Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Festival of Theses!

On Monday, the 8th of November, I had the opportunity to attend the Fall Thesis Project Festival at Blackfriars Playhouse, where graduate students in Mary Baldwin College’s MLITT/MFA program in Shakespeare and Performance presented on their various research topics. A day-long “Thesis Festival” might not, at first, sound like a rollicking good time, but it proved to be a day full of very enjoyable and interesting presentations.

The subjects which were examined covered a broad range, providing a colorful bouquet of Shakespearean topics ready to be admired. There was everything from What to Expect When Staging the Expecting: Pregnancy in Early Modern Drama to Miranda as “Native”: An Exploration of Sexual Politics and Cultural Hegemony in Caribbean and African Postcolonial Adaptations of The Tempest to Rosalind and Cleopatra: The Androgyne in Performance, to name just a few. For a detailed account of each presentation, see the official ASC liveblogs of the event: Session 1, Session 2, and Session 3.

One which was particularly attention-grabbing to me was ‘SBlood, Zounds, and Marry: Oaths as Indicators of Character Change on the Early Modern Stage, presented by David C. Santangelo. While a word like “Zounds!” (a contraction of “God’s wounds”) may seem pretty tame to us today, four hundred years ago such an exclamation would have caused quite a stir in the playhouse. During his talk, Santangelo also examined the ways in which a character’s use of oaths within a play can reveal essential elements of his or her character. As an example he used Iago, whose oaths reveal in turn his crudeness and his cleverness throughout Othello. His exclamation, “By Janus” (1.2.33), for instance, is significant in that Janus is a two-faced god, just as Iago himself is a two-faced character.

Another entertaining presentation was Andrea Kelley’s If the Shrew Fits: Chronology, Misogyny, and Dichotomy in the Taming Plays. Kelley opened her talk with a hilarious YouTube video chronicling the transformation of various film Kates, including Elizabeth Taylor in a 1967 The Taming of the Shrew, Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, and Shirley Henderson in a modern re-telling (see it here). She then discussed how different versions of this story are prevalent throughout history, but they don’t necessarily represent realistic marriages of their times, just as modern sitcoms don’t exactly portray accurate husband-wife relationships. Kelley used different texts on marriage from Shakespeare’s day through the middle of the 18th century to illustrate both the more romantic and the slightly harsher views on how to tame a shrew, so to speak. (One offered this endearing advice in oh-so witty rhyme form: “Rub a dub, kill her with a club.” Hmm.)

Of course, these are just two out of eleven; all of the theses were well-presented and engaging, whether they were on a topic I was interested in, only vaguely aware of, or knew absolutely nothing about. There was also X-Treme Casting, about the practice of using as few as five actors to put on a Shakespeare play, and Ford, and Jonson, and Middleton, Oh My!, which featured some hilarious performances by other students in the Mary Baldwin program as a geriatric John Ford and irascible Ben Jonson, among others, and which asked the question: Why do we study Shakespeare more than any of these other playwrights, anyway?

The high level of scholarship which is happening constantly in and around the American Shakespeare Center is something I was completely unaware of until I became an intern in the Education Department, and it is something which I believe the general public is largely unconscious of as well. I have found that, when I inform people that I am working as an intern at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, the typical response is, “Oh, you mean at Blackfriars?” The fact is that the Blackfriars Playhouse is a part of a larger, vital vehicle for sharing a love of Shakespeare and early modern theatre and for educating both scholars and the average citizen on this subject. This is something I am becoming more and more aware of as I work here. Unless a person is in-the-know in some way, they could see the Blackfriars Playhouse as simply a theatre. Of course, it is a theatre – and a great one! – but it is also a venue for the sharing of some amazing research, all of which is open and available to a curious public. One would absolutely not have to know a thing about Shakespeare and performance to have a great time at an event like the Fall Thesis Festival. There’s almost always some neat education event happening at Blackfriars. So don’t be intimidated – go check it out!

Natalie A.

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