friday, as I audited the workshop session whose participants were collaboratively constructing a web-based research and information tool for classroom use. It was an exciting session to attend, as the participants and organizers clearly began their project without a clearly pre-defined end product. Their work, both individually and collectively, was still taking shape and had the air of exploration about it. Whatever their work ultimately becomes, their early results were fascinating, and again it showed an interest on the part of SAA to take the lead on not just scholarly pursuits but pedagogical ones as well.
One of the most brilliant and most terrifying things about SAA is the presence of an absurd number of people. From what I gather, SAA was expecting something in the neighborhood of 800+ people at this year's conference, and looking through the program, some of those people, speaking as a graduate student, can be terrifying. The big names are all at SAA. After citing these people for years, the idea of running into one at the hotel bar brings all the doubts of imposter syndrome rushing back. As a result, grad students tend to move through the venue surveying nametags--ninja style--so as to avoid any awkward situations with major scholars. The "name tag survey" is fraught with many potential perils. Not only is it awkward to scan the room at chest-height, but it's easy to get caught tag scanning and immediately over-think the result. If a scholar saw me scanning their tag and I kept going, is that scholar offended that I wasn't "looking" for them? The worst thing in the world is to say hello to a scholar as if both of us were real people, THEN catch sight of the name tag, and revert to this:
Of course, that can't always be helped. I had a few such scenarios like that last year. Some involved one of my committee members (Jon Baldo) ushering me around the reception and introducing me to nametags that absolutely terrified me. Others involved promises. I work as a research assistant for Theodora Jankowski, and last year she instructed me to find Jean Howard and pass along her love. I just looked at Theodora and whined, "I can't just deliver love to Jean Howard! She's JEAN HOWARD!" Naturally, I DID see Jean Howard at the conference last year and did dig up the gumption to pass along Theodora's greeting. Of course that was the point where the woman standing NEXT to Jean Howard said "Oh do tell Theodora I said hello. My name is Phyllis Rackin." And then I died. That said, I am getting better at it. I saw Richard Preiss in passing this year and managed to tell him that I greatly enjoyed his book Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre.
The two big events, the reception and the luncheon, are really the only time where everyone (or most everyone) seems to be in the same room, and if you are even mildly claustrophobic, it is easy to become overwhelmed in such a setting. It also makes the whole "name-tag scan" more difficult, as some have taken off these identifying markers and scanning whilst navigating a room full of hundreds of people (and many glasses of wine) can be disastrous. Last year the reception venue was also occupied in part by a massive bust of the man himself--William Shakespeare (based on the size, I half expected Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon to burst out of it with an authorship-themed burlesque number). I did a bit better with the reception this year, after getting a bit overwhelmed by the number of people last year. For the second year in a row, however, I missed the luncheon. Last year, it was due to still being frazzled from the previous evening's reception. This year, it was because I had misplaced my ticket, and by the time I found it, I would have had to enter late (which put images of a Grad Student version of the prom scene in Carrie in my head--my head is a strange place at times).
For a conference so massive, I think one of the more interesting takeaways this year is about the smaller connections. Last year, I tended to gravitate more towards people I already knew. People from my program, people from the year-long Folger seminar I did a while back, and people from previous professional experiences. This year, I ended up in three meaningful conversations with people whom I had never met before SAA 2017. Peter Hadorn, one of the other participants in my seminar, was one of these people, and we had a wonderful chat afterwards about his work on the Sonnets.
I also had a couple of wonderful conversations with Dana Aspinall. My initial introduction was a little awkward. I wanted to tell him that I greatly enjoyed something that he had written, though for the life of me, I couldn't remember what that was--I just know that I have cited him several times. Dana received the compliment graciously, and indicated that it was probably his work on Taming of the Shrew, as that's what gets cited the most. When I next went up to my hotel room, I searched my computer and found that it was actually something he had written about Robert Armin and Will Kemp, and he seemed delighted when I saw him later and told him I had solved the mystery. This was one of those situations where a graduate student meets a senior scholar and walks away just as impressed with the person as with the work.
