Let Shakespeare Die

by Jamie Milay/Sah Milay

When will we lay Shakespeare to rest.
When he gives his last breath,
maybe then there will be space
For me to offer my own.

Give me.
Literally.
Anything.
Else.

But another director putting me on stage to recite text written for a white male body. Having those words bounce off my queer black feminine body. No significance or alteration just lazily leaving it to the imagination. “The words will do all the work”.

Give me.
Literally.
Anything.
Else.

Other than another adaptation of shakespearean text that believes it’s revolutionary because they’ve reversed the genders.
Because there are only two genders.
Or an all female cast because having women perform the roles of classical kings is more inspiring than writing strong contemporary Queens.

Give me literally anything else.

But another strong female role that includes a handful of scenes and a tragic death after being driven to romantic insanity. Give me anything but queering up that story and giving me a tragic queer death and romantic insanity. Visual representation is not enough.

Give me.
Literally.
Anyone.
Else.

But Shakespeare.

Give me  the work of a Straight Black Quebecois transwoman from the 2010’s.
Give me the work of a  Queer Non-binary Latinx playwright from the 1800’s
Give me the work of an Asexual Genderqueer Egyptian performer from the 60’s.
Give me the work of a Bisexual Transman from the 1500’s.
Give me the work of a Disabled Chinese-Cuban poet from the 70’s.
Give me the work of a Filipina playwright before her country was colonized.
Give me the work of a Blackfoot Woman before her country was colonized.
Give me the work of  Indigenous people around the globe before their countries were colonized.
Before their art forms were deemed lesser. Before performance and community and ritual  had to be defined as theatre.

. . .

Give me a Queer Nonbinary Congolese performer playing a role for a Queer Nonbinary Congolose performer.
Give them a thousand more roles written for a Queer Nonbinary Congolese performer.
Give them a thousand more roles that don’t depend on Queer Nonbinary Congolese suffering or archaic, outsider representations of their identity.
Give them a thousand more roles that don’t ignore their Queer Nonbinary Congolese  existence in favour of “keeping it relatable”.
And then pay them.

. . .

With money.

Give me a complexity of experiences.
Give me an abundance of narratives and characters to become.
Teach me about more than just shakespeare in school.
Stop making it seem like he is the only one who existed.
I want somebody else’s name on my tongue when asked about classical theatre.
Anyone else’s work on my mind when someone says the word theatre.
I want to see diverse faces on a stage that is telling a diverse story.
Not an unacknowledged rainbow of bodies being stuffed into binaries
Except for when marketing the show.
Casting them is not enough.
Presenting the text as is,  is not enough.
I want to see shakespeare
being torn to bits.
Like actually torn to bits.
Reassembled.
Then destroyed again.
Translated.
Torn.
And then torn again.
I want the language destroyed and made relevant again.
Because no one fucking understands unless they’re an academic.
I want shakespeare to return back to its orgins.
Back to the dirty places where anyone can access him.
Shakespeare was not for the elite
Yet here we are, the elite, discussing.
The privilege of discussing.
I am ready for other voices to be incorporated into the conversation.
Of what is Classic and what is Theatre and who is Worthy of being Included.
and Seen.
Spoken about.
Remembered.
Performed.
Or
I want shakespeare to stop.
shakespeare is dead.
So let him die.
And give us.
Literally.
Anyone.
Else.

SF Day 5: Going forward

This post is going to be a very brief coda to the week’s blog thoughts (Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4), not least because the emphasis of the week has been about ways forward and absence of final products… So here’s more research-in-process…

On Saturday, reunited with the Company actors, we workshopped scenes in different ways and tried new avenues: switching performers for roles (for instance, Moll and Laxton); moving between an aggressive Clara crying “ran-tan-tan,” to a Clara hampered by a large dress fuming about her vestments…

Oh, I shall no more see those golden days, these clothes will never fadge with me: a O’ this filthy vardingale, this hip hap: brother why are women’s haunches only limited,  confined, hooped in, as it were with these same scurvy vardingales? (EMED)

… to working multiple ways of Evadne, Aspatia, and Amintor moving on stage (for instance, how does physical aggression and reactive horror work between an adult and a younger, teenage actor?).

The group working on The Lieutenant Nun explained how important it can be to return to ground zero on a scene, dialling back from extremes of character portrayal (including in gendered terms) towards a nuanced middle ground.  Their observations about how to negotiate subtlety when working over a period of several days with these characters raises the issue of “types” in the period’s drama (not between extremes of 1 and 10, as they put it, but in the “human middle”).  How might performers find within sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European dramatic characters a more three-dimensional, rounded, and embodied persona—one that allows them to bring their own lived experience into the role—even when the text contains cues for broad or stereotypical extremes?

We finished the day thinking about what we can take forward from the week in future PaR work and its dissemination and wider impacts on the theatre industry in and beyond Stratford and Canada.  These are huge topics that will be the subject of future bulletins from this project, on this site and elsewhere.

