Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier

In fall 2016, The Pritzker Military Museum & Library filmed a series of in-depth interviews with scholars, artists, and military veterans entitled Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier. In partnership with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four episodes explored the role of soldiers and warfare in Shakespeare’s work and the role of Shakespeare in informing our understanding of soldiers and warfare.

I went to the Museum to watch the live taping of the last episode, and while touring the collection beforehand, I was struck by the fact that the Pritzker is an art museum. Not, of course, only an art museum, but the two major exhibits on display during my visit were both exhibits of Vietnam-era art. One was of photographs taken by the Department of the Army’s Special Photographic Office (DASPO) of the day-to-day lives of American servicemen. The photos are alternately chilling, inspiring, beautiful, awful. They convey a sense of the war that brought home a kind of reality that was unavailable to me through reading books about it. The other exhibit was a collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters. Again, I was given a view of the war from the point of view of the North Vietnamese that any amount of statistical and historical information about “the enemy” could not convey.

For me, the most intriguing through-line in Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier was exactly how reciprocal that relationship between art and history is. The series featured actors, directors, soldiers, and scholars, all working together to bring stories of war to the stage in responsible, evocative, and truthful ways. The knowledge exchanges were surprising in many ways, but one after another, participants claimed that the value of the exchange had been in their favor—that is to say, most seemed to feel that they learned more from their involvement with their collaborators than they contributed.

The four sessions focus on different aspects of the larger topic. The first episode features Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director and Founder Barbara Gaines alongside Fordham University Professor Stuart Sherman. Sherman collaborated with Gaines on Tug of War, CST’s flagship double production chronicling the foreign and civil wars from Edward III to Richard III. Gaines and Sherman discuss how they went about telling this story of war, using Sherman’s historical knowledge to inform the art. Gaines had many advisors on this project, including a handful of veterans whom she interviewed personally in an attempt to bring onto the stage something like the experience of having been at war. Interestingly, Gaines repeatedly states that it is not possible for a civilian to truly understand what being a soldier in wartime is like. While such a claim responds to the mystique that surrounds war and soldiers, it is an odd claim for a theater artist to make; an important aim of the project of Tug of War is to convey that very experience—to allow audiences who are not veteran’s insight into what war is like. Gaines describes a very powerful image that has stuck with her and which she used in conceptualizing the play. The image is from an adaptation of The Odyssey in which a river speaks of the bodies that have floated down it, the death that it has seen. Sherman—who also at one point claims that veterans have understandings which are unavailable to civilians—responds to Gaines that the theater is that river—the river that “knows the costs, the collective costs of killing.” Such a sentiment is compelling; one hopes that art can, at its best, bring that knowledge to its audience.

For Stephan Wolfert, a veteran-turned-actor who was featured in the second episode, “Shakespeare wrote veterans perfectly.” Wolfert served as an infantry officer for eight years before leaving the Army and eventually becoming an actor and director who works with veterans, using Shakespeare to help veterans re-integrate (or, as he calls it, “decruit”). Not only does Wolfert claim that Shakespeare (who was not a veteran) understands veterans, but that as a consequence, Shakespeare wrote characters who veterans understand easily. Wolfert’s account of his first experience with Richard III’s opening speech is illuminating; for Wolfert, the story of a soldier lamenting his inability to fit into civilian society, and his sense of being deformed by his experiences in war, rang perfectly true. So true that he uses that speech, amongst others, to introduce veterans to Shakespeare, using theater as a kind of therapy.

The third episode features CST actors James Vincent Meredith and Jessie Fisher as well as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Yandura, chair of Military Science at Loyola University. Meredith and Fisher played Othello and Emilia respectively in CST’s 2016 production of Othello. Yandura worked with the cast to help them better portray soldiers. The production was set in modern day, and Emilia was also a soldier, so the two actors worked closely with the LTC to develop both a sense of soldiering based on both physical and psychological training. Learning actual drill from Yandura (in what he described as an abbreviated “basic training”) was, according to the two actors, incredibly valuable to them and the rest of the cast. Theater ensembles are used to developing a group identity and esprit de corps, but doing that through military drill was both inspiring and educational. Meanwhile, Yandura felt that he learned more than he imparted; his exposure to the stories of the actors and to the play gave him new ways to think about how he might use theater skills to train his own students at Loyola. Yandura said that he found the actors, with their attention to detail and their willingness and their professional training in the ability to submerge their own egos in order to emulate the behavior of others, were amongst the quickest candidates he had ever trained.