Shortly before I left for the airport, I had a pre-arranged coffee chat with Kennesaw State's Keith Botelho. I had reached out to Keith on the advice of a former roommate (and Kennesaw graduate) Daniel Singleton. Daniel told me to keep an eye out for Keith last year, and when I didn't see him amidst the sea of Shakespeare, Daniel got more persistent this year, sending his e-mail, offering to make the digital introduction, and so on. Keith and I arranged to meet during Saturday morning's coffee break, and the first part of the conversation was almost eerie. He was prone to saying things that I had heard before, and it was at that point that I realized that I had heard them from Daniel. Clearly this professor had an impact on my former roommate. As the conversation progressed, it got easier and more casual. We joked about how Daniel really needed to propose to his girlfriend already, and the conversation then turned towards work. I am teaching a course this summer on cinematic Shakespeare--a course Keith has also taught. We spent a while discussing the pragmatic details (structure, course text, etc) and then geeked out a bit talking about various versions of Shakespeare that we'd seen. Finally, Keith shifted towards offering some job market advice, particularly about how and when to emphasize my experience teaching high school (I've heard from several sources that this kind of experience can be seen as a bad thing, but that's a topic for a whole other blog post, haha).
I'm not sure if it was due to the storm, there being slightly fewer people from last year's SAA, me being a bit more comfortable, or some combination of the above, but these kinds of individual, meaningful conversations just seemed easier to come by this year. I flew out of Atlanta professionally connected to three scholars at three different institutions who I hadn't known at all prior to going there. And those connections felt authentic (ie- not like some kind of forced "networking" game).
This all brings me to my fourth major SAA takeaway, and it's the one that, if not for the intercession of a friend over sushi, I might have missed altogether.
This plenary, which took place Friday morning (well, morning for me), was not initially on my list of sessions to attend. Friday was going to be a "sleep in and recover from the crazy travel" day, and I had planned to start my day with the luncheon. I had scanned the program, and saw the titles of the talks for this plenary. They didn't jump out at me as the sort of work that I did. I always try to be aware of race, and incorporate the topic into classroom discussion frequently, but for me to get up "early," said my subconscious mind, it had to be a topic that was "in my academic wheelhouse." It had to be the kind of work that I did. And then all of that changed because of sushi. For the second year running (officially a tradition?), Sam Dressel, Sydnee Wagner, and I went out for sushi at SAA. We found a great place and re-connected on Thursday night. As the meal wound down, Sydnee made a point of telling us that she really wanted us to go to the Color of Membership Plenary the next morning. She noted that, in large part, the plenary topic was intended for white scholars, and she was discouraged by how often the audience for race related panels is disproportionately filled with PoC. [UPDATE FOR CLARITY: To be clear, Sydnee loves seeing PoC there as well. Her discouragement at the relative dearth of white scholars seemed to be similar to the sentiment expressed by Dr. Little at the start of his talk. :) ] I told her I would definitely make an effort. The next morning, I officially decided to go. I still didn't think it was a topic that connected to the kind of work I did. But I wanted to go to support and show solidarity for Sydnee. Best. Decision. Ever.
The plenary, which was recorded and can be viewed above, featured five speakers (or occasionally surrogates, as some folks were stranded by weather). Dennis Austin Britton opened with his discussion of a piece by Nikki Giovanni and what it means to "count" as a Shakespearean. Arthur L. Little Jr. followed up with the emotional high point of the panel, discussing the ways in which we, as a profession, diminish non-white narrative. Jean Howard offered a piece on being more aware of our scholarly white privilege, and Jyotsna Singh discussed the differences in representation on stage and in academia. Joyce G. MacDonald discussed issues of representation, or the lack thereof, particularly in locales such as her native Kentucky. These short descriptions do not do the plenary justice. Go back up to the video and listen to the speakers (though as an audio recording, you will miss out on Arthur Little's amazing blazer. In a smattering of minutes, that jacket had a bigger Twitter following than I do, haha). Seriously. Go watch it. I'll wait. Here are some of the Twitter real-time reactions to help put you in the moment:
Back? Good! I want to bring my focus specifically to the papers from Little and MacDonald. Little discussed issues of visibility and the control of identity. He relayed narrative examples--such as the time he was told by his first Shakespeare professor that that professor "wasn't impressed" with him and the time he was told that there wasn't enough room in the faculty display for a book he had published. He openly wondered whether or how to take such encounters. Essentially, should he take such encounters "personally"? Little's talk opened with a comment that he over-heard from two middle-aged white male scholars who had decided not to go to the plenary because "I'm not very interested in that stuff." I'm not middle-aged, but it felt like he could have been talking about/to me. I am interested in issues of race, but as Little's impassioned talk progressed, I began to wonder why that "interest" didn't translate into something that I do. Why does affect not translate into action?
