Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Out of the Frying Pan

For the past several weeks, I filled in for a colleague teaching an extra five-hour a week class. Five hours taken by itself sounds like nothing, but when you add in an hour or two of prep for every hour teaching, it adds up. That colleague came back in yesterday and life got simpler for me again.

Late last summer, one of my colleagues in the theater department asked me to participate in the student production of a Shakespeare play this spring; technically, I'm a dramaturge, I guess. Yesterday, that started up, so I went over to the theater building to start doing my bit. It looks like I'll be there a couple hours a night this week, and then maybe a couple hours a couple nights more. So that's a substantial addition to the day. Happily, it's also a great learning opportunity. But dang, Skippy, I'm tired!

I'm a lit person. And they're the theater people. Lit and theater people tend to approach plays really differently. I don't want to stereotype; certainly some lit people have substantial theater experience, and some theater people have loads of lit experience. But we come at things from different directions.

Speaking to my experience, for example, I think of plays first as cultural texts; I think in terms of cultural and literary contexts, material contexts. Then I think in terms of theoretical questions. In there, especially in the material contexts, I think of play texts in theatrical contexts. Play texts, for me, are sort of potential stagings, multiple in meaning; I tend to hold multiple ways of enacting a given scene in mind without necessarily settling on one.

My colleague in the theater department tends to think in terms of staging this specific play in a specific production. She knows about early modern theatrical practices, and about theatrical practices through history, but she's far more prepared to deal with the specifics of a given space here and now, and not that interested in early modern spaces or stagings.

I've now participated in two summer Shakespeare programs with this colleague, so I'm learning to think more theatrically, but I still love coming at things through lit.

Some of the students in the play are in my Shakespeare class, where we'll also be reading the play (and where I'll require everyone to go to the play and write about it). But they're a little different in their theatrical department space.

Different departments live in their spaces differently. English students don't much hang around the department except for when their major society is meeting and such. But art types hang out in studios doing there work, and some science majors tend to hang around labs or whatever. In my grad program, students, majors and grad students, hung out in our specialized library; I usually felt a good balance there; I could work, and then there was usually someone around to take a break with, and then back to work.

My sense from last night is that the theater majors hang out in this one room, a crowdedly comfortable place circled by couches, and mostly seem to know each other pretty well from doing shows and classes together. They seem to feel comfortable sitting far more closely than English students do when they hang out, seem more comfortable with touching, leaning.

In my experience, students in different fields tend to idealize and take on traits they associate with those in the field. Here, the students act like they've been watching A Chorus Line a lot, or maybe Tootsie. They have ideas about what and how actors are, and they're trying out those roles.

I know two professional actors. Not people you're likely to have heard of, but people who make their day to day living acting, mostly stage acting. These two are intense and focused, and I can't really imagine them lounging in quite the way these students do. But then again, I don't know them primarily as actors, nor do I see them hanging out around acting jobs. One of my friends is New York based, the other West Coast based. When I was in grad school, one of them came to one of my Shakespeare discussion classes and gave an incredible little workshop. I still use what I learned from him. I wish I could get one of them to come do a workshop with my students here, but we're so out of the way in so many ways.

The theater department hasn't put on a full Shakespeare play for almost a decade; mostly, I get a sense that they don't especially value Shakespeare compared to the more modern plays available. (Obviously, I value Shakespeare lots more.) Their students have, as you'd expect, largely adopted the general attitude. So unlike where I went to grad school, where acting students crowded into Shakespeare classes, relatively few theater students take Shakespeare. (Except this semester, because they knew this play was on the docket and were encouraged by this director to take Shakespeare.)

When we talk about interdisciplinary work around here, this is the work I imagine most available to me, so here goes. Lots to learn, and hopefully lots to contribute to the production.

Right now, I'm doing this as an add on. If they decide to do Shakespeare more regularly, and I'm involved, then I'll have to negotiate something. But if this is just a one off, then I'm going full out for the opportunity.

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