28 October 2011

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session VII

This is Cass Morris, back yet again, this time for Plenary Session VII, moderated by Janna Segal, newest addition to the teaching team at Mary Baldwin College's MLitt/MFA graduate program. I'll be blogging from 1:00pm to 2:15pm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a session involving technology, held in a re-construction of a sixteenth century theatre, the session starts a bit late due to technical difficulties.

Denise A Walen, Vassar College: "The Performance History of Rhetorical Strategies in 3.4 Much Ado about Nothing"

Walen prefaces Much Ado as an unusual play, in that it features two scenes comprised entirely of female characters. In one of those, 3.4, the women prepare for Hero's marriage. Walen notes that this scene is often reduced or cut entirely from production. As early as 1674, "revised" prints of the play excised nearly half of the scene. Walen argues that "a sense of prudish propriety" led to the elimination of the bawdy jokes in the scene. Walen shares visuals of the scene not only as printed, but as manually adjusted for performance by actors or in promptbooks, with much of the scene crossed out. Towards the end of the production history, Walen notes that Kenneth Brannaugh shot the scene for his 1993 movie, but ultimately left it on the cutting room floor, dismissing it as "too frustrating".

Walen argues that both the length and the placement of the scene indicate its importance. The scene of innocence, where Hero is ignorant of the forces working against her, augments the tragedy of Claudio's rejection. The scene also shows Hero exhibiting some interesting characteristics, contradictory to her public persona of meek, dutiful daughter. The scene also helps recuperate Margaret's character, demonstrating that she has no malice and that her part in the plot is, as Leonato later notes, unintentional. Walen suggests that the scene is most revelatory about Beatrice, showing a more vulnerable side of her character -- engaging the audience on her behalf just before the key turning point with Benedick in the church.

Walen walks briefly through the pathos, ethos, and logos of the scene, linking its importance to its rhetorical function. "Shakespeare makes its rhetorical construct essential to the female characters."

Nathan Jerkins, Penfold Theatre Company / Hidden Room Theatre: "Frame Characters: An Actor's Approach to the Original Practices Movement"

Jerkins wonders aloud "What am I doing here?" -- specifying that he asks that, not for lack of enjoyment, but in astonishment at himself for presenting at an academic conference. He thanks the ASC and the conference attendees for being willing to let an actor take part in the conversation.

He points out that modern actors cannot approach original practices entirely devoid of modern techniques and training, and wonders how we can take those necessarily modern actors and apply them to early modern plays and methods. He thinks the answer may lie in the "frame character", as in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew. He thinks, rather than trying to ingrain our modern actors with anachronistic sensibilities, that we should take advantage of actors' extant strengths. He suggests the idea of a creating a "frame" character who can guide an actor through discovering a role. He thinks this would also circumvent the stresses involved in needing a "dramaturgical referee" to pull directors and actors back when they have "gone too far astray".

Andrew Phillips-Blasenak, Ohio State University: "The Materiality of Shakespeare's Companies"

Phillips-Blasenak examines some of the successes of early-modern-style acting companies, including the ensemble and repertory setups. He suggests that, while this style may be enjoyable for an actor, it also presents problems for an actor's career, as the prolonged nature of repertory and ensemble work. It encourages innovation in company structure and performance space, but . He will look at how Michael Boyd of the Royal Shakespeare Company attempted to navigate these problems, both in building the actor-audience relationship and in creating a sensible ensemble in the company, especially in regard to the reinvention of the material and physical space.

Phillips-Blasenak looks at the structure of the RSC as a company, where the personnel of the company did not change when the space did. The actors who come in, then, though working with directors who were new to them, were thus working with directors who did not necessarily use the new space in a way that augmented the actor-audience relationship.
Phillips-Blasenak gives examples from two past performances which he believes were alienating, rather than engaging. Boyd has also instituted a policy of hiring actors for 2.5 year contracts, with the aim of building a consistent ensemble. Phillips-Blasenak particularly examines this practice in the recent history cycle completion project. "The company was able to adapt and work as an ensemble as they adapted to a variety of roles." The following year, hiring the directors first and then the actors led to an experience that appeared to be confusing and frustrating for the actors, as the directors could ask wildly different things of the actors. The ensemble nature also broke down, with certain actors getting nearly all lead roles and others only supporting roles -- for, Phillips-Blasenak stresses again, two and a half years.