A LOT of what Little had to say resonated with me. I too value the power of narrative and the personal, both in my scholarship and in my teaching. Part of the reason I DO what I do (license and authority, particularly in early modern schools) is because I was a HS teacher before I became a scholar. And he had a point. Why is my personal interest in teachers and scholarly authority not dismissed as "too personal"? Why are, as he so aptly put it, "scholars of color...encased in the personal" making "personal" an exclusionary term only for PoC and others along the non-cis gendered, non-white male spectrum?
MacDonald continued these themes in her talk, discussing the dangers of a lack in representation, which is made particularly dangerous in light of the fact, as Jean Howard noted, that our students are diversifying far faster than their faculties. This was not a plenary to present clear solutions. Rather it was a plenary to attempt to formally define the problems, particularly the problems that many of us don't see and/or don't want to see because they "aren't interested in that stuff" or it's "not what I do."
I couldn't stop thinking about that plenary, and a week after the fact, I'm STILL thinking about it. Some thoughts are more whimsical in nature (like wondering if a pasty, heavyset white guy like me could pull off the look that Little was rocking with that jacket) but most have been circulating around potential solutions. How can we make things better? I've thought a lot about publication, and the ways in which that requirement drives the institutionalization of our profession at every level. Have you published? How often? In how prestigious a journal? These questions determine who gets jobs, promotions, influence. And publishing seems to be a locus of the kind of de-personalization that Little was discussing. How do we open up peer-reviewed journals to non-race-coded personal narrative and experience? Connecting to MacDonald's talk, if we could achieve that, would that help to mitigate the dearth of representation while we engage in the important work of diversifying the faculty (ie: would it help for students to see themselves in the articles they research)? Could an increased emphasis on teaching performance and adaptation help? Singh's talk brought in some details on the work taking place on the stage in expanding diversity. I've written about a recent production of the Tempest that was doing just that (with the incomparable Jade Anouka playing the best Ariel I've ever seen and moving away from the stereotype of Caliban as the black/monstrous other).
All of these speakers--and indeed several members of SAA throughout the weekend--seemed to be concerned with what "counts" as Shakespeare. Authenticity. The real thing. As the plenary made clear though, we need to be careful to avoid institutionalizing the Bard. This warning against institutionalization, encapsulated so clearly in Nikki Giovanni's whimsical words about hoping that her work would one day terrorize high school students, kept creeping back into my consideration of this plenary and what we can do and need to do to address the issues raised. We need to be clear that the plays written by Shakespeare are distinct from the way the Victorians transformed them into a vehicle for imperial ideology and a representation of the "white man's burden." We need to encourage our students and our colleagues to find themselves in Shakespeare. To think about potential Shakespeares in addition to past ones. To find the love for it that Dr. Little's grandmother instilled in him. To find the ways that we can use it to understand our own society. I once had a student who, in passing, mentioned that he thought someone could do a really good production of 1 and 2 Henry IV set in Baltimore, with Hal and his father living in the white part of the city, and Falstaff and company representing the neighborhoods typically dismissed as slums. My initial thought there was that it sounded interesting, but shifting a history play into contemporary Baltimore might be a stretch. But he kept at it, and the more he did, the more it worked (think the Inner Harbor as stand-in for the Court). I think part of the reason we are uncomfortable talking about race is that many of us feel uncomfortable discussing struggles that we can only understand abstractly. I grew up in farm country. I will never know what it is like to be judged on the color of my skin. But some of my students know that feeling intimately. It's part of who they are and, as Joyce MacDonald so eloquently put it, they can't leave behind something that is embodied. By opening spaces in my classroom for such discussions, it can allow the students to represent themselves--not to educate me (not their job), but to stake an ownership claim in Shakespeare that they are entitled to have.
This is the kind of thing I need to do more often and more consciously. I almost missed this plenary because I thought it was going to be about the work that the speakers do (which I thought was different from the kind of work that I do). But it was far more than that. It wasn't about what we do, but about who we are and the ways in which professional barriers are thrown into their faces because their skin does not look like mine. When you are prevented or hindered or blocked from doing what you do because of who you are, that's a problem. And solving that problem is something we ALL need to do. I needed to hear that. A lot of people did. Thanks to the organizers and speakers in the plenary, and thanks to Sydnee for giving me a nudge in the right direction.
SAA moves on to Los Angeles next year. I hope to see many people there. Three quick and (in one case) shameless plugs:
-Just this morning, one of my secondary teaching colleagues posted a blog from one of his former students that seemed to be engaging with similar notions as the plenary, but at the secondary level. I don't want to get too into that here, but it's worth a read as it is a powerful self-reflection of how we create the negative by focusing on the wrong things. You can read it HERE.
