No Coffee!

October 15, 2015 at 10:19 pm (Shakespeare's Life) (, , , )

no_coffee-1I just read Michael Dirda’s rave review in the Washington Post and I’m excited about this new book by Columbia professor and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.

I also love this short video of Shapiro with five things you might not know about Shakespeare. Among other things, he talks about the exhausting schedule Shakespeare kept, rehearsing and performing different plays each day, and then when others went out drinking and carousing, he went back to work every night, reading books and writing new plays. An amazing achievement for anyone.

I like Shapiro’s comment: “When people ask me what was Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishment? He was able to do this without caffeine, because neither tea nor coffee had been introduced in his day.” Can you imagine?!

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Five Myths about William Shakespeare

September 6, 2015 at 4:18 pm (Asides, Shakespeare's Life) (, , )

The Washington Post publishes a weekly piece called “Five Myths about…” on various topics and this week’s happened to be “Five Myths about William Shakespeare.” The author, Ari Friedlander, is writing a book called “Rogue Sexuality: The Erotics of Social Status in Early Modern England” about sex, crime and class in Shakespeare’s era.

The 5 myths he addresses include the authorship question and the related huge vocabulary and lack of education questions. It all boils down to this: “It is far more likely that the many contemporaneous references to Shakespeare, like that of Francis Meres in 1598, mean what they say: that William Shakespeare, stage actor, theater owner and, yes, barley hoarder, was a widely recognized and admired writer.”

Friedlander also brings up the myth of Shakespeare being a lone artist when there is ample evidence that he collaborated with others on a number of projects. And finally, probably the closest to Friedlander’s heart given the topic of the book he’s writing, the fifth myth is that Shakespeare’s love poetry was written to a woman. Friedlander contends that much of it was written to “Mr. W.H.” and that male-to-male eroticism was much less stigmatized in Elizabethan times than now. And that actually, the skin color of the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets would have been more shocking at the time than the gender of Mr. W.H.

I thought his myth-busting was interesting and it has raised quite a stir in the comments section! What do you think of it?

Sorry for my long blog hiatus… my time to read and write about Shakespeare is severely limited these days, but I hope to continue on my project reading and commenting on all the plays some day. I notice I have some unpublished draft posts sitting there silently waiting to see the light of day, so I’ll take a look back at them and release them soon!

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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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Hobart Shakespeareans

November 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

My kids go to school in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the best districts in the U.S. and yet my 10 year old is struggling to put words onto paper. Here I am, a writer, an editor… a person who loves words. And I have really struggled with helping my son, because the way he is taught makes no sense to me. He brings home the most inane worksheets, character maps… busy work! I don’t write like that and I don’t even like thinking about them.

I’ve struggled with this and then last week, Jay Mathews, an education columnist in the Washington Post, wrote a column that put my ambivalence into words: Writing Lessons? Please stop. He speaks of the mechanical way children are taught to write. This was what I needed to see. This is the paragraph where I had my epiphany:

The result of such clerical work is usually unreadable. Few people who learn to write this way ever make it their life’s work. The professional writers I know got excited not in class but while compiling personal journals, or composing poems and songs, or sending long letters or e-mails to friends, or working for the school newspaper.

A friend of mine who teaches said she uses the “hamburger model” — layering sentences in each paragraph — for teaching writing to little kids. No offense, Debbie, or if any of my kids’ teachers read this, but… I can’t imagine getting excited about writing that way. It is clerical. It’s boring! No, it’s mind-numbing. And it has very little to do with translating thoughts onto paper. I have a vague and excruciating memory of being forced to write a paper on Huckleberry Finn in high school using outlines and this kind of structured paragraph. Eeek!

I essentially studied reading and writing in college (English lit, history and Spanish) and wrote a whole lot of papers. I skipped Freshman English, but had a writing seminar first quarter Freshman year where I learned a lasting lesson. My professor, Michael Squires, covered my papers with T’s for “Tighten”! Say what you mean in as few words as possible. Cut to the chase. I’ve been writing professionally for decades — research reports, proposals, articles, books. I have never once thought about structuring my paragraphs like hamburgers. I think about what I’m trying to say… and then I make sure I say it clearly. And I Tighten (thank you, Dr. Squires!). And I edit, edit, and re-edit my own work.

