Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Praise of Violence (On Stage)

While writing my last fundraising email for my company’s feminist Measure for Measure, I found myself going on a bit of a rant about the response to the violence in our show. I realized advocating for violence was probably not a particularly wise way to ask for money, so I stopped myself before I went too far. And going too far is what I was talking about.

Many don’t experience Measure for Measure the way I do – they don’t feel the multitude of injustices stacking up against the women in this play as anything to get too upset about. It’s a comedy, after all! I mean, sure Angelo’s a hypocrite, but he just wants to sleep with an aspiring nun, is that so wrong? Sure, the Duke sits by and watches people’s lives torn apart, actively participating and lying to make their experience more dramatic and painful and setting up sadistic scenario after sadistic scenario – but it all works out in the end, right? And he marries Isabella! (Apologies if you don’t know what I’m talking about and you’re not familiar with Measure for Measure, stick around, there’s more non-Shakespeare violence to come.)

I understand the prevailing feeling that these men are not so bad and therefore don’t deserve to be murdered in a blood bath at the end of the play, for example. (Yes, that was our ending. Spoiler alert!) Certainly, yes, there are worse men. Lavinia’s rapists, Imogen’s almost rapists, Kate’s rapist husband…oh wait, you probably mean murderers.

Violence is used against women over and over throughout Shakespeare’s plays and also the entirety of Western literature and entertainment. And over and over again, in text after text, image after image, women just have to sit there and take it. Men avenge women’s deaths and rapes but the women themselves are just dead or damaged. Or made dead due to their “damage.” (I’m looking at you, sweet Lavinia.) Never never do the women get to avenge themselves. Never do they get to grab a sword and make everyone pay for their agony. And you know what? That’s what I need.

Catharsis has been for men for as long as there has been drama and it’s about goddamn time women got some of that sweet sweet catharsis ourselves. When I started this Measure for Measure experiment, I was clear that catharsis is what I was seeking and clear that only violence could do the job.

Not everyone agreed with me. Despite being a cast of women, there were many among them who did not feel that blood needed be drawn. Many felt that the sins committed by the men in power in the play were not so bad. The blood bath I had in mind did not seem commensurate with the crime. That’s probably true. Probably there are many men in Shakespeare who deserve to get murdered by angry women more than Angelo and the Duke do. I’ll leave those deaths for someone else to stage – but for me, to experience a genuine catharsis at the end of a show was worth every possible injustice in it.

I have seen so many women assaulted, raped and murdered on stage and on screen. I could not begin to count the victims I’ve seen in my theatre going, TV watching, film viewing lifetime. For ages, a woman’s presence in a work of drama was for the sole purpose of getting the hero justifiably angry so he could have his catharsis at the end. Women have mostly been cast to be the victims. That’s what an ingénue is for.

I have a theatre friend who moved to LA to work in film and TV and has had a fair amount of success. She has played almost exclusively victims. Her reel is just, like, a parade of violence and abuse against her. Did she deserve any of that? Did all the women who have been abused, assaulted, raped and murdered onstage and onscreen deserve all those things?

But it was all for men’s catharsis.

I need some damn catharsis now.

You think Shakespeare wasn’t interested in violence? I mean, crack open a copy of Titus Andronicus! It wasn’t enough for Lavinia to be raped by her stepbrothers – no, they had to cut out her tongue and cut off her hands as well. Then her father kills her out of “mercy.” Did Lavinia deserve that?

I killed Angelo and the Duke (and Lucio, just for fun) onstage not just for the women in the play, for Isabella and Mariana and Mistress Overdone, but also for Lavinia. And you know what? It’s also for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – because we can’t drag her assailant out of the Supreme Court without causing a whole heap of trouble. So we kick The Duke in the balls. If we kick The Duke in the balls, maybe just maybe no actual balls will need to get kicked.

