Lost in the Forest of Arden

Disrupting gender expectations would seem to be an easy task for a play like As You Like It. Reveling in the language of love and flirtation, the action covers secret identities, power grabs, bold set-ups, and dramatic reveals. There is much to be explored here: women disguised as men, courtly denizens presenting as shepherds, conflicted rulers and heirs, strong female bonds, fights, music, poetry, and a forest where exiles leave behind the demands of their former lives.

This year’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included all of these things, but also offered an expanded interpretation of many roles. The director, Rosa Joshi, has described her interest in the play as centered around the hopefulness it provides in dark times.

With the Forest of Arden as a place of transformation through female leadership, Joshi sees the character of Rosalind as finding her true self through her performance of gender. Describing herself as “text-driven,” by honoring the text but approaching the play with a healthy dose of irreverence, Joshi mentions in an online interview that she is interested in “losing some of the preciousness” in her approach to classical texts. 

I am a fan of approachable Shakespeare. American Players Theater, among others, have been digging into this territory for many years. Unfortunately for the production in Ashland, the “preciousness” is not only lost, but the play is gutted with poorly chopped text, making for awkward passages and non-sensical sequences. An introductory chorus has been inserted to provide background from deleted scenes, and conversations have been cut short or omitted altogether. 

Especially disorienting was the displacement of a key text from relatively early in the play to the conclusion of the performance. Despite a visually stunning presentation, the new placement strips “All the world’s a stage…” of its context and meaning. Although the famous words were beautifully delivered in this production by a group of women, the text is ascribed to a male character. Relocating this passage robbed Rosalind, the main female character, of the play’s closing entreaty, one of the few epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays that is delivered by a woman. This was a confusing choice for a director who is interested in expanding women’s roles in theater.

The casting was fun–finally introducing gay love!–but other than a couple of standout performances, the changes did not add any nuance to the story. Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior was a highlight, presenting a leader who, with grace and generosity, deftly anchored the exiles of the forest. Kate Hurster glowed as Celia, echoing a similar sincerity and generous spirit. Sadly, other characters were difficult to appreciate. The text was so disjointed that many roles were robbed of the words and interactions that usually provide complexity and subtlety for actors to mine. Jaques felt out of context without the lengthy banter around the character’s melancholy state, and Rosalind–a great character with much charismatic potential–was all boldness and bluster, with little variation. As Taylor Leigh Ciambra has described elsewhere, all of the excitement about a gender-bending approach is lost when the production still ends with straight weddings, resolving itself as “another story for the cis/hetero canon.”

I agree with David Templeton that the director’s alterations were “actually working against Shakespeare’s giddy simplicity.” This is a play with a frothy storyline, but it is ripe below the surface, filled with gorgeous language and stinging wit. Some of the pleasure was present in this production, but most was sadly tossed off as sarcasm or edited into oblivion.

Was this a more accessible version, less “precious,” easier to understand for viewers who are new to Shakespeare? Maybe, and I hope seeing it will embolden these fresh viewers to try out another. But I adore this play, and this production put me to sleep. Despite the director’s intentions–including some really interesting ideas about transformational space, female leadership, and power–the end result was a playful romp, sans bite, sans focus, sans beautiful language, sans interest. 

No sound? No fury. And no signifying of any kind.

Last night I heard a performance in an outdoor theater. What I mean is, I actually heard it. Thanks to the magic of technology my theater experience has been transformed.

It was only last week that, after a few years of declining hearing and a recent check-in that documented new loss in the mid-range, I finally plunked down the funds and acquired hearing aids. I’ve been told my type of hearing loss is fairly common and that I’m brave for dismissing vanity and using devices. But there is more behind this decision that just being happy to hear again. I’m also hoping to help my long-term brain health. When hearing loss in middle age has been linked to dementia in later life, I’m definitely open to any potential improvement in the aural-processing department.

the newly acquired devices

My hearing (or lack thereof) has been on my mind recently due to a job change. I’ve moved from having my own office–with a door that could be shut–to working in an open plan office. I sit with 3 other people in a group of work spaces around a shared table; four other people sit in a  similar arrangement in the same room; three more will join in another “pod” very soon. It is a social group with lots of casual meetings and chatting amidst phone calls, keyboard clacking, and photocopier noise. I knew it would be a difficult transition for someone like me, who prefers a quiet working style. What I did not expect was my inability to participate in conversations that are layered on top of the background noise. It’s not that it’s difficult to hear people, it is just impossible to focus on their words with all of the other noise. 

The daily office environment is just one problem I’ve experienced. In the last couple of weeks I have attended three presentations that, despite their similar structures, have provided very different sound environments:

  • The first: a talk presented by a local art organization. Situated in an echoey room with stone walls and few attendees, in the introduction of the low-voiced speaker, it was also mentioned that no microphone would be provided. I made sure to sit near the front so there would be at least some possibility of hearing something. When the speaker faced the audience–perfect! I could hear everything that was said. When the speaker faced the screen, or when an audience member asked a question? I got maybe 25%. And when people in the audience whispered to each other during the presentation? Nothing. The room was so acoustically bad that I was unable to differentiate sounds. 
  • The second: a training at work, held in a large, high-ceilinged room with multiple tables that each sat 6-8 attendees. Despite having a fantastic tech setup, the presenters decided not to use microphones. Again, when they faced me I could hear everything. If they faced the other side of the room, or the screen, I’d say 25% comprehension was a stretch. When the presenter, finally with mic in hand, asked questions of the attendees but neglected to hand the mic to the person answering? Well, I don’t think anyone heard.
  • The last: another talk at a local gallery. The presenter used a microphone! The room was right-sized for the audience and acoustically appropriate for the activity! Could I hear? Yes, of course, everyone heard!

The theater experience was a bonus. I had forgotten about it at the initial appointment when tasked with imagining how the hearing-aid adventure was going to work. It was only at the fitting that I thought about my regular ushering commitment. I had one play the coming weekend and two more within a couple of weeks. Having directed many audience members to the venue’s free hearing-assistance devices over the years, I remembered that a recent renovation at the theater included an induction loop system that works with T-coil devices.

I asked my audiologist about it. I was in luck. The hearing aids I selected include an option for T-coil. I was instructed to turn on the T-coil when I got to the theater (press a button, super easy) and see how it worked. Would it work for me? Would it be an improvement on the crackly headphone devices that are available at the theater? Or would I sit through yet another play missing words whenever an actor turns away, or having the device cutout if I shifted in my seat?

Good news (great news): the T-coil hearing aid is amazing. Easy. Seamless. Non-intrusive and discrete. I heard every word from the stage: beautiful, whispered, shouted, sung, gut-wrenching, gentle, or gleeful, I heard them all. 

I am so grateful for an organization that seriously considers the needs of their fans. Theater has an aging audience, but hearing loss happens throughout life. How incredible to have the plays more accessible to a larger number of the attendees.

For more everyday situations, improvement doesn’t seem so impossible to accomplish. Sure, induction loop systems are great if attendees have the appropriate devices, but scheduling right-sized rooms and using microphones for large meetings are not that difficult. And luckily the hearing aids are already helping with my open office environment (although I still miss my office). Related, although it deserves a dedicated post of its own, #nomorecraptions is providing great info (and a much-needed kick in the ass) about closed captions for online videos.

Basically, if you can’t hear the sound, then you don’t get the fury, and it does indeed, signify nothing. Enable your audience to make sense of your activity. Make use of available technology. 

Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

Camelot
Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

lyndabarry_syllabus1

It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.