Theatre R&D Research Tour Itinerary (+ ArtMonks)

You all have been very helpful in suggesting places and people for me to visit as part of my Theatre R&D Research Tour. My current rough itinerary is below. Please let me know if you are on the route and would like to meet (or know someone I should meet), or if I should adjust my route to meet you!

Aug 14: Depart Chicago to NYC

Aug 15: Arrive NYC

Aug 16: NYC – Mtg w/ Fr Jim Martin SJ of the LAByrinth Theater Company; 7pm: Jerusalem [I HAVE AN EXTRA TICKET – TAKEN!]

Aug 17: NYC – 8pm: War Horse with friend

Aug 18-19: NYC – Mtg w/ Keith Bunin (playwright, including my favourite play The World Over at Playwrights Horizons), Fr Bill Cain SJ (playwright, most recently Equivocation at Manhattan Theatre Club), Steven and/or Chris Cragin Day of Firebone Theatre, Fr George Drance SJ of Magis Theatre (& Jesuit Artist-in-Residence at Fordham), George Hunka of theatre minima, & Rob Weinert-Kendt of American Theatre magazine

Aug 20: NYC to Toronto

Aug 21-22: Toronto & Kitchener, Ontario: Mtg w/ John Franklin of Imago magazine & Alan Sapp and/or Kathleen Sheehy of Lost & Found Theatre

Aug 23: Toronto to Boston

Aug 24-25: Boston: Mtg w/ Fr Robert VerEecke SJ (Jesuit Artist-in-Residence at Boston College)

Aug 25-26: Boston to Chapel Hill, NC (via Baltimore)

Aug 27-28: Chapel Hill: Friend’s wedding

Aug 29: Chapel Hill to Asheville, NC

Aug 30: Asheville: Mtg w/ Scott Walters of CRADLEarts

Aug 31: Asheville to D.C.

Sept 1: D.C.: Mtg w/ Fr Peter John Cameron OP (playwright & founder of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre) & Fr Rick Curry SJ (founder of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped)

Sept 2-4: D.C. to Gove, KS

Sept 4-5: Gove: Visiting 91-year-old grandfather at family farm

Sept 6-15: I’m not quite sure yet how I’m going to do this, but here are the spots I planned to visit during this time:

Austin, TX: Mtg w/ Travis Bedard of Cambiare Productions

Irvine & Los Angeles: Mtg w/ actors of Cornerstone Theater Company, actor Chad Glazener & friends, Fr Radmar Jao SJ (actor), Peter Senkbeil (professor of theatre, Concordia University; doctoral dissertation title: “Faith in Theatre: Professional Theatres Run by Christians in the United States and Canada and Their Strategies for Faith-Art Integration”), & Gabriel Voss (actor)

Vancouver: Mtg w/ Cheimanus Theatre Festival, Lois Dawson (stage manager), Ron Reed of Pacific Theatre

Chicago: Mtg w/ Dan Roche of the Bird & Baby Theatre Company, & returning my car to my sister.

Now I can’t drive and visit all of these places within the time allowed. I previously had an extended itinerary that went until almost the end of September, but I recently learned that I have to be at St Andrews by Sept 17 for orientation. So, I’ll either have to skip one or more of these stops and pick them up next time, or put in some flight time (if I can find some inexpensive deals on small budget airlines).

This itinerary is still rough; the only dates set in stone are the ones whose explanatory text is bolded. I’m still working on setting up dates with some of the above people. There are also some people I’m hoping to meet whom I haven’t yet contacted.

May I ask for your help in two areas?

1) Trip logistics: I’ll be making most, if not all, of the trip in my trusty little Toyota hatchback. Gas is expensive. If you could make a donation toward the cost of the trip by using the PayPal donation button on the right, I would appreciate it. Also, if I’m going to be in or passing through your area, and you’re willing to let me crash on your couch for the night, I would appreciate that, too. And hey, if you’d like to donate a plane ticket to one of the major metropolitan areas on the trip (especially one of the three I’ll have trouble visiting – Austin, Los Angeles, and Vancouver), you’d have my undying gratitude! Everyone who helps out in any way will receive a copy of the report I plan to compile about the trip, as well as an invitation to crash on my own couch at St Andrews. Which brings me to…

2) Interview questions: Most of these meetings are going to be somewhere between a casual chat and a formal interview. I have my own list of questions which I’ll be compiling, but if there is anything you’d like me to ask these folks, here’s your chance. Leave questions in the comments, or e-mail them to me. I’m speaking with three rough groupings of folks: members of religious orders involved in professional theatre, professional theatres informed by a Christian vision, and secular professional theatres which excel at building community. My plan is to record and compile these interviews into a single document covering the entire trip, which I will make available for free on this blog (and will send individual copies of to donors and interview subjects, including hard copies upon request).

