Good afternoon, I’m Tim Briggs here on Friday to blog about the sixth Colloquy session of the 2019 Blackfriars Conference. The chair is Jeremy Fiebig, and the presenters are as follows.
Suzanne Delle, director and teacher at York College Pennsylvania
Cecilia Rubino, director, writer, filmmaker from New School in Manhattan
Lisa Starks, professor of English at University of South Florida
Nisi Sturgis, assistant professor at University of Illinois
Claire Martin specialises in Shakespeare and classical canon.
Jeremy says that the group met yesterday and has been working on this for some time together.
Jeremy: To whom does Shakespeare belong? To whom is Shakespeare inaccessible? What is the groundwork for that claim?
Nisi talks about the level of intimidation that students feel; students can feel marginalized, as if Shakespeare is not for them. Whenever questions are asked about accessibility, no one’s work speaks for itself. You have to look at the group producing or approaching.
Alex: ASC education department advertises that 97% Shakespeare’s words are known words, though it still seems scary to approach.
Claire: Finds that very same people who proclaim loudly that Shakespeare is for all tend to, or often come from, institutions that are often very limited in the way they present Shakespeare. Ten years ago there was a sort of scandal in Stratford with an article that had said Shakespeare was for all. However, there had never been a company with more than half people of color presenting, and poor people of color traditionally felt left out.
Jeremy: Talks about the tradeoff between contemporizing, though this concept can come across as condescending. We need to put things in terms of “urban” and other loaded/words and context.
Nisi: Her university did Romeo and Juliet where it was “the black show,” with only about two white people. The limited scope ended up saying that it seemed like they were “jive talking,” and had been seen through such a narrow lens. Thus, even with opportunities to see things, people can be panicked about how to process it.
Suzanne(?): She refers to “voodoo Macbeth” after Orson Welles set Macbeth in Haiti. The reviews were mostly positive, but someone said they couldn’t understand the language (with the implication that it was because the actors were black). That was in the 1930s, and here it is happening again. Welle’s Macbeth was a huge hit, which proved you could separate the show in a new place with actors that normally don’t get the opportunity to perform this classical work.
Alex: If we take any Shakespeare play and move it into a new universe, is there anything else we lose by doing so? How do we minimize the loss while making it accessible? How do we keep the text authentic?
Jeremy: The idea of opportunity cost of location, who we’re speaking to. Who is the audience? Who and what are the ways that we’re trying to make access? He admits to being a cynic, but he often computes that in terms of condescension, or the implication that others are seen as being not smart enough for the concept and need a “priest” to explain it to them. Some of what access looks like at times is a total democratization, which is also a price tag.
Lisa: What happens externally – and not just in educational outreach – and how do we conceive of spectators without treating them like they’re stupid and won’t get something. Sometimes just shifting perspective can help a great deal, though this is complicated on a practical level.
Claire: Claire is a dramaturge, so she offers a response to Lisa. The goal is to keep as much of the original as possible, and to transmit as much of what is originally on the page as possible. She says that’s not always her primary goal. She doesn’t think it’s always top of the director’s priority list. With a goal of non-traditional casting in a show, the text can be a mine to pull from to determine what is most effective to enable the new time and place to (hopefully) create access.
Lisa: Don’t just think of Shakespeare as something that communicates a text to a passive audience. ASC brings both scholarship and theatre together, but some don’t think of the tension there. The attitude about performance studies is about chronicling the interpretations of shows, not considering all factors that make up performance. There can be a tension between the goals of different parties.
Nisi: Is it not enough now for a show to be good? Does it have to be different in some way?
Jeremy: That’s a branding strategy. (Think of “We do it with the lights on.”) He says that different sells tickets. This brings up that a reason that accessibility is important is also because they are monetized. Anything that greases that path without exploitation is helpful for the business bottom line.
Alex: She worked in development the past year, and other side of marketability is marketing to institutions for grants, not just for customers to get in seats. It is very expensive to just function as a show. Companies have to market to these institutions, which means often marketing to old white people with money.
Claire: She mentions having a program in a small area in a scattered state, such as her company in southern Oregon. Someone in the development office has a hard time with increasing equity and diversity without offending, and in fact courting, the approval from the older white retirees who may walk out of those things.
