Princes to Act

Ah, the opening Chorus of Henry V… let’s let Derek Jacobi remind us, shall we?

Just before my first classes this week, I had an idea: I’d already decided to get the students to move their desks (usually in traditional rows) into a circular formation so they could see one another– the idea was to declare the space thereby created as available to everyone, not just me. So if someone wants or needs to move to make a point, ask a question, or simply stretch after sitting still for a while, they are allowed, nay encouraged, to do so. 

Several points here: first of all, it draws their attention to the importance of space itself in theatre– it profoundly shapes the action onstage. 

More importantly, though, it makes them aware of the key fact of presence: being in a shared space, breathing the same air, seeing and hearing one another and thereby creating the event in the moment, here and now.

This is an essential part of live theatre, obviously– but it strikes me as even more important right now. At one of our pre-term meetings, we were told that the administration is a leaning heavily towards online courses as a way to appeal to more students. And I’m all in favour of working with technology to develop ways that teachers and students can interact in diverse ways.

But there are some things that simple cannot be done online, methinks. I, at least, cannot teach, show, or demonstrate the essential importance of presence online, making it fully real.

Theatre fascinates in part because it explores what it means to be human. And yes, online connections are a part of that reality now– and a potentially excellent part at that. To make the crucial elements of this genre clear, however, involves interaction, presence. Reality rather than virtuality.

“It is required/ You do awake your faith.”

This is one of my favourite quotations, from my favourite Shakespeare play: The Winter’s Tale, at the very moment that Paulina works her sorcery to bring about the play’s surprise conclusion. I’ve always loved this play, and this moment invariably makes me hold my breath, hoping against thought that magic will triumph over logic.

And, in performance, it does. That’s the miracle of theatre.

(I first saw this play when I was 12, and have wanted to play Paulina ever since. And though I’m sure there’s some rule somewhere that says English Professors Should Not Have Favourite Plays Because It Interferes With Scholarly Detachment, this is me publicly flouting said rule. There. I said it: this one’s my favourite, and detachment be damned.)

In fact, that’s one of the reasons why this quotation is so important to me, I think: because it works explicitly against detachment. It invokes faith, trust, and thereby both terrible risk and unimaginable reward. If you can wake your faith, it says, anything is possible– even that which your everyday mind might explicitly deny.

And so I remind myself, as I come back from a much-needed sabbatical into the inherent uncertainties of the classroom, that I need to bring my faith with me above all: faith in the potency of stories, in the magic of theatre, in the need for human beings to connect with one another and be both seen and known. If I can trust in these and their power, then I have a chance of reaching my as-yet-unknown communities of students, of drawing them together and making them co-creators of the worlds we explore this term.