Thanks for all your help and support, and thanks especially to the people who have agreed to meet with me during this trip. I’m looking forward to it!

***

On a slightly-related note, I spoke with Liz Maxwell and Betsy McCall of the Art Monastery this week, to discuss setting up a chapter of ArtMonks at St Andrews. If you’re going to be within travelling distance of St Andrews over the next year and are interested in a monthly discussion group about art and monasticism, please contact me. If there’s enough interest, I plan to set up a preliminary meeting in September or October, to discuss the form the  group and its activities should take, including whether or not it should be an official ArtMonk chapter, an independent but allied organization, or something else altogether.

The World Over + Fellows Hip Interviews

Today’s post is my first post as a regular contributor at Transpositions, the academic student blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts at the University of St Andrews, where I’ll be beginning my PhD in Theology & Theatre this September. It’s about my most moving experience as an audience member at the theatre, when I wept for half-an-hour straight:

‘The World Over: Touching the Live Wire of Love’

***

Our new poster!

Also, here are a few recent podcasts for which I and the other The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers cast members and creative team have been interviewed recently:

A Casual Stroll to Mordor: The Fellows Hip Interview (cast + director, interview at beginning)

LOTRO Reporter: Interview with Opening Act Productions (director & producers, interview at 30:42) & The Fellows Hip Redux (cast, interview at 34:00)

Chris and Bill at LOTRO Reporter and Merric and Goldenstar at A Casual Stroll to Mordor were all friendly, welcoming, and all-around awesome, so if you’re a Lord of the Rings Online fan, I highly recommend listening to their podcasts.

ETA: Here’s a new full-length print interview with the producers at Massively!: The Road to Mordor: A talk with the crew of The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers

If you’re interested in learning more about The Fellows Hip, here are a few links:

The Fellows Hip Movie Trailer

The Fellows Hip Facebook Fan page

The Fellows Hip DVD Pre-Orders

We also got a mention on TheOneRing.net!

The Creativity of Yes + Fellows Hip Trailer

Today’s post is a guest post on Transpositions: “The Creativity of Yes: The Marian Role of the Viewer”

And The Fellows Hip‘s first trailer is out!

We’re trying to attract distributors, so please “Like” and comment if you’re willing. Here are some other ways you can help us find distribution:

1. View our YouTube videos, and give a thumb’s up to your favorites. (These videos need to be in the thousands of views!) http://www.youtube.com/user/OAPfilm

2. Leave a Comment and Subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

3. Join our Facebook Fan Page. http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&gid=39670886057

4. Follow us on Twitter! http://twitter.com/#!/OpeningActProd

5. Join in on the conversation with our blog. http://thefellowshipmovie.blogspot.com/

6. Join and let others know about our email list. (Submit your ZIP code – or city for those outside the U.S. – to let distributors know where screenings should take place!) http://www.thefellowshipmovie.com/zip.html

7. Pre-order the DVD (and receive exclusive special features). Pre-orders not only help us finish the film faster, they also show distributors stronger than anything else that there is an audience for the film. http://www.thefellowshipmovie.com/film.html

8. Do you know someone who could help in getting the word out to the masses? I’d love to talk to that person.

Stay tuned for more information on a podcast interview that the other lead cast members and I are doing next week! In the meantime, you can read this recent article on the film. ETA: The podcast is now up! Interview begins at 34:00: LOTRO Reporter Episode 88 – The Fellows Hip Redux. (And here’s a second interview, recorded prior to the cast’s, with the awesome Fellows Hip producers – begins at 30:42: LOTRO Reporter Episode 87 – Interview w/ Opening Act Productions.)

In other news, this week I received a full work-study grant to attend this year’s C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge, run by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, where I will be presenting a 20-minute version of my thesis, “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist”, as part of the Academic Roundtable. Thank you to the Foundation, and let me know if you’ll be attending! I presented a longer version to the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society this past Tuesday, which was received well, and the attendees created some interesting discussion of their own afterwards.

