An Interview with the American Shakespeare Center

From June to July of 2013 I was hired to direct a youth production of Pericles in the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse of the American Shakespeare Center. It was such a treasured experience! I was very impressed with the artistic team, particularly the camp director Kim Newman, our Dramaturge Jessica Shiermeister, and my Assistant Directors Justin Shannin and Dan Hasse. The ASC asked excellent questions in their application procedure, so I have included some of my responses here for those that might be interested in my educational approaches to Shakespeare.

Do you have a previous work relationship with the ASC? If so, please describe:

My only experience with the ASC thus far has been the tour that I took last summer, the two delightful productions I saw at that time (The Lion in Winter and Two Gentlemen of Verona), and the regular updates I receive via the Facebook page. I am very eager to become more involved.

(Note: I have since then seen six more ASC productions: Romeo and Juliet, The Duchess of Malfi, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Love’s Labours Lost, Twelfth Night, and Alls Well That Ends Well.)

In addition to directing a play, ASCTC show directors must be strong educators, able to teach acting, voice and movement, scansion, rhetoric, etc. Please describe your education experience, especially as it applies to Shakespeare:

For four years (2009-2013) I have been honored to act as the head of the Drama Department at Yongsan International School of Seoul. In addition to directing two productions each year (and a yearly assembly-length children's theatre piece), I also teach drama classes. These classes include a yearly unit/showcase on Shakespeare, in which I especially concentrate on use of architecture to define reality (setting God in a specific place, setting each side of an argument in a specific place), and on finding times at which students can break the fourth wall and communicate directly to audience members (such as when Helena asks, "What of that? Demetrius thinks not so."). I also teach British Literature and have the chance to share Macbeth with each class of seniors. I find that the most effective literature lessons are always the ones that involve drama. For example, when Lady Macbeth begins the speech, "Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts," I have the students begin a cascade of demonic sound effects, and instruct the student reading the speech to try to be heard above the rising din. The resulting speech climax is memorable, and involves every student—two goals that are constants for me.

My most recent student production (opening in May 2013) is A Midsummer Night's Dream, as informed by the backdrop of the Vietnam War. We have goblins garbed as post-war veterans, and fairies toting peace signs, and we are using this conflict to deepen the conflict between the fairies Titania and Oberon. Though my personal inclinations lean toward pretty dresses and traditional staging, I have also enjoyed the opportunity to explore this text in a new way. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the production process thus far has been my decision to edit the script down to an hour and a half. I used the "60 Minute Shakespeare" series as a jumping-off point, and then re-inserted lines that I felt were too beautiful to lose (That was so challenging!).

For the past three years I have acted as the Education and Community Outreach coordinator for Seoul Shakespeare (a growing, community-based company), and this has given me opportunities to teach adults, lead student discussions and workshops, and also to act as Dramaturge for two mainstage productions. I find that most performers have the same questions: Where should the emphasis be placed? How many syllables are in this line/word? What does this mean? I feel very equipped to answer textual questions of that kind, but beyond an intellectual understanding of the material and its poetic format, I have found that learners of all ages also need a way to connect the texts to their own bodies in order to relate to them. I often suggest tactics of this sort as I lead workshops and classes, asking students to move through the options of head, heart, gut, and groin, as they explore their lines.

In addition to this teaching experience, I am soon to complete an MA in Shakespeare and Education through the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. In March I began my final course, a Shakespeare and Pedagogy intensive led by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now I have only to submit my thesis, "Who Barded? The Neglected Olfactory Aspects of Shakespeare Education"—a topic I'm very interested in exploring!

