What A Sweet Place It Is

As I make my transition from a Pennsylvania to a Virginia residence, I can’t help but relate to the little-black-dog-toting heroine Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz as she clicks her heels together and says, “There’s no place like home.”  The funny thing is, if I were actually wearing those magical ruby pumps, I’m not sure where they would take me.

When Milton Hershey broke ground on his chocolate factory in 1903, he probably had no idea that his name would eventually adorn an entire town (plus countless confection wrappers around the world). Hershey, PA, is my hometown: where I know the back roads, where I went to school, and where the bank tellers recognize me.  In his 1915 poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost remarks that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  As cynical as it sounds, the sentiment rings true for me. In both times of joy and stress, I relish the soft, safe, and established environment of my parents’ house.  I look back fondly on the time I spent in my first apartment nearby.

The first time I visited Staunton, as part of the Penn State Harrisburg Honors Program’s annual trip, I felt an strange familiarity with the town. It was like an old acquaintance with whom I delighted in reconnecting.  From the shops on Beverley Street to the local farmers’ market, I spent hours exploring the town with my friends. Each of the local eateries gave me a different flavor of Staunton. I quickly found, though, that my favorite part of the trip took place within the walls of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. As soon as the actors took up their instruments for that first pre-show, I was enthralled.  I had never been much for theatre, but this was a truly engrossing experience.  Sarah Fallon’s Dido in Dido, Queen of Carthage left me heartbroken and awed, while Ben Curns’s Richard in Richard III had me knowingly deceived and secretly seduced. Even though I had studied the plays, I had never seen them like this before. I knew that I wanted to be as much a part of this exhilarating experience as possible. After graduating in May with a degree in Secondary Education/English, I searched high and low for job opportunities that would allow me to pursue this passion. The situation looked bleak, but then entered the lovely folks at Mary Baldwin College to save the day. Thanks to Sarah Enloe’s referral, the coordinators of the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted reached out to me when they needed to hire an RA for their residence hall. For the past two weeks, I’ve been settling into my new apartment. In both my job and my internship, I get to teach and learn. The support I have received from my new colleagues is almost overwhelming, and I have yet to find a dour face among them.  This whole process has been a delightful whirlwind.

Here at the ASC, I feel honored to have been given the title of Conference Intern, meaning that I will be working to make this year’s Blackfriars Conference (from October 23-27) a smashing success. Just two weeks into the job, I can feel the anticipation building.  Having never worked with anything like this before, I’m learning worlds of new information every day, from the guidelines of stage combat to the definitions of the words plenary and colloquy. I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity, and I am looking forward to what has already become a meaningful and rewarding experience.

So here I am, clicking my heels together. Every time I do, I find another piece of Staunton that feels like home.

- Rikki C

Melville, Nobokov, Marx, and the Duke

One of the most wonderful qualities of Shakespearean plays is their continual ability to influence our world today. Of course, our generation has widely used him in reference for pop songs and the occasional misquote, “I fell in love with you, and you smiled because you knew,” not to mention the frequent tattoo remarking on how little and fierce a woman can be. But we cannot overlook the grander ways that philosophers, poets, and innovators have used Shakespeare throughout the years. Some of the best works, quotes, and ideas can even come out of his more aspersed works, such as Timon of Athens (probably co-written with Thomas Middleton).

         

  Through my research of the play so far, I have come across some seemingly random congruences to Timon, the incredibly generous man suddenly churlish and alienated from the world he knew and loved when he thought it loved him back, the first being Herman Melville. While most critics saw Timon as a rancid tragedy, Melville saw it as a dark ironic voice and sought to compare it both to himself and to a few characters in his own works, such as ‘Jimmy Rose’ and The Confidence-Man. ‘Jimmy Rose’ tells the story of a man who, in the same air as the play, loses everything and is turned down by his own friends in the process of loss. The Confidence-Man interlaces Timon’s qualities into many different characters and includes a similar scenario to Timon and Apematus’ banters, pulled from Act 4 scene 3 of Timon. It is hard to overlook Melville’s personal Timon-like qualities, “regarding himself as an artist who, though surrounded by flatterers, was ultimately alone in the world.” (Dawson 42).

