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We love actor Louis Butelli’s posts for the Folger Theatre Production Diary. Recently, he wrote about his discovery—after a long run here playing Cassius in Julius Caesar (closing Sun, Dec 7)—that whether Shakespeare’s set a play in Elsinore or Agincourt or Rome he can’t resist talking about the theater. Enjoy this player’s perspective.

Louis Butelli (Cassius), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Louis Butelli (Cassius), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

One of the fascinating things about performing in a long run of a play by William Shakespeare is the way the play continues to unfold over time. Living with such rich and complex language yields new discoveries; I’ve been consistently surprised by Julius Caesar, and how it contains thoughts and notions that I hadn’t remembered about the play.

As a man of the theater, Shakespeare constantly put references to his own craft and its practitioners into his work. Hamlet fans will certainly recognize this from the “advice to the players” speech, wherein the Dane coaches a troupe of actors who are rehearsing his play. Hamlet remarks that “the purpose of playing…was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

In The Tempest, the wizard Prospero stages an elaborate masque to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. At its conclusion, he says “our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.” In his epilogue, Prospero asks the audience to “release me from my bands with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails which was to please.”

In Henry V, Shakespeare places a Chorus into the action, which begins the play and each act of the play with a prologue, and ends the play with an epilogue. This Chorus is constantly reminding us that we are in the theater, and begs us to use our imaginations and forgive the short-comings of the performers. Right off the bat the Chorus wonders “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Lately, I’ve been noticing how often Shakespeare calls our attention to the fact that we are players playing at Julius Caesar.

Early on, Brutus and Cassius question Casca about the offstage cheering they had heard. Casca describes the scene of Antony offering Caesar a crown in the public square, with a crowd looking on. Casca says of Caesar, “if the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am no true man.”

Later, when the conspirators visit his garden, Brutus warns them not to let on that they are up to no good. He says, “good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily; let not our looks put on our purposes, but bear it as our Roman actors do, with untired spirits and formal constancy.” Having killed Caesar, and dipping his hands in Caesar’s blood, Cassius asks “how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?”

Sometimes the references even leap from play to play. It is believed that Hamlet was first performed very soon after Julius Caesar sometime in 1599 or 1600. Shakespeare had a company of actors for whom he wrote, and with whom he sometimes performed.

It is likely that the original cast of Julius Caesar would also have comprised the original cast of Hamlet. This lends a kind of winking pleasure to the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius, as the audience gathers to watch Hamlet’s play for the king:

Hamlet: My lord, you played once i’ the university, you say?

Polonius: That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.

Hamlet: What did you enact?

Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i’ the Capitol; Brutus killed me.

Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.

This love for his own craft and his fellow poets and players, this exuberance and joy in storytelling, this warm embrace of audiences are part and parcel of working on the plays of William Shakespeare. His delight in the art form is passed directly on to us, both the artists presenting the plays, and the audiences that come to experience them.

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About Louis Butelli
Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Louis has spent the past eighteen years working as an actor, teacher, director, and writer. From 1998-2008, he was Artist-In-Residence and Company Clown for the Aquila Theatre Company. During that time, he played in over 25 productions of the works of William Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, appearing Off-Broadway, at major regional houses, on tour in the US to 49 states and across Europe; taught over 300 masterclasses; wrote, adapted and appeared in a new production of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; and authored numerous successfully funded grants. Other credits include Folger Theatre; La Jolla Playhouse; American Repertory Theater; South Coast Rep; LA Shakespeare Festival; Shakespeare Theatre Co, DC; Alabama Shakespeare Festival; Yale Rep; Long Wharf; Orlando Shakes; Pasadena Playhouse; Two River Theater, NJ; Alpine Theater Project, MT; La Scala Opera’s West Side Story in Milan, Beirut, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo; many others. TV: The Knick (Cinemax), The Unusuals, and All My Children (ABC), Law & Order, and L&O: Criminal Intent (NBC). Louis is co-founder and Executive Director of Psittacus Productions, for whom he has produced A Tale Told By An Idiot (LA Weekly Theater Award) which performs again in May, 2015 for Lincoln Center Education, and CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera (NYMF Award for Excellence, 3 LA Weekly Award Noms, Pulitzer Prize Juror Nom) which has played Pasadena Playhouse, Ars Nova’s ANT Fest, and a sold-out and extended run at the 2011 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Previously, he has collaborated with director Robert Richmond to make the short film, Dreadful Sorry, financed by a generous grant from the South Carolina Film Commission, Twelfth Night and Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre in the nation’s capital, for both of which he was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer, winning the Award for Henry VIII. He is honored every day he is able to go to work in the service of a great story.

Read more of Louis Butelli’s post on Folger Theatre Production Diary   |   Follow him on Twitter @louisbutelli

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by Sam Sherman
Folger High School Fellow, Class of 2014

Folger High School Fellows, Class of 2014

Folger High School Fellows, Class of 2014

I don’t think I just speak for myself when I say that Shakespeare makes all the more sense when it is performed as opposed to it being examined from text. After all, Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels.