Phillips-Blasenak then runs through an overview of the ASC's style of ensemble-building, audience engagement, and rotating repertory. This structure "provides many of the material challenges that fulfill the goals of Michael Boyd's intentions."
Phillips-Blasenak suggests that this is more satisfying for the actors, and may be the reason why ASC actors are more willing to return to this company rather than take their skills elsewhere.

Megan Lloyd, King's College, and Beth Brown, University of Rio Grande: "'Is this a dagger which I see before me?': Choreographing Props on the Early Modern Stage"

Lloyd begins by interrogating the tangibility and necessity of props in early modern plays. She uses examples first from 'Pyramus and Thisbe" to show that Quince is concerned with the material issues behind stage performance. Lloyd suggests that today we, like Quince, are concerned with stage authenticity -- and she gives examples from particularly spectacular Shakespearean performances. The early modern stage, on the other hand, relied on the imagination, not just for sets, but for props as well. Lloyd wonders if, today, we use props that the early modern audience did not see or expect to see, suggesting that our modern concern with realism may lead us to consider some props essential. James Keegan and Miriam Donald Burrows present two scenes from The Tempest to illustrate the questionable necessity of Prospero's iconic staff.
On the second run, the actors perform without the staff. While it may help the actor conjure magic, illustrate age, or otherwise demonstrate character, Lloyd argues that the text does not require it; the text does not even mention it until the very end of the play. Lloyd believes that "a staff gets in the way" of Prospero's emotions.

Brown considers the necessary props for Hamlet, giving the example of the trail of actors who must handle the cup that ultimately poisons Gertrude. She highlights the necessity of thinking about who must handle any prop that appears on-stage. Ben Curns and Miriam demonstrate "what happens when Ophelia has too much to handle". Miriam attempts to negotiate letters, books, and a small box, which she has to half-juggle. The second run shows "an unencumbered Ophelia".

Sid Ray, Pace University: "Sticky Shakespeare: Testing Action as Eloquence"

Ray examines "stage business: the unscripted activities of an actor for effect". She positions the popularity of the term and action in the 20th century, derived from improvisational theatre. She gives an example of Patrick Stewart's Macbeth assembling a sandwich while giving instructions to the murderers -- illustrating the difference between the character's humanity and his growing monstrosity. She also mentions Ian McKellen's Richard III performing all activities one-handed, drawn from clues in historical references and in the text. Both examples, Ray argues, convey more information to the audience about the character. Ray draws a line between stage business and "schtick", which she categorizes as distracting, unnecessary, and without character revelation or illumination.

She suggests that Shakespeare's plays indicate need for stage business, even though the term was not popularized until much later. One of the best examples is Lady Macbeth's hand-rubbing, which has no stage direction, but is implicit in the gentlewoman's dialogue. During the Restoration, actors may have developed "schtick" which then got passed down to the next actor inheriting the role. Ray believes that stage business has become risky business, particularly with determining whether or not an action is justified, as well as determining "how much is too much".

Ben Curns and James Keegan perform an expository scene from The Winter's Tale twice, once in a reserved style, second with more stage business spectacle. In the first, they simply sit at the edge of the stage to talk. In the second, they unpack a breakfast of Golden Grahams (complete with milk) and proceed to eat it while they talk. While it does give Camillo a physical reason for "Beseech you" -- asking for the milk -- it also slows the actors down and somewhat distracts from the words. Ray notes that she left the choice of stage business to Ben and James; they rejected wrestling, rolling cigarettes, or playing cards. Ray asks, whether or not we enjoyed the first or second version better, that teachers consider using stage business in classrooms as a way of interrogating the needs of a scene.

Jeremy Lopez, University of Toronto: "All the Fletcher Plays"

Lopez suggests that it's difficult to see the Fletcher canon, especially in conjunction with his many collaborators, "as a jungle, rather than as so many terrifying trees". He breaks them down by titles: those titled for women (such as The Island Princess), those titled for men (such as The Noble Gentleman), those titled with proper names (such as
Sir John van Olden Barnavelt), possessively titled plays (such as The Maid's Tragedy), idiomatically titled plays (such as A King and No King), plays titled for places (such as The Laws of Candy), with specific examples of plot from each category.

Lopez categorizes the plays as at once familiar and strange, with a combined sense of recollection and insubstance. He looks at several of the plays which may help determine "what is not a Fletcher play, and what is". He finishes with a claim that the Fletcher plays "preserve traces of what they might otherwise have been, or what they might otherwise have liked to be."

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