Bruins in Bardland: Blogging Shakespeare Abroad
Published Aug 4, 2009 5:27 PM
It's an English major's dream: travel to England and fulfill class requirements by watching top British stage actors and movie stars perform Shakespeare's plays.
About 70 UCLA undergrads are enjoying that midsummer month's dream, having traveled to England this month to study five of the Bard's classic plays. A handful of the students will also blog about the experience, from being a groundling in the audience of the famous Globe Theatre, to hanging out post-performance with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the actors' favored pub, the Dirty Duck.
Between performances — such as this year's Hamlet starring movie star Jude Law and A Winter's Tale featuring famed Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale — the students will get expert perspectives on the plays from classes with two of UCLA's renowned Shakespeare professors, Jonathan Post and A.R. Braunmuller.
"This is an academically very serious program," Braunmuller told students gathered at a pre-departure meeting. "This is not an opportunity to spend three weeks drinking — although some of that may occur," he added winkingly.
Professor Post started the program 17 years ago to get UCLA students into the theater.
"So few of them ever see plays, and many of them have never seen live Shakespeare," Post said. "And because students are able to use their financial aid to take these classes, you get students who might never otherwise go to England, like a community college transfer student, in the third row at the Royal Shakespeare Company."
Students in the program spend a week shuttling among the theaters in London, then 10 days living in Stratford-upon-Avon — Shakespeare's hometown and the location of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then there's a final week in London. Live theater is a valuable addition to a Shakespeare class because the Bard's work can't be understood just by reading his plays, said Braunmuller.
"A play is meant to be performed," he said. "It's like the difference between going to a concert versus reading the sheet music. It's a very stark difference. In class, we're basically reading the sheet music."
The UCLA students abroad spend several hours a day in class, studying a play for one to two days before seeing it performed in the evening. The following day they analyze the performance and hear from guest speakers: actors, casting directors, set designers and others involved in the previous evening's production.
Marianna Tekasky, an English major who graduated this year after traveling to England on the program in 2008, remembered performances that had her on the edge of her seat.
"The performance of Hamlet that we saw — I was so immersed in it, and it was so good, that even though I've read it several times, I lost sense of what the ending was going to be," she recalled. "The thing about reading plays is that's not how the playwright intended them to be consumed. The quality of the theaters and actors we saw was just so high. They made the range and possibility of the texts really come alive."
But when Tekasky and her friend and fellow English major, Sean Fallon, spoke to this year's students about their time in England, they reminded students that there's more to England than Shakespeare. Though much of their time will be spent in the hotels where they live and take classes, the program also gives the students a chance to pop into museums, drop by pubs and explore the English countryside.
"I used to wake up early and get to museums before class began," Fallon said. "Don't miss out on anything abroad because you're worried about studying. Read all the plays ahead of time."
"But if you're still reading," Tekasky chimed in, "Read aloud with friends. And with cookies. They have a lot of good cookies in London."
Both Fallon and Tekasky recalled feeling a special connection to Shakespeare, especially when attending his hometown church in Stratford.
"On Sundays a lot of us would walk to that church for evensong, a sort of sung mass," Fallon said. "I'm not a devout or even practicing religious person, but in that particular church, where Shakespeare is buried and where he worshiped during his life — that was one of the few places I felt a real connection to him, because there I was, performing the same acts he had. That's the same place and the same service."
Fallon also made less of a spiritual connection with England's past, visiting a new pub every night if possible, he said. Professors Braunmuller and Post noted that especially in Stratford, the pub is almost part of the program.
"The Dirty Duck is the [Royal Shakespeare Company] actors' pub," Braunmuller said. "The students find this out pretty quickly and the fraternizing commences."
"That's where the students find out what's really going on in the play," Post said. "After a few beers, the actors give the back story to particular scenes."
Despite the allure of the pubs, the play's the thing, Braunmuller said.
"The students are always astounded by how different it is to see the plays than to read them," he said.
Post used a performance of Titus Andronicus in London's Globe Theatre as an example.
"The Globe is a big open space, with an almost raucous feel to it. The groundlings — audience members who stand — watch the play at the foot of the stage, so it's very close," Post explained. Although Titus Andronicus is often considered Shakespeare's ham-handed effort to create the equivalent of a blood-and-guts summer blockbuster, the play is more powerful than on the page in the intimacy of the Globe.
"Every night a certain number of people fainted when Lavinia's character had her tongue cut out and her hands severed," he said. "It's so immediate. You're so close to the action, you're 10 feet away. The play is kind of farcical, but watching it can change your interpretation." And it's safe to say no UCLA student ever fainted from reading it.
This year, the students will see A Winter's Tale and As You Like It in London before moving to Stratford, where they will watch and compare different interpretations of those same plays. They'll also catch Julius Caesar before returning to London to enjoy Romeo and Juliet and Jude Law in Hamlet.
"Every summer there's an awful lot of Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet — the theaters are there to make money, after all," said Post. "We're really bound by the theaters' schedule. We never create the curriculum, the performances do. But there are different plays every summer, so we're essentially teaching a different course each time."
Even seeing the same plays repeatedly is exciting, said Braunmuller.
"Some versions are better than others, but there's hardly any that don't make me think," the professor said. "We saw a version of the Tempest a few years ago with Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame) where they were doing things I don't think had ever been done before. Some people love to watch Star Wars 14 times. I love, over a lifetime, to watch as many versions of Macbeth and Hamlet as possible."
Visit the blog: www.today.ucla.edu/bardland