Summoning the Scriveners: A Visit to Samuel Johnson’s House

Lexicógrapher. n.s. [λεξικὸν and γράφω; lexicographe, French.] A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

My days in London weren’t all Shakespeare. I spent a considerable amount of our limited free time chasing down some of my favorites among London’s other literary luminaries: Chaucer, Dickens, Keats, Woolf, Blake.  I planned out a walking route that would hit upon some of their major sites, but the writer I want to discuss today is the one I didn’t plan for: Dr. Samuel Johnson.

A Johnson skeptic no more!

A Johnson skeptic no more!

No lie: I only went to Dr. Johnson’s house because it was marked on my city map and I figured that if it was important enough to locate on a general map, it was worth visiting.  Obviously I’d heard of Johnson: Dictionary, Boswell, lots of famous anecdotes**, etc.  No self-respecting English major hasn’t heard of him.

But I’ve never met anyone who was a Johnson specialist.  In my experience, he’s been more discussed than read, a frequent footnote in literary criticism. I assumed that this was because he only wrote the Dictionary and, being a witty bon vivant and raconteur, was primarily known through Boswell’s biography.

Obviously, if you are a specialist in Johnson and the 18th century then you’ll be sniggering at my ignorance, and rightly so.

But if you, like me, were not aware of how amazing he was, then keep reading.  This entry will be an account of my time at the Johnson house and the details that have managed to stick in my head from the experience.

First, a word about the house. I love how they’ve curated it. The rooms are simply furnished, the walls adorned with prints and images of people who were important to Johnson’s life.  Rather than complicate the walls with lengthy explanations alongside each image, they’ve created small booklets of information to accompany the images that you can read while sitting comfortably at a table in each room.  I don’t know if the tables are period or not, but they look it, and anyway it feels right to sit and read in rooms where Johnson and his coterie would have sat, read, discussed and thought, versus moving through just another gallery of what used to be a famous person’s house.

In the first room I flipped through a binder of news articles of sundry Johnsonalia.  Two in particular caught my eye.  The first was by Virginia Woolf, and since she was already on my list of people whose traces I planned to stalk that day, I read the whole thing.  It was (of course) beautiful – an argument for secular sainthood, nominating Johnson for beatification on the 150th anniversary of his death.  She argued that he’s one of few writers who genuinely loved humanity in all of its forms and colors, beauty and flaws.  Most writers, she said, are singular, moody, mercurial and only like people insofar as they see themselves separate from them; subjects to write about.  But some, like Shakespeare and Johnson, really loved people. It shows in their writing, but it also shows in how the people have adopted them: cabbies in the 20th century, she wrote, would quote Johnson — and perhaps they still do.  Again, like Shakespeare, he’d entered into the collective imagination and the collective voice of the people.

My photo of Barber's portrait in Johnson's house

My photo of Barber’s portrait in Johnson’s house

I was intrigued. I thought of him as being very stodgy (if only because I think of everyone in the 18th century as being very stodgy), but I was very much open to being wrong. I read about the people pictured in that room. The most interesting to me was Johnson’s valet and heir, Francis Barber, a Jamaican who had been sent to Johnson as a recently-freed slave.  Johnson — a vocal abolitionist — certainly didn’t treat him as such.  He saw to it that Barber was properly educated and could keep up with Johnson’s crowd.  As Johnson died without children, Barber was made sole heir. He retired to Lichfield, the town where Johnson was from, married a white woman (a fact I found particularly surprising and heart-warming given the time period), started a school and raised a family.

One of Barber’s descendants was profiled in the second article that caught my eye in that room. He hadn’t known that he was a descendant of Barber’s, and – being outwardly white in appearance – was shocked to learn he had a slave ancestor.  Anyway, long before he knew of his relationship to Barber, he himself had done humanitarian work in parts of Africa and taken a young man under his wing whom he educated and supported and thought of as a son. So Barber’s descendant ended up mirroring Johnson’s beneficence 250 years later.

