Thursday, March 15, 2007

Slice Up Your Shakespeare

One of the fascinating things I'm learning working with a colleague in theater is how we think about staging and texts. Happily, the person I'm working with likes plays that move along. I, too, like plays that move along.

But we differ about how to move plays along. After a variety of experiences, I really want to hear plays, and see acting, and I really don't care much about scenery stuff. I'd be pretty much happy with a bare stage. I HATE having the play stop while the curtain comes down and we wait for a scenery change. I hate this especially with Shakespeare stuff, because he gives us so much in the dialog that we can use our imaginations. My theater colleague, though, takes pleasure in the scenery, and that means it gets changed.

My colleague focuses on making things faster with judicious cuts to the script. Now, I'm a realist enough to know that pretty much any time you see Shakespeare on stage, it's been cut, and I can deal with that. Seriously, someone could cut half of Hamlet and I'd survive. But it's a real education for me learning how a theater person thinks about and chooses cuts, and it says a lot about our differing focuses.

My colleague tends to want to cut the most difficult language; s/he argues convincingly that there are times when the modern audience just isn't going to get some metaphor or joke, but that people might focus on not getting it, and then miss important stuff coming up. In a class, on the other hand, we (or at least, I) take a lot of pleasure in teasing out the really difficult language. Thinking that sort of thing through helps us tease out how the play's working.

My colleague usually cuts weird racist metaphors and images because they don't make sense to modern audiences. In contrast, I tend to teach about how those images reflect and contribute to early modern understandings of human differences, and how early modern practices and attitudes feed into our own. I can live with these cuts, except I sometimes wonder if we're not making Shakespeare seem less racist than he is. And it bugs me that we never seem to have to cut his sexism, because we still recognize and accept that language. Some people even do it without flinching.

It's been fun to work through the play (which s/he calls a "script" and I call a "text") and talk about what should or shouldn't be cut and why. I was oddly happy last night to be able to suggest a specific cut, since I'm usually the one saying we should keep stuff. But this cut makes sense, I think, and flows better in my modern ear. (And it cracks me up to think I'm "fixing" Shakespeare. I mean, really, the arrogance!)

When we work with students, I tend to bring in broader themes, recurrent imagery or ideas, and my colleague says s/he's finding that useful, and actually using what we've talked about in his/her other class for this text. So that's neat, too. My colleague's better at communicating with students/actors about how to work specific scenes, and especially at how to think about the play as a whole staging, rather than in pieces. But I can contribute to helping students understand how to read the text for stage directions (which tend to be less full in early modern plays than in plays written in the past, say, 50 years), which facilitates his/her staging work.

I'm very much enjoying this process, but the theater life, well, I'm too old for that. They work in the late evenings, because that's when their students have learned to keep blocks of time free. It's also when I'm in the habit of being long abed, usually. And then after we work with students, my colleague and I have been spending an hour or so working through cuts and such for the next section. I don't know quite when I got so old; I used to be able to stay up until dawn without any trouble, though in those days I wasn't also getting up within a short time of dawn to go teach. So maybe that has something to do with it?


  1. The blog is beautiful

  2. This blog is beautiful

  3. It's been interesting to hear about this collaboration.

    As a wildly irrelevant commenter, though, I have to ask: which parts of Hamlet would you cut, and why?

    (I might be able to do without some of the Priam/Hecuba section, but just some of it.)

  4. Bardic,
    If the scene changes take to long, then it sounds to me like your stagehands and techies are slacking.

    Many years ago, I was involved in the production of Julius Caesar. We eventually figured out a way to make it possible to put up a full size tent that a person (the ghost) could walk through, for the ghost scene. We were able to do it in seventeen seconds (on average) in pitch dark, by drilling the crew and figuring out some neat techniques. We could clear the tent in eight seconds too.

    Thus, I would recommend thinking the staging through more carefully, before cutting more text/script. (N.B. If you want details on how we were able to do this, just let me know and I will share).

    The Combat Philosopher

  5. I've always been fond of 'bare' stage production since I first saw Hamlet that way back in 98. One of my favorite film version of Macbeth is the Ian McKellen & Judi Dench venison.

    What certain directors keep and what they leave out is something we've been talking about in my Shakespeare class as well. Hamlet so far is where it seems most striking so far.

  6. Simone, Thanks :)

    Undine, I'm a naughty Shakespeare person. I'd be okay with cutting pretty much all of Hamlet. Okay, not really. But I find it a really difficult play to teach or work with. And it's long!

    Combat Philosopher, They do a quick job with scene changes here, but even the time for a curtain to go down and up is too long for my desires. My theater colleague is really good at this stuff, and I'm learning a lot.

    History Geek, Judi Dench and Ian McKellan is a pretty amazing combination, indeed! Films are really fascinating for the ways they work with plays.