Wednesday, May 1, 2013

#ShakeAss at the Royal York

It's a few weeks late, but since April Fool's Day and Shakespeare's Birthday intervened and
demanded to be addressed, I'm just now reporting on the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, which took place at the end of March at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto, and was marked by many fine  and much-applauded moments, not least of which was the public unveiling of the association's new informal Twitter hashtag, "ShakeAss." Let me just start by saying that people in Canada are really, really nice; I mean, almost supernaturally nice, eerily nice. As an example, upon my arrival at the general zone of the conference hotel in downtown Toronto late on a Thursday night, suffering from a variety of cranial pains due to my having struck myself forcibly on the nose with a tennis racquet two weeks before (don't ask),
having spent twenty minutes maneuvering confusedly around construction barriers to reach the Royal York's main entrance, pulling up in front of the main door, lowering my window as a uniformed doorman approached, and bracing myself instinctively to be yelled at for blocking traffic (I'm from New York originally), I was instead treated to an elaborately polite, detailed, and downright apologetic explanation of where I should go to park. It was as though this doorman were in a movie about Canadians. I encountered only one not-so-nice Canadian during my three days in Toronto -- a dude from another province who mocked a Yankee's pronunciation of the name "Notre Dame" (hey, it's an American university! We get to say it how we want!) -- and perhaps he wasn't really Canadian. As for the Royal York, it was a gorgeous place, with chairs and desks and little reading lamps set up in various lobbies and alcoves, all available for professorial types temporarily to inhabit while nervously scanning their soon-to-be-delivered conference papers. I attended a Shakespeare dance workshop where we learned to dance the pavane and the antic hay, and when I wasn't doing that I was surreptitiously setting up little placards near the book display to advertise "Shakespeare in Fiction and Fact" on tables meant for the publicizing of scholarly journals, or listening to talks and scribbling notes, or meeting other Shakespeare nerds whom I knew and some I didn't know. I spoke to Ralph Cohen, founder of the world-class Shenandoah Shakespeare Express theater group (now the American Shakespeare Center) and the man largely responsible for the creation of the gorgeous reconstructed Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. I said hello to Chicago's David Bevington, editor of the famed Bevington Shakespeare that's been in use for decades in countless college classrooms, and author of the foundational study of the link between medieval and Renaissance drama (From _Mankind_ to Marlowe, 1962). I met John Carroll, an Englishman who teaches theater in Washington, D.C., and Elisa Oh, who meets the challenge of presenting Shakespeare at a historically black university where her students have small experience of her Asian-American culture and where she, a Wisconsonian, has small experience of theirs. During my three days in Toronto I was reminded of several interesting facts: that you often can't tell an Irish accent til the tenth word, that Canadian money looks like Monopoly money, and that Shakespearean actors get really startled performing in front of an audience of Shakespeare scholars because the scholars laugh at Elizabethan jokes which the actors didn't know were funny.

The papers? These afforded enlightenment, amusement, skepticism, or some combination of these, as they always do, and since I hadn't attended #ShakeAss for several years, I was struck by the fact that big screens with images accompanying the talks are now de rigeur, some featuring Youtube clips of the plays under discussion. One brilliant scholar, whose paper (on Macbeth and medicine) was among the most riveting I heard, felt obliged to introduce his talk by apologetically confessing, "I have no pictures for you to look at." Soon after this, however, the double-screens once more lit up with Powerpoint life. Everybody's doing it, and let me go on record here as saying that I find this cheap pandering to the tastes of the blogosphere via the employment of digital tricks to market Shakespeare completely degrading to our scholarly profession (more on this via Twitter; follow my random thoughts at Of course, we scholars aren't exactly masters of new media, though we use it. One presenter happily revealed that her teenage daughter had created her slide show, and another, who displayed a set of colored graphs that purported to demonstrate something about Renaissance reading habits, unashamedly confessed that the graphs were not based on any data. Everyone applauded. Another amusing feature of the Shakespearean scholarly Powerpoint is that it's usually comprised of a series of blown-up photographs of printed or handwritten Renaissance texts, by which audiences are invited to scrutinize stage directions, script dialogue, and marginalia. We like our images wordy.

