I can think of no better wrapup to my play of the month “Twelfth Night,” than by reporting on my visit to an actual Twelfth night Party, presented by the Society For Creative Anachronism.
What’s a Twelfth Night Party?
If you took my class on Shakespearean Christmas traditions or read my blog posts, you know that, back in Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was a party to end the Christmas season. It was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who would lead people in games and songs. The party would also have a Twelfth Night Cake with a bean in the center. If you found the bean, you’d have good luck for the year! So I was pleased to come to a real-life Twelfth Night party and see these traditions come to life!
What is the society for Creative anachronism?
The short answer is- it’s LARPING for history nerds. Rather than creating a D&D persona and then getting arms and armor to play-fight in the backyard, SCA members create personas based on real medieval history, make or buy real historical arms and armor, (or arts and crafts as the case may be) and spend years of their lives studying and perfecting their immersion in that character’s life. SCA-ers learn how to fight with swords, daggers, spears, etc, how to sing medieval songs, medieval dances, and many other medieval ‘mysteries,’ which in this case means arts, crafts, and professions.
The Shire of Owlsherst
Owlsherst is the SCA’s local chapter in York PA. They have a number of dedicated members who specialize in textiles to rapier-dagger fighting. I’ve posted some videos of their fighting demonstrations on Youtube and Tiktok and their archery master has his own Tiktok channel. They hosted this year’s Twelfth Nigh party and have many other events throughout the year. For more information on this chapter, go to https://owlsherst.eastkingdom.org/
Every SCA event is a great way to celebrate people who are passionate about history and have talents for arts and crafts. Everything from the tapestries to the to the food, to the adorable owl toys, was made by hand by these dedicated people (most of whom brought their own medieval costumes). More members were doing live demonstrations of rapier/ dagger fights, binding books in cow leather, and singing medieval Christmas songs. I was inspired by everyone’s dedication and hard work to put this together. I also wonder if this is how Shakespeare himself felt when, as a child, he went to sheep shearing fairs and saw his friends and fellow artisans put on amateur bible plays on medieval pageant wagons.
I should warn you that, like a lot of historical reenacting societies like Civil War reenactors, etc, this society is more aimed at hardcore history nerds, than anyone else. This isn’t Medieval Times or a big-budget renaissance fair which is aimed at children and casual fun seekers. As such, it wasn’t really family-friendly. There aren’t many activities for kids and many of the arts and crafts are too delicate for toddlers and young kids. Also, this event isn’t particularly immersive or organized. People mostly just mingled, ate, and watched the various demonstrations. Keep in mind, this is just one chapter and just one event, which means your experience may vary. Nevertheless, because of the organization’s amateur historical nature, I would caution you to manage your expectations. Like I said before, this isn’t some big-budget Disney theme-park ride, but it is a chance for hardcore history nerds to get together, share their knowledge, and celebrate the traditions of a bygone era. If that’s your thing, I highly recommend it!
I’ve been in this play three times and I’m continually struck by how fun, romantic, and progressive it is. It raises questions about gender roles, social norms, bullying, and even catfishing and heteronormativity! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play and it’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies!
Shakespeare’s early comedies are about young love, infatuation, and being ‘madly in love’ (sometimes literally). His middle plays are about mature relationships between men and women and the need for commitment. I would argue that Twelfth Night, (and possibly Much Ado About Nothing), are the best examples of Shakespeare telling meaningful stories about romantic relationships.
In honor of “Twelfth Night,” I’ve created a coupon for my course on Shakespeare’s comedies from now till January 31st: Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Comic Plays” with coupon code HTHESYTIT110 until Jan 31, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-comic-plays-868BR5hg and enter the coupon code at checkout.
To finish I wanted to give you a complete production of Twelfth Night for your viewing pleasure, but I can’t decide which one, so I will post a bunch today!
1. 1996 TV movie starring Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean)
I love the BBC Kids show “Horrible Histories,” based on the books by Terry Deary (who also appears in the show). The show is a Monty-Python like variety show that jumps from various periods in English history, (primarily), while highlighting the “gory, ghastly, mean and cruel,” elements of history that our teachers tend to gloss over.
