Shakespeare – what is traditional?
By Makaela Milburn
Go Big AND Go Home: Commedia Dell’arte, Telenovela, and Movement in Storytelling
By Tatyana Emery
Educator, speaker, and writer bell hooks likens the process of storytelling to that of traveling, writing that telling a story means, “..journeying to countries where we may not speak the native tongue,” adding that “most of us communicate by creating a story, one we may tell without words.” Theatre as a storytelling medium holds within it a great multiplicity. It is an artistic medium all its own while carrying within it many different expressions of other genres such as dance or music. Similarly, storytelling structures such as Commedia Dell’arte and the Telenovela can combine to create a harmonious blend between movement and sound. Seattle Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is one such combination. It is technicolor misadventure filled to the brim with camaraderie, confusion, and calamity–compassed by the brilliant lodestar found in the shared vision of director Jimmy Shields (he/his) and choreographer Lexi Warden (she/her).
Comedy of Errors follows two identical twin brothers whose separate upbringing and deceiving likeness bring about hilarious consequences. In Seattle Shakespeare’s 2024 production, this delightful chaos is brought to life by the Drum And Colours company. Across Director Jimmy Shields’ many talents and artistic endeavors, Shields focuses on a variety of different aspects to begin work on a piece-whether it be movement, music or setting. In the room, Shields shares that the “driving force of what we do is play.” He looked to the heighted, exaggerated body language of the Telenovela to inform his interpretation of Shakespeare’s comical farce. Inspired by the title credits that air before an episode, actors often find themselves in a private aside with the audience transformed from inside the story alongside each character. This is, of course, thematic as well as intentional. Shields maintains part of his theatre philosophy must always include the people watching the show. To Shields it is imperative “the youngest person in the room has to understand and the oldest person in the room has to understand,” the story told on stage. Naturally, this idea blends seamlessly into the rest of his directing style. As a creative, he searches for the “real, human moments” between actors in order to create a more intimate and engaging theatre experience. Contrasting with the stylized, melodramatic nature of a soap opera, Shields’ Comedy of Errors elevates each character’s multiple facets into the spotlight.
Dramatic, electric and kinetic, choreographer Lexi Warden’s contribution to the Comedy of Errors team translates stunning pictures on stage. All sculpted under the thoughtful dancer’s keen and watchful eye, Warden emphasizes a sense of play through movement. As Warden affirms, inspiration for the choreography came from the exaggerated movement styles of the daytime soap operas and telenovelas of the 80’s. This means that for Warden, the work began prior to the first day of rehearsal as she pulled from her ballet background in order to carve out dynamic sculptures moving in and out of the wings. Warden maintains that “dance was [her] first art language.” As such, her choreography combines slow, intentional gestures with the finality of a ballet gesture. In doing so, Warden, borrowing from the balletic tradition, communicates a clear beginning and an end to each movement. Balancing precision with passion, Warden is able to successfully compose instantly recognizable, memorable moments of physical comedy. With the clarity and sage insight provided by intimacy and fight coordinator Francesca Bentacort, Comedy of Errors careens from devastating blows to outrageous jests with deft and ease.
Traveling back in time to the early 1500s to the late 1700s, Commedia Dell’arte was one of the dominant forms of storytelling in many European countries. Codified in Italy as a playmaking format, Commedia Dell’arte “…emphasized ensemble acting; its improvisations were set in a firm framework of masks and stock situations, and its plots were frequently borrowed from the classical… literary drama.“ Here, the absurdity of Shakespeare’s central conceit in a Comedy of Errors, serves the production. A classic misunderstanding tumbles out of control and spirals into absurdity. Consequently, the respective direction and choreography of Shields and Warden yield spectacular results. In embracing the risible aspects of the plot, a Comedy of Errors employs tenets of classical theatre in its ensemble’s collaboration.
Fast forwarding a little to the 1970s, the art of the Telenovela was born out of analogously structured radio plays. The added element of film recording paradoxically allowed for a more theatrical exploration of the characters and plots historically revered in telenovelas. Some notable titles include Los ricos también lloran (“Rich People Cry Too”) popularized in Mexico and Simplemente María (“Simply Maria”) which originated in Peru. Reminiscent of the telenovela style, SSC Drum and Colours’ Comedy of Errors moves cinematically from scene to scene, giving the audience members insight into quandaries of Ephesian citizens. This conversation with the audience proves ideal in moments of levity and especially rich in moments of distress. Seattle Shakespeare Company is not the first theatre company to celebrate the decadent medium’s theatricality. Recently performed at the Old Globe in San Diego, Karen Zacarías’ Destiny of Desire is a musical centered on the standard plot conventions of a Telenovela–family secrets, hidden affairs, and unexpected surprises.
