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As part of the Shakespeare Anthology Project—the brainchild of noted actress, director, scholar, and impresario Tina Packer—students learned to wound and be wounded, with words and with swords drawn. And to consider why
You don’t have to worry about that pa-tum pa-tum pa-tum pa-tum pa-tum,” thunders Tina Packer in a resonant British accent. “Because it’s right there in the body.” The accomplished director of most (so far) of the plays of William Shakespeare and founder of the Lenox, Massachusetts-based theater Shakespeare & Company (“fabled”—American Theatre magazine has called it; “vibrant”—the New York Times), Packer is sitting in a circle of chairs with 22 students, in Boston College’s Bonn Studio. She’s giving a lesson on iambic pentameter, the five-beat, 10-syllable line that Shakespeare used for his plays. Lighting gear hangs from the high ceilings of the black-box theater space, and the floor shows haphazard splatters of paint. Packer, 76 years old and wearing a black sweatshirt, tells students to hold fingers to their wrists.
“Drop your breath into your body and count how many pulse beats there are to each breath,” continues the director, who is in residence this year as the J. Donald Monan, SJ, Professor in Theater Arts. “There are five pulse beats to each breath,” she says finally: “I want you to think of iambic pentameter as natural, not unnatural. You are intensifying something that is already inside of you.” For Packer, Shakespeare is as right as breathing—with the natural pause at the end of each 10-syllable line signaling a new thought. “So you are always in the present moment, you are constantly centering yourself with the breath in the rhythm of your emotions.”
To demonstrate, she calls on Sarah Mass ’15 to recite a few lines from a speech Mass has been working on: Iago’s opening monologue in Othello. As the play begins, Iago decries being passed over for a military promotion in favor of an effete rival, setting into motion a train of events that will lead to tragic deaths. The speech is destined to be part of Honor, Shame, and Violence: A Shakespeare Anthology Project, a compendium of scenes Packer has been developing with the students, who will perform it on campus in late January.
“And what was he? / Forsooth, a great arithmetician,” reads Mass, dressed casually in a burgundy sweater and standing in the center of the circle. “One Michael Cassio, a Florentine / That never set squadron in the field.” It seems like pretty generic exposition, but Packer pounces on every word.
“So what are you saying? What was he?” she barks.
“He’s trying to say he wasn’t a great captain,” Mass answers.
“Right, so can I get a ‘What was he?'” demands Packer, stressing that Shakespeare ends the line after only four syllables—signaling an intentional pause for effect. “How are you not going to lose the audience in that six syllables of silence?” Packer presses. “It’s not just a small question, it’s a huge question. Who was he? Huh? Huh? I’ll tell you who he was,” she waits, dramatically, before spitting the words: “An arithmetician!”
Packer is short and compact, peering over black rectangular glasses as she talks. Her hair is short and mussed—frequently by herself in the midst of a demonstrative point. Commanding and irreverent, she plays as a cross between a drill sergeant and a favorite aunt, albeit one prone to dropping f-bombs. And her tough-love approach to direction bears results.
She stops Mass again at the word “Florentine”: “And what do we think of Florentines?”
“They are sissies,” ventures Mass.
“Yes, they are!” shouts Packer. “When’s the last time Florence didn’t lose the battle against Siena for chrissake.”
Over three more readings of the passage, Mass comes alive, spewing bile as she conjures up the villainous Iago and makes the ring of students around her feel his jealous rage. One by one, over the next two hours in the twice-weekly class “Shakespeare Acting,” each of the students similarly gets up and recites, and each transforms within the space of five minutes, suddenly speaking lines as if they were thinking them for the first time, rather than reading from a page.
“When you are reading it, you are up in your head, saying what does this word mean or that word mean,” Packer tells me later in her cramped Rubenstein Hall office up the hill from the Robsham Theater Arts Center, in the midst of going over parts in the play with the stage manager, Mallory Cotter ’16. “What I want them to do is own the words. If you have embodied language, you can influence people. Otherwise you are only arguing reason to reason, and that is not how people are persuaded.”
Getting Shakespeare into the body is an approach Packer has been cultivating for some 40 years as director of Shakespeare & Company. It’s an approach, she says, similar to Shakespeare’s own dramatic training. “Where he learned to be an actor was in the classroom,” Packer says. “He was taught through the art of rhetoric, so every day he was on his feet delivering speeches—every time he spoke, they needed to make an impact.”
The approach resonates with her students. “You feel this need to say the words like your life depends upon it, which is what characters in Shakespeare are doing every time they are opening their mouths,” says Mass, who has performed in Boston with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (during the summer of 2013, as understudy to Sylvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and as the spirited Imogen in Cymbeline). “When she is yelling at you while you are trying to do a monologue, it gets your heart pumping—she is rousing you to do it, and she challenges you to be bigger.”
In another meeting of the class a few days later, Packer demonstrates an exercise called “dropping in,” in which two students face each other in their chairs, their feet nearly touching. One is expected to speak; the other provides a focus, a sounding board. They stare into each other’s eyes while Packer, just as close, reads lines of dialogue, stopping at a word and repetitively driving it home until it is nearly stripped of meaning. “Are you good?” Packer drones. “Do you feel good? Do you like being good? Is he good?” After each question, she repeats the word “good,” and the student chosen responds with “good,” before Packer moves on to the next question. “Do you want peace? Will God give you peace? Have you found peace?”
When Packer began her own study of Shakespeare some 45 years ago at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, her training, she says, consisted of reciting monologues in lofty accents. “I never learned the art of rhetoric or even the structure of the verse,” she says. The approach made her feel disconnected from the words. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1970s, she began seeking out teachers who could help her translate the verse structure into a physical experience. Eventually, she came to the United States to work with Scottish voice coach Kristin Linklater, who was developing a series of improvisational body exercises she called “Sound & Movement.” The approach includes drills with word repetition designed, Linklater has written, to “re-route Shakespeare’s words from the contemporary head to the Shakespearean body.” With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Packer and Linklater together began researching the physical roots of Shakespearean theater, eventually leading to the founding of Shakespeare & Company in 1978.
From the beginning, the company has been as much about teaching Shakespeare as it has about performing him. In workshops and courses, it has not only trained a generation of Shakespearean actors and directors, it has also exposed countless high school and college students to the Bard. The company offers a summer institute for schoolteachers and also runs a theater workshop called Shakespeare in the Courts for at-risk youth, in consultation with the Berkshire Juvenile Court.
Five years ago, Packer’s artistic efforts culminated in an ambitious presentation called Women of Will, which debuted in Lenox in the summer of 2010. Part performance, part master class in Shakespearean heroines, it took audiences through a tour of Shakespeare’s female characters over the course of five acts, to show his developing understanding of women. The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley said of the acting by Packer and costar Nigel Gore in the New York production, “It’s not just poetry in motion, it’s thought made flesh.”
Based on Packer’s stature as a Shakespearean pioneer, Boston College associate professor of theater and then-department chair Scott Cummings saw her as a natural for the Monan Professorship, which was founded in 2007 with a gift from Joyce Robsham in honor of the University’s Chancellor and former President J. Donald Monan, SJ, to bring a visiting theater practitioner to campus each year. Past Monan professors have included Paul Daigneault ’87, founder and producing artistic director of SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston; the performance artist and playwright Robbie McCauley; and the innovative puppeteer John Bell. “It’s a chance for students to work with accomplished professionals who have active and—in some cases like Tina’s—stellar careers,” says Cummings.
Cummings proposed that Packer bring a version of Women of Will to campus, to work with students on the material she explores in the performance. But Packer had another idea. In considering the women of Shakespeare, she had become interested in their relationship to men—in particular, in women’s attempts to counteract the violent impulses of male characters. That got her thinking more deeply about the nature of violence in Shakespeare’s plays, which runs like a current through the histories and tragedies.
“Shakespeare never went to war, so I began to think where did these ideas come from?” says Packer. The question had resonance for Packer in the present day, when assaults, shootings, and domestic abuse are fixtures on television. “I think violence is the question of our age,” she says. “In Shakespeare’s time, you saw violence around you, but it didn’t come into your living room. I wanted to see if I could do a project in which Shakespeare gives me some insight into why people commit acts of violence.” Packer chose four plays—two about war, Coriolanus and Henry IV, Part One; one about domestic violence, Romeo and Juliet; and one, Othello, that combines both. As she worked within them, she found a common root: shame. “What [Shakespeare] basically says is that we shame people and make them less-than,” says Packer. “For men, it often feels like they can only equalize that by killing someone.” Thus, for example, Iago feels shame over being passed over for military advancement—and responds by causing Othello to kill not only himself, but his wife as well.
To further drive home the point to students, Packer brought in her son, Jason Asprey, an accomplished actor (the title role in Hamlet, Antony in Julius Caesar, both at Shakespeare & Company) and a teacher in his own right, to lead a class on stage combat. “My method is not just about learning fighting moves—it’s about what the cost of violence is—what it’s like to hurt someone, and what it’s like to be hurt,” says Asprey. In a recent class, students swung realistic-looking metal broadswords and rapiers in moves that Asprey refers to as “physical lines of dialogue”—representing the relationships of characters to each other.
Rather than plan the action in advance, Asprey works with individual actors to arrive at their moves—deciding whether, for example, they are going to slap or punch a person. “What’s the story you are trying to tell?” presses Asprey. “If you are trying to shame the person it’s a slap. Even a punch can be different depending on whether it’s a surprise jab or a heroic punch where the person can see it coming.”
As students swing their swords around in a seeming pandemonium of violence, there is more smiling than groaning at first; their yoga pants and shorts seem out of place with the deadly-looking weapons and clash of steel on steel. The longer they go on, the more realistic their motions become as they start inhabiting their characters, grunting and delivering vicious slashes across the back or brutal bashes in the face with the butt of a sword, only to return to smiling and helping each other up after they are done.
Coming physically close to violence gives students a deeper appreciation for the roots of violence. “I’ve realized how much the cycle of honor and shame is really present in so many human behaviors and situations,” says Mass. “We may call it dignity, or respect, or pride, but you think about it in those terms, you get access to a primitive, deeply rooted human feeling.” Packer extends the thought: “When you are an actor you need authenticity. You are not pretending or putting on something. You are stripping things off and revealing more about who you are.”
In addition to Shakespeare’s plays, the students have been reading books about violence including On Killing, by lieutenant colonel David Grossman; and Violence by James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who worked in maximum security prisons. Discussing the topic in class, students have made connections to contemporary issues, whether the national indignation around domestic violence that erupted in the fall after professional football player Ray Rice was seen on tape beating his girlfriend in an elevator, or the cycles of shame that drive terrorism in the Middle East. “In one of my other classes [an international studies course, taught by David Hollenbach, SJ], we did a section on war and genocide,” says Matt Appleby ’15, “and the next day I walk into Shakespeare and we are talking about the same thing.”
While the themes of violence aren’t necessarily applicable to his campus life, Appleby says Packer’s insistence on viscerally inhabiting Shakespeare’s words has affected him daily. “She said something about how, ‘by not letting your breath in, you will live your whole life in the shallows,'” he recalls. The words stuck with him. “You can get so much out of this in terms of your own life, about being open and vulnerable and connected. I feel at the end of class, I walk out with a different sense of myself.”
Packer says she doesn’t know what she will do with the script when the experience is over—whether she will develop it as a sort of Men of Will project, or just use the experience to inform her teaching and performing. But wrestling with these themes for the past few months has been a reminder of what excites her about working with Shakespeare, as a collaborator of sorts, for four decades and across 400 years.
“He’s a lot cleverer than me,” says Packer, who is constantly discovering new meaning in his words. While writing a companion book to Women of Will, for example, she came across a line from The Tempest spoken by the magician Prospero: “Graves at my command, have wak’d their sleepers; ope’d and let them forth.” She realized that Shakespeare was using the image as a metaphor for the creative process. “I’d been hearing this line for 20 or 30 years, and suddenly it means something else to me,” Packer says.
“Shakespeare’s creativity is dependent on other people being creative,” she continues, “because otherwise the plays are stillborn. They are boring if you just read them behind the desk, which is why the kids go crazy. They demand other people to make them live.” As for what she hopes students in her class will get out of Shakespeare, she answers with a single word: “Life.”
Michael Blanding is the author of The Map Thief (2014).
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