        

   Another work Timon inspired is the novel/poem Pale Fire by Vladimir Nobokov. The novel tells the story of a professor of literature, Charles Kinbote, who lives with the paranoid delusion that his life was an influential part of the 999-line poem written by his favorite poet, John Shade. Kinbote identifies with Timon and carries around a copy of the work as he is deemed insane and ends up as an alienated misanthrope. The title, “Pale Fire” is straight from Timon of Athens, Act 4 scene 3. The metaphor is meant to represent “nature’s cycle of thievery,” as the moon constantly steals her light from the sun and in Nobokov’s satirical fashion, exemplify critics who steal the ‘sun’ from their subjects (43).

   

A less intense and dark product of Shakespeare and Middleton’s work is the 1991 full-scale opera based on Timon. Written by Stephen Oliver, the opera takes the simple tragic route, keeping its distance from the darker and heavier motifs. Other composers influenced by Timon include Henry Purcell for Thomas Shadwell’s adaptation of the play, Benjamin Britten in 1935, and the most frequented for modern productions of Timon,Duke Ellington,

  

Lastly, Karl Marx’s theories of economy, money, and the control it has over everyone relates hardily to the relationship between nature and the artificial generation of money through systems of interest (202). Marx enjoyed Timon’s scathing scrutiny of the spiteful power of cash, as well as gold’s power over every single character in the play. He notes in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 gold’s power to invert values; gold’s ‘visible divinity’, able to transform ‘all human and natural properties into their contraries’, and its role as the ‘common whore’ of people and nations. Alienation, of course, rang true in Marx’s mind throughout Act 4, as the act stresses the idea of gold’s hold over mankind.

  

  Now, those are only a few of the many works, music, and people Timon of Athens has influenced. If you were to look into any production of the show, you’d see people like Peter Brook who used it as a tool to experiment further with his idea of poor theatre! There is no end to Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s, in this case) outstretch of inspiration or stimulus in the past, and for years to come. Hopefully, though, there will be fewer Taylor Swift songs that kind of get the ending wrong and defeat the purpose of a tragedy entirely.

Cheers!

Jess

  • Bibliography

Dawson, Anthony, and Gretchen Minton. The Arden Shakespeare: Timon of Athens. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008. Print.

Good Day At Once!

As a new dramaturgical intern to ASC I am pretty super-stoked to strut around with my bright red name-tag beaming the much-desired sharpie-strewn words:

American Shakespeare Center
Intern
Jess Young
[FBI]

 Ok, taking it a little far, I admit, but I am beyond grateful for the chance to work at my little corner desk, my nose already stuffed into old archived dramaturgy packets and mind eager to get back into shape.

My initial calling in collegiate theatre was backstage work. I dabbled in set design and worked as a journeyman, running rotary shows at Wilson Hall (James Madison University) and then the (lovely, wonderful, magnificent (home)) Forbes Center. Needless to say, it has been a strange experience coming into a theatre job without the required closed toed shoes on and a wrench or Leatherman tied to my belt loop. It is just as well, though, as I am strangely content not having to do any heavy lifting…except with my brain. I am set with new challenges, having already bore through breakdowns of scenes, maps, language, etc.

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Breaking down scenes:  From Timon of Athens in which editors have determined that more satirical or theatrical scenes such as the mock banquet may have been written/dictated by Thomas Middleton rather than Shakespeare.

 My first dramaturgical task is to prepare materials to assist the Actors’ Renaissance Season actors prepare for their production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a play fixed on the themes of nature versus men, assays of friendship, and many alluding ties to cannibalism! Excuse my bloodlust, the last piece of Shakespeare I was able to dig my fingers into was a student-directed version of the Scottish play, in which I played 4 different characters, three of which died. While I find much joy in many of Shakespeare’s love stories and comedies, I cannot help but be enticed by his misanthropic and sometimes intimidating throes of vehemence in distrust, violence, skepticism and tragedy of which Timon has lightly brought back to my life.

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 Now that I’ve officially led you to believe I am most likely a buzz kill REALLY NICE PERSON, I want to say how happy I am here at the ASC, starting way back to those drama field trips in high school watching Twelfth Night, years later, being a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream during intermission when, as part of the audience, I was volunteered to juggle, and simply magical nights when my friends and I decided we needed to see a show at the Blackfriars.

As my internship extends into October when I have the opportunity to be a part of the Seventh Blackfriars Conference I hope to gain as much as humanly possible here, in my corner desk or sitting in on rehearsals across the street as I make my own little dramaturgical packets!