Wow. Only the first room, yet it was clear to me that Johnson’s legacy was much more formidable than I had realized.  There was a magnificent spirit present in those walls, someone whose mind and heart seem to have been far ahead of his time, and yet so much present within his time that his name, words and character would basically define it.  A true man of the Enlightenment.

View from the second story window. Wonder who among this crowd might have been part of 'The Club'?

View from the second story window. Wonder who among this crowd might have been part of ‘The Club’?

In the upper chambers I learned that, true to Woolf’s assessment, he surrounded himself with artists and thinkers, politicians and plebeians, movers and shakers of all sorts. He and Sir Joshua Reynolds would regularly hold club meetings at the Turk’s Head Tavern where they would surround the dinner table with a representative from a variety of fields – business, law, theology, art, music, and so forth – and they would put forth a controversial subject for the group to discuss, just to see what ideas might come forth (with only one verboten subject: politics). Women, too, were included in his circles, some whose opinions he very highly esteemed.

The uppermost room — his garret (or attic) — is where he and his troupe of amanuenses put together not the first, but the most comprehensive and thorough English dictionary. It may as well have been the first; the others had entries like: DOG, n., An animal with four legs. By that definition, cows and cats and ferrets could all go by the name of DOG. By today’s standards, Johnson’s Dictionary was also flawed as far as objectivity was concerned, but let’s give the guy some credit: the tome included nearly 43,000 words and around 114,000 quotations from major authors of the English language to illustrate a word’s usage in each definition. And he didn’t have Google to find the multiple references to the words, he had his own memory.

Impressive.

I sat in the garret by myself, looking up from the copy of Johnson’s dictionary on the table and out the window to the street below.  The room and street were both very still.  In my journal I wrote as I sat there, “I wish I could summon the ghosts.”  I wanted to be able to hear the noisy silence of the fervent writing, page flipping, the occasional “Aha!” at the discovery of the perfect quotation to illuminate a definition.  As it was, I contented myself with the quiet and allowed myself to absorb the special significance of the room.

Dr. Samuel Johnson was born in the early 1700s and died near the end of that century, so he was every inch a man of the 18th century, a century that I, in my studies, have always glossed over as that period between the Elizabethan/Jacobean/Restoration and the Victorian where lots happened in the world politically, but little seemed to interest me in terms of literature. Spending time with Johnson in his own house where the English language was consciously shaped and codified left me profoundly moved and deeply interested in learning more about the man, his writings and his era.

I really can’t recommend it highly enough: if you’re in London, please go visit Dr. Johnson’s house. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn

 

**My favorite anecdote, which I learned in my high school English class twenty years ago: Johnson was seated next to a woman at a dinner party.  When she got a whiff of his intense body odor (a fact which the exhibition confirms: he would go weeks without changing his clothes), she said, “Sir, you smell!”  To which the good doctor-grammarian replied, “No, madame: you smell; I stink.”

Here are some shots of the Johnson House’s materials.  Gives you a sense of the kind of thorough, yet very readable literature they have set out for your perusal as you move through the house.  The three pages pictured go together and should be read in succession for more information on Johnson’s Dictionary.

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TEACHING Shakespeare Through Performance

At play on the stage of the Bard

Teachers at play on the stage of the Bard

As I stated in my previous post, I had a blast learning about Shakespeare pedagogy this summer.  But I was already a Shakespeare devotee before this experience, and I’ve been performing as an actor/musician for most of my life, so it was sort of a given that I would tremble with a frisson of delight and wonder at regular intervals during the course of the three weeks.  That said, I wasn’t awarded a generous scholarship from the English Speaking Union so that I might go and have a personally fulfilling experience — it was granted to me that I might bring knowledge back to share with my students and my colleagues.  The programme, after all, is called Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance.

How, then, will my teaching be different this year?

Something the teaching artists and practitioners at the Globe stated on several occasions was that the exercises and theatre games we were playing were all born of the rehearsal room: vocal exercises meant to consciously connect the voice with movement; activities to help us embody archetypes to enhance performance; the encouragement to play the words completely differently than you did before. “We do this in preparation for all the shows here,” they told us.  We weren’t made to do watered-down versions of of the actor’s practice, we were treated as professional actors.