I’m still looking for members of religious orders in the professional theatre, Christians who run secular professional theatres, and professional theatres which excel at community-building for my Theatre R&D tour this summer. Stops so far include New York City, Toronto, Boston, D.C., Chapel Hill, Austin, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Chicago, with a few stops in smaller areas such as Alberta and Kansas. I hope to have a draft itinerary up in my next blog post (probably after my final Oxford exams, which run June 6-17). Let me know who I should visit!

The Place of “Place”: Community-Building in American Theatre

Today’s post is a guest post on Transpositions, the student blog of the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts – where I will be starting a PhD in September! I’m looking forward to serving as a regular contributor at Transpositions starting July 1, and will be splitting my blogging time between there and here.

Read today’s guest post: ‘The Place of “Place”: Community-Building in American Theatre’.

Previous Transpositions guest posts:

‘Is Tolkien Useless?’ (Sept. 14, 2010)

‘Harry Potter and the Eucharist of Empathy’ (Oct. 22, 2010)

What is Christian Art?

Back in November, I posed a question to my friends on Facebook and Twitter:

‘Question: Is (the musical) Les Misérables Christian theatre, and why/why not?’

Les Misérables in Concert - The 25th Anniversary

I had just seen the 25th anniversary concert of my favourite musical livestreamed at my local cinema, and the question of whether such an international mega-hit could also qualify as ‘Christian theatre’ was very much on my mind. Les Miz holds a foundational place in my Christian life. After I first heard the music when I was 13, I decided to read the novel by Victor Hugo. Though I was raised in a Christian household, it was only after I read that book that I understood what it meant to be a Christian, and decided to devote my life to Christ. Jean Valjean was my first literary Christian role model. For me, reading the book and listening to the musical are both devotional experiences in a way, and I’ve always thought of them as Christian art. But I was interested to see what my friends thought, and more importantly, how they came to a verdict.

The verdict was split about whether the musical or the book qualified as Christian art. Two major criteria emerged from my less-than-scientific survey:

1)      Author’s intent

2)      Themes of the work

Friends who defined Christian art by author’s intent – an artwork is Christian if the author intends to create a ‘Christian artwork’ – were less likely to call Les Misérables Christian, on the assumption that it was not written as either a Christian musical or Christian book. (This assumption fits with Hugo’s ambivalence towards the Catholicism in which he was raised; I do not know anything about musical composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and librettist Alain Boublil’s intentions.)

Friends who defined Christian art by its themes or values – an artwork is Christian if it deals with specifically Christian themes such as sin and redemption – were more likely to call Les Misérables Christian, because of its central plot of a convict (sinner) who is reborn through grace (the mercy and gift of the Bishop of Digne) to live a life in imitation of the mercy, compassion, and self-sacrifice of Christ (as modelled by the Christ-like bishop).

Those of the ‘intentional’ school argued against using themes as the primary criterion because one could miss what the artist was actually saying. One friend shared an example of teenage English lit students in the U.S. Bible Belt who argued that Kafka’s Metamorphosis was a Christian parable – not realising that Kafka was Jewish. In addition, identifying a work as Christian against the author’s intent could be disrespectful to the author. Another friend warned, ‘I don’t want to Christianize authors who didn’t want to be Christianized.’ Finally, there was the problem of the distinctiveness of themes which could be identified as Christian. A third friend, who pointed out that she was both Jewish and a great fan of the musical, argued that ‘some of the ideas in it that could come across as Christian are somewhat more universal in terms of ideals’.

On the other hand, those of the ‘thematic’ school argued that the presentation of Christian themes in a way consonant with a Christian worldview was sufficient to qualify an artwork as Christian, although they generally accepted that the artist’s own worldview should be taken into consideration. One person defined Christian art as that which ‘arises out of a Christian worldview, resonates with one, or arises from the life of a Christian’. Even though themes which ‘resonate’ with a Christian worldview were claimed to be a sufficient criterion to identify Christian art, on further discussion it seemed that the themes should be distinctive to Christianity, not themes of universal goodness or reconciliation. There was some disagreement over just how distinctively Christian the themes of Les Misérables were, especially if Hugo and the musical creators were not necessarily writing out of a Christian worldview.

When I spoke with a local Oxford professor about Christian art a few months ago, he gave me a possible definition (here in vastly-oversimplified form): Christian art is art in which the artist is struggling with the questions of the Christian tradition, from within that tradition. That does not necessarily mean that the artist would identify himself as a Christian, but he is swimming in its stream, even if he is fighting to make his way toward the bank to climb out.