Cheers!
-Jess Young

The Vision behind the Garments

Hello there, online Shakespeare aficionados. My name is Sadie Albert, and I am the Hospitality, Development, and Box Office intern. That’s right, Internet, I am a “Jack of all trades” intern, a curious dabbler, a girl absorbing as much knowledge as I can. Outside of the internship, I am a senior at James Madison University studying theatre and Spanish. I love music, coffee, and soccer. Above all, I love people, especially the unique stories that each person carries with her.

As I sat down to write my first blog post, I began to think about what I had learned so far as an intern. My favorite moment was when I had the chance of interviewing Erin West, the Costume Shop Manager and a costume designer at the American Shakespeare Center. She showed us the costumes that she was working on and the renderings for the Summer Season shows Romeo and Juliet, Return to the Forbidden Planet, and All’s Well that Ends Well. If that was not exciting enough, she took us to the attic of the Blackfriars Playhouse where I was able to see the costume storage. It’s like a fairytale up there. You could spend all day playing dress up. By looking at these costumes one thing is certain: the American Shakespeare Center prides itself on re-creating the world that Shakespeare lived via tools of the modern world.

The creative team blends contemporary approaches and design aspects with what the texts and historical evidence tell us Shakespeare’s company would have used in the early modern period. During Shakespeare’s career as well as at the American Shakespeare Center, the visual design fell nearly entirely to the costumes. Lighting design was sparse due to the lack of electricity, and large set pieces were expensive and heavy. There was no main curtain to drop for a scene change, so the words of the playwright created the setting. Shakespeare’s company, therefore, relied on costumes to aid the stories visually.

A major difference between theatre today and the theatre of Shakespeare’s time is that Shakespeare’s players dressed in what they knew. They did not design costumes that were historically accurate. For example, in Julius Caesar, it would seem logical to put the actors in togas according to the ancient Roman time period; however, in 1.2, Casca says, “he plucked me ope his doublet and offered them his throat to cut,” indicating that the actors were wearing doublets. As the above illustration of Titus Andronicus shows, they may have added faux-historical elements over Elizabethan-era clothing, but the base was still clothing that was modern for them.

Similarly, West tries to re-create that aspect of design, but with the knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities of our modern day. This method of design separates the Blackfriars Playhouse from many other theatres. Jim Warren and Ralph Alan Cohen founded the American Shakespeare Center to make Shakespeare more accessible and to help audiences understand his language, theatre and life. The costumes tell the story behind the character, even before a character opens his or her mouth. For example, in a recent production of Julius Caesar, the actor who played Caesar wore a modern day suit. The audience may not know much about ancient Roman history, but the suit explains what “type” of character he is merely by how he dresses. Likewise during Shakespeare’s time, the costume may not have been historically accurate, but would have provided the audience with an idea of who the character was even before he spoke.

End note: My supervisor, Heidi Findlay gathered the stories from the conversation with Erin and put together a fundraiser to raise money for the costume shop. $4,800 was raised, which was about 4x the anticipated goal of $1,300. Many people who donated shared their own personal stories. The entire fundraiser was special because all of the donors felt like they had a connection to Erin. Link to the fundraiser: http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/v.php?pg=1590
- Sadie Albert

Shakespearean Staging for the Agriculturally Inclined

Last week as I was burying myself alive in the archive closet, I came across a rather intriguing article.  Written in 1995 for the Harrisonburg Daily News Record, the article relayed how the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express performed in a livestock sale arena for visiting scholars of the “Center for Renaissance and Shakespearean Staging.”  I was particularly interested in the article because I am the fifth generation of a farming family that has been active in showing and selling animals in various venues, including the local Market Animal Show at the Staunton Union Stockyard.  As a participant of MAS, it’s hard to imagine actors performing Shakespearean plays in the same place where I sold a cow.  So, at first, the idea of performing Shakespeare in such a setting seems a little bit odd and quirky.  I had never heard of anyone doing this before.  However, the writer of the article wrote that Shakespeare and his actors probably would have “performed on stages that might have hosted a disgusting session of bearbaiting just the day before.”  With this in mind, it doesn’t seem quite as strange to imagine actors performing in a sale arena.