This ethos the first thing I will bring back to my classroom: I’m going to treat my students like they’re professional actors.  This seemed to help even the most reticent performers among us to break through the fear.

So did the scaffolding.  This is edu-speak for the way you build your lessons toward a final objective or goal, and it’s the aim of every educator in the course of our unit development to structure lessons so that each bit of information and each activity builds on what came before.  The educators at the Globe taught us ways to scaffold Shakespeare so that a student who felt totally stupid confronting his words for the first time (which is most of us, really) could be performing his works with total comprehension in a very short time.

How?

Start small.  Don’t give students the entire intimidating text right away.  Build up to it. Pull short, specific scenes to use with certain acting exercises and expand the students’ comfort zone.  Don’t be afraid to cut text to fit your students’ needs — don’t rewrite or change words, but remove the parts that are confusing, then reintroduce them in time. Help them towards early success with a text so that they won’t feel as resistant to it as you go.

Once you’ve got a chunk of text you can work with, there is any number of exercises you can do with it, many of which can be found in Creative Shakespeare by Fiona Banks.  Fiona was our programme director and she took us through many of the activities in the book as if we were the students.  I won’t go through all of them, but here’s one that I’ll definitely do with my students and will likely do with other teachers when I run professional development workshops.

In the book it’s called “Adam’s 10 Point Plan to Performance” (p. 174-184) and — in an extremely condensed description — it works like this.  You assign students into two groups and give each group a text with multiple roles (we used the thumb-biting quarrel from act one of Romeo and Juliet, cut so that young students could understand it).  Once the students have arranged themselves in a circle and assigned themselves roles, they proceed to read the text in a variety of ways and from a variety of positions around the room.  Each reading brings something new out of the performer, whether it be a sense of the rhythm of the words, the emotional value, their relationship to the other characters and the audience, appropriate movement.  By the tenth reading of the passage, your students will have created a fully-staged scene without realizing that’s what they were working towards all along.

This is just one of very many activities, techniques and strategies that we’ve been given to bring to the classroom, and the list could go on for many more blog entries than anyone would care to read.  Suffice it to say, this was one of the best professional development experiences I’ve had.  There are still several weeks to go before school starts back in New York, and I’m almost wishing it would get here sooner so that I could get started putting into practice everything I’ve learned.

Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance has given me not only the courage but the savvy to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream with our drama club this year — my first time directing a Shakespeare play.  This, of course, means my drama classes will study it so that they’re prepped to see it; my hope is that by the end of the unit they’ll wish they had auditioned because it will be so much fun.  My English class will study Measure for Measure (as part of a semester exploring the concepts of Justice and Mercy, which, incidentally, was my plan before I learned that this was also the theme for the Globe’s season.  Synchronicity!) and Henry V (which we’ll see at BAM in April — I hope!). Most years I’ve taught only one Shakespeare play and usually slogged through it as a chore; this year we’ll take on three and I absolutely cannot wait — that’s how confident TSTP has made me feel!

So: confidence, know-how, strategies, activities, passion, fun.

That’s what I’ll be bringing back to the classroom.

 

 

Fun with Bill: Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance

To be or not to be?  Well, one thing is for certain: you have to just be and enjoy the moment before you can write about it.

To be or not to be? Well, one thing is for certain: you have to just be and enjoy the moment before you can write about it. (This is one of the walls in the staircase of the Sackler Studios at the Globe.

I believe it was Byron who advised writers never to write about an experience until it was fully past; trying to capture all the beauty and detail while in the midst of it keeps you from living the moment. (How he would hate our modern impulse to document each minute as it happens!)  In this spirit, I wasn’t as efficient a live-blogger of my time at the Globe as I had intended, but in the whirlwind of rehearsals, workshops and the establishment of new friendships with the many inspiring teachers who were part of the programme with me, I found myself too tired by the end of any given day to write very much.

At the moment I’m on the train from London to Paris where a whole new experience will commence, but I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts and establish a bit of closure on the past three weeks.  (UPDATE: It’s been two weeks since I originally wrote this entry and my time in France is now over, too.  As in London, so in France: I was too immersed in the moment to write about it.)

