Can Shakespeare be ‘timeless’ and hegemonic at the same time? …Let’s hope not?

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

In her recent article in The Guardian, ‘Did Shakespeare sell women short?’ Vanessa Thorpe examines the limitations of Shakespeare’s female characters and namely the RSC’s recent response to this concern. The RSC has announced that they will be producing three Jacobean dramas that feature major female roles. Brigid Larmour, has this to say:

“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”

My emphasis. I can’t be sure how intentional, but it was great to see women’s opinions sought after for this piece (albeit they all appear to be White women, but I guess the scope of this article was made pretty clear). There is also some comprehensive summaries of some of Shakespeare’s ladies actual line counts vs. their male counterparts. And how did I not know that only Cleapatra had what is closest to an actual soliloquy!?!?! Jesus. I’m glad the article mentions Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Gertrude – all powerful women in their own right, but at the end of the day, how many of the Bard’s plays pass the Bechdal Test? Two sources, here and here, say that things look pretty grim. Orlando, the writer of that second examination of my link, has this to add:

The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

Ok, I’d agree with that, and maybe even one could say that Shakespeare was one of the original, Western, writers to employ a sense of “Trojan Horse Television,” where “using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places.”

But so what? Why should we be applying modern social criticism to a White, male writer who died 397 years ago? Because a lot of people teaching Shakespeare’s text to both literature students and actors (and also our theatre industry but don’t get me started) tend to perpetuate that Shakespeare is a voice for timelessness and the scope of human nature.  Shakespeare Scholar Sarah Werner cautions:

This emphasis on individuals and common humanity distances the actor from any type political action or sense of history, and naturalizes the social order found in Shakespeare…

I would clarify here and say it has the potential to do that. And that it’s been done a lot. I’ve been co-teaching a Shakespeare text workshop over the past few weeks in Seoul to participants who have mostly had limited experience with the performance of his writing. In my enthusiasm to make his words less academic, more egalitarian, more accessible – I have found myself tempted to go into universalist overtures. The well-intentioned platitudes like “Shakespeare is for everyone!” “His stories and characters are timeless!” and “they speak for us all” allow us to efface Shakespeare’s identity locations of being White, male, and English and decontextualizes the society he lived in, which was patriarchal and colonialist. Thorpe writes in her Guardian piece,

In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”

Of course, the fact that women weren’t even allowed to play his characters onstage during his lifetime is going to have an impact on his writing. How could it not? I remember seeing Much Ado about nothing for the first time, and watching Hero choose to ultimately marry Claudio after all the humiliating bullshit he puts her through. I was filled with rage. Rage and disgust. Shakespeare was not speaking for ME in that moment. And of course, one could say that the theatre was staging this play or that we have our students play these parts in order to raise concern, discussion, debate, reaction. But that justification isn’t exactly going well for The Ordway in Minneapolis, who is referencing those very same things in defense of their upcoming production of the very racist musical, Miss Saigon.

Things are starting to become tangential (but important tangents nonetheless) so I will move forward. What are the implications, then, for our students?

‘What postcolonial actors need to develop is a theory and practice of actorly agency – a way of achieving interpretive and performative autonomy – by means of, within, through,and finally, outside of, clearly separate(d) from the will to power represented by the Shakespearean text’

– Denis Salter, ‘Acting Shakespeare in Postcolonial Space’

Shockingly, I keep returning to the idea of context and the rejection of lazy binaries that Shakespeare is either universal or an ignorant misogynist. I like to think that all of our voice, text, acting work is an invitation. We invite and the students have every right to engage or not. And as teachers, we hope to empower them through their choice of engagement. We are also responsible for finding other texts that offer us more diverse and powerful woman characters. That, and playing with more cross-gender casting, in both productions and class scene work. Let’s honor the shifting of gender identity locations and how they can shift in both Shakespeare’s work and in the literal bodies of our students.

“…It’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard.”

In a recent Guardian article, Edward Klemp, Artistic Director of RADA and actress Imogene Stubbs bemoan excessive mumbling and unintelligibility in theatre and films like the recent “The Great Gatsby.”

These two thespians, along with the article author, cited numerous reasons for this: directors and producers who believe that “mumbling is more truthful,” actors being encouraged to improvise scripts, decreasing opportunities for repertory work, and typecasting:

“The naturalistic, mumbling acting style tends to go with people who are playing something closer to their obvious self … People who are playing against their obvious self tend to embrace the acting a bit more,” added Stubbs.

Stubbs goes on to criticize actors who are afraid of sounding “like an old-fashioned actor.” I fundamentally agree with all of these industry factors and I certainly want all of my students or clients to be heard and understood by their audiences. It was the final reason given that prompted a number of reflective questions for me.

Part of the problem also lies in the education system. Teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship with language, let alone a sense of how to shape it, Kemp said. There is no longer a guarantee that even someone with an English degree from a leading university could handle this stuff, he added.

