"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shakespeare Conference–NOT International Development

I am attending the Blackfriars Shakespeare Conference in Staunton, Virginia, a small town in the Shenandoahs.  Staunton was an important town in early American history:

Because the town was located at the geographical center of the colony (which then included West Virginia), Staunton served between 1738 and 1771 as regional capital for what was known as the Northwest Territory, with the westernmost courthouse in British North America prior to the Revolution  By 1760, Staunton was one of the major "remote trading centers in the backcountry" which coordinated the transportation of the vast amounts of grain and tobacco then being produced in response to the change of Britain from a net exporter of produce to an importer. Staunton thus played a crucial role in the mid 18th century expansion of the economies of the American Colonies which, in turn, contributed to the success of the American Revolution. Located along the Valley Pike, Staunton developed as a trade, transportation and industrial center, particularly after the Virginia Central Railroad arrived in 1854. It served as capital of Virginia when legislators fled Richmond and then Charlottesville to avoid capture by the British.  (Wikipedia)

Many of the old industrial buildings of the 19th century remain and turned partially to modern use.  My favorite restaurant (Ahhh…the ribs!) is the Mill Street Grill on the ground floor of an old mill building by the railroad tracks and grain silos.  The town has one main street but has not been gussied and prettified, and there is a view of the mountains from the main street.  It is the home of Mary Baldwin College, a private, formerly women’s college but now coed, atop one of the many hills of the city.  The college is a major benefactor of Blackfriars and the American Shakespeare Center which puts on plays in a theatre fashioned after the old Elizabethan  Blackfriars Playhouse.

There are about 150 attendees at the conference from various universities throughout the country.  Although the Staunton Center is small and minor compared to Shakespeare companies in major cities, Mary Baldwin and Staunton volunteers have progressively built the reputation of the Center and especially the conference.  The program lasts five days with papers, colloquies, readings, guest speakers, and theatre performance.  I have been told by a number of the attendees (who make the rounds of these conferences as part of their university duties), that it is one of the best.

I am one of three non-university attendees, and the only one with no credentials whatsoever.  I am here because of my one year immersion in Shakespeare since retirement and my plans to teach two plays of Shakespeare in Mississippi this coming Spring Semester at Mississippi University for Women.   I am an oddity, pretty much like being a Yankee in a small Southern town (Columbus, MS where I spent two months this summer at the Tennessee Williams Centennial Tribute and where I will return in the Spring).  A friendly handshake, a quick look at my nametag, conspicuously barren and naked with only my name, and then polite nods at my reasons for coming.

I have already learned a lot in one full day of presentations – why did Shakespeare write in prose and verse and when did he decide to use one or the other (‘an area for exploration and continuing research’) but a question that has always perplexed me.  Some reasons were given by the presenter – for example, prose or blank verse was used to interrupt the verse of another, grounding him/her or reversing a trajectory that the prose speaker did not like – but no one went further, explaining the long passages of prose in many plays, passages that were not limited to lower-class speakers (often done by Shakespeare).

I learned more about Shakespeare’s audiences.  I have always wondered who attended.  I assumed that they had to be very highly educated to appreciate the iambic pentameter verses, the sophisticated wordplay, and the classical and Biblical references; and I was told that this, too, was another area of great debate.  However, it was known that there were many young male apprentices for the law and other professions who had been educated at grammar schools which, said one attendee, “produced graduates who by age ten knew more than most classical scholars today”.  This should have been obvious to me, for Shakespeare wrote plays which he wanted produced so he could earn an income; and why would he write over the audience’s heads?  Apparently tickets were priced according to the seating, and there were seats affordable to patrons without much education.  Much of the play would indeed be over their heads, but going to the theatre was very common for all in Elizabethan days, Shakespeare wrote sections of most plays for the lower classes, and there would be something to enjoy.  In the same vein Shakespeare put music and dance in his plays to add to the appeal.

The staging of Shakespeare’s plays in Elizabethan times was not at all like ours.  There could be incidental people on the stage, part of the audience.  There was music, circus-type acts, and other theatrical elements in addition to the play itself. 

