Slings and Arrows

May 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm (Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Oh my, oh my, what fun I’ve had the last couple weeks watching the first season of the 2003 Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The show is set in fictional New Burbage where a venerated Shakespeare festival (a la Stratford, Ontario) is undergoing major changes in personnel, funding, and focus. I will be honest, I didn’t expect much from this series, but oh my, it is excellent… modern and funny, wonderful characters, great acting, and of course, the central theme is the actors’ efforts to put Shakespeare on the stage.

The show begins with the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the accidental death of the festival’s artistic director Oliver (played by Stephen Oimette). Former actor Geoffrey (Paul Gross) is pulled in to replace Oliver, and finds himself haunted by Oliver’s ghost. Sounds corny, but it works! Many complications ensue, as Geoffrey must produce Hamlet, a play that marked the end of his acting career when he suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of a performance. The back story unfolds slowly over a number of episodes, with the help of Oliver’s ghost. We learn that Geoffrey was in love with leading lady Ellen (played by Paul Gross’s real life wife Martha Burns) and heartbroken when he learned that Ellen had slept with Oliver, who is gay.

The comic foil to the actors’ drama is the hilarious, almost slapstick idiocy of the marketing office, fronted by clueless general manager Richard (Mark McKinney) but really controlled by the corporate schemer Holly (Jennifer Irwin). Holly sends elderly board member May into a coma when she brings into her hospital room a scale model of the proposed “Shakespeareville” theme park, complete with glitzy theater for performances of two musicals per day!

There is also a great side story involving the young Kate (Rachel McAdams), who ends up playing a mighty fine Ophelia, and her Hamlet, the American movie star Jack (Luke Kirby), who lacks the courage to face his slings and arrows until the very last moment, when he pulls off a great performance. As Anna the stage manager says at the end, “F— me blue, we’re done.” (Umm, yeah, this series is not recommended for children.)

What I liked best, not surprisingly, was watching actors discuss Shakespeare’s words and meaning and how to bring it to life on the modern stage. I’m sure all modern Shakespeare companies face these realities… marketing, financing productions, the difficulty finding audiences, artistic differences, personality conflicts. It is fun to watch it all play out. When Geoffrey takes over as director of Hamlet, he says, “One encouraging thing that I can say is I just happen to believe this play is the single greatest achievement in Western art. We’ve got that much going for us.” Bravo!

I’m looking forward to watching season two unfold around Macbeth and season three with King Lear. I don’t think I’ve seen another TV series rated 5 stars on Amazon, but this one is. It’s also on Netflix. Watch it!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Almost Heaven, McLean, Virginia

April 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Winter's Tale) (, , , , )

There are things about McLean that might not be heavenly… like congestion around Tysons Corner and the never-ending construction on the Beltway. But, today McLean was gorgeous. Spring is springing in full, flowers and bright green everywhere on a sparkly, clear day, and the American Shakespeare Center wrapped up its Almost Blasphemy Tour at the Alden Theatre in McLean.

It was a little nostalgic for me, as almost 25 years ago, when I first moved to the Washington DC area, I lived in the basement of a friend’s parents’ house in McLean and I cocktail waitressed at a lounge around the block from the Alden. McLean has changed a bit from those days and now the Alden is nestled into a lovely neighborhood of big, beautiful homes.

The America Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, is amazing — performing with original staging practices in a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse recreated in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I had the pleasure of seeing All’s Well That Ends Well performed at Blackfriars’ a couple years ago. It’s on my shortlist of places to return to, but Staunton is about 3 hours from my house, and the logistics have not worked out. McLean, depending on traffic (which didn’t exist today) is less than a half hour.

So, I was excited that the stars aligned and I had a free Saturday afternoon to join other members of the DC-area Shakespeare Explorers Meetup group and see the ASC perform The Winter’s Tale for a matinée at the Alden.

Eugene Douglas as Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Although the Alden is not the same experience as the incredible Blackfriars, it is a very nice and intimate venue. The ASC set the stage simply, with little in the way of set other than a curtained backdrop. Like in Staunton, they have a fun pre-show with the actors playing music and selling raffle tickets for swag (they do the same at intermission). The songs are acoustic and very enjoyable renditions of classic rock and pop songs. I heard some Joni Mitchell, Righteous Brothers, and even some Guns N’ Roses. Some (maybe all?) of the songs went with the storyline… “Sweet Child of Mine” and “Bring Back that Lovin’ Feeling” definitely apply to The Winter’s Tale!

The theater was (unfortunately) not filled, and the actors encouraged audience members to move closer to the stage and to fill the seats onstage. As at Blackfriars, seats for a few brave audience members are set right on the stage and these folks became active (sometimes very hilarious) members of the show. One particularly funny interaction was when a minstrel came out playing and set his hat out for tips. One audience member tossed a few coins in. The musician nudged the hat down to the next guy. Instead of putting money in the hat, he reached in and took out the change! More hilarity ensued. Very funny.