It seems odd to feel the need for closure. Three weeks is not a long time. I’ve been part of classes with other people in the past for longer stretches of time and not felt more than a twinge of sadness when the inevitable end finally arrived. This was different.

For one thing, as participants in Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance, we arrived as teachers, but soon realized that we were to become actors. I suppose it should have been obvious through the name of the programme, but if you’re going to teach Shakespeare through performance, you’ll have to learn how to perform.

And so we were introduced to our tutors and guides, all of whom have either performed in Globe productions or work with the actors who do on their voices, movement, costumes, etc.  We spent hours in rehearsal building an ensemble that would present abstract scenes that would tie our small group scenes together. Our small group scenes were from As You Like It, and we spent even more hours of rehearsal preparing these.

In this way, we explored Shakespeare’s text and ideas on our feet. There were brief moments of textual analysis when the words were just too dense, but for the most part we made meaning with each other in rehearsal. We figured it out as we went along, moving and laughing the entire time.

Shakespeare, my friend.  (The Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  This was the first portrait in the museum's entire collection, the one that started it all.  Appropriate.)

Shakespeare, my friend.
(The Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This was the first portrait in the museum’s entire collection, the one that started it all. Appropriate.)

I can’t overstate this: it was so much fun and we learned many new techniques and ideas for approaching Shakespeare. Fun and learning, hand in hand, and with Shakespeare no less — who’d a thought?  We crammed a semester’s worth of study into three weeks and it hardly felt like work at all. In this brief time we spent so many hours laughing together, creating together, discovering together.

So. I can’t remember another 3-week period of my life where I’ve experienced so much personal, professional and artistic growth, all at once, and all derived from the same source, which happens to be the greatest writer in the English language and the stage for which he wrote.  Which is why I need some closure to really solidify everything this experience has meant to me.  The next several blog posts will aim to tackle this.

 

 

 

As You Like It, 2015

ayli

My first experience with As You Like It was in college at Denison University, freshman year, 1996.  We read the play, discussed it, watched the BBC version from the 1970s with Helen Mirren…and that was it.  It didn’t leave an indelible mark on me the way other Shakespeare plays did (except for two lines that have always remained with me: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” and the excellent insult, “Sell while you can: you are not for all markets.”).  I was exposed to Measure for Measure at the same time, and that one became a quick favorite that I would read several times in the ensuing decades and see performed in a variety of productions.  Somehow the hijinks in the Forest of Arden didn’t touch me in the same way.

wpid-20150719_204940.jpgA year or so later the Denison Singers performed a setting of Shakespeare’s songs by a Welsh composer whose name escapes me, but the work included “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “It was a Lover and his Lass” from AYLI.  These stuck.  I’ve been singing them in my head periodically ever since, and, in fact, I attempted to keep a Shakespeare blog called “Under the Greenwood Tree” once upon a time.  In any case, despite loving these two songs, I never returned to Arden myself until a few months ago when I learned it would be one of the plays we’d be studying here.

Before I actually reread the play, I read a few essays from Harold Bloom’s very large Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. They weren’t even about AYLI, but in everything I read he found an excuse to talk about Hamlet, Falstaff and Rosalind (AYLI’s heroine) again and again, and in the most unlikely of places (The Bastard in King John, for example, is an early sketch of a character that approaches the complexity of a Hamlet, a Falstaff, or a Rosalind…).  I knew that Rosalind was one of Shakespeare’s major female roles, but I certainly didn’t remember her as being so well-developed and complex.

The production here at the Globe, then, was a revelation.  The plot is still the plot, and it is (endearingly) bizarre, but the staging and the acting made the show uproariously funny — and everyone in our programme agreed.  The scenery, as is the custom here at the Globe, was minimal.  Shakespeare gives the audience the scenery with his words, and unless you can do better than he does, you’re better not to try.  The result is that there is very little stuff to get in the actors’ way, and the emptiness of the huge stage gives them the freedom to play.  And they do!  Touchstone, the cynical clown, had some moments of great physical slapstick that was complimented by his quick tongue.  Our scene director, Pieter Lawman, pointed out that Touchstone is a difficult role to play because much of what he says isn’t very funny on the surface of it.  Finding his humor is a real challenge, but Daniel Crossley spit out his words with a venom and speed accompanied by apt gesticulation: we were in stitches!