If we don’t find outlets for our fury in the safety of our stages, if we don’t get catharsis in some way or another, I can’t promise the rage that has been building, lo, these five thousand years won’t burst forth into a real live bloody revolution. If the woman on man violence makes you uncomfortable to watch, that’s appropriate. That’s what it’s been like for women watching women be victimized all these years.

I’m kind of imagining some restorative dramatic justice. For every rape or sexual assault or domestic violence plot, I’m going to need two kicks in the balls and at least two violent murders. And we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, theatre and cinema-wise, so we might have to kick and kill in some grey areas for a while. Maybe what Louis CK did wasn’t so bad on the shitty scale, not as bad as rape, certainly, but in anything he’s in next, he’s going to need to be brutally attacked or he’s never going to work again. So sayeth the scales of theatrical justice.

Photo from our workshop performance of Measure for Measure, featuring Connie Rotunda, Katherine Lee, Brooke Turner and Sonia Villani, with fight direction by Dan Renkin

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This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Big Disappointment (and How to Go On)

When I was in college, I had one goal and one goal only and that was to be part of a particular Shakespeare company I’d been inspired by a few years earlier. While I was still in school, I auditioned for them and secured my very first acting job at what was then my dream company. The fact that I was making $50 a week did not matter to me in the least. I was on track for the life I wanted. I thought I’d just keep working there forever and my artistic destiny was set. But then I had rather a rude awakening when none of us were cast in the next season.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off and worked in Atlanta, Roanoke and Memphis before returning to audition again a year later and got to do another season of Shakespeare with them. It wasn’t long after that that I moved to NYC and away from performing.

But that theatre where I started is firmly imprinted on me. It was formative in my aesthetic, my career path and my sense of self. I’ve done a LOT of other things since then and grown and shifted in lots of directions I’d never have predicted – but there’s something about that company that will always have a quality of home for me.

So when this writing opportunity with them came up, it had a sense of fated poetry to it. Artist returns to artistic home in a new role to a new beginning. It also had a curious quality of uniting what has always felt like two parallel tracks that would never meet – that is, my Shakespeare identity and my feminist playwriting identity. I just generally assumed those two aspects of myself would never have much call to meet (aside, of course from the devised Shakespeare piece I made a few years ago – where I used my dramaturgical skills to “write” with Shakespeare’s words.)

Anyway – something about the call for submissions for this just felt like little blocks of fate, slotting one into another. I wrote a play VERY QUICKLY that grappled with things in Comedy of Errors that I have always struggled with and found I’d woven together two strands of my artistry that I hadn’t known I could. Because I know the company well, I wrote it with them in mind. I saw their space, I saw their actors. It came to me more easily than almost anything else I’ve ever written. Part of me thought, “They’d be crazy not to select this play. It is for them. It is their aesthetic. It will showcase their particular skills. It gives their actors – particularly the women – opportunities that they don’t often get – and because I’m a former actor in their company from twenty years ago, this press release just writes itself.” As a friend of mine said, “That’s a marketing gold mine. They’d have to choose you for that alone.”

But I am pretty used to rejection and pretty used to not being the choice of the status quo so I was actually pretty delightfully surprised to be first a semi-finalist and then a finalist for what would be a life-changing prize and a kick ass opportunity to return to an artistic home.

When I received the email that I was a finalist, I started to fantasize about what would happen were I to get it. I’d return, not just to a theatre that was once a home, but also my home state. I’d finally get some recognition as a playwright in a well-publicized prestigious situation. It would have paid me more money than I have ever made in a year.

I began to acknowledge to myself that it was something I really wanted. (Generally, I try not to do this. I just apply for stuff and move on.) I thought about it a lot. It started to feel a little bit like when I was in college wanting to work for this company. I started to feel like the poetic circularity of the thing meant that I was destined to get it.

When the rejection came this morning, it hit me harder than any rejection has in a long while. The O’Neill was hard but I never really thought I’d get even as far as the semi-finals so I wasn’t surprised not to get an acceptance there. But this one, I knew I had a shot. The poetry of the story was too good.

