On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 3

It’s Saturday 10 December, a bit dreary and rainy but the holiday trimmings keep things light. My ticket says 11am, so at 10:45 I emerge from the Regent’s Canal exit at King’s Cross underground station and turn right. There’s a queue forming outside the makeshift theatre space, but I head straight for the ramp, flash my ticket, and am ushered through into a warm, tight lobby. Then, huddled together in the buzz and the heat, we wait: me and several dozen other lucky folks who have ponied up £120 for the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy, created and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and her incredible cast in association with Clean Break.

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As you can imagine, we are mostly the expected demographic: in early 30s and 20s (notably, thanks in part to the Donmar’s “Front Row” access scheme), plus a few middle aged and older; not exclusively but by far majority white. We look like a night at the Almeida or the Young Vic across town; we look, mostly, like London’s privileged theatre-going class.

But today, for this one time only, I just don’t care.

Because we are here to see a monumental, game-changing piece of work. We are here to see an astonishingly talented group of women – women ONLY, and largely women of colour – perform three Shakespeare plays not associated, typically, with women’s roles: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. These women will play all the parts, and they will play them so well that at the end of the day I will declare on social media, with all the force of twenty years of Shakespeare-going around the world behind me, that this is some of the finest, if not THE finest, Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed.

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Sheila Atim and Jade Anouka in Henry IV.

What follows is a post about mobility, accessibility, and the public stage. About what it takes to put women’s stories on view for a public audience, and why it shouldn’t have to take so very much at all – because women’s stories are, in fact, for everyone.

Women’s stories are STORY, full stop.

But this is also a post about mobility, accessibility, and those who live on our margins, because the Shakespeare Trilogy doesn’t just put women’s stories, through the words of William Shakespeare, on the stage.

It puts incarcerated women’s stories on stage, and it has given incarcerated women the freedom to explore their stories in kind.

It was early 2012 (a full year before Orange is the New Black made prison women hip, y’all) when Phyllida Lloyd joined forces with Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and Executive Producer Kate Pakenham to conceive an all-female Julius Caesar.

(Let’s stop for a minute and mark this, because it will be important: Josie [below right] and Kate run one of London’s premier West-End venues. Phyllida [below left] is one of the UK’s leading directors. GIRLS TO THE FRONT, as my friend the film critic Sophie Mayer says.)

Why just girls on stage? Lloyd notes in an interview reprinted in the ST program that “Women have not been well served by [Britain’s] devotion to the Bard,” for two reasons. First, as she, Charlotte Higgins, Elizabeth Freestone, and other researchers (including me, in a forthcoming article) have argued recently, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a company of men, to be played primarily for male audiences (as well as for a Queen who styled herself a virgin). Of course most of the good roles were going to be male!

What does this mean for us, now? Simple: when we universalise Shakespeare’s power, authority, and aesthetic prowess, we also universalise what was in fact an entirely context- and history-dependent accident: an imbalance of male versus female (or gender-neutral) roles.

And because we lionise Shakespeare as the original poet-genius, we also call that shit not just normal, but ideal.

Second, and related, is this reason: with the canonisation of William “The Bard” Shakespeare – and the attendant cultural and economic power enjoyed by the Shaks industry worldwide – has come a firm, entrenched tradition of male “ownership” over this figure. Shakespeare’s roles are largely for men; the best ones (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Hal) are rite-of-passage work for male actors; tradition holds that men more typically direct His work. (And direct it better, somehow. How do we know? Well, we just… do. Don’t believe me? Tonic Theatre’s Advance project will open your eyes. Read more here.)

All this means that a situation like the Shakespeare Trilogy – in which Josie and Kate ask Phyllida to direct a major play, then another, then a third, with women in all the roles – is an utter, stunning rarity. Much more common, even in these post-feminist days, is a situation like the one in place at the Royal Shakespeare Company: powerful A.D. Greg Doran welcomed Erica Whyman as “deputy” A.D. in 2013; she took over responsibility for new work, equality and diversity files, and the redevelopment of the RSC’s famed small venue, The Other Place. Wonderful stuff, to be sure – Whyman is an incredibly talented visionary! – but again, let’s stop and mark the distinction, because it’s important. Doran is the current “owner” of the RSC’s brand; nobody questions that. Whyman’s role is one of helpmeet: she makes the RSC a safe place to play if you are not white and male.

