SQ issue on Shakespeare and performance

I am thrilled to announce that the special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly that I guest edited on Shakespeare and Performance is now finally in print! That issue went through an open peer review at MediaCommons, and I will be writing something more about that process and experience.

But for now, I want to share that there’s some really wonderful, smart, and interesting stuff in the issue and I hope you’ll take a look at it; the issue includes pieces by W.B. Worthen, Ramona Wray, Zeno Ackermann, Mark Thornton Burnett, Daniel L. Keegan, and Todd A. Borlik. Abstracts are online at the Folger and the articles and abstracts will soon (tomorrow!) be are now up at Project Muse for those who have access.

Even more thrillingly, I want to share with you one section to which I have the author’s rights, “Rethinking Academic Reviewing: A Conversation with Michael Dobson, Peter Holland, Katherine Rowe, Christian Billing, and Carolyn Sale.” You can find it linked in this post and in the sidebar on the right.

And, just because I can, here’s my brief introduction to the issue, which I hope will convince you to go check the whole thing out!

Copyright © 2011 Folger Shakespeare Library. This article first appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 62, Issue 3, September 2011, pages 307-8.

This special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly presents a wide range of writing on Shakespeare and performance. They look back to early modern understandings of Henry VIII and forward to the growing genre of performances of Shakespeare in prison. They range geographically in interest from South America to Northern Ireland and from Germany to Japan, and they examine performances mediated by print, stage practice, filmic techniques, and modern closed-circuit video surveillance. They consider the ongoing debate about the relationship between literariness and performativity, propose a shift away from hauntings to prophecies, and argue that the act of performance and the recording of performance in our written work shape both our understanding of early modern drama and the relationships we forge with other scholars and communities.

In calling for papers for this special issue we hoped to gauge the present state of the field and announce our intent to make SQ a home for a wider range of writings on Shakespeare and performance. The breadth of responses to that call confirms the continued growth and transformation of  the study of performance and its centrality to the larger world of Shakespeare scholarship. This vitality is further reflected in the depth and intensity of conversation in the comments on our open peer review of submissions.

We are eager to expand beyond the boundaries of what we formerly referred to as “Shakespeare Performed.” This issue’s “Rethinking Academic Reviewing” signals our desire to rethink the subject and practice of reviewing, while the issue as a whole represents other forms of engagement with the issue of Shakespeare and performance that might suggest patterns for future contributions.

A note about the process of putting this issue together: as is now SQ practice, we issued an open call for papers for this special issue. In response to the CFP, we received about twenty-five submissions. Of those we selected the strongest six pieces to put up for an open peer review, held online at MediaCommons. There each piece was commented on by a group of self-selected peer reviewers over a period of six weeks. At the end of the review period, authors revised their essays and resubmitted them to SQ. We are publishing four of those pieces here, along with two other essays that came in to SQ outside of the call for papers and that went through SQ’s usual double-blind review process. We are extremely grateful to Kathleen Fitzpatrick and MediaCommons for being our partners in this. We also want to thank the authors who participated in this open review, which might have felt at times like an overly exposed one. Finally, we wish to acknowledge publicly the readers who took the time to participate and comment in this evaluation. The work of reviewers is often invisible, but in this case, the open nature of the review means that we can thank them by name: Andrew Bonnell, Alex Huang, Anita Hagerman, Carolyn Sale, Thomas Cartelli, Chris Fahrenthold, Christian Billing, Daniel Keegan, Jami Rogers, J.B. Cook, James C. Bulman, Jeremy Lopez, John Gillies, Karl Steel, Katherine Rowe, Linda Charnes, Matt Kozusko, Michael Dobson, Pascale Aebischer, Paul Menzer, Peter Kirwan, Peter Holland, Lois Potter, Romana Wray, Robert Tierney, Todd Borlik, Tom Magill, W. B. Worthen, and Zeno Ackermann.[i]



[i] The essays and comments from the open review are archived at MediaCommons and are able to be viewed at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/shakespearequarterlyperformance/. One essay has been taken down since the open review at the author’s behest.

SAA 2012 seminar description

(If you’re a seminar member looking for the papers, you can find them here.)

As some of you might have seen in the most recent Shakespeare Association of America Bulletin, Pascale Aebischer and I are directing a seminar on non-Shakespearean Drama and Performance. Both of us have a strong interest in shifting away from early modern performance studies’ dominant interest in Shakespeare to thinking about performance in relationship to drama by other early modern and modern playwrights. Since the Bulletin text is so necessarily brief, we thought it might be helpful to share our longer seminar proposal so that folks interested in participating can get a sense of the questions that are driving our seminar.

