Charm in Charm City

June 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm (Asides, Live Performances) (, , , , , , , , )

I am so excited about Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, one of my favorite local performing groups. They are committed to producing “Shakespeare that’s not stuffy,” and they do a wonderful job performing unstuffy Shakespeare all summer at their beautiful outdoor space in Ellicott City, Maryland. Kids get free admission to their shows, which are family-friendly and fun (well… I wouldn’t take the kids to the roaming Titus Andronicus show in the haunted ruins a couple years ago, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perfect!)

Anyhow, CSC recently purchased a historic bank building in downtown Baltimore (aka Charm City). As reported by John Barry on the DC Theatre Scene blog, they will convert the 1885 Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Building into a 250-seat theater slated to open for performances in fall 2014. According to CSC Artistic Director Ian Gallanar: “The configuration of the building itself has some of the same layout as the Globe Theatre. That’s what we’re riffing off of. We’re trying to recreate a modern Globe. Three levels, an intimacy that I think is very important.”

The location puts CSC right in the midst of the tourist mecca that is Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and they hope to take advantage of that great location, bringing people from around the region in to see shows while they’re visiting Inner Harbor. And, Gallanar says, they are planning an international theater festival for Baltimore. All quite exciting developments for the Baltimore theater scene!

In the meantime, this summer CSC is performing under the stars at the ruins of the antebellum Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City. It’s a lovely venue and a very nice place to spend an evening. Romeo and Juliet is in repertory with Pride and Prejudice through the end of July. Fun! And I’m pretty sure my boys will love the swordplay in R&J.

Today is Flag Day in the U.S. and it got me thinking about Baltimore’s part in the flag’s history. Baltimore is currently celebrating (is that the right word?) the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with tall ships (a “Star-Spangled Sailabration”!) and fanfare. Cool stuff. It’s still a couple years before the bicentennial of the National Anthem (Francis Scott Key wrote it in 1814 after watching the British bomb the heck out of Baltimore harbor), but the inspiring Star Spangled Banner that Key saw still flying over Fort McHenry in the morning after the battle is on display at the Smithsonian in DC and you can also check out the nifty interactive version on their website.)

Step outside the Smithsonian, look next door at the White House and remind yourself that the British burned it down in 1814. And then walk a couple doors down to the National Archives and look at the Charters of Freedom (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights) and think again what Key must have felt — what was saved — that morning in Baltimore when he saw the flag flying and wrote the song.

I was just downtown earlier in the week with my library school class and took a tour of the fantastic public exhibitions at the National Archives and I got to look at those amazing documents again (along with the Magna Carta!). Wow. The perfect activity if you’re visiting Washington DC for the 4th of July!

So, my meanderings into history and archives have a purpose here. I’m taking a class in public outreach and exhibitions for libraries and there are so many awesome examples around here, I just had to share. It’s all about making holdings accessible and interesting to people.

This is also, I’m sure, a motivation for Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s expansion into Baltimore. So, a tip o’ the hat to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s new home in Baltimore and in the spirit of CSC’s video last holiday season: we can live in a world of light beer, fried chicken wings, Shakespeare AND Jimi Hendrix!

Yes, Jimi Hendrix. Because my brother, and maybe others like him, are more likely to read my Shakespeare blog if I work in a reference to Woodstock. So, here’s my tribute to the Star Spangled Banner on Flag Day… some pretty spectacular fireworks and explosions from the fingers of Jimi Hendrix. I doubt Francis Scott Key foresaw this!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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June 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm (Asides, Live Performances, Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , )

Have a couple bucks to spare? Think about supporting Bedlam Ensemble’s production of Measure for Measure by contributing on Kickstarter. They need to reach their goal of $1,500 by July 8 in order to make the play a go.

According to their Facebook profile, Bedlam Ensemble was established in 2011 in New York City. They are “dedicated to staging modern and modern spins of classical theatre works with high artistic integrity.”

