05 February 2012

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 1

Good evening, all. Tonight and tomorrow at the Blackfriars Playhouse, twenty-three students from Mary Baldwin College will give presentations on their MLitt and MFA projects. These presentations are a required portion of the thesis project for all candidates. The ASC education team will be live-blogging throughout the both days of the event. The first session runs this evening from 6:30pm-9:30pm.

With his characteristic wit, Dr. Paul Menzer opens by apologizing for scheduling this event during that great Sunday ritual, but reminds us that Downton Abbey re-airs on Thursdays. He also notes the infeasibility of sharing chicken wings and airing misogynistic commercials between presentations.

Amy Bolis: "Color-Conscious Shakespeare: A Dramaturgical Investigation of 'Othello' and Its Legacy

Bolis begins by noting that, in Othello, the word "Moor" appears more times than Othello's actual name; she then moves on to a list of the "contradictory characterizations" of the title character contained within the play. She then probes the "problematic construction of blackness" within the play, questioning what role Othello should hold in modern theatre. The problem, as she notes, is further complicated by the divergent opinions of those in the field; her actors Brittany Fauzer and Katy Mulvaney read from such opinions throughout the presentation. She uses the example of Patrick Stewart's photo-negative production, but notes that such a production encourages white audiences still to sympathize with the white man, experiencing only the fear of losing their own privilege. She notes that, for the remainder of the presentation, she will focus on Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears.

Harlem Duet is an Americanized prelude to Othello, set in Harlem during the 1990s, with flashbacks linking different moments of black experience in American history. She foregrounds four questions: 1) What is the relationship between non-white theatre practitioners and the Shakespeare canon? 2) Given lack of roles for non-white characters, how can modern companies approach these plays? 3) Where do actors of colours reside within the realm of Shakespeare performance? 4) Given Harlem Duet's critique, what is the legacy of Othello?

Fauzer presents a monologue from Harlem Duet by Billie, Othello's first wife, where she discusses her decision to poison his handkerchief. Through this story, Sears gives the handkerchief a tangible history, positioning it as an heirloom that "holds the ancestry of generations" through slavery and emancipation, rather than as a magical object of ambiguous origin. Fauzer also presents a statement from Sears on the need to integrate the black narrative into the theatrical world. Bolis concludes with the thought that, "Adaptation has allowed for a different dream of Othello," one that allows for a shifting of the play's legacy.

David Ashton: "Staging the Censored Text"

Ashton's presentation explores the question of "How do you stage a censored text?", focusing on the most obviously altered sections of George Chapman's 1608 The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron. Actors Amanda Noel Allen and Brian Falbo present an altered scene, where characters report on a conversation involving Queen Elizabeth and French politics. The alternations make the scene noticeably awkward. Ashton suggests that, while theories exist as to the reason for the alteration, none seem plausible. He looked to production history for possible illumination.

Ashton relates his methodology to that of Genevieve Love, exploring the theatrical impact of absences and voids for those early modern plays which have no strong performance record. He posits the notion of "fantasy performances" suggested by those absences, which may be a means of recovering the pre-censored version. Ashton claims that Act Four allows for at least three "fantasy performances" using the extant text as sole source, a fourth informed by historical context, and a fifth from textual criticism. Actors Maxim Overton, Melissa Tolner, Allen, and Falbo present Ashton's various possibilities.

The fourth version draws from the historical context of the play's censorship, which Ashton details; Chapman apparently wanted his plays printed and fought for their restoration. Chapman's history suggests that he was likely involved in the printing of the plays, often overlooking proofs before they went to print, and that he thus authorized leaving the 1625 reprint unchanged from the 1608. Moreover, Ashton posits that statements from Chapman suggest that he believed readers could fill in the gaps on their own, that "a reader's mind is capable of imagining moments of theatrical effect." This fourth version of the scene, then, is a conflation of the extant texts with what Chapman assumed his readers could fill in, the shade of an original performance. Ashton's suggested fifth version takes critical context into account, a methodology he believes most likely as a way to "stage the censored text", an exercise both in edition and creation.

Elizabeth Lodato: "From Alehouse to Household: Women in Service in Early Modern Drama"

Lodato begins by having the audience close their eyes and imagine being in a 16th-century alehouse; she suggests that we, as she would have months earlier, probably conjured a romanticized vision of a warm, happy tavern populated with cheerful folk. The reality, she notes, was somewhat darker, as alehouses were often dens of criminal behavior, including prostitution, money-lending, thievery, and fugitive-harboring. She then posits that alewives suffered more complaints and condemnation because of the economic threat they posed to working men, suggesting considerably anxiety about a female-dominated trade.