We’ll also have coming up video footage, interviews with scholars and actors, and some further material on gender and performance in workshop in the coming days, as well as content arising from Monday’s events at McMaster (24 September 2018)…

Callan

SF Day 4: Licence, Paddling, Equity

Day 4 was a slightly different day for Engendering the Stage at Stratford Festival Laboratory.  Unfortunately, due to unavoidable scheduling, the company actors were not with us on Friday, and so we had a series of talks, shows, and chances for conversation with the remaining participants of the workshops.  This meant not only a tour de force about the power, in multiple senses, of early modern theatre from Emma Frankland on her Galatea project but the chance to reflect and learn about ways to move forward—in the academy and in the arts—on and beyond “diversity.”  Central to this week’s experience for many of us has been learning about how we can all use different forms of privilege and power to discover more about,  work with, and make central the indigenous identities and experiences whose land these buildings occupy.  Today’s conversations provided an opportunity to reflect hard on what action on intersectionality might look like in all our various practices.

What is the duty of care for an artist?

Emma spoke brilliantly about her Galatea project, working on John Lyly’s play with a trans and non-binary, BAME, and British Sign Language cast (see some documentation and discussion of this work here).

We were lucky to see a scene being workshopped in action with the wonderful Denise Oucharek stepping in cold to explore how the exchange between Phyllida and their father could be played in multiple different ways as part of a trans experience or framework, without reading against the text.

Emma’s work is a flagship model for how texts like Galatea do not need “queering” or “transing”—they don’t require the imposition of a modern framework or analysis onto the play—its queerness and transness are already there.

What would you be curious to see?

Between shows and readings, we had a brief chance to discuss—unfortunately without the presence of the company actors—the model of PaR we’re working with and developing ways in which PaR might be sharpened to work for all invested parties in the future.

Roberta Barker and others stressed that PaR cannot (and is not here) being used to generate answers about the past and answer: this is how things were, this is how it was.  Rather, they open up more questions and more avenues of possibility.  In a similar vein, Lucy Munro importantly reminded us of the randomness that is at the heart of many moments of discovery and learning in PaR.  Whatever structure we’re working with, it’s often serendipity that leads to the most productive and exciting outcomes.  We can also look to surrounding relevant bodies of research, and Melinda Gough noted the usefulness of Participatory Action Research (a different PAR) in thinking about how research can be put into reciprocal exchange with different constituencies and communities.

We thought about how the stakes involved in PaR can sometimes shift in favour of academic questions and texts; can we find a way to work that does not privilege the academic impetus, without undermining the importance of what academic historical research brings to the theatrical process (both in and beyond performance-as-research)?  It’s also important to recognise the individual working practice of each performer; it can be unhelpful, for instance, to say “do what you want” to an actor trained (as most of us in other industries also are) to work under certain parameters and with certain forms or frames of direction.  Returning again to the question central to Day 3, we need to think “what are we here for, what are we doing?”.  This is a question that needs to be asked of everybody involved in a given PaR process.  On top of all this, I wonder if licence is a useful term for this discussion: to give and be given licence is central.  PaR at its best can enable performers to work within a wider set of parameters, skills, tools, and references informed by historical scholarship,and it gives researchers licence to imagine possibilities for the past and generate further questions about what may have been and what may be.

It’s worth reiterating, continually, that the process of this week is the beginning of a long journey in which all stakeholders are discovering new ways of working and new ways of collaborating.  This may be generating question upon question, and fostering doubts, but it’s about discovering together a future enriched by all our forms of skill and expertise. This week has been inspiring in pointing to so many ways that such work can be taken forward.

Don’t apologise for your privilege, make it your superpower.

Our conversation on Friday finished by thinking about the most urgent issues at stake in this work.  Many of us are used to the language of “diversity,” but Cole Alvis pointed us towards a more productive vocabulary, in which diversity is important in describing a representative plurality in a given room or show, but in which equity is the goal: a structural change, to ensure indigenous, non-white, LGBTQ power and people in institutions themselves, at leadership levels, across the board.

This might not be something achievable through a few weeks of PaR workshops, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not within everybody’s power to work towards this goal by thinking harder and doing more in our own spheres to create institutions that go some way towards this.

We’ve all got to learn to love the paddling

 It’s important to end this week by having in mind that the work we’re interested in doing goes far beyond the walls of the studio we’ve been working in. In Emma Frankland’s surfing analogy, it may feel most rewarding to be riding the wave, but that’s just 5% of the sport: we need to learn to love the paddling.

 

Callan.

