Shakespeare's Siren

Jacquelyn Bessell

By Anne Gibson. Ph.D. ‘95

JACQUELYN BESSELL, M.A. ’94, PH.D. ’96, CHAMPIONS THE BARD ON BOTH SIDES OF THE ATLANTIC

When she arrived at Clark University in the fall of 1990, Jacquelyn Bessell was a fan of “Tank Girl,” a British comic series featuring an anarchic, unfettered-by-convention, punk-rocking young woman who drove and lived in a tank.

“Jaq was a force of nature,” recalls Raymond Munro, professor in the Visual and Performing Arts Department. But he also compares her to another pop-culture figure — Wendy from “Peter Pan.” The pixie-haired Bessell, Munro says, was an unofficial mother figure to a group of “lost boys” in the Theater Department, cooking for them and making sure they were eating.

“I have great memories of working with Jaq,” recalls Shawn LaCount ’98, one of those “boys” who went on to make a name for himself as a founding member of Boston’s Company One. “She inspired me and many other students to think boldly about theater and to be fearless in performance. You could tell she was going to be a success in the theater world.”

Bessell’s journey to that success has taken her to the American Shakespeare Center and to the Globe Theatre in London, to university theater departments on both sides of the Atlantic, and to the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. They are all estimable landing places for someone who has devoted her career to unlocking the magic within the Bard’s legendary works.

Her expertise, however, was influenced by that other significant stop made on her life’s path — Clark University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1994 and her Ph.D. in 1996, and found a home where she could be a scholar, a performer, and parts Tank Girl and Wendy.

What prompted this Brit from Yorkshire to cross the pond to study theater?

Shakespeare, of course.

Not long after completing a B.A. with honors in English Language and Literature at England’s University of Birmingham in 1989, Bessell attended a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of “King John.” That experience was her epiphany, and she left the theater knowing what her future held.

“The production was inspiring,” Bessell says. “The actors were terrific, and the direction and design supported these really committed, exciting performances. I wanted to make that kind of theater then, and I still do.”

So whence for graduate studies? One of Bessell’s Birmingham professors spoke highly of Clark Professor Virginia Mason Vaughan’s expertise with the Shakespeare canon, setting in motion an application to Clark’s master’s program in English. Bessell was accepted and was awarded a teaching assistantship. After completing her master’s, she was given the opportunity — along with a fellowship from Clark’s Higgins School of Humanities — to design a rare interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Literature. Her panel of advisers included faculty from Clark’s English, theater, foreign languages and literatures, and music departments.

In addition to a 200-page dissertation on changing staging practices, with special application to the Faust myth, Bessell co-wrote (with Henry Akona), staged and directed her own version titled “Faust Sonata.” During her six years at Clark, Bessell developed the skills that would help prepare her for her roles as professor, director, actor, playwright, text and movement coach, and offered her a breadth of perspective that has allowed her to examine and inform theatrical performance on many levels. She also gave back to the University as much as she got, inspiring students and faculty alike with her talent, energy and enthusiasm.

Melissa Lynch Hoffmann ’95 still has vivid memories of Bessell as teaching assistant for her Introduction to Shakespeare course, where she directed students as they acted out scenes from the plays.

“She struck me as a fabulous director right away,” says Hoffmann, who has remained active in community theater since graduation. “She was hands on, she was encouraging ... but tough. We respected her, even though, as a teaching assistant, she was still technically a student.”

Bessell also served as teaching assistant in a Renaissance Drama course taught by Vaughan. Hoffmann recalls acting in a skit from the medieval morality play “Everyman,” and how Bessell encouraged her to play the role à la Vaughan.

“The first thing Professor Vaughan would do when she came into the classroom was take off her blazer and put it over the chair, and then write something on the board,” Hoffmann says. “So that’s exactly what I did. I took off my blazer and wrote something on the board — I think it was ‘knowledge.’ It was an inspired idea and added some levity to what was a pretty heavy play. The second that Professor Vaughan saw me do that, she knew what we were up to. It was great.”