Lodato's presentation examines depictions of alewives in both dramatic and non-dramatic literature, with the aid of actors Stephanie Tschetter, Angelina LaBarre, and Elizabeth Rentfro. The popular depictions, Lodato argues, grossly dominated over the actual faults of the trade, often along themes of uncleanliness. She notes the odd juxtaposition of positive statements on an alewife's congeniality and sociability with the insults regarding unsanitary brewing conditions and dishonesty of practice. She then moves to noting the difference in depiction of alewives in early modern plays, where the women are less often gross caricatures of slovenliness, and more amiable comedic characters, "full of malaprops and earnest". She suggests that the plays present male hosts as far more dishonest characters than their female counterparts. Lodato pulls examples from the anonymous Every Woman in Her Humour and Heywood's Fair Maid of the West. The latter particularly displays a virtuous woman defending her reputation against bullies and cheats. Lodato finished by summarizing the sexist depiction of alewives in popular literature and its connection to male anxiety over female independence, and her desire to further investigate the evolved role those characters hold in early modern theatre.

Kimberly Lenz: "'What's in a Name?': Proper Name as Performance Clue"

Lenz opens by commenting on the attraction of the idea of demonic possession in the entertainment industry. She relates the idea of the power of a proper name to expel a demon to the notion of characters in a play using a proper name to exercise power over another character. She uses The Maid's Tragedy as her example, noticing the frequency with which other characters use Amintor's name, particularly by those characters who are manipulating his fate. Lenz notes that there seemed to be an epidemic of demonic possession and exorcism in England in the 16th and 17th century. Some men won great fame as exorcists, though often fell from grace and were exposed as frauds; popular awareness of the phenomenon found its way into plays such as The Devil is an Ass (scenes presented by James Byers, Mel Johnson, Joshua Brown, and Justine Mackey).

Lenz describes that her project aims to explore the applicability of the idea of the power exercised through use of proper names. She admits that the results are in no way quantifiable, but that they are nonetheless valuable. Her actors present an exploration of a scene from King Lear. Lenz notes that she is developing rehearsal techniques based around this idea and intends to explore the idea further.

AJ Sclafani: "Distancing Techniques in Modern Early Modern Playhouses"

The presentation opens with the inimitable Dane Leasure giving a version of the traditional pre-show Playhouse-opening speech, Maria Hart giving out tickets for a raffle, and Dan Stott giving the actor's pre-show speech on our staging conditions. Jessica Schiermeister then enters in an approximation of Sclafani's sartorial style and takes the podium. Sclafani eventually reclaims the stage and notes that his project looks at the paratextual material of the Blackfriars Playhouse.

He discusses how some of the paratextual material, such as the posters for the shows, emphasizes to the audience that they are about to see actors in a play. He suggests that posters containing the actors' faces, actors' names, photographer's name, and title of the play, but not the name of character portrayed, leads the audience to focus on matters other than the actor's representation of the role. He moves on to the pre-show speech, which he states positions the audience as an observer of the customs of the Playhouse. He notes that some aspects of the pre-show have become vestigial, while others (asking for donations and asking audience members to turn off cell phones) has reversed the effect of the speech, originally designed to integrate unfamiliar audiences into the unique conditions of ASC productions. He argues that, especially in the context of "problem" plays, distancing techniques transfer the creation of synthesis onto the audience.

Monica Cross: "Modern Adaptations of 'Hamlet'"

Cross begins by noting the proliferation of adaptations in the MLitt/MFA program within the past few years, and declares her intent to examine how adaptations comment on their source material. She looks at several adaptations of Hamlet from the 1990s and 2000s: Fortinbras, by Lee Blessing (1992), Claudius, by Ken Gass (1993), Something's Rotten, by Michael Burdick (2003), and 12 Ophelias (a play with brokensongs), by Caridad Svich (2004). She focuses in this presentation on Fortinbras and Something's Rotten (with scenes presented by Clara Giebel, Linden Kueck, Celi Oliveto, Stephan Pietrowski, and Shane Sczepankowski), the latter of which was presented in a one-act version at the 2011 Blackfriars Conference.

Something's Rotten follows the reactions of the the gravediggers to the play and its aftermath, taking fragments from Hamlet's language. Shifting the focus from court life to commoners "breaks the Aristotelian model", particularly with such prominent speeches as "To be or not to be". Burdick's reimagining breaks the concept down into ideas of being an aggressor or being a victim, as represented by the two gravediggers' divergent opinions. It also examines the concept of different kinds of death. Fortinbras, by contrast, features the titular character trying "to manipulate the story of Hamlet to suit his own purposes". This play breaks traditional modes and the fourth wall equally, having characters comment on their own situations. One character actually gets a hold of Shakespeare's Hamlet and becomes engrossed, suggesting, as Cross notes, that even the characters in the play find the original superior to the adaptation. Cross positions her interest in these plays in particular for what they have to say about the role of adaptation as a form of commentary.

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And that's it for tonight -- We're back at 9:30am tomorrow (Monday, February 6th) for a full day of presentations.

For the rest of the Festival, see further posts:
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4

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