According to this definition, Les Misérables would qualify as Christian art. Hugo’s disillusionment with the Roman Catholic Church shows through in his screed against monasticism and his criticism of rich clerics who ignore the poor while advancing their own social standing. However, he also presents two model Christians, one of whom is a member of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and yet a saint. His act of mercy and generosity towards Valjean transforms him to live a life of virtue and love that stands in contrast to the inhumanity of the society which has rejected him.

It is more difficult to know whether to define the musical as Christian art, because the biographies of Boublil and Schönberg are less well known. This points up a possible flaw in the above definition, in that it seems to require knowledge of the artist that one might not be able to glean from the artwork alone. However, I think the musical qualifies as Christian art according to the above definition, not only because it faithfully portrays many of the key themes of Hugo’s novel, but also because it does not shy away from using religious language to show the Christian motivations of both the Bishop of Digne and Valjean. In addition, the clash between Enlightenment ideals and Catholic beliefs in French history forms part of the background to both the novel and the musical; though not brought to the forefront as much in the musical, the question of how post-Revolutionary France deals with religion is still lurking in the story’s struggles.

While the novel and musical might not qualify as Christian art based on the artists’ intent, I think they do based on their themes (though these are not exclusively Christian), and also based on their creators’ engagement with the Christian tradition from within a society still grappling with that tradition.

What do you think about defining art as a struggle with the Christian tradition from within it? What do you think about using author’s intent and/or distinctive themes to define Christian art?

Update: Just found an excellent article on the Christianity of Les Misérables from Touchstone Magazine: “‘Sentiments Abstractly Christian’: Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, and the Catholic Imagination”.

Theatre R&D – The Research Tour

I’ve been reading Chris Guillebeau’s blog The Art of Non-Conformity recently (added to blogroll), and this post struck me. In it, Chris relates a piece of advice that marketing guru Seth Godin gave him: “I think you need more of an agenda.”

Chris started thinking about his blog’s agenda, and I’ve been thinking about mine. I’ve also been thinking about where I go once I leave Oxford, which will probably be the case at the end of July. (I finish my final exams in June, and am sticking around for the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial conference, the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge, Jul. 26 – Aug. 3. I’ll be presenting on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist” as part of the Academic Roundtable. Go here for more information or to register.)

I don’t yet know where I’ll be this coming autumn. It could be St Andrews, Duke, Kings College London, or Oxford. Or, if I’m not accepted into any of those programs in the first round, it could be almost anywhere else.

Wherever I am, I feel the time is right to start taking steps towards the religious theatre community I wrote about a year ago. Now, I’ve decided to approach the religious life and theatre aspects separately, partly because I’m still allowing my recent conversion to Catholicism to settle into a deeper regular practice before I start making any moves toward vocation, but also because I think they will have to operate as two separate entities, even if they end up being linked later. In any case, I’ve spent a year-and-a-half in a theatrical fallow period, since I’ve been focusing on my studies and writing at Oxford, and I’m rarin’ to go again.

Another blog post that has stuck in my head recently is from Scott Walters, on “The Need for Theatre R&D”. Scott’s vision of a theatre company living communally, and rooted in its community, has inspired much of my thought on the kind of company I would like to start. This new post, emphasizing the importance of theatre makers sharing the results of their experiments with the wider field, verbalized another goal of mine, the artist-scholar model, in which company members not only exercise their craft, but also contribute to the intellectual discourse of their field. (That’s why my ideal space has a comfortable – and comfortably large – library!)

To that end, I’m going to be undertaking a research tour of the U.S. and Canada this August-September. There are two kinds of theatre makers (both individual artists and companies) whom I would like to meet:

1)      Christians working in secular theatre. I am especially interested in companies run by Christians, or with a Christian background/mission, that produce work aimed at general audiences, as opposed to church drama ministries, companies that serve primarily church audiences, or groups that function primarily as mission teams. These types of work are valuable, but they’re not what I feel called to do. I’m looking for companies that produce shows alongside the rest of the theatres in their area, but are informed by Christian faith. (Basically the theatrical equivalent of the Inklings.) I’m especially interested in members of religious orders who are using theatre.

2)      Theatres which have especially close bonds with their local community. In keeping with the principles of Scott’s vision, as well as the guiding principle of hospitality that informs my vision of a Benedictine theatre company, I’m looking for theatres which are rooted in their local communities, instead of focused solely on the needs and desires of the artists. Which professional/semi-professional theatres do you know that epitomize neighbourliness and community?