Bedlam aims to nourish an open artistic community where artists are free to experiment and challenge themselves within the entertainment industry. The ensemble has a commitment to strike a balance between emerging and veteran artists; between the works of new and established playwrights, and revisiting classic pieces of work with a modern twist. Our ensemble nourishes an open and artistic environment that keeps us engaged in our community and proactive in our pursuit of excellence.

Past productions, also partially funded by successful Kickstarter campaigns, include productions of Alice and The Delirium of Edgar Allen Poe. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, performances of Measure for Measure will begin July 25 at Access Theater in New York.

Here’s their take on the play:

Years ago, Vienna was a place where the people were pure and the city was clean and beautiful.  Fast forward to today and you find a gritty, dark world filled with sex, drugs, and debauchery.  To bring it back to the glory that it once was, the Duke leaves a pure man, Angelo, in charge to right the sexual wrongs he has let slide for so long. Temptation prevails, however, when a smart, beautiful, and outspoken nun touches Angelo and he offers to save her brother’s life only if she will sleep with him. Measure for Measure is a play that explores sex and power and the interplay between the two.

I have no plans to visit Manhattan this summer, but I love supporting small theater projects and this sounds like an interesting production. Pledge just a dollar if that’s all you have! I think Kickstarter is such a cool way for groups like this to raise money. I hope their show gets off the ground, and I’m sure it will. If anyone goes to see it, let me know what you think of it!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Good Press

April 29, 2012 at 12:03 am (Asides, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I’ve seen a lot of good press lately for Shakespeare in the Washington Post. Yes, he is still generating lots of coverage! Today, I saw a review of a new production, a very nice travel piece, and… even a Shakespeare-related op-ed!

The new production is the Folger’s Taming of the Shrew, which I saw in rehearsal last month (I plan to blog about my awesome visit to the Folger… coming soon!). The play looks like such fun and I’m glad it’s attracting attention even before it opens.

The travel piece is about the Blackfriars Theatre at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. I just posted a couple weeks ago about seeing their traveling version of The Winter’s Tale, and I posted back a couple years ago about my trip to the wonderful Blackfriars in Staunton. If you’re anywhere near Virginia at any time and you like Shakespeare a teeny bit, GO THERE! Go to Staunton and see a play at the Blackfriars. Just Do It.

But I have to say, the piece I enjoyed most was Post blogger Alexandra Petri’s op-ed Shakespeare, A Man for All Seasons, which originally appeared on her blog ComPost as a birthday wish to the Bard. It’s a fun discussion of Shakespeare’s relevance in today’s uber-connected world. I love this line: “These are not plays we read and see together as a generation or a country. They’re works we enjoy as a species. Shakespeare offers a roadmap to the human. And he does it in verse.” Yes, he does.

Great job, Washington Post!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Happy Birthday, Will!

April 23, 2012 at 12:01 am (Asides) (, )

Happy Birthday wishes to the Bard! He doesn’t look a day under 448, does he?

I planned to celebrate at the Folger Shakespeare Library which scheduled an open house with jugglers and music yesterday. But after weeks of warm, dry weather, Washington DC has turned cold and wet and I didn’t want to drag the kids downtown in the mess. I am working on final projects for my classes, but when I have time, I will post about my very memorable close encounter with a First Folio at the Folger a couple weeks ago!

In the meantime, you might check out other Shakespeare bloggers’ bday wishes. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has collected messages from bloggers around the world at (appropriately)

And check out Twitter… they’re using the hashtag #happybirthdayshakespeare.

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Shakespeare in Words and Music

April 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations) (, , )

I’ll watch nearly anything having to do with Shakespeare, but I couldn’t watch this. Just simply unwatchable. I got it on Netflix and thought it sounded like an interesting idea. From the Kultur website:

There is a strong and indelible bond between Shakespeare and music. Many of his plays contain songs and ballads (for which the author often supplied the texts) while incidental music was often added by celebrated composers for specific productions of his plays.