So, I struggled with helping my son, and then a light went off and I thought… no, I cannot help him with any of the busy work, but I can help him learn to write, because I love to write and I am good at it. Reading and writing and learning about words and loving them… that I get. I know that teachers have a tough job, but using structured methods is not the way to teach a creative skill. Jay Mathews is apparently getting quite a lot of feedback. The latest column asked people to share their anecdotes: What made you a better writer? I’m looking forward to the follow-up columns.

So, with this all recently on my mind, it was with great interest that I watched The Hobart Shakespeareans (made by Mel Stuart for the PBS series POV). In the mode of Jaime Escalante, made famous 25 years ago in Stand and Deliver for hooking inner city kids on calculus, this documentary follows Rafe Esquith, who uses Shakespeare and great literature to hook his 5th graders. A veteran elementary school teacher who has respect and high expectations for his students, Esquith loves what he does and he sees huge rewards for his efforts.

In contrast to the suburban school my kids attend, Esquith teaches in a huge inner city Los Angeles school surrounded by inner city crime. In one scene, there is a murder a block away and they lock down the school rather than letting the kids walk home with a killer loose. The kids take it in stride — this is the reality where they live. Yet Esquith has created an oasis for these kids with two rules: Be Nice. Work Hard.

And they do. They learn to play music, they read great literature they can relate to like Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, and Huck Finn (hopefully without writing outlines and hamburger paragraphs!). And they read and play Shakespeare. In the film, Shakespearean actors Michael York and Ian McKellen (who the students treat like a rock star) visit the class to share their love of the Bard. The children put on a performance of Hamlet. A teary McKellen notes that what always impresses him in Esquith’s class is that the children understand Hamlet… they really understand the words. He notes that this cannot be said for all actors who play Shakespeare.

Esquith is realistic. He is shown speaking to a shocked audience at a teachers conference about the fact that some kids will get left behind… that he knows that’s the truth and that some kids fail. His point is that if everyone is given a fair chance, it is then up to the kids to decide to do the work. He has a big poster in his classroom that reads, “There Are No Shortcuts,” and in one scene he is shown talking to some kids he caught cheating… he talks to them quietly and says afterward that he knows it won’t happen again.

The students are from immigrant families — the year this was filmed, all the students spoke English as their second language and spoke their native language with their families at home. Most are Latino or Korean. The neighborhood is rough. Esquith wants them to get out. He wants them to get a taste of the world they can strive for, so he takes them on trips to Washington DC and Mount Rushmore and they stay in nice hotels and eat at good restaurants (a nonprofit organization started by a former student funds their activities).

He takes them to colleges so they can see what it is like in a place of learning and respect where everyone is working hard and no one will bother them. He tells them he believes in them and he knows they can do it. I wish my kids could have an experience like this instead of the busy work “great curriculum” that results in high standardized test scores (I guess) at their school.

I love writing about literature, but please deliver me from ever having to fill out a character trait map about Romeo or Hamlet. Dear God. I think it would stop even me from wanting to write. Stop me dead and put me into a coma. You should see what it does to my 10 year old. And yeesh, you should see the mess he makes on these things trying to scribble crap into the little boxes and circles. (To be fair, maybe it helps some learners organize their thoughts… it does not work for me, and apparently not for my son!)

I’m reminded of a quote my friend uses: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” (Not sure if this originally comes from Yogi Berra or Einstein or computer scientist Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut!) I think it describes the situation at my kids’ school. There is a disconnect when they teach mean, median, and mode to second graders who haven’t yet mastered division. There is a disconnect focusing on the mechanics of writing and leaving out the art and creativity and meaning. I think teachers like Escalante and Esquith make the connection between theory and practice. They create a passion in the kids and help them find meaning. It’s a rare gift.