While “melodrama” or acting that is “melodramatic” carries with it a negative connotation, the melodrama that defines soap operas or telenovelas is founded in something deeply human. Melodrama, whether it be juicy gossip or earth shattering news, is part profound emotional truth and part real, raw lived experience. It is a lens through which to view truly stupefying moments of life with love and with humor.
Whether illuminating a monologue’s meaning through dance or exaggerating a petty brawl for comedic effect, Comedy of Errors marries two distinct styles of dramatic play into one. In no small part due to the work of Jimmy Shields and Lexi Warden, Comedy of Errors is an incandescent flame stoked by the dramaturgical fires of the past and present. Dealing in improvisation and replicable story arcs, Commedia Dell’arte lends this story a firm structure off which to build a unique interpretation of a classical piece. Conversely, the Telenovela offers excitement, intrigue, and a dramatic backdrop in front of which to tell a spell-binding tale. Although they differ in artistic medium, geographical origin, and relationship to spoken language, the points of connection between Commedia Dell’arte practices and the storytelling conventions of the Telenovela encourages audiences and storytellers alike to seek theatre practices in a variety of traditions. As bell hooks reminds us, “We may show by gesture what we mean.”
Shakespeare – what is traditional?
By Makaela Milburn
One of the questions that comes up again and again around contemporary Shakespeare is are you doing it “traditionally” or not?
There are avid voices on all sides of this conversation. Folks love to see Shakespeare ‘as it was meant to be performed,’ that ‘feels like real people,’ folks love to ‘see the history honored,’ or ‘see the rules being broken’ – but before we get too far in the weeds (and before YOU really start to take a stand), let me ask you a question:
What IS traditional Shakespeare?
How are you defining this expectation? Is it in the story? The way of speaking the language? How people were dressed? What the energy of the performance felt like?
Here are some things we know about how things went back in those days:
- Shakespeare wrote almost no original plots – what this brilliant writer did was weave together the myths, the histories, the favorite characters and poems from stories that the people of the time knew and loved. And then he changed them a little, fitted them with a few surprises or twists which brought a connection to audience’s actual lives.
- Actors in the Elizabethan day spoke FAST. If we are to believe that famous Romeo & Juliet claim of “two hours traffic of our stage” they got through a play in two hours which today normally takes us THREE. So these words were meant to hit more like an audio book on 1.5 speed than a savored recitation from your favorite literature teacher.
- While the clothes of the day were complex and a bit fancy, what the actors costumed themselves in on stage was essentially everyday wear. Even if a play was set in a Roman era, actors likely just layered a toga or wrap over their usual clothes!
- The experience in the audience was LIVELY– loud, people moving about, drinking & eating…it was a whole scene. And the full lighting meant that everyone could see each other all the time. And in the outdoor theaters, you were likely also at the entrance to an inn, so there could be carriages and horses and luggage unloading. Which means it probably felt a lot more like the Taylor Swift tour at the stadium than (insert any last play you went to at a theater).
So, what is traditional Shakespeare?
Sounds like contemporary adaptation of stories we love, shared with a lot of energy, wearing everyday clothes, to a raucous crowd.
So, we’ll do our best to make it traditional on stage…will you help out with the rowdy audience tradition?
by: Aliza Cosgrove
Twinnem (noun): Your ride-or-die, the friend whose vibe syncs with yours on a whole other level. It’s like you’re telepathically connected, picking up on each other’s moods, energy, and pain. Basically, the closest thing to having a twin without sharing DNA.
🤞👯♂️ #TwinnemGoals #TelepathicTwinning
Twins are obviously a crucial plot point in Comedy of Errors, a Shakespearean comedy written in the 1590s. The entire conflict of the show hinges on the fact that two sets of estranged twins are both inhabiting the same space. From as early as theater in antiquity, media representation of twins was varied. In some works of a similar time, such as The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (written in 1612, and published in 1623), twins are stigmatized and misrepresented, with the general view of twinship being considered “unnatural” due to the prevailing lack of understanding about how twins occurred at that time. Other plays like Comedy of Errors, used twins as a comedic device, seen in works by Thomas Middleton and James Shirley.
Shakespeare introduced an additional layer of confusion and comedy to his twins by assigning them shared names, a practice inspired by Plautus’s The Menaechmi, which was likely a direct influence on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, evident in plot similarities and Shakespeare’s education in classics.This theme of twins continues to be incredibly important in Shakespeare’s later comedy, Twelfth Night. Given the focus on twins in all of these plays, it comes as no surprise that they are not simply a literary device employed by Shakespeare; rather, they also symbolize a continuous presence in his personal life as a father.
Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway were parents to a pair of fraternal twins, Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Hamnet passed away at the age of 11, coinciding with the period when it is believed that Shakespeare began writing his much loved comedy, Twelfth Night. This particular story not only centers around a pair of fraternal twins, but in the play the sister believes her brother is dead and assumes his identity. It is widely agreed upon by Shakespearean scholars that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night with his own children in mind, potentially using the play as a means to process grief by creating a direct mimesis of his twins onstage. On the other hand, Comedy of Errors was written and performed before Shakespeare’s son’s death, although he did have twins. This raises the question: what do the twins signify to Shakespeare in Comedy of Errors? Are they merely a comedic device inspired by Mananda, or was Shakespeare attempting to convey a deeper meaning?
Although a comedy, Comedy of Errors weaves a narrative against the backdrop of war between neighboring countries. This play, which was believed to have been written around 1589-94, exists in a period marked by political conflict and war in Europe, with the Long Turkish War underway, the Cambodian-Spanish war in progress, and the Nine Years War looming, directly involving British forces. In this era, identities of nationalism were burgeoning in England, with a growing commitment to the idea of prioritizing one’s country above all others. It is plausible that Shakespeare, in crafting a comedic play featuring twins amid a war-torn setting, is offering commentary on the heightened individualism of one’s country during times of conflict. By portraying two individuals from different nations who look exactly the same and are mistaken for each other on stage, Shakespeare may be illustrating to the audience how trivial the differences insisted upon between two national populations can be.
Shakespeare ingeniously utilizes twins to challenge a common standard of politeness theory prevailing in Elizabethan England. Through the device of mistaken identity, made possible by identical twins sharing the same name, Shakespeare portrays characters engaging in actions deemed unacceptable by polite society without any guilt or sense of wrongdoing. A striking example of this device in Comedy of Errors is Antipholus of Syracuse’s flirtation with Luciana. In an era when adultery was sternly frowned upon, pursuing the sister of one’s wife was an even greater taboo. However, since Antipholus of Syracuse is unaware of the mistaken identity, he attempts to woo Luciana without hesitation, creating comedic opportunities and challenging social norms. This dual reality, where Antipholus is simultaneously right and wrong, adds complexity to the narrative, showcasing Shakespeare’s penchant for exploring shades of gray and challenging black-and-white thinking. By employing twins in his work, Shakespeare effectively presents two sides of a situation, providing a tangible representation of life’s intricate gray areas on stage.
Shakespeare also skillfully utilizes a recurring theme of characters questioning their own reality throughout the play, creating a surreal atmosphere and exploring themes of personal identity and absolute certainty. Dromio of Syracuse, in bewilderment, questions, “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? / Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?” as he encounters characters who seemingly know him. Antipholus of Syracuse similarly expresses perplexity with, “How many fond fools serve mad jealousy!” Both characters, while initially attributing the confusion to others’ mistakes, later entertain the possibility of madness or witchcraft at play, saying, “There’s none but witches do inhabit here.” This exploration of identity and self-questioning serves as a direct response to twinship, possibly reflecting Shakespeare’s own children’s experiences of individuality and defying ideals. Moreover, it serves as a broader commentary on the human experience, delving into the expectations imposed on individuals by those in their lives and questioning whether understanding others is genuine or merely an assumption. Throughout the story, the characters grapple with uncertainties about their memories and morals, a natural consequence of the hyper-specific situation involving two twins sharing the same names in Comedy of Errors.
Overall, it can’t be guaranteed if there was a deeper reason for Shakespeare’s twins beyond comedy and an interest in his own children. Whether true or not, it’s always intriguing to delve a little deeper into Shakespeare’s work and explore potential underlying meanings.
TL;DR: Shakespeare turned twin troubles into a comedic extravaganza with Comedy of Errors. Inspired by classic works and his own twin children, the play weaves confusion and laughs with shared names and mistaken identities. It’s not just about funny mix-ups, though. In the backdrop of political chaos, Shakespeare sneaks in a commentary on national pride and challenges societal norms. As if that’s not enough, the characters in the play are on an identity crisis rollercoaster, questioning reality and making us ponder deep stuff about individuality. It’s like Shakespeare is saying, “Hey, life’s not just black and white; it’s a whole colorful mess!” While we can’t be sure if he had a secret agenda, one thing’s for sure: Shakespeare’s twins keep us laughing through the centuries, and twins in real life still rock—although these days, they usually have their own unique names! 🤣👯♂️