But real life doesn’t really work like a story. I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again. I suppose that’s the peril of being a story maker. I am infinitely vulnerable to good stories. (For example: I cannot be 100% positive that I didn’t partly choose to go to the graduate school I went to due to the serendipity of my sharing a name with it. This would not be a good reason to go to a school, btw.)

I have twenty plus years of practice at dealing with rejection. When the American Shakespeare Center (then known as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) didn’t hire me in 1996 as I expected them to, it was a shocking betrayal that took me a while to recover from. Here in the spring of 2018, I saw that rejection email from them, felt the blow to my solar plexus and then just got on with making things. I finished recording a song for the podcast and practiced the choreography for the Nelken line I’m joining this weekend. I’m grateful for the decades of artistic practice that has helped me put my eggs in multiple baskets so that when, say, the playwriting basket falls to the ground and all my eggs break, I can just reach into the music basket or the blogging basket, as I’m doing now, and I know I’ll have eggs enough for an omelet later.

I can’t say I’m not sad to not get to see my play performed on that damn beautiful stage by those actors I tailor-made that play for. I am fucking sad about it, no doubt. But, I now have a play that is much more easily produced than most of my other work. I have a prequel to Comedy of Errors that maybe one day someone else might want to do.

It’s sad. I’m sad. And the Hope Hangover (a phenomenon and song I wrote about recently) will be brutal, I know. But I have weathered disappointment consistently for the last two decades. I can do it some more. The thing to do when you are disappointed by art is to make more art. It is the only way through.

This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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You can help me deal with disappointment

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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Keith Richards Wouldn’t Worry About His Bra

Like magic, a sparkly pink electric guitar came into my life a few months ago. It came to me with no amp, no chords, no case – just its sparkly pink self. And even though I’ve played guitar for a couple of decades, I had never played an electric before. It was a whole new world. I learned power chords, y’all. Before I started messing around with this, I did not even know what power chords were. I think I thought they were just regular chords you played real loud. I was stunned to realize that a lot of what all those big hair guitar dudes were doing on TV was not actually that hard. It was a whole lot easier than the finger-picking folk guitar I was used to, at least.

Anyway – the guitar was one thing. But then I got an amp.

I had been playing plugged in to my computer– and you know, it was cool – but when I got an amp, well, the whole world just cracked wide open. And it wasn’t just the amp, y’all – no. See, what happened was, on the morning my amp arrived and I plugged in, my in-house sound guy helped me set it up. He turned some dials. He nodded when I played some power chords. And then he turned up the volume.

The apartment is small. There are neighbors in every direction. But he turned up the volume to LOUD. And when I played, I giggled with so much rebellious glee. I mean – is this okay? What if I upset someone with my neophyte electric stylings? And then suddenly, I really didn’t care if I upset anyone. I felt the power of playing loud, no matter my skill. I didn’t have to be the best player in the world to turn that amp up and play loud. I could be the worst and still play loud. That’s the gift of rock n roll guitar, in fact. And it is a powerful gift.

This is an experience I want every woman to have. I want every woman to have the opportunity to have her sound amplified beyond other people’s comfort level, maybe even beyond her own comfort level.

At a Shakespeare panel discussion years ago, I remember Liev Schrieber talking about how transformative it had been for him to play Hamlet. He said he thought that everyone should get to play Hamlet once. He didn’t think we should have to see them all, because that would be awful – but everyone should get the chance to do it. I think everyone should get a chance to play Hamlet and ALSO everyone should get a chance to play an amplified electric guitar. (Maybe even at the same time. Go crazy!)

Playing like this is so antithetical to my feminine socialization that it is both challenging and exhilarating. It feels like seizing the reins of male power that I had never had access to before.

There are a lot of reasons that guitar playing can feel like a masculine kingdom to which I am not entitled. For example, I cannot think of a single guitar shop I’ve ever been in that was not populated almost entirely by men. Nor can I think of one where I felt completely welcome. I am always an interloper in male territory in a guitar shop.