In fact, the atmosphere of a livestock sale arena seems perfectly tailored for Shakespearean plays, especially the way the American Shakespeare Center does them.  If you’ve never been to a livestock sale (I highly recommend going to one just for the experience) and are unfamiliar with the setting, it is an extremely interactive, lively event.  Livestock arenas are usually set up as semicircular amphitheatres, with the sale ring surrounded on three sides similar to the thrust stage at the Playhouse.  Much like a production at the Blackfriars Playhouse, there are major audience interactions in the “show”:  the auctioneer talking at a pace that seems faster than the speed of light, the people talking on their cell phones taking bids, hands and cards shooting up out of the crowd, the tired child somehow asleep among all the noise and movement.  There is always something going on, something to pay attention to.  While all this is going on around an idle observer, the observer has their own responsibility to not raise their hand.  Nobody wants to be that person who simply wanted to scratch his or her nose and ended up buying a cow.  Thus, one must make sure to control their movements so as not to cause any kinks in the sale process.  This could be comparable to a cell phone ringing during a performance at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  Just as you draw attention to yourself by accidentally bidding on an animal, a ringtone or vibration will turn the actors’ (and the audience’s) focus to you…and you will most likely become the butt of a joke for the remainder of the show.

After finding these similarities between two seemingly different venues, I think it would be really interesting if theatre groups performed in sale arenas more often, especially in areas like Augusta County where agriculture is so important.  It might be a way to reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise go see a Shakespearean play.

–Sarah Swortzel, Archives Intern

Getting to know the ASC

I’ve lived near Staunton my whole life, so as a local, I was fairly familiar with the American Shakespeare Center. Now that I’m actually working at it, I get to see what goes on behind the scenes.

My name is Beth, and I’m the new (and only) Marketing Intern at the ASC. I graduated from Fort Defiance High School in 2008, and went to get undergraduate degrees in Literature and Professional Writing from Virginia Tech. After graduation from school, I struggled to find the kind of work that would be interesting, fun, and related to my degree. Fortunately, the ASC meets all of my requirements.

There is a group of interns here who do a little bit of everything. I’m going to be doing most of the marketing work for the interns, from social media to designing posters, writing press releases, and helping in the upcoming website transition. This week I’ve been working on creating new postings for our Summer, Fall, Holiday, and Spring shows of 2013-2014 on the Virginia.org page to promote tourism, and creating press releases to promote the American Shakespeare Center’s Theater Camp in local media.

My first week has shown me how great it is to work at the ASC. The people here genuinely care about each other, even us lowly interns. Being an intern at the ASC doesn’t mean getting coffee, or making a billion copies. It means being an important part of a team of people who want to help me get valuable experiences, and help others rediscover the work of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

All in all, it’s going to be a pretty sweet gig.

Beth Thompson, 2013 ASC Marketing Intern

Swords with Friends

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit in on rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet.  The rehearsal was focused on 3.1, in which there is quite a lot of fighting and death.  At first, I didn’t think twice about the fact that the actors were wearing swords at their sides.  They were about to partake in an epic fight scene; why wouldn’t they have swords?  However, director Jim Warren reminded everyone at the beginning of rehearsal that this particular production is set in modern times when people don’t just carry swords around.  Because of the oddness of carrying and using swords in the modern day, Jim told the actors at the beginning of rehearsal to make sure the swords didn’t just hang by their sides, but that the actors make use of them.  I believe the swords do not appear in most earlier and later scenes in the production, so the actors have to make sure the swords have some purpose.  I was amazed by how easily the actors incorporated the swords into their dialogue, even when there were no feelings of animosity.

Reflecting on the rehearsal and the stage combat, it seems that, even in a modern setting, swords are necessary for this scene for performance at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  Because the set and effects are so limited in comparison to those in film or other theatres, to make the most out of a fight scene you have to find some way to drag it out a little.  If the actors had guns or some other more modern weapon, each fight would only last a matter of seconds because there are no set pieces to hide behind or filming techniques to use to make the scene more dramatic.  In this American Shakespeare Center production of Romeo and Juliet, the swords become a visual aid to for the audience.  Not only do the actors use the swords for the fights themselves, but in the dialogue proceeding and following (as well as in a large amount of Shakespeare’s writing) there is so much innuendo that actors and directors can choose to play with, such as when Mercutio says to Tybalt, “Here’s my fiddlestick; here’s that shall / make you dance” (3.1.48-9).  During the rehearsal of 3.1, the swords better enabled the actors to work with some of those subtexts that might not otherwise be apparent to the audience.

After watching the rehearsal, I realized I had never really thought about just how important simple props can be in a production, especially in a theatre like the Blackfriars Playhouse where props are kept to a minimum.

-Sarah Swortzel