Category Archives: festivals

Shakespeare’s Emotions, Lost and Found

On Friday, November 17th, more than 60 Shakespeare students, scholars, theatre practitioners, and enthusiasts gathered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to discuss emotion in Shakespeare’s plays. This educational event, called ‘Shakespeare’s Emotions, Lost and Found’, was aimed at A-level students and university undergraduates and formed part of the nationwide Being Human Festival, which ran from 17-25 November and showcased research in the humanities in more than 45 UK cities and towns. In Stratford, ‘Shakespeare’s Emotions’ was organized and supported by the collaboration between the RSC and the University of Birmingham, with further support from the British Shakespeare Association.

Gina Print © RSC

The event began with a half-hour panel chaired by Dr Daisy Murray and featuring academics associated with the University of Birmingham and theatre practitioners and audience analysts from the RSC. Dr Erin Sullivan and Dr Kerry Cooke spoke about understandings of emotion in Shakespeare’s time, as well as the ways in which performing the plays on stage creates a complex emotional relationship between performers, characters, audiences, and text. Matt Dann and Esh Alladi, both part of the RSC’s current production of Twelfth Night, in turn reflected on the role of emotion in the rehearsal room and the kinds of emotional journeys actors experience as they acquaint themselves with a new role. Becky Loftus, Head of Audience Insight at the RSC, finished things off by speaking about a study that the theatre conducted into audiences’ emotional responses to live theatre, cinema broadcasts of theatre, and 360° VR theatre (more on that study available here).

Thinking about the differences and similarities between ideas about emotion in the past and present proved especially interesting for many participants, with one university undergraduate commenting that she ‘enjoyed hearing about the historical context, which created another way of looking at Shakespeare’. Likewise, a university postgraduate noted that ‘the panel’s discussion of the perception of emotion in the early modern period [was] very interesting. I spend a good deal of time reading the modern scientific papers on emotion in voice and visual communication, so to compare those ideas with the idea of the four humors was intriguing.’

Gina Print © RSC

In the second half-hour, the audience broke into small groups and looked at a selection of emotional passages from Shakespeare chosen by each member of the panel. Each group was led by a PhD student in Shakespeare studies who served as a discussion facilitator, inviting participants to talk through the emotional experiences, ideas, metaphors, and scenarios depicted in their passage. For many audience members, the chance to become actively involved in small-group discussion was a particular highlight: ‘working in small groups to further discuss emotions as well as listening to other people’s ideas’ was especially enriching, one A-level student commented, while an undergraduate reflected on how the ‘opportunity to read an extract in group work before and after our analytical discussion’ encouraged him to think more deeply about ‘how dialogue changed with added knowledge of its context’.

Attendees at the event weren’t the only ones who found the small-group discussions beneficial. The five PhD facilitators, whose involvement was made possible by a British Shakespeare Association small event award, spoke afterwards how the event helped them develop new ideas and skills: ‘Participating in the “Shakespeare’s Emotions: Lost and Found” event gave me practical and valuable experience in a teaching setting’; ‘It showed me that preparation is invaluable, and it was lovely working with a young group of students who had very creative and intelligent responses to the text’; ‘I was very pleased by the group’s happy surprise that our quite challenging passage had, in the course of the discussion, suddenly become not only intelligible but even emotionally resonant’; ‘Several students even stopped me on the way out to ask further questions and share more ideas’. The event offered these early career scholars the chance to develop their teaching and public engagement skills and to work with Shakespeare enthusiasts from a range of different backgrounds.

Gina Print © RSC

In the final half-hour of the session, representatives from each of the small groups and the opening panellists finished with short presentations and whole-group discussion about the varied role of emotion in Shakespeare. Students highlighted key ideas discussed in relation to their passages, including the way specific words and images help shape emotion, the way performance turns emotion into a very social and at times tense event, and how historical differences in ideas about emotion can give us new insights into how culture shapes human experience. As the event came to a close, many participants hurried off to grab a quick dinner and then to take their seat for the RSC’s evening performance of Twelfth Night – no doubt resulting in even more emotional experiences and ideas after an already very passionate afternoon!