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This is the context in which – and these are the reasons why – the partnership among Lloyd, Rourke, and Pakenham was so ground-breaking in 2012, and why it continued enthusiastically with 2014’s Henry IV and 2016’s The Tempest. And the need for women’s voices and experiences in all aspects of making Shakespeare now on stage felt obvious to me the moment I stepped into the Donmar’s King’s Cross space and witnessed the energy, the fire, the athleticism, and the power of the women-identified actors making this work.

Whole, amazing, brave new worlds emerge when women’s contemporary bodies inhabit the characters written originally for men 400 years ago.

And, to make matters even more electric: in this case, the worlds that emerged were driven by the powerful imaginations of women who are, literally, bounded in a nutshell.

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Anouka and the cast of The Tempest. I have a little crush on Jade; hence all the photos!

***

While I’m waiting in the lobby for the first show to begin, I read all the materials on the cast wall adjacent to the seating area. Here, I grab a handful of postcards with photos of the actors, in-role as their prison characters, and turn them over. The cards tell me this:

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The Shakespeare Trilogy is meta-theatre at its finest. It is theatre about the process of putting Shakespeare on stage. It is about what making theatre can help us to understand about ourselves, about our relationship to the cultures that shape us, and about our potential future worlds.

In conjunction with Lloyd, each other, and the women prisoners with whom they worked throughout their creative process, each of the professional actors in the ST cast created a female prison character through which to shape her interpretation of the Shakespearean characters she portrays in each of the plays in the trilogy.

(Got that? It goes: actor -> prison character -> multiple Shaks characters. Actors play the prison characters, which are then layered onto the Shaks characters. It’s tricky to do and tricky to watch. It’s an utterly marvellous challenge for audiences, though.)

We in the audience spy those prison characters briefly at the top and bottom of each show, as well as in moments through the middles when the Shakespeare gets interrupted by guards, when momentary violence between the prison characters breaks out, or when moments of tenderness, fear, and love amongst the imprisoned women bubble to the surface, driven by the emotions the verse brings.

These shows, in other words, aren’t just Shakespeare; they are a representation of Shakespeare played by and for women on the inside, for their own pleasure, learning, sustenance, and strength. We are visitors at their drama club, watching them do something important for themselves. We are asked to bear witness to them as they shape their stories through Shakespeare’s language, and as they give their own bodies, hearts, and minds fresh life thereby.

The ST was created in partnership with two organisations (Clean Break, linked above, and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project) that bring a form of drama therapy to incarcerated women in an effort to help them access their power and potential and build new worlds to walk into when they get out of jail. But ST itself is not drama therapy; it is, rather, a kind of immersive event that invites those of us privileged – with money, time, cultural capital and bodily freedom – to see for once properly inside the privilege that has accrued to the works of William Shakespeare, and to recognise one way in which that privilege might be more equitably distributed.

Who owns this legendary – no, this mythical – guy’s stuff? Who really benefits from its continual re-hashing, from our world-without-end need to see YET ANOTHER Romeo and Juliet? Who else might benefit? What would it take to make that actually happen?

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Harriet Walter, in a promotional shot for Henry IV.

I don’t have room here to review these amazing three shows in full, but I do want to offer three small snapshots of my experience over the course of the 12 hours I gave over to Lloyd, her creative partners, her actors, and the imprisoned women whose spirits they held throughout the day. These are simply recordings of three moments that made meaning for me as a woman invested in theatre equality, as a scholar invested in women making Shakespeare for the public stage, and as a human being trying to be hopeful in a moment of bleak uncertainty. They are three moments that especially moved me.

Moment number one happened at the end of Julius Caesar. With but lines to go, the performers playing ushers/guards brought the prison characters’ show to a close: lights up, everyone back to their bunks. Harriet Walter, as Brutus, was positioned on the stairs behind me and to the left. (The ST played in an arena-style, in-the-round space that called up the spirit of a chilly institutional gymnasium.)

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“IT ISN’T FAIR!” she called out, visibly upset. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was speaking: Brutus, her prison character Hannah (pictured above), or Harriet herself. “YOU NEVER LET US FINISH,” she continued, through tears. This world, she cried out, has gone all to shit. Everything is a mess. So there, then: you finish it. YOU FINISH IT.

She ran down the steps and off stage; her departure left me with the strong sense of a call to arms. This wasn’t work made for me, for us in the hard plastic chairs banked around the room; this wasn’t even just work made for the women who inspired it. It was work made in the hope of a fresh future for all who need one, and if it could not be permitted to end – if it was always, cruelly, brutally stopped before its promised ending by those who either didn’t appreciate its value, or (worse) saw the value and aimed to withhold it – then that future might not ever begin.

