Episode 104: Why Shakespeare Today – Postcards From Shakespeare
Theatrefolk Playwright Allison Williams talks about her attraction to Shakespeare adaptations, why students should study the bard today, her best tips for acting and directing Shakespeare and her newest play Postcards From Shakespeare.
Video: Shakespeare’s British accent is closer to the Southern US
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
This is Episode 104 and you can find all the links – and there will be links today – at theatrefolk.com/episode104 and I want to point out a very special link in those show notes, DramaTeacherAcademy.com. What is that you ask? Stay tuned to the end of the podcast and I’ll tell you all about it.
Today, I’m talking to Theatrefolk playwright, Allison Williams. Allison and I go way back. It’s a wonderful rollicking conversation, as all our conversations are, and we’re going to talk about the question, “Why Shakespeare?” So, let’s find out!
Lindsay: All right. Hello, everyone! Thanks for joining me here on the podcast and today I have a very special guest, Allison Williams. Hello!
Lindsay: Now, I do this with most of our podcast guests, but I think this one is pretty interesting. Please, tell everybody where you are sitting right now.
Allison: I am in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East, yeah.
Lindsay: Yeah, that’s pretty unique.
Allison: It’s kind of cool. I’m here as a freelance writer and a journalist and there’s some really interesting things happening right now around here that I’m sure many of you are seeing in the news and that I’m excited to discover more of the human face of which brings us to Shakespeare!
Lindsay: Oh, you’re the best!
Allison: How about that segue?
Lindsay: How about that segue! So, Allison has been a Theatrefolk staple for many, many years. Many of you, I’m sure, have read her work that we love to have in our catalogue, all the way back to – and I’m not saying the year because it’s too frightening to think about.
Allison: We’ve known each other for a beautiful long friendship.
Lindsay: That’s right, but her first play with us was Hamlette which some people affectionately call Hamlettie.
Allison: Hamlette, Hamlette, Princess of Denmark.
Lindsay: That’s right. And then, we also have Mmmbeth because we do not say…
Allison: Don’t say it!
Lindsay: We don’t say the Scottish play’s name. We have Drop Dead, Juliet! where Juliet decides she’s tired of the death – less death, more love.
Allison: Love stories end with weddings, not with funerals.
Lindsay: Exactly! Do you know how hard it is to take blood out of a dress?
And then, her brand new play that we have, and I hold in my hot little hands, it’s still fresh off the press and that is Postcards from Shakespeare. So, we’re going to talk about Postcards from Shakespeare in just a little bit. But the first thing we want to talk about and I want to talk about with you, Allison, is why Shakespeare Why does Shakespeare tickle you so much that you choose to adapt it over and over again?
Allison: Oh, man, I love Shakespeare. It is the greatest material ever and people always say, you know, Shakespeare is eternal and I think about why and it’s like, “Oh, because he writes the same stuff that we all deal with – love, sex, death, fear, power. You know, and his language, it’s elevated for us, but it was common language at the time, and that’s why I love doing the spoofs because it points out how current Shakespeare is.
You know, A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a sporting event. Well, it’s teams of people running through the woods, each of them fighting for possession, you know? And commentating is exactly what Puck does in the play. So, my hope is that, when the actors work with this material, it’ll not only be fun, but it will give them greater insight into the original play.
And, I mean, you look at a play like Measure for Measure, nobody does Measure for Measure – nobody – and you’re not going to do it in your high school any time soon, you know? But the idea that this duke says, “Hey, sleep with me and I’ll state your brother’s execution,” and he says that to a nun and she goes to her brother and he says, “Well, you’re going to do it, right?” and that’s something we can all identify with – not that we’re nuns or dudes in jail, but we’ve all been in a position where we had to decide whether or not to compromise our morals to help out a friend, you know? And I think that’s why Shakespeare is so powerful because he’s dealing with the same things that all of humanity is dealing with.
Lindsay: You know, Romeo and Juliet, I always say it’s not about that language; it’s about a boy and a girl who fell in love with each other and they weren’t supposed to. That’s what every high school student is going through!
Allison: Yeah! Yeah! You know, “Must close chat window. Parent over shoulder.”