My goal is to study the practices of these groups, in order to glean and share information, examples, and inspiration that will serve our wider community (as well as guiding the development of my own company).

Tell me where to drive this summer!

Benedictine Theatre Company: Seeking Peace (+ C.S. Lewis Matters)

I just realized I haven’t had a Benedictine theatre company post in four months, so here’s another. Before we get started, though, I’d like to point out my new friend Ryan’s blog, which I’ve added to the blogroll on the right. Ryan Pemberton is a new theology student at my college, from Seattle, and is also a great C.S. Lewis fan, and an apologist in his own right (with a book and everything!). He is blogging about his and his wife’s new life in Oxford at Ryan & Jen Go to England. (He also has an apologetics/devotional blog at hands&feet, which provided source material for the book. If you like it, leave him a comment saying you want a copy!) He’s an engaging writer, and you’ll read about his many Oxford- and Lewis-related adventures. The guy’s been here a little over a month, and he’s already had tea with Walter Hooper, briefly Lewis’s secretary and now literary adviser to his estate, multiple times, as well as visited the Kilns and taken in meetings of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. All that while diving into essays and New Testament Greek (which I returned to myself as of today, since I recently decided to take the optional Greek translation paper during my final exams – don’t ask me why). If you like his blog, leave him a comment

Also, if you’ve ever wanted to take a tour of the Kilns, but can’t afford the airfare – now you can! I just put up a photo tour of 68 pictures on Flickr. ETA: Had to temporarily place the Kilns photos behind a privacy barrier, to make changes. Sorry! I’ll edit this if/when I open them back up again. Re-ETA: Kilns photos available again! Seeing the real thing is still best, though, so if you’re going to be in England and want to come visit, you can either contact me (as I am a docent) or the Warden to book a tour. More information about touring the Kilns can be found here.

Oh, and final piece of news – I finished the first draft of my thesis last Monday! 63 pages and 21,046 words, a full 40% OVER my maximum word limit. Now to begin the cutting and revision process, so I can hand in a revised draft to my supervisor in 2.5 weeks. (Thankfully, I know at least a portion of the cuttings will go to serve as seed for another paper.)

Now back to Benedict:

Prologue – Day 3

And the Lord, seeking his laborer
in the multitude to whom He thus cries out,
says again,
“Who is the one who will have life,
and desires to see good days” (Ps. 33[34]:13)?
And if, hearing Him, you answer,
“I am the one,”
God says to you,
“If you will have true and everlasting life,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps. 33[34]:14-15).
And when you have done these things,
My eyes shall be upon you
and My ears open to your prayers;
and before you call upon Me,
I will say to you,
‘Behold, here I am'” (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9).

What can be sweeter to us, dear ones,
than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Behold, in His loving kindness
the Lord shows us the way of life.

***

What strikes me is the line: “keep your tongue from evil.” I think a Benedictine theatre company should be known for its integrity, love, and respect for others. One of the ways it should show this respect is in the avoidance of gossip. It is the responsibility of the leaders to set an example. We all know how gossip thrives backstage, often leading to hurt feelings and petty rivalries. One of the ways leaders of a Benedictine theatre company can help avoid the creation of such a negative atmosphere is by listening to the artists with whom they work.

An example from my own life: My first time as a young producer, my superior at the theatre company I was working with called me to pass on a complaint from some actors about an action taken by a member of the production staff. Since I knew and trusted these actors, I assumed things had happened the way they had said, though from my experience with the staff member, I figured the problematic action must have been unintentional.

So, I sent out an e-mail to the production team reminding them of the staff policy in question. I didn’t name names, but I did mention that I had been told there was a violation. Unfortunately, even with the somewhat vague wording of the e-mail, I had still left in enough detail to enable other staff members to identify the alleged violator. Another staff member, who had brought the first staff member on as part of his team, e-mailed me upset that I had basically made a public, though indirect, accusation against his team member, without consulting her to get her side of the story, which was very different.

Right there, I realised my big mistake. I hadn’t even thought to ask her, and I also (albeit unknowingly) made it very easy for other production team members to know who I was talking about, leading to deeply hurt feelings.

What I should have done was handle it privately, and get both sides of the story before I made any decision. (After talking to both sides, I’m still not sure what actually happened, but I suspect that we could have worked it out if I had led with better communication.) I also learned that taking care of one’s team is the most important part of being a producer. Not even advertising, budget, or ticket sales trump showing your people respect and love.