If you’re looking for an SAA seminar to participate in next year and you’re interested in these questions, please consider ours. We’d be happy to see position papers alongside seminar papers; review essays surveying the field might also be helpful contributions. Mostly, we are eager to have a conversation about what is at stake in defining performance studies beyond the terrain of Shakespeare and welcome anyone interested in that discussion. More information about SAA, membership, and the conference is at their website.

A quick aside on the seminar title: Pascale and I struggled to come up with a title and phrasing to use that conveyed our interest in moving beyond Shakespeare without defining those other playwrights and plays in terms of Shakespeare. “Non-Shakespearean”, alas, does just that, but it is really the only shorthand available. “Shakespeare’s contemporaries” runs into the same problem—defining everything in terms of Shakespeare—while introducing an emphasis on contemporaneity that excludes too much of interest. With some reluctance, then, we stuck with describing our interest as lying in the non-Shakespearean, hoping that recognizing the inadequacy of the phrase might open up avenues for moving through the challenges of this field. A further aside: when I went looking for some image to illustrate this post (all blogs should be beeyooteefull as well as stimulating), I couldn’t find something that worked to my satisfaction? Choosing one non-Shakespearean playwright just seemed to privilege that writer over others; replacing Shakespeare with Middleton or Jonson isn’t really adequate for our conversation. Instead, I took the Droeshout portrait and erased his face. In addition to being satisfying, it gives us a blank canvas on which to try new approaches.

Non-Shakespearean Drama and Performance: critical implications

Seminar Leaders: Sarah Werner (Folger Shakespeare Library) and Pascale Aebischer (Exeter, UK)

Brief description:
Shakespeare’s contemporaries have begun to compete with him for dominance in theaters, films, editions, and the study of Renaissance drama. This seminar explores how studying non-Shakespearean productions affects Renaissance performance studies, cultural studies, and editorial practices. What impact do such performances have on our understanding of Renaissance dramaturgies—including Shakespeare’s? Papers are also welcome that consider issues of methodology and terminology that arise in these studies. The aim is to explore new critical directions beyond a focus solely on Shakespeare.

Further description:
This proposal arises out of recent responses to the expansion of the canon of Renaissance drama in present-day performance. The methodologies and approaches established in Shakespearean performance studies do not unproblematically map onto the study of performances of plays by other early modern dramatists. The upsurge in performances of these plays and the performance traditions that are emerging prompt the need for a reassessment of our critical approaches to the performance of Renaissance drama. This involves a re-situation of Shakespearean performance in the context of performances of plays by his contemporaries, of present-day drama and of ‘the Renaissance period’ in plays and films. Books by Roberta Barker (2007) and Kim Solga (2009) and essay collections by Sarah Werner (2010), Greg Colón Semenza (2010), Mark Thornton Burnett and Adrian Streete (forthcoming, 2011) and Kathryn Prince and Pascale Aebischer (forthcoming, 2011-12) are beginning to explore the changing landscape of Renaissance drama in performance and to reassess performance studies and cultural studies methodologies in the light of this. Our objective is to take stock of these critical developments and explore new directions in performance studies that reach out beyond Shakespeare, giving us a fuller understanding of the impact of present-day performance on the study of Renaissance drama.

Our seminar reaches out to graduate students, junior and senior scholars, inviting them to join us in reflecting on the impact of performance and of thinking in terms of performance on their critical practices, whether in the fields of performance studies and cultural studies or as editors and readers of Renaissance drama. Specifically, we will ask contributors to address the following questions:

  • How does the study of performances of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, precursors and successors impact on our understanding of Renaissance drama and dramaturgies?
  • Conversely, how does the study of plays by Renaissance dramatists other than Shakespeare change our understanding of what performance is and how it works?
  • What methodological and terminological issues arise from a focus on Shakespeare’s contemporaries in performance?
  • How does embedding Shakespeare’s plays in a wider dramatic context (Renaissance and present-day) contribute to our understanding of the role of Renaissance drama in present-day performance?
  • How can awareness of actual or potential performance impact on editorial and reading practices?

Academic biographies of seminar leaders:
Sarah Werner is Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Associate Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. She is the editor of New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies (2010) and author of Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage (2001). She is currently guest editing a special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly on Shakespeare and performance and is textual editor of The Taming of the Shrew for the 3rd edition of the Norton Shakespeare. She has been a member of SAA since 1994, and has been to every conference since then except for the 1996 world conference. She has directed two SAA seminars, “Editing Performance Decisions / Performing Editorial Decisions” (1998) and “The State of Performance Criticism: Where Are We Today and Where Are We Headed” (2001); co-directed one workshop, “Editing for Performance” (2004); and has been an invited respondent for seminars in 2007 and 2009. She was also a presenter at a paper session on performance practices in 1995.