Staying focused: streamed theatre and me

I’ve been thinking about attention this week. Not the kind that other people give to you, but the kind you create yourself. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Immersion.

I’ve been thinking about it because sustained, unbroken attention is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, especially when I find myself sitting in the darkness of a theatre after a long day’s work.

This is ironic – and embarrassing – for a Shakespeare scholar to admit. In years past, when I counted myself more a cultural historian and literary critic, I could just about get away with it; theatre was great, but it wasn’t my bread and butter, so it was almost okay if I secretly spaced out or even nodded off for a bit every now and then.

But now that I’m putting theatre at the heart of my next research project, I’m feeling a little more self-aware. And intrigued. To a certain extent I’ve started training myself to be more alert, to see going to theatre more as work (in a good way — usually). At the same time, a significant proportion of the theatre I’m watching is by online streaming, meaning that several of my ‘nights at the theatre’ are actually me, sitting on my bed with headphones, looking at a screen.

This, I’m finding, proves a particularly formidable challenge for someone prone to breaking focus. With no audience around me to enforce a sense of shared theatre etiquette, a number of new and previously impossible styles of theatre-watching start to emerge. Turning to Twitter occasionally to see what other audience members are saying. Multi-tasking to save time and energy on tired evenings – eating dinner while I watch, maybe even making it. Petting the cat when he climbs on my lap, curious what I’m up to. Saying a quick hello to my husband when he comes in from work. And, if the streaming is on-demand rather than live, pausing every now and then to take a break, or maybe even watching the production over a couple of days in chunks.

Although I’m a little embarrassed to fess up to these practices, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one on Twitter after all. Which is why it was all the more surprising, and challenging, and interesting, when online audiences were invited last week by Complicite’s Simon McBurney to turn off our phones.

The show we had tuned in to see was a live performance of The Encounter, streamed online courtesy of Complicite and The Space from the sold-out Barbican Theatre in London (and available on YouTube until the end of today here). This one-man show tells the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey into the Brazilian rain forest, and his consciousness-bending experiences while there. It is told through the use of immersive, ‘binaural’ sound technology, with all members of the audience – in-person and online – wearing headphones throughout the entire performance.

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McBurney started casually, shuffling along the stage and then addressing the audience in his khaki shirt, baseball cap, and jeans. ‘Ladies and gents, um, we’re just still waiting for some people to come in, apparently the bars are more attractive than the theatre. If you could please, while we’re waiting, turn these off [holds up mobile phone]. Tonight is a livestream, so I suggest anybody at home, who’s watching this also turns these off.’ And I did. No live tweeting during the production, no stopping and starting (not really possible in this case), and once things got going I even turned out all the lights. I did still eat dinner while watching it, but I was lucky enough not to have to cook it.

I don’t know if this single focus made the experience better or worse or the same. Though I won’t go into the details here of the production itself, I should say that it was genuinely extraordinary, and I certainly didn’t feel limited or kept at a distance during my encounter with The Encounter. At the same time, I still experienced plenty of moments of mental interruption, not least as I got to thinking about my own sense of sustained attention and what helps and hinders it. But I did really benefit from the challenge of trying to pay attention to a streamed performance at home in a way that was similar to how I might do so in a theatre. I did my best to perform a social code, even when no one was checking up on me (aside from my fellow audience members on Twitter).

So all this was in my head when I made my way down to London for another theatre event at the Barbican last weekend: Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare. This series of 36, one-hour productions saw six actors taking turns as they told the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays using a box of household objects. Beatrice as a bottle of sunscreen, Claudius as a container of flea powder, Hector as a jar of Tabasco sauce, Cleopatra as an old china dish. Look below to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.