Shakespeare wanted actors to play out his work on the stage in a way that communicated a powerful message that is relevant to the present state of the human condition. I think that a lot of us – teachers and students alike – forget that. Sifting through lexicons, examining centuries-old texts, and trying to understand Early Modern England, we as human beings lose sight of the relevance that Shakespeare has on other areas of history, and even our present. That’s what Folger Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar helped me realize.

The production of Julius Caesar at the Folger carried excellent thematic detail. The show began when actors dressed in ragged, hooded cloaks walked out on stage. These wraiths (very fitting considering Halloween was only about a week and a half ago) spoke in haunting whispers about the Ides of March, foreshadowing what was to come in the play. The whole picture gave me goose-bumps and it was all the more frightening as the red glow from the soothsayer’s bowl illuminated the stage.

Nafeesa Monroe (Soothsayer), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Nafeesa Monroe (Soothsayer), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The first half of the play was pretty consistent with incorporating these wraiths throughout that portion of the performance.

The second half took an interesting turn when the ensemble seemed to switch out the wraith cloaks for soldier’s attire. The uniforms looked like they could’ve been from around the WWI or WWII eras.

I thought the switch from the leather bound medieval garb of the first half to the trench-coat, gas mask-wearing, rifle bearing look of the second half was a peculiar choice, but talking to the actors after the performance allowed me to understand why that decision had been made.

JaBen Early (Octavius Caesar), Julius Caesar, director by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

JaBen Early (Octavius Caesar), Julius Caesar, director by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

As it happens, British director Robert Richmond was inspired by the WWI memorial in England, and as it is the 100th anniversary of that conflict, he borrowed themes from the memorial and incorporated them into his rendition of the play.

The actor Michael Sharon (who played the title role) expressed that much of what Caesar’s death was about involved fighting to sustain the freedom of the Roman Republic, whereas WWI had a lot to with protecting the freedom of nations like Great Britain from the imperialism of countries such as Germany. I thought it was brilliant to put Julius Caesar in a context that was modern and relatable to the contemporary audience.

Michael Sharon (Julius Caesar), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Michael Sharon (Julius Caesar), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

We often lose sight of the fact that Shakespeare wrote plays that utilized what the theater had to offer for that time period specifically. His plays are in no way limited by new conceptualizations. If anything, they’re enhanced. I often find that Shakespeare is performed at its best when interpreted in new formats.

We can try to decipher as meticulously as possible whatever we can about how Shakespeare’s plays were performed back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It’s something that is important to grasp, that’s for sure.

Yet, at the same time, when directors put plays into contemporary settings, be it Julius Caesar placed in WWI or maybe even A Midsummer Night’s Dream purposed as a late night rave – students and teachers alike will be able to grasp Shakespeare’s reasons for writing his works, maybe more so than they would in a traditional Elizabethan environment. This way, Shakespeare remains alive and relevant just as much as a play by Tom Stoppard or August Wilson would be and not just fade into something from “way back when.”

Continuing the conversation about Shakespeare as a living piece of theater is not only an exciting mission for any educator, but must be something they constantly try to achieve, not just for themselves, but for their students.

Folger Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar performs through December 7, 2014. Learn more at www.folger.edu/theatre.

Learn more about Folger Education’s High School Fellows program.

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Adirondack Shakespeare Company Flag

Adirondack Shakespeare Company

By Josh Cabat

I imagine it’s a dream that many English teachers secretly harbor. You leave it all behind and join a band of players who travel from small town to small town in a beautiful and remote area, performing works by Shakespeare and others in repertory.

In some ways, it’s about as pure as it gets, and that purity came through in every wonderful, ragtag moment of the recent production of 1 Henry IV as staged by the Adirondack Shakespeare Company.

The performance was held this past August in Schroon Lake, New York, at the Art Deco-era Strand Theater (whose survival is about as miraculous as young Hal’s victory at Agincourt two plays later), and was part of a summer repertory program that included all four plays in this Henriad, as well as The Tempest (in addition to an event down the lake a bit at the old grounds of Scaroon Manor where the audience got to choose the Shakespeare play they wanted to see on the spot).

What the audience got to see at these performances was what company co-founder Tara Bradway refers to as “Shakespeare in the Raw.” In this experimental technique, all production elements are stripped down to the bare minimum, including scenery, props, costumes, and music. Bradway also noted that the company’s rehearsal process is structured in such a way that the performance we saw was the first time the cast had run through the play in its entirety.

The result is spontaneous, fresh and, for fans of the Folger, exactly what Shakespearean performance needs to be: focused almost exclusively on the interplay among the actors, the audience and those words.

As an educator, I found that there were many connections between Adirondack’s process and how we might go about teaching Shakespeare through performance. (more…)

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By Deborah Gascon

Have you ever seen any silent films of Shakespeare’s plays?

During the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, I sat for hours in the belly of the Folger Shakespeare Library watching black-and-white silent films of Othello and Romeo and Juliet—and it was the best day ever.

I was fascinated—how does a play with such essential language become silent? I realized while sitting in that basement that this would be an effective and quick tool to teach emotion, facial expressions, and pantomiming in acting (which all lead to understanding tone!).