This DVD presents six half-hour programs that contains certain spoken texts (from his plays or poetry) and linked musical excerpts within a given theme. The programs are centered on vocal excerpts but also contain instrumental and chamber-music pieces, directly derived from and inspired by the works of William Shakespeare.

The six episodes are centered on the following themes: Restoration Rules, Operatic Love, Foreign Masters, Ophelia’s Story, Broadway Bound and The English Renaissance. Sounds interesting, right?

Wrong. There are annoyingly bad actors jumping around doing a painful job with their lines and not doing much to explain why certain lines were selected or how they link to the ensuing music. The music is fine, but I had no understanding of how it related to Shakespeare. Much of it is sung in foreign languages with no translation or it’s instrumental with no explanation.

I could not even get into the Broadway Bound episode with music from West Side Story. It was sung by an opera singer which just annoyed me more. I kept thinking why not get West Side Story on Netflix and actually enjoy the song and dance?

Awful video. Avoid.

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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And There’s the Humor of It

March 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm (Asides, Hamlet, Live Performances, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew) (, , , , )

Phlegm, Image from Deutsche Kalendar, 1498. Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library.

Why am I sick? Why is he greedy? Why is she a shrew? In Shakespeare’s time, these questions would have been answered using the four humors. I realize that means very little to most people today. In Shakespeare’s world, people were thought to be ruled by four bodily fluids (called “humors”) — blood, phlegm, black bile (also called melancholy), and yellow bile (also called choler). Each of these fluids was believed to have inherent qualities that when in balance brought good health. When the humors were out of balance, illness and behavioral/personality problems resulted.

Medicine focused on bringing the humors into balance. Each humor was associated with moisture and heat. So, to bring them back into balance, the physician might add the opposite quality or take away whatever was in overabundance. For example, heat would help someone suffering from too much phlegm or melancholy (“cold” humors). Bloodletting would help a person with a fever, who must have an overabundance of blood (a “hot” humor).

Based on a picture from the book "The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World" by Brian M. Fagan

How do I know all this? I live in a cool place (phlegmatic?!). The Folger Shakespeare Library is, of course, a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers. But there is a whole lot more coolness in the Washington DC area. There is the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Why is this a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers? They currently have an exhibition called And There’s the Humor of It: Shakespeare and the Four Humors.

The exhibition is lovely, with books from the National Library of Medicine’s collection tracing humorism back to its roots in antiquity… Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Humorism, especially as expanded upon by Galen, was a comprehensive system and was used to explain… just about everything. From the exhibition’s website:

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) created characters that are among the richest and most humanly recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood human personality in the terms available to his age—that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors—blood, bile, melancholy, and phlegm. These four humors were thought to define peoples‘ physical and mental health, and determined their personalities, as well.

The language of the four humors pervades Shakespeare‘s plays, and their influence is felt above all in a belief that emotional states are physically determined. Carried by the bloodstream, the four humors bred the core passions of anger, grief, hope, and fear—the emotions conveyed so powerfully in Shakespeare‘s comedies and tragedies.

Today, neuroscientists recognize a connection between Shakespeare‘s age and our own in the common understanding that the emotions are based in biochemistry and that drugs can be used to alleviate mental suffering.

Bonny Kate, the Shrew (e.g., full of choler), W. Joseph Edwards, Angry face of Katharine Minola, 1847. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

I attended a lecture  called “Shrew Taming and Other Tales of the Four Humors” at NLM by Gail Kern Paster, the former director of the Folger and co-curator of the current NLM exhibition. According to Paster, Shakespeare’s audience would have understood life through the lens of the four humors, and there would have been no way for them to separate the psychological from the physical qualities attributed to the humors. So, she said to read Shakespeare “humorally,” that is, with the humors in mind, brings a much deeper understanding of his work.