I left for lunch feeling gutted.

Moment number two appeared two thirds of the way through Henry IV, by far my favourite performance of a Shakespeare play of all time. (OF. ALL. TIME.) Anchored by the bewitchingly mischievous Clare Dunne as Hal (below left), Sophie Stanton’s rough-but-ready, working class Falstaff (below right), and the svelt, gorgeous, forthrightly confident Jade Anouka as Hotspur, this piece exuded athleticism, confidence, and harsh masculinity – all this with no biological males in site. (Apart from being stunning ensemble theatre and simply outstanding, clear-as-a-bell verse speaking, Lloyd’s Henry IV is a textbook example of gender as social performance rather than biological “fact”.)

But it was when Anouka and Dunne faced off – the prized fight of this play, between the balsy princes-in-arms – that the sheer power and beauty of these strong, able, talented women’s bodies shone through their characters, through the text, and landed on stage before us. This was the moment I recognized that I’d been so engrossed in watching and listening I’d not noticed the time pass, and that I really, really did not want this performance to end. I’ve honestly never before felt that at the theatre – and certainly not at a performance of Shakespeare’s work. (Usually by the end of Act Four I’m ready for it to be over, already. Not this time.)

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Dunne and Anouka take each other down. Electrifying.

Moment number three marked Lloyd’s ending. The Tempest is done, and only Walter as Hannah – who is based on the life of Judith Clark, an American serving 75 years for a crime committed during a political action – is left on stage. She’s in her bunk. She’s reading. She gets a visit from one of the other prison women: someone who’s been inside but is now free, and has come back to make sure Hannah is loved, seen, cared for (and has fresh reading material!). That’s when lights come gently up on all of the staircases around the space; the women’s prison characters appear in every nook and cranny. They are out now; Hannah, with a lifetime on the clock, will only ever see friends come in order to go. But they are here now, maybe in person or maybe in Prospero’s dream, to send their love and memories and best wishes. To say they are doing fine, haven’t forgotten the lessons they shared making theatre together.

I know for sure this sounds cheesy – and I know colleagues who thought the entire prison frame unnecessary to the work of making amazing feminist Shakespeare. But I was beyond moved by this final action, and by the power of community – women’s community, brave and strong – that it called into the otherwise barren space.

I remembered Hannah’s words at the end of Julius Caesar: YOU FINISH IT, THEN. Or maybe – hey, maybe – you could join us, support us, honour what we’re building rather than strike it down before its ending. Help us get to a new beginning. Together, I bet we could do it.

No community is perfect – that’s obvious multiple times throughout the ST plays, as the prison characters fight or risk unraveling. But together is the only way we make things better, the only way we move forward, move safely on – and this theatre is stark, gorgeous evidence of just that. Lloyd, Rourke, Anouka, Dunne, Walter… and the many, many, many women on and off stage who made these three incredible shows reveal what power Shakespeare holds for women able to seize it – and for the women to whom they are able to grant access to that power in turn.

Thus, for me, is the Shakespeare Trilogy finally work about access – access to cultural power, political power, the power of learning, the power of creative making, the power of public performance. This access is grabbed hard and with fire by those whose mobility had been limited by Patriarchy’s Shakespeare, but who won’t stand for barriers anymore.

Long may they hold open the doors.

Kim

PS: I know this has been a very long post. Thank you for reading!

 

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 2

It’s a two-hour drive to Detroit from where I live. It’s as easy as getting to Toronto, really; sure, there’s an international border, but the queues aren’t huge (and Toronto traffic is worse by far). So I go more and more often that way – usually to the airport in Wayne County, but increasingly to the city, where incredible new creative worlds are blooming amid the ruin porn.

Detroit offers an amazing case study for thinking about spatial privilege and its lack: it’s today a largely African-American city, with an incredible history that spans both Indigenous cultivation and Fordist exploitation, as well as black and mixed race experiences of all kinds. Post-Fordism, Detroit famously went bankrupt: huge swaths of the old industrial city fell to decay and the hulks and shells of former factories make the skyline seem apocalyptic to me as I shoot across the I94, through its scarred belly. It’s both harsh and beautiful.

