Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard

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Among the most energizing and exciting events over the course of this year’s Shakespeare 400 festival has been the Battle of the Bard, a dynamic “Shakespeare slam” competition for high school students, produced in collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare. The program brings together more than 300 students and teacher-coaches from 40 high schools across Chicagoland. Participating schools range from public schools and charters to private preps and religious academies; the students and teachers themselves represent a wide range of backgrounds, identities and communities. What all of these different individuals and groups have in common, however, is Shakespeare. Teams of four to eight students meet and work for months to prepare two scenes: a more or less straightforward Shakespeare scene and a creative “ensemble” scene that remixes and mashes up lines from any of Shakespeare’s works into a new whole. To keep judge and audience attention on the performers themselves, no costumes or props are allowed; the only set pieces permitted on stage are eight plain chairs, which teams may use however they wish. Before each performance, every team lays claim to the stage by introducing their school and declaring, “We own this space!” It is an energizing and inspiring way to begin a performance.

This review will focus primarily on BOTB’s November 14 “Final Bout,” in which nine teams competed on the main stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, but the BOTB program reaches far beyond one single event on Navy Pier. Prior to the competition period, teams convene for massive workshops to learn about Shakespearean language and performance techniques from expert scholars and theater practitioners. Using the skills that these workshops help them develop, the teams return to their home institutions to arrange, rehearse, and refine their two scenes. From then, they perform in one of three “preliminary bouts,” held at host schools across the region. The top nine teams go on to compete in the Final Bout in front of a panel of celebrity judges on the main stage of CST; in addition, one stand-out but non-advancing team is invited to perform as an opening act.

The atmosphere at every round is overwhelmingly positive and supportive. As BOTB’s organizers, emcees, and team-members often insist, “The points are not the point!” Judges do score every scene and teams are in competition with each other, but the shared objective among every BOTB participant is to empower students, teachers and performers. The rock-concert-like atmosphere of the Final Bout is especially optimistic and positive. The program’s resident DJ “Iamb” Patrick Budde keeps the energy up with his dynamic music selections. Between rounds, BOTB’s two emcees, Donovan Diaz and Sarah Ruggles, encourage spectators and team-members alike to dance, shout, and “own this space!” even from their seats. Every participant from the preliminary rounds is invited to attend the Final Bout at the CST main stage, and the positive energy is palpable. It is truly an extraordinary experience.

On the surface, of course, Battle of the Bard is a celebration of Shakespeare. “Bill,” as he is known to participants, is the factor unifying these diverse young students; they have traveled from across a vast metropolitan region to battle over “the Bard.” More precisely, though, BOTB is a celebration of young people, of multicultural community,
and of creativity.

During the first “scene round” of competition, teams perform a cohesive scene from one play. At the Final Bout, these ranged from an utterly terrifying rendition of the eye-gouging scene from King Lear(Oak Park and River Forest High School), to the miraculous reunion scene at the end of The Winter’s Tale (Christian Liberty Academy), to two of the funniest performances of Midsummer’s play-within-a-play that this lifelong Shake­speare student has ever witnessed (Prosser Career Academy in Chicago and Niles North High School in Skokie).

The second “ensemble round” allows for more flexibility and creativity: using language from any of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, teams invent their own scene. Some of these are more meditative explorations of a particular theme. Niles North, for instance, delivered a scene at the Final Bout entitled “The Generation of Love,” which mashed together lines and exchanges from several plays and sonnets that represent a variety of models of love. Where, the scene asked, does love originate, and how do we know it when we see it? As the scene’s chorus urged, no matter how the experience manifests for us, we would do well to “make love known” (Macbeth 2.3). Mundelein High School, by contrast, offered a meta-dramatic examination of acting. Shakespeare himself appeared on stage as a character, primarily speaking lines from the scene in Hamlet when the eponymous prince gives performance directions to an acting troupe. As other performers bungled some of his most famous lines (“To be, or not to be, that is the question”; “wherefore art thou Romeo?”; “Now is the winter of our discontent”; and so forth), Mundelein’s Shakespeare-as-director offered advice on delivery and language, advocating for a natural and authentic acting style. The Islamic Foundation School’s all-female team, who were invited to kick-start the evening as honorary performers, presented a powerful meditation on female identity. Opening with Miranda’s request in The Tempest that Prospero “tell me what I am,” the scene assembled, line by line, all of Shakespeare’s contradictory third-person definitions of women: “she is a strumpet,” “she is a piece of virtue,” “she is fierce,” “she is wise,” “she is rich in beauty,” “she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out / whole countries in her.” By the end, though, the syntactic formulation had shifted, and the performers went on to define themselves in the first person: “I am a woman.”

Other ensemble-round performances were more narratively driven, remixing Shakespeare’s lines to create a new story rather than a meditation on a theme. Two teams took on present-day politics, focusing in particular on October’s contentious Presidential debates. Lindblom Math and Science Academy’s aptly titled “Debate Tragedy” gave us a money-obsessed and deceitful but ironically named “honest Iago” debating an uncompromising, sharp-tongued “fair Beatrice.” After knocking over his chair in anger, the debate’s moderator denounced both candidates, wishing “a plague on both [their] houses!” Elk Grove High School’s Shakespearean debate, meanwhile, drew on the Bard’s vast trove of gender-based insults to give shape to the speech of the scene’s male candidate, who repeatedly bent down to his imaginary microphone to interrupt the female candidate with a sharp and low-voiced “Nay.”

Senn Arts Magnet High School’s ensemble scene took a different tack but still placed Shakespeare’s language firmly in a present-day context. In their “Rap Battle of the Bard,” Senn’s team imagined the Montagues and Capulets as rival hip hop crews. Their scene went on to offer a highlight reel of Shakespeare’s greatest insults and demonstrated just how thoroughly new generations might make the Bard’s four-hundred-year-old language their own, transforming his Renaissance London dialect to an African-American Vernacular-derived hip hop idiom.