Dear Globe and photographer Simon Kane: Please don't sue me for using this photo of the amazingly talented and wonderful Michelle Terry from your excellent playbill.

Dear Globe and photographer Simon Kane: Please don’t sue me for using this photo of the amazingly talented and wonderful Michelle Terry from your excellent playbill.

As for Rosalind, all I can say is that I’m now a lifelong fan of Michelle Terry and I will go to see her in anything she does for the rest of her career.  It was magical.  In her first scene we see her banter with Celia (Ellie Piercy, equally excellent, but whose character plays the straight-man, somewhat, to Rosalind’s unbound trickster).  She’s girlish — and churlish — and then, as her uncle, Celia’s father, banishes her from the land she is so utterly and convincingly strong and independent.  If you were to take Terry’s Rosalind to a karaoke bar, she could sing “I am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” and follow it up immediately with a flirtatious rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and the combination would not have seemed ironic.  She was powerful and playful, and, of course, this depiction is not contrived, it’s exactly how Shakespeare wrote her to be.  But somehow I missed it in the reading.

I don’t know how many more times this production of AYLI will be performed, but I don’t think it’s very many as the season is wrapping up on September 5th.  But if you read this in time, and if you are able, you must (MUST!) see it!

(And if you can’t make it….well, mayhaps you can come see me take my turn as Rosalind on the Globe stage on July 24th.  Michelle Terry needs some competition.  Just sayin’…)

 

 

 

Justice & Mercy

Well, we’re a week into Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance and all I can say is, “Wow!”

(Actually, that’s not true — I’ve got a bit more to say…)

I didn’t realize how much I needed this experience.  I’m definitely not burnt out after twelve years of teaching, but I have gotten set in my ways.  I’d change texts from one semester to the next, true, but not always tactics.  When I consider all the things I’ve learned in this week, how much more engaging my lessons will be in September, I feel guilty: I could have been doing such a better job for years now.  I let myself stop growing as a teacher.

But, as Richard II so callously says in the two-and-a-half lines he takes to eulogize his uncle, John of Gaunt, immediately after hearing of his death, “So much for that.”  Not that I mean to be callous, but where will bemoaning my faults get us?  Nowhere.  Let’s move on.

I’ll get into the details of the programme and what I’ve learned, but the first thing I want to do is write about the plays we’ve seen.  At this point, we’ve attended all of the Globe-produced plays that we’re going to experience (still have Richard III tomorrow, but it’s a Chinese touring company — should be amazing, but it isn’t a part of the Globe’s repertoire this season).

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These are the Globe programs. They’re so thorough; excellent teaching resources. British theatres don’t provide programs for free the way American ones do — they cost four pounds — but they’re far more substantial in terms of information. If your brain is still playing over the performance long after the final bow, these will help you as you continue to think about it all. I highly recommend them.

The current offerings are united thematically by the concepts of justice and mercy.  They include:

  • A duke who has allowed the laws to become lax, so he leaves town and empowers a regent who decides it’s high time the laws be enforced as written, even if it means executing anyone caught having sex outside of wedlock.
  • A king, divinely appointed, who has used his land and people as his personal bank account, living extravagantly on the country’s dime until he is called out and punished for it — and learns the true value of his life.
  • A princess banished for the supposed sins of her father, who finds the power in banishment to arrange people, events and outcomes as she likes them to be.

I’ve got quite a bit to say about each one, but I’ll take them one at a time (along with the additional performances I’ve been privileged to see here: The Death of King Arthur, The Beaux Stratagem, and, hopefully, Everyman).  

Let’s get started!

The Shakesperience of a Lifetime

So I’ve been a total Shakespeare nerd for the past twenty-plus years and I can prove it.