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But Detroit isn’t a ruin any more; today it’s a blossom. Artists have flocked from Brooklyn. Urban farms are popping up all over. Middle-class people are returning to the core. I know this thanks to smart writers like Rebecca Solnit, whose “Detroit Arcadia” (published in Harper’s in 2007; read it here) investigates the city’s history as well as its potential through an eco-critical lens. I first felt it watching Jim Jarmusch’s glorious Only Lovers Left Alive (watch for the sequence in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton [as vampires!] drive through the night-washed city). And then I got to feel it again, most powerfully, when I took my graduate seminar, 10 students studying performance and the global city, to Detroit for a day of cultural encounters on 4 November 2016 (three days before the US Presidential election. Yup).

We went to Culture Source, a new networking organisation that links a variety of arts groups across Detroit and its adjacent counties (and that is run by smart, arts-forward women with business experience. Good combo that). We went to MOCAD, and played with stunning metal creatures built by Juan Martinez and Gizmo for Dave Eggers’s The Spirit of the Animal is in the Wheels – an exhibit that offered young people an opportunity to think about urban transportation as fun, creative, and kid-friendly.

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And we went to the Lightbox.

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Lightbox is located in the part of Detroit, north of the I94 and the Piquette corridor, that still lies in part in ruin. Corey Gearhart and Stefanie Cohen bought the building from the Baptist church that had converted it from the bank it used to be. Its main space is a wide-open room with a lovely new sprung floor; there are chairs, toilets, and living space on site for Steph and Corey, and others as needed. It’s an artist-run community space now: that means that it’s available for those in the local community as well as those in the artistic community to use as a place to come together, try out new ways of being together, explore shared interests, and share imaginings about a stronger and more inclusive future.

I learned about Lightbox from my colleague Petra Kuppers, a disability artist, scholar and activist from the University of Michigan. I contacted Stef and Corey and they welcomed the class on our field trip day with the warmth of longtime neighbours. We settled on the floor in the main space, on cushions as desired, drank tea and learned about the evolution of the room, as well as the vision Stef and Corey hold for it. Unlike so many of the spaces we’d been studying – or had visited during our day in Detroit – Lightbox read as entirely up-for-grabs: a space where individual or group stakeholders might determine, day to day, week to week, or month to month, what it could be. And it could be multiple things.

Basically, Lightbox is the spirit of Detroit in bloom. Detroit as space-in-the-making.

Stef and Corey inspired the hell out of us; students’ reflection papers demonstrated how completely they had encouraged us to recognise, and believe in, alternative models to the “creative city” – urban theorist Richard Florida’s popular, neoliberal paradigm for hipster-driven new city-worlds. So when I got an email from Lightbox a few weeks on, telling of a workshop in early December on “the politics of space” with noted dance artist Barak adé Soleil, I shared it with the whole class and offered space in my car to all comers.

Two students (and one partner) jumped on the chance, and off we went on 3 December. The event started at 6pm and was potluck, so we all brought some food to share (yummy salad; tortilla crisps with cinnamon; fruit; celebration bread: we did not share this information at the border, OF COURSE). Things started gently: Barak was our host, but we didn’t start talking until everyone had eaten. (All good hosts need to learn this trick!) All we needed to do to prepare for the “workshop” portion of the event was to write a different thing on three pieces of card stock: how we saw ourselves in terms of “race”, in terms of “queerness”, and in terms of “disability”. We also had to make dinner conversation with our neighbours. The prompt: how did we get here tonight?

The slow start made me skeptical. As a teacher, my first urge is always to over-program EVERYTHING. That way everyone knows I’m prepared, right? But Barak’s a trickster and his plan was cunning. He knew that if he honoured our slow opening up, let our pieces of paper do the talking, we’d get there. We’d get someplace nobody expected.

After the food, and a bit more food, and a bit of talking, we moved dinner things out of the way and left just a small table in the middle of the space. Participants were sat in a huge circle around the room; Barak was at the central table. He then shifted the mood of the space and the tenor of the conversation by getting a table cloth out of his bag, moving his bits and pieces out of the way, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and onto the table, and arranging it just so. This was the first time I saw the extent of his disability – and I’m going to say here (even though I am ashamed of this) – that I was glad to bear witness to it. He is so entirely able in his body that I had perceived him as not really disabled (not disabled “enough”?…) up to this point. I wonder how many of us do this every day when we encounter those who live in differently abled bodies.