That’s what a Benedictine theatre company is all about. We’ll see later that St Benedict says that guests should be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. I think this courtesy and care extends not only to guests (e.g. patrons), but also to all the company members, visiting artists, support staff, and anyone else with whom the company interacts. And it begins by refusing to get caught up in backstage gossip, and by giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

“Keep your tongue from evil.” “Seek after peace and pursue it.” These are two of the mantras of a Benedictine theatre company.

Previous posts:

1) Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

2) Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

Trevor Nunn’s Oxford Shakespeare Lecture

I just attended Sir Trevor Nunn’s inaugural lecture as the new Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, held at St Catherine’s College. Before I give my notes of the lecture below, here’s a quick update on my professional life:

-Became the new Reviews Editor for the C.S. Lewis Chronicle, the peer-reviewed, MLA-indexed journal of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. (If you would like to see a book reviewed in the Chronicle, or would like to review a book yourself, please e-mail me.)

-Submitted my first book review for said journal. This is my first book review for any peer-reviewed journal, so it’s quite exciting. I reviewed Letters to a Diminished Church, a 2004 collection of Dorothy L Sayers’ essays.

-Wrote another guest post for the St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts student blog, Transpositions. It’s called ‘Harry Potter & the Eucharist of Empathy’, and will most likely be published this Friday. I had to edit the original post down to meet Transpositions’ length guidelines, so I’ll be linking to the Transpositions post here when it’s published, and then publishing the full-length post on this blog a week later. Edit: You can now view my post at Transpositions here.

-Began Michaelmas Term with a high 2:1 on my medieval history/theology collections, a class on Thomas Aquinas, and an essay on Julian of Norwich and prayer. Partway through my tutorial on Julian, my tutor, the venerable Sister Benedicta Ward SLG, asked, ‘By the way, do you read any C.S. Lewis?’ When I answered, after a pause, that I was the Vice-President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, her face lit up, my face lit up, and we proceeded to go through Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and more, relating Lewis’ stories to Lady Julian’s teachings. Best tutorial I’ve had, I can tell you. It’s love.

Now to the notes.

*******

Sir Trevor Nunn, ‘All the World’s a Stage – Shakespeare, the Player Poet’, St Catherine’s College, Oxford – 18 Oct 2010

Began by debunking the various ‘claimants to [WS’s] work’:

-Earl of Oxford: died in 1604 – several WS plays were written after this date

-Christopher Marlowe: died in 1593, again too early

-Francis Bacon: style is completely different – is it at all likely he would write in one prose style in all his public work, and then lead a secret life as a verse playwright?

-Edward VI: died in 1553 at age 15; this theory (propounded by one person) claims that he didn’t die, but instead went into hiding, and wrote the plays from his secret location. He put a secret code as to his identity on every page of the First Folio, BUT the code is different on every page (since of course he couldn’t have anyone finding out who he was and causing trouble for the supposedly deceased king!).  Not only that, but in the 1609 quarto edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, when the cover page says they’re printed ‘by G. Eld for T.T.,’ that T.T. doesn’t stand for Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, but for none other than the (by now elderly) ‘Ted Tudor’!

-The source of all these conspiracy theories is that educated scholars can’t quite believe that a relatively uneducated Warwickshire boy could actually have written these brilliant plays. Only an ‘educated man’ could have done so.

-Ben Jonson, fellow playwright and author of a eulogy to WS printed in First Folio, calls him ‘my Shakespeare,’ ‘my gentle Shakespeare’, ‘sweet swan of Avon’. Jonson was known for upsetting the establishment and being willing to be locked up for telling the truth and speaking his mind. Is it likely he would cover for some educated nobleman (e.g. Oxford) and write a lie of a eulogy? It’s not in his character.

Instead, WS was an actor:

-Theatrical jargon throughout plays (Rude Mechs in Midsummer, players in Hamlet, many more instances in Shrew, Titus, Love’s Labour’s, Henry IV Pt 1, All’s Well, Lear, Tempest)

-Theatre in WS’s time like early days of Hollywood – ‘new creative language being invented’ –> Elizabethans invented blank verse, soliloquoies, scene breaks within acts, etc. –> there was a ‘culture of collaboration’

-‘This special relationship with his audience was vital to his success as a dramatist’ –> WS knew that theatre was a business, and wrote crowd-pleasers [WS is prime example of how pleasing the audience doesn’t mean lowering one’s standards and selling out! Writing for the audience made his plays better.]