Lindsay: And I’m totally with you on that whole notion of universality. So, with that though, the news keeps coming over and over again. Should we be studying Shakespeare? Should Shakespeare be in the classroom? And this not only comes from the students; it comes from the teachers. Teachers don’t want to teach Shakespeare.
So, how do we keep it fresh and why? Why should we study Shakespeare?
Allison: I think studying Shakespeare gives us an appreciation for beautiful language. We can then take into the language that is our colloquial language today. I think, when we do teach Shakespeare, it’s really important to stress that, at the time, this was not elevated language. This was common language. This was everyday language. This was colloquial language. And I think there’s a lot of advantages to looking at the different ways different characters speak and pointing out, you know, this guy is supposed to be speaking like a redneck hick, you know, and this is what about his speech tells us that.
Lindsay: Hey, and I’m going to put this link in the show notes but I just saw this really awesome YouTube video in which this woman basically outlines that, you know what, Shakespeare actually sounds like people from the south – about the way that language has changed and that, when they came over from England, you know, on the Mayflower into Virginia and it moves into Alabama and Arkansas and Georgia, that that drawl and that lengthening of tones is actually closer to the way that Shakespeare speaks than that posh accent of today.
Allison: Oh, yeah, Queen Elizabeth sounded like Jeff Foxworthy.
Lindsay: But, if we could get that into students, you know, that’s something that they can hold on to – that it is close to them, it is relevant to them.
Allison: I think it’s an important thing to try in the language of Shakespeare because, nowadays, we’re so used to, “Oh, it’s CGI. It’s a stuntman.” But, when we actually speak the language, when we read it aloud, when we play it, when we hear it, it lets us take it into ourselves in a way that watching a movie does not let us take it into ourselves.
And, I mean, so much of Shakespeare is about masquerading. Like, in the play, I have this joke, you know, “No one will know I’m a girl if I put on this hat,” and it’s a recurring joke but I think that says something greater – that we’re trying to hide our true selves out of fear or out of wanting to be something that the one we love will want, but we’re not as hidden as we think we are. And, in some ways, that’s also about acting, about pretending that we are someone with power or pretending that we are someone with courage.
And I think the greatness of Shakespeare’s characters – the nobility of some of his characters – I think that play acting those characters, play acting people more powerful than ourselves helps us try on power and helps us try on courage. And I think that’s why it’s important to read it out loud and to teach it.
Lindsay: Well, there you’re hitting on something else, too – that we have got to a place, particularly in our English classrooms where Shakespeare isn’t read aloud, where it’s that silent reading and that is the death, you know?
Allison: In Shakespeare’s day, people didn’t say, “I’m going to watch a play.” They said, “I’m going to hear a play.” The sound was primary. The sound was the most important part.
Lindsay: Well, that’s what they had, right? You know, if they’re standing in the globe theatre, you know?
Allison: No stage lights.
Lindsay: No stage lights and, if you’re one of the groundlings and you’re in the pit, you know, and you’re craning your neck, maybe you’ve got someone tall in front of you, what are you actually seeing? Shakespeare is very much an aural experience and I think that’s something that maybe is a great exercise to really hit home in your classroom is to take a speech – take To Be or Not To Be or whatever it is you’re studying – and hit what are the sounds and what are the vowels and what happens, like, how many O’s are there in a speech and how does that incorporate into the emotion when you are really chewing on those words.
Allison: And reading it out loud makes it so much more understandable. You know, I mean, not necessarily for your high school classroom but, when you read it out loud, you also kind of figure out where the dirty jokes are, too – and Shakespeare is full of them.
Lindsay: That’s my favorite. When I talk to teachers and, you know, they talk about all the subjects that they can’t say and all the subjects that they can’t do. In the modern plays, you know, we get it all the time about, “Oh, we have to cut such and such and such and such,” and then, we say, “Well, what about Shakespeare?” and it’s usually, “Well, the administration is not quite…”
Allison: They haven’t caught on yet.
Lindsay: That language is rife with, oh, the worst – the worst!
Lindsay: The dirtiest!