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I went down to London to see four of these experiments in storytelling live and in-person, after watching about the same number online last summer when they were broadcast live from the Berliner Festspielen. I remember seeing snippets of a few one day during the work week, then hearing more from a friend a few days later, and finally settling down outside on a sunny, late Saturday afternoon to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I watched, I took notes – not on paper, as I normally would in the theatre, but published online through Twitter, where I also looked out for the comments of others. A couple of examples:

Close to a year later, I’m left wondering what kind of theatrical experience that was. I know for a fact that I was doing lots of other things while watching, though I do think that I was also paying attention, and really focusing, while navigating my way around those other things. And speaking with others online during the performance did, in some ways, make certain moments and insights more memorable for me.

Being physically present, down in the depths of the Barbican Pit on Saturday was a materially more immersive experience, and I did feel like the co-presence of the somewhat surprisingly packed audience around me did focus my mind and senses in ways that I missed last summer. But I’m not going to lie – in hour 3 I moved to a cooler seat at the edge, and I let my mind wander and even drift off for a few drowsy minutes. This had everything to do with stamina rather than interest. And I don’t know what this all adds up to, other than a growing preoccupation with how I watch theatre – whether in an auditorium, a cinema, or at home, sitting on my bed.

How do these different practices affect my appreciation of what’s before me, and my absorption in it? Do we need to develop a shared protocol for at-home viewings if we want streamed theatre to achieve a certain kind of emotional and sensory effect? Should we turn our phones off, or are they doing something new and helpful for us that we should embrace rather than shun? There are over 1,000 comments on the YouTube page for The Encounter, and despite McBurney’s plea I’m sure that a good portion of them bear a time-stamp from the night of the livestream. Is this a sign of our ever distracted, ever fragmented times, or a mark of a new and maybe even enhanced way of watching theatre, or perhaps some combination of both?

Celebrating the digital — anniversaries

June for me means a series of mini-anniversaries. First, and smallest, is the six-month anniversary of this blog. I started it in December to set down some of my thoughts on digital broadcasts and I’m happy to say that my first post on the RSC’s Richard II has just come out as a print review in the journal Shakespeare Bulletin. An interesting inversion of the traditional print model, at least in academia where we tend to hold onto our work for a long time and to make sure the ‘original’ version is in a suitably authoritative and often very expensive publication. So I’m delighted to be able to share my work freely on sites like this one and www.ReviewingShakespeare.com while also having it included in excellent journals like Bulletin, which are collected around the world by Shakespeare libraries and research centers.

More significantly in terms of birthdays, this month also marks the five-year anniversary of the National Theatre Live. It was June 25th 2009 when the NT launched its first live broadcast to cinemas with its production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren (garnering no less than a five-star review from the Guardian‘s Michael Billington). Since then the broadcast programme has included around five NT productions a year, with additional offerings from the Donmar Theatre, the Manchester International Festival, and occasionally the West End. I think it’s fair to say that NTLive has fundamentally changed the theatrical landscape, with other initiatives such as the Globe on Screen, Digital Theatre, and RSC Live further adding to what we might call this new theatre ecology. It’s interesting to note how present Shakespeare has been in all of these broadcasting programmes, and also how dominant British theatre has been across the board. So what next?

Since 2009 I think we’ve also seen a major expansion of new forms of digital performance — while broadcasting (live or otherwise) remains at present the gold standard in terms of wider audience appeal, there have been new experiments in kinds of digital theatre making that might give us some insight into where the performing arts could be headed in the years to come. In a thought-provoking blog post at the end of 2013, Rachel Coldicutt questioned the idea that arts broadcasting should even be filed in that ever-growing dossier labelled new digital culture:

It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896 … the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Coldicutt’s analysis exposes our confusion about how we define ‘the digital’ — Is it the content? Is it the platform? Is it both? And while I think she’s right to point out the fact that live broadcasts are an old and to some extent old-fashioned way of understanding the potential of technology to transform the arts, I still think they still deserve space within the discussion since they are one of the primary ways in which many arts patrons will begin to experience digital change (and in this sense I think I would say that digital vs analogue tv, radio, satellite relay is significant, if to a large extent functionally invisible — I couldn’t listen to Radio 6 otherwise). While this might just be a change of venue rather than of show, it is a change nonetheless and one that I think may mark a wider shift in creative processes, audience relationships, and artistic forms. If we think about the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, it’s significant that most people weren’t necessarily looking for radically new forms of music, but rather new ways of accessing it (though forms have of course changed too, thank you Autotune).