When you watch a silent film, the most important words and emotions pop up on the screen, which makes it an effective way to help students engage in close reading and narrow the text for the main idea (which leads to understanding theme!).

(more…)

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Why do we make such a big deal about performance-based learning?

We at the Folger strongly believe that Shakespeare is for everyone and that speaking the Bard’s words for yourself is essential to gaining an understanding of and appreciation for Shakespeare’s plays.

Lenny Henry, the British comedian turned acclaimed actor, recently shared his turn-around experience with Shakespeare, in an interview with The Telegraph:

What came next was a Radio 4 documentary series called What’s So Great About…? The first was on Shakespeare. “I had a real allergy to Shakespeare. I wasn’t really taught it at school properly and thought it was very much the reserve of middle-class white people with tights and a cabbage down the front. So I was very frightened of it. Everybody we interviewed on that show, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Adrian Lester, Judi Dench, said, ‘You should try it. Don’t slag it off if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Get some of the words in your mouth and then you’ll understand why we all love Shakespeare so much.’”

Henry delivered 20 lines of Othello’s last speech for the documentary and he was hooked. “It gave me the feeling that I could do it. It’s almost like I had my head put on straight for me. ‘This is what it’s about, it’s a serious thing, take it seriously, learn your lines, do some research.’ So the rehearsal process was brutal and I was reading that play for months and months before we did it.” And it was a success.

Henry went from thinking Shakespeare was not for him, to going on to perform in The Comedy of Errors at the Royal National Theatre in London.

What a testament to the power of speaking – not just reading – Shakespeare.

How are your students engaging with Shakespeare this school year? Tell us in the comments.

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Performance helps bring Shakespeare alive, and listening to his words being spoken brings them off the page and into a new relevance for students.

With the Folger Shakespeare Library launching a new series of Shakespeare audio editions, teachers now have access to unabridged texts from the gold standard Folger Editions performed by a full cast of Shakespearean actors and expertly produced by Folger Theatre.

“We know that Shakespeare’s plays were written with the human voice – an actor’s voice – in mind, which is why it is so important to encounter the Folger Editions with one’s ears as well as eyes,” says Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. “These recordings offer ‘another way in’ to Shakespeare’s plays by offering powerful audio performances.”

The series has launched with five of Shakespeare’s most popular plays: Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet.

These audio editions, available from Simon & Schuster Audio on CD or for download, can be used together with Folger Digital Texts, an online searchable resource that provides the Folger Editions text of 38 Shakespeare plays.

Check out the Folger Shakespeare Library website to learn more and to listen to excerpts.

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Scott Van Wye, a student of Richard Phillipy at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, won first prize at the 31st annual English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition on May 5. Scott performed a speech by Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing and a cold reading from The Tempest in addition to a sonnet. The competition was held at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City for 58 winners of ESU Branch competitions nationwide. Scott’s prize for placing first is a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s Young Actors Summer School in London. (more…)

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canada

In a recent post, I requested that schools, theaters, or anyone else should stage a flash mob for the “balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet, with a script created using Folger Digital Texts. Well, the deadline has passed, and we’ve had 28 fabulous submissions. They come from Punahou School in Hawaii; from the University of Northern Iowa; from Ottawa, Canada; from George, Kansas; and from Brooklyn, NY, among others. (more…)

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In case you’ve forgotten: Tomorrow is Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday.

In my recent post I wrote about the Romeo and Juliet Balcony Scene-Flash Mob event that the Folger is hosting on YouTube. We’ve gotten lots of questions and comments about this activity, and we’re hoping that you take the time to get your students to create this scene. (more…)

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By Mark Miazga

The International Baccalaureate (IB) English Higher Level curriculum and assessments are still an ideal place for Shakespeare, even though the revision of the curriculum a couple of years ago no longer makes his inclusion compulsory. While he does not fit into Part I Works in Translation of the curriculum (at least in an English speaking school), he works well in Detailed Study (Part II), Groups of Works (Part III), or Free Choice (Part IV).

I’ve been an IB English instructor for seven years, and have used Shakespeare plays each year, including Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Othello, and Richard III. I currently use Shakespeare in Detailed Study, and Shakespeare is, of course, ideal for close study. Furthermore, IB is interested in students knowing the implications of the genres that they are studying: for example, how the study of a Drama is different than studying a novel or non-fiction. They are not interested, so much, in students being able to write essays about, say, celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet or mirrors in Richard III. Instead, they want students to be able to analyze the choices that the playwright has made and how these choices create meaning.

With this in mind, putting students in the mind of the playwright – or a director or actor – is the best way to help students to do well on the IB assessments. The assessment for Detailed Study is a 10-minute oral discussion recorded with the teacher, and students will have to answer, without rehearsal or notes, authentic questions about the experience of reading the play. Therefore, putting students in authentic assessment experiences in the classroom – making them directors, letting them cut scenes, encouraging them to play around with the language and the setting, compelling them to think about and explain why they made the choices they made – is the best way to prepare students for an authentic 10-minute oral assessment about the play. (more…)

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