I’m not a stage-sitter. I like to sit back and watch, and it was a great show. Even though I ordered tickets yesterday, I had seats in the third row and a great view. The ASC touring actors are wonderful and the show was really enjoyable. The current tour ends tonight with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in McLean, but I will be sure to keep my eye out for next season. If you can’t make it out to Staunton, you should try to catch the ASC on tour next year, too!

Stephanie Holladay Earl as Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

A teaser, because I am so excited: My next post involves my visit yesterday with the Shakespearean Holy Grail. Yes, I had a very close encounter with a First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Stay tuned!

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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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My Shakespeare

March 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet) (, , , , , )

Paterson Joseph, an actor who grew up in one of London’s gritty, inner-city neighborhoods, challenges himself to bring Shakespeare back to the ‘hood by directing a high-quality, West End production of Romeo and Juliet using kids off the streets as actors. He gives himself a month to accomplish the entire task.

My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann is a 2004 PBS documentary that follows Paterson through the whole process, from casting through final performance. Baz Luhrmann provides long-distance advice and moral support from Australia via videoconferencing (pre-Skype, which appears very clunky now!). Paterson deals with enormous challenges as he helps cast members learn lines (many of the actors are immigrants), gain confidence in their ability to act, their ability to commit to something like this, to attend practices, pay attention, try hard, see it through to completion… every bit of it is new for all of them, including Paterson himself, who has never directed a play before.

I thought the story was very touching… how Paterson was able to really reach these kids and demonstrate for them the relevance of Shakespeare in their lives. The girl playing Juliet is a shy Afghan refugee who begins rehearsals completely unable to imagine herself kissing a man at all, let alone in front of an audience. Paterson helps her gain confidence and bring emotion into her part and her final performance is lovely! The boy playing Mercutio identifies fully with the part and is able to really project the meaning of Mercutio’s words, including the difficult Queen Mab speech. Romeo is so taken with his experience that he decides to pursue an acting career!

I really disliked Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. In this documentary, in addition to serving as Paterson’s long-distance mentor, Luhrmann also is interviewed extensively and serves as the resident expert on directing Shakespeare and teasing out Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern world. I found him somewhat distracting and pretentious much of the time, as he’s interviewed from his enormous, swank Sydney mansion against a Wall of Fame in honor of himself with posters from the film and lots of candles everywhere. But getting past my prejudice, I think he does sometimes add interesting insights into working with Shakespeare with modern audiences.

I like this film a lot. I worried with Paterson about whether he had bitten off more than he could chew. I empathized with Juliet about whether she could really pull off this whole acting thing. I enjoyed watching them all learn to emote physically — Paterson has them do exercises where they express joy, pain, sadness and other emotions at different levels on a scale from 1 to 10. It was riveting hearing from Romeo about his actual stabbing in a street fight and what this brought to his understanding of the fight scenes in the play. I felt sad that the girl playing the Nurse just did not have it in her and had to be replaced days before opening night. I loved watching the actors tour the Globe Theatre and imagine themselves there with the Bard. And finally, I was so happy for them, as they performed the play admirably to their West End audience. Very nicely done!

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A Waste of Shame

February 24, 2012 at 1:20 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life, Shakespeare's Sonnets) (, , )

Do the sonnets reflect the dark underbelly of Shakespeare’s love life? I watched the BBC’s 2005 A Waste of Shame which is based on this premise. Here we have Shakespeare in midlife crisis brought on by his 11-year-old son Hamnet’s death from plague. The whole world seems filled with death and filth and darkness. The theaters are closed. What is there to live for?

Love. Or maybe it’s “Love.” Or even just “luv”… as in infatuation. Shakespeare becomes infatuated with a young pretty boy, William Herbert (the fair youth). At the same time, he lusts after a half-Moor French prostitute named Lucie (the Dark Lady). Between the two, he seems to barely come up for air. But the sonnets pour from his pen in the mix of emotions from these two simultaneous infatuations.

Shakespeare eventually realizes neither of these “luvs” are all that. And when he finds that the young lad is playing house with Lucie, a double betrayal, it sends Shakespeare into a bit of a tailspin. The tailspin is furthered by his diagnosis with the “French pox” (syphilis) which kind of gives the whole infatuation thing a nasty turn, since syphilis was incurable (although we see him endure a bizarre treatment involving mercury and a soak in what looks like a torture chamber). Source of more sonnetizing.

Poor, long-suffering, sharp-tongued wife Anne Hathaway is living in poverty in Stratford with Shakespeare’s daughters. There is a creepy peeping Tom scene where Shakespeare watches her through the window. He has been not much of a husband or father, and it’s unclear what he’s feeling as he watches his wife. Shame? Wistfulness?

Shakespeare eventually has the sonnets published, and then leaves London to live his last years at home with Anne in Stratford. No more of the whoring and night life of Elizabethan London. What were those last years like for him? Was he ill? Decrepit? Depressed?

We’ll never know.

I can’t say that I loved this movie, but it was interesting. I haven’t studied or even read most of the sonnets yet. I look forward to it some day, but wonder what they mean and what the real story was behind them. I would rather think that the emotions behind Shakespeare’s love poetry were something more real or lasting… less dark than portrayed here.

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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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