I am interested in why “teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship to language.” Of course, an “education system” is made up of complex relationships between teachers, students, law, and curriculum, so I am not trying to properly delve into this in a few words in a blog post. Is it possible, though, that this is partly because that as the UK student demographics grow increasingly more multilingual and multicultural, educational “language” is continuing to stay, for the most part, from canons of White males? And is it possible that many students these days may have little motivation for or inspiration from such indigenous cultural experiences written/created by a group that has systematically disempowered them? Some of British drama students I’ve spoken to have alluded to the idea that they don’t feel entitled to play certain characters from specific period plays and/or that if they do, they must be spoken in a ‘standard’ accent. Could another reason for mumbling be that actors are not being sufficiently trained in or feel empowered within their own accent, and are therefore struggling with the articulation of the text in performance?

“I guess I’ll go this way. I think there is a Staples down there.”

Ok, so this is only tangentially related to my research foci, but it is evocative and intriguing. I had thought about doing a similar video installation (on my list of 9,383,832,928 things to do) that explores our running narrative about seeing people and their visible identity locations (or the assumptions I’d make about them) in public spaces.

Anthropologist Andrew Irving has recorded 100 people verbally narrating their inner thoughts in New York City as they walk through the streets. I found this part of the artist’s particularly compelling:

“…once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.”

The idea of inner speech, imagery, muscles, blood, and nervous system all working together in a symbiotic relationship – this is exactly what many of us are trying to do with our acting students when they are working on text. And I particularly enjoy the emphasis here on urban life. Often, as voice teachers, we resort to a lot of nature imagery and metaphors. We often use our voice classes to escape our modernized world and get back to what is “natural” and “organic.” I’m interested in shifting the binary of nature = good/urban and modern = bad. Is nature imagery important to voice work, text work, poetry work? Omigod, yes. Especially if the text was written among those landscapes of yore. Can urban living create habitual tension in our bodies from low levels of the fight or flight reflex? Definitely. Living a city can have a negative impact on our ability to be vulnerable. That being said, what I like about this video project is that I see some green shoots springing out of some of these established paradigms. How do we, as students, artists, society, find a way to be expansive, empathetic, and vocally open within an urban environment? Can we challenge ourselves to use urban landscapes to explore our vocal potential?

For more information on Irving’s project, you can go here.

“Embracing the complications and the contradictions”

In a recent roundtable discussion in Minneapolis, Asian American artists came together to discuss the current state of Asian American theatre, their influences, and the relationship between their creative work and their identity.

Key quote from poet Bao Phi:

I feel like America’s narrative talking about race and all of these things – gender, sexuality – is becoming more and more complicated, for the better. And I’d like to see media coverage embracing the complications and the contradictions, rather than figuring out what stories fit into preexisting narratives and paradigms.”

As educators, we can embrace this challenge as well and provide our students with more opportunities to express their own stories and explore identity intricacies. A number of students have told me that they have been given text to read/perform in class by authors that maybe shared their parents’ nationality or just the color of their skin and they sometimes felt pressure to connect with this writer.

Linda Her, a spoken word artist and activist, reflects on the intersectionality of their identity locations and the challenges this sometimes presents:

“My experience as a Hmong American queer woman and performer has been that when I’m invited to a LGBT specific event it’s filled with all white folks, and then when I’m invited to a Hmong space to perform it’s filled with majority straight folks. I would love to have a space that is inclusive of all your selves, your identities. For example, how is the notion of marriage equality different for couples in which at least one person is an immigrant? How can we include those experiences?”

I would also love such a space, Linda. When I’m with adoptees, I’m rarely able to articulate the deep somatic experiences I’ve had as a trained actor and voice teacher that have impacted the trauma caused by the separation from our birthmothers. When I’m with theatre people and academics, it is hard to articulate the part of me that is non-White and frustrated. Interracial adoptees and other diasporic have to deal with this fragmentation their whole lives. I’m used to it but never comfortable with it. And like these artists in this roundtable, I’m manifesting spaces that are more inclusive of all our different selves.

Bao Phi’s poetry is really stunning and full of complex layers. I will be posting some of his work in the future.

“Moles live in holes.”

Why is it important to learn a poem by heart? Robert Butler interviewed a painter in his mid 80s who had W.H. Auden as a teacher in the 1930s:

He also said that Auden would insist that the boys in his class learn poem after poem by heart. Even parrot-fashion. Auden said it didn’t matter whether they understood them. If they learnt the poems now, they would not forget them and maybe, later in life, they would understand them. “It’s true,” the painter told me, “I can still remember them.”

Why does learning a poem by heart help us understand it better? It’s because poems are meant to be spoken and heard as opposed to read, just like choreography is meant to be seen and music is supposed to be felt and listened to. A poem should not just go into our eyes and then into our brains. It should be breathed and experienced in our bodies. Memorizing it puts it into our bodies, into our nervous system. And the chance of finding more of its sense will be much greater. This dude remembers lines of poetry he memorized 75 years ago. They are in his bones.