Monday, November 14, 2011



OCTOBER 25 – 30 2011


Last April, on Shakespeare’s birthday in fact, together with some great actresses, singers, and musical collaborators, I presented LOVE'S FINE WIT, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a 3 character play (with Elizabethan songs and music) about an intense love triangle. Here's a story about this play:


Creating theater from the sonnets is a project I’ve been working on for some time. The play we did last April is one of several adaptations I've created of plays based on re-arranging the sonnets and using them as dialog. The play in April, in fact, was a staged reading of (a somewhat abridged version of) a full length play (with Elizabethan songs and music) about a fierce and passionate love triangle, created entirely using the sonnets as dialog, and songs from Shakespeare as the music.

On Twitter I heard about a call for papers for the “Blackfriars Conference” on Shakespeare at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), and I sent in a proposal for a paper on "The Sonnets as Dramatic Speech." I was invited to the Conference. 

Here is a post describing the ideas in this paper:


Here are some notes about my visit to this year's Blackfriars Conference:
The Blackfriars Conference, held every other year at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton Virginia, celebrates, not surprisingly, Shakespeare (and his contemporaries), with scholarly papers, not-so-scholarly papers, conversation, networking, and lots of plays.

First of all, I enjoyed the Conference very much. The plays were terrific, the keynotes excellent, and the Select Paper Sessions very good (but the “Staging Sessions” and “Colloquies” were a mixed bag.) Many ancillary features and the generally relaxed, good-humored atmosphere added to the success of the event. The information, the interactions, and the plays were all at a very high level. And it was fun.

Not only were all the keynotes and many of the papers interesting and informative, but they were exceptionally well presented, with a sense of humor, good presentation style, and they were enjoyable.

The plays were terrific (The Tempest, Hamlet, King Henry V, Tamburlaine, and The Importance of Being Earnest on five consecutive days! in repertory!! – and with a random coin toss to determine which of two versions of Hamlet to present!!!) … with more about that later.

Stephen Booth
At the Blackfriars Conference 2011
Photo by Eric Roffman

The first keynote address was by the distinguished scholar, Stephen Booth, Professor Emeritus at Berkeley, and author of the classic study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. (See below for more about Professor Booth.) His talk, which set the tone for the Conference, was both informal and witty, and presented important content that noted many ways in which lapses in Shakespeare’s plays’ internal logic challenges the audience.

In other keynote addresses, George Wright from the University of Minnesota, and later Scott Kaiser from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, discussed aspects of Shakespeare’s language in performance and Tiffany Stern from University College, Oxford, discussed the importance of commercial Faires in Shakespeare’s time, pointing out that Faires were publicly supported events, while theater was somewhat subversive.

The atmosphere at the Conference was light, rather than lugubrious. In that spirit, speakers who spoke beyond their allotted time would exit, pursued by a bear; and the Conference awarded a (generous!) truancy prize to the registrant who missed the most events, visiting attractions in the town. It seems to me this is very much in the spirit of the Faire, since the commercial exchange between the town and the Shakespeare Center is important for the welfare of both.

In the late evening there were short staged readings of new, mostly funny plays related to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The Select Paper Sessions dealt with a variety of topics. Many of the papers presented discussed ways that performance practices in Shakespeare’s time related to interactions with the audience. Several papers dealt with playwrights from the 1500’s and 1600’s other than Shakespeare. One interesting paper compared the structure of tragedy to the structure of a knock-knock joke: (The "who's there?" person -- plays the straight-man and the joke’s on him -- or her). Another paper pointed out that the actors in Shakespeare’s company were very skilled in many facets of performance.

Two other papers discussed the structure of the theaters that Shakespeare performed in, and the possibility that they had some quite sophisticated methods at their disposal for controlling the lighting of the performance.

Representatives from Shakespeare’s Globe in England presented a model of an indoor theater they are building, and talked about the fantastic plans they have for the Olympics, presenting 37 of Shakespeare’s plays (all his plays and nothing but his plays?), as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.


Less successful than the papers and keynotes were the Colloquy and Staging Sessions. The problems with the colloquy format were that

Here's a possible partial solution:
The Staging and Performance Choice Sessions were interesting simply because they called attention to interesting moments in the plays, but for the most part these sessions featured neither high level scholarship, nor expert stage craft or direction.  

The volunteer actors from the ASC Ensemble, however, were exceptionally good in cold readings in these sessions with only the barest preparation. Also, it should be noted with great appreciation, that even the most senior members of the Ensemble participated in many sessions either as actors, assisting the speaker with illustrative readings from the plays, or simply as members of the audience.

Returning to the plays… Indeed, the play’s the thing wherein the American Shakespeare Center really distinguished itself.

It was exceptional to present, as mentioned above, five plays in repertory, brilliantly directed and performed (The Tempest, Hamlet, King Henry V, Tamburlaine, and The Importance of Being Earnest – with two versions of Hamlet selected immediately before the performance by a flip of a coin… and the audience of scholars loudly cheering for their favorite version like the audience at a Presidential Debate). The plays were very well done, in a style not common in New York, and the acting and interpretations were terrific.

The theater (called The Blackfriars Theater) at the American Shakespeare Center is generally a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars. It has about 300 seats, and one or two dozen members of the audience are seated on the stage and the stage balcony. The lights are kept on in the whole house during the performance. (Their motto is, “We do it with the lights on.”) And the performers frequently interact with the audience in an extremely natural way. The presence of the audience is acknowledged.