-Dr. Little has a book coming out soon that addresses similar issues as the plenary. The title of the book is White People in Shakespeare. Keep an eye out and join the conversation.
-I will be organizing/hosting the New York College English Association Conference in October of this year. Our conference theme also touches on some of the ideas mentioned in the plenary. I'd love to see you there (at the University of Rochester). SEE HERE for the Call for Papers.
Apologies for the delay between posts. The inauguration and world events have weighed heavily on me, and I fear that any post that would have come from me over the last couple of weeks would have been inherently political in nature (and while I'm not opposed to writing political posts, I don't want ALL of my posts to turn into political soap-boxing).
For my first pedagogy post, I wanted to discuss something that I've been working on extensively for the last few years--performance based approaches to composition. In many ways, this interest began back in the summer of 2008. Back then, I was a high school teacher at North Harford High School, and I had recently been selected to participate in an NEH sponsored professional development opportunity called the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. Basically, it was a four-week residential program hosted and run by the Folger Shakespeare Library that was built around three pillars: Pedagogy, Scholarship, and Performance. Every day of the Institute, we heard lectures from top scholars, worked in the Folger reading room, engaged in acting games, and worked together to figure out ways to turn all of that into applicable classroom pedagogy. That summer was the single most transformative event of my professional life, and I still use, adapt, and turn to the skills I learned that summer on a regular basis.
Though it probably irks them to hear it, my experience at the Folger solidified my desire to go to graduate school. I wanted to live in that reading room and be one of those eminent scholars giving a morning lecture. I wanted to embody that balance between research, performance, and pedagogy. So the following year, off I went to the wilds of western New York, to pursue my M.A. at St. Bonaventure University. At Bonas, I took a composition theory class with Daniel Ellis. That class served as the beginning of my work trying to meld performance and composition instruction. The more research I did on the topic, the more I began to realize that most people seemed to think of reading aloud as "performance" pedagogy, which isn't the case at all. I did come across several scholars whose work incorporated elements of performance into their composition instruction: Debra Hawhee (gesture), W. Keith Duffy (sound and digital recording), Meredith Love (discoursal selves and writing personae), and Jenn Fishman and Andrea Lunsford (embodied writing).
What I found lacking in this critical conversation, and indeed what Fishman and Lunsford actively called for someone to provide, was a functional and reproducible compositional performance pedagogy. This is the one glaring item missing from the otherwise exciting work of all of these scholars. Fishman and Lunsford seem aware of this, and close their article by asking, “How then, can we incorporate performance into our classrooms and our pedagogies?” (Fishman 246). A devoted Folger acolyte, I of course asked, "WWFD--What would the Folger do?" The Folger had, thirty years prior, already developed a functional and reproducible performance pedagogy. The key question was whether or not that pedagogical approach to reading Shakespeare could be adapted for use in a composition classroom.
The potential snag, of course, was the fact that the Folger activities were largely designed for interpretive use--to derive potential meanings from an existing text. What I needed were activities that could be used in a generative context, so that students could utilize performance methods to craft their own written work. So my first step was to sort through the various Folger activities to determine which ones could be adapted for use in a composition classroom. Those that were mostly interpretive in nature, I adapted for editing and peer review activities, and those that could be converted to generative contexts, I adapted for pre-writing activities. I've been working with these approaches for the better part of 7 years now, and I've shared some of the more effective activities below.
CUTTING A SCENE
One of the Folger's most effective performance-based strategies involves having students create a "director's cut" of a scene. Basically, the idea is to give students a Shakespearean scene and have them cut it in half. At first, the cuts come easy, but as they progress, they start to argue with each other and fight for their favorite lines. Without even realizing it, they end up doing an extremely close reading of the scene in order to figure out which details are absolutely essential and which ones they can afford to cut.
This activity was my first foray into Folger-based composition. I had long been irked by my students' fondness for "mega-paragraphs" that spanned a full page (or more) in length. All too often, students would cram three or four ideas into one paragraph, never developing any of them, and usually giving the shortest shrift to the most intriguing idea. Bringing in the Folger "cutting a scene" activity just made good sense, and I made it part of my peer review process. I first introduce the idea that cutting can improve a text (I like to use the Hugh Laurie/Rowan Atkinson sketch, "A Small Re-Write," where Shakespeare argues with his editor. See below). We then transition to a group activity, where students cut a passage--usually one selected to match the course theme--in half. Then, in peer review, each student self-selects two paragraphs from their own paper that seem a bit long. They count up the words and, as a group, they cut half of those words out. The paper writer always holds the pen, so the last word belongs to them, but the constraint is the same--half of the words must go. By the end of the process, they have paragraphs that are much leaner and more focused. They can build them up a bit from that new foundation, and the material that was cut frequently ends up as seed-material for new paragraphs in their papers.