One period of history in which the show excels at satirizing is the Tudor period; devoting several songs, sketches, and animations to the reigns of Mary I, Good Queen Bess, and of course, Henry VIII. Here are some of my favorite clips from the series, with Ben Willbond as Henry VIII:
Slings And Arrows is a Canadian sitcom about a theater festival loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Its hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), in addition to dealing with the seemingly endless problems (or should I say, “Slings and Arrows?”) mounting a Shakespeare play, is also worried he’s going mad, since he keeps seeing the ghost of his old mentor/ director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette). For a recap of Season One, click here to read my review.
The premise of the Series
I describe this show as a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!
Season 2 Retrospective
Whereas Season One was sometimes extremely dramatic and raw, Season Two is much more relaxed; it feels a little bit more like The Office for Shakespeare nerds. Each episode focuses much more on the work-a-day frustrations of running a theater. We see it through multiple perspectives and even multiple shows- we see one director not being able to complete Romeo and Juliet, we see another trying to cast for Pirates of Penzance, and finally we see Geoffrey trying to fulfill Oliver’s posthumous concept for Macbeth.
“You just need to sell more tickets.”
“It’s not that simple, we’re talking about THEATER!”
Season Two doesn’t just focus on the artistic side. The theater is going broke, and Richard is begging for money from sponsors and the government. Susan Coyne as the overworked Executive Assitant Anna also has her hands full taking calls, organizing the schedule, and of course her new additional frustration with the internship program.
This particularly made me laugh the first time I saw the show because at the time, I was interning for the American Shakespeare Center. I know what it’s like to feel like if you’re out of your depth but excited, thinking that this is going to be your big break, (while also being keenly aware that your job is mostly obviously getting coffee and writing notes in the prompt book). I have to give a shout-out to Grace Lynn Kung who plays intern Emily Wu; she does a great job of portraying this mixture of anxiety and youthful desire to please.
To be brief, this season has a much greater level of authenticity and realism that shows the series graduating from a soap opera into a real workplace comedy.
Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet
In the first three episodes, Geoffrey is afraid to put on Macbeth because he thinks that Oliver will come back. Just like Season one, Geoffrey is still not sure whether Oliver is actually a ghost or is actually a manifestation of Geoffrey’s madness. As he continues to work on the production, he and Oliver quarrel as conflicting directors, and their private struggles as friends and colleagues even spill over into rehearsals, which threatens the production itself.
Gerand Wynt Davies as Henry Breedlove
The main curse in this production is the old guard of actors who are threatened by Jeffrey’s leadership; they got used to Oliver’s more relaxed style and they do not want Geoffrey shaking things up. Chiefly among them is Brian Cabbott and Henry Breedlove played by Geraint Wyn Davies, (who is really a classically trained actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company). Brian starts out by playing Claudius in Hamlet in the tail end to Season One. He’s disrespectful to Geoffrey and criticizes him to his face. Like Prince Hal dismissing Falstaff, Geoffrey dismisses Brian from the company.
One theme of Macbeth that is echoed again and again in Season two is middle-aged people feeling threatened by the young. It’s shown in Geoffrey’s clashes with Henry and Brian, with Richard being seduced by the hotshot young marketers at Froghammer, and especially with Darren Nichols, who is forced to direct Romeo and Juliet, and clashes with the young and idealistic Sarah (Joanne Kelly). She gives a passionate performance both as Juliet and as a young actress who desperately wants to do her best, and actually asks Geoffrey to direct her behind Darren’s back, as this adorable scene illustrates:
What’s great about this scene is it doesn’t just set up the star-crossed romance between Sarah and her costar; it also cleverly points out the similarities between Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. As you see at the end, Geoffrey is inspired by Sarah’s performance and it carries over to how he directs Henry and Ellen in Macbeth. Both couples are impulsive and reactive- they love pitting themselves against the world, and that is one reason why their affairs end in tragedy. Many scholars echo this interpretation, that if Romeo and Juliet had lived, they might have become the Macbeths. Seeing the balance between backstage drama, clever Shakespearean commentary, brilliant Shakespearean acting, and workplace comedy is at the heart of why this show works, and it’s handled masterfully in each and every episode of Season 2.
My favorite episodes
Episode 1: Season’s End
The Departure of Rachel McAdams As Kate
In the first episode, there is the tearful goodbye of Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams, mirroring the fact that, as big Hollywood stars the two of them were unable to continue for a second season, even though everyone involved from the cast to the creators wishes they could. The life imitates art aspect of this episode makes it particularly tearful and sad to watch and yet it is a thoughtful and deeply well-earned sendoff.