What Barak did next was remarkable. He put on a scarf that covered his entire face, heavy black gloves, and rendered himself essentially lumpen, not-quite-human. He gently, with grace and control, fell to the floor. Then he began to move around our circle, pushing and pulling and rolling his body from chair to chair, person to person. He groaned and gasped as needed. He laboured his body. He touched almost everyone.

This performance of struggling mobility, of limited access in a world of “ability”, changed everything about the night. After Barak returned to his chair, took off the hood and gloves, and resumed his place as host, our conversation could begin, really begin. We explored everyone’s writing. We talked about the many ways that “race” signifies for each of us in the room, how it shapes our daily encounters, interactions, and even basic imaginings about what and who we are. We talked about who (and how) we imagine ourselves to be, over and against how others perceive us to be – and about how that changes what we say, how we move, what we assume about each other, each day. We talked about the assumptions we had made about each other before the performance, and about how the performance, and our listening to our pieces of paper afterward, revealed complexities we couldn’t on our own imagine about who was in the room.

(These images are from Barak’s blog, linked above. I do not have photos of his stunning performance, alas.)

We talked about how many of us feared identifying as “just white”. We talked about how hard it is for so many of us to see ourselves reflected in normative sexual labels. We talked about how many, varied, experiences of colour, desire, and ability adhered in our bodies in the room. We recognised how complex identity in the body is, in practice, day-to-day.

In all these ways this evening of powerful, strange encounters coalesced into a politics of space. It marked my first trip to the US since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of Donald Trump, and it reminded me that all movement in space, always, is political – that is to say, it is always about relations of power among bodies moving together.

We have been thinking in terms of embodied hierarchies an awful lot recently: you’re either in or out (Brexit); you’re either with us or against us (Bush, Isis, Trump, Syria…); you’re either in the “right” body, possess the “right” sexuality, live in the “right” sexual body… or you risk losing access to marriage rights, abortion rights, the freedom to travel. Barak’s black, queer, disabled body operated as a crucible of all of these stakes in our shared space. Coming into the workshop I thought his disability principally would shape our conversation: what barriers to physical and mental access do humans face, in Detroit and beyond? But we ventured far afield, and I realised by night’s end that “disability” is a term we need to embrace as powerful as we plan our activism in the face of current exclusions.

What if we recognized disability as a basic human condition, not an exceptional one? As something that affects far more human beings than we at first glance might recognise? That is not lodged necessarily in body or brain, but also in community, in identification, in nation? What if disability – the challenge of mobility, of safety and security of person both in place and in movement – could be understood as a condition we all share, to varying degrees, and therefore all must take seriously for everybody?

The two students who came with me to Lightbox were in the process of preparing their final project for my class; they were planning a festival of creative women for our city that would be driven by an interest in inclusion and accessibility. At one point in the evening Barak noted that, as strong and genuine as many peoples’ intentions toward accessibility are these days, “accessibility” meets reality when he turns up at a space and can, or cannot, actually get into it, actually participate in the thing on offer. Accessibility is about his body, forcefully, in a space, asking questions about who that space is for. It can be planned for… but it also needs to be understood as an ongoing conversation.

Mobility is moment to moment; access is context-dependent. Some days the US border guards really want me to explain what I do for a living, ask a lot of probing questions, and some days they don’t care and wave me through. Some days Barak finds himself in a welcoming space with no physical and few other barriers to discovery, and other days there’s a step nobody noticed. That’s frustrating. But it’s also when things get interesting.

This might sound a bit utopic, but I think I learned at Lightbox that contingent access and precarious mobility are actually conditions full of potential – if we harness them fairly and honestly. Because it means we can all do stuff, little things, all the time, to support each other’s mobility, strengthen our rootedness in place, and that can just be normal. It might be as hard as crossing an international border, or as simple as writing a few words on a piece of paper. But either way, it’s actually totally doable.

That’s what I learned, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, from the once ruined, now blossoming, city of Detroit.

Kim

…and then, we performed the syllabus!

We are back at it with a vengeance: classes resumed at universities across Canada just over a week ago. And we all know what that means:

Far and wide, professors were performing The Syllabus Show.

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You know, The Syllabus Show! It’s where we hand the course outline* to our incoming students in the first class of the term, and then proceed to do one of three things:

  1. Ignore the syllabus altogether – insisting students go home and read it with a magnifying glass, committing all the important dates to their diaries and all the rules and regs to memory – and jump right into The Course;
  2. Take the class through each section/sentence/carefully-crafted phrase with punishing focus, boring all living creatures in the classroom to near-death in the process;
  3. Speak to only the most important information (assignments; schedule; textbook list) using some cheeky technique designed to make The Syllabus Show just a bit less tedious.