-Being part of a company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) meant he needed to write crowd-pleasers to bring in box office, and also needed to write meaty parts for members of his company –> the lead character’s age keeps ‘migrating upwards’ as WS writes through the years, probably because of the need to write parts for his lead actor, Richard Burbage –> as the actor grows older, the leads grow older (might explain why Hamlet is necessarily younger in earlier versions, but WS perhaps inserted lines to allow for an older actor in later versions –> did RB demand to play the part?)

-Hamlet’s Advice to the Players = evidence that WS was the first director of his own plays, and possibly the first director in England (extremely unlikely that Burbage candidate for company’s director, because he was too busy playing leads, whereas WS both knew the story and had smaller parts –> their relationship caricatured in Midsummer’s Rude Mechanicals, with Burbage=Bottom and Quince=WS)

WS as humanist [not Nunn’s word, but what he seemed to describe]:

-‘doesn’t depend on an afterlife to make sense of this one’, doesn’t identify himself with any particular religious or political belief [I might quibble with this one, as would others – he speaks the language of religion as one who is within it, though I would agree not partisan]

-classless –> knows the language of both the pub and the court

-believes that we can be redeemed by love

Discovering how Shakespeare could write such timeless work is ‘not about foreign travel, classical education, or English aristocracy’, it’s about one word, ‘and that word is: GENIUS.’

*******

+1 bonus story: Sir Trevor was talking about his difficulty with the passage ‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’ in Hamlet (II.ii.). A hawk seems so different from a handsaw, that it’s not the discriminating judgement of the sober-minded that Hamlet seems to be implying to his friend that he can make. Is he really crazy? If not, what does he mean?

Nunn was travelling on the coast of England, and sat in this pub filled with stuffed birds. The proprietor turned out to be the taxidermist. Nunn saw a bird he didn’t know the name of, and asked, ‘What’s this one?’

‘Oh, that’s a hernshaw,’ the man replied. A heron.

So when the wind is southerly and warm, if the bird is soaring on the thermals above you, you know it’s not a hernshaw – it’s a hawk.

Hernshaw=handsaw. ‘Aha,’ Sir Trever thought. ‘Aha.’

Sir Trevor Nunn is the 20th Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. He was the youngest ever Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was Director of the National Theatre from 1996-2003. He has directed most of the Shakespeare canon (30 out of 37 plays), as well as the original productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, and Sunset Boulevard.

And may I say, the guy in no way looks 70. More like 50.

Random Thoughts on Postmodernism

The reason why much postmodern theatre has such contempt of the audience is that it believes that communication is impossible and truth is relative. It doesn’t like to use ways of framing the narrative that allow the audience to understand the narrative. It doesn’t even like to use narrative. Unfortunately, since framed narrative is how humans understand meaning, theatrical performances that reject frames and narrative appear like meaningless gobbledygook to the audience. They use images and moments that would be laden with meaning if they occurred within a narrative framework, but outside it they’re stripped of their power to communicate anything. It all becomes gibberish.

If postmodernists don’t believe that there is any form of objective truth, then to them it stands to reason that there is no form of objective morality (since statements like “It is wrong to be cruel” have no inherent truth, and therefore it’s not necessary wrong to be cruel at moments). If we can’t be sure about the morality of cruelty, or any other behaviour, then what standard have we to go on to choose our behaviour? If there’s nothing external we can count on, the standard must be internal and subjective – myself. Therefore my own thoughts, feelings, and will become the standard of my behaviour. Therefore again, if I have a desire to do something, there is nothing external to stop me from doing it. If I want to express myself through cruelty, or through wild bursts of emotive sound and movement, I may do so.

Again, if there is nothing objective outside myself which I can consider true, nothing sturdy which I can understand, it follows that even other human beings (since they’re outside of myself) can’t even be understood. We understand truths as communication and through patterns, and through reason. Reason even works through truths that we assume (such as that A = A). If we can’t even trust that a thing is itself, we can’t trust reason or thought at all. Therefore any means of understanding the world falls apart.

We experience other people’s personalities as momentary experiences linked together by a pattern of experiences in our history with that person. That’s how we know when someone is “not acting like himself” – we have a sense of who that person is, what their personality is, so we know when someone is different, is extraordinarily different from that pattern. If we can’t trust patterns, then we can’t experience personality, and therefore we can’t truly know other people. We’re forever sundered, not only from our own environment, but from our fellow human beings.

