Monday, February 3, 2014

Global Shakespeares: Mapping, Markets & Archives

"In states unborn and accents yet unknown"
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

ran from January 24th to 25th, 2014
at the George Washington University,
featuring Julie Taymor and Harry Lennix.

Setting the Stage

All one has to do to see Shakespeare's Globe before your eyes is to hold a forum on his work. Coming from near and far, special guest speakers collected this past January at the George Washington University symposium Global Shakespeares: Mapping World Markets and Archives.

The symposium was organized by Professors Alexa Huang and Ayanna Thompson, with special assistance from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Holly Dugan and Patrick Cook, as well as graduate assistants Haylie Swenson, Em Russell and M Bychowski. The symposium was co-sponsored by the George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, Digital Humanities Institute, Dean's Scholars in Shakespeare Program, Department of English, and the Gelman Library.

Featured speakers included director Julie Taymor, actor Harry Lennix, and leading scholars in the field including Thomas Cartelli, Ayanna Thompson, Adele Seeff, Sujata Iyengar, Christy Desmet, Eric Johnson, Richard Burt, Jeffrey Butcher, Kendra Leonard, Alexa Huang, and Amanda Bailey.

The event split its time between the Gelman Library's  International Brotherhood of Teamsters Labor History Research Center and the School of Media and Public Affair's Jack Morton Auditorium. After days of rigorous debate, symposium attendants sat down for an in-depth conversation with Ms. Taymor and Mr Lennix, led by Prof. Thompson.

Global Climate Change

For two days, scholars, directors and actors came together to reflect on the many ways and places the playwright of the Globe theater contributes to the projects of mapping the meaning of globalization and global relationships.

Following opening remarks by Huang and Thompson, the event jumped into a two part discussion on Methods and Media in Global Shakespeare studies, moderated by Duggan and Cook. 

Bailey started off the panels by explicating Early Modern Planet Thought, expanding the scale of Shakespeare studies from the Globe as a stage to the Globe as a way of imagining dynamic ecologies of physical and metaphysical forces. Close attention reveals how performances of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, play out the relationship between local events and planetary concerns of climate, bodily humors, as well as inter-planetary/inter-stellar forces.

Moving from the dance of heat to the rhythm of sound on the body, Leonard demonstrated through music and speech how scores in films of Shakespeare's plays create the Past as a Foreign Country. Setting up Taymor's later commentary on the power of different music to change how and who viewers relate to scenes, Leonard followed the associations of sound with global assumptions of race, gender and class.

Rounding out the first part of the discussion on methods and media, Butcher broke open the political climates of Comrade Fortinbras and Bourgeois Hamtletism. What and who gets to claim Hamlet's mantle of meditation has affected the the movement of minds, machinery and capital in post-war Germany, Soviet Russia as well as the contemporary United States and Britain as they carve up the globe.

Shaking Up the Archive

The discussion of methods and media continued, after a brief pause for coffee, lunch and to check out the wealth of books on sale featuring the work of the conference's many prolific scholars. In the light of the afternoon, the conversation turned to the question of archiving and digital curation.

Event organizer Huang launched this second part of the day on Global Shakespeares as Methodology. Shakespeare has performed a powerful role in the development of global thought, Huang argued, but the bent of these world maps and archives continue to skew towards select world powers. Routing Shakespeare studies through English language and English performance spaces, global projects continue to divide parts of the world even as they connect others.

Following this examination of the limits of connection, Burt broke down how 'Reading Madness' in the Archives develops disparate reading practices and communities. Failure, madness, drugs, bad puns, technology and idiosyncratic performance styles, Burt demonstrated, all create distinct archives of experience when we come to read and discuss Shakespeare. With so many different maps and different Shakespeares, can we ever arrive a global shared experience without divisions? Is that even desirable?

After dwelling in theory and performance, Johnson's talk on Shakespeare's Global Digital Marketplace evidenced the technical possibilities and problems of developing these archives. Sharing the fascinating digital work being done at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Johnson explained how new research tools are in the works to read and share Shakespeare's plays. Charting the countries accessing the archives and tagging (coding) searchable words in the texts, the medium and media of Shakespeare studies continues to develop beyond traditional prose writing styles.

Concluding the first day, Desmet richly expanded on the tricks and trickiness in the Art of Curation. "How do we facilitate rather than defend the archive?" Desmet questioned her fellow curators. Noting with her fellow presenters the ever diversifying field of potential readers, how do those who work in Shakespeare set the stage for archives, databased and collections that each offer new and contradictory challenges for materials and access.

Mapping Performances

Saturday started bright and early at the Morton Auditorium. The beautiful made-for-media facility framed the event and highlighted the panel's discussion of objects, technologies and television broadcasts, facilitated by Prof. Cohen.

Working in the vein of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, Iyengar's Beds and Handkerchiefs followed the objects active roles in adaptations of Othello. By watching films of Othello in non-familiar languages (without the subtitles) Iyengar was drawn towards the presence and work of the story's many non-human actors. Objects move Othello and turn the story in surprising directions.

Whereas beds and handkerchiefs can be so central to the plot so as to be hidden in plain sight, the screens and cameras of Cartelli's High-Tech Shakespeare in a Mediatized Globe announce the saturation of technology in contemporary productions. Looking at high-tech stagings of Shakespeare's plays, Cartelli examines how directors are now integrating mass media production techniques into their sets with walls of televisions and cameras guiding the eye of audience members. The questions of "where do I look?" and "how do I focus?" keep viewers searching as the onstage media distributes the action across a range of locals.

The concentration on fragmentation and adaption continued in Seeff's talk on Race, Post-Race, Shakespeare, and South Africa. Seeff's work traced how despite the evident changes of time, context and media, issues of race continue to haunt South African productions of Shakespeare. Things shift and change but continue to utilize the past as made-for-television films look for new ways to grapple with identity.

From Screen to Stage

Culminating the symposium, director Julie Taymor and actor Harry Lennix took the stage for a generous 2-hour conversation on the breadth of their work bringing Shakespeare to the stage and screen. Event organizer Thompson facilitated the interview and helped direct the question-and-answer session that drew the event to a close.

Taymor began by walking the audience through the process which brought her to adapt her production of Titus (1999) from a local off-Broadway show into a film featuring Anthony Hopkins. This required a lot of trust between participants from both backgrounds. Taymor admitted how the lead actor and Taymor depended on one another to help facilitate the meeting of Shakespeare's stage and the world of the big screen. Some of the play's scenes were so intense for Hopkins, Taymor commented, that the actor requested they limit themselves to one take; allowing him to give himself entirely to the doing and undoing of Titus.

The Tempest (2010) offered unique challenges for Taymor, as one of Shakespeare's less frequently adapted plays. While casting the role of Prospero as a woman, Taymor claimed that she tried to keep her version of the Tempest as close to the text as possible. Despite this desire, the play's many elaborate visuals and enigmatic language once encouraged Taymor to once again draw on the talents of her world-class crew and actors to develop a Tempest that felt at the same time fresh and familiar. Perhaps whether one attempts to fill Shakespeare's Globe or make global media, there will always be places where unity and consistency struggles against particularity and adaptation.

After a rich two hour discussion of these films, as well as looks at her other films and plays, including a striking take on A Midsummer Nights Dream, the day came to a close. Thanking both Ms. Taymor and Mr. Lennix, Thompson and Huang concluded the Global Shakespeares symposium, inviting the speakers and audience members to a bountiful reception to celebrate two days of intense conversation.

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