I’ve never done #1 – I just cannot stomach Course Content Proper on day one. (I live in denial.) I’ve done #2, specifically early in my career, when I knew no better – and I nearly put myself to sleep, never mind the students. Number 3 was my stalwart for ages; I replaced “Kim Reads The Syllabus To You” with “Kim Offers Her Top Ten Tips for Getting an A” until I realised I was using that basically as a cover for reading the syllabus to them.

In the last few years I’ve gotten a bit more creative; my favourite Alt Syllabus Show, until this September, featured me dividing up the outline and asking pairs or trios of students to explain it back to the class, with the most important information highlighted. This technique allowed me to give in to the inevitable – whatever I’m doing at the front, on the first day nervous students are reading their damn syllabus, of course they are! – while also modelling the kind of active learning students could expect in the weeks ahead. As a bonus, it allowed me to get a fast read on what kinds of readers the students were: if they couldn’t pick up the key bits in the syllabus, I knew to be prepared when we started in on Henrik Ibsen (dour Norwegian playwriting hero) or Michel de Certeau (French wanderer-philosopher).

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(In my imagination, the dude on the left is de Certeau, and the dude on the right is Ibsen.)

Then, this year, in the week before school started I got a tremendous idea from my friend Charlotte Canning, a theatre historian at UT Austin. Via Facebook, she revealed that she had gotten the students in her undergrad course to perform the syllabus for one another.

As in: they made the syllabus into a script and turned it, fast and furiously, into a piece of improv theatre.

Sheer genius!

Think about it: The Syllabus Show is, already, a “show” of sorts – just a genuinely important and yet utterly boring one. Why not give in to the subtext and put it, literally, on its feet?

I sent Charlotte an email query asking for the basics; she sent me back the simple Powerpoint slides she’d created for the first day.

The logistics were easy. First, divide the syllabus into small chunks or “sides” (this term comes from Shakespeare’s era; it means the individual scripts actors received, with just their cues and lines on them); I opted for about 1/2 page per side. In class, divide the group quickly into teams of 3-4 and give each team their “side” separately from the syllabus proper (which, obviously, they also need). Ask them to work quickly: start by introducing themselves, then read the side; decide what information is most important and needs to be communicated, and then figure out a scenario to stage it. Brevity is the soul, here: given the constraints of a first class and the fact that, to be fun, this task has to keep moving, I gave each team only 8 minutes to talk and devise, and 2 minutes to perform.

I opened the class with five minutes of basic but key information (I’m Kim; this is Theatre Studies 2202; are we all in the right place? Etc.), then gave them their course outlines and told them they were to tuck them away in favour of what I was giving them next. I said we were going to perform the syllabus; after we all acknowledged how absurd and also totally awesome the idea was, I numbered them into teams and set them on each other.

Instantly, the room was buzzing. This was the opposite of the first-class norm: total energy, smiling faces. (Way better than blank stares and glowing smart phones.)

The time constraint panicked everyone, of course, but it also concentrated their focus. After eight minutes every group had about a minutes’ worth of performance to share, and though they ranged in quality there were some outstanding, memorable gems. I’ll never forget the team that “yada yada-ed” plagiarism (I haven’t laughed that hard in a while)! But my favourite was the piece on “participation”. It began as invisible theatre, with the two performers pretending to fudge each other’s names and programs (TOTALLY convincing – they had me); they then adopted the personae of two very typical undergrads (the outgoing know-it-all and the shrinking, shy, anxious one) as they demonstrated – embodied, in fact – what “participation” means to each. Slam-dunk.

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I would never do that. Nope. Never.

Did performing the syllabus convey to the class the key information ON the syllabus? I highly doubt it – but that was not at all the point. And this is what I loved best about performing the syllabus: rather than me pretending that whatever I do in the first class is going to stick like glue, we used the syllabus as a tool to have fun, to begin building our shared classroom community, and to make knowing jokes out of perennial teacher-student expectations. That doesn’t mean the class won’t be held to the standards in the syllabus; if anything, I suspect performing the syllabus made my students more likely to remember the syllabus, and maybe even read it at home. It certainly made for a memorable first class for me: for the first time ever, I managed to memorise all of their names by week two.

Coincidence? Doubtful.