But – in discovering the thrill of playing loudly and not particularly well, I felt like I understood something about male privilege that translates across media. A dude playing electric guitar loudly and badly is like a clueless mansplaining dude at a meeting; he’s not worried about how he sounds, he’s just enjoying the power of his amplified voice. And now that I’ve played my electric guitar loudly and badly, I too understand how I might enjoy being bold and loud in uncertain circumstances. It will be harder to turn down my volume than it once was and I may be less concerned about saying exactly the right thing. Turn me up, y’all. I’m ready to rock.

Are you wondering what Keith Richards has to do with this?
Well, the same morning I played loud for the first time, my in-house sound guy took a little video of my amp’s first outing. I objected to this video, when I saw it, as I was still in my pajamas, my hair was a mess and I was not wearing a bra. And then my kick-ass, supportive, rock n roll sound guy asked me, “Would Keith Richards worry about his bra?”

And the answer is of course not. Keith Richards does not care what he looks like. Most guitar rockers are similarly disinclined to style or grooming. And almost all guitar rockers are men who, of course, have no bras to worry about. That is rock n roll male privilege, man. But rather than rail about it, I’m going to turn up my amp and channel it. I might worry about my bra sometimes but whenever possible, I want to access the loud, messy, imperfect soul of a male rocker with endless swagger and a reckless audacity. I want us all to feel that sense. May we all have the opportunity to speak Hamlet’s perspicacious text and play Keith Richard’s bra-less rock n roll lifestyle loud.

This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and more. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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You can help me be of service

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Imbalance of Talent Crushes

When I was in my twenties and touring the country doing Shakespeare, I was struck by a curious phenomenon. Everywhere we went, women threw themselves at the men in our company. Girls everywhere became besotted with our boys, especially the ones with swords.

But the reverse never happened. Boys in our audiences didn’t chase after the women in our company, we didn’t have groupies. We didn’t have admirers. One of the women got a secret admirer message once but it turned out to have been from one of our fellow actors in the company.

In my years as a performer, I saw this happen over and over. Men onstage inspired desire while women onstage did not.

I started to think about this again recently while I listened to an interview with Rhett Miller and found myself thinking how intelligent, curious and committed he is. We’re about the same age. He even went to the same college as me, briefly, right before I got there. He’s a dynamo onstage and a sensitive thinker. Ever since I saw his band open for Cake in 1999, I’d see him perform and sigh. This time, though, I heard him and thought, “Oh, I’m actually LIKE him in a lot of ways.” I mean, he’s prettier than me but otherwise, we have things in common.

I thought, “Why not only be the change you wish to see in the world? Why don’t you also be the man you once wished to be with in the world?” This is a thought I’ve had before but somehow this was the first time I felt it viscerally.

There are some philosophers and psychologists who frame desire for others as a calling to some part of ourselves. They theorize that we are attracted to things that mirror and amplify our own qualities. Me? I have discovered that I am a sucker for anyone who takes their art incredibly seriously. And I take my own art incredibly seriously. So. Of course. But until I met my current partner, I’d never met a man who was as interested and invested in my artistic journey as I was in his.

Throughout history, women have found men doing things/making things attractive and slipped into the supporting role in partnerships, to play help-meet to the “real” genius in the family. The Thank You for Typing phenomenon is a great example of this (this is where “great” men thank the women in their lives for typing their work and you realize that the women did much more than type. Like, they actually wrote the book, for example.) Or even Albert Einstein’s wife, who was, some theorize, more of a partner in his work, if not a dominant voice, than anyone realized.

I think there is something in the water that encourages women to find achievement attractive and that same thing (very possibly) socializes men to find achievement unattractive in women. I have only very rarely heard of a man developing a crush on a woman because of her book or her play or her leadership or even her acting prowess. The trope is that he will fall for her in spite of those skills. If she’s pretty enough, a man can overlook her accomplishments but because of the accomplishments? Not so much. Is this true of every man? Of course not. But it is the dominant cultural impulse.