Episode 2: Fallow Time
One of my favorite episodes is technically the Christmas episode of the show, and as such, Oliver gives Geoffrey a gift- he leaves him costume sketches, set designs, and notes on the play’s concept, which the ghost of Oliver explains in detail to Geoffrey and the audience. Maybe this kind of glimpse into the nitty gritty of theatrical concepts will only appeal to theater nerds, but I truly love it.
Episode 4: Fair Is Foul and Foul is Fair
While all the drama onstage is going on, Anna is getting some romantic attention from a playwright, unaware that (SPOILER ALERT), she’s using him for ideas for his script. In a way, this subplot shows us another aspect of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet; in both these stories, the men use women for their own gain. Romeo arguably is using Juliet to play out his romantic fantasies, and Macbeth certainly depends on Lady Macbeth’s courage and cunning in order to go through with their plan to kill the king. Not surprisingly, all three romances end in tragedy.
Meanwhile on the stage during Macbeth rehearsals, Geoffrey is trying to get an organic, serious performance out of Henry, but he thinks he knows more than his director so Geoffrey has no choice but to fire him as he did Brian.
Episode 5: Steeped In Blood
In this episode Geoffrey puts the lovable understudy Jerry onstage as Macbeth. What’s interesting in this episode is, while Henry plays Macbeth as a larger-than-life soldier, Jerry plays him as sort of an everyman, letting himself be seduced by power and delusions of grandeur. Looking back, I actually owe a lot to this episode, since it helped inspire my own interpretation of Macbeth.
Episode Six: Birnam Wood
If I were going to pick one episode of Slings And Arrows for the time capsule, one episode of the show to stick up against every other show ever made, it would be “Birnam Wood.” I don’t honestly know if this is the best episode of the show—the series finale proper is probably that—but it’s my favorite episode of the show. It makes me cackle with delight, thrill with excitement, and smile with sympathy every time I watch it.
The season finale gives us a fully formed version of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet: we get to see the designs, the technical rehearsals, the marketing, everything that the whole season was building up to into, not one but two complete theatrical performances!
First, Geoffrey cooks up an elaborate scheme to touch Darren’s heart and get him to scrap his cynical concept for Romeo and Juliet.
As you can see, the scheme works, and Darren has an epiphany during tech rehearsals.
In the show’s climax, for 20 minutes we get to see Henry perform as Macbeth and Ellen as Lady M. Geoffrey reluctantly re-hires Henry, but he refuses to let him walk all over him or his production. I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say Henry finally learns his lesson, with a little help from Oliver:
As I said last time, anyone who’s ever had a boring office job loves and recognizes the characters from “The Office,” while those of us in the theater recognize the crazy directors, the hopeful understudies, the divas, and the money-grubbing management. What’s great about this season is that, while Season one focused on them all broken apart, this season has them all coming together, using their talents to put on two excellent shows. After seeing the characters grow and change professionally and personally, we feel like proud parents and this fictional theater company feels more like a family, but any family can be broken… stay tuned.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been on the air for over 20 years. The show originally aired in 1988 on KTMA TV in Eden Prairie MN. Since then it’s spawned over 13 seasons, (still going strong on Netflix), a huge cult following, and countless parodies in many versions of pop culture.The premise is that three guys watch bad movies and make sarcastic comments about the acting, sets, costumes, etc. The show thrives on meta-commentary, obscure references, and satirizing anything and anyone.
Full circle for the show
Kevin Murphy, one of the show’s creators actually had reservations of even doing the episode, as he is a big Shakespeare fan. This makes sense as I would argue that the very premise of the show lies in Shakespeare, and in particular, Hamlet. As I said in the last paragraph, the show thrives on reference humor, meta-commentary, and satire, and one person who loves that kind of humor is in fact, Shakespeare’s own drama critic- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
In Act III, Scene ii of Hamlet, there is a play within a play, where Hamlet sits back and makes sarcastic comments about how bad the production is:
Hamlet. We shall know by this fellow. The players cannot keep counsel; they’ll tell all. Ophelia. Will he tell us what this show meant?2035 Hamlet. Ay, or any show that you’ll show him. Be not you asham’d to show, he’ll not shame to tell you what it means. Ophelia. You are naught, you are naught! I’ll mark the play. Pro. For us, and for our tragedy, Here stooping to your clemency, We beg your hearing patiently. [Exit.] Hamlet. Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring? Ophelia. ‘Tis brief, my lord. Hamlet. As woman’s love.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii
If Hamlet had two robot companions, he’d essentially be doing an episode of the show!