The theater aims to implement some of the "original practices" used in Shakespeare's time.  Very little scenery, furniture or props are used, except for weapons.  Costumes, however, are quite elaborate. Exits, ending a scene, followed by entrances from the doors behind the stage, one on either side, are very rapid -- elapsed time between scenes must be understood by the audience from the dialog.

In keeping with the notion of "original practices," one Paper, noting that it was exceptionally cold around 1600, suggested that perhaps the heat should be turned off in the theater.

It occurred to me, hearing the discussions of some of the "original practices" around Shakespeare's time, that there might be some similarities to performing conditions in many off-off-Broadway theaters going back at least as far as the Cafe Cino OOB revival of the 60's, and continuing thru to today, with small stages, audience close by the performers, lighting cues a problem, limited rehearsal time, and heat not always working right.

The plays at ASC are presented by a repertory company, all of whom are quite exceptional. Most singular was James Keegan, who on four successive days played Prospero in THE TEMPEST; The King, Claudio, in HAMLET; the Bishop and the Welsh soldier in HENRY V; and the title character in TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT (PART I); and he was superior in each of the roles. It was quite a tour-de-force. (See below for a video – in 3D! – of Keegan discussing Prospero in THE TEMPEST.)

The interpretation of HAMLET they presented was interesting, though I have my own view of the play which differs in some respects from their production...

Gertrude in HAMLET is often played by a good – or even great – actress, but rarely one that immediately suggests why Claudius might commit fratricide to have her. Blythe Coons as Gertrude was one of the few actresses I’ve seen playing that part that made sense as a queen for Claudius to murder for.

Still, the behavior of the Royal Couple was well within the bounds of decorum. But I have always felt that Claudius is quite a lout, as suggested by the lines:

The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail and the swaggering upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.

Is it a custom?

Ay, marry, is ’t.
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations.

I think Claudius and Gertrude should be quite explicit, exhibitionist, and vulgar in displaying their lust publicly. Similarly, I think the relation between Hamlet and Ophelia should be made clear (whatever one believes it to be) in their physical life together. (I’m personally in the:  he really loved her once school.)

John Harrell as Hamlet was vocally excellent. His subtly fey physical behavior I thought was both irritating and suggestive. He had zero chemistry with Ophelia, and was quite intensely disturbed by his mother’s actions: all going to suggest an underlying element of sexual confusion contributing to his behavior. Also (either a plus or minus depending on your view of the play) I had a hard time telling when Hamlet was feigning madness and when he was truly overcome by it.

By the way, the staging of the Ghost scenes, and the matter-of-fact but still magisterial way the Ghost was portrayed by the fine actor, Rene Thornton, Jr., seemed just right.

I had never seen TAMBURLAINE (Part I), a play that helped make Christopher Marlowe famous in his day. It is quite spectacular – and quite extravagant in the scope of its story, the extremes of cruelty, and the fact that the violent, cruel Tamburlaine does not suffer tragic defeat, but rather extravagant success, culminating in marrying the woman he loves and making her queen. (But there is a Part II.)

Most interesting was THE TEMPEST. It was a terrific interpretation and production in every way but one. (Miranda’s costume was ridiculous.) The Prospero created by James Keegan is quite different from the usual cruel slave master, and the final scene is not a metaphor for the retirement of Shakespeare from creating magic. Rather, Prospero does only what is natural and necessary in the situation on the island to control Caliban and Ariel. This Prospero is using his magic one last time to bring his daughter, now grown, into the real world, with love, and to reclaim his ownrightful position, which had been taken from him when he slighted his responsibility to the office by choosing magic instead.

Here is a discussion of Prospero (in 3D!) by James Keegan.

(Note: To start, click on the arrow. It will start as a red/green 3D video, but at the bottom there will be a conspicuous "3D". Click on this to see the video the way you want. It can be viewed in 2D, in 3D with red/cyan glasses, on a 3D TV, and by using the HTML5 option it can be viewed using a computer with NVIDIA 3D. It can also be viewed on a no-glasses 3D screen like the HTC EVO 3D smart phone.)

Stephen Booth is a Shakespearean scholar (not to be confused with another Stephen Booth who writes crime novels), famous initially for his masterwork on the sonnets, but also known for other books and many critical articles. He was the initial keynote speaker, and is a long time supporter of the American Shakespeare Center:



(Certainly these would be great presents for anyone interested in Shakespeare!)


All in all, the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) is an important institution. In addition to the plays and the Conference, they have a year-long ongoing impressive collection of educational initiatives, and collaborate with Mary Baldwin College in providing graduate education in Shakespeare.

The style of performance – notably the way the performers interact with the audience – is quite different from any Shakespeare I have seen around the New York area, and it would be well worth looking to the American Shakespeare Center for an exchange of ideas.

I agree that there were some issues with the colloquy sessions; I participated in one and found having the audience behind me was difficult. There were handouts of abstracts of each paper for the audience, but I wonder if posting the entire paper on the ASC site prior to the meeting would help too. Colloquy papers were limited to 8 pages, close to the length of spoken presentations. My session had a great discussion, but I attended others where the participants hadn't done their homework, and were less engaging. I appreciate this feedback from a member of the audience!
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