Graduate School Meditations · Professional Development

Dramaturgy with Santa Cruz Shakespeare: Public Humanities Summer Fellowship

Among the many ways they contribute to humanities research and graduate education, The Humanities Institute (THI) at UCSC offers a funding opportunity for graduate students to develop a public humanities project coordinated with a nonprofit public organization to expand their own understanding of humanities work in communities and to gain vital professional and non-academic experience.  This summer (2019) my application to work as the Dramaturg for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s (SCS) Fringe Intern Company’s production of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen was accepted for THI’s Summer Public Humanities Fellowship.  I joined the company mid-June and attended all rehearsals to provide textual support and research assistance under the mentorship of UCSC Professor Emeritus Michael Warren.  My work with the company was geared toward helping the Fringe Company make this challenging text legible and engaging to the public.  As an early career academic in the humanities, I also saw my position as an opportunity to contribute to the present and future success of these early career actors.

The Fringe Company faced particular challenges with performing this play.  The script had to be winnowed down to a specific time frame, an hour and a half.  Further, this play has about two dozen roles, many of which needed to be edited out to accommodate the size of the cast, five actors.  This meant each performer played multiple roles, which presented particular challenges to keeping the play’s content coherent, organizing the movement of bodies on stage, and managing quick changes between characters.  Given the limitations and limited resources for this production, what we managed to achieve was an astounding feat!

What is this play about?

The play that the Santa Cruz Shakespeare (SCS) Fringe Company is performing for the 2019 season is William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen.  Marginalized within the Shakespearean canon, perhaps for its nature as a collaboration, this is a timely work that thinks about important issues, such as consent, toxic masculinity, homosocial relationships, female power, visuality, and social order.  The play draws most directly from Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales (1400), which itself draws from Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze di Emilia (roughly 1341). It is difficult to tell what Boccaccio drew from, but the tale is clearly older and is told in the Thebaid, a Latin epic by Publius Papinius Statius (AD 45 – 96). Themes drawn from the Thebaid themselves reflect a connection to earlier Greek works, especially Sophocles Theban plays of which Antigone (circa 441 BCE) should come to mind as one reads Act I.


A late play for Shakespeare and an early play for Fletcher, this tragicomic work centers on two Theban “knights,” the bro-mantic cousins Palamon and Arcite, who fall in love with the same woman while imprisoned in the Athenian court of Theseus and Hippolyta, which of course troubles the kinsmen’s tight-knit relationship.  Theseus is known for vanquishing the Minotaur and escaping from the Labyrinth, and Hippolyta, his wife, was/is an Amazonian Queen, who has experienced a shift in her own lifestyle in order to marry.  Her sister, Emilia, the object of the kinsmen’s affections, is also an Amazon woman who is averse to relationships with men and seems most comfortable in a woman-centered culture.  Though she is hardly aware of or interested in the two noble kinsmen, the kinsmen fight over her informally and then formally in a battle-contest.  They get to this point by various routes, Arcite is released from the prison and exiled, while Palamon was freed from the jail by the Jailer’s Daughter, who fell deeply in love with him.  Though it is unclear whether he is aware of her feelings, or if he would even care, the Jailer’s Daughter goes on an emotional journey compelled by her illusory desire of Palamon.  Despite being promised to another, the Jailer’s Daughter increasingly reveals her instability and vulnerability after her attempts to reconnect with the freed Palamon never coalesce.  The play ends with a surprising resolution resulting in two marriages.

This production was incredibly successful due to the professionalism, dedication, and talent of the cast and crew.  Out of the constraints of cast size emerged a very interesting staging of this work.  Of particular note was the effect of the doubling of roles assigned to specific actors.  They played at least three roles each.  Certain plot lines and their associated themes were enhanced, complicated, and advanced by the presence of the body of and player in different roles and in different scenario.