 

SF Day 3: Scenework, Walking, and Sharing

Our third day was a mixture of exploratory discussion and play—in its various forms.  I feel it’s important to reiterate the way that the workshops have been structured so as to enable time and energy for open conversation.  We’ve been beginning (and ending) with “check-ins,” which give everybody space to articulate their thoughts and share what’s on their mind.  Gein Wong has led these processes and their modelling of the practice has helped create a room in which openness and warmth have felt like default views.  This method has been instrumental in creating an open and protected space that enables generosity and allows for vulnerability for everybody in the room, while keeping us all in constant dialogue.  Our opening check-ins then move into open, fluid discussions about the research at hand, the scholarship underpinning and responding to the performance workshops, and the impetus for the afternoon’s work.

This way of “working” might seem like an addendum or “warm-up” to the performance workshopping, but as almost everybody has remarked, it’s in fact integral to the explorative nature of the play that “practice-as-research/PaR” or workshopping generally is about: this is the process; this is the learning.  Here’s a call for more spaces, more default personal and work environments, that are able to bring together personal state of mind, openness, and dialogue as the fundamental basis for what we do and how we do it.

What is it that we’re doing here?

In discussing the prompts for today’s workshopping, discussion moved onto some of the important and often unaddressed questions about work with classical texts.  Do we need to recover plays entrenched with misogyny, homophobia, and racism?  How much should we resist and rewrite or even discard texts that do not work for us today?  These are crucial questions that extend to the whole period Jamie Milay’s call to bury Shakespeare on Day 1.  As some participants observed, these texts and the structures they come out of also contain many of the complexities and oppressions still at work today; our world is also entrenched with misogyny, homophobia, and racism, and thinking about the nuances within the plays we’re looking at this week are also ways of negotiating the present.

The past’s not dead. It’s not even past.

Moreover, as Emma Frankland articulated (better than I can paraphrase here) these texts also offer histories that are often marginalised or erased—trans histories, racial histories, LGBTQ histories, more.  The work we’re doing in these workshops thinks about how these histories can be discovered or represented in combination with contemporary experience—negotiating, in other words, the way texts-in-performance necessarily bring together past and present.  For instance, we thought about what it might mean to have queer or genderqueer characters explicitly assert their identity within a text.  But we also talked about what it means when these individuals in plays are framed as figures of comedic fun.  This sense of tone is crucial to questions of representation.  Pamela Allen Brown pointed out that humour itself can be a powerful form of agency and is not necessarily a sense of ridicule.  Finding a line between pathos and jest is an important ongoing question for exploring the complex identities of these dramatic characters.

I am Aspatia yet.

Thinking further about these ideas of identity and respect for the characters in these texts, Roberta Barker observed how powerful the line “I am Aspatia yet” in The Maid’s Tragedy can be when viewed—as that group has been exploring—from a genderqueer perspective.  The Maid’s Tragedy group has been thinking about the possible gender non-comforming identity of Aspatia, and Roberta noted that the workshopping and the performance research of the actor exploring Aspatia presents a character who has throughout the play had to respond to other people’s manipulation of their selfhood (has Aspatia been gaslit throughout the play?); here, they assert their sense, as Roberta put it, of “I understand who I am”: I am Aspatia yet.

I’d print it in text-letters.

Another thing that came up around the table in the morning was discussion of editing and translating practices.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, Edward “Mac” Test is working on an ongoing translation of The Lieutenant Nun and so his edited scene, excitingly, remains in flux in the room (*live editing klaxon*).  Natasha Korda is also in the midst of editing Twelfth Night.  These plays contain both cross-dressing and trans characters and both deal with the complexity of gender identity.

When will we have a trans edition of an early modern play?  

Discussion arose, springing out of questions of feminine/masculine first-person endings in Romance languages such as Spanish, about how to manage gender-identifying speech in translation, as well as how editing texts more broadly can take account of genderqueerness.  As Natasha pointedly observed, there is some history and scholarship on feminist editing practices but almost nothing on trans editing theory.  One important part of this process is to bring trans voices and expertise into the process of editing.  This particular question of editing points more broadly to how scholarship can develop more inclusive methodologies, and beyond collaborative process these issues are yet another example of why a more diverse academy—including trans editors—is urgent and important.

Let this strange thing walk, stand, or sit…
(RG 1.1.254)

When we got onto our feet, we were led in another movement workshop by Peter Cockett.  This involved thinking about descriptions of gendered gait in early modern England, while also being attuned to the fact that such descriptions—as gleaned from plays, conduct manuals, and various other print descriptions—are open and in no way witnesses to early modern walking.  At the same time, we were led to think about different styles of walking: walking on toes or walking on heels.  Natasha Korda explained how shoe technology shifted very quickly in the early modern period and in the period around the late sixteenth century, the time in which the heel became a new standard part of a shoe.  The development of the heel shifted the way that people walked, from walking on toes (with flat-soled, “sock”-style shoes of the medieval period) to walking on heels in more robust shoes…

Rijksmuseum (https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/BK-NM-5580-B)
Medieval Design (http://www.medievaldesign.com/eng-prodotti.asp?form_chiave=24)

We thought about how we moved around the space, on toes, holding carriage smoothly (again channelling the likes of Castiglione’s Courtier and its advice on decorum).  That’s astonishing when considering the chopines that crop up, for instance, in The Lieutenant Nun: as Mac put it, imagine walking in these!:

Chopines (these are platform-style heel shoes that come up in several of the plays in these workshop): https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/04/15/chopines-renaissance-platform-shoes-popularly-worn-in-venice-by-both-courtesans-and-patrician-women/
Chopines (these are platform-style heel shoes that come up in several of the plays in these workshop): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/these-chopines-werent-made-for-walking/

We were also encouraged, as per Clare McManus’s reminder, to be mindful of the fact that there were not strictly gendered ways of walking, comportment, or carriage—particularly when we look at the period’s history not through Castiglione’s court life but through vast and varied performance histories.  These include, for instance, female tightrope walkers and tumblers who do not necessarily wear restrictive clothing that forces a particular gait or a particular way of holding oneself.

Our walking exercise thereby opened up ways of shifting between decorums and between movements that are multigendered.  We went into a catwalk-style “walk-off” in a circle, bringing in two different characters from the plays and asking them to walk at and alongside each other: how do relationships work when viewed through carriage and walk?  This was an astonishing exercise in physical ingenuity and play with power.  Cole Alvis playing (or “walking”) a darting and slinking Aspatia moving around a stately and solid Amintor (Marcus Nance) was a virtuoso double-act in movement that showed how power inheres in both strong, direct, upright stance and gait as well as in shorter-stride, winding, indirect movement.  This extends, too, to technologies involved in walking—not only the shoe but the sword, which can be held as Amintor showed forcefully at one’s side with a hand, or offered like Aspatia in snaking movements to one’s counterpart in a display of comic self-sacrifice that tellingly held equal theatrical force…

These exercises therefore begged the question: what other ways might there be for thinking about character identity beyond verbal articulation?  How can an actor find ways of performing an identity—including working with gestures and walks that are a part of our own way of being in the world—without presenting as an entirely different (and sometimes problematic) identity that might on the surface seem part of characters from classical texts?  How can we find ways to bring oneself into performance while also playing to, with, and against the various historical modes of decorum that helped produce a playtext?  In suggesting that there are multiple decorums available to early modern performers and thinking about how they might translate to performance skills today, this aspect of our workshop struck me as just one particularly powerful example of how theatre history and performance can combine to offer a wealth of performance techniques that are at once true to contemporary subjectivities and in dialogue with historical experience.

We finished the day by exploring our scenes further and offering the opportunity for sharing.  It feels important to end this post by underscoring the centrality of process, of ongoing development and experimentation, to these workshops.  It is in discovering and testing that we can find possibilities for future practice and glimpses of both scholarly and performance insights.  Acknowledging the disjunction of finishing a blog for Engendering the Stage with… Shakespeare: the play‘s the thing…

 

Callan Davies

SF Day 2: Movement and Costume

For our second day, we’ve been putting our scenes for Love’s CureThe Lieutenant NunThe Roaring Girl, and Maid’s Tragedy on their feet, beginning with movement in and around space that goes beyond thinking in masculine/feminine binaries and moving towards not only the embodied experienced of characters but their apparel-ed experience…

After checking in, we moved into movement exercises led by Keira Loughran, making sure we were all present in our bodies, aware of our physical place within the room.

Light/Heavy; Direct/Indirect; Sustained/Sudden

Peter Cockett then led us into some of Laban’s movement exercises (Laban Movement), which in this case moved between three different binaries of movement, sometimes in combination: moving light or moving heavy, moving direct or moving indirect, moving sustained or moving sudden.  Peter used Laban’s method to introduce us to a vocabulary and series of movements not articulated by masculine/feminine binaries.  The language of Laban can thereby provide alternatives to describing and/or embodying  character without reference to gendered assumptions or ascriptions—are they going to walk directly in this moment, might their body language be sustained or sudden, and so forth?

This exercise also brought different characters out in each of us, making us conscious of our presence, gait, and posture and aware of the different forms of abstract, presentational, or naturalistic movement we might inhabit.  As different combinations were issued, we were all forced to think about our momentum, the space we take up, and our negotiation of other human bodies.

There’s way more to a “text” than a text.

After working on this movement, we moved into thinking further about the week’s scenes in respective groups.  As groups worked closer with the text, in readiness to thinking about embodying characters, discussions arose about how to negotiate one’s own identity within a text that offers many possible identities for a given character, while also restricting others.  How do twenty-first century individuals approach historically-estranged characters? Are there modern subjectivities already inherent in these texts?

These discussions were particularly acute in moments where the characters themselves are dealing with questions of personal identity, the ways they are read by others and how they might pass as one or another gender, and at moments of identity assertion.  What might it mean for a cisgender woman to play Guzman in The Lieutenant Nun—a character (based on the real-life Catalina de Erauso) who was born as a woman but who spends most of their life dressing, and largely identifying, as a man?