Pascale Aebischer is Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. She is co-editor, with Kathryn Prince, of Performing Early Modern Drama Today (CUP, 2011-12) and is guest editing an issue of Shakespeare Bulletin dedicated to films of plays by Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, Webster and Ford (Winter 2011). She is also writing a book, Beyond Shakespeare: Screening Early Modern Drama, which reflects on the often tense relationship between the Shakespeare industry and independent film adaptations of early modern drama. Pascale Aebischer is the co-editor of Remaking Shakespeare (2003) and author of Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies (2004) and Jacobean Drama (2010). In 2010, she was an invited speaker in Francesca T. Royster’s SAA seminar on ‘Shakespeare’s Female Icons’. With Roberta Barker and Kathryn Prince, she is co-chairing a session on ‘Counter-Shakespeares’ at the World Shakespeare Congress in Prague in 2011.

plays aren’t books

This is getting a bit far afield from early modern books, but since I posted on the subject recently and since it is near and dear to my non-book research interests, here goes…

Today’s featured New York Times contribution to idiocy comes not from the Style section (although see the blather on Plan B careers for matter for someone else’s blog) but from the front page. There, just beneath the fold, you can read a piece by Dwight Garner on “Submitting to a Play’s Spell, Without the Stage.” The premise is that, on the eve of the Tonys, Garner is going to read the playbooks for the four nominees for best play. And so he does.

Why would he do this? Because he hadn’t seen any of the productions and he hadn’t read a play in a while. And what does he discover? Lo and behold, they’re not bad plays!

Reading this small pile of plays turned out to be a joy. If none are blinding classics destined to be heavily revived 10 or 50 years hence, the best are as sharp and thrilling and concentrated as first-rate short stories. Even the weaker ones are jangly and distinctive, and I’m not sorry to have made their acquaintance. They linger in the memory the way novels often do not. 

The best ones are as good as short stories! They could be even better than novels! Aargh! There’s something about the book form that has thrown this whole thing askew–reading a book, regardless of genre, invokes a set of reading conventions that, without examination, shifts immediately to prose, and not poetry or drama.

But, oh, it gets even better. Here’s my favorite part, just two paragraphs later:

Theater is a social and collaborative art form, and a playwright’s work is no doubt most fully realized on the stage. But to encounter plays on paper is to encounter them in their platonic form. You’re glued to the playwright’s words, not sitting in Row K jostling for an armrest while gawking at, say, Jane Fonda (who stars in “33 Variations”), wondering if all her years of aerobics paid off. While reading, you can submit more perfectly to the author’s spell and, what’s more, you are your own casting director. 

Where even to begin with this? How about the fact that although the collaborative process of theatre is the means by which plays come to life, the ideal form of a play is in the platonic union between playwright’s words and reader’s armchair? Then there’s the weird digression about Jane Fonda’s body–can a woman in her 70s possibly still be attractive?–and the horribly present bodies of other viewers.

I’ll stick to the book/reading thing, since that’s closer to my blog’s subject, and will list my objections to this rather than throw up my hands in disgust:

Objection #1: Garner assumes that the imagined performance he creates in his head is an equivalent for watching the play in a theatrical performance. But given that plays are created always through a collaborative process–between playwrights, actors, directors, audience, scenographers, just to name the obvious agents–an encounter that bypasses that process does not result in a play, but something akin to closet drama.

Preface to Objection #2: Garner is particularly interested in playbooks, not playscripts, for this piece. He starts off by noting that people used to read playbooks more regularly than they do now, and that published books of plays are readily available through Amazon and other sources. One of the reasons that published plays sold well was that not everyone could get to New York to see the latest hot thing, but that there was a cultural imperative to be familiar with it. A trip to your local bookseller, and there you go! Edward Albee, even in East Lansing.

Objection #2: Given Garner’s interest in playbooks, not playscripts, it seems particularly foolish to imagine that those books give you access to the playwright’s words without all that collaborative claptrap. What it gives you access to is a whole different set of collaborative claptrap–an encounter between playwright, print conventions, and often the stage manager’s and scenographer’s early staging. There’s nothing transparent about the relationship between text and form. Ever. And I know you all know that.

There is something interesting to be said about the experience of reading plays rather than watching them, especially when it comes to contemporary plays, and not those that we’ve been taught to think of as “classics.” And I certainly don’t want to argue against reading contemporary drama, for fun or for edification. But this piece–on the front page!–simplified both the theatrical experience and the print one.

Thanks for indulging me on this. My next post will be completely about early modern books, I promise, and I’ll try to work in a nice picture or two. So stay tuned! And enjoy the Tonys!