And, of course, I am mostly talking about hetero-normative behaviors here. I know it is infinitely more complex than this. But it does seem important to identify this undercurrent that flows through our dominant culture.

Women develop talent crushes. Men (generally) do not. This is a hugely damaging pattern that hinders many women’s achievements. In the interest of attracting a man or even to just seem attractive, women may downplay their intelligence, hold back at their jobs. It happens. I’ve seen it happen so many times. Case in point: Hillary Clinton. She is the epitome of a high achieving woman and the dominant response to her is distaste. Women across the world developed crushes on Obama. And I don’t want to think about it, but there those who find our current men in government attractive.  Is there a man out there with an achievement crush on Hillary Rodham Clinton? I’ve never heard of one. I’m going to guess not. Is there some dude out there who finds Elizabeth Warren impossibly hot due to her political prowess? Is there an Angela Merkel fan club? Or a dude who finds Theresa May’s rise to political power irresistible? I doubt it.

I think real progress in creating spaces for women’s achievement will happen when men start to find women’s achievement as attractive as women find men’s achievements or talents or skills. The moment when women are seen as sexy, just for making something or achieving something, for expressing something or leading something, for being funny, or talented, or smart, or brave, or for their expert sword skills – that is the moment we will have finally turned the corner on equality.

I’ve seen ladies get talent crushes on Falstaff, y’all. Falstaff.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs and an album of Love Songs. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Juliet Capulet, Feminist Role Model
August 31, 2016, 10:29 pm
Filed under: feminism, Shakespeare | Tags: , , , , , ,

While working with some 9th graders on Juliet’s “Gallop Apace” speech in Romeo and Juliet, I opened the door for the students to tell me what was happening. They worked it out faster than most groups do and quickly leapt to interpretation. One girl reported that Juliet was scared to have sex for the first time. I asked her to tell me where she saw that in the text and the line she pointed to means nothing of the sort.

 

In response to all of this, I did something I try to never do when teaching Shakespeare. I declared a meaning. I declared that, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a stitch of fear in this speech. I felt bad about denying this girl her interpretation (which, let’s face it, is, of course, really about her own fears) and felt like I’d dropped my teaching ball a little bit. It happens. And when it does, rather than put myself in the corner for failing to live up to my own standards, I try to figure out why I slipped.

 

My guess is that this is an example of my Shakespeare teaching agenda intersecting with my feminist impulse. This culture tells girls that sex is the most important thing and simultaneously suggests that it is something to be afraid of. The cult of virginity is such that many girls come to believe that sex is something that will be painful and irrevocably transforming. The good girls, the nice girls, the one’s many of us identified with, wouldn’t WANT to have sex! Gasp! Horror! We’re nice girls! We don’t have DESIRE.

 

But here is Juliet. No fear. Just desire. Just excitement. She knows she’s supposed to put on a show of disinterest about her feelings for Romeo – but she doesn’t. In the balcony scene, she dismisses propriety and coyness and she’s like, direct. “Dost thou love me?” She then suggests they get down to getting married ASAP. Once she’s married, all she wants is for night to come so she can be with Romeo. And maybe it’s not explicitly sexual. Maybe the consummation of the marriage isn’t what she’s looking forward to. But in any case, she wants Romeo. She wants Romeo as soon as possible. Even if she hasn’t the slightest clue about sex (which I doubt, she was raised by the Nurse – who does not hold back in discussing the body) she is till clear that Romeo is what she wants.

 

And then of course, they do consummate the marriage, and she is very satisfied with whatever happened in that exchange and she does not want it to end. Juliet has desire upon desire and she (mostly) gets what she wants. She’s a feminist role model.

 

I am so very tired of this culture telling girls that they must be sexually attractive but not sexually active. I am weary of girls twisting themselves into knots to be appealing objects while simultaneously negating their own desire. We, as a culture, need to learn how to allow girls to be sexual subjects, to take ownership of their bodies and their desire.