Paster calls the humors “a code largely opaque and unknown to us” since they have no place in modern medicine and are largely forgotten now. But she says they were pervasive in Shakespeare’s time, and taking the effort to look for the language of the humors (i.e. references to heat, cold, moisture, and dryness) helps decipher meaning in Shakespeare and adds depth to understanding his works.

Paster focused her talk on the humors associated with three Shakespearean characters: Shylock, Ophelia, and Katherine Minola (bonny Kate, aka the Shrew). These characters were selected for the NLM exhibition because they displayed evidence of the “darker emotions” associated with melancholy and choler (much more interesting than boring phlegm which corresponded to a lack of activity).

Melancholy, Henry Peacham, “Melancolia,” Minerva Britanna, 1612. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

The humors were thought to literally make you who you were. Because humorism was so all-encompassing, Shakespeare couldn’t help but to write with the assumption that his audience understood the context, implications and references to these things that simply go right over our heads today. However, we can watch for triggers that indicate Shakespeare is speaking humorally… often when he is describing emotions in physical terms.

The Greek physician/philosopher Galen expanded on the humoral system and added a whole host of other things to consider including the environment, place of birth, gender, age, etc. Paster noted that “The power of Galenism is it is so multifactorial… pick your factors and you have an explanation.” So, for example, the taming of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew involves manipulating a number of Galenic elements like diet and activity level to deal with Katherine Minola’s overabundance of choler.

Bloodletting, 1860. Photo from the Burns Archive.

Paster’s talk was fascinating and introduced me to a whole layer of “stuff” in Shakespeare that I had never before heard of. I have to say, I will certainly be on the lookout for humoral references from now on, even if I understand them imperfectly. The thing that amazed me most is that this system was used for about two thousand years, and it is only in the last 150 years or so that it has been almost completely erased. Bloodletting continued well into the 1800s. Think about how much things have changed!

If you live in the DC area, you may want to take a trip to Bethesda to view the exhibition at the NLM. It will be on display at the History of Medicine through August 17, 2012. While you’re there, be sure to take in the very nice (and much bigger) exhibit on Native American medicine (you really need a couple hours to do it justice). The Shakespeare exhibition includes a traveling exhibit that will be touring the country. If you can’t see it in person (and even if you can, actually), check out the excellent website they have put together. For teachers, there are extremely well-done lesson plans for middle and high school, as well as a college-level teaching module. Maybe you will get as interested in humorism as I have!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Shakespeare – A Man for All Seasons

January 24, 2012 at 1:54 am (Asides) (, , , , )

Today’s guest post comes from Ed at No Sweat Shakespeare, a very nice resource for anyone studying the Bard. Ed discusses Shakespeare’s relevance in today’s world.

One of the most significant things about Shakespeare’s plays, taking the long view over four hundred years, is that every generation since they were written has been able to see itself in the texts as though looking in a mirror. Productions have therefore reflected the issues of each age, and in the last hundred years, every decade. It isn’t only that human nature doesn’t change, but also that the major human themes, informed by human nature, don’t either.

Death, love, politics, war, for example, are things that are always with us and always will be. These are the great preoccupations of Shakespeare and he explores them so thoroughly that he seems to have covered every possible angle – those relevant to his time, to a hundred, two hundred, and three hundred years after his death, to our time and, without doubt, to future times. For example, it is only in the last three or four generations that there have been anti-war attitudes in Western society. It’s possible that in the future they may become the established position. Even Shakespeare’s most war-action plays, such as Henry V, explore anti-war sentiments and it is likely that producers in the twenty-second century will use various theatrical methods of bringing those explorations to the fore when they present a play.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the plays’ performance profile has been raised by the invention of the moving picture. And now, in our time, because of the competition from other media and all kinds of films, those making films of Shakespeare’s plays make them with an eye to that competition. And so we have Shakespeare films that don’t only have a contemporary look to them with their settings and costumes but they also examine current global events and use the Shakespeare text to offer new insights into them. That makes Shakespeare ultra universal.