Shakespeare Goes West

Much of the work that I did with the director early on was to think about the compatibility of the play with its setting, and some of the research that came out of our work can be explored in links below.  The Director, Dash Waterbury, has set the play in the “Old West.”  Our imagined time period is roughly 1865-1885, and the place, Oklahoma, a space where pioneer, settler, Native, and black communities were at a crossroads, especially in the post-war period.  Out of necessity, tight bonds would form across and against lines of difference in frontier environments, in the form of community protection and the maintenance of justice.  Juxtaposed with ancient Greece, the American frontier connotes a surprisingly analogous, mythical setting with similar codes of honor and social relations among small cohesive but independent communities in external and internal conflict.  Though, we may tend to think of European men going west in search of adventure and opportunities in the U.S. American frontier, this flow of people across the country was diverse in race and gender.  Women moved into these spaces in search of new lives and many found themselves entering into these spaces to fill social roles as willing wives in search of husbands.  They were also women seeking other kinds of freedom and opportunities offered by frontier life.  This is one way we have thought of Hippolyta and Theseus’ union in this setting, as well as Emilia’s predicament regarding marriage.  Women were also not just wives fulfilling social roles, but they were exceeding those prescribed roles in this particular social and cultural environment as rough outlaws (see interview transcript excerpts from Elizabeth Roe) or as tough working women, such as “Stagecoach Mary” Fields.


Dramaturgy in the Rehearsal Room

The dramaturgical work I completed with the Fringe Company was also done in part by attending daily rehearsals for eight weeks.  I assisted with table reading discussions of the play in the early stages, and I was present to consult with actors throughout the rehearsal process.  During this time I would clarify language, pronunciation, definitions, tricky passages, offer different perspectives on interpretation of passages to aid in the actor’s performance choices.  During this time, I would also consult with the director and actors to further refine the script and restore or cut lines that they were having particular trouble reconciling.


From Production to the Classroom

As much as I have learned about nonacademic career opportunities in dramaturgy, I like to think about all of my experiences as ways to enhance an academic career or career in instruction.  I learned that the relationship with a text during a performance is so different from my own experience as an academic literary specialist.  The questions asked of a text by a group of actors highlight the different needs and approaches to a text in certain environments.  Academics and students do not often get the luxury of spending weeks and weeks with a single textual object.  I want to work to bring some of the techniques I learned by working with a professional theater company into any future classrooms so that there can be more active and deep work with texts.

Voice Work / Text Work as Classroom Techniques

One exercise the actors performed was to take a snippet of text, 3-4 lines.  A key portion of a monologue works well.  You want to have three copies of the snippet.  Taking copy 1, cut up the lines into its individual words.  Put them in a pile and mix them up.  Spend time repeating each word, thinking about that word, feeling that word until the pile has been moved through.  Taking copy 2, cut the paper into its lines.  Mix those in a pile and spend time repeating each line, thinking about each line, and feeling each line until the pile has been moved through.  Finally take the last copy and read it the whole thing out loud a few times.

If using this activity in a classroom when working with dramatic texts (poetry and other texts would work just as well), ask folks to reflect on each experience of closely examining a character’s words.  What thoughts did they have?  What changed? What do these words tell them about who, what, when, where, and why those words were used?  One thing to notice is the small words and how important they can be.  For example, a character who uses “of” a lot may be signaling something of themselves in these words, as well as the other words, that we might pay more attention.

One course that I was an instructional assistant for offered students the opportunity to create short videos of themselves performing a short monologue in lieu of writing activities.  This is an excellent idea worth remembering.  One might even have students who did not perform and record videos write analyses of the choices made in delivering the monologue.

Dramaturgy & Theatrical Production In the Classroom

When examining a dramatic work in an academic classroom, a good activity would be to ask students to produce some research information that would be useful to someone trying to perform the play.  What references or historical contexts do they need to understand?  What do they need to know about the author? Etc.

Once students have read a complete play script, put them in groups and ask them to make a plan about how they would stage it?  Where and when would they set it?  How would they cast it?  Have them explain why they made the choices they did.

A useful writing task would be to pose a theatrical production scenario that involves responding professionally and cautiously to the play’s director/stage manager.  The director wants to make X change to play Y.  You are the dramaturg, and you disagree with the choice being made.  Write an email that defends your choice by quoting the text and offering clear and persuasive explanations.


You are the dramaturg in a production of this play, and there is a production or script change you think would really be a good idea.  Write an email that defends your choice by quoting the text and offering clear and persuasive explanations.  Perhaps this could be a group activity where groups are assigned specific but different scenarios.  After drafting an argument and explanation, they could present it to the group and see if folks agree.