WIL Festival 4.1: “Macbeth”

 When I talk to friends and colleagues about original practice (O.P.) performances, their first response is usually a skeptical one. Part of that resistance stems from an assumption that anything trying to return to an early moment or wellspring is a museum artifact: stagnant, static, lacking flexibility and topicality. If you’ve been to an OPS Fest performance, however, you will note that there are no hose, doublets, of ruffs, nor is original pronunciation or any kind of accent used. (I should say accents are used, but typically to draw attention to comic or class distinctions.) So what is “original” about these performances? It’s in the practice.

As any musician will tell you, one practices alone and one rehearses with a group. As is mentioned in the pre-show talk every night, the many-month-ed rehearsal of contemporary theatre was not a feature of the Renaissance. One memorized in private, and then came to do the show. To use another musical simile, OPS Fest capitalizes on the performance technique of a prima vista or “sight-reading”: to perform a piece of art upon first sight. Part of being in a professional orchestra or jazz combo relies on the fact that you have played so much music that your brain can more quickly pick up the patterns and anticipate the shape of a melodic line accurately at relatively first sight. It is a matter of a great deal of practice and exposure to a lot of material quickly. In an O.P. performance, you are seeing actors capitalize on having seen chiasmus, litotes, and other rhetorical figures so many times before that they understand how to deliver them, despite not having seen this particular case in front of them before.

In both advertising and performance strategies, OPS Fest replicates period practices.

In other words, O.P. is about experimenting with how sixteenth and seventeenth century players made theatre, not what. It is about the conservation and rehabilitation of a set of tactics and strategies, rather than the preservation (and possible mummification) of the content of a specific play. Take, for example, the A-frame sidewalk signs you’ll see guiding you to the performance space (pictured above). They use the same graphic art taped to the sign that you will see on posters throughout the neighborhood in the weeks before the show, as well as on the cover of your program. While there were no sidewalks or such signs in the period, there was this exact kind of printing redundancy for advertising. When printers were requested to make a run of copies of a play to sell, they printed a number of extras of the title-pages. These “playbills” were posted around London advertising the playbooks, who lately performed the play, and where you could buy copies. So while the specific design, paper stock, and ink aren’t the same today, the practice of it most certainly is. So how did the WIL Fest staging of its second tragedy, “Macbeth,” fair under these conditions?
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WIL Festival 3.1: “Much Adoe About Nothing”

 One of the things I am finding very powerful in this weekend’s set of performances by OPS Fest is the fluidity of the gendered pronoun. By this I mean, the capability we have to adjust to a new pronoun when we are motivated. In my last post, I discussed briefly the basic theory of gender in the early modern period: we are all one gender. Women were simply under-baked men. We didn’t stay in the oven long enough, so we were moist, soft, and hadn’t developed the extra member. This is to say that hetero- and homo-sexuality weren’t concepts people used to label themselves. Thus, when someone asks me whether or not I think William Shakespeare was gay (an idea popularized by an anti-theatreical reading of the sonnets), I’m not sure where to begin. Beside the fact that I don’t know what that would have to do with plays, “gay” as we understand it was not a way in which identity was understood. This is of course not to say that there weren’t same-sex and a variety of other kinds of relationships had by Elizabethans.

A decade into the millennia we are struggling with gender and gender-neutral pronouns in our families, in our workplaces, and in our media. Being sensitive to a variety of pronouns has fundamentally changed my teaching, especially the ways in which I lead class discussion, in just the last three years. (You, too? Check out this handy pronoun handout!) Considering the struggle it is to get colleagues to speak of and to others as they would wish, I find it striking and illuminating that OPS Fest so easily and so often switches a character’s gender. The pronouns are understood as a thing easy to shift, and, what’s more, in performance they hold one another accountable to that notion. While some actors hiccuped Claudio/Claudia well past intermission, in this weekend’s “Much Adoe About Nothing,” they never gave up on the attempt. In this way, the spirit of the original practice (that the parts were designed knowing they would be played by someone identifying as another gender) collides and helps us grapple with a present-day concerns.

From left: Maia McCarthy (Margaret), David C. Olson (Leonato), Emma Whiteside (Priest), Beth Yocam (Beatrice), Alec Lugo (Balthasar), Nikolas Hoback (Don Pedro), and Brian Burger (Benedicke).

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