Meanwhile, Kenwood Academy High School’s witty ensemble scene “Who Dost Thou Love?” was modeled after a dating show: four distinct suitors—a deceptive Iago, an angry Macbeth, a weepy Hamlet, and a sensitive Ganymede—competed for the affections of one picky woman (Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew). Kate picked Ganymede, who shocked the other male suitors by revealing herself to be a woman in disguise (Rosalind from As You Like It). The scene was uproariously funny—the violently angry male chauvinist Macbeth character being a particular standout—and cleverly used Shakespearean comedy’s gender-bending formula to offer a poignant critique of the representation of sexual norms in modern popular culture.

As a teacher and scholar of Shakespeare, the primary question I found myself asking throughout Battle of the Bard’s Final Bout was, “What does this program say about the value of Shakespeare today?” Every team offered a radically different (and totally fresh) perspective on his work and legacy. Even teams that presented similar content—like Prosser and Niles North, who both happened to perform the same scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lindblom and Elk Grove, who both drew on the recent Presidential debates—distinguished their work by advancing completely unique approaches to the same material. In the process, they did not merely articulate what is valuable about Shakespeare, but generated that value themselves. They used Shakespeare to examine their own multilingual and multicultural worlds—to work through very modern concerns in ways that made Shakespeare’s historically distant and rhetorically difficult language seem completely familiar and immediately relevant. During the course of the program, these Battlers of the Bard came not only to “own” the space of the stage, but also the larger cultural idea of “Shakespeare” himself. The result was astounding. This is what Shakespeare should be. This is what Shakespeare will be. And this, the students definitively demonstrated, is what Shakespeare is.


Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renais­sance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her re­search has been supported by several nationally competitive fellow­ships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Comple­tion Fellow­ships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.

one step at a time like this – undreamed shores

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On a hot summer night a couple of years ago, I arrived at a certain designated corner in the Loop and waited. After a few minutes my phone rang and the caller spoke to me by name even though we had never met. She patiently guided me down the street until suddenly the doors of the grand Cadillac Palace Theatre, which I happened to be passing, were swung open to me and I was ushered inside its vast, empty lobby. There a woman in an evening gown descended the staircase and sat beside me to explain how to work the special smart phone she gave me as a guide through the rest of my evening. From that point on, the city opened to me in the most remarkable ways as I moved through it: People emerged from alleyways and crevices between buildings to give me secret messages. In a luxury high-rise apartment I found myself climbing into bed with an anonymous stranger. I was driven, blindfolded, down Lower Wacker and through downtown and when the blindfold was removed I found that I was on the stage of another grand historic theater, dozens of blocks from the one where I’d started, with blinding stage lights glaring down on me. This was Since I Suppose, an immersive audio and video tour of downtown Chicago based loosely on Measure for Measure, which was created by the Australian company one step at a time like this, and commissioned by and developed with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions in 2014.

So when I arrived at Navy Pier on a cold and windy afternoon not long ago for the newest audio-guided tour from one step at a time like this, undreamed shores, I was ready for Navy Pier to similarly come alive once I put my headphones on and started walking. But undreamed shores was a decidedly more atmospheric and solitary affair, a moody wander for one in which, as the sole audience member, I was encouraged to pretend that the people around me were not really there and to move through a world inhabited only by myself and the disembodied voices in my headphones. There was a twinge of disappointment when I realized the pier was not going to become a responsive, immersive, fictional world the way the Loop had two years earlier. I imagined being beckoned onto a gondola as I approached the Ferris wheel and being lifted into the sky. I hoped, as the audio track instructed me to pause near the entrance to a seafood restaurant, that I might be invited in for a specially prepared amuse-bouche. I wondered, as I approached the doors of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, if they would be flung open to me for a special command performance for one in the Courtyard Theater. But none of that happened. Navy Pier had not been stocked with carefully planned encounters and surprises, it remained itself, a place to be discovered and observed as it is. This made for a more furtive and subdued, though perhaps no less strange, experience. Instead of riding the Ferris wheel, I was instructed to lie down on a ledge beneath it and look up at it turning against an ominous sky while the voice in my ear talked to me about the mechanics of the universe.

I remembered then that some of the most effective moments in Since I Suppose had occurred just between myself, the soundtrack, and the city: a pause on a bridge over the Chicago River as music swelled in my ears; the view from a rooftop poolside balcony of fireworks going off over the lake across downtown, tiny but visible; collaged fragments from Measure for Measure enveloping me as I walked down the street. These quiet, reflective, essentially internal moments, when the strategically composed audio overlaid and altered the ordinary environment, recruiting the city into a private and subjective spectacle, best made the case for the unique potential of the immersive audio tour, or sound walk, as a theatrical form. undreamed shores was made up of such moments. Framed simply as a journey down Navy Pier, it comprised a series of opportunities to notice the pier and its environs, including parts of it one might never visit—lovely and decidedly unlovely, both. What each lone audience member made of that journey was ultimately up to each of us. “Take your time,” the person who had handed me the headset at the beginning of undreamed shores had told me, “whatever that means to you.”

Even though it took an abstract, fragmentary approach, Since I Suppose had Measure for Measure as a structure and reference point, but the structural device for undreamed shores was markedly less well defined. Its themes and ideas washed over me along the journey like the concept of water that vaguely flowed through the piece. The voices guiding me wanted me to think about the pier itself, particularly its history at almost 100 years old, and about the city that surrounds it, and about the relationship of that city to the lake it sits beside. And they also wanted me to think about Shakespeare and his time 400 years ago, and how people then thought about the world and bodies of water and the universe and death. And still more, they wanted me to think about aquatic ecosystems, and pollution, and climate change, and the loss of sea life, and the environmental changes evidenced by the water. They wanted me to think about all of these things together—mortality and longevity and relative lengths of time. A walk down the pier of an hour or so is vanishingly brief from this perspective, but it is nonetheless time passing, just as the years that make up my life are time passing, or the 100 years since Navy Pier was built, or the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, or the 14,000 years since the lake was ice, are all passages of time at the end of which we are each located. When was a long time ago? Before I was born? When the pier was built? When Shakespeare lived? The last Ice Age? And when is a long time from now? What will this all be like then?

It was difficult to put my finger on any of this, though, as I climbed stairs, rode elevators, walked through closed doors, lay down on benches, and gazed out windows. Philosophical musings on facts about the lake, the pier, the city, Shakespeare, and the environment paired with snippets from Shakespeare’s plays—some about water, some about death, some about cities—floated in one ear and out the other. There was a lot from The Tempest, unsurprisingly, though surprisingly not only about water and islands and shipwrecks, plenty of love and death, too; the description of Ophelia drowning from Hamlet, of course; and the Chorus in Henry V envisaging the sails of ships as a city on the sea; but there was also Macbeth at his metatheatrical bleakest. The quotes were tossed in incidentally, riffing tangentially on a particular nearby feature—window, city, ship—as much atmosphere as anything else. Sometimes they washed over me, at other times one hit and stuck, capturing something meaningful between the physical place and my subjective headspace. But the factoids and Shakespeare snippets hardly seemed to be the point.

The point was that the point was the journey. Emerging onto the north side of the pier midway through the tour, I was guided to a particular bollard and instructed to tie a bit of rope I found in an envelope I had discovered secreted in a little mailbox on top of the parking garage half an hour earlier to the chain running along the water. I tied it beside all the other lengths of rope tied there by each successive audience of one who had made their way along the pier before me. I paused and looked down at the water. There was no significance to this sequence of actions other than having gotten to the same point as everyone who had come before me. I found something one place and I left it another, where I saw evidence that others had been there and had done the same thing. Now someone else would come along and tie their length of rope next to mine. No need for a narrative or metaphor, this was life being lived, making connections and hitting milestones and seeing evidence that I am in the world with others, some of whom have gone before me, and doubtless some who will come after. And because I took this journey and was curious and attentive and followed signposts and the advice of those who showed up to guide me along the way, I found many things I otherwise would not have, and saw things that I did not expect to see.

By the time I reached the very end of the pier, I did feel as if I had been on a journey. It was not exactly strenuous, but I had been in motion almost the whole time (I found myself aware of the privilege of having a relatively able body—there were many places where someone with impaired mobility would not have been able to go, and no alternatives were offered.) Reaching the end, I got to sit down and rest and look out at the lake, reflecting on where I was and where I had been. It helped that in many ways I had literally gone back in time, from the shiny new and getting newer layers of redesign and renovation on the west end of Navy Pier to the east end, where the solid brick buildings remain seemingly unchanged from the pier’s original construction almost 100 years ago. It was a cold and blustery afternoon, and the benches at the end of the pier were empty except for me, and the bronze statue of Bob Newhart (check it out)! In the ballroom just behind me, though, an elaborate graduation ceremony for new firefighters happened to be taking place, and young people dressed for the special occasion hurried in and out of the hall, eager to see their loved ones embark on a grand new adventure. Excitement was in the air as the sky darkened and the ballroom emanated the kind of golden light that made me think of wintertime parties, flushed cheeks, warmth from food and drink and dancing, pleasures that could have been indulged at any time during the pier’s 100-year history.

I had reached the end of my journey. I sat on my bench and looked out at the gray expanse of lake and sky and listened as the voices that had guided me all that way asked me to imagine myself, the pier, the lake, the world 100, then 400, years from now. What would still be here? The pier? The city? The birds? The lake? I felt myself fading into insignificance, just a blip on the horizon of all that time passing, a brief jaunt down a short pier, before their voices stopped. I remembered the advice to “take my time” with which I had begun and, as I sat there, looking out at the lake, I felt that was exactly what I was doing, taking time—this time, the only time I had. I remained there, even after I had pulled the headset off and someone had come by to collect it, even after undreamed shores had ended I remained there for just a little while longer, taking my time.


Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.

Joffrey Ballet – Romeo & Juliet

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It has not been long since the Joffrey Ballet last staged Krzysztof Pastor’s unapologetically modern take on Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet. Pastor’s production saw its US premiere at the Joffrey only two years ago, in 2014. Yet, in a year of great divides—not least among them, a US election cycle of unprecedented partisan hostility, the Brexit vote, and the large-scale displacement of refugee populations around the world—this Romeo & Juliet seems to be a particularly appropriate production to revive. Pastor’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s score boils both down to one core theme: the devastating conflict between individual feeling and group authority. In exploring this theme, the ballet twists the logic of time itself, stretching one brief moment of love across a century of conflict.

Act One takes place in Italy in the 1930s. As the act begins, devastating video footage from World War II is projected onto the painted streetscape that serves a backdrop throughout the performance. Lord Capulet, a Mussolini-like dictator clad all in black, evidently runs Verona with an iron fist. The Montagues, wearing white, amount less to a rival family and function more as a rival ideological community: a democratic-minded populace suffering under Capulet’s fascist rule. Capulet’s absolute control is borne out in his treatment of staff and family: he manhandles Juliet at the ball and directs his guests’ movement with military precision. The music here, particularly the score’s famously sinister “Dance of the Knights,” amplifies his dominance. Pastor’s choreography for this dance is angular and muscular, exuding strength and control; it is all the more imposing in the hands of Fabrice Calmels’s 6’7” Lord Capulet.

Romeo and Juliet romance each other at the ball, but their connection is hardly secret. Lord Capulet takes pains to keep them physically separated while maintaining order among his guests. Eventually, the lovers steal away to meet in private for the famous balcony scene—here set in a mirrored elevator that gives us several Juliets in reflection, suggesting that this young lover represents many others. Even during this intimate scene, though, the lovers are not alone. As they dance an ecstatic pas de deux, other dancers hover silently at the back of the stage. Much as Romeo and Juliet would like to imagine the possibility, the scene implies, they will never inhabit a world to themselves; they remain very much in the world of their families, a world of violence and social control. As their dance comes to an end, the bulk of the cast reemerges onto the stage to surround the lovers before dividing again into their pre-existing factions.