The film about the Hobart Shakespeareans ends after their performance of Hamlet, as the children are filled with emotion and many in tears. Esquith gives them a final pep talk, telling them that they have learned things they never thought they could learn and that this is just the beginning… that he knows they can do so much more. Reminding them of the life lessons they have learned, he quotes Hamlet by saying, “The readiness…” and the children finish “is all!”

The readiness is all.

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Cutting Shakespeare

August 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm (Asides, Live Performances) (, , , , , )

The Washington Post ran an article yesterday that I found fascinating: Editing Shakespeare? You need guts to make the kindest cuts of all. The subtitle is: Subtle art of reshaping makes Bard’s plays more audience-friendly.

In a Bard-happy town like Washington, the subtle art of cutting Shakespeare is on near-constant display. The craft requires nerve, stage savvy and scholarship. And time.

“Dozens and dozens of hours,” says Muse, a former STC associate artistic director who now runs the Studio Theatre. The job can involve rearranging scenes, prioritizing story lines, combining multiple minor figures into a single character, changing line assignments and wrangling with the magnificent but sometimes elusive language.

I love seeing the plays, but as my blog project here of “reading Shakespeare” implies, I like reading them and mulling them over even more. Still, it’s fascinating for me to think about the intricacies of staging these plays for modern audiences.

I really enjoyed seeing the British TV series Playing Shakespeare and watching the Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton and the wonderful actors discussing and playing with the texts as they made them come alive. The complexities and nuances of performance amaze me.

So, it is fascinating for me to consider how much must be cut. I had not really thought about it before, but here it is, bluntly (from the Post article):

For Cam Magee, a dramaturge who has cut 24 of the 37 plays, a running time of 2 1 / 2 hours has been a typical goal at the Washington Shakespeare Company.

“You’re losing an hour to an hour and a half of material,” says Magee, whose cuts also have been seen at the Folger Theatre.

Wow. That’s a huge chunk that they have to cut. I just had never considered that reality. I guess I realized they did it, but hadn’t thought about how much they really have to cut to keep the performances a reasonable length.

And not just the length, but the impenetrability of a lot of the wordplay/puns/references. I know this from reading the plays. Some of it, you just must yada, yada through, as I was tempted back when I discussed Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. From the Post article, again:

Then there are punch lines that slayed ’em 400 years ago but can be impenetrable now. “It can take half an hour to figure out one joke,” Muse says. Kahn mentions a long comic exchange in “All’s Well That Ends Well” between the Countess of Rousillon and the clown Lavatch that frequently sounds alien to modern ears. The gags are bogged down by topical references and ancient words. “If you can’t follow at all why something’s funny, then I’m going to cut it,” Posner says, “because I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”

Right? This makes total sense from a practical standpoint and I love how bluntly it’s stated. “I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”

The article goes on about cutting for storytelling clarity and adaptations that make them work and fresh for audiences. I realize these are all issues for modern productions.

I keep thinking, though, about, “I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.” Because I really do get that. And yet, I find myself thinking about wanting to yada, yada through Mercutio and being ready to give up on Love’s Labour’s Lost as soon as I began. Yikes, it was difficult.

Yet I found that sticking with it, and giving it more time was worthwhile for me in both cases. I really enjoyed the puns, and found the seeming impenetrability dissipate with some work.

Work. I guess that’s why I’m reading them and not just seeing them in performance. It is not reasonable (maybe not really possible) to ask an audience to work at understanding what’s happening or being said. I get that, too. The play in performance is a fleeting thing. It brings clarity to the words, in some cases (the facial expressions, staging choices that can clarify meaning), but in other cases, the words can simply get in the way of the flow on the stage. From the Post:

And all, in their various ways, pledge ultimate fidelity to the Bard. They refer to folios and quartos, and sometimes have half a dozen published editions open during rehearsals to consult.

Yet they have to cut. They have to cut a lot. I get that. So, I will keep reading the plays (and going to see them and watching the videos). But I find reading them brings a different depth of enjoyment.

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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