I’m so delighted to say that the Handbook of the History of Women on Stage is finally out in print.
It’s a behemoth, and as is always the way with such things, completely unaffordable for the average individual. However, I do hope that if you have an institutional affiliation you will order it in, and if not that you try requesting it from your local public library.
My chapter, as the Australian representative, is on race and casting practice in Australasian productions of Shakespeare. But it really is staggeringly comprehensive, covering a couple of thousand years and countries including, but not limited to, Greece, Italy, Britain, Canada, USA, South Africa, Russia and Japan. The authors represented are also a wonderful mix of academics and theatre practitioners, with plenty who demonstrate the futility of the distinction.
We will be holding an international, online book launch, most likely in July. Details will be posted here as they are confirmed.
Cover shows Carolyne as Ariel in the San Vittore Globe Theatre production of Le Tempeste, photograph by Marcia Moretti
In 1592 and 1593 the London theatres were closed to try to keep an outbreak of plague under control. As we arrive at Shakespeare’s 456th birthday, it is something to reflect on – that theatres have been dark before, right before they became a massive shaping influence on our entire perception of cultural history.
I take a very pragmatic perspective on both birthdays and Shakespeare. If a marker of time prompts people to pause and think and value, then let us by all means set up some markers, especially now, when I have to keep looking up whether or not this is Thursday. Anniversaries are a great time to examine what we have and decide what it means to us and what use we want to make of it.
Relatedly, and speaking of usefulness, I am perpetually delighted and astonished at all the material we have because Shakespeare found his way into the middle of a talented and creative team of players who found their way into the middle of a vibrant and intellectually hungry city society. I’m grateful that we have the product of that, but I don’t feel that triggers an obligation of any particular kind to the original creators or some idea of a legacy. I do feel we have an obligation to cherish living artists, and be open to where they find inspiring sources. In other words, my interest in Shakespeare is in his usefulness. The richness of these plays as raw material has been proven over and over for four hundred years, and they haven’t run out of juice yet. So let us celebrate how useful they are to who we are.
So, Happy Birthday Will, and thank you. I promise we will continue to extract joy, form human, emotional bonds with one another, and invent extravagant, imaginative, nourishing, challenging art from the trove of material we have at our disposal because of you.
Art should be solace. Which is not to say that it should always be comforting, much less comfortable. Rather, that it should always be there to remind us that we are human when we doubt. This is a truly extraordinary time, when our need for what artists produce has become acute, driven by events that make most of the usual avenues of production and delivery suddenly unavailable.
I have so many friends who don’t know when they will next have an income.
For those who are not Australian it is difficult to describe or explain how much this country hates the Arts. There is an ingrained sense that what artists do should remain a hobby, done in their own time and paid for by a day job. Our politicians long ago figured out that if they mock the very idea that our government should fund artistic companies they will please more people than they will annoy. Now suddenly most venues for generating and performing art have faced an abrupt halt, and it is being seized as an opportunity to let arts workers know that those in power want only for them to disappear. The Government’s rescue package for people who have lost work, being focused as it is on business owners rather than workers, has been set up in a format that could have been specially designed to exclude arts workers, who usually work a series of short-term contracts for different employers over the course of a year. When the Government launched a strategy to help the media industry yesterday the measures involved barely any money that could go to workers in the field, instead they announced that broadcast companies (the companies, note) would no longer be held to quotas for local content production. Help the Broadcasters by telling them they no longer have to hire local workers. Our Federal Government dissolved the Ministry of the Arts a few months ago, and our State Government (NSW) Arts Minister resigned a few days ago, and the Premier announced that he would not be replaced. There is a kind of ostentatious contempt for the sector, as if making a point about how possible it is to do nothing for its people is the goal.
It is wearying repeating endlessly that the Arts employs thousands more people than mining, and brings billions into the economy, not to mention that any money put into small-to-medium arts companies gets ploughed straight back into the local economy, but it’s not actually about statistics or facts at all, it’s a deeply visceral resentment of any work that is not immediately comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t experienced close contact with it as work (you can see similar attitudes leaking into areas like academia and even science).
So many people have, astonishingly, almost instantly begun to find ways to make and build and do under these new conditions. I admire, but have not found myself able to emulate. There are many ways my skill set could be adapted to produce useful resources, but I also have a few gaps, and so I find myself floating in a vat of preliminary notes and good intentions, unable to anchor my brain to one buoy of a project long enough to learn any technique or complete any task. So, to illustrate the full extent of my ability to use this time to acquire new skills, here is a picture of Katherine of Valois I drew, in preparation for making a video on how to study Henry V.
But you probably don’t need to hear a bitter rant just at the moment. It would be much better to give over this space to those who are being positive. Because there are people out there who are still managing to create, and other people are finding that giving attention to creative things is working for them. So in recognition of the value of productive people here is something to make and something to watch –
To make: a project from Illinois State University (editors are credited on each example) allowing you to download, print out and make up quarto playtexts to see how Early Modern books were made: Shakespeare in Sheets
I’m back from Italy, which was mostly sightseeing, but a little bit work. I was invited to give a guest lecture and workshop at the Shakespeare Summer School run each year by Dr Victoria Bladen of the University of Queensland. This year it took place in Verona, which is a town entirely built of pink marble and therefore primed to absorb and retain every last beam of the Tuscan summer sun. It held the heat even at night, like a blush in the cheeks.
The roughly thirty students who make up the summer school are drawn from a mix of Australian and local universities; the teaching is done in English. My contribution was a brief overview of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but more significantly a workshop on speaking verse drama and using cue scripts as a tool for understanding Early Modern dramatic texts. This is very hands-on, on-your-feet stuff, and is possibly my favourite thing to do of all the things.
Anyone working in the field of coaching Shakespeare performance worth their fee will be able to show actors how to mark up the scansion in verse drama. Scansion is the rhythm of a line of poetry, and few education systems include instruction on how to read it, unless you go to one of those very ancient private schools or stumble upon a teacher with a particular passion in that direction. So I usually assume I am starting from scratch when explaining the fundamentals of how to analyse the metre in a line of verse drama. I teach a much simplified version that would not pass muster at Cambridge or RADA, but from experience I have identified how much you can hope to get done in a single workshop and leave people with enough of a foundation for them to build on.
Teaching the workshop, with Australian, Italian and French students
Lots of teachers of Shakespeare also experiment with cue scripts, which is a related but separate topic. Actors in companies of Shakespeare’s time were never given the full script to work from, only ‘parts’ written up by a scribe that contained just the actor’s lines and his ‘cue’ – the three words spoken before his line, telling him when to come in. Directors and scholars like Patrick Tucker, Tiffany Stern and Simon Palfrey have written fascinating works on the impact this would have had on performance. I have developed my own way of using cue scripts with students to show them what it really feels like to encounter Shakespeare’s plays with the kind of motion and spontaneity that is so difficult for us to recapture when they have been set texts for study for hundreds of years. I love the way they can get people thinking about acting, meaning, poetry and history all at once.
Cue scripts only work the way they do because the lines are mostly arranged in a verse structure, rather than in the ordinary prose of dialogue. Cue scripts can certainly be made out of regular prose plays, but the process of marking up the scansion to see where the emphasis lies is so entwined with the business of using the pared-back script as a guide to how to respond to the other actors and the situation you are all in on stage that I feel learning about speaking verse drama without cue scripts or vice versa is like reading only every second page of a book.
Verona was certainly the place to take my method out for a spin. Such a venue and season predisposes everyone to openness and willingness to have a bit of a go at new things. And I’m convinced that if all my teaching was showcased in pink marble I would always be brilliant (fact. It’s an Italy thing).