Fisher’s experience was particularly fascinating, as she learned both from Yandura and Yandura’s wife (also a veteran), who came to rehearsal and was willing to discuss what it was like to be the wife of a soldier. Fisher’s Emilia being a soldier created a very interesting reading of the character. As a soldier, her first loyalty lies with her commander, Othello, and her comrades, including her husband Iago. Assigned to “babysit” the civilian Desdemona, she is at first resentful of the woman who has no place in a military zone, and who is keeping her from “more important” duties. It is only as she realizes that the men are behaving poorly, and that Desdemona is demonstrating the pure loyalty which she believes she has a right to expect from Iago and Othello, that she comes to sympathize with her charge. This exciting new reading would have been difficult to create without the help of LTC Yandura.

In thinking more about the way that art and history inform each other, I am reminded of the vital importance of both as the foundation of a free society. According to the staff of the Library, there were protests by American servicemen when the exhibit of North Vietnamese propaganda art opened. These veterans were angry that posters showing our soldiers being killed and our planes being shot down would be displayed. Apparently, those protesters mostly changed their minds after actually seeing the exhibit. I wonder if their minds were changed about more than just the appropriateness of the exhibit; perhaps their perspectives on the war itself might have been shifted slightly, too.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System

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On Saturday, September 24, Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosted a panel discussion on the practice of teaching and producing Shakespeare with incarcerated populations. The audience, who filled the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare at its Navy Pier home, was an eclectic mix of academics, activists, and artists who were all eager to get out of the beautiful fall weather and into a windowless theater to hear what the panelists had to say.

The discussion ran for two hours, and then at least another hour informally in the lobby for those who chose to stay. Many aspects of this work were discussed, and my intent here is only to explore a few of them that have particular interest for me; other discussions that I overheard in the lobby went in completely other directions, which I feel is the hallmark of a very successful panel.

One of the first issues that moderator Lisa Wagner-Carollo raised was what the relevance of Shakespeare is to incarcerated individuals and to the criminal justice system itself. Both practitioners and participants in prison programs described how Shakespeare speaks to them specifically. Panelist Agnes Wilcox, the founder and former artistic director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, explained that prisoners see themselves in many of the characters Shakespeare writes. Doing Julius Caesar, the cast recognized in Cassius a “con man”—conning Brutus into doing a job that he did not want to do: the murder of his close friend. Wilcox told of a guard who, watching a rehearsal, started pointing to the conspirators without knowing the characters’ names, but recognizing them nonetheless: “We have one of him, a couple of him…. definitely one of him…”[1]

That is, of course, a testament to the general applicability of Shakespeare—the fact that he writes characters which everyone can see themselves in is one of the most commonly cited reasons for his enduring appeal. But Shakespeare also writes a surprising amount about justice and law. Even in his comedies, incarceration and legal action are constant elements. Kate Powers, who directs the Rehabilitation through the Arts program, discussed her recent production of Twelfth Night at Sing Sing maximum security prison. When I expressed surprise to her in the lobby after the panel, she elaborated on the choice. In that play, Malvolio is imprisoned in a tiny, dark room and tortured by characters with whom we have generally sympathized. Presumably that scene was funny for an early modern audience, but contemporary audiences often find it uncomfortable. According to Powers, however, her cast and audience loved it. They, more than anyone, understand what it is to be put in solitary, and to be abused by guards.

The prisoners take their work on the plays very seriously. Powers related a story about a rehearsal game where the ensemble working on Hamlet had put Claudius on trial. The rules were that the actors could only introduce evidence from the text. The actor playing Horatio was being cross-examined and answered every question about the ghost and about Hamlet with the same answer: “I don’t know anything about that.” Kate finally asked him why he was not relating what he knew, and he looked at her in mystification. “I swore to Hamlet I wouldn’t say anything!” Panelist Haisan T. Williams, a past participant in the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institute, told of a fellow prisoner who turned down parole because he would have been paroled before the performance for which he had been rehearsing.

This work is clearly important to the participants, but one of the most compelling issues raised at the panel is what the value of these programs is to society. It is worth, I think, interrogating the instinct that makes us think of these two questions as if they were different; that is, why do we think that something could have value to prisoners but not to society? Itari Marta, founder of the Penitentiary Theater Company, at Santa Martha Acatitla penitentiary in Mexico, made an observation that begins to offer an answer. “Prison” says Marta, “is a reflection of outside society.” She said this in the context of a discussion of the particular challenges that she faces in her work; in this case, the corruption that is endemic to Mexican government and that has become normalized by Mexican society, which makes resource management very difficult for her. But this idea of prison as a reflection of society has remarkable explanatory power in several arenas. At the simplest level, if Shakespeare and prisons can both function as ways for a society to better understand itself, then the appeal of one within the other is not surprising.

