Aubrey Whitlock began the morning with some technology and location change announcements before passing it off to Dr. Paul Menzer. Dr. Menzer made a speech celebrating the history of Shakespeare, The American Shakespeare Center, and Mary Baldwin University. The college has a new president, and Dr. Menzer passed the opening speech off to Dr. Jeff Stein. His speech contained many thanks, jokes, and well wishes for the Shakespeare and Performance program. His passion for this school and this program is evident, and his speech began the morning with incredibly positive energy.
Our second keynote presentation, presented by Keith Hamilton Cobb, centers on one of the commonalities that everyone in this conference has, other than an interest in Shakespeare: being human. Untitling Shakespeare: A Brief Biography of an Evolving Practice focuses on exploring the process of open-ended examination of Shakespeare’s texts by all parties and identities: directors, actors, designers, dramaturgs; gender, race, nationality.
Starting with his initial interest and experience with Ohtello, the Untitling Project came to the fruition after Cobb realized that there is another important aspect of identity in this play that he had to contend with other than his race: humanity. This lies in the pedagogical teaching methods and predisposed discretions that Cobb experienced when he was first introduced to Othello. Much like Othello, Cobb was susceptible to the previous teachings and understandings of the character and “Believe[d] what you tell me simply because you tell me”, which allowed him to ultimately call attention to interrogating what it means to be human not just within Othello, but across all of Shakespeare’s canon.
Thus, Cobb began the Untitling Shakespeare Project; along with associate director of the Untitling Project Jessica Burr and assisting collaborators Heather Benton, Aaron Zook, and David Sterling Brown, he aims to take the question of “what does it mean to be human?” to actors and practitioners. Cobb argues that the theatrical space “challenges us to point at a line or scene of text and consider ALL insights and interactions of human behavior”. It’s important to gut Shakespeare’s text, examining them from the inside out, in order to interrogate any and all presumed understandings that society was taught surrounding these plays. Cobb calls for an embracing of personal identity, and, through the Untitling Project, both welcome and interrogate our humanity.
Untitling Shakespeare is not a practice but a process (as Cobb amended in the beginning of the keynote): a still evolving process that asks us to question not just Shakespeare’s texts and titles, but our own personal, still-working texts and titles. By seeing and centering the human and human experience at the root (and the root of the problem), the Untitling process urges us to move towards a creative thought-process and engagement that simultaneously cross-examines our own biases surrounding and imposed teachings of Shakespeare and his plays. After all, as Cobb concludes, one of the most fascinating ways to invoke change is through human collaboration: a room of practitioners coming to the table and open-endly pondering a text, to find the origin of “something that’s truly worthy of staging”. In the end, Untitling Shakespeare is navigating the “blind tragedy… and comedy” of the Shakespearean canon and what it means to be human, leading to the crucial question: What are we, on the page and in the room?