What I find most pressing about Andy Kesson’s post, “Generic excitement,” are his methodological queries: how does genre organize our scholarship? To what extent do we implicitly rely on this typology as an “interpretive precondition”? What is at risk when “we backproject onto the earlier period developments distinctive to the 1590s and beyond”? Due to the diffuse nature of the archive, it makes sense that performance studies of the sixteenth century privilege the representational elements contained in genre—especially narratology and identity politics—over dramaturgical ones. Using the Lord Admiral’s repertory as an illustrative case, I want to rethink what genre offers critics and scholars of early modern English theatre.
There is a vibrant tradition of performing William Shakespeare’s playtexts cross-, multi-, and trans-culturally. Such productions help those in positions of privilege to reflect on the paradox of globalization: that to learn about other countries and cultures seems to always require ad- ditional labor of the culture that would not be colonized. To learn more about the other so often comes with the request that “they” somehow translate their vantage point to “us.” In his Nobel Prize lecture, Gabriel García-Márquez named this burden the “crux of Solitude”: “poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable” (García-Márquez). Bag & Baggage’s world premiere of Romeo & Juliet / Layla & Majnun, a play interested in Shakespeare’s text as a shared vocabulary, and in putting that in conversation with other shared cultural vocabularies, was an arresting example of how we can engage other cultures without asking for added sacrifice.
The Shakespeare Project of Chicago specializes in producing semi-staged early modern readings, organizing an interpretation of a text around the use of playtext prompters. It is an intentionally stripped-down process: they rehearse a production for three days before a single weekend of performances at four Chicagoland libraries. The spaces are routine, but because of the tight schedule the players don’t actually get a chance to rehearse in them. This means the company is typically unable to test blocking choices or experiment with the presentational options the architecture of a space might provide. This mode of production presents a unique challenge to each performance: how to adapt the use of plain black playtext prompters—often the only prop available—in these four bare and relatively untested spaces.
It was a battle with temptation from the moment we stepped in the door. The smell of roast meat and potatoes greeted the guests upon entering the open, glassed upper floor of the Levis Faculty Center, and a slice of dessert—a sweet, creamy cheesecake—already marked each individual place setting. As a play that dramatizes the Christian concept of psychomachia, the battle for the soul, the medieval morality drama Mankindrepresents humanity’s ongoing struggle to choose between good and evil. We playgoers were immediately placed in a similar subject position to that of its eponymous character, Mankind. Thanks to its status as dinner theater, the performance was framed by gluttony. Faced with a decision between the rigors of labor or the ease of carousing, Mankind struggled to decipher the rhetorics enticing her to travel down righteous or sinful paths—just as we struggled with how many times it would be appropriate to visit the open bar while sitting in the midst of leading medieval performance scholars.
The Back Room Shakespeare Project (BRSP) is interested in creating a particular theatrical event. For them, the necessary ingredients to release the ideal experience latent in Shakespeare’s plays is to rehearse once, with no director, then perform the play in question as seriously as possible … in a bar. The theory is that, under these conditions, audiences and actors can get closer to the kind of play event for which these texts were designed. As an original practices approach, the BRSP is an actorly rather than a materialist methodology. After three years of playing in the Chicagoland and Milwaukee region, they have found both success and a loyal following.
In his recent monograph, Marvin Carlson develops the premise first established in The Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine (2003): that theatre capitalizes on the memories of audiences to provide opportunities for meaning. The past lives of objects and the previous roles of actors ghost performances that follow. In this new monograph, Carlson argues that this hauntological feature is crucial when examining the tension between reality and imitation—a primary concern of modern and postmodern theatre. Using Hamlet’s allusion to Socrates as an organizing conceit, each chapter considers the theatre’s turn away from mimesis to the appropriation of the “real,” including borrowing words, the body of the actor, the affordances of physical surroundings, the prop, and, eventually, the audience itself.
Director Sean Graney’s work can typically be categorized as either ex- plicitly experimental or engaging with the tradition of adaptation. These aesthetic trajectories merged in the Court Theatre’s The Comedy of Errors, a meaty 90-minute production focused on skirting buffoonery in order to find translatable humor within William Shakespeare’s farcical language. As Graney stated during a post-performance discussion, “I wanted the play to feel funny in new ways,” which is an often-difficult task given the play’s archaic humor. Indeed, Errors has a performance history marked by the inability to reconcile its absurd elements, on which the plot and play depend, with contemporary tastes. Graney addressed this problem by focusing on issues of identity confusion and the farce tradition. The result was a pliant dark comedy anchored by bodily representations of humor and highlighting the problem of Renaissance comedic anachronisms.
For the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest), the text of William Shakespeare’s First Folio is a wellspring for improvisational comedy. The troupe employs an actor-oriented original practice, referred to as First Folio technique by practitioners, to render accessible Renaissance theater to Portland and the Pacific Northwest region. The troupe is nearly a decade into their mission of adding two Shakespeare plays into their repertoire each summer until they can rotate the entire canon. In a culturally “white” region that prides itself on progressivism, there are a few plays that pose unique challenges, either in terms of casting, namely Othello, or ethics, such as The Taming of the Shrew. OPS Fest’s recent performance of Shrew at the Mission Theatre was a test-run of sorts, designed to consider whether it is an ethically stage-able play in 2017.