(And no, it’s not because I used that stupid portmanteau in the blog post title…but it made you groan a little, right? ;))

I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I've held on to these beautiful collector's edition of Shakespeare ever since.

I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I’ve held on to these beautiful collectors’ editions of Shakespeare ever since.

It began with Romeo and Juliet in Ms. Tyler’s 9th grade English class, circa 1992.  I remember not being able to understand a damn thing, but really feeling smart because I was reading Shakespeare.  At that point in time, the words felt like a magical incantation, and it was a power I didn’t understand…but didn’t all young sorcerers begin with magic they didn’t understand?  Understanding, at that time, was a secondary pursuit.  Foggy meanings cleared up, however, when I presented my first Shakespeare scene: Romeo’s death.  After praising the quickness of the apothecary’s poison, I delighted in giving the audience the most drawn out death scene I could possibly muster.  It was fantastic.

Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I'm as old as I say I am and that I'm not making up "Hold out your cow bowstrings!"

Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I’m as old as I say I am and that I’m not making up “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”)

Things were easier in 10th grade when we took a stab at Julius Caesar, then later made asses of ourselves with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The latter in particular opened up the fun of the language.  One of our classmates misremembered Bottom’s last line in Act I, scene ii, and in true Bottom fashion asked us to “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”; the actual line is “Hold, or cut bow-strings,” but the truth of the matter was irrelevant.  We liked our version so much it became a mantra for our English class.

In 11th grade we went to the sinister side of things with Othello, Macbeth and the darkly comic Taming of the Shrew. I played the First Witch that year in our class scenes, and I can still remember Act I, scenes i and iii verbatim. We had so much fun with the project that we decided a photoshoot in the backyard was necessary — and this was at a time when you still needed to buy film, then take it Walgreens to have your photos developed: that’s how serious we were.

12th grade was the year of Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest — and, because I felt ready, I read Twelfth Night on my own.  I also competed in the Junior League of Cincinnati’s Shakespeare recitation contest, performing Benedick’s monologue from Much Ado About Nothing (the Branagh-Thompson film version had just come out and I saw it in the theater!) and “Sonnet 29” (which is also etched permanently in my memory).

The hurlyburly is clearly overdone.  (circa 1995, age 17)

The hurlyburly is clearly overdone; that “robe” is actually seven black t-shirts strategically arranged. (circa 1995, age 17)

In college, at Denison University, I took “Shakespeare” during my Freshman year and purchased the Pelican Complete Works which has graced my shelves ever since.  In its table of contents I’ve kept track of every play that I’ve read and seen: check marks mean I’ve read it, pluses mean I’ve seen it performed, either live or on film.  At this point in time I’ve read all but six, and I’ve seen a version of nearly every play that I’ve read — most of them live.

When I studied abroad in Bath, UK, during the summer of 1998, I was swamped with work and didn’t have the time to travel that I would have liked, but I did make sure to get to Stratford.  A friend and I stayed the night in a bed & breakfast (first time I’d done that!), visited all the Bardolatry pilgrimage sites, and saw Measure for Measure and Romeo & Juliet at the RSC.  It was perfect.  I worked for the same study abroad program in Bath — Advanced Studies in England — the year after college, and as part of my job we visited Stratford several more times, and I even got to see King Lear at the Globe Theater in London…as a groundling…by choice.  (I wanted the real, gritty Elizabethan experience…)  I even brought my 12 year-old brother and my young cousin to the Globe when they visited.

Pelican Complete Works.

Pelican Complete Works.

As a teacher I’ve taught Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, The Tempest — and taken my students to see live performances of each.  In 2010 I traveled with students to London to tour the city; an entire afternoon was spent at The Globe.  It was my first time getting to see the inner-workings of the place, and I was fascinated — and I was glad to see that my students were as well!

