June 25-29; Austin, TX

Director: Joe Falocco, PhD

Seminar Overview

This project is a one-week seminar for college and university faculty, and is intended primarily for community college faculty and/or non-tenure-track/adjunct faculty. Such “Contingent Faculty,” as they are known in academia today, are frequently called upon to teach Shakespeare in English and Theatre courses. Often, they must do so on short notice and with little preparation time before a semester begins. To make matters worse, such instructors sometimes have had only a cursory exposure to Shakespeare in their own graduate education and thus feel intimated and unqualified to teach this subject matter. While most college-level teachers have had some exposure to Shakespeare as literature, most have little or no understanding of the theatrical context that his plays were written for. Shakespeare is, of course, a cornerstone of cultural literacy in the English-speaking world, and his plays offer a gateway into many disciplines within the humanities including, but not limited to, History, Classical Studies, Philosophy, and Religion. Shakespeare was also, however, a man of the theatre who wrote works of popular culture for the theatrical marketplace. Therefore, an understanding of the original staging conditions under which the plays were first produced is a necessary prerequisite for teaching Shakespeare (whether one works in an English or a Theatre Department). This seminar is designed to provide that understanding. Alumni will be able to bridge the gap between page and stage when teaching Shakespeare. They will guide students who read the plays to envisage their performance; and they will be prepared to stage scenes in their classrooms or for public consumption.

This seminar possesses two unique advantages over similar proposals. The first is the availability of the Curtain Theatre as a seminar venue. The Curtain is a reconstructed Elizabethan amphitheatre located on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. Compared to the scholarly attention that has been paid to the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse (not to mention the oceans of ink that have been spilt on the London Globe), the Curtain is a well-kept secret. The playhouse is the brainchild of philanthropist Richard Garriott and is situated on Garriott’s Austin estate, as part of a small medieval village. Rather than a complete “Wooden O,” the Curtain’s auditorium is a semi-circle that wraps around a deep-thrust stage to within five feet of the frons scenae at either side. If the Austin playhouse were extended to a full circle, it would have a diameter of 73 ft. This is surprisingly close to the 74 ft. now generally accepted as the diameter of the early modern Rose and the 72 ft. of James Burbage’s Theatre. The stage configuration of the Curtain is similar to that of the modern Globe and Blackfriars. It features a twenty-foot-wide balcony extending four feet forward from the frons scenae and supported by two on-stage posts. There is a roof or “heavens” extending twenty feet downstage and supported by two large pillars, with an opening that can be used to raise or lower objects. In a 2013 staging of The Spanish Tragedy, this was employed for the hanging of Pedringano. The upstage wall of the frons scenae consists of two smaller openings stage left and right and a larger opening at center. There is a trap door downstage center, which was used in 2016 for Dr. Faustus’s final descent into hell. for A spacious “yard” surrounds the stage (approximately 13 ft. in depth between the platform and the audience), allowing for the kind of “groundlings” that have been such an asset to performance at the new Globe. Seeing the Curtain in action and working on its stage over the course of this seminar will give participants a keen understanding of how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed.

The second great advantage of this seminar is the participation of a resident company of actors. These performers will spend the weeks leading up to the seminar preparing a repertoire of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these scenes will be staged for participants to illustrate certain features of the Elizabethan stage. For instance, the fight in the graveyard from Hamlet (5.1)[1] will showcase the trap door, while Hermione’s revelation in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale (5.3) will demonstrate the efficacy of the discovery space. Such demonstrations will link the text of the play to its incarnation on stage. Besides demonstrating key scenic devices to participants, the resident acting company will work with these seminarians to abridge a scene for performance and to stage scenes from the Shakespearean canon that pose specific theatrical challenges. One week is of course not long enough to become an expert in Elizabethan staging. But it is sufficient for participants to learn the basic requirements of such staging and to understand the impact these requirements had on Shakespeare’s plays. After this seminar, community college faculty and/or non-tenure-track/adjunct faculty should feel better prepared to teach Shakespeare in English or Theatre Department classes.

[1] Act, scene, and line numbers and all Shakespearean quotations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington. Sixth Edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.


Note: Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, or in the Shakespeare Without Fear: Teaching the Plays, do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.