What agency can be found in Moll’s fluidity in The Roaring Girl: she is a title character who can move between gendered identities.  But what is her relationship with her body—and so with the body of the actor playing Moll?  Would that actor cast themselves in this role, and if so, why, and if not, why?

The Maid’s Tragedy too offers possibilities to think about the identity of a (female identified) character like Aspatia, who in the final scenes of the play dresses as a man and confronts her former lover.  Can we find in Aspatia a gender nonconforming identity?  Performers variously remarked how valuable it is to be able to take one’s own identity into a classical part—whether it’s an implicit or explicit part of the play, or not. In working flexibly, for instance, with the pronouns assigned to a character, performers can find moments based on lived experience that can shift ways of thinking about the play; at the same time, it also offers a way to work in perhaps more productive ways with what’s on the page.

Black is thy colour now…

These questions are also pertinent with regard to race. For instance, the language of blackness in Renaissance plays, as the work of Kim Hall and others has taught us, is always fraught with racial politics and, often, an articulation of deep-seated structures of racism and white supremacy. How do we navigate racially charged lines in performance and particularly in process/rehearsal work such as these workshops?  Such lines read and are received differently depending on who they’re spoken by and to whom they’re spoken.  These textual difficulties have no easy answers, but they prompt urgent questions.

These texts are not historically performed things.

These thorny issues raise the subject of “adaptation”—a focus in our closing conversation.  But do changing the pronouns in a text, for example, constitute an adaptation (or, for that matter, leaving them but playing within and against them)?  As Emma Frankland reminded us, early modern texts are notoriously unstable beasts: they are not theatrically sanctified products and they are by nature adaptable.  Why don’t we think of ourselves as players any more, Emma asked, and what have we lost in that shift to “actor”?  In feeling free to play—in a whole host of ways—with text, we are doubtless recovering some of the very theatre history that is at issue in our explorations this week.  For Edward “Mac” Test, who is currently translating The Lieutenant Nun to English from Spanish, these questions of adaptation and play are particularly pertinent, as he has the licence to amend words, phrases, and registers—partly in response to theatrical developments in the workshop.  What might be gained and what might be lost, for instance, in ignoring the gendered word endings in addresses during a scene of dialogue?  In translation, the relationship between playtext, adaptation, and play is always at issue.

Something popped in my head putting on the costume: the weight of clothes, the layers, having the sword or weapon

As actors gradually found their way into costumes, energy levels soared and the scenes began to stretch across further space, scenes overlapping.  Noticeably—as someone moving between groups all afternoon—I was struck (almost literally) by the amount of costumes and clothes flying around the room.  After hours of considering how individuals are variously gendered in different ways, it was curious to see scenes in which garments were shrugged off, tossed away, and launched across the floor in acts of identity assertion.

In The Lieutenant Nun, for instance, Guzman repeatedly refuses to trade man’s apparel with a dress; there was consequently something powerful in seeing a refusal to let the body be defined only by clothing, and Guzman’s flying dresses marked one (very funny) instance of self-identity.  Groups at this stage took to running their scene silently—with actions but no words.  The tussle of movement between Guzman and Sebastian, who was attempting to persuade Guzman into a dress, resembled something of the swordplay or duelling explored in Day 1; a series of parallel lines, stares, thrusts, and retractions.  Running silently also pointed to how powerful gesture, presence, and stance can be beyond the words of the text: something particularly crucial with the servant character in The Lieutenant Nun, who has little to say but is a significant presence in the scene: carrying, as the text explains, the dresses designed for Guzman but also going beyond in moments of physical comedy and intervention to frame and choreograph the scene.

The group working with The Roaring Girl played with the complexity and fluidity of the relationship between gender and costume.   Moll shifts between man, woman, and other gendered and non-gendered possibilities throughout the play.  Might this allow for a range of subjectivities and a variety of embodied experiences? The group remarked how Emma, playing Moll, went through three different gaits in almost as many lines, in the process of removing and replacing a hat, shedding a cloak, drawing a sword.

In turn, the group played with the possibilities of playing gendered clothing “badly” or, perhaps more accurately, against decorum.

The cowardly Laxton (trembling in fear of Moll) could pull his sword’s sheath up over his waist (think Simon Cowell trousers) and struggle to draw his sword (doing so only on a tiptoe stretch) and to sheath it (cue fumbling and puzzlement).

Do you immediately adopt what you’re wearing, or are you fighting it?

The group exploring Love’s Cure were also playing with these questions of clothing, convention, and pistol-and-rapier etiquette.  In this play, the female-born character of Clara was raised as a man and grew up as Lucio—even fighting in wars against the Dutch; her brother—the real Lucio—was raised at home as a girl by his mother.  In the scene explored in the workshops, the siblings are back at home together and under pressure to conform to social convention regarding birth sex and presentation.  The group experimented with what it might be like for Clara to perform martial acts in a dress.

They also experimented with swapping clothes: putting Clara in the man’s clothes and Lucio in the woman’s clothes, and vice versa, to experience the effect of switching apparel and to gauge how donning new or foreign clothes might affect one’s presence in the room and the scene.  These questions also speak to some of the discussions going on in the morning about how “agency” might not necessarily be forms of aggression but, as Ellen Welch observed, could inhere in self-comportment, -composure, decorum.  As Clare McManus notes, there are multiple decorums for bodies in early modern performance, and plays encode different forms of skill and performance that require different bodily comportments.  Can we discover that multiplicity—and with it that agency—in contemporary performance?

Actors observed the different levels of comfort and discomfort attendant on these switches, and in particular how wearing these clothes accords with experiences in their personal life of particular ways of dressing: for instance, it might feel more familiar to be in a larger dress, but feel more empowering and enabling to be wearing doublet with a sword.  Equally, for Clara, the dress and its hidden pistol and swordholder shows how feats of athleticism and martial prowess transcend ostensibly gendered costume.

Liz Cruz Petersen and Pam Allen Brown pointed to how these moments of performance chimed with other developments in the workshop and in the research underpinning it.  The instances variously discussed above where characters can dominate a scene through body language alone point to agency beyond verbal performance.  Equally, agency inheres in moments where verbal sparring like that between Sebastian and Guzman about correct clothing etiquette can move into physical exchanges mirroring duelling.

You’ve gotta make the scene sing.

Moll, too, along with the cocky servant Trapdoor, are able to move between audience address and repartee with each other: physically and verbally.  In these scenes, characters resemble early modern entertainers, able to command respect and attention and generate humour and in turn channel some of the authority of their performing forebears in early modern Europe.

Might we see in these moments contemporary analogues of that broader picture of performance history so well mapped out, for instance, by Clare McManus in her work for the conference on professional female tumblers working in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England?  Are these instances where both verbal and nonverbal physical performance (and its interaction with costume) offer a wider and more empowering complement of skills for actors looking to embody classical characters?

 

Callan Davies

 

SF Day 1: Introductions, Swordplay, and Scenes

We’re here at the end of our first day at the Stratford Festival Laboratory having worked through a variety of questions, possibilities, and avenues—and set up plenty more for the coming week.  This post provides a short reflection on our discussions and provides some background to the Stratford Festival Laboratory, as well as a brief summary of our opening  workshop activities.

Looking at the past tells us about how the future can be.

We began with introductions to the room and an outline of the rationale for this week’s conference and our time at the Stratford Lab.  Engendering the Stage is interested in thinking about diverse casting practices across classical drama—as informed by both historical practice and contemporary performance practice.  Peter Cockett and Melinda Gough laid some background to the intersections between professional performers and academic research that will form the crux of our week here.

Fundamentally these explorations are speculative.  Theatre history can sometimes risk giving the impression that scholarship generates evidence, evidence means facts, and facts = This is How Things Were in the Past.  Yet recent approaches have sought to underscore how academic understanding of the theatrical past, while necessarily foregrounding questions of evidence, is always necessarily speculative.  In seeking to erase the division between performance practices, rehearsal, and scholarship, these workshops are one site in which we can model a shared exploration of text, performance, and history: we’re all imagining the past.

In turn, as we settled into the room, our opening conversations about “Practice as Research” opened up a variety of approaches and prompted some queries about what performers in the room, working with pre-selected scenes, might be aiming to do: are we looking to imagine what decisions might have been made in performance historically? Do we want to see what the text would have looked like on a Renaissance stage? Or are we playing less reverently with texts, prioritising contemporary performance, or thinking about what works best for us here today?  Perhaps it’s really about the combination of all of that?  Certainly, many emphasised how thinking about historical practices can help inform the present and help to shape the future; something that came up repeatedly is how the period’s performance and casting practices show the past to be far less conservative than many of today’s popular assumptions about the “Renaissance stage” (and thereby less conservative than many practices in twenty-first century classical theatre).  By rediscovering elements of past performance and workshopping them, it’s possible we can (re)introduce myriad possibilities for constructive, healthy approaches to gender in performance—and rather than being innovations, those approaches are rooted in a long line of theatrical and cultural histories.

For the haudenosaunee on whose land Stratford, Ontario sits, there were 12 to 15 genders.

Our conversations and introductions made clear that these workshops are invested in a two-way, collaborative exchange between everybody in the room: their forms of expertise, their backgrounds, their identities. We’re joined by academics, actors, and actor-academics. We’re thinking about trans identity and female identity; about race and spirituality; about intersectionality.  Dramaturge Gein Wong’s warm-up led us through contemplations about our place in the room, our relationship with the world, and they helped bring to mind the complex histories of Indigenous, knowledge, colonialism, and healing attendant on the very land on which we’re sat.  I was particularly grateful for the optimism that characterised this warm-up: Gein spoke of a burgeoning Indigenous Renaissance occurring in and beyond Canada (celebrating, for instance, Jeremy Dutcher’s recent award of the Polaris prize); in the political climate of 2018, this sense of artistic momentum towards more diverse-positive futures are invaluable and urgent.

If the Laboratory were like a hospital, it would be a teaching hospital.

We’re lucky to be joined by Keira Loughran, the Associate Producer who runs the Lab and whose collaboration has made this week possible, and by our Stage Manager for the week, Renate Hanson.

Keira explained the history of Stratford Festival’s Laboratory and how it aligns with many of the aims of a project such as Engendering the Stage. It started out, at the suggestion of Festival director Antoni Cimolino and under Keira’s guidance, through attempts to diversify the canon of classical drama and to change ways of working in rehearsal and towards production.  Working with the Festival’s repertory actors on small scenes, topics, or themes relevant to classical drama, they provide the chance to workshop and experiment.  In particular, in the early years of the Lab, three central questions emerged: what is it like to be a woman in a classically-motivated company? What is it like to be a diverse actor in a classically-motivated company? What is it like to preserve one’s mental health in a classically-motivated company?

The Lab, in essence, provides the space for artists to be artists and to give time to the voices of performers—to allow questions and experiments in process.

Process not product.

As is central to the Lab, workshops are about process, rehearsal, and experimentation without working towards a final product or production.

This year’s various Lab sessions are designed to think further about how this way of working can be made more central to the Festival as a whole and indeed to the wider Canadian and international theatre industries.   For me, Keira’s descriptions of the Lab, the Festival’s amazing work to date, and their ambitions for its future emphasised how closely current concerns in the theatre industry are aligned with current questions of theatre history: whose history is theatre history?  What identities do the texts and practices of the past represent or offer?  How can different methodologies, working practices, and collaborations help recover erased or forgotten voices, or rediscover historic forms of power or agency—dramatic or extradramatic?

By way of reference to her own directorial experiences working on the Festival’s production of Comedy of Errors this year (about which there’s a dedicated panel dedicated on Monday’s events at McMaster), Keira noted that this year’s Lab fits in with wider trends towards bringing scholarly expertise into rehearsal rooms and closing the gap between performance and scholarship.

She puts off her cloak and draws her sword (The Roaring Girl, 3.1.65.1)

After these discussions, actors and performers drew their swords.  After all, all of the scenes being workshopped at the Lab involve elements of swordplay.

The Company’s Fight Captain Wayne Best led a masterclass on how to move with swords, how to draw, how to cut and thrust, to parry, to stand en garde.

The fighting workshop drew attention to how the tiniest details of gesture and movement have major significance—for other actors in a scene as well as for audiences.

When two armed actors move towards one another in a stage space, when do they decide to stop, draw, or simply move more cautiously? If one of them moves with a hand on their sword, is that a sign of martial confidence that may stop you in your tracks earlier? The trails of sheathed swords out of the back of an actor’s body affects the spaces you move through and the way you sit down; in turn, the movement of the draw and the placement of the feet—particularly the grounding of the body for balance and quick movement—call for continual readiness.  The ripeness is all.

It affects your whole character, whether you’re good or bad at it.

Pamela Brown mentioned that the presence of so many swords in a large space prompted the question: how would you feel in the middle of so many armed male characters without a sword?  Might this be an aspect of stagework that informs the verbal sparring characteristic of innamorata types from Italian commedia (in turn so influential on English and other European performance traditions)—one that affects stance and physical stature?

Numerous other intriguing questions came out of this brief exercise in swordplay that will no doubt resound and mutate throughout the week.  Wayne Best pointed (literally) to the close relationship between twenty-first-century health and safety concerns for an actor and the principles of self-defence: at the end of the day, you don’t want to get hurt.  These fights are in many ways a combination of historical imagination and material/bodily practicality: the same combination faced by Renaissance actors.  I also wondered how such swordplay might work in much smaller spaces or stages.  And what difference would Renaissance clothing make (for instance, an historically male-dressed character trailing a sword has to manage a turning circle, but so does a character in a wide skirt)?  Might such movements translate to other forms of dramatic exchange, and so might typically unarmed characters be influenced in other ways by the dramaturgy of stage fighting?

This fight workshop raised questions about the relationship between body, stance, gesture, and performance that will be central to questions across the week.  As one actor remarked, it crucially affects your physicality and offers an opportunity physically to embody power: they noted that the experience of workshopping these actions in 2018 provides opportunities for an element of powerful or aggressive physicality not normally afforded “traditional” female roles.

Let Shakespeare die.

Before we moved onto a first read-through of our various scenes for the week, Jamie Milay—a multimedia performance artist—treated us to a blistering provocation about Shakespeare, imploring: let him die. Milay urged us to admit, to allow, to provide voices beyond Shakespeare: genderqueer characters and playwrights from the past, contemporary trans voices, postcolonial perspectives, more.  Casting, cross-casting, and “all-female” productions are not enough.