Marta’s observation, however, is also a call to think about what we see reflected in our prison systems. By her account, her challenges as an artist stem from the way her society thinks about prisoners and about crime: “Our country is corrupt and our government wants it that way. As a people, like anyone would, we have become used to the way things are and so the worst thing is that we cannot imagine things differently, so we have become infected. So when there is a chance for change, we reject it, either because we don’t trust the authorities or because we don’t trust the possibility of change.” Participants in the Penitentiary Theater Company struggle for resources that often get diverted elsewhere. However, perhaps because of the way prisoners are considered, they have access to a source of income that is unavailable to American prisoners. Marta’s project puts on performances for the general prison population, but they also do performances that are open to the public, and for these they charge admission. The proceeds of the public performances pay for the production, and whatever is left over goes to pay the actors. That may seem innocuous, but it would never occur to American programs that the work of rehearsing and performing a play is work, or more to the point that prisoners might be entitled to reap the fruits of their labor. According to Powers, her program is not even allowed to bring cookies for the actors. I see in this startling difference (and it was startling to every one of the Americans on the panel, according to discussions I had with them after the event) an important reflection of the different views of incarceration. Where Marta’s challenges revolve around corruption, ours revolve around the perception of prisoners as sub-human.

In discussions of criminal justice system reform, the question we asked earlier about the value of these programs to society is usually asked in a way which implies that the questioner, intellectually concerned about limited resources, wants to make sure that those resources are being spent wisely. But hidden beneath the question, all too often, is the emotionally charged challenge: why do prisoners “deserve” Shakespeare? This is the issue that incarceration as a very concept struggles with. We talk about rehabilitation, but deep in our hearts many people look to the prison system for vengeance. Kate Powers gets asked at least once a week, “Why are these murderers getting free Shakespeare?” The question is indicative of the way Americans have been trained to think about the incarcerated. Why indeed should prisoners be treated like people at all?

But if the goal of incarceration were actually rehabilitation, that question should answer itself. Who needs Shakespeare more than prisoners? Powers argues that that the values that prisoners develop while working on Shakespeare’s plays are an important aspect of the programs. “These are human plays, and they teach us to be human.” Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars (a twenty-two-year-old program with twelve active prison programs) adds that the themes and characters found in Shakespeare’s plays reflect the trauma that incarcerated men have experienced. For him, trauma and shame are part of the human experience, and he finds that the prisoners he works with find the characters whose particular traumas match their own, as a way to come to terms with their own lives. “As actors, they have to analyze and dissect the characters, building the actor’s tools for self-reflection.” Both Tofteland and Wilcox discussed the way such work trains the actors to develop empathy—that quality which is essential to play someone else on stage, but also, as Martha Nussbaum has argued in Not for Profit, essential to the role of citizen in a democratic society. Exactly the role that rehabilitation purposes for those who have served their time.

Put in terms of societal self-interest by Williams, the question becomes, “Who do you want coming home?” Because prisoners do come home. And when they do, the question of what happens to them is, or ought to be, of vital interest to civilians. Williams offers fairly stark options—either programs like these teach the values of our society, or men return to society with only the lessons that one might imagine are taught by being stuck in a box for seventeen years.

The effectiveness of the programs is unquestionable; recidivism rates amongst alumni of programs like those run by Tofteland and Powers are less than five percent, a tiny fraction of the fifty to sixty percent that is the national average. One can only hope that this is seen as a worthwhile goal by anything calling itself a justice system.

[1] Throughout this essay, I am using quotes from the speakers, but those reflect my own notes taken in real time, and so are not necessarily verbatim. Where I have italicized words within the quotes, those reflect my perception of emphasis put there by the speaker. A final complication is that Itari Marta spoke in Spanish, which I do not speak, through a translator who was performing consecutive translation, not simultaneous.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

The Backroom Shakespeare Project – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Backroom Shakespeare Project is a special kind of theater company. Their tagline, “Serious actors, no director, one rehearsal, at a bar” pretty much sums up their way of making theater. From a scholarly perspective, the “project” that gives them their name is a particularly interesting one. For the BRSP, the goal is to recreate the kind of relationship between actors and audience experienced by early modern theatergoers. By that, they do not mean that they are trying to recreate the production values of Shakespeare’s company; quite the contrary. A good reproduction of a production as done on the stage of the Globe (a project that has been attempted many times to various degrees) could not possibly recreate the audience experience enjoyed by the apprentices who loved the plays at the Red Bull so much that they rioted when Queen Anne’s Men moved into the upscale Cockpit and raised their ticket prices. Instead, the BRSP works hard to put their audience at ease—to make them feel like they belong there, and are part of the show; not in the contemporary “immersive” way that is quite popular in a lot of theaters, where actors talking to audience members feels almost aggressive and uncomfortable, but rather with a sense of comradeship. The Project achieves this comradeship by laying out their principles before the show—literally telling audiences to keep their phones on, to live-tweet or Instagram or Facebook the show as it happens, and to get up whenever they feel like they want another beer or need to go to the restroom.