Jeremy: The next question is strategies for addressing issues of access.
Cecilia: As an agnostic in terms of the religions of theatre and Shakespeare, she feels strongly that embodiment is important, but that Shakespeare is not for everybody, but for each of us, for every one. We have a lineage of the human oral tradition. Shakespeare is a link to the oral tradition; he was writing to make money, not to get into print. It’s not the mythologizing or magicianship of Shakespeare, necessarily. Something pierces through the veil of time. Guess what? All communities get it more than the scholars. It’s not always about saying “Let me help you know what you’re doing.” She mentions Viola Spolin’s work with theatre in immigrant populations. She talks about people taking on the Mt. Everest of putting on a play. It doesn’t have to look like what the ASC is doing.
She took a pause after her MFA to figure out what she was doing. She went from being an actor to being a director for youth shows in city parks. They wanted to offer access to young people doing Shakespeare, with various focuses. Instead of being emissaries from the inside, can we humbly be collaborators in a community where everybody has something to offer.
Claire: She’s doing research into playing Isabella. The setting is a cocktail bar, which will be interactive. She mentions Shakespeare in Prisons that had an early production of Measure for Measure in a women’s prison in Boston. “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this? Who would believe me?” Got a response from three different women saying “Nobody. That’s how it works.” She said that she recognized that she was not Isabella. They were all Isabella.
Rather than injecting Shakespeare with a syringe into a community where theatre makers assume the population won’t get it, enlist them as collaborators. They may understand something about the story that theatre makers do not.
Jeremy: Put words into different bodies.
Lisa: She says that we should break down assumptions about the spectators, and what a difference that makes when we do. Sometimes do we also assume, for instance, that those older white people get or don’t get it? They too can come from various interesting places. They may actually support these inclusive ideas. Would this be helpful to consider?
What happens off the stage, not just in terms of educational outreach, but in the community where the theatre resides? How does that reach out to the trans community? Does it? Are there inclusive spaces and bathrooms? What about other kinds of interconnections with the community? There are many levels of culture to consider.
Jeremy: What do you have to wade through to get to the Shakespeare? If there is a failing education between someone and the language, or misogyny between someone and that language, or a sea of white people between someone and that language, then that is the problem. Letting people get through that sea is very important.
Nisi: When you have a post-show discussion, or pre-show talk with actors, how are we thinking about that? What do we value? There can be extremely uncomfortable questions or discussions, but this isn’t a reason not to do this. The audience can find a different appreciation than just passivity.
Claire: Are dramaturgy displays typical in the south? They are common in the Pacific Northwest.
Nisi: It’s rare; usually it is found in a note in the program, possibly.
Suzanne: She is teaching her students about an interactive lobby experience and about dramaturgy. Last year there was a big board that asked people to contribute. This is trying to teach that theatre is not just what’s happening in the room or on the stage. It is challenging to get people to do something outside their secure bubble.
Lisa: The cost of tickets is also a concern.
Jeremy: How are these access approaches working? The theatre would look different if tickets are $5, $11, versus the full cost. Part of it is not just the way we do it, but it is the material itself. Preferring male bodies in the writing, preferring Christian bodies often, and “whole” bodies. How do we talk about access around issues of preference outside the text itself? He mentions again the theatre with no gender-neutral bathrooms.
Nisi: Her institution is doing Titus Andronicus and their lead actor is deaf. She has found a lack of resources for supporting this deaf actor. The actor was frustrated that he would have to help people understand resources for supporting him as a deaf actor. Consider how someone can offer something at the get-go to get support (perhaps for themselves).
Alex: King Lear on Broadway recently had a deaf actor for Cornwall. They had a translator cast as the servant that ultimately kills Cornwall. He would say Cornwall’s lines until the murder. She mentions a creative strategy to just cast translators as well too, in regards to speaking of deaf actors in production.
Suzanne: Directors must be thoughtful and willing to have inclusion as part of their mission. Otherwise, no one is going to spend extra money or time; these things are not important to everyone. She had black actors come to her and say they would not be auditioning for Midsummer at her institution because they felt that there was no place, like black actors do not do Shakespeare. She tried to get them to audition anyway (and they did). She recognizes that casting must be thoughtful of inclusive casting.
Lisa: If misperceptions are keeping people from auditions, it is also keeping people from coming to see the shows. How do we deal with that? It’s important to realize so many people come to Shakespeare from having seen TV or film representations. She recognizes this importance, especially because there are so many ways now to access Shakespeare outside the stage.
Jeremy: When you’re the only black actor (or other marginalized actor) that is something to think about. In an even deeper south area than Virginia, in a very mixed-raced place, near Fort Bragg (which brings many other people in). They are creating a backdoor situation with regards to access. Color-conscious versus colorblind casting, or using a deaf actor as a symbol creates the very access problem that you are trying to solve. How do we handle this token casting issue? He mentions balancing kinds of integrity.
Nisi: The casting process, too, has to broaden. She’s excited about this broadening. It’s not just the people in the room talking about what they have or can do within the time they have, but if you have a big deal that you’ll try every avenue. We can stop and say “Who can I connect with right now?” We want to keep adaptability, but if it returns to the person each time without just being like, “We need more actors of color,” we can consider what different voices or bodies do we want to include? She wants the casting process to give more time than the couple hours of seeing auditions. Time constraints seem to dictate much of what happens.
Claire: She mentions privilege in where someone attends school (high school in her case). She realized that she was taught and trained during her formative years by extraordinary feminists in an all-women school. She didn’t experience the “traditional” American high school experience and now recognizes this as a privileged experience. They did Shakespeare every fall, so she assumed that these would be common or typical because she hadn’t experienced anything else. Later, she didn’t approach text with gender in mind because she had the background she had.
Nisi: What happened with the relationship with the audiences in this all-female place?
Claire: She mentions it was a provisionally catholic school and sometimes parents would be offended by seeing two women being romantic online, though this was rare. Typically people just liked it. Again, she mentions that because of her training, she never felt she had to cast a certain way or treat the text a certain way.
Nisi: Color-conscious or gender-conscious casting, such as Julius Caesar that was set in a women’s prison. Knowing that they specifically thought what was it for two women to get this kind of an argument, it revealed something specific that allowed her to reflect on what it meant when it was two men.
Alex: She saw an all-male production of Taming of the Shrew; this setup pointed out the violence between Petruchio and Kate. The brutality was very clear and uncomfortable to watch.
Jeremy: What are the ethics of doing this? There’s the ethic of textual integrity. There are social ethics. But what are they specifically? What does that look like when you’re doing it? Is there a list that says we really ought to be looking at specific things? If so, what are they?
Nisi: One specific example is casting an African-American with a white wife. She asked if he wanted to have talkbacks? He just wanted to talk about the text. He continually brought “white hand” and “blackness” in the text to help get rid of the negative connotations in the text.
Jeremy: What’s great about that is that it’s also an original practice. The only reason that it’s on the page, such as Hermia and Helena’s heights, is because the actors originally were that way. So adapting scripts is, in fact, an original practice.
Cecilia: She mentions that cuts, changes, and permutations of different versions of things are common. Being thoughtful about the changes and how we interact them is important. The community of actors you’re working with that have their own version of the story, or their own notions, is also important. This doesn’t take away from the passion for language or the need for works. She mentions that even young children share the terrors of what it is to be human, and and awareness of how frail and humble we are. Language helps us organize chaos. It is a bridge from this volcanic thing to the idea of being able to walk in an upright human position. That is part of the gift of deep story, the thread through the generation. Shakespeare is a benchmark from other places and moments in human history.
In another 200 years, people will still understand Shakespeare. We will still have ghosts. We will still deal with parents dying, with fights between communities. We will deal with these things as human beings.
Nisi: She mentions poetry. The thing that elevates Shakespeare’s work is that it is elevated by poetry.
Cecilia: If you look at nuance of thought, feeling, the complication in Shakespeare’s words, we are now bereft of dealing with complex situations in enough characters. We need language. She gets really challenged by young people who are also making up words in this day.
Jeremy: Every conflict he’s had has been whether his words meet someone else’s. Sometimes he doesn’t have language, and sometimes the other party doesn’t.
Claire: Pasty Rodenburg talks about dog-eared attention. Claire says that as an actor, activating yourself fully so that you can respond, some of which is planned and some of which will always take an actor by surprise, is important. As a director, she also feels that her ears need to be perked up to actors as well as actors’ characters. She mentions a mixed-race Juliet who said she didn’t belong there because of her race. She says that she doesn’t always have the words to help because she lacks the same life experience. She talks about the language of consent, and a discussion of adding consent to the first kiss between Romeo and Juliet.
Nisi: She commends Jeremy for the strategy of compassion and encouragement. It doesn’t have to be this knowledge-based experience immediately. It can just be about understanding and emergence. She found that to be exemplary in the the group’s talks over the last months as they’ve worked on this topic.
Jeremy: We talk about access. We’re also talking about language as a justice movement. What are we doing to be just about today? Today it could be text and tomorrow it could be representation. All of those responses together makes them right, not just individual responses. We need to be ware that that is the case, because many people are turned off on that awareness.
The panel asked the audience to introduce themselves when asking questions.
Audience introductions: Kara, Thomas, Haley, Callie, Amber, Marissa, Susan, Stephanie, Melissa, Dawn, Tim, Ann.
Question from Kara: In high school, her experience was that women in Shakespeare were not very good roles. (There was a discussion of Jaques and Caliban being played by women.) We can preserve text but deal with being conscious of where we place people, such as having the only disabled person be a terrible person. She learned that you can force those questions about plays often being built on deeply entrenched gender roles.
Nisi: Audience couldn’t figure out if her Jaques was a man or a woman because it said Lord in the program.
Question from Stephanie: Talking about body types, and what about seeing a fat Juliet?
Jeremy: The review for his role of Cassius said that he didn’t have a “lean and hungry look.”
Question from Stephanie: Do you find it’s helpful to cut more of the script so that they can actually get into characters?
Suzanne: Yes. She has a 90 minute Midsummer that she often does at universities, with no intermission. It’s enjoyable and a way in. She hears about how high school classes bore kids to death and turn kids off from Shakespeare. She says that we MLitt students etc are the next generation, with questions of diversity and consent.
Anecdote from Susan: She lives in a town of retired rich white people. She spoke to a woman that was upset that they had a white couple with a black child. That woman couldn’t see it because it’s impossible. Susan told her that actors of color also had the right to practice their craft. The older husband was talking about self-examination of seeing it that way, and not wanting to be racist and say that it shouldn’t be done.
Question from Thomas: He thinks that there is this toxic idea of type. He would love to see trans Juliet without it being a statement. He talks about character actors or ingenue types, and how they don’t exist in real life and shouldn’t in theatre. He asks if we are casting marginalized people in roles, should it always make a statement? Why do we cast in ways that have nothing to do with what we see in real life?
Response from Tim: As a fat, trans, genderqueer actor, they agree that representation is important, but they feel that when we are only seeing marginalized people play certain types of roles, that it does matter (such as trans people only playing funny or villainous roles). There is something to be said for casting marginalized actors, but there needs to be some awareness of the message that really is being sent.
Question from Amber: She mentions “the right kind of representation matters.” She mentions a production of Winter’s Tale with a bigger black man as Florizel. The actor was so excited to play a role where he didn’t die at the end and never thought it would be possible for him.
Comment: Talking about the frequency of representation.
Lisa: She talks about disabled people playing Richard III. But some of that road has already been done so it’s less shocking and can make a different statement, perhaps, something that makes people rethink a role. It is so difficult to do things without reinstating stigma or having “token” actors. There has to be nuance in representation.
Jeremy: Theatre companies announcing audition announcements just assume that everyone has the information, and that is not the case. The more divorce audience doesn’t go to the coffee shop you go to. You need to advertise where diverse actors are.
Comment from Dawn: She mentions that she is from Arizona, and there are extensive people of color, but they would not go to the theatre because it’s still in working memory that they were driven off their lands. They want to feel welcome, but with colonization, that’s very difficult.
Thus concludes another thought-provoking colloquy session at the 2019 Blackfriars Conference. Thanks for tuning in!