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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Colin Keane ('13) on visiting the American Shakespeare Center

Students of this semester’s “Shakespeare in Performance” class recently ventured to Staunton, Virginia, for a weekend at the American Shakespeare Center, a trip made possible by the generous support of the Honors Program.  The students were treated to four plays performed in ASC’s 300-seat Blackfriar’s Playhouse – the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor playhouse – and took part in multiple performance-oriented workshops.

Our trip to Staunton has been a defining experience in a course founded on the principle that Shakespeare is best understood via both textual and performative exploration.  Students in “Shakespeare in Performance,” team-taught by Dr. Shawn Kairschner in Theater and Dr. Alice Dailey in English, dedicate the first half of the semester to close study of a single play and its critical tradition.  Then, armed with a robust understanding of the play, we work on staging our own production in the latter half of the course.  The adventure to ASC falls between both processes, and having taken part in this recent trip, I can attest to its brilliance.

Set against an entertainment world increasingly embellished with 21st century technology and all that accompanies it, the plays we watched inside the Blackfriar’s served as a refreshing reminder that the heart of performance art still beats to human interaction.  The Playhouse is fully lit in accordance with original Elizabethan staging practices so that all performers and audience members are in full view of one another and in close proximity.  There is even seating provided onstage; my classmates and I each took a go on these stools and often found ourselves integrated into the performance!  My classmate, Mary Bohrer, remarked that she attained a “new view of Shakespeare's plays by getting up close and personal with all the action on stage and becoming a part of the play.”  Janine Perri added that “the trip definitely made what we are learning in class come alive. It was amazing to see such diverse performances and get a sense of what the theater in Shakespeare's time was really like.”

The "Shakespeare in Performance" class at the American Shakespeare Center.
Our visit fell in the middle of the ASC’s Actor’s Renaissance Season, during which its twelve performers are tasked with staging directorless productions in a matter of days, each actor given merely his or her own lines and cues to prepare with.  The Renaissance Season is an attempt to recreate the conditions under which Shakespeare’s actors staged the plays.  The result is a performance environment of heightened intensity and immediacy unattainable through modern, extended preparation.  There was a palpable aura of risk involved for actors and audience members alike, and yet a rewarding, ever-accepting sense of freedom pervaded the theatre.

The energy spilled out beyond the theatre; my classmates and I bonded with one another during our first few hours in Staunton.  We spent our downtime exploring the town shops together, conversing with some of the actors at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, and even enjoying some fine Mediterranean cuisine on a lovely Saturday evening.

The most insightful moments of the weekend, however, occurred during the workshops we attended as a class.  The recurring theme throughout was interpretation: how should one interpret a line of iambic pentameter, for example, and then go about delivering this interpretation clearly?  We learned that a successful delivery depends largely on rhetoric.  Choosing what to emphasize and when, how loudly or softly, is a science down to each syllable and imperative to the performance of the Shakespearean text.  Of course, this lesson was on full display during the performances we witnessed.  As my classmate Charlie Gill expressed, "It was fascinating to watch the performances after studying the conventions of verse and rhetoric that inform the work.  Consistently, the actors who were most faithful to the structure and rhythm that those elements outline in their performance were also the most compelling to watch. It really drove home the point that the blueprint for successful performance is woven into the language of the plays themselves.”

Our class also discovered how influential body positioning and movements on stage can be and how to process these choices as actors.  Given the interpretive richness of The Merchant of Venice, the play we’re studying and staging this semester, my classmates and I are faced with many choices as we develop our production.  Our trip to Staunton did much to offer practical ways to approach staging challenges.  We look forward to presenting our finished production to the Villanova community at the end of the semester.