Remember these guys? Napster, 1999.

But new forms are important too, and if we are discussing them then we should also mark the one-year anniversary of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the most ambitious digital performance of Shakespeare I’ve yet to see. The project took place over midsummer weekend in 2013, mixing together an audience-generated collage of Midsummer materials on Google+, a more formalized digital stage in which new social media content commissioned by the RSC appeared alongside selected audience contributions, a series of site-specific and time-specific live performances of the play (including the performance of acts 2-4 at the RSC from 2.30-4am, culminating in the midsummer sunrise), and finally a Sunday wedding fete along the River Avon that included family games and an open performance of act 5.

Taken as a whole (and to be fair, few audience members probably did experience this multi-day, multi-platform performance as a whole), this festive production pushed all sorts of boundaries. It invited audiences to explore the play itself through bits of live performance uploaded to YouTube (see one of my clips below), to riff on its themes of love, nature, and madness through audience sharing on Google+, and to think about the extended world of the play through new, playful content created from the point of view of Bottom’s mum or the snails, fairies, and beagles in Athens and the surrounding forests.

It was at once resolutely in-time and immersive, as anyone who went to the small 2.30am performance will tell you, while also being committed to being open and out of time through the online audience platforms that you could dip in and out of over three days. I loved its scale and vision, even if ultimately it might have been too much for one person to navigate. Most pilots start small and then scale up — if anything this project went big and future versions might want to scale down. But it did start to show us the many different possibilities for where digital performance might choose to go, a topic to which I’ll return in the next few days.

Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time

Next week I’m off to a conference in Paris marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I’ll be participating in a seminar on Shakespeare, festivals, and festivity, with my contribution focusing on the place of digital celebration and outreach within Shakespeare festivals. The post below sets out some of the questions I hope to raise concerning the nature of ‘the festival’ and that of ‘the digital’, and how these entities overlap, if at all. Time, synchronicity, boundedness, focus, and togetherness are all key issues in this discussion, I think, and I’m eager to find out where we might get with them as a group.

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In his introduction to the 1987 collection Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, the anthropologist Alessandro Falassi writes that festival environments are centrally defined by three factors: ‘time, space, and action’. Time, in the sense of normal, mundane time disrupted and suspended; space, in the sense of either everyday or, conversely, rarely used spaces claimed for collective festival activity; and action, in the sense of the intensification of special activities such as prayers, performances, or feasts not typically a part of daily life. Falassi suggests that when these three things come together, normal life ‘is modified by a gradual or sudden interruption that introduces “time out of time,” a special temporal dimension devoted to special activities’.

My question for this seminar on ‘Shakespearean Festivals in the Twenty-first Century’ is what might such a definition of festivity, and in particular its valuing of ‘time out of time’, mean for the growing use of digital connectivity and communication within Shakespearean festival settings? Do digital initiatives help enhance festive experience by allowing it to be extended in real-time to audiences otherwise cut off from the festival site (a corollary being televised sports events such as the World Cup or music events such as Glastonbury)? Or do they actually undermine festivity by disrupting the specificity and boundedness of time, place, and action upon which festivals depend, producing a more mundane experience of “time within time” – that is, an only partially festive experience mixed into the normal, digitally inflected rhythms of daily life?

