I’ve been thinking about the social ties that connect us to our scholarship.

Last week I was at the annual Shakespeare Association of America meeting (or #shakeass13, as it was lovingly hashtagged), a conference that I’ve been going to every single year since (have mercy on me) 1994. It’s a great conference, in part because it is organized around seminars: the bulk of the work of the meeting happens in seminars in which participants circulate papers in advance; there are also paper panels, with only two or three happening concurrently. The result is a conference with a lot of room for active participation and common conversations. It’s invigorating, and that’s one of the reasons I keep returning.

Another reason is that I have a huge number of friends and colleagues that I only ever see at SAA. I’ve been going for a long time, I keep meeting more and more people, and while I’m lucky to work at a place that has a lot of Shakespeareans passing through, most of my friends I only see at conferences. This isn’t surprising news for anyone who goes to things like this: the social element of conferences is much of what makes them wonderful (or exhausting, if you’re an introvert). And the format for SAA is really great for socializing—not only is conversation built into the seminars, the conference even ends with a dance. (Thank you, Malone Society, even if I never actually go.)

But this time, I’ve been aware of how much social ties are built not only into my favorite conference, but into my life as a scholar.

I trained as scholar focused on modern productions of Shakespeare. I wrote a book on the subject, edited a collection, presented at conferences, published articles, all on aspects of Shakespeare and performance. I did that solidly from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s. And in the process, I met great people in the field, people I enjoyed collaborating with and being friends with. But then, around 2006, I started retraining myself as a book historian, thanks to the program I started on the subject at the Folger. And with that came blogging, and tweeting, and going to conferences, and even publishing. And in that process, I met a new crew of collaborators and friends.

What this means is that when I go to SAA, I find myself pulled in two directions: do I want to be at sessions focused on book history or at ones about performance? That experience of being pulled in different directions will be familiar to any scholar who is interested in more than one thing. But what I had not fully appreciated before this most recent experience at SAA was how much of the intellectual tugging went hand-in-hand with a social tugging. Sure, we all find ourselves socializing with the people with whom we share intellectual interests. That is the pattern I just described above. But what I recognized this time is that it works in the opposite direction, too: my choices in who I was socializing with generated who I wanted to share my intellectual energies with.

Here’s what I mean: the socializing I did at this conference tended, primarily, to be with my performance studies friends, and it jump-started my brain so that I’ve now got new questions and possible projects bubbling away. Talking with R and A and S, among others, made me want to continue those conversations by thinking about fragments and travel and how we experience, share, and archive theatrical performance. I was interested in those things before, but my drive to sort them out is connected to my drive to continue to hang out with these people I like. I don’t want to hang out with them so that I can better work out these questions that are bugging me; I want to work out these questions so that I can continue hanging out with them.

Obviously, my entire intellectual life is not driven by who shares my love for food and drink. I’ve got another project bubbling that doesn’t come out of any socializing impulses, and it’s a great one, and I chose my collaborator not because he’s someone I like to hang out with, but because he’s the right person for this project. And obviously what I get out of conferences isn’t only seeing my friends; I heard some really exciting papers in Toronto and that’s what really made it a great conference. (Let me tell you, I’ve been to other conferences that have been good social scenes but when it’s built around lousy papers, the whole experience brings you down.) But the connections between who I like to be friends with and who I like to talk shop with are not accidental. One of the delightful things about moving into a new field of scholarship has been that it introduced me to not only to exciting new ways of thinking about texts and books, but that it connected me to some really interesting and fabulous people. I love that.

But I’m now realizing how much I miss my old field, too. Yes, I know I can do both and that I could even combine book history with performance studies so that one foot is planted firmly in each realm, and I do try that. But let’s face it, that’s also exhausting and since my work explicitly pulls me towards book history and material text, that’s where I’ve gone. I’m not going to stop thinking about those things. I’m too embedded both intellectually and emotionally in the book history world (see some of you at SHARP in Philadelphia?) to walk away from it. But I’m going to let my love for performance stay in my life, too, and I’m excited about that.

So consider this my paean to the value of friendships and the ways they inspire us to be better scholars. And a big, hearty THANK YOU to all my #shakeass13 peeps: the ones who created the silly hashtag and wore our silly t-shirts, the ones who ate and drank with me, the ones I didn’t have a chance to do more with than wave across a crowded room and the ones who let me chill with them when the rest of the conference was too much. You’re what makes being a Shakespearean fun and smart.

#shakeass13? I'd shake it!

#shakeass13? I’d shake it!

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.