Allison: Well, I mean, Hamlet basically calls Ophelia a ho.
Lindsay: Oh, and more! You know, there are other words which shall not named here that he calls her.
Allison: Oh, yeah. Yeah, totally. Totally, yeah. That whole scene where they’re watching the play and he wants to put his head in her lap. Oh, man.
Allison: See? And I think, in some ways, that can be a fun way to engage your students is, you know, you don’t have to tell them explicitly what it is, but you can say to them, “You know, this is a scene that, for some teachers in the past, was considered controversial because it’s a little bit dirty.” You know? “So, see if you guys can think what parts of it might be a little bit dirty,” and that makes them pay closer attention to the language. You know, you know your class, don’t start them on a rabbit that they’re going to have, you know, too much fun running, but it can be a really interesting exercise.
Lindsay: And, also, we’ll bring up here that, you know, all schools have their rules which, you know, are following and you don’t want to lose your job.
Allison: Please abide by your local regulations.
Lindsay: Exactly so. You don’t want to lose your job because you got students to point out a certain word in a scene in Hamlet. So, that would be the most ironic. So, let’s not do that. However, this is how you bring Shakespeare to life. You read it out loud. You focus on the fact that it is not dusty – this language is actually very ribald. The fact that it’s the stories that we want to connect to.
Allison: And that’s why I love writing the spoof versions because I think the students have a much greater understanding of the major play, the regular play, when they’ve done the spoof. You know, it’s not only fun to do but it also gives them some insight into the original. You know, let’s lay bare Lady M’s motivations. She wants to throw the best party in the kingdom. Well, that’s functionally what she wants, you know? It’s just expressed in more heightened language.
Lindsay: And, also, too, is that a lot of times we will have customers who do, for example, the spoof version, Mmmbeth, and then they’ll also do an original language adaptation, you know?
Lindsay: And that we hear from teachers that the seeing the spoof version just opened up every door – not only for the students who were in the play, but for the students who watched the play.
Allison: Yeah. Suddenly, they understood what’s going on and it’s so much easier to return to the text and start reading it when you already understand what’s happening and you can watch for the clues in the language.
Lindsay: Okay. So, you have acted in Shakespeare and you have directed Shakespeare. Let’s do both. As an actor of Shakespeare, when you are preparing a role, what do you think is your most valuable tool?
Allison: That Shakespeare is incredibly easy to memorize. We look at iambic pentameter and we kind of beat it out like a rhythm, you know? And we never really let students know why it’s in iambic pentameter. Well, it’s in iambic pentameter because it makes it easy to memorize. I mean, Shakespeare is the easiest lines to memorize I have ever had because they have that rhythm – they have that rhythm of natural speech.
There’s a great story I love that one of my Shakespeare teachers told me and she was a nun – she was a teaching nun – and she was explaining to the class about iambic pentameter and one of the kids said, “But, sister, we don’t talk like that in life.” But, sis-ter, we, don’t talk, like that, in life.
Allison: You know? And so, I think Shakespeare has given these incredible tools and, also, if you observe the punctuation in Shakespeare, that also gives you clues as to what to do with the acting. I think you guys are planning on, at some point, doing a course with that in your Drama Teacher Academy. But just this idea that there are clues in the text for how to act, how to behave, and in Shakespeare, there’s no subtext, you know? Anytime anybody thinks something or feels something, it comes right out of their mouth and they announce it to the audience, and that’s so useful for actors.
Lindsay: And, as a director, when you are directing Shakespeare, for all of our teachers out there who may be afraid of taking on directing the bard, what’s your good tip for directing Shakespeare?
Allison: Table work.
Sometimes, it’s hard to make table work fun so you might want to do just a little bit of it at a time unless you really are into it and your students are into it. But just sitting around a table, reading each line out loud, and making sure that everyone knows what it means can be really important and it really helps the students identify their characters and understand what they’re saying. So then, when they get up and start acting, it’s so much easier for them because they’re not trying to navigate the set and their fellow actor and the text. They’ve already navigated the text and they’re able to start acting it.