Let us take Romeo and Juliet as an example. Something that has always plagued human societies, and still does, is divisions because of class, caste, religion, race, and so on. The play is set in a place where there is a division. It’s not a serious division: it’s an ancient feud which no-one knows the origin of. It doesn’t make sense because the feuding families are very much alike, but the fact that there is that division has unpleasant consequences when the two young people, one from each family, happen to fall in love. We see, though, when a producer or film director sets the play in a divided contemporary society, such as the Shiite and Sunni society of Iraq, the Protestant and Catholic society of Northern Ireland or the black and white society of South Africa, what that kind of senseless reaction to two people falling in love really means to us in our time.

Setting a production in one of those places is a very simple device. There are more complex devices, which can make the play relevant to us, often used in films. Creative cutting, voice-overs, close-ups, flash-backs and other filmic techniques can emphasise contemporary concerns and make the text seem as though it has just been written. Because it isn’t practical to screen a four hour film, the Shakespeare text has to be edited, which gives the director the opportunity to make the dialogue more ‘popular’ without actually changing any of Shakespeare’s words and phrases.

Ralph Fiennes’s new film, Coriolanus has been much praised. In looking at the reviews, the common theme is how contemporary it is. A war hero, brilliant in his line of occupation turns politician, where he fails dismally. The people, who once loved him, now riot in their effort to remove him. Could this not be Colonel Gaddafi? Alternatively the successful and popular British Finance Minister, Chancellor Gordon Brown, for example, failed badly when he became Prime Minister, and lost an election. The film is full of such parallels. There is a great deal more to that film and, of course, there is always the original Shakespeare idea – the domestic life and personal tragedy of the hero, Coriolanus. There is always the personal element in Shakespeare, always fully explored. Romeo and Juliet may be an in-depth study of a divided society but it is also a fully realised depiction of young people in love and of the problems they encounter in their effort to act out their love. In Shakespeare there is always both the general and the personal level, each throwing light on the other.

But even if we watch a performance of a Shakespeare play on stage, such as at the Globe Theatre, with Elizabethan staging and costume, with the full text, any performance will have resonance with modern sensibilities. And in many ways it will be more satisfying than any film. A stage performance is a three dimensional thing. It is immediate and personal, with the audience in the same space as the actors, at the same time. It has a direct communication with the audience, which influences the actors as they perform and brings them and the audience even closer together. A stage is a very flexible device. It can be a small room with two characters conspiring closely together or it can be a battlefield.  In Antony and Cleopatra virtually the whole known world is depicted, with the scenes moving rapidly around it – close personal scenes and huge naval battles, court scenes and banquets. Films are two dimensional: the actors do one performance then go home and forever after we see the same thing every time we watch the film, distanced from the whole production. Eventually a film will become dated. That cannot happen to a stage performance.

Photo by Ian Kath

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Shakespeare Out of the Closet

January 22, 2012 at 10:13 am (Asides) (, , )

Networking for Shakespeare buddies

I was the guest blogger over at No Sweat Shakespeare. Check out my post about expanding your network of Shakespeare buddies!




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Marketing Shakespeare

December 30, 2011 at 12:10 pm (Asides, Live Performances) (, , , )

Enjoy this hilarious video, courtesy Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Happy New Year! And be sure to donate to your local Shakespeare company, so we can live in a world of light beer, fried chicken wings AND Shakespeare!

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12 Days of Shakespeare

December 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm (Asides) (, , )

From the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Virginia.

All together, now! 1. A speech that goes “to be or not to be” 2. Two sets of twins 3. Three Scottish Hags 4. Four Capulets 5. Five Aaaaaaaact Plays 6. Six Dudes a-Dying 7. Seven Ages Passing 8. Eight Damned Villains 9. Nine Worthies Masquing 10. Ten Beats of Meter 11. Eleven Tragic Outings 12. Twelve Chimes at Midnight

Merry Christmas!

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