Another Folger activity that I adapted early on in a peer review context is their lesson on blocking for performance. In the Folger activity, students look over a passage from Shakespeare and think about the different ways they can perform each line. They use, as an example, a short sentence that can take many subtextual meanings, like "I didn't say he wet his bed." If you say that sentence, emphasizing each word in turn, it takes on several different (and potentially disgusting) meanings. "I DIDN'T say he wet his bed" (defensive) is far different from "I didn't say he wet HIS bed" (gross). The Folger approach has students take short passages from Shakespeare and mark them up in this way, "blocking" the scene with performance notes regarding which words will be emphasized, how and when the actor will move, where the actor will pause or speed up, and so on (see below for one example). By engaging in this activity, students can see how one scene can be played in so many different ways, opening up a text to interpretive analysis rather than definitive analysis.
In my composition classroom, the task is a little bit different. Here, the concern is that student writing might be TOO open to interpretation. The goal is to make sure that they do as much as they can to make sure that their audience reads a line exactly the way they intended it to be read. We again start with the "I didn't say he wet his bed" example, but this time, we don't stop at the awareness that it can be read in many different ways. I split the class into seven groups (one group for each emphasized word), and each group is tasked with re-writing the sentence to make its meaning more concrete. With this idea established, we can use it in peer review. I have students bracket off the most important parts of their paper (up to three paragraphs)--the parts of the paper that need to come across perfectly in order to convince their audience of the validity of their thesis. I then have them block those paragraphs with performance notes, encouraging them to treat it like a script and to actually perform those paragraphs with those notes as a guide. Then, in their peer review groups, they work together to revise these paragraphs to make them more concrete, with the rest of the group playing the defined audience for the paper writer. The end result is that the blocked passages go through a sort of "rehearsal" process during peer review in order to "audience test" the key portions of their papers/arguments and then re-write them to more effectively target that audience.
I had been using the above strategies during the peer review process for a couple of years, but was still on the hunt for ways that I could use performance techniques to help students generate writing rather than simply edit and revise it. I was teaching my third or fourth section of writing at Rochester when I realized that I could use one of my favorite Folger activities (two-line scenes) to combat one of my biggest compositional pet peeves (floating quotations).
The basic idea of the Folger's two-line scenes activity is to have participants quickly create a fully realized scene out of just two lines. They use this activity regularly during workshops (see below), and it works beautifully every time. Each participant is issued a card with a Shakespearean passage on it, and the two partners must collaborate to make some quick performative decisions: Where are they? What is the relationship between the two speakers? Who is speaking first? How does the second speaker react to what the first speaker said? How does the scene open and close? And so on. It's a brilliant activity, where you can create a whole world in five minutes with two 3x5 cards. And on top of that, the passages are usually pretty fun as well (see below).
I had tried (and failed) for a few semesters to incorporate the two-line scenes activity into my composition classroom. Initially, I used it as part of my discussion on subtext. I had students do the activity just like the Folger did it, complete with Shakespearean passages, and then talk about how they made subtextual decisions to create their scenes. Students had fun, but the activity didn't really have a noticeable impact on the quality of the writing they were doing. A couple of years ago it hit me--I could use this activity to tackle one of my biggest pet peeves in student writing: floating quotations. No matter how many times I tried to convey the idea to them, students seemed to be invested in using floating quotations in their papers (quotations with no introduction, no attribution, and no reaction on the part of the writer--they were simply dropped into the paper, seemingly at random, to fulfill the requirement to "use sources").
It occurred to me that the two-line scenes activity was perfect for effective quotation use. The activity was all about the interactive aspect of the lines, and it was ideal for conveying to students the difficult concept that they are (or at least should be) interacting with their sources. I now introduce the process in much the same way. We still use the Folger cards and the Shakespeare lines to have a bit of fun creating our scenes. From there, we discuss how those scenes came to be, including all of the decisions that needed to be made to create each performance. Finally, we bring it back to the idea of quotation use, highlighting the notion that quotations should be used not to take the place of our ideas, but rather because we had a strong reaction of some sort to the point the author was making. Any time we use a quotation in a paper, it should "make a scene." I now have students complete "quotation cards" as they work on their papers. When they react strongly to something said in one of their sources, they write the quotation on one side of the card, and their reaction on the other side of the card. When it comes time to write a draft of the paper, I emphasize the idea that both sides of the quotation card need to end up in the paper--the source and the student's reaction. During peer review, we revisit the idea of the two line scenes, and students work with a partner to make sure that they are conveying their response in the way that they intended. I wish I had figured this approach out so much earlier, because it has drastically reduced the frequency of "floating quotations" in my students' papers.