Kim

*A word of clarification for readers who don’t teach at universities: the course outline, at uni-level, is a legally binding document. At my school, instructors cannot, for example, introduce a new assignment half way through the course; at the same time, instructors are meant in the syllabus to state all expectations regarding absences, late assignments, classroom behaviour, etc, and those expectations thus become binding on students. The syllabus is also the place where professors say what plagiarism is, that it will not be tolerated, and that student papers may be fed without further warning through plagiarism-detection software if a teacher deems it fit to do so. You get the idea.

Who are you calling superhuman?

Happy bank holiday, Scottish readers, and happy August long weekend, Canadians! To celebrate, I look ahead to the Rio Olympics, opening on Friday, and which will, no doubt, include plenty of political performances in amongst the sport. (Let’s just hope nothing else collapses!)

Last week, I began my new regular, monthly blogging gig at Fit is a Feminist Issue with a post about how Team GB (Great Britain) is supporting its Paralympians with a campaign called “We’re the Superhumans”. The campaign is a terrific example of how popular representations of minority groups can be both intentionally supportive, and yet fall short of the mark in terms of the messages they send to those in the majority.

In other words: visibility is complicated, and incredibly political, making this campaign a teachable moment.

I’m reblogging the post here; it includes both the trailer for the campaign as well as my reading of it (the good and the not-quite-there-yet). Feel free to add your two cents in the comments, either here or on FFI; we would love to hear your thoughts.

Enjoy the summer sunshine!
Kim

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve beenguesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.

(I also write weeklyat The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)

For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses tothe question of whether or not thisblog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.

I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional…

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Power to the female creators

I’ve been thinking this past week about the powerful shifts that occur in popular culture when the means of artistic production are given to those previously denied them, or those who typically don’t get unfettered access to them. Of course I’ve been inspired by Beyoncé’s album drop last Saturday, and the gorgeous film that makes Lemonade what it is; everyone on the planet with a social media account should now know (I hope) that there’s this talented, political, stunning, forceful black woman from the American South who is changing the conversation around feminism and black women’s roles in it, about black participation in contemporary pop culture, about which #blacklivesmatter, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides. (Here and here you’ll find just two of the many excellent commentaries I’ve read about Lemonade in the past few days; the second one features my friend and colleague Naila Keleta-Mae, who teaches a fantastic course on Beyoncé at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.)

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Beyoncé is an exceptional talent with a lot of money and incredible mojo, but she also proves a basic rule. Give a disenfranchised person (like an ordinary black American girl) without a voice some tools, some money, and some amplification, and incredible things emerge. That’s because disenfranchised people are very rarely disenfranchised as a result of some kind of internal lack – of talent or interest or ability or chutzpah. They are disenfranchised because other, often far less talented and motivated people, are well served by keeping them quiet.

I was thinking about this stuff even before Lemonade was released, because last week in my university’s official weekly, Western News, I and several of my colleagues shared the spotlight to talk about the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Not one keen to celebrated the already celebrated-to-death, however much I love Mr Stratford, I decided to use my contribution to the Shaks400 special issue to talk about the risks of continuing blindly to revere a playmaker whose work often features incredible violence against women (because, you know, it was, like, 1600 or something), and what it would mean to enable more women directors to grab hold of the reigns of those plays and investigate that violence as it is transported into our contemporary contexts.

Because when women tell stories that men have historically been privileged to tell, just as when black women tell stories white women and black men have historically been privileged to tell, new ideas emerge, and new worlds come into being. And surely we all want to live in a bigger, more beautiful world, right?

With kind permission of general editor Jason Winders, I’m reproducing my Western News piece below, along with the cheeky and joyful picture of me that ran alongside it. And if you’ve not got hold of Lemonade yet, it’s just $17.99 on iTunes, £13.99 in the UK. Download and be moved.

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Women need freedom to shape narratives for a new century

It’s no surprise, then, that the plays Shakespeare wrote tend to include a lot of complex men, and far fewer women overall (as well as far fewer complex female roles). This reflects the material reality of his context: Shakespeare’s England was structurally patriarchal, and for a good portion of his life was led by a female ruler, Elizabeth I, who took no husband and enacted the role of the ‘Virgin Queen’ in part to shore up her authority as a woman in a man’s job. This does not mean, of course, that Shakespeare’s canon does not include compelling women and complicated issues of sex and gender, but it does mean that his context was very different from ours, and that the historical differences between his world and ours need to be respected, and reflected carefully upon, when we approach the plays today.