 

There are a lot of women working in this arena. There are Ted Talks. There are academic papers on sexual subjectivity. There’s an anti-slut shaming podcast. We have Caitlin Moran advocating for Lady Sex Pirates. There’s an expanding sense of changing how we deal with women’s sexuality. It’s hugely important work. But it feels as though it will be a while until this sort of things makes its way down to girls who are coming of age now.

 

Meanwhile, there’s Juliet Capulet, a character that almost every girl in high school will encounter. And yes, that 400 year old character had to get married to enjoy her sexuality and yes, it’s true, ends up dead. But not as punishment for sexual transgressions (as many more contemporary stories would have it.) Juliet models an enthusiasm and yearning that is culturally significant, even now, so many years after she was written.

 

That’s why I tripped over myself a little bit on this topic. It was all a little bigger than I was prepared for. I couldn’t not advocate for Juliet’s desire. Juliet’s desire is as boundless as the sea.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. Soon you’ll be able to hear me read this one too. If you’d like to listen to a previous entry on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



“Shakespeare Sucks”
December 16, 2015, 12:04 am
Filed under: education, Shakespeare | Tags: , ,

Every few months or so, my social media channels light up with outrage about the latest article or blog in which someone declares that s/he hates Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is over-rated or that they just don’t want to teach him anymore. The first of these that I read made a little angry, I confess. It was a pretty bone-headed look at work that is complex and intelligent. But the subsequent ones have barely registered with me. I had to check the dates on each new post. Was this the same one or some new one? They all sound the same.

I think sometimes with these sorts of essays, people feel like they’re saying something revolutionary and edgy when they declare their dis-allegiance with Shakespeare. Like when Ira Glass declared that Shakespeare sucks. To me it just seems silly. It‘s like someone writing a post every few months declaring that pizza is no good and we should not have to eat it anymore.

I feel about Shakespeare like I do about pizza. They’re both delicious, classic constructions full of infinite possibility. If you don’t like pizza, that’s fine. You don’t have to eat it. If you haven’t had it, though, you should try it. Try it maybe more than once. If you just have school pizza or frozen pizza, it’s probably not gonna be terrific. Get yourself to a high quality pizzeria that uses fresh ingredients and it will be hard not to find SOMETHING you like.

I realize that, in schools, people sometimes forcefeed folks their Shakespeare – that in that context, it’s a little like that cardboard stuff they call pizza in school cafeterias. Of course people don’t want to eat or teach that. . .but there are dozens of ways to approach teaching Shakespeare that don’t require swallowing it like medicine. (If you need help finding those ways, I know many organizations who could help, not to mention a Shakespeare Consultant who’d be glad to be of assistance – full disclosure – it’s me.)

There are a million pedagogical reasons to teach Shakespeare in schools. Working with Shakespeare can teach you such educationally valuable skills as close reading, text analysis, poetic devices, narrative structures, empathy, motifs, themes and so on. It is rigorous, complex and interesting text. Engaging with it can expand your view of the world. But for me, all of that is beside the point. I teach it because it tastes good to me. It’s the best pizza. And people have continued to teach it for centuries, not because it’s their medicine and they have to take it, but because it gives back when you engage with it.

I have, on occasion, started my residencies with students by asking them to tell me why they think people are still reading and performing these plays 450 years after the writer’s death. Their answers (once they get a taste for it) are never “because it’s part of the canon” or “because we have to.” They point to the richness of expression, the power of the words. Those things work across the centuries.

Are there other plays, other writers, other stories we could be and should be exploring? Absolutely. Explore them too. No one needs to eat ONLY pizza every day. But a world without pizza would be emptier – and less delicious.

I will say, though, that if pizza doesn’t float your boat, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to introduce it to people. Let someone who loves pizza take a newbie to their first pizzeria. And if you honestly hate Shakespeare, it’s fine with me if you don’t teach it. It’s probably better for everyone involved if you don’t have to force something you don’t like down the throats of your students.

