[book]In her Bryan Hall dorm room, English and secondary education freshman Brianna English sits on her couch with her feet propped up, a book in hand. The book is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and though she looks relaxed, English is a picture of concentration.
“I expected it to be difficult and when I did read it, I found it to be kind of written in a different language,” said English. “You had to take apart each sentence and take apart each line. Once you get into it and read more of [Shakespeare’s] work, it becomes easier to understand. Just because the plays are written so far in the past, the way the characters speak and act do not make a lot of sense. In the first reading, I definitely don’t catch a lot of things. With the second or third reading, you understand it a lot better.”
English’s experience with Shakespeare is not unique. In English classrooms all over campus, students are tripping over Shakespeare’s verbose and often out-dated lines, trying to derive meaning at the same time. As exciting as Shakespeare’s historical plays are, even the most enthusiastic students can grow weary of watching classmates attempt to breathe life into the likes of King Henry IV or Sir John Falstaff. However, the Stratford Festival of Canada is here to save the day: both through visits to the city in Ontario and the artist-in-residency program at MSU, Stratford is helping students get a better grasp on that elusive Shakespearean text as well as helping students develop an appreciation for the art of performance.
From Oct. 30 – Nov. 2, artists from the company will host hands-on tutorials in stage combat, give lectures and work with English and theatre classes studying the works of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. Actors from the largest classical repertory theatre in North America, as well as artistic director Richard Monette, designer John Pennoyer and senior marketing director Anita Gaffney, will provide unique opportunities where MSU students can get directly involved. Bringing artists from multiple aspects of a theatre production allows groups from many departments in the university to participate in this four-day event. Aside from the Departments of English and theatre, also participating are the Honors College, James Madison College, the College of Education, Residential Option in Arts and Letters (ROIAL), and the English Language Center.
The Stratford Festival of Canada has gained international recognition for its benchmark performances of Shakespeare, as well as performances of 20th century playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams. It is no coincidence, though, that the name of the festival and the town in which the festival is permanently located – Stratford, Ontario – are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.
The festival is the brainchild of Stratford journalist Tom Patterson, who wanted to help the failing economy of his hometown in the 1950s by opening a theatre dedicated to Shakespeare. The first performance for the Stratford Festival began on July 13, 1953 with actor Alec Guinness reciting the opening lines of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” The Festival performs for upwards of 600,000 patrons every year, and performances go beyond the playbill to include concert recitals, discussion sessions and readings by well known authors.
The festival also strives to cultivate a wide audience and promote the highest quality of theatre-related education and training. To accomplish their goals, the festival operates its own school of professional arts, the Stratford Festival Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. Their goal to promote artist education is, in part, how Stratford’s visit to MSU came about. One of the main players in getting the Stratford Festival to MSU’s campus is Pat Quigley, head of education and archives for the Stratford Festival of Canada.
[booya]“We want to reach out to Michigan students,” said Quigley. “MSU has an excellent reputation, a very good theatre department and they were welcoming in the English department. By participating in the festival, students will learn about Shakespeare from a performer’s point of view and from an actor’s point of view, and will explore Shakespearean text in a drama-based approach. English students will gain a better understanding of the language and because they’ll understand the language more readily, they’ll understand the characters and scenes from the plays better.\”
And that\’s not all. “Theatre students will learn stage combat techniques, acting skills, and they’ll get to explore scene work and monologues,” said Quigley. “Because they’ll be working with professional actors, they’ll get to see it from a professional point of view, which is something they probably don’t get to do on a regular basis.”
Kent Love, director of communications for the Wharton Center, worked hand-in-hand with the Stratford Festival in bringing the residency to MSU. “The Wharton Center feels strongly that part of our role is to present the finest art organizations as well as integrate arts education as a meaningful part of peoples’ lives,” said Love. “The Stratford Festival is world renowned and we felt that it is a perfect fit, not only because of its proximity to East Lansing, but also because of its caliber of performances.\”
An important aspect of artist-in-residency programs is to demonstrate how the arts can be integrated into various aspects of a student’s academic education. “It isn’t just about acting, it’s about a wide range of interactions – from Shakespearean history, to dialogue, to stage combat, to learning about the creative process,\” said Love. \”It’s really much more than just what happens on stage; it’s really about trying to take those skills and knowledge into other aspects of the academic experience.”
In the English department, actors are scheduled to visit and work with several classes that have included Shakespeare in the curriculum. Associate professor Steve Rachman’s Honors Foundations of Literary Studies class will be reading the historical play Henry IV at the time when the Stratford Festival actors will visit.
“Our course has a requirement to cover a range of genres, and drama is one, so participating in the residency seemed like a natural fit,” said Rachman. “Most times, if you’re going to do Shakespeare in class, you dramatize it or maybe watch a motion picture version. This opportunity meant working with professionals and giving students access to an excellent performance.
“The world we live in today is very job-oriented, materialistic,” said Rachman. “We even tend to view students as consumers, trying to get something for their money. Education is not a commodity, it is something you need to work at. . . The more opportunities there are in academic situations to shift ground from consumption to production, the better the class, the intellectual experience can be. When the paper becomes interesting, that’s when it starts happening – that’s the beginning of real growth.”
On the theatre end of the spectrum, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has been incorporated into the curriculum in addition to Henry IV – both plays are part of the Stratford Festival’s 15 play line-up for the 2006 season. This will not be the theatre department’s first contact with the Stratford Festival. A group of about 50 English and theatre students and professors visited Stratford, Ontario, in September to see Henry IV.
“I’ve been to Stratford before, but I went again because I thought I should be seeing more classical pieces, and it would be a good experience, especially going with my theatre friends,” theatre junior Katie Della Mora said. “I expected to gain some knowledge on classical acting and learn about the process from the actors in the talk-back. My expectations were pretty much met. Even though I’m not exactly a huge fan of classical theatre, I found the show enjoyable and many of the parts well-played.\”
The Honors College also conducts an annual trip to Stratford. This October, 46 students and faculty ventured to the city to see the Stratford Festival’s production of Twelfth Night. “I’ve always loved Stratford,” packaging freshman Alix Grabowski said. “It’s a great town, even worth getting up at 6 a.m. for. It’s one of those places where you just can’t help but have fun, especially when with friends, and the theatre is always an adventure. I expected to see a new interpretation of a play that I am familiar with, and I wasn’t disappointed.”
Grabowski added a visit to Stratford need not be initiated by the Honors College. “Whether you just want to enjoy the experience or really want to learn something about the play, I would recommend penciling in some time for the Chocolat store and looking in on the Canadian Literature section of the bookstore,” he said.
The Stratford Festival’s visit will be the first of an annual series of artist-in-residency programs at MSU. Though this is the first year that the festival has visited MSU, they have done similar programs at Wayne State University in Detroit. According to both Quigley and Love, the Festival and the Wharton Center are working together to bring a performance to MSU in fall 2007.
\”I would definitely recommend a trip to Stratford to anyone,\” said Della Mora. \”I love the atmosphere of the town, and the all-around experience is very satisfying, even for those who don\’t attend too much theatre. You have to go to Stratford at least once in your life.”
For more information on the schedule of events for this year’s residency, visit http://www.whartoncenter.com/education/stratfordresidency/default.html.