I’ve spent a lot of my career reflecting on this issue. What does it mean when we, in the early 21stcentury, call Shakespeare “our contemporary”? How do we reconcile the general lack of female characters in the plays, and the stereotypical nature of a lot of those characters, with modern cultural contexts in which women are presumed to be equal citizens and subjects of power? (I say “presumed to be” because, of course, there’s a difference between the theory of women’s equality, in which most of us believe and invest, and the reality of women’s lives in what is still a pretty unequal world.)

Most urgent of all, for me, is this question: what do we do about those plays that revolve around plots driven by violence against women and girls – plays like Othello, in which Desdemona is murdered by her husband after he is duped by Iago into believing his wife unfaithful, or Titus Andronicus, in which the daughter of the titular character is brutally raped and maimed in the second act, then left traumatized for the remainder of the play?

Contemporary theatre practitioners take a host of different approaches to this fundamental problem with the plays and our love for them. The first is to take seriously the fact of Shakespeare’s historical and cultural difference from us. This often involves setting the plays in Shakespeare’s time, or in a time equally historically distant, and then paying precise attention to the kinds of details that demonstrate to an audience the differences that separate us from the plays and their worlds. This logic partly lies behind the recent interest in ‘original practices,’ a style of mounting Shakespeare that attempts to recreate the conditions under which Shakespeare’s actors lived and worked. (Original practices is not without its own challenges, however; it runs into the fundamental problem that there were no women on stage in Shakespeare’s day, nor any actors of colour. Excluding women and non-white performers from the stage under any circumstances today is, of course, both ethically wrong and politically inappropriate, making ‘authentic’ original practice work very hard to achieve.)

Other directors and producers imagine historical settings for the plays, but find ways to build modern understandings of their most difficult elements, like violence against women, into the representations they fashion. This was one of the most remarkable features of British director Deborah Warner’s 1988 production of Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner’s Lavinia (the character who is raped) was played by Sonia Ritter as a woman suffering visibly from post-traumatic stress disorder, something that threw into comic but also critical relief the ways in which she is ignored or misunderstood by her male relatives throughout the third act.

Canadian director Peter Hinton took a parallel approach with his 2008 production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival, setting that play in the late Elizabethan period (it was written in the early 1590s) but creating a fresh, feminist framework for it that allowed audiences to see for themselves how ‘shrew-taming’ devices like the ‘ducking stool’ worked to traumatize and silence outspoken women in Shakespeare’s time.

To my mind, however, the most effective way to approach the challenges posed by Shakespeare’s gender imbalance is simply this: to give more of the plays to women to direct, especially at the most prominent Shakespeare venues around the world.

Throughout the 20th century women have had far too few opportunities to direct Shakespeare’s major plays, but thankfully this trend is changing:

  • Last year, Emma Rice, an experimental physical theatre artist and former artistic director of the Kneehigh theatre company, was named the new head of Shakespeare’s Globe, the most visibly important venue for his works in the Anglophone world and a theatre with a very strong educational mandate as well as a populist sensibility;
  • Flipping Shakespeare’s gender imbalance on its head, Phyllida Lloyd recently directed two all-female productions (of Julius Caesar in 2012 and Henry IV in 2014) at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End. Both were runaway hits, made possible in no small part by the support of another prominent woman in the theatre business, Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke;
  • In summer 2014 Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), staged a season of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (artists like Thomas Middleton, John Webster and Thomas Dekker) that all featured powerful female mains. Titled Roaring Girls, the season was held in the RSC’s smaller Swan theatre venue, but nevertheless made a huge impact on reviewers and audiences alike; and
  • Closer to home, Jillian Keiley, who heads the National Arts Centre’s English company (and who visited London, Ont., in March as part of our Public Humanities initiative), is directing a Newfoundland-inspired As You Like It on the Stratford Festival’s main stage this summer.

Shakespeare’s female roles can of course be incredibly empowering for female actors even in the most conventional productions: Portia shapes the climactic scene of The Merchant of Venice; Lady Macbeth is the original Claire Underwood; even Lavinia gets to take control of her own body and narrative in the fourth act of Titus Andronicus when she uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to explain what happened to her, and a stick held between her forearms to spell out the names of her attackers.

But just as we learned a couple of weeks ago at the end of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, it’s often not enough for women to be given ‘a voice’ on a public stage. For true gender equality to obtain, women need to be given equal access to the means of theatrical production, and the freedom properly to help shape Shakespeare’s narratives for our new century.

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