Begin Murderer! Pox! Leave thy damnable faces and begin!
Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.
So it’s an interesting kind of irony that after 13 years, MST3K finally got around to review the very source of their humor. Not only is Hamlet highly meta and satirical, Many educators, myself included, say that teaching Shakespeare with a healthy dose of irreverence is a good way to draw in new students and get them interested in the play:
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s “Hamlet ” episode reveals a common reaction to Hamlet that often goes unspoken by high school and college students too afraid to sound anti-intellectual. Despite this irreverent tone, however, this unique appropriation of Shakespeare adds to our understanding of a play that today very few read and even fewer see performed. As an author who reveled in making serious, yet sometimes playful, fun at human weakness, I think this respectful irreverence would have delighted the Bard were able to see it.
Dan Mills. “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Shakespeare, and Postmodern Canonization,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 17.2 (2015): 206-227.
3. Divisive episode
This episode is somewhat controversial among the MST3K fandom. While almost everyone agrees it was a good idea for Mike and the bots to do Shakespeare, many fans question the choice to do this Shakespeare. The 1961 film was produced for German TV, and starred Maximillian Schell, (who would later win an Oscar for his performance in “Judgement at Nuremberg).”
First of all, the film is very slow and badly paced with no distinctive production choices. The sets and costumes are generic, (except for the Liberace-looking ghost), and the cinematography is competent but dull. Finally it’s Hamlet; the play that even Mike Nelson called “The greatest work of fiction ever written.” Even with the dreary set, the bad dubbing, and nonexistent pacing, it’s still a good story with magnificent dialogue, and the cast is still pretty good. Perhaps the ultimate backhanded compliment Mike Nelson and company could have handled is that even the worst production of Hamlet is very difficult to riff. Still, when the jokes land, they hit extremely well. Here are some of my favorites:
C’mon, man. We’ve seen like eight ghosts, none of ’em have been even close to my dad. MIKE NELSON
Rap artist, The Notorious K.I.N.G.”
Hamlet: To die: to sleep. Crow: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing right now, Bub.
Hamlet: TO BE OR NOT TO BE…. and lose the name of action.
Mike: So I’m a chicken for not stabbing myself—that’s all you needed to say!
[Having stabbed an intruder behind Gertrude’s tapestry, Hamlet discovers it is not the King, but Polonius.] Hamlet: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool! Crow [as Polonius]: Oh, right, it’s my fault you killed me.
On the one hand, it’s great to watch the MST3K guys look at a piece of classic theater, especially since the show owes a lot to Shakespeare. That said, they never acknowledge this, not even during the play within a play scene. In addition, the critics are right that the film is so dreary it’s hard to make fun of. I would love to see how the bots and Mike riff on Branaugh or Gibson! Finally, maybe part of the problem was that Hamlet has already been riffed and mocked before. As the clip above from The Reduced Shakespeare Company shows, gently ribbing on the plot and characters of Hamlet has been done before. Once something becomes famous as the best or the worst, it becomes a target for mockery. I was hoping that my favorite riffers would have more fun riffing on the play that helped create their art form. That said, this show is a classic comedy series, and this episode always makes me smile.
This website got a lovely shout-out from Lizzie Loveridge member of the Critics Circle, the national professional body of British critics for dance, drama, film, music, books, and visual arts. I’m truly honored, and, to return the favor, I’m going to repost one of her reviews for this year’s Globe Theater production of “Much Ado About Nothing” here:
It’s always a great privilege to play a Shakespearean character, but especially to play one of Shakespeare’s villains. Playing Don John in this production is a great deal of fun, especially creating a character from the ground up. What follows is a short account of my process of creating this character, which, as I always do no matter what character I’m creating, begins with the text.
Don John only really talks about himself in one scene, Act I, Scene iii. This is the only scene in which Don John hints at the reason why he is so unhappy:
“I cannot hide what I am:
I must be sad when I have cause and smile
at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait
for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and
tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and
claw no man in his humour.”
— Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene iii
Looking at the speech, the first thing I noticed is that it is all in prose, which is usually an indicator that the character is not speaking from his heart. Instead of making a confession of his true emotions, Don John tends to dominate the conversation and hit his listener over the head with his argument. Benedick and Beatrice also speak in prose when they are making fun of each other, but this kind of prose is much more terse and cynical.
Looking closer at the language of the speech, I also noticed the repeated usage of the word ‘no.’ In this speech Don John refuses to accommodate anybody, he reserves the right to ignore anyone, take from anyone, and irritate anyone he wishes without a thought for anyone’s feelings. Essentially, in this speech, he is refusing any kind of social grace or social interaction. Two kinds of people exhibit this kind of pattern; petulant children, and sociopaths.
Since Don John is an illegitimate child, he has probably been denied a normal, loving childhood, which can stunt his emotional growth. Like Edmund in King Lear, I decided that Don John doesn’t believe in any kind of love, except love for himself. Without the love of others, he refuses to give or show any himself, and only seeks to enhance his own ego, which explains Don John’s pointless war against his brother to improve his political status. This lust for power became my overall objective for the character which manifests itself in Don John’s utter contempt for everyone but himself, and the cruelty he shows to Claudio and the other people in the play.
However, I also made a decision that, unlike Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of Don John in the film version of Much Ado, I didn’t want him to just be a repellant psychopath that would be unpleasant to watch. I decided early on that I wanted to find a way to insert some comedy into the role. This is why I decided that when Don John complains about his melancholy and his unfulfilled desires, he pouts like a young child. I then summarized my concept for the role in four distinguishing characteristics:
Having established my character’s motivation and his overall personality traits, I concentrated on developing a voice and physicality. I thought to myself, “What person or character has these characters?” Then I saw this:
Neil Patrick’s character Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, matched these characteristics perfectly. He is a self-obsessed low level sociopath who sleeps with lots of women without loving any of them. He is also an illegitimate child who never knew his father, just like Don John. I therefore decided to borrow some mannerisms from Barney.
After watching a few episodes of the show, I noticed a few interesting details in the way Barney acts that I wished to replicate:
Posture- Barney’s posture is absolutely straight. He gives the impression of growing straight up out of the ground, which gives the impression of supreme confidence and arrogance. To keep my posture straight, I did yoga every day to keep my back and legs strong. I used a straight posture whenever Don John is in public but when he is alone and pouting, I let my shoulders hunch like Richard Nixon to give the impression that Don John, (like most bullies), suffers from extremely poor self-esteem, and his displays of ego are merely a front.
Eyebrows: As you can see in the photo above, Neil Patrick Harris can move his eyebrows independently, which allows him to appear incredulous or mischievous with a sly move of the eyebrow. It just so happens that I can move my eyebrows independently as well, so I use this in moment
The Chin: A lot of NPH’s acting comes from his chin. When he’s feeling very proud of himself, he thrusts his chin in the air like a lightning rod, absorbing mystical energy from the heavens. When he is feeling wicked, he chocks his head to the side and pops his chin out. I adopted these motions for moments in which Don John is plotting something.
Since Don John is upper class, he doesn’t need big gestures; the more upper class someone is the less they need to work to get people’s attention. However being the selfish brat that he is, his gestures are very flashy. I adopted subtle, fluid gestures that come from the wrist and only used full body gestures when the character is angry, or when he is playing up his own ego. In the video on the left, there’s a short rehearsal of a scene I did with Amanda Cash Snediker. At one point, when I want Tiarra Hairston to light Amanda’s cigarette, all I do is snap my fingers.
The iconic voice of a 1920s announcer is a reedy-voiced tenor with a slight slur in his words with a slight smile to his mouth. This kind of world-weary, loud-mouthed voice is exactly what I wanted to convey in Don John’s voice.
Costume “Let’s Suit up”
Just like Barney, I believe Don John is obsessed with his appearance. I looked up male fashions in the 1920s. Looking at this picture of Edward Beale McLean, (head of the Washington Post from 1916-1933), I saw a suit worth replicating. I found a great black pinstripe suit.
I also looked for a uniform that I thought would seem menacing and appropriately gawdy.
For More Info On Male Fashion from the 1920s, click on this link: