Behind the Scenes

News from the Dramaturg

Posted by Char Manlove-Laws at 12:12PM   |  Add a comment

Recently I sat down with Jenny Mann, a professor at Cornell University, to discuss the historical elements of Measure for Measure. Jenny Mann’s focus is with sixteenth and seventeenth century English Literature. She obtained her bachelors from Yale University followed by her Masters and PHD from Northwestern University. She has a special teaching interest in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama. In asking her about the play, she stated, “[Measure for Measure] is just one of the plays that keep you on the edge of your seat and you can hardly believe what you are seeing.”

-Char Manlove-Laws, Dramaturg


D:            Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare later in his life. In reading his past works, what about his writing style has changed over time?

JM:         I don’t know that I see changes in the poetry. What people often say about Measure for Measure is that it comes at the end of a series of festive comedies that he wrote, including Much Ado about Nothing and it’s just before he started producing, almost exclusively, tragedies, like MacBeth.  Measure for Measure seems to be a transitional play, in terms of its genre and plot structure; it does seem to suggest the playwright [was] turning his mind to thornier issues.

D:            Speaking of the playwright turning his mind to darker issues Measure for Measure is in a genre of its own and it has been categorized as a problem play? How did this term come into use?

JM:         A scholar named Boas in 1896 wrote a study called Shakespeare & his Predecessor. In this study he labeled three plays as problem plays [because they] were so singular in theme and temper that they couldn’t be labeled “strictly a comedy” or “strictly a tragedy”. This label had first been applied to the plays of Ibsen, taking a category that was developed to refer to 19th century drama and applying it to a much earlier drama.

The thing to understand about problem plays is it’s not a category that would have been meaningful to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Measure for Measure is unsettling and referring to it as a comedy doesn’t seem to allow us to wrap our minds around what is happening in the play.

D:            It was thought by the production team that Shakespeare wrote this play as a way of guiding the new King, James I. Through your research of Shakespeare’s life, is there evidence to support this theory?

JM:         Not really. This passage Measure for Measure comes from the Sermon on the Mount, In the reformation period, this “judge not, lest he be judge” passage got a lot of attention in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It essentially says, “Don’t take responsibility for meeting out justice.” If you are executing justice on earth…you are transgressing the authority of God.

D:            What do you think a modern audience should walk away having learned from Measure for Measure?

JM:         The difficulty of reading any of Shakespeare plays for a message is so often they present multiple points of view. It’s hard to know which one, if any, is being advocated for.  It was an old story already when Shakespeare did it, but there is something kind of gripping about this plot.

Posted by Katlyn Rapini at 6:19PM   |  Add a comment
William Shakespeare

 In the creation of this production, the creative team was faced with several questions. Where are we? What are the rules of this world? Does Measure for Measure lend itself more to the genre of tragedy or comedy?

One of the major questions we encountered was, why did William Shakespeare write this play? It is a question often discussed among readers, theater-makers, and scholars. Since we don’t have the luxury of asking the playwright himself, or referencing any other primary sources that deal with this question, the answer is a matter of interpretation. To help imagine why, we conducted considerable research and engaged in many discussions.

In 1603, following the death of Queen Elizabeth, King James IV of Scotland became King James I of England. By the time James I ascended to the throne, England had been experiencing more than fifty years of harsh religious persecution. As a result, they were desperately hoping a new king, moreover a new dynasty, would bring an end to their suffering. Sadly, in the first few months of his reign, King James I made several displays of weak leadership, for example, liberally granting over 300 knighthoods, and living an extravagant lifestyle while his people continued to live in poverty. England needed a ruler who could be strong without being tyrannical. Although James did sometimes practice temperance, he was often brutal.

On December 26, 1604 Measure for Measure was first performed in the banqueting hall at Whitehall Palace. Among the audience members sat King James I, a devoted supporter of the playwright William Shakespeare. Today, after much textual analysis and historical study, many have theorized that Measure for Measure was meant to be a “lesson” for the new king. The character of the Duke is seen to represent King James as a ruler who wants to help his country but has not been successful in doing so. To avoid having the lesson be too obvious, the play’s setting is ambiguous. We know that the show is set in Vienna, yet through the names of certain characters, there appears to be an Italian influence as well. It seems that Shakespeare purposefully avoided an exact setting in order to steer clear of political persecution. In the end, our team concluded with this theory and used it as the foundation for the creative process.

Just as Shakespeare was unclear as to where his play took place, the time and location of our production are also a bit cryptic. This concept was continually explored in rehearsal and has helped shaped what is now Ithaca College Theatre Art’s production of Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare.

“O, It is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant” (Measure for Measure Act II, sc ii, 108-110)

-Katlyn Rapini, Assistant Dramaturg

Posted by Char Manlove-Laws at 4:39PM   |  Add a comment
Actors develop scenes that fit the world of the play.

"I love the rehearsal process in the theatre, and the visceral sense of contact and communication with a live audience."
-Judd Nelson, August 2003

Wendy Dann’s production of Measure for Measure is designed to feel like a rollercoaster ride, with twists and turns at every corner. This imagery intends to convey the feeling of the emotional pressure experienced by the leading characters. In rehearsal the actors explore emotional exercises necessary to create their dramatic journeys.

William Shakespeare’s rehearsal process tended to focus on his actors, including himself, memorizing their lines. Once the lines were learned then the company would have no more than a single rehearsal. Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later the King’s Men, would put on at least six different shows a week, thus leaving no room for a long rehearsal process. Actors would go into the process without knowing the whole of the play. Due to the quick turnaround of each show, forgetting a line was all too common. Most actors would rely on cue acting, which meant there would be a person backstage whispering lines to an actor. His process was hurried, but Shakespeare understood his audience and grasped ideas that were unique, thus causing his writing to be a success. To his audience it didn’t matter that the production was untidy, the message was received.

In contemporary practice usually the first few weeks of rehearsal are devoted to table work, a process in which the actors, director, voice coach and dramaturg dive into the script for a deep textual analysis. This process is long and arduous, but the end results are inspiring, eventually leading the actors to use this breakdown while on their feet. Wendy Dann had the actors develop movements that fit into the world of this production and she would expand on the movements to complete the scene. This style of directing immersed the actors in the play’s world, but also involved them in its creation.

Shakespeare succeeded in telling his stories, so much so that he is listed as being the most produced playwright on the American stage. Many of Shakespeare’s techniques have been altered, but his productions’ purpose still remains the same. No matter how long the rehearsal process, the job of the production team is to convey a story to the audience.

- Char Manlove-Laws, Dramaturg

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