The last Folger-based composition approach I want to discuss is also the newest--I've only been beta testing this idea for the last year or so, and I'm still working out the details to an extent. I've been experimenting with the idea that the first draft, rather than being a written product, could actually be a performance or a presentation of some sort. Of all of the activities discussed in this blog post, this is the first one that is not a direct adaptation of a specific Folger activity. Rather this one is more about extending the spirit of the Folger philosophy to the composition classroom. I had experimented with the idea of digital first drafts earlier in my career. I used to have students upload their paper drafts via a website called Voxopop.com, a digital voice-thread site. Basically, it was a way to force students into reading their papers out loud so that they could "hear" errors that their eyes skipped over. I had long since abandoned this approach, however, mainly due to the fact that Voxopop was Java-based, and the glitches that resulted from that meant that I was doing as much tech support as I was composition instruction.
Then, about two years ago at the NYCEA conference at Hilbert College in Buffalo, I ended up in a conversation where we were discussing the idea of students engaging in a sort of digital double-translation--presenting a concept version of a paper and then "translating" that presentation into a formal paper. I was immediately drawn to the concept, as all too often, I felt that students focused on mechanics to the detriment of content revision. By making the first draft a presentation--a performance of sorts--they could focus on the idea-side of the paper before even worrying about the writing side of it. I piloted this idea last summer in my WRT 105a class, and implemented it more fully this year. While the sample size is still a bit small, the results have been quite promising. One of my students from last semester railed against the idea in her self-reflection for paper one, and completely changed her view of it by the final paper. By presenting the ideas of the paper and working out the issues on the content side before ever drafting a single paragraph--a sort of rehearsal process if you will--students seemed to find that the writing part of it became much easier.
I think this connection between Folger performance techniques and the college composition classroom works as well as it has because college students, whether they know it or not, are already phenomenal actors. In 2009, my first year working with college composition students, I met a freshman named Alex who insisted on beginning every peer workshop session with a disclaimer about how he is a horrible writer. He would routinely apologize to his peers for the perceived low quality of his writing, and this was before they had even looked at his paper. His serious belief was that he was incapable of learning to write. Alex played the role of the sheepishly embarrassed poor student in that class. He knew to turn his eyes to the desk, and modulate his voice so that his peers would understand his fault, and maybe not laugh at his work. What he did not know, is that his apologetic performance for his peer editors is exactly what writing entails. He just never learned to view writing in that way--the Folger way.
It should be noted that when I refer to "the Folger," while I AM referring to the place in Washington D.C., I am also referring to the people who made that place feel like home back in 2008, and completely changed my life for the better in the process. Those people include: Bob Young, Mike LoMonico, Sue Biondo-Hench, Peggy O'Brien, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Michael Tolaydo, Shade Gomez, Stephen Dickey, Jay Halio, Margaret Maurer, Deidra LaWan Starnes, and the entire 2008 TSI crew.
I mentioned a few sources in the early part of this entry. The bibliographical information for those sources can be found below:
Duffy, W. Keith. “A Pedagogy of Composing: The Rhetoric of Electronic Music in the Writing Class.” Inventio: Creative
Thinking about Learning and Teaching 2.7 (2005): 1-15. Web. 19 Feb. 2010.
Fishman, Jenn, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” College
Composition and Communication 57.2 (2005): 224-52. Print.
Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia: The U of South Carolina P, 2009. Print.
---. “Performing Ancient Rhetorics: A Symposium.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36.1 (2006): 135-42. Print.
---. “Review Essay: Somatography.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93.3 (2007): 365-74. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
---. “Rhetorics, Bodies, and Everyday Life.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36.1 (2006): 155-64. Print.
Love, Meredith. “Composing Through the Performative Screen: Translating Performative Studies into Writing Pedagogy.”
Composition Studies 35.2 (2007): 11-30. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
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.
Gawain and the Trauma of Romance AKA: Branagh and Olivier Walk into a Bar & Split a Henry Fifth
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).