In my Classics of Western Literature course, students act out scenes from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This is no small feat: the students, whom I encourage to think like directors, have full creative liberty in crafting their productions. They must create costumes, design sound effects and lighting, utilize props, and make choices about the script, whether it be to rewrite the scene in modern English, to cut lines, to add lines, or to leave the language exactly as Shakespeare wrote it.
This assignment is designed to challenge students to consider how a director and actor’s choices affect the meaning of the production. Most viewers can easily recognize differences in productions—Kenneth Branaugh’s film adaptation of Much Ado, for example, strikingly contrasts in tone with Joss Whedon’s recent black and white adaptation of the same play. But what choices underlie these differences? How do Branaugh and Whedon understand Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship differently, for example? In what ways are the directors’ views of marriage in alignment and in contrast with Shakespeare’s?
I joined the CACE faculty seminar on “Theater as a Way of Knowing” in part because of shame. For years, I’ve asked my students to bravely perform in front of their classmates while I, one who has not been on a stage since childhood, sit comfortably in the audience. I wondered, “Could I perform as my students do?” “If I did, would it change the way I view my students’ work, my assignments, and my relationship with my students?”
What I learned through the CACE seminar, above all, is that theater is an embodied means of knowing. After one of our “workout” exercises, I found myself wondering, “How would Beatrice stand, or drink from a cup, or fidget? What would her physical response be when Benedick enters the room?” And to answer these questions, I had to move my own body, to think about the roles I play every day in my life, to associate with Beatrice and to advocate for her, because, as Mark Lewis to aptly put it, “You can