Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Festival of Theses: The Sequel

It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time again. Yesterday, I found myself attending the Spring 2011 Thesis Festival at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Thirteen Mary Baldwin MLitt/MFA students were on hand to share their Shakespearean (and non-Shakespearean) discoveries, but, this time, instead of dead leaves crunching underfoot and the smell of various pumpkin-flavored beverages in the air, forsythia and daffodils were blooming and t-shirts outnumbered turtlenecks. The sense of scholarly excitement was the same, however, as students and professors and the curious public (like yours truly) gathered to hear what these graduate students had to say.

There was a glut of information at this spring’s Festival for someone of a history bent, such as myself. Before the day even began, my inner medievalist was already excited to see Shakespeare’s Chaucer, presented by Matthew Carter and featuring the illustrious authors themselves (in the forms of Kimberly Maurice and Maria Hart, admittedly). This examination of “source studies” looked at Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as one of the inspirations for Shakespeare’s own Troilus and Cressida, while studying the different historical contexts out of which each sprung. England of Chaucer’s day was embroiled in the Hundred Years War with France and beset by plague, while Shakespeare was writing for “God fearing Englishmen who love a fight.” This, Carter theorized, caused Chaucer to focus on the romantic while Shakespeare embraced the military aspects of the story. Yet Carter pointed out that both works, frequently regarded in a strictly literary light, should also be appreciated as performance pieces, since that was the intention of their respective authors.

Another presentation with a medieval component was Maxim Overton’s The Pyrotechnique Story: Commanding Devils, Dragons, the Natural, and the Celestial, which looked at how the introduction of gunpowder to England in the late Middle Ages came to play a critical role on the early modern stage. Overton called the printing press and gunpowder the two most significant introductions to early modern England, and the two both played a role in the theatrical world. Unlike regular fire, which in earlier, medieval productions was often associated with heavenly figures, gunpowder and fireworks in an early modern show routinely symbolized devils and other evil characters. Overton even theorized that the dragon seen on the title page of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was a firework-powered property -- the same, in fact, used for an earlier play by Robert Greene on notorious “pyromancer” Roger Bacon.

Faustus and the possible firework-spouting dragon.

At the opposite end of the historical spectrum, Katy Mulvaney, in “They Won’t be Troubling Shakespeare but They’ll Do”: Contemporary Playwrights Writing for Shakespeare’s Globe, spoke about some more modern plays which have been performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, specifically Peter Oswald’s The Storm and Jack Shepherd’s Holding Fire! Mulvaney looked at how these contemporary shows play with early modern staging conventions (demonstrated by volunteer actors staggering about in supposed blindness on the brightly lit stage in a send-up of universal lighting) and also how the playwrights can harness anachronistic uses of the Globe space unheard of to Shakespeare and his fellows. Yet Mulvaney drew an intriguing link to early modern performances in the form of audience interaction. Modern theatre at the Globe may revive the feel of the more rambunctious, participatory audience of Shakespeare’s day through new techniques for involving audience members directly in a show. Mulvaney echoed this concept in her own presentation by calling on volunteers from the audience and planting actors throughout the playhouse. In this way, even contemporary productions at the new Globe are retaining the spirit of the Elizabethan theatrical experience.

I also enjoyed tremendously Mediated Dramaturgy: Using Technology to Improve Different Forms of Dramaturgy, by Paul Rycik, on the potential uses of media in dramaturgy (yet more on education and the digital world – what seems to be a running theme through my blog contributions), and The Physics of Contranymy: Indefinition, Sublim(inal)ity, and Play, by Zachary Brown, which, once I finally wrapped my brain around the topic, was a fascinating study of the repercussions of differences between the written and spoken word and the possible subconscious effect on this wordplay on an audience. As before, for a more in depth look at each of the thirteen presentations, check out the ASC Education liveblogs of Session 1, Session 2, and Session 3. Also as before, I had a great time at this event and would heartily encourage anybody and everybody with a glimmer of interest in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Middleton (any Elizabethan playwright), history, literature, fireworks (literal and rhetorical), or theatre (early modern or just plain modern) to come out to one of these festivals. Let’s put it this way: you could be a Lady Gaga fan, and there would have been something entertaining for you yesterday.

Natalie A.

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