Their poem raised questions about what exactly we’re doing in this room.  What about the wider forms of representation that might be occasioned by laying Shakespeare to rest and by admitting a much wider range of voices, parts, and pasts?

The day finished with read throughs of our different scenes for the week.

Here, we’re working from scratch and thinking about the basics of what’s going on in a scene: how it might work, what it might look like, what might specific things mean?  It’s a chance to build up and out from exchanges between acting practice, scholarship, history, print, and performance.  Indeed, this part of the afternoon’s work cues the beginning of an in-finite research and rehearsal process raising ideas about character and voice that will doubtless echo, develop, reshape over the next few days…

 

Callan Davies

John Douglas Taylor Conference

McMaster University and the Stratford Festival

18-22 September and 24 September, 2018

Casting women in men’s roles may seem like a radical departure of our times; so might portrayals of early modern characters by trans and non-binary actors.  Playing with gender, however, was an exciting feature of early modern theatre practice across Europe. “Engendering the Stage in the Age of Shakespeare and Beyond” is an international research project that explores resonances between the history of gendered performance on the early modern stage and our contemporary drive to achieve gender equity in today’s professional theatre industry.

Our project explores:

  • the influential but largely unacknowledged work of female performers in early modern Italy, Spain, France, and England
  • the effects of such performances by women on the “all-male” early modern English stage
  • traces of trans and queer identities on the early modern stage
  • the impacts of these new insights on contemporary casting and performance practices, and
  • the insights of actors and directors working with innovative cross-casting today.

The Stratford Lab: Performance as Research Workshop, September 18-22

The Stratford Festival is already engaging with how the possibilities of cross-casting  help us explore more complex undertandings of gender. This year’s Taylor Conference begins with a week-long workshop in Stratford’s Theatre Laboratory involving actors from the company, two indigenous artists, a trans actor from England, a local non-binary performance artist and a carefully assembled group of international scholars. Lab events will focus on scenes from lesser known plays that feature sword-wielding women and reveal the largely unacknowledged presence of trans identities in early modern Europe. Our workshop centres on a two-way exchange between actors and scholars: actors will be exposed to little known histories of the early modern stage and scholars will see how this work plays out in the context of a contemporary rehearsal

Events at McMaster University, September 24

Following the workshop, international scholars will come to McMaster with artists and directors from the Stratford company to report on the project, sharing insights and discussing next steps forward. Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who both play roles written for men in this year’s season will close the conference with an open forum talk in the evening. All events will be held in the R.L. Wilson building and are open to the public.

Gender on the Early Modern Stage: What We Learned at the Stratford Lab and Next Steps

10:30am-12pm, Black Box Theatre (next to Wilson Hall)    

How might portrayals of gender on the early modern stage resonate with today’s opening up of gender to a non-binary paradigm? Roundtable participants include Peter Cockett (Theatre and Film Studies, McMaster), Melinda Gough (English and Cultural Studies/GSFR, McMaster), Clare McManus (Roehampton University, London), and Keira Loughran (the Stratford Festival).

Trans, Queer, and Feminist Histories in Early Modern Theatre: Then and Now

1:30-2:20 pm, Black Box Theatre (next to Wilson Hall)

Award-winning UK based theatre maker and director Emma Frankland will speak about her recent work on a large scale outdoor revival of Galatea by John Lyly, one of Shakespeare’s immediate precursors. A love story with a same-sex couple at its centre, Galatea offers positive representations of LGBTQ identities as well as a strong feminist perspective: all of the main protagonists are female identified, but many of them are also at odds with or experimenting with their gender identity. Synthesizing highlights from the Galatea project work with insights gained from the workshop in Stratford, Emma will discuss future possibilities for more inclusive
feminist/LGBTQ inspired work in classical theatre production.

Creating the Gender-Fluid World of The Comedy of Errors, Stratford Festival 2018

1:30-2:20 pm, Wilson Hall

Keira Loughran (Associate Artistic Director, the Stratford Festival), Jessica Hill (actor, the Stratford Festival), and Joanna Yu (costume designer, the Stratford Festival) will speak about their work creating the fun, gender fluid world of Ephesus for the 2018 Comedy of Errors production. Erin Julian (University of Western Ontario) will speak to this production’s significance as a case study for building inclusivity in today’s professional theatre industry.

Gender-Bending Shakespeare

7:00pm, Wilson Hall

Join renowned writer and CBC broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with Canadian stage icons Martha Henry and Seana McKenna, who are shifting perceptions of gender and performance as Prospero and Julius Caesar this season at the Stratford Festival.

Sponsored by:

The John Douglas Taylor Family; the Stratford Festival; the Socrates Project; the Gender Studies and Feminist Research Graduate Program; the Department of English and Cultural Studies; the Faculty of Humanities; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada