Shakespeare From Page to Stage
Interview with Professors Gino DiIorio and Virginia Vaughan
What is this course all about?
DiIorio: Ginger and I began teaching Page to Stage about six years ago.
Vaughan: The Higgins School of Humanities here at Clark sponsors team-taught courses that bring together faulty from two departments within the humanities. One year Gino and I were talking about Shakespeare and I went to one of his acting workshops. We decided to put in a proposal for a team-taught course called "Shakespeare: From Page to Stage." And we've had a great time teaching it.
DiIorio: We've co-taught this course for many terms now. Virginia is predominantly an English historian and I'm a playwright now, but I was trained as an actor. I acted in New York City for about 20 years. Ginger does the historical, literature and academic end and I do the acting end. It works really well. Ginger is one of the few historians who really gets that performance is at the base of the work. She understands that you can't just sit around and talk about the work—you have to get up and read it, perform it and see what it's like to be the actor and the director of it. Likewise, the actors need to understand the historical and academic side of the work. There's a real chasm between the two, and we try to bridge that gap with the course. And we have great fun with it.
So, what do you do in class, critique the plays or perform them?
DiIorio: We meet twice a week. One session is in the morning and that's predominantly speaking about the texts, the historical information, what's going on in the play. But that bleeds into an acting conversation. Then the other session is in the evening in the blueroom from 6 to 8:30. That's when we put those students up to act out scenes from the plays we discussed in the earlier session. Then it becomes a history class too. We have fun since we have a bunch of English majors who are non-actors and actors learning the historical information.
It sounds like you have to be a junior or senior to take this class, right?
Vaughan: It's an advanced course offered every other year in the spring. Students have to get permission to take it. We typically end up with mix of half theater students and half English majors. On my side, we prefer students who don't just have an interest in Shakespeare, but also have taken my Introduction to Shakespeare course. On Gino's side, we prefer that they have had a certain level of acting experience so they are ready for the advanced scene work in this class.
How do the English majors feel about acting?
DiIorio: They surprise and amaze me. One thing I've learned from Ginger is that these are performance texts. The text itself of the play is a blueprint for performance, not just a piece of literature that you read by yourself. You don't get into it until you perform it yourself. Even though the English student may never be Lawrence Olivier, it doesn't matter. It's that experience of having to embody the role and make it come alive that is key.
Vaughan: A challenge for the English majors is speaking the verse aloud. English majors have read iambic pentameter since they were in eighth grade. But it's different thing to start to speak those lines. Gino does a wonderful couple of sessions at the beginning of the semester about how to read those lines and how to find the stresses and the music they make—how they have a poetic rhythm. This is wonderful for the English majors because it takes the text off the page and makes it sing to them. And when they get up and perform it themselves, they can make it sing.
What are the challenges for the theater students?
DiIorio: Our goal is to demystify the text. Ginger does an amazing job at that, using literary criticism and helping students understand the language and the historical context. For the actors, with Shakespeare more than anyone else, scripts were actually written in a way closer to music. Tons of acting clues that an Elizabethan actor would know by rote have to be retaught to our modern actors. The great thing about Shakespeare, though, is that he gives many clues in the text. Clues about how words are to be stressed, where pauses are, how quickly to come in on your cue. I tell all these student actors 'to learn how to do Shakespeare is to learn how to act.' Once you get this, all that work bleeds into other great work—the Greeks, Saw, Chekhov, Ibsen. Any place where you have this 'heightened language.' Even modern work like David Mammet who has an incredible use of words and rhythms—it's not iambic of course—but the musicality of the playwright's work is the same. It's in the text. Not just their use of character and plot, but in the choice of words.
The other challenge for the actors is that actors, typically, will gravitate toward what's worked for them before. Now they are challenged with reading essay upon essay to draw upon for background and context. So we really try to break the mold for the actor. We make them dig into the literary criticism which should affect their character development. We also tend to cast against type and against gender. I might say, 'You look like you'd be a great Macbeth., Let's have you play Richard II.' We try to assign them roles that are something different and offbeat so the actors can challenge themselves.
It sounds like a demanding class?
DiIorio: It is. We're challenging all of our students on a number of levels because they have to act in these scenes, they have to write papers, and there's a lot of reading. But in the end it all comes together and the text truly comes to life because it's the students themselves who are bringing it to the stage. We study four plays each semester and whatever ones we choose, the students KNOW those plays!
Do you study the same plays every year in this class?
DiIorio: Oh no. We pick four for each term. We've done "Othello," MacBeth," "The Tempest," "The Winter's Tale" "Hamlet" and several others.
Vaughan: One reason I picked "The Winter's Tale" was because it has such great roles for women.
DiIorio: That brings up a great example of how well our collaboration works. I never liked "A Winter's Tale." But by teaching it with Ginger, I learned it's a wonderful play, full of nuances. The play says a lot about men, and it's an interesting biographical study of Shakespeare and who he was at that point in his life. So the real key for the course is that Ginger and I really learn from each other. I always knew the course would work, but it's gone beyond my wildest dreams.
Vaughan: Gino, I'm coming round to your side, by the way. I saw a Royal Shakespeare production of "Hamlet" and I'm coming to your side.
DiIorio: You're back on my side? I'm getting older so I'm going back to "King Lear." We have a running argument about which is the greatest Shakespeare play. I think it's "Hamlet" and Ginger thinks it's "Lear." But we're starting to switch places!