- Stage Matters: Props, Bodies, and Space in Shakespearean Performance ed. by Annalisa Castaldo and Rhonda Knight
Academic conferences can be dreadful: one travels long hours to sit in windowless conference rooms, eat hotel catering, and listen to ideas that are incompletely developed. A few conferences, however, have avid partisans who never miss the annual get-together. In my experience, such conferences bring together colleagues with a shared interest, but different approaches: specialists in music history, art history, and literature, for example, who can talk to one another, as well as learn from one another about new ways of understanding about that common interest. The biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, is one of these. People engaged in the study and teaching of early modern theatre meet with theatrical practitioners to test ideas onstage.
Stage Matters is the latest anthology to have emerged from the Blackfriars Conference. In the preface, Sarah Enloe explains that from its beginning, the conference “has sought to engage a variety of practitioners in exploring the ways staging choices matter, and thinking through how to understand what staging (broadly defined) might have looked like in Early Modern England” (xi). In their introduction, editors Annalisa Castaldo and Rhonda Knight tell the reader that “[t]his collection concentrates on the very heart of early modern action, the requirement that the playgoers see human bodies as other than what they were: boys must be seen as women, actors doubling parts must be seen as distinctly different characters, healthy men must be seen as mortally wounded, or dead, or even as ghosts, and human actors must be accepted as devils or fairies” (8).
The ten essays that follow treat different aspects of what the editors call “theatrical materiality and bodiness” (8). In the opening essay, Stephen Purcell explains how practice-as-research works, noting that such experiments in staging early modern plays test the way that literary scholars communicate and collaborate with theatrical practitioners. Although he is restrained about making claims for success in such experiments, he does point out areas where the inherent tension between academics and practitioners is overcome. When actors learn from academics how they can carry out their own dramaturgical research or when academics learn to work as practitioners themselves, Purcell finds the results worth the effort. His identification of the dichotomy between what academics want to know [End Page 577] about the plays and what actors want to do with the plays finds a strong echo in the piece that ends the collection—an interview with several of the Blackfriars actors who have participated in the experiments at the American Shakespeare Center. As one actor commented, “I find that the things that the scholars are investigating aren’t actually relevant to the doing of plays; they’re more relevant to the talking about plays. And so I often find myself helping someone prove a point and wondering why they care about that point. It’s not a lot of practical stuff.” Other actors found more use in some of the experiments: for example, work on pronunciation, prosody, or the staging of crowd scenes. This division, both of participants and assessments, is illustrated by the other essays in the collection.
In those other essays, the authors discuss what one achieves by staging specific moments. Several examine a group of plays. Jim Casey examines the way that early modern plays stage the supernatural (especially the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Castaldo and Knight discuss eavesdropping scenes, and Sarah Neville considers the use of coffins to bring in and remove actors’ bodies as corpses. Other essays examine specific plays. Two authors focus on Othello, with Sid Ray looking at Othello’s fit and Iago’s treatment of Othello’s body early in the fourth act, while Catherine Loomis asks how an audience responds when Othello strikes Desdemona later in that scene if her face is marked by the blow. Both Sara Thiel and Amanda Zoch consider Middleton’s...