So, I really think sitting down and going through the language is very useful and very valuable and saves a lot of heartache later on when you look at a student and say, “Billy, do you know what you’re saying there?” and Billy goes, “Nuh uh.”
Lindsay: That’s a pretty good clue. I think talking head syndrome is an issue sometimes with the Shakespeare play. What’s a good tip to give to teachers in terms of blocking Shakespeare?
Allison: Again, I would say pay attention to the clues in the text. There are times when a character says, “Keep seat,” which means the other person just started to stand up – that gives you some clues. But I’d also recommend to have some fun with it.
I mean, yes, there are directors who say, “If I never see another Old West Taming of the Shrew it will be too soon.” But it can be really helpful to lay a contemporary theme over your Shakespeare. It gives the actors ideas for what to do because it ties it closer to a situation where they know what the action would be. You know, if you’re doing an Old West Taming of the Shrew, that tells you something about how Petruchio walks into town and slams open the saloon doors.
If you’re doing modern gang Romeo and Juliet, it gives them an idea of who these people are and what these characters are like and I think that brings the play to life for the audience as well as for the actors.
So, you know, some people are kind of like, you know, “Just do the play.” But I think it’s more fun when we draw the parallel relationships a little bit more clearly to the audience and to the actors.
Lindsay: Awesome. That’s great. Okay. Let’s get into Postcards from Shakespeare. What’s the premise behind this play?
Allison: Shakespeare is suffering from writer’s block and he suffers from it right there on-stage with it acted out and we kind of see that he’s having a hard time writing and Queen Elizabeth – who is his friend – gives him some money and says, “Dude, go on vacation and see if you can get some new ideas.” And then, the rest of the play is Shakespeare sketching out on postcards these new ideas for the Queen.
Lindsay: Yes, and it goes back and forth, and he sends her letters of the idea. He goes to Denmark and sort of roughs out Hamlet. He goes to Verona. He goes to Egypt, Venice, and so we kind of get to see the genesis of writing process in a spoofy way.
Allison: Yeah, it really is, it really is, and I like this idea that I kind of point up how Shakespeare recycled plots and recycled tropes in a way that writers do.
Lindsay: I love that!
Allison: One of the great joys for me was being able to put in plays that most people are not familiar with and still have it be a joke.
You know, there’s a moment in the Troilus and Cressida scene when Troilus and Cressida are talking about, you know, “It’s the morning. I hear the lark. Please, don’t leave me,” and Troilus says, “Whoa whoa whoa! Wait a minute. Larks dawn. Please don’t leave me? Haven’t we heard all this before?” and Shakespeare says, “No, no, no, no, no. This is a completely different play about two teenagers whose families try to keep them apart. In this one, you live, and everyone else dies.”
Lindsay: See? I love that because I’ve read Troilus and Cressida and I kind of forgot about that and literally went, “Holy smokes!” and went running back to the script and kind of looked and went, “It’s the same play!” and then, the whole idea of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedict are older couples who don’t get along which is kind of like Taming the Shrew where we have two older couples who don’t get along.
Allison: I have to say, one of my favorite moments in the entire play is Richard the Second storms in and we’ve just seen the Welsh army cross over and run off-stage and Richard the Second storms in and he’s like, “I know I had 10,000 soldiers around here somewhere,” and Queen Elizabeth says, “How did he lose a whole army?” and Shakespeare says, “It makes sense in context,” and Elizabeth says, “I didn’t read the whole thing,” and Shakespeare says, “Nobody else has either.”
I love that, you know, because I originally started writing this as a full-length before I took it to a competition length. My original intent was to include every single play and, I have to say, I am really, really happy that I got in Pericles and Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.
Lindsay: You know, I quite like that. Oh, and way more, like The Winter’s Tale, the Henrys – we’ve got Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. You know, at the high school age, there’s really a very small cannon of Shakespeare that students do and can do. I think Julius Caesar is a great play. I love Julius Caesar! But how many high schools have one girl and forty guys? Like, it just doesn’t happen and, you know, how many Midsummer Night’s Dreams have we seen?
Allison: Because Midsummer Night’s Dream has eight leads and half of them are women.
Lindsay: Well, the other half you can make women.
Allison: Yeah, exactly.
Lindsay: So, what I really like about this play, it just gives an opportunity within the realm – it is written for the high school market – and that it’s got a wonderfully large cast and that we can just sort of visit some plays that they never would visit in a wonderful comedic fashion.
Allison: Yeah, and in a way that’s funny.
Like, one of the really rewarding experiences for me was I read the initial draft of this play with a group of students in Utah – shout out to Weber High School. Thank you, guys. Thank you, Mr. Daniels. And, at the end of the reading, the teacher came up to me and he was actually kind of embarrassed – bless him – you know, he said, “I’m so embarrassed that they didn’t know half of these plays. They couldn’t pronounce the names,” and I’m like, “Dude, they laughed at all of the jokes.”
That was the great feedback that I got from them. They were like, you know, “We don’t know all of these plays, but it was still funny.” That, for me, was like the biggest and most fun challenge in writing it – making it funny and including a whole bunch of really obscure plays and making it many girls.
Lindsay: Yes, many girls – as many girls as you need. Do you hear that, schools? Many girls.
Talk about the process for writing this. So, you’ve got your Shakespeare – that’s not easy – and it’s also comedy and I think comedy is way harder. Of the two, it’s the hardest to write. So, what’s your process when you are working on a play like this?
Allison: Well, when I’m writing a Shakespeare spoof, the first thing I do is re-read at least some of the original and I also look for a summary of the original that I usually find online and kind of look and go, “Okay. What are the key scenes that I really want to have in here?” You know, “How can I tell this story in the fewest possible scenes?”
I kick out the famous lines because it’s good to have the famous lines in there; and I pick out lines that make me, as the actor, or me, as the director, go, “Wait. Wait. You said what?” because I think those are some great moments of comedy; and I look for stuff that can be taken literally.
There’s a moment in Postcards from Shakespeare where Antigonus yells out as he’s leaving the stage, “Exit pursued by a bear,” and Queen Elizabeth says, “Nobody can afford to put a bear on-stage.” For me, the joke is the actor for me that we’ve got this famous stage direction but, really, who’s going to put a bear on-stage?
From that point, I try to draft it out into scenes and then make there be some kind of overarching framework that gives somebody something that they want and then I read it out loud with students and I make smiley faces every time they laugh at the line. Then, I go home and I look through, and any page that does not have at least three smiley faces on it needs more jokes and I deliberately write more jokes for any page with not enough smileys.
Lindsay: It’s the dreaded “this play has half a smiley on it.”
Lindsay: “This page has half a smiley on it.”
Allison: This page has half a smiley, yeah, because there’s this theory that, you know, if you have entertained the audience, they will stay with you for as long as they were entertained. So, if they’re laughing really hard for three minutes, they’re with you for three more minutes until you have to be funny again. So, you really have to pay attention and make sure that the laughs keep coming. And I really do that in a kind of a precise and technical way.
You know, some of it is, “Wooh! It’s funny! What’s going on here?” you know? And just riffing. And some of it is, “Okay. I need a line that responds to this and it needs to end with chicken so that I can bring out a rubber chicken.” Side note: there is no rubber chicken in this play. But, if you would like to put one in, feel free. You know? And so, it gets very technical.
Lindsay: It is very. I think comedy is very technical for just that precise reason and it’s all about rhythm and beats.
Allison: It really is. And, you know, you’ve got to end a sentence that’s a punch line on a downbeat. You’ve got to end with a hard consonant whenever you can. You know, there’s a reason why a word that ends in “ck” is very popular with comedians. You know, it’s got a funny sound. It’s a punctuating word. You know, and so, you restructure.
I just started doing Twitter a couple of weeks ago and that’s a way that Twitter has really helped me. I start writing this really funny line and then, all of a sudden, I’m out of characters so I have to go back and go, “Okay. How can I restructure this to be as funny as possible in the shortest amount of time?”
Lindsay: It’s very technical and it’s very, like, “Okay. Joke, joke, joke,” but your ending is not funny. It’s very powerful and it’s very poignant and, if you guys want to see the ending, you’re going to have to go find the play. But I don’t lie – and Allison knows that I tell the truth when it comes to her work that it made me tear up.