The question of the length of Shakespeare’s plays and whether the longer ones were edited (the number of lines in Hamlet means a 4-hour play, it is almost always cut for modern audiences).  The presenter thought that they were not – why would Shakespeare write a play which he knew would be cut?  The debate continues.

There were the usual very academic presentations – the meaning of “Ha!” as a theatrical tool; sound and acoustical psychology in providing context for tragedy; etc. – but all in all, accessible, sensible presentations.

It was a delight to be in a universally intelligent crowd.  At least judging from the many questions asked of each presenter – none were stupid or self-serving, and all were relevant, insightful, and challenging – it was as removed from a conference on international development as you can get. There was no jargon, no ‘mission-driven’, irrelevant projects from the hinterland; no hackneyed, repetitive calls for ‘participatory engagement’, community ‘buy-in’, ‘partners’, ‘ownership’, and ‘results-oriented frameworks’. 

I think for all the criticism I have made concerning academics and their narrow focus on increasingly irrelevant issues – there have been hundreds of thousands of PhD dissertations written in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote, if not more; and it must be quite a challenge to find something new – it is perhaps this singular focus that makes conferences such as these far more interesting than those of my past life.  In development conferences there was a rigid canon dictated by USAID and presentations were how well or poorly projects performed based on that canon.  There is no premium paid by USAID for innovation or creativity or ingenuity – just show how the (unrealistic) objectives were met – so no project experience to show new thinking.  Therefore, no one can stand up and demonstrate how the canon was successfully challenged, or a radical new idea was tested and proven.   In literature, you can dig and scrape for a new interpretation and theory and subject it to the critical review of your peers.  You get accepted, laughed at, or dunned out of the academy; but at least you saw something modestly original.

It’s nice to hear laughter at the sessions.  OK, a lot of it is laughter at old in jokes, a higher than necessary hilarity at stupid literary puns, but still, there is room for some kind of humor.  Not so at development conferences.  There is an unfortunate sanctity about the business because hungry, sick, abused, or abandoned children are not laughing matters.  There is a cloak of seriousness wrapped around the entire business when of course there is plenty to laugh at.  I would have loved to see some satirical sketches about the whole aid business, poking fun at NGOs who are out to save the world or at the bureaucrats who run it.  Never offend The Client (USAID).  Let’s face it, ‘Seen one Third World Country, Seen them all’, and no one in my long career ever admitted publically that not only were the projects designed all the same, but the countries problems were all the same.  Which is why I always refused to go on field trips and insisted that you could write a good proposal from the comforts of Washington, especially in the Age of the Internet.  The religious NGOs with their cant and devotion were ripe for skewering.  The self-contradictory for-profit agencies, ridiculously trying to blend the bottom line with do-good mission were others.  The backward, venal, stubborn, and greedy community leaders could have been pilloried just like our outrageous preachers and social activists.  The list is long.

I had been told that most of the attendees at the conference would be women.  The older white guys were retiring, affirmative action had promoted women, and the softer disciplines, like literature would be more female anyway.  Not true.  The conference is completely mixed, grayer, and with one or two exceptions, plug ugly and totally clueless about looking good.  Very logical.  You do not get into an abstruse corner of academia if you value other than your mind.  This is not advertising or fashion after all.   Public health is a real woman-dominated field, and perhaps 75 percent of all conference attendees, employees in the industry are women.  Which for me has always been a good thing. These MPHs were not exactly well turned-out fashion plates, but many steps above the squirrelled-away academic, hunched over a rare manuscript at a carrel in the stacks of the university library.   I was very unhappy at the World Bank where I was in the Urban, Infrastructure, and Water and Sanitation Departments – all engineers, all men, all creaming their jeans over static heads, and elegant solutions to toilets.

This is the beginning of Day Three, and I am looking forward to it.  More of the same, but the conference organizers have been very creative – lots of related diversions…A bit like the old Shakespeare productions, I should think.

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