With the fool statue in Stratford-upon-Avon.  (circa 1998, age 20)

A motley fool, and a statue in Stratford-upon-Avon. (circa 1998, age 20)

Which is why I am ecstatic to announce that I’ll be getting to know Shakespeare’s theater much more intimately this summer.  I am incredibly proud to tell you that I’ll be taking part in the Globe’s “Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance” program as one of the English-Speaking Union’s British Universities Summer School scholars.  During the three weeks at the Globe we’ll learn the latest techniques for teaching Shakespeare so that his works reach 21st century youth in a way that is much more accessible than the Age of Enlightenment literary exegesis that I grew up with (even though I have very fond memories of those heady early encounters with the texts).  I’m humbled and honored to have been given this opportunity by the English-Speaking Union of the United States’ New York branch, who awarded me a generous scholarship to make it possible.

With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32)

With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32, far right)

This is going to be such a monumental experience that it almost feels like a capstone to my lifelong pursuit of Shakespeare, but I’m only a third of the way through my career as a teacher, so this is really still the beginning.  Hamlet asks what dreams may come during the sleep that is death, and I have no answer.  But in the wakefulness of life, had you told me that I’d spend three weeks studying Shakespeare on his own stage (albeit a replica…), well, this is a dream I’d never even thought to dream — but I’m thrilled that it’s coming true.

Expect to see many, many updates on my Shakespeare experiences on this blog in the weeks and months to come.

 

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

With a title like that, John Ford’s play is bound to stick in your mind.  It did mine: I’d never read it, but I’d never forgotten it since I first heard about it in college.  When I saw that it was being produced by the Red Bull Theater company – a group that specializes in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – I couldn’t pass it up.

tis pity 3

I was stunned; it was phenomenal!  The play is described as being like Romeo and Juliet, except that the star-crossed lovers happen to be brother and sister.  If that sounds farfetched and over-the-top, well it’s just one of several aspects of this production that will raise your eyebrows and drop your jaw.

That said, it wasn’t the premise or the live nudity or the insanely (insanely!) violent ending that shocked me most (although each of those elements did make my eyes open widely).  The most shocking aspect to me was that the dialogue was so easy to follow.  I’m an English/Drama teacher, so I’ve read and watched my fair share of Shakespeare, and while I find it much easier to study than my students do thanks to a lifetime of being exposed to his language, his words are still very challenging.  I’ve watched Shakespeare plays that I haven’t studied and followed along well enough, but having read the plays first seems to make for a richer experience.  I thought it would be the same with ‘Tis Pity since it is also a Jacobean play (albeit later than Shakespeare’s works), but, on the contrary, I don’t think there was a single moment’s confusion.

Why not?

Presumably I can interpret heightened language quicker than I could in the past.  And truly, the actors were so good at their roles that their interpretations brought clarity that could have conceivably been lacking in the written dialogue.

'Tis pity the run of our show is over so soon, sister.

‘Tis pity the run of our show is over so soon, sister.

But the bigger reason, I think, is that the work lacks the poetry and beauty of a  Shakespeare play, a realization that was illuminating.  I haven’t studied too many of Shakespeare’s peers, so it was fascinating to see how Ford’s play made Shakespeare’s genius more obvious.  Don’t get me wrong: I LOVED IT!  But I loved it because it was entertaining, dark, creepy, and sadistically self-indulgent.  I love horror movies, too, for pretty much the same reasons, but Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t a smart Hitchcock thriller.  And ‘Tis Pity isn’t Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth, or OthelloMacbeth in particular could be just as bloody (or even more so, really), but the violence underscores the deeper thematic and philosophical issues.  In ‘Tis Pity, even the most poetic moments (which tend to be defenses of incest) feel as gratuitous as the sex and violence and Catholic-bashing (by means of the deliciously morally-bankrupt cardinal).  Shakespeare doesn’t usually stoop to the kinds of devices that Ford used.  Ford, in modern parlance, “went there!” with regard to such issues as brotherf***ing and disemboweling in ways that are meant to be showy.  I don’t really have a problem with gratuity in general because it’s usually entertaining and I tend to accept it as such, but it’s also what keeps good art from being great.  The production was great, but the play itself is only good.

Still, if it hadn’t closed the week after I saw it, I would have definitely insisted you go.  New York won’t see its like again for quite a few years.  I’ll be paying close attention to the Red Bull Theater Company from this day on.