During their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Radler on July 25, the whole audience was laughing uproariously, for nearly the entire duration of the play. Of course, Midsummer is a comedy, but all too often, that appellation is not earned in production. The show opened with “Bear Baiting” (and a brief explanation of the early modern practice of bear baiting and its relation to the theater), where audience members volunteered to take on the roles of bear and dog—though in an insult competition drawn from random internet searches rather than actual combat—cheered on by the rest of the audience and the cast. It worked well to set the mood and get the audience comfortable with the different kind of theater experience. What made the show so much fun was that the actors were bringing the story directly to the audience that was there to see it, mixing Shakespeare’s language with Chicago’s, to tell a story that is both Shakespeare’s and Chicago’s. This is the “Rough Theatre” that Peter Brook discusses in The Empty Space:

The arsenal is limitless: the aside, the placard, the topical reference, the local jokes, the exploiting of accidents, the songs, the dances, the tempo, the noise, the relying on contrasts, the shorthand of exaggeration, the false noses, the stock types, the stuffed bellies. The popular theatre, freed of unity of style, actually speaks a very sophisticated and stylish language: a popular audience usually has no difficulty in accepting inconsistencies of accent and dress, or in darting between mime and dialogue, realism and suggestion.

This is the kind of theater that Backroom embraces. And it is the same theater that Shakespeare’s companies embraced. Again, in Brook’s words:

The popular tradition is also bearbaiting, ferocious satire and grotesque caricature. This quality was present in the greatest of rough theatres, the Elizabethan one.

This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was unapologetic in its attempt to tell us the story in ways that make sense to us, not to Shakespeare’s long-dead audience. The actuality was evident in the acknowledgment of all the things in this 400-year-old play that no longer work. There are lines of poetry that no longer rhyme in our current pronunciation. The actors did not ignore the text, nor did they ignore their own voices; they tried to rhyme the words, acknowledged their failure with a laugh or a furrowed brow, then repeated the line using the non-rhyming “correct” pronunciation with evident satisfaction. The production thus reaped the benefits of a running gag that was continually entertaining, and which was both utterly contemporary and yet rooted deeply in the text that they love.

In a similar vein, Skyler Schrempp’s interpretation of Puck as a harried, disorganized personal assistant was hilarious. What seemed at first like simply a funny choice (Schrempp was constantly jotting notes down on post-its, napkins, and eventually her arm, whenever Oberon said anything) landed brilliantly when she, a bit behind on her dictation, made Oberon repeat “Athenian garments” several times as the Fairy King was describing who should be dosed with the love potion.

Puck: Athenian what?
Oberon: Garments!
Puck: Right, got it! (Scribbling. Pause.) And…garments are clothes?
Oberon: Yes!
Puck: Athenian clothes, got it. That’s it? Nothing else

Of course, when the potion goes in the wrong eyes, and Oberon begins to blame Puck, she still has the words “Athenian garments” scribbled on her forearm to show to Oberon, to the raucous laughter of the crowd.

The topical references that, by Brook’s account, are a vital part of the rough theatre were there: the “Ass’s head” that Puck put onto Bottom was, of course, a Donald Trump mask. The joke was so obvious that it seemed almost too easy, but nonetheless it connected with the audience, many who have probably seen practically nothing else on their social media since the GOP convention the week before.

The audience relationship is the primary focus of the Project, but it is in service to the play. The actors are telling the story because the story is important to them. What they do with the story is often funny, often self-referential, and often a departure from the text, but their performance results in an audience experience that allows for thoughtful consideration of what the story is saying. In this production, the genders of the characters were assigned as if at random; all four lovers were played by women, while Hippolyta was played by a man. But on reflection, it is not random. Audiences for Midsummer Night’s Dream regularly feel that they cannot tell the lovers apart or remember who is supposed to go with whom, and in this performance, it seems like that is part of the point of the play. At the opening of the play, Demetrius and Lysander both love Hermia, but the play take valuable exposition time right at the beginning to make it clear that the lovers have always been switching roles. Not long ago both men loved Helena, and first one and then the other changed allegiances. If the four lovers are all the same gender, then the mixing and matching between them is even harder to follow; we in the audience are led to understand that there might be less “true” about “true love” than a surface reading of the play would indicate.

As evidenced by this performance alone, The Backroom Shakespeare Project is worth seeing. In a way, the Project is a testament to the strength of Shakespeare’s plays: there is room in Chicago for every kind of adaptation, performance and treatment, from the flagship produc­tions of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, to the gritty storefront theaters, to the many Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer. Each has something to offer, some new insight into the Elizabethan world.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.