- The Shakespeare Laboratory:Intercepting “Authenticity” through Research, Pedagogy, and Performance
After a moment of hesitation, an audience of ten strangers enters an unfamiliar room deep in the stacks of a campus library. It is a conference room: a big table in the middle, surrounded by chairs; windows on three sides frame long rows of books; on the back wall, a white board is covered in script as a breathless performer copies out one of Charles Lamb’s anti-theatrical screeds; in a corner, another performer casually, quietly reads sections of As You Like It, including footnotes, into a microphone—his mild, mediated delivery in contrast with the wordless though frenetic inquiry of the other performer, who is soon covering the room’s windows with his own commentary on Lamb’s essay. Gradually, audience members realize that on the other side of those windows, out in the stacks, ten more performers have appeared and begun duets—intimate dances with one another and with books pulled from the shelves. Often, their dancing brings a pair of performers right up to the windows of the conference room; for a moment, they look pointedly at the audience before retreating back into the stacks (fig. 1). After a couple of minutes, cell phones “ping” all around the room as everyone in the audience receives the text message: “Take a picture of something Shakespearian.” Most audience members immediately start using the cameras on their phones, and most of those who do take at least one photo of the silent dancers in the stacks.
The scene described here is from an iteratively developed collaborative research project that the authors sometimes refer to as the “Shakespeare Laboratory.” The research question that the students were pursuing at this point in the project was: How can we get an audience to experience Shakespeare as both “to be read” and “to be performed”? This is one of three key research questions that have informed a project in which the authors are engaged as collaborators, professors, and primary research investigators. By placing coursework and research experiments related to Shakespeare in our campus library, we aim to spatialize the literary: to lead an audience into the very book-space with which Shakespeare is so often associated, only for them to find there a live Shakespeare experience.
The goal of this essay is to begin to develop an association between practice-based research (PBR) and Shakespeare studies. The authors’ motivations for articulating, justifying, and theorizing this association are multiple and have developed over a period of years. These motivations include: institutional experience at several universities, professional careers that often have kept our scholarship and creative activity separate, and an off-hand remark spoken years ago by a colleague sitting in a conference bar in Toronto: “If we’re not learning more about Shakespeare by performing Shakespeare, then why are we putting his plays on at all?” Although this colleague is a scholar well-versed in the subfield of Shakespeare in Performance, the speaker’s perspective reflects a disciplinary bias that is firmly entrenched in the broader field of Shakespeare studies: that Shakespeare is literature. Despite influential efforts to disrupt this perception,1 institutional and individual beliefs that Shakespeare performed is literature recited or that Shakespeare should not be performed at all remain strongly [End Page 145] entrenched.2 Our goal is not to preach to the choir of those with disciplinary investments in the theatre, but rather to articulate a theoretical justification for using performance as the principal research tool in a laboratory approach to the study of Shakespeare. Along the way, we will try to find a response to the question: If we are not learning about Shakespeare, why perform his plays?
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We pose this question in the context of the discourses of PBR, which presumes that performance must be understood not only as a suitable subject for research, but also as a valid methodology for conducting research activity. Estelle Barrett argues that “practice as research not only produces knowledge that...