As for the paper presentations, the styles were as various as the content. Brilliant, humorous deliveries polished by years of conference -- and, in some cases, theater -- experience alternated with displays of the remarkable absence of ordinary professional courtesy too often characteristic of academics. One presenter, asked to speak into the microphone, did so saying "I hate speaking into the mike. But, suit yourself." On audible display were numerous instances of the hasty monotone designed to facilitate audience incomprehension of phrases like "the opaque inaccessible space of oblivion serves as a fulcrum" and "the intrusion into theory of a diagenic ordinary." (Yes, I wrote these words down, and that's what they were.) It was funny to see the way practical Renaissance artifacts like cookbooks become subjects of abstruse conjecture when introduced into the mystical academic zone, as we, like anthropologists on Mars (to borrow Temple Grandin's phrase), intellectualize the ordinary. In one talk a seventeenth-century recipe (shared on Powerpoint, grease spots and all) was not a recipe but a "knowledge artifact which engage[d] individually outside of a wide circulation of confirming voices," and was also a "seventeenth-century site of knowledge formation." I think that meant people passed the recipe around. But, hey! I learned the recipe (for gooseberry cakes), because, like Harriet the Spy, I wrote that one down, too. And I learned other stuff, like that a hautboy was a "creepy early-modern oboe that implied something really bad was going to happen" on the Renaissance stage. This from theater historian Tiffany Stern, whose work confirms my view that we're too hard on our students who call Shakespeare's plays "books," because they were books to Shakespeare and his fellows, who referred to prompt books and approved playbooks; Shakespeare's Chorus in Henry V even calls the play "the story." And, although I will still draw the line when my students refer to the plays as "Shakespeare's novels," it's good to be reminded that, contrary to the snooty but ill-informed suppositions of many theater folk,  Shakespeare and his fellow actors were vitally concerned with getting their plays into print, to be read as books, with the aim of re-igniting interest in older plays and drawing audiences back to the playhouses when these were put back into performance. (Let me here again go on record to say that such early-modern use of one medium crassly to promote and market work in another is always disgraceful. A description of the practice can be found in my novel, Will, available at Amazon via the "Books" tab on this blog.) I loved listening to Tiffany Stern, with whom, because of my last name, I'm occasionally confused, even though she's more famous, funny, and British than I am. No less illuminating was another scholar on her panel who told us that the International Library Association, in step with our new digital realities,  had long since replaced the term "books" with "entities." As everyone in the audience said, "Hmm."

By far the most useful and engaging information I brought away with me from this conference, as I drove south from Toronto on Saturday afternoon in advance, sadly, of the concluding Shakespeare dance doubtless featuring music by the local Hey Nonny Nonnies (greatest hits of the 1950s and the 1590s), was the theater-historical data I could now share with my classes when describing Shakespeare's playhouses in Shakespeare's own time. Did you know that many of Shakespeare's characters had their own themes or signature music, which were played by the house musicians as the characters appeared on stage? ("I know his trumpet," Cassio says of Othello, before Othello comes on.) Did you know that one of the jigs performed by actors was called "couragious jokey"? I have to learn that one. Did you know, as well, that Finis at the end of a printed script really meant something like "I'm just the printer, and that's all they gave me," while what really happened in the playhouse was that the musicians struck up the music once more at the "finis," and everyone started dancing? Did you know it's impossible to determine, from written documents, when the plays actually ended, or whether they ever did? Maybe they didn't, and each plot conclusion only gave place to a new phase of performative festivities, where, as Stern said, "everyone is just eternally dancing." If you want to see what that looked like, click here. (Finis.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for filling is in on the the fun and wackiness at the SAA, Grace. But darn, I was hoping that Youtube video would be of you dancing the antic hay.