Sunday, February 17, 2013

Coming alive in the audience

Recently, I attended a performance of Romeo and Juliet, presented by the National Players. Between this, the American Shakespeare Company's Love's Labour's Lost that I saw in October, and the huge number of Shakespearean films I watched in conjunction with my Shakespeare class, I've seen a lot of Shakespeare lately.

And I've been thinking a lot about the live theater experience, particularly with early modern plays.  One of my friends in the audience at R&J remarked that while he wasn't 100% sure of what characters were saying throughout (it's original language and spoken very quickly), he was following everything in the play very well.  And a number of other people I spoke to about the performance of the fight scenes -- and just the general energy and enthusiasm of the performers.

And more than anything, this recent performance of R&J reminded me of how much humor is mixed into the play -- and that like most performances for the early modern stage, there is a huge mixing of genres.  The director, of course, makes choices to highlight the bawdy humor.  But it's there -- so why wouldn't performers have done the same 400 years ago?

What struck out even more for me, though, was the audience reaction -- and more specifically how the audience was drawn in, was able to suspend disbelief.  It's one thing for me to talk in the classroom about how costume makes the characters -- and how we're too wrapped up in our need for realism.  But it's quite another thing to see it in effect -- both the ASC and the National Players double parts.  And it's  changes to the costumes that make the difference.  We know what side someone is on, simply based on colors that the character is wearing.  We read the sartorial clues without question.

And it's different -- being drawn in to a live theatrical performance.  We don't actually expect full realism, no matter how realistic the play.  We're alway somehow cognizant of the fact that this is artifice.  But we're so used to film -- and I use a lot of film in my Shakespeare classroom.  While film gives us a lot, it doesn't do quite the same thing for us that a live performance does.

It's something to think about.

It's also one of those "world enough and time" conundrums for teaching dramatic texts.  I wish that we could see performances of everything.  Film versions -- but more importantly, live versions with people who can treat the early modern language as spoken language, and not as a text for recitation.

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