You can see, then, why many postmodern theatre artists see no need to show respect for their audiences. They can’t even trust that their audiences exist as steady, integrated entities, much less that communication is possible to them. Yet they still feel the need to express themselves, even if it is into a void. If all they feel they can know is themselves, then why try to communicate to anyone else?

Thoughts?

Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

I’m here at the Wade Center at Wheaton College doing research for my thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,” supervised by Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and Acting Chaplain of St Peter’s College, Oxford. I’ve finished my primary research, which included reading all C.S. Lewis’ work that has been published in book form, including his collections of essays, poetry, letters, and diary. I’m now working on the secondary reading, and should have that done by the end of the week, which will finish up my research, except for a few bits and bobs that I can access elsewhere. I drive to D.C. this weekend to do ADR for The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers, and then a one-day shoot of an educational video that I just booked, for a guy I worked with a couple summers ago. So I will make a (little) money acting this summer, not just spend it on research trips! (I have some good news about The Fellows Hip, too, but that will have to wait until I’m given the go-ahead.)

And now for a continuation of our series on a Benedictine theatre company:

Prologue – Day 2

Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
“Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep” (Rom. 13:11).
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
let us hear with attentive ears
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
“Today if you hear His voice,
harden not your hearts” (Ps. 94[95]:8).
And again,
“Whoever has ears to hear,
hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7).
And what does He say?
“Come, My children, listen to Me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 33[34]:12).
“Run while you have the light of life,
lest the darkness of death overtake you” (John 12:35).

***

The Rule of St Benedict is meant to be read daily to the monks, and therefore there is a section assigned for each day, such that the entire Rule is read three times in a year. The Prologue is accordingly divided up into several sections. Today’s section is the second of the Prologue, for Jan 2 / May 3 / Sept 2.

It doesn’t give us much meat for our purpose, but is rather a call for the hearer to take notice, and begin the task of following God. We are back at the beginning of the Rule – a time for fresh starts, no matter how inert or unsuccessful we have been in the past.

This call to action reminds me of a blog post I read recently, on a “post-evangelical” Christian blog called the Internet Monk. In this blog post, blogger Jeff Dunn outlines a calling he has to start an artists’ “retreat/school/monastery,” a place where Christian artists can come “not to work on their art, but on their spirit,” as he said to me when I spoke to him via phone this past Saturday. Jeff and I both agree that Christian artists don’t have to make art that is explicitly Christian – that art is not merely an evangelism tool, but is in itself a way to glorify God. As he says in his post:

I love to help set artists free from the little Christian art box we like to put them in. You know—if you are a Christian painter, then you can only paint pictures of a pasty-white Jesus knocking on someone’s door, or of cottages in gardens with unusual light coming from their windows. If you are a Christian songwriter, you have to write plastic lyrics that portray Jesus as your girlfriend. And if you are a Christian novelist, you have to create fake characters acting in unrealistic ways in an unreal world. None of this brings glory to the Lord. It is simply an attempt to make money from people who need to feel good about themselves.

What’s different about Jeff is that he is right now starting his artists’ monastery. He’s got a plot of land lined up in Ohio, ready for purchase and renovation. You can find more info at his follow-up post.

I’ve let Jeff know that I’d like to help in whatever way possible. Right now that way is prayer. So if you all would please keep Jeff and this artists’ monastery in prayer, we would appreciate it. (And if you’d like to help, especially with funding, why not contact him?)

This past week I also met with Dan Roche, a professional actor/director who’s unusual in that he left Syracuse’s BFA program to study theatre at Wheaton, a college without even a theatre major, but with a close-knit theatre community and an opportunity to do plays more meaningful than the postmodern cynicism subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged at many of our professional undergraduate training programs. After starting Stone Table Theatre Company, which came out of a drama ministry started at his church, he worked in the Nylachi market for several years, before returning to Wheaton. He basically picked up where he left off, and recently started the Bird and Baby Theatre Company, which has as part of its mission the mandate to produce at least one play a season by or about one of the Inklings or related authors (C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, etc.). (You’ll see that I’ve added Bird & Baby to the list of links on the right-hand side of the page.) Their most recent production was a stage version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Jeff and Dan have risen from sleep and started to run. I know of other folks, like the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver and Cambiare Productions in Austin. Who else do you know that’s running? I’m thinking of doing a tour in the future of theatres that either have a Christian mandate, or are run by Christians, to talk about their approach to creating theatre for general audiences. Who should I visit?

Part 1 of this series can be found here.