While taking place in the same location and involving the same characters, Act Two is set in the 1950s. The Capulets evidently remain an influential family in town, but the Montagues have come to dominate Verona. It’s a time of freedom, commerce, and the dolce vita. Video footage at the beginning of the act shows happy, mid-century Italians eating gelato and smiling. The streetscape backdrop is updated to include rows of Vespa scooters, and the stark black and white of the lighting and costuming gives way to warm sepia color tones. But deadly conflict still dominates life in Verona: Lord Capulet, surrounded by foot soldiers, urges the younger generation to fight, egging on the quarrel between Tybalt and Mercutio that will leave both dead. When the fight begins to wane, he presses a knife into Tybalt’s hand and directs him to stab Mercutio in the back. The appalled Montagues pressure Romeo to take vengeance, and he murders Tybalt under the eye—and approval—of his community.

Act Three opens to projected footage of car bombs and terrorist attacks. Set in the 1990s under the Berlusconi government, the color has cooled to a bloodless, icy blue. The cold, watery lighting feels appropriate when Capulet forces Juliet to dance for a group of suitors, then demands she choose one to marry. The score here swells and sways, evoking the sensation of being trapped under a cycle of crushing ocean waves.

It is this sensation of being dragged along—even crushed—by an overwhelming force that characterizes the whole of Pastor’s ballet. Romeo and Juliet try in vain to defy the fates that their families have determined for them and create a new world of possibilities, but their efforts are doomed to failure. In a heartbreaking final scene, Juliet awakes in her tomb to find Romeo dead beside her and attempts to revive him through dance. She tries to drag him around the stage, to coax his corpse back to life with her own movement. There is no hope, though, and no possibility to make a new life. In the end, she wraps Romeo’s lifeless hand around a knife and uses it to stab herself in a gesture that recalls Lord Capulet’s physical control over her body in earlier scenes. At last, her life ends not with a bang but a whimper. In a score otherwise characterized by imposing motifs, full-throated strings, and dissonant brass, Juliet dies to the sound of a tremolo pianissimo. Afterwards, nothing changes. The Montagues and Capulets return to the stage to find the dead lovers, and in a moment reminiscent of the balcony scene’s ominous end, carry away the two bodies separately, without acknowledging each other at all. There is no reconciliation in this Romeo & Juliet, no “statue[s] in pure gold” raised in tribute to the tragic couple, no unifying “talk of these sad things.” The rest is silence.

Pastor’s is a deeply pessimistic—and deeply moving—Romeo & Juliet. The couple’s love transcends decades, generations, and governments. But so does the violent enmity between their two houses. Even in death, Romeo and Juliet cannot escape control by their families or the community. They may bend time itself, but cannot break the authority of the society that has made them.


Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renais­sance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her re­search has been supported by several nationally competitive fellow­ships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Comple­tion Fellow­ships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.

Song of The Goat – Songs of Lear

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Performed by an ensemble of twelve singers and musicians dressed in black on a bare stage, save for ten chairs and some musical instruments, Song of the Goat Theatre’s Songs of Lear proposes that there is an essence of tragedy in King Lear that is not beholden to the formal expectations of modern theater, something powerful that predates and remains independent of the play. The performance intends to tap into that force and release it, without regard for intellectual analysis or understanding, through song and movement. Voices echo one another, clashing then merging, gestures are passed between members of the ensemble in an almost unconscious way, the performers keeping a constant sonic and kinesthetic awareness of one another, a result of the company’s group training regimen. They function as one finely tuned instrument. A performer might embody a character for a moment and then let that identity dissolve back into the chorus of voices. The songs, composed by Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychły, draw on Gregorian chant, the Gospel of Thomas, even an Emily Dickinson poem, in addition to language from King Lear itself. Though these sources, save a traditional Tibetan tune included at the very end, reveal a largely Christian and Eurocentric framework for the supposedly elemental and universally translatable capacity of music, the range of texts nonetheless make the case for a common thread running through many different sources of poetry from at least Biblical times.

This is the enduring tragic impulse that Song of the Goat, whose name is the literal translation of the term “tragedy,” picks up and preserves, just as Shakespeare seized upon and shaped that same impulse to his own purposes. Songs of Lear suggests that this essence of tragedy may best be revisited not by endlessly restaging and reexamining the same text, recounting the same plot century after century, but rather by stepping into the emotional center that tragedy embodies and tuning into it together, as the ensemble begins its performance by tuning bodies and voices to the room, the audience, and to each other. In order to know firsthand the passions, desires, grief, and rage shared by humans in tragic circumstances across time—fictional and otherwise, noble and otherwise—we might need to discover our responses together in a theater, a place that should be devoted not to dull repetition or the recitation of literature, but to experiencing, directly and in the present, something very old in a new and unexpected way.

This potential for language to evoke a visceral response that transcends logic and meaning and touches something universal and ineffable is almost always described via metaphors of musicality. Where ordinary prose aspires to do more than merely communicate, we say that it becomes poetry, or becomes equal to poetry; and where the beauty of poetry exceeds its literal meaning, we can only compare it to music. Certainly the popular veneration of Shakespeare takes on these terms—he is not merely a dramatist, but a poet, and where his poetry reaches its expressive apex, it is the musicality of his language that we remark upon. But what does that mean? It certainly does not mean that the words are necessarily to be sung, in fact consigning words to the status of song lyrics can only emphasize the distance between language and music. Instead, our hyperbole suggests that the right words in the right order at the right time might literally become music, break free from the stifling container of syntactical meaning and express themselves as music does, through tone, melody, harmony, and rhythm, and so touch us in the way that music does, that is profoundly and beyond reason.

It is this act of cross-disciplinary translation that Song of the Goat Theatre attempts to realize with Songs of Lear, to take Lear and render it in music. Songs of Lear does not try to tell King Lear’s story through music, but rather to do with music what King Lear does, to invoke the effects of Lear without staging or recounting its plot, distilling to its most concentrated form the animus at the center of Shakespeare’s play. In doing so, they mean to move the audience’s apprehension of Lear from one filtered through theatrical representation into a more shared, lived, firsthand experience that embodies the energy of the drama rather than the specifics of its story (a weighty rebuke, perhaps, to Ira Glass’s now infamous Tweet that Lear is “not relatable.”)

Song of the Goat Theatre was established twenty years ago in Poland by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki. Both are alumni of Gardzienice, the remote Polish theater center founded by students and collaborators of influential teacher and director Jerzy Grotowski. Like Grotowski and the work done at Gardzienice, Song of the Goat Theatre creates work through a collective process based in sustained and ongoing training practices that incorporate voice, movement, rhythm, and energy. They perform as a single choral body engaged in polyphonic song and ensemble movement, aimed at the most concentrated expression of the very human desires, passions, and grief that have defined dramatic tragedy since classical times. In the process, they largely leave behind Shakespeare’s language and the play’s plot. Certainly a few lines from the play find their way in, both spoken and sung, and Bral himself narrates some of the plot, but in many ways Shakespeare’s play, as we know it, is absent. Songs of Lear becomes not a staging of Lear, but a staging with Lear, in relationship to Lear, because of what Shakespeare’s play makes possible.

Bral starts the performance quite non-musically, explaining rather informally and without irony to the audience that “theatre is about telling stories,” and declaring that the performance begins with one. Instead of music or theatre, though, his story turns out to be about painting. Bral recalls an exhibition at the Tate Modern museum in London that traced the early career of pioneering modernist master Wassily Kandinsky from the pastoral landscapes and folkloric scenes with which he began to his discovery of the abstract techniques for which he is best known. The exhibition came together for Bral in a large gallery where he could see the progression of Kandinsky’s painting style from the early landscapes toward ever-increasing levels of abstraction, until he arrived at an entirely black painting with some geometric lines cutting across it. Pure abstraction, it seemed. But in context of the gallery, Bral could perceive the relationship of the black painting to the landscapes, even though they had such clearly divergent representational fates, they shared a common origin and the same instigating impulse.

This relationship between representational and abstract forms is what Bral promises for Songs of LearLear in twelve paintings, with sound as color and himself, the director, as docent, explaining the paintings as we go. The dozen songs that comprise Songs of Lear are meant to occupy the living heart of Shakespeare’s play, to locate the dramatic impulse Lear embodies, and to remain there, tracing the psychic inner life of the play in absence of recited text and enfleshed portrayal of character. Bral’s commentary provides a tenuous connection, tethering his production to Shakespeare’s play so it does not float off into pure abstraction, just as Kandinsky’s black painting could only be a landscape in relation to his earlier, representational works. By breaking Lear down to song, Song of the Goat Theatre seeks to clarify the play. Not to analyze and explicate it to the point of coherence, but rather to cook it down until it is at its most concentrated and transparent—a stock of LearLear’s flavors with none of the meat left behind, a homeopathic preparation of the play. A Lear not to be seen, but to be seen through, heard and felt and understood in the moment of apprehension not as the play, but as an essence that remains of the play after the performance disappears, an essence that can permeate the boundaries between performers’ bodies, between actors and spectators, and that can flow on into the next embodiment of tragedy in any of our lives or on that, or any, stage.


Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.

“Creating Shakespeare” – The Newberry

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Recently, I sat down to talk with Jill Gage, Bibliographer for British Literature and History at the Newberry Library. She has also recently succeeded Paul Gehl as Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. Dr. Gage and I discussed “Creating Shakespeare,” an exhibition she is currently curating and which will be free and open to the public at the Newberry beginning on September 23.

Andrew S. Keener: To begin, could you tell me a little bit about your background in the world of librarianship? What brought you to the Newberry?

Jill Gage: I’ve never worked anywhere other than the Newberry Library. I started here as an intern while I was in library school, doing my MA in Library Science and my MA in English simultaneously, and when I finished, the Newberry created a job for me. In 2010, I went back to school to get my PhD at the University of London, specializing in eighteenth-century English literature. Now, I do all of the antiquarian acquisitions for the fields of British literature and history, and I’m the subject specialist as well, which is how I ended up being the curator of the Newberry’s Shakespeare exhibition.

AK: I think this leads us into the exhibit. We’re here in the midst of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and there are hundreds of events going on all over the city for Shakespeare 400 Chicago. Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing?

JG: We started working on the exhibit in 2012. I’m not by training a Shakespearean scholar, but I do know the Newberry’s collections, and this was an opportunity to think about what we have and what we might offer.

I started out by typing the word “Shakespeare” into our catalog, and it grew from there. We’ve decided to call the exhibit Creating Shakespeare because the story of Shakespeare’s survival has actually very little to do with Shakespeare himself, or at least that’s one way of thinking about it. We have the First Folio, without which he might have slipped into obscurity; but then, starting in the late seventeenth century, many others have shaped Shakespeare and created Shakespeare in ways that are new for each successive generation. That’s the really interesting story for me.

The hard thing about the exhibition is that there are endless ways of thinking about Shakespeare. Honestly, the Newberry’s strongest collection of Shakespeare materials is seventeenth-century materials, and I’d love to do an exhibit of just those items, but one of my jobs as a curator and librarian is to think broadly. I’ve tried to invite people who look at the exhibition to think, “I didn’t know anything like that existed,” or, “I didn’t know the Newberry had that.” This way, visitors who aren’t as interested in the quartos or the First Folio might be struck by nineteenth-century sheet music, newspapers, or a radio play.

AK: Can you tell us a few things about what sort of items will be in the exhibition? What can we look forward to? I’m aware that some of the items on display will be coming from places beyond the Newberry as well.

JG: Yes. We are borrowing from the British Library, the Folger Shake­speare Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard, Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as four private collectors.

The British Library is sending four manuscripts and the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet, which is one of only two known copies. This book has been called a “bad quarto” because it’s so different from the later editions; it’s much shorter than the second quarto, many of the speeches are rearranged, and it has unique stage directions. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about what this “bad quarto” is, and whether it is actually “bad”—it could be an adaptation from the stage, or a memorial reconstruction by actors who were in the play. I think it’s really a perfect object to include, since it gives us a window into all the people who created Shakespeare and how Shakespeare has been mediated and created by other people from the beginning.

We’re also borrowing the John Manningham diary from the British Library. Manningham was a seventeenth-century law student who kept very gossipy notebooks, and he recorded seeing a production of Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple. It reminds him of The Comedy of Errors, and his favorite scene is when Malvolio reads Maria’s letter. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, we’re borrowing a lot of theatrical materials, including David Garrick’s promptbook for Hamlet and an Edmund Booth costume from the nineteenth century.

AK: Those seem like fantastic items. To take a step back: how, to your mind, will Creating Shakespeare fit into the broader landscape of events and performances around the city celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare?

JG: Shakespeare 400 Chicago is a wonderful, groundbreaking effort that Chicago Shakespeare Theater has coordinated with so many other cultural institutions, and the Newberry’s role is to help provide the historical background. We have a Chicago-specific section in the exhibit, beginning in the 1860s. And, in fact, that section includes the one thing I cannot tell you about, which is going to be the most blockbuster thing of all.

But Creating Shakespeare is a process that is ongoing; it’s still happening, and it’s going to be happening in the future. Our programming around the exhibit really fits in with celebrating the way our collections have been used by scholars and artists within the local community. We do have three scholars, James Shapiro, Peter Holland, and Coppélia Kahn, who will give traditional talks. They’ll all be great, but we really wanted to celebrate performance in Chicago, too. We don’t want to be seen as the ivory tower part of it; I think the programming is actually an integral part of the exhibition.

AK: Here’s a final question that sums up some of what we’ve been talking about. Simply put, what does Shakespeare mean to you, as a curator, researcher, and librarian?

JG: There’s something about Shakespeare that ties us all together, which I find quite poignant. Not that much that we share stretches from 1616 to 2016. Four hundred years of people have read or seen Shakespeare and somehow been inspired, whether that means cutting out all the sad parts, or making illustrations of Falstaff. I think that idea of inspiration, of creativity, is fascinating.


Andrew S. Keener is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he researches drama, literary translation and the publication and use of bilingual dictionaries and grammar books in Renaissance England. He also has interests in rare book exhibit curation and computational approaches to language and lit-erature. He holds an MA in English from North Carolina State University and a BA in English from Boston College. Read more…

David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet

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The first three shows I have reflected on for the City Desk 400
have been about America. The Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix mapped Shakespeare’s tragedy onto the American hip hop industry, in order to raise questions simultaneously about Othello and this sector of contemporary music entertainment culture. Steppenwolf and Second City’s staged reading of The People vs Friar Laurence was American in form and content—it was a satire of Romeo and Juliet in the American tradition of the musical comedy, and it consistently mapped early modern figures and dates onto American counterparts. David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet is about the rolef “celebrity” in American popular culture, but also more generally about what it means to “stick around”—something that Hamlet is also interested in.

Originally staged as part of the 2014 NY Fringe Festival, Carl’s one-man show about Gary Busey’s one-man Hamlet is at a surface level a joke about the place Busey has in American culture today. Especially his place as the Gary Busey of Donald Trump’s TV show, Celebrity Apprentice—this is present-day Busey, not Point Break Busey. Carl’s show opens with him entering in character as Busey, going straight into performing his one-man Hamlet. There’s no framing device for this—Carl-as-Busey doesn’t give us a pretense for why this show is happening, so Carl isn’t interested in situating it in that way, he doesn’t want to add a meta-layer of realism or at least backstory to this production of Hamlet.

So the show is more surreal for all of that. Busey moves back and forth between projection screen act and scene announcements, finger puppet shows, impersonations of various characters, pauses in the action for projection screen graphics of Busey-ism acronyms (made famous on Celebrity Apprentice), well-done famous monologues from Hamlet
including “To be or not to be,” and even a fight between Busey-as-Hamlet on stage and Busey-as-Laertes on the projection screen. Carl’s show launches into its action very much in the way that Busey himself will suddenly launch into one of his famous unpackings of an acronym that wasn’t already an acronym (FUN: Finally. Understanding. Nothing). There’s something kind of mad about this show that’s also what’s kind of mad about Gary Busey.

And there’s the rub. Or rather the rub that first got me thinking: why did Carl choose to bring these two things together, Gary Busey and Hamlet? I mentioned above that on the surface this show is a joke about Gary Busey. But there’s more to it than that. Busey and Hamlet are both famously “mad” characters, but further than this there’s a question with both of them of if and where there is method in’t. One of Hamlet’s basic driving questions is: if one is performing madness, is there any difference anymore between “acting” and “really” being mad? That’s the most famous question, but there’s an additional one that’s perhaps even more important/interesting: what political role can this performance of madness play? When enacted by one endowed with public, “celebrity” power as well? Is there anything meaningful this individual can accomplish?

There are famously two Gary Buseys, one that seemed sane as far as Hollywood stars go, and one that has seemed crazy. As with Hamlet, it gets complicated though. In 2011, Jezebel published a brief post entitled, “Is Gary Busey Just Pretending to Be Crazy?” The author of the post is essentially just raising the question, seemingly for the purpose of spurring on the comments section that followed. The debate in the comments section hashes out the broader questions that many of us in general who have followed Busey’s career have been asking (and in this, I may be David Carl’s perfect audience member: someone who is nearly as well versed in Gary Busey’s filmography as he is in Shakespeare’s oeuvre). The Jezebel post raises the possibility that Busey has just been performing his madness for the sake of keeping himself in the limelight, whereas several of the commenters suggest a well-known alternative theory: in 1989, Busey was famously involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life, fractured his skull, required nearly two hours of neurosurgery, and may have left him with significant brain damage. The argument goes that this was the cause of his “madness,” but then Busey put in performances and made public appearances after this where he did not seem to be so mad. A more nuanced theory suggests that Busey may be improvising upon the kernel of madness his accident introduced into his life, amplifying and making use of it through performance. I do not know where the “facts” really lie here, but David Carl is usefully engaging with this general “popular” confusion about Busey’s sanity to not only make a joke but also some kind of point.

So if that’s the rub, what is the point? I didn’t used to like Hamlet. In fact, for a long time I didn’t like Shakespeare’s tragedies in general. The sense of affirmation I felt in the comedies spoke more to the dimensions of life I could relate to essentially up through college. I had to get out in the world and get beat up more by life—to learn how inexorably long rough and rougher patches or seemingly insoluble problems could be and what kind of sheer patience it takes to live through them—to see the truth in the tragic experience of life that plays like MacbethKing Lear, and Hamlet speak to. That in raising the tragic experience of life to its height on stage, we can see more clearly that there is a heroism simply in endurance, and a comfort in the notion that “time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” What I found I was able to like in Hamlet when I came back to it later in life was precisely this sense of endurance—Hamlet’s enduring madness both as an effect of an event that was out of his control (his father’s regicide by his uncle who then married his mother, the queen) and as an expedient for surviving the consequences of this event—perhaps even finding way to make a difference in its wake as well. Enduring this leads Hamlet ultimately to the realization, in the “To be or not to be” speech, that life in time involves, at least tacitly, a decision to remain. To stay, even if life and time in its most practical sense is making us crazy, and our only way to find some control is to embrace and perhaps outwardly perform, and so make use of, the madness of life.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who was a fan of Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice express their admiration for him in these terms, but I do think that at some level it helps explain a deeper level of his enduring appeal, perhaps especially for older generations. The key moment in David Carl’s production comes when Busey is performing a revision of the “original script:” Busey has chosen in his one-man Hamlet to perform the part of Polonius when he is spying on Hamlet while he confronts Gertrude in Act 3, scene 4, showing us Hamlet’s stabbing of him from Polonius’s perspective. Carl-as-Busey-as-Polonius is moving in slow motion, reaching out his hand to grab the invisible dagger that is slowing pressing towards his chest, and just as Polonius’s hand is about to be pressed into his chest, Carl-as-Busey stops the show (the Busey show, not the Carl show), calls out to his imaginary (but maybe also the real) sound and light board operator to cut the sound and lights, and says he can’t play this moment tonight. Busey leans over panting, recovering himself, and there is a palpable, slightly awkward moment of silence before Busey rebounds and skips over this moment to go on with the rest of the action of Hamlet. This is the biggest break in the action and the biggest stand-out moment in the entire show. Busey is visibly distraught for a moment, with Carl just approaching and touching upon a level of sincerity in his overall show before we see Busey rush back into his zany Hamlet. This moment is the real point of contact between the joke and the point of this show.

If Hamlet is the condensation of all the issues I noted in Hamlet surrounding madness, endurance, and life in time, he is a young man first facing these truths. Polonius is in this sense an old man who has been living with these truths for a long time. If Hamlet is Gary Busey on, say, the day he woke up from his motorcycle accident, Polonius is Gary Busey today having lived with its consequences—and perhaps performed them—for a long time. Polonius is a lot of things in Hamlet—doddering, digressive, and meddling being a few of his worst offenses—but he certainly doesn’t deserve to die the way he does. In staging Polonius’s death from his perspective, Busey shows a sense of sympathy for this. The fact that he can’t bring himself to actually perform it in the moment shows how deep, and perhaps unacknowledged, that sympathy and ultimately identification goes.

Truly tragic events in life have an ability to seemingly wipe away our memories of what life was like before they happened. This is something Hamlet and Gary Busey both understand. When Hamlet’s father demands that he avenge his murder and remember him, the young Hamlet says that he will wipe his memory clean of all else. But he also in this moment suddenly experiences time’s attempt to make him old, that is, he suddenly feels his living in time:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter…

It’s an active decision here, but it performs the relation that tragic experiences and memory can have in life, including the break this relation introduces between youth and old age—it can threaten to make the sinews grow instantly old and erase from the book of the mind all “that youth and observation copied there.” I’ll leave you with a similar quote from Gary Busey on memory that might have a little more wisdom in it, or at least the benefit of time. Well into his Polonius phase, Busey appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live promoting a new book of his Busey-isms. Once again he makes an aphorism out of a word, “memory,” that wasn’t already an aphorism, but perhaps his understanding of memory also contains a lesson or revision in it for the young Hamlet. Quoting from his book, Busey says, “Memory. M.E.M.O.R.Y. Stands for: Making Exciting Moments On Remaining Yours. When you write from your mind, you write with an invisible pen called, Memory.”


Casey Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he specializes in the ontology and sexuality of money in early modern drama and intellectual texts. He holds his MFA in Shakespeare and performance, with a concentration on directing, from Mary Baldwin College, an MA in philosophy from University of Auckland, and a BA in philosophy from University of Texas at Austin.

Steppenwolf’s LookOut and Second City Theatricals – The People vs. Friar Laurence: The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet

People vs Friar

I know that my fellow City Desk correspondent, Lydia Craig, is also reviewing this staged reading, so I’ve decided to focus on a very specific point of contact between The People vs Friar Laurence and Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet: Friar Laurence’s exit at line 170 in Act 5, scene 3 of R&J (as found in the 1623 First Folio). Written by Ron West, with music and lyrics by Ron West and Phil Swann, this incredibly well-directed staged reading was co-produced by Steppenwolf’s LookOut and Second City Theatricals.

Writing about free will, the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling claimed that people will often prefer a decisive villain over an ineffectual moralist. That is, we seem to be drawn to people who actually do things, regardless of the moral implications. What Schelling is speaking to here is the fact that in “real life,” we spend a lot of our time not acting on any number of impulses we have on a minute-to-minute basis, living a life of duties chosen over desires. And this can take its toll on us, regardless of the consolations of “ethics.”

I think this insight says a lot about why audiences are able to enjoy Shakespeare’s villains and tragedies. We can find a proxy release for our desire for action in stage villains—Richard III, Iago, Edmund, these characters do things, they don’t allow themselves to be held back by petty social constraints, and they actually accomplish their goals. I think this can also help explain why we are able to enjoy tragic endings. Shakespearean comedies and tragedies cue us at the outset that they are setting out to do something: comedies set out to marry people, tragedies set out to kill people, and they tend to deliver. While it might be less confusing why we are able to take delight in comic endings, we can extend Schelling’s point to say that tragedies are also able to harness our desire for any action to their own generic ends. Really good tragedy finds a way to show us this fact about ourselves, that our pent-up desire for action can even lead us to delight in the death of others (on stage or off).

Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, these plays all perform this double function of entertaining and edifying, inviting us to reflect on our delight in carnage even in the very moment we are experiencing this delight. And contrary to the reductive image of the play that has resulted from the American primary education system, in some key ways R&J does this better than these “great” tragedies: most pertinently here, because it works us sequentially through a (Shakespearean) comic ending and then a tragic ending. We get to enjoy the comic delivery of Romeo and Juliet consummating their romantic desires, then we get to enjoy tragedy fulfilling its promise of their deaths. Friar Laurence is the mechanism behind both of these generic actions: he arranges their wedding, then he stages death in such a way that it becomes real.

West and Swann’s The People vs Friar Laurence, by putting Friar Laurence on trial and claiming that he is responsible for what has happened, has located for us the character in R&J that acts as proxy for our desire. This musical comedy satire levels a series of accusations as to Friar Laurence’s guilt, claiming that he is a villain. After enumerating the different bumbling maneuvers Friar Laurence enacts, the final accusation as to his guilt comes from the hangman immediately prior to Laurence’s scheduled execution. In the final scene of R&J, Friar Laurence has entered the crypt where Juliet is supposed to awake from the death-counterfeiting potion he’s given her, only to find that Romeo has killed himself because he mistook Laurence’s theater of death for the “real thing.” Then comes this very odd moment: in the space of nine lines, Laurence says he has just heard a noise and they should run away, informs Juliet that Romeo has died, says he will “dispose of” her (in a nunnery), and then starts leaving on the strange line, “Come, go, good Juliet.” The whole bit is made more urgent and hurried by Laurence repeating that he has heard a noise. Here’s the speech as it appears in the 1623 First Folio, including Juliet’s first lines as she awakes:

Iul. O comfortable Frier, where’s my Lord?
I do remember well where I should be:
And there I am, where is my Romeo?

Fri.
 I heare some noyse Lady, come from that nest
Of death, contagion, and vnnaturall sleepe,
A greater power then we can contradict
Hath thwarted our entents, come, come away,
Thy husband in thy bosome there lies dead:
And Paris too: come Ile dispose of thee,
Among a Sisterhood of holy Nunnes:
Stay not to question, for the watch is comming.
Come, go good Iuliet, I dare no longer stay.

Exit.

In The People vs Friar Laurence, the hangman asks Laurence the important question here: why did he leave a teenager alone in that crypt with a dagger, knowing she has just learned her husband has killed himself, and that she threatened to kill herself to his face earlier in the play?

Why does he exit at this point? Part of the reason is that he kind of is the villain in this play, at least as I defined one above. He performs an action that leads immediately to Juliet’s death, so in an odd way he is functioning as a proxy for our (tragic) desires. But the irony of “I’ll dispose of thee” and the tension in “come, go,” registers at the level of language contradictions in what Laurence wants that seem to be below the level of conscious thought, and his haste doesn’t leave him (much?) time to think about how his exit in effect participates in killing Juliet. So it’s a kind of tragi-comic, bungling action. He is and isn’t making something happen. He couldn’t possibly want her to die, yet how could he rapidly deliver all of that devastating news and then just run out? Is he a villain or just kind of dumb?

Why say all of this about Laurence, desire, sex and death? Because the American primary school education system really has ruined R&J for many of us, and audiences attending Steppenwolf and Second City’s incredibly well-produced staged reading might, therefore, miss how smart the insights are that their show has to offer. This satire wisely saves its most insightful indictment of Laurence for the end, but audiences (and I include academics here) that have refused to return to the text or “traditional” stagings of R&J might just see this as pointing up one more funny incongruity in the plot, as well as an affirmation of an “oh well” attitude that can seem necessary to get past otherwise confusing plot twists in Shakespeare’s plays. Putting Laurence on trial in general, then, puts our own violent delights on trial as well. The romping, satirical mode of West and Swann’s musical comedy acknowledges and plays into how many Americans have come to feel about R&J—caricaturing Romeo as an insufferable, “one note”
lover, or making multiple jokes about the mysterious origin of the Capulet/Montague quarrel—and at the same time educates us in the finer points of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In this sense, The People vs Friar Laurence is a “gateway play” back into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the specific insights it has to offer. There isn’t a moment quite like Laurence’s hurried, bungling exit from the crypt in any of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, and it shows us how even our goofy in­epti­tudes can be in service of “A greater power than we can contradict.”


Casey Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he specializes in the ontology and sexuality of money in early modern drama and intellectual texts. He holds his MFA in Shakespeare and performance, with a concentration on directing, from Mary Baldwin College, an MA in philosophy from University of Auckland, and a BA in philosophy from University of Texas at Austin.