Page to stage

By having students act out scenes instead of conforming to the traditional approach of reading plays as text or poetry, Bessell changed the way Shakespeare and other playwrights are taught at Clark.

Vaughan, who regards Bessell as “sort of an adopted daughter,” speaks of Bessell’s time as teaching assistant in her Shakespeare course as an event “that in many ways changed my life.”

“She started me on the custom of students doing scene work as part of their requirement for the introductory Shakespeare course,” Vaughan says. “And I’ve kept that ever since. She was a very lively person — she just sparkled, just loved the teaching.”

Theater Professor Gino DiIorio credits Bessell with being partially responsible for the popular Page to Stage course that he and Vaughan now co-teach.

“Jaq introduced me to Ginger [Vaughan] and the three of us began a long and productive theatrical relationship,” says DiIorio. “Jaq’s an outstanding director, one of my best students. I’m not at all surprised she’s been so successful.”

Munro describes Bessell as “a wonderful artist — one of my favorite students of all time. She has an amazing mind and incredible energy.”

After earning her Ph.D., Bessell spent three years at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, rounding out her training as a dramaturge — someone who shapes the presentation of a play from multiple angles. Her duties included text-consulting during rehearsals, developing study guides for local schools, and chairing post-production talk-backs with the actors.

“Dramaturgy,” Bessell explains, “describes a very broad range of interrelated activities, and is a perfect expression of my educational experience at Clark.”

In 1999 Bessell returned to England to become director of research at the new Globe Theatre in London, which she describes as “a transforming experience, because it gave me an unparalleled opportunity to specialize in the plays of Shakespeare.” She especially enjoyed observing and recording the development of each production from initial rehearsal to final performance, and articulating that process in print for students and scholars.

Bessell has come full circle by returning to work at her undergraduate alma mater. She is now in her third year as lecturer and fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, where she undertakes the normal professorial duties of teaching a wide range of theater courses, advising students, developing curricula and serving on university committees, while at the same time balancing family responsibilities (Bessell is married to actor Jan Knightley and they have a daughter, Rosie).

[caption id="attachment_10549" align="alignleft" width="500"]srLeft: In this photo from 2000, Jacquelyn Bessell leads a workshop for Clark students at a Boston studio.

Window on the world

Why, half a millennium later, do people around the world still find reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays worthwhile? For Bessell and her mentor Virginia Vaughan, the questions raised in Shakespeare’s works, and the ideas and themes illuminated in his prose, have remained relevant over time and across cultures.

Vaughan explains how her students readily perceive parallels between Shakespeare’s plays and current events.

“My students always see [Shakespeare’s plays] in terms of our own time. We did ‘Richard II’ in the Advanced Seminar, the story of a king who is so vain about his own position that he can’t see the world clearly anymore. That was during the uprising in Egypt, and President Mubarak came up again and again in discussions. Students were seeing these connections, and what happens to somebody like this. So Shakespeare is a window on the world in many ways.”

Vaughan, who, with her husband, historian Alden Vaughan, wrote “Shakespeare in America,” says that in addition to the Bible, a volume of Shakespeare was one of the most popular books to accompany pioneers on the American frontier. In a more recent context, she points out references to Othello that were invoked during the Obama campaign, noting each was the son of a white woman and a black man.

Shakespeare’s plays have been in almost continuous production for the last 400 years, Bessell says, adding that an understanding of how Shakespeare has been edited, interpreted and staged in other times and places can provide insight into how various cultures have wrestled with the great questions and dilemmas of life.

“Shakespeare can pack so many ideas into so few words,” she says. “The stories are archetypal.”

The vocabulary of movement

In the 1953 Broadway musical “Kismet,” the poet Hajj, in an attempt to prevent having his hand cut off by the evil wazir, sings that “when you tell a story, amorous or gory, you can tell it best if you gesticulate.”