Reflections — a reading of memoir vignettes from the Jersey City Writers

memoirflyerIt was Joni Mitchell who “looked at life from both sides now” and saw a different view from each side, but it was bell hooks (I think) who said that you’ll never get to the truth of any story until you look at it from at least seventeen sides, far more than the usually requisite two.  In that spirit, I invite you to join the Jersey City Writers‘ night of memoir fragments to hear stories from thirteen writers; not quite seventeen (sorry, bell), but I think you’ll hear thirteen very distinct voices from thirteen very different lives that might scratch against some interesting truths about our common humanity nonetheless.  I’m very proud to say that this will be my first public reading in Jersey City, a city I’ve come to love despite being a die-hard Hobokenite.  I’m excited for others to hear the works of the Jersey City Writers, a group of extremely talented people who inspire me every time I attend a workshop, a writing marathon, a prompts night…or any number of the other fantastic writing events they sponsor.

Please come out for it — I know you’ll be entertained, moved and impressed.

6/17, 7pm, Brightside Tavern, 141 Bright Street, Jersey City — FREE!

And apropos of nothing, here are two versions of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.”  Every now and then I’ll watch young Joni sing the cute song she wrote, and it’s beautiful, but it’s clear that old Joni understands it so much more.  She gives it the weight and truth that her younger self could never fully know.

“Something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

Traveling the Sistine Road (of Promise…)

Rehearsals have been underway for Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Road of Promise for several weeks now.  I can report that the Chorale is in fine voice and really enjoying working with this fascinating piece.  I was trying to think of how to describe it to someone recently, and it was hard to categorize.  It was originally an epic musical in the late 1930s titled The Eternal Road, the origins of which Janet Pascal has chronicled thoroughly here.  From what we’ve learned during the rehearsal process, it was quite possibly the most massive musical ever staged, with seven acres of set pieces, a 100+ person cast, and a length of nearly five hours.   This unwieldiness meant that revivals weren’t likely, so the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music commissioned a shortened version, which is The Road of Promise.

11078082_813690508720931_5446364770332979057_nAs a choral singer, you don’t get the full effect of a piece until you perform it with the orchestra and soloists, and there’s not a recording of this work yet (although there we’ll be: we’re making it!), but here’s what I can tell you.  While it is shorter in terms of time, it doesn’t seem to have lost much in terms of sound.  Weill’s sonic palate was rich and bright in this score, and his phrases are painted in broad strokes.  It’s luscious, even when we only have a piano to sing with; I can only imagine what the orchestra is going to sound like.

The story recounts a number of tales from the Old Testament as a Jewish community huddles fearfully in its synagogue during a pogrom.  Werfel’s lyrics, therefore, have the chorus perform one moment as God’s voice on the wind as he tells Abraham to spare his son, Isaac, and another moment as a choir of trumpeting angels.  Meanwhile, on the ground, you’ll hear us raucously rejoice as we worship the golden calf, pout grumpily as Joseph’s brothers who wish to kill him, and so forth.  It’s gorgeous music that relays profound subject matter, but it’s also quite a lot of fun to listen to.

So as I thought about how to describe it — lush sonic color, Old Testament themes — it occurred to me: this is the musical version of the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not just saying that to be cutesy.  Most operas and oratorios that deal with the same biblical subject matter hone in on a single story to explore in depth, but this work brings as many tales to life as it can in order to tell a much bigger story, which is exactly what the Sistine Chapel does.

So there you go.  I don’t know if anyone has ever described a musical work as ‘Sistine,’ but that’s what The Road of Promise is:

Huge. Breathtaking. Demanding. Gorgeous.

 

(AND tickets are still available!  May 6th and 7th at Carnegie Hall!)

I give you back

One of my all-time most cherished poems by one of my all-time favorite poets, Joy Harjo…with a photo of my nephew to lead the way.

"but come here, Fear...I am alive, and you are so afraid of dying."

“but come here, Fear…I am alive, and you are so afraid of dying.”

I Give You Back
by Joy Harjo

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the soldiers
who burned down my house, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.

to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.