Academic journal article Bulletin of the Comediantes

Restaging the Classroom: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Teaching Early Modern Hispanic Theater

Academic journal article Bulletin of the Comediantes

Restaging the Classroom: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Teaching Early Modern Hispanic Theater

Article excerpt

Teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on early modern theater in the United States presents a major obstacle, namely, the abysmal distance that separates instructors and students from the texts and contexts themselves. In the face of such geographic, historical, and cultural distance, instructors must rely instead on a script that cannot reproduce the essence of the dramatic work at hand. University professors in the United States, in our quest to teach early modern Hispanic theater in a way that is meaningful to our students, stress time and again the importance of staging as a fundamental element in teaching the classics. For example, Dale Pratt and Valerie Hegstrom, who have regularly staged classic plays with their students at Brigham Young University, underscore this practical dimension: "We believe that the best way to teach theater is through performance" (198). This statement spotlights the inadequacy of a strictly text-based approach to teaching and studying plays. As we shall see, the logistics of reimagining the college classroom outside of a traditional logocentric framework create a stumbling block, one that has been labeled "the fifth wall" by Lynette Hunter and Peter Lichtenfels in their useful Shakespeare, Language and the Stage, The Fifth Wall: Approaches to Shakespeare from Criticism, Performance and Theatre Studies:

If the "fourth wall," the barrier between the actor and the audience introduced by theatre conventions, is an invisible artefact between the stage and the audience, the fifth wall may be thought of as the invisible wall between critics or readers and theatre practitioners. (1)

The present study seeks to tear down this "fifth wall" by proposing a break that is meaningful to twenty-first century university students in the United States.1 We discuss the pedagogical benefits of a five-week study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, sponsored by the University of Delaware between 2004 and 2010, that focused on a multidisciplinary understanding of Golden Age theater as text, performance, and cultural phenomenon. We approach the evaluation of this program from our perspectives as program director and former participant of the program, respectively.

In a prologue to a handful of autos sacramentales that he was hesitant to publish, Pedro Calderón de la Barca had already warned about the deficiency of a strictly textual reading of plays that had been created with other artistic objectives:

Parecerán tibios algunos trozos; respecto de que el papel no puede dar de sí ni lo sonoro de la música, ni lo aparatoso de las tramoyas, y si ya no es el que lea haga en su imaginación composición de lugares. (42)

The postmodern prevalence of the written word, however, tends to overshadow this spatial, multisensor)' element of theatrical texts. More recently, renowned theater director and performance theorist Richard Schechner explains how postmodernity focuses on the written logos, turning its back on the oral tradition of the world of theater: "[Pjeople lost the sense of texts as skeins of rhythms and sounds, as the weaving together of contending emotions and ideas, as flexible and living spoken organisms" (131). Both Calderón and Schechner suggest the importance of an active, embodied interaction with a text, a practice that necessarily extends beyond this same text. While a textbased approach to theater is obviously the one most easily orchestrated in the college classroom, such a program underscores what Schechner describes as the "exegesis that derives from believing in the absolute force and authority of the written logos" (131). Performance offers an extratextual dimension that should not be dismissed in the teaching of theater in the university classroom. What is written as playscript is a starting point for the teaching of theater, but the specific form of a given theatrical work goes further than the page to encompass those elements accessible only in performance (sound effects, bodily movement, blocking, costuming, inflection, etc. …

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