Allison: It made me tear up writing it.
Lindsay: I’ll bet! And that’s a credit to, when comedy works, you know, there’s a difference between a sketch and a play. A sketch it a moment and a play is a journey. That’s what we’ve got here in this play – that Shakespeare gets to the end and he is able to move on and how his work has helped him – finding these works have helped him and that’s an interesting note.
Allison: Yeah, and for me it really reflects some of my process as a writer, too. You know, this constant like, “Is this good enough? Is this good enough? Is this good enough?” and I think that, when we’re playing comedy on a stage, I think we satisfy the audience because so much of comedy is about people trying desperately to get something they want and not getting it, and I think we satisfy the audience when, at the end, somebody gets it – they receive what they have been fighting for and what we have been rooting for them to have – and I think that makes it a very satisfying play to watch, I hope, and to do.
Lindsay: I think so, too.
Wonderful talk, Allison! Again, I’m amazed by the technology as I’m sitting here in Ontario, Canada and you are sitting on basically the other side of the world. And yet, here we are having a conversation about the power of Shakespeare – the power of technology, the power of Shakespeare – I think that’s a lovely note to end on. So, thank you so much!
Allison: Thank you for having me.
I love talking to Allison. Thank you very much She always has something to say and I encourage you to go check out her new play, Postcards from Shakespeare, and you can catch the links to all of Allison’s plays in the show notes – theatrefolk.som/episode104.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
All right. If I had a trumpet, I would be using it right now!
Today is the day! Today is the day! Woohoo!
Today is the day for our brand new product launch, our brand new project that Craig and I have been working on for, oh, months and months and months now. It is the Drama Teacher Academy.
What is the Drama Teacher Academy? Well, let me tell you because I’m thrilled to bits, I’m very excited, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.
So, DTA, it is the premier spot for workshops on demand, specifically designed for Drama teachers. If you want to move forward as a Drama teacher, improve your skills, it’s all about professional development. If you want to take charge of your professional development, consider becoming a member because that’s what DTA is.
The Drama Teacher Academy is a professional development membership site just for Drama teachers where you’re going to have access to workshops on demand and lesson plans that you can take into your classroom because, as a teacher, I know that you know this: you should never stop learning, right? Even an experienced teacher can learn new things.
And what makes the workshop useful are practical applications – hints, tips, exercises – that you can use with your students. Every DTA course answers the question, “How can I use this in my classroom?”
And the courses are taught in multiple ways. We have video for them, but you don’t have to watch video. If your computer doesn’t play videos very well, or maybe you don’t have the time, that’s okay. We want you to learn the material at a pace and through a method that works best for you. You can learn at your own pace. You can watch the videos on computer, you can download an MP3, put it on your iPod, listen on your way to work, multitask. You can download and print the transcript. You can read, you know, when you have a moment here or there.
Some of the classes that we are going to be launching with is:
An Introduction to Teaching Mask with Allison Williams who you just heard from, Postcards from Shakespeare;
Organized Chaos: Discipline in the Theatre Classroom with Matt Webster. Classroom management is such a very relevant topic these days. How do we manage these theatre classes that seem so chaotic and out of control? How can we make them creative and fun but also manageable?
From Audition to Curtain Call: Directing Youth Theatre with Steven Stack. Are you a first-time director? Do you have no idea how to go from audition to show? Are you an experienced director and you want a refresher course?
And then, from me, Top Ten Playwriting Exercises; I find that, sometimes, students jump into the deep end with their writing and then just dive into that big script and it falters and they don’t know why. It’s because they haven’t practiced the craft. They haven’t worked up to being ready to write a play. Like, when someone is learning to play basketball, they have to learn how to dribble. When you learn how to swim, you don’t throw someone into the deep end.
You learn the skills. You learn the elements first and that’s what we’re going to do.
So, all you have to do, go to the show notes, Episode 104. Go to Drama Teacher Academy, all one word – DramaTeacherAcademy.com. Learn more. Become a member and learn.
Finally, where, oh, where? Where can you find this podcast? Well, we post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.