In addition to directing and teaching, ASC Theatre Camp show directors must be able to manage an artistic team of two assistant directors and a dramaturg. Please describe any managerial experience, and/or ways you might creatively use such an artistic team in rehearsal:

I spent four and a half years as a Unit Leader with the Covenant Players Drama Company, and during that time I gained extensive experience with small-team management (and detailed paperwork). We traveled in groups of three to four, and with numbers of that kind it is beyond unhelpful to confine supporting team members to menial tasks. I have found that there is often no person on the team so underutilized and unappreciated as the Assistant Director. These are often people with a huge body of their own experiences, and they have taken on the position so that they can also grow in their craft. In return they tend to spend hours in the copying room, and hunched over a script. These are both necessary, but they are not always deeply satisfying. In light of this (and also because of my goal to never waste time), I often send an assistant director (even a student one) into the next room to run scenes or to try something new with a scene. This accomplishes several things: it allows off-stage performers to make the best possible use of their time (sometimes doubling productivity), it infuses rehearsal with a vital element of performance when those that have been in another room can showcase their work for the other half of the cast, and it keeps everyone on the team feeling productive (And don't we all want that?). I think that this is especially effective for monologue coaching and scene work. I may be at a loss, at first, as to how to incorporate a Dramaturge, because I am so accustomed to occupying that role myself. However, I can already see some interesting ways that such a person could add fun to our rehearsal experience. For example, he or she might generate trivia games out of our rehearsal mistakes, or film a running log of things that actors have learned (narrated by the students) as their show progresses. If possible, I would love for all cast members to show up to the first rehearsal with their lines paraphrased, and having a Dramaturge on hand to monitor that process would be very helpful, especially if I am chosen to handle a text that is less familiar to me.

If you are familiar with the ASC, then you know our style of theatre uses similar staging conditions that Shakespeare's company would have used. Do you have any experience working with original staging practices? If so, please describe:

I spend my summers studying in both Virginia (Hollins University) and England (The Shakespeare Institute), and one of the joys of that split is the chance to see productions at both the Blackfriars and at the Globe. Though I am often too caught up in enjoying the shows to make this possible, I have made it my goal to observe how the original spaces are handled. It is interesting to me that an audience will readily accept that one scene has ended and another has started simply because the actors have begun to energetically cross toward an exit (often, but not always, assisted by a rhyming couplet). It is also interesting to consider how characters who are not supposed to see one another ("Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?") can achieve this effect by adopting separate sections of the audience to use as their confidants. I've also noted the effective use of sound effects in achieving transitions, and the need to interact with the on-stage audience members.

Two performing experiences of mine have given me a glimpse into original staging practices. The first was the two summers I spent with the Renaissance Comedy Troupe Marlowe's Shadow, during which we had to drum up an audience, win them over with our comedic Shakespeare Adaptations (Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream), and then, well, fleece them to within an inch of their bodices! This experience involved constant and direct audience-actor interactions and taught me the energy that audience contact can bring to a script. My second relevant experience was the Creative Practice intensive I took at the Shakespeare Institute last summer. We created a makeshift playhouse space and performed for one another without stage lighting. I found this experience challenging and rewarding, and have since then found myself concentrating more and more on audience interaction. I think that one of the most fun aspects of original practice is the need to paint the scene with our words rather than with effects. With my students, I emphasize the need to see and feel what we are describing (the bucolic wonder of Arden, the welcoming bird nests above Inverness, and the intimidating woods that surround the lost lovers). If we see it, then the audience will see it, too.

To give us a glimpse of your interest in directing young people in Shakespeare, please discuss your directorial and educational philosophy. Why is this position interesting to you? What skills will you bring to the rehearsal room? What is it about working with young people that engages and energizes your work?

When I direct a show I adhere to the maxim taught to me by my first director. It is not original or witty, but it bears repeating again and again: we must strive to honor the playwright's intent. That doesn't mean a slavish devotion to text sections that are now perceived as racist, and it doesn't mean use of an archaic form of a word when a more modern one would fit the scansion (such as Midsummer's "apricocks" vs "apricots"), but it does mean asking ourselves, at all times, is it reasonable to assume that this is what Shakespeare intended for this text? Are we honoring the tone, intentions, meanings, sounds, and interpretations that he crafted for us?

Beyond that, I think that there are always three keys to consider when directing: objectives/stakes, the big picture, and energy.