Bessell would concur. In an essay she wrote for the book “Speaking Pictures” — which she co-edited with Vaughan and Fernando Cioni — she notes that the ability to deliver lines eloquently is not sufficient in itself to portray the full meaning of a play. Theater is a visual medium, and actors must learn to use their bodies — what she calls “physical storytelling” — as well as their voices to bring a script to life.

Scenes from the 2007 production of "Love's Labour's Lost." Above: Scenes from the 2007 production of "Love's Labour's Lost," directed by Jacquelyn Bessell at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. The theater recreates the spartan environment in which Shakespeare's plays were staged.

Bessell has observed and studied the techniques of physical theater in her capacity as head of research at the new Globe Theatre in London, and as a director at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Both places replicate the spartan environments where Shakespeare would have seen his plays performed. And while an understanding of physical theater is key in any live performance setting, it is critical in low-tech theaters like the Globe and Blackfriars Playhouse that strive to recreate the way a play would have been staged in Shakespeare’s day.

“How,” she asks, “without help of contemporary stage lighting and other recognizable technical supports, can the performances achieve shape, change pace and tempo, pull and switch focus, and guide the audience’s eyes as well as ears?”

Bessell notes that in times past, actors often drew on a universal vocabulary of stock gestures, according to which parts of the body were positioned to signify emotions like anger, fear and joy. While modern acting style tends to demand more natural and less exaggerated movement, that doesn’t mean it comes easily. And while some cues describing a character’s emotional state or physical posture may be specified in a script, much room remains for interpretation.

In addition to training actors how to use their bodies, Bessell has coached stunt men and women, gymnasts, dancers and martial arts practitioners to be more facile with spoken text, at places like the London Stunt School and the British Institute for Chinese Martial Arts.

Her least favorite role is that of actor. Bessell confesses to suffering from stage fright, which “my students find very amusing.” At Clark she studied acting with Ray Munro, primarily so she could learn how to be a better director. She recalls only one acting experience that she truly enjoyed, that of playing Lady Macbeth opposite Gino DiIorio’s Macbeth.

With a special nod to DiIorio, she acknowledges that “acting is a lot easier if your scene partner is a real pro, willing to do more than half the work for you.”

Bessell credits Munro with one of the most valuable skills she learned — how to use questions to help actors make appropriate choices.

“Actors can commit to choices they make themselves,” she says, “and directors who impose choices on their actors interfere with this fundamental process, to the detriment of the work.”

The Clark effect

Bessell cherishes memories of her time at Clark, and despite having traveled extensively throughout the U.S and U.K., she still feels her intellectual and creative community is based in Worcester.

She praises her Clark faculty advisers as “brilliant people.”

“My interdisciplinary Ph.D. was supported by recognized experts who nonetheless saw the value of learning from other disciplines, and from these people I learned to think outside the box,” Bessell says.

“I was very lucky to find my work supported at this level, by this caliber of faculty,” she continues. “I was given the time and the means to develop as a teacher and a director. The faculty and students I collaborated with helped instill in me some core values and work ethics — intellectual rigor, creative freedom and openness to new perspectives — that have influenced just about everything I have done since.”

This interdisciplinary approach has had enormous impact on Bessell’s teaching and professional work. Recently, she was commissioned to write an important new book for the Arden Shakespeare series exploring the work of major Shakespeare companies in the United States and United Kingdom. She is embarking on a three-year research project to interview prominent and emerging Shakespearean directors, actors and designers on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I publish work that is informed by both a scholarly and technical understanding of how Shakespeare’s plays work in performance, as well as the practical experience of directing,” she says. “Now I can teach my students the importance of understanding the relationships between text, performer, and the audience, having had instruction and experience in all of these areas.

“If I had studied elsewhere, I doubt I would have been encouraged to see the interconnectedness of different forms and disciplines in quite the same way, and my work today would be all the poorer for it.”

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, fall 2011.