But, if you’re an English teacher, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find something to love in it, too. Its basic ingredients include some of the most exciting uses of words in the language. If you love words and hate Shakespeare, it’s a little like loving dough, tomato sauce and cheese but hating pizza. But anything’s possible. If you were forced to eat pizza as a child or there’s just something about it that doesn’t suit you, there’s no need to feel like you have to have it. I’ll be happy to bring your students the Shakespeare. And we can all have pizza together.

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In Praise of Not Knowing

This whole Shakespeare controversy may be silly but it’s gotten me thinking a lot. My initial post on the “translations” looked at the news through my experience as a Shakespeare educator. My second one didn’t really have to do with Shakespeare so much as the power of money in the arts in America. All of which has led me here.

The more I think about it, the more this project seems to be about a discomfort with not understanding, with not knowing every word of Shakespeare. It is a discomfort with ambiguity and mystery. While this particular project might stem from one businessman’s need to understand everything, I think people around the world are struggling with a similar need to have all questions answered.

We live in a world now wherein most of the answers to our questions are a moment away. As comedian Pete Holmes has said, having the internet at our fingertips means that “the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” (Watch this whole bit if you can. It pretty much sums up this entire blog post.)

Why do camels spit?  Where did Yoko Ono go to college? What answers are people searching for? I can know as fast as I can type (or speak to Siri/Google.) We don’t need to wonder, to try and resolve it on our own, we just look – and we know. Which is magnificent. I love knowing things.

However – there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really sit inside not knowing. Most film and TV is pretty straightforward. So is contemporary theatre generally. You don’t leave Mamma Mia or The Gin Game with a lot of questions. And even if the work is a little more abstract, like The Bald Soprano, you will likely still understand every word of a play performed in your native tongue. Shakespeare’s language requires a kind of surrender to not understanding everything. It is a chance to exercise the quiet muscle of taking words in without boxing them up in relentless meaning. It’s also an opportunity to not know, then find some answers and then discover how much there still is to discover.

This, I think, is one of the functions of art in general. To help us accept and appreciate what we can’t understand. Because as much as it feels like we now know everything (as long as we have access to the internet,) we cannot possibly grasp all the mysteries. I may feel I know my best friends but there are depths, dark corners and bright lights in them that I will never see, never know. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that no matter how well you know someone, there is still an ocean of things about them outside of your knowledge. You can’t Google a soul.

In years previous, you might have gone to a certain kind of college to get access to knowing things. A professor had the information and then relayed it to you. This style of learning runs counter to a style of learning wherein the information isn’t the goal. It is, rather, the skill of learning, of engaging, of building a self or developing a soul. In other words, grappling with the mysteries. Arts and humanities are the technology for this. And making peace with ambiguity is one of the tools. A concerto doesn’t mean something. A dance isn’t necessarily “trying to say” anything. A painting doesn’t have to represent something. Sometimes that’s hard for people.

Sometimes it’s hard for me, I’m not going to lie. I am a meaning maker. I try to make meaning out of just about anything. But stretching my ability to sit in not knowing what something means is very good for me.

And of course, Shakespeare is made of words and those words do mean things. But some of those words can have two or three or sometimes even four meanings. How can we make peace with a quadruple entendre if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity?

We’re at this funny moment culturally. On one hand, we are understanding more and more, only seconds away from knowing things we didn’t know before – and on the other hand understanding less – about what we’re supposed to do with all this knowledge. And all the institutions that would help us deal with that question are under threat. The Education Minister of Japan wants to cut all humanities programs in higher education there. Arts programs are on the chopping block all over the world. The Arts Council of England has been painfully defunded by the current government. Here, in America, we’re giving our playwrights words to translate instead of asking them to help us reconcile the mysteries of the current moment.

Not knowing things is very important. But I want to be clear that I’m not asking for ignorance. There are things to know, yes, lots of things, and there are things to Not Know. Real education teaches how to know the difference and make peace with the unknowable. Exceptional art helps us sit in the mystery.

Belinda He, choreographer, in the mystery

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