Objectives make relationships interesting. They make line deliveries interesting. They make characters relatable and intentional and they add layers of meaning to scenes. I try to do as much work as possible with objectives. In particular, I try to pick up on a choice an actor is making (perhaps without realizing it) and try to make it more bold and distinct. An example of this occurred once during Hamlet scene work in class. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have visited Hamlet, they have an interview with Gertrude and Claudius. Our work on the scene was going nowhere, but I noticed that one of the performers was making the choice to be defensive in one of his line deliveries. "Let's do it again," I suggested, "I noticed something interesting that you're doing. This time, let's imagine that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are extremely defensive. Right before this scene, the king accused them of lying. He said that they haven't tried hard enough rouse Hamlet, and he wants to throw you out of the castle and into prison. You want to defend yourselves. Claudius, you think they are definitely lying and you want to intimidate them into telling the truth. Gertrude, they were your last hope, and you want to convince yourself that they can still save Hamlet. Let's try it again." Bingo! The scene was now fresh, interesting, and nuanced. The actors were making bold choices because they now had clear objectives. Clear objectives also clarified and raised the stakes: being afraid of a king's prison is more terrifying than being afraid of his general disappointment.

In doing all of this detail work, it's important not to lose track of the big picture of the show and how it is building towards its climax. One of the best examples of this is Macbeth, when the final scenes fire rapidly, one right after another, and the entrances and exits have to be extremely tight to maintain the illusion that two opposing armies are hunting one another out while Macduff is closing in on Macbeth. In such a situation, it would be harmful and indulgent to allow actors to take their time with scenes, and the pacing of the play needs to be considered. However, again, that is a problem that can be solved with a shift in objectives: You must find him and kill him NOW! Objectives breed urgency!

Energy is also key. It makes or breaks a production. That is part of why I so enjoy working with young people—their boundless bounty of energy and volume and enthusiasm. I think of young people as old people (with much of the same wisdom and insight) who have not lost their sparkle. In those terms, I am, I hope, a young person myself. I work with young people because their energy resonates with mine, and because they bring as much emotional investment to a project as I do. They can be counted on, no matter what they are feeling, to feel it deeply, and that is a prerequisite (Or it should be!), for Shakespeare.

Anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I have a few questions about the program:

1. I am interested in clarifying the schedule as soon as possible. I have the opportunity to take a morning class at Hollins University two days a week this summer, but will forego that opportunity if it clashes with this one. I see that directors work with students for 5-6 hours a day, six days a week. Are those morning/afternoon rehearsals (as in a day camp), or are they evening rehearsals (after workshops have been attended? For now I have indicated an interest in both camp sessions, but the answers to these questions will help me to clarify my scheduling options.

2. I am interested in teaching a workshop on objectives. Should I submit a possible syllabus? If so, please tell me the workshop length, and the expected number of participants, and I will get that to you as soon as I am able.

3. The application makes mention of a Dramaturge as an active member of each production team. Will I be able to interact with this person in the months or weeks leading up to the camp? If so, I think that getting their feedback on the adapted script would be very helpful.

Things to know about me: I am very passionate about the Blackfriars (It gave me goosebumps to stand inside it!), and I believe I would bring an energizing mixture of enthusiasm and respect into the space.

I take pride in the fact that I am a lifelong learner. One of my mottos is: Disce aut discede! So, while I aim for professionalism and a glossy finish, I have no intention of pretending that I already know everything. I expect these students to teach me, and I expect to learn from my coworkers. My other maxim (the one that is placed at the head of my classroom) is Awareness Begets Appreciation. I think that the more you know, the more you love, and the more you love the more you invest, and the more you invest the more you connect. I want that connection in my own life, and I aim to foster it in the lives of my students.

Fun Facts:

I am now thirty, but I have had the same laminated copy of the National Geographic map of Shakespeare's Britain on my wall since age nine. I have lived, worked, or studied in California, 14 additional West Coast states, New York, Canada, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Mainland China, South Korea, the Philippines, Virginia, Scotland, and England.

My first Shakespeare was a fifth-grade performance of the balcony scene. We played it with a painstakingly detailed paper tower, backlit by a scented candle stolen from a friend's mother's bathroom. Juliet wore my mother's wedding dress. I played Romeo with a Disneyland feather in my cap, and an eye-liner mustache. I STILL know all of the lines.

I love vegetarian Indian food, dogs that resemble mops, and learning and sharing new words. Do you know the word for a caustic but veiled remark? A charientism! You're welcome!