How we answer such questions will depend at least in part on our own understanding and experience of digital technology, I think, and the role it plays for us in our day-to-day existence. In his recent book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (2014) (discussed earlier this year on this blog), the literary scholar Steven E. Jones argues that the entity once known as ‘cyberspace’ has finally ‘everted’, meaning that what was once imagined as an esoterically high-tech, completely immersive otherspace has transitioned into a more integrated, ubiquitous, and layered form of ‘mixed reality’ – or, as sociologist Nathan Jurgenson prefers to put it, a kind of ‘augmented reality’. ‘People are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction [between them] is becoming increasingly irrelevant’, Jurgenson writes, and while Jones largely agrees, he also suggests that significant differences between digital and non-digital ways of being still persist, resulting in the increasingly common ‘paradox of living in two worlds at once’.

My interest is in how festival settings, with their unusual emphasis on time and presence – or, to put it another way, on ‘being there’ – have the potential to intensify this paradox of dual-citizenship, and to foreground the questions it raises about physically situated versus digitally mediated ways of being. Can a truly festive atmosphere emerge from a digital performance, or indeed from a digital conversation surrounding a ‘live’ performance? What kind of experience, for instance, is produced by a Twitter exchange around a shared festival hashtag, or the live-broadcasting of a festival performance, and can these kinds of activities be seen as festive in any way?

My working hypothesis is that digital modes of performance and engagement can effectively enhance and extend festivity, but that they don’t naturally do so, mainly because we tend to use them to evade the experience of boundedness and to promote the ability to be in multiple places at once. If, as Roger D. Abrahams suggests, ‘festivals seize on open spots and playfully enclose them,’ digital activity tends to do the opposite, seizing on existing, content-rich spots and fragmenting, layering, disassociating, and dispersing them. The challenge for festival organizers interested in harnessing the power of digital tools, then, is in finding ways of resisting this tendency, and of enabling a more focused, bounded, and ‘present’ form of engagement among digital festival-goers.

There are countless examples of digital activity within Shakespeare festival celebration that we might use to work through such issues, and I’ll be interested to hear about the different digital initiatives other members of the seminar have come into contact with through their own work on Shakespeare festivals around the world. For my own part, my research with Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson on the Shakespearean celebrations that were a part of the London 2012 Olympics (documented in www.yearofshakespeare.com and A Year of Shakespeare: Reliving the World Shakespeare Festival, 2013) has prompted me to pay special attention to the digital activity and experimentation that took place within and around the Shakespearean events planned as a part of that Olympic year. These events included the Royal Shakespeare Company’s World Shakespeare Festival, the Globe’s Globe to Globe Festival, the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, and also the Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies themselves, since three of them featured Shakespearean material.

Some notable digital initiatives arising from these events (both planned and otherwise) included the making of 36 of the Globe to Globe productions freely available online during the summer of 2012 on the ‘pop-up’ arts site TheSpace.org; the web-streaming of I, Cinna, Tim Crouch’s adaptation of Julius Caesar for the RSC, to schools across the UK; the creation of MyShakespeare (myshakespeare.rsc.org.uk), a gallery of digital work inspired by Shakespeare and hosted by the RSC; the creation of the Hollow Crown Fans Twitter group (@hollowcrownfans), currently 8,000+ members strong and growing; and the many online conversations that took place around all of these events through discussion boards and social media. In our seminar I’d like to offer some thoughts about a few of these examples of Shakespearean digital festivity, both as a way of exploring the nature of the festival itself as well as the relationship of the digital to it.

References

Abrahams, Roger D. ‘An American Vocabulary of Celebrations.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 175-183.

Falassi, Alessandro. ‘Festival: Definition and Morphology.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 1-10. [PDF currently available online at http://bit.ly/1m02RRR]

Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Jurgenson, Nathan. ‘Amber Case: Cyborg Anthropologist (a critique).’ Cyborgology blog. 10 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/10/amber-case-cyborg-anthropologist-a-critique/

—–. ‘Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality.’ Cyborgology blog. 24 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/