This month, as we think about gratitude and sharing the light, I’d like to turn the spotlight of applied theatrics onto my own field of study: Shakespearean scholarship. At the American Shakespeare Center, we are constantly encouraging scholars to remember the benefits of actual theatrical practice, and I can think of no better example of the benefits of marrying the two than the biennial Blackfriars Conference (BFC).
Here is the official description of the BFC from the American Shakespeare Center website:
In odd-numbered years since the first October that the Blackfriars Playhouse was open, scholars from around the world have gathered in Staunton, during the height of the Shenandoah Valley’s famed fall colors, to hear lectures, see plays, and learn about early modern theatre. In 2019, the American Shakespeare Center will once again host Shakespeareans, scholars and practitioners alike, to explore Shakespeare in the study and Shakespeare on the stage and to find ways that these two worlds – sometimes in collision – can collaborate. (Emphasis mine.)
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – there is dissension even within the field of “professional Shakespeareans” about the combined usefulness of both page (scholarship) and stage (performance). Our conference exists to shut that dissension up. We invite papers that explore the ways reading and writing and thinking about Shakespeare (and other early modern playwrights) can and do and should impact the performance of the same. So rather than, say, spending several days listening to the worst versions of a dry high school English teacher’s lecture on the Literary Imagery of the Immortal Bard, we challenge our conference presenters and attendees to answer a far more important question: what might any of that look like on the stage?
You can read all about the substance of the BFC by scrolling through the BFC Live Blog, where our intrepid staff of volunteers kept a running account of each session as it happened. But for the purposes of this short article, I want to tell you about the one single thing that makes the BFC different (and better) than every other academic Conference that is or will ever exist: the Bear.
Let me back up. One of the many lovely hallmarks of the BFC is the brevity of our plenary paper sessions – somebody once claimed brevity to be the soul of wit, after all, so we limit all of our plenary presentations to a witty 10 minutes.
“I love the short papers. With very few exceptions, the talks were focused on making one clear point and supporting it in ten minutes.”
We also want those presentations to not only talk about the intersection of scholarship and performance, but actually to demonstrate it. Wishing won’t make it so, alas, so we incentivized this desire with the ultimate conference carrot: extra time. Presenters who use actors in their presentations get three extra minutes to make their point. (It may not seem like a lot on the page, but trust me: on the stage, three minutes is an eternity.)
“This format works even better than when you first introduced it because folks know what to expect, and for the most part, they don’t try to cram a 45 minute lecture into a ten minute talk. I especially enjoy it when the actors illustrate a point.”
Whether we give them 10 minutes or 13, presenters know that at the BFC, time limits are serious business. Which brings me back to my original point: the Bear.
“What would we do without the bear?”
When a presenter has two minutes left before their time runs out, they (and the audience) will hear the ominous roll of backstage thunder. Two minutes later, if the presenter is still talking, the Bear will appear.
At this point, I should probably back up and inform anyone who does not already know about Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction. In Act 3, Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale, the nobleman Antigonus abandons the baby Perdita on the fictional seacoast of “Bohemia” as a mounting storm threatens to prevent his passage home. Antigonus tells us about the prophetic dream he had last night, comments on the “savage clamor” of the thunder, exclaims “This is the chase: I am gone forever” and then…
Exit, pursued by a bear.
Reading that, as you did just now, fills your head with images. That’s what drama does – literature and poetry can too, of course, but the images created there don’t need to be literal; they can just be feelings or impressions, nascent or half-formed. Drama needs to be tangible. We create it on the page in order to build it on the stage. Shakespeare gives us an infinite variety of choices on how to do so simply by giving us very little information: five words, succinct and clear in meaning. “Exit” – not “enter” or “cross” or “hula hoop.” “Pursued” – not “followed” or “chased” or “accompanied.” “A bear” – not “several bears” or “a fearsome beast” or “your mother.” That’s what we know, and from there each production makes choices about which story it wants to tell. There will be at least as many versions of Exit, pursued by a bear as there are productions of The Winter’s Tale.
I say “at least” because you don’t need to do The Winter’s Tale in order to co opt the theatricality of this moment for a totally different purpose. At the BFC, we’ve applied these theatrics to keep order amongst our presenters. Like Antigonus, they will hear the “savage clamor” of thunder at the fateful two-minute mark, and they have 120 precious seconds to finish their presentation before the Bear appears to chase them from the stage.
“Of all the Blackfriars’ excellent contributions to the scholarship of theatrical practice, your greatest is the good-humored deflation of the conference paper to its essence, and policing that so brilliantly with the bear. It speaks volumes that we don’t speak volumes…”
I’m serious. A Bear. Okay, well, maybe it’s a graduate student in a Bear suit, but still – a BEAR.
“The idea of the bear was a brilliant brainstorm of a funny, non-personal way to keep us all as presenters conscious of focusing and limiting our comments. It is now in the DNA of the conference and performs a service sorely lacking at the other professional meetings I attend.”
Bears are the best possible timekeepers.
“Please consider renting out the bear to other conferences.”
Usually, all the Bear has to do is appear, and the tardy presenter will shamefacedly remove themselves from the podium. Other times, the presenter may try to rush through the rest of their paper despite the approaching ursine threat, in which case the Bear will physically steal their paper (and any other presentation materials it can grab) and run away away. Sometimes, presenters get clever – I’ve seen attempts to plead with the Bear, dodge the Bear, and even bribe the Bear with offerings of honey. Other times, presenters get silly – they bait the Bear onto the stage so they can dance with it, or chase it around for a change. Regardless, they play. The Bear represents the constant threat that at any time during this “academic conference”, a play could break out.
“Leave it to the ASC to re-invent the academic conference. Short papers, lots of energy, the bear, and the actors. Will be hard to go back to the regular conferences.”
Page and stage have a lot to tell each other. It doesn’t take much to remind us of that. As we head into the season of gratitude, I am grateful for how deeply the spirit of play is embedded into the human soul and psyche. We cannot live without it. Theatre has the power to bring that playfulness to the forefront of the human experience in an infinite variety of ways. I encourage you to look for them — and when you find them, play with them.
**All quotes taken from responses provided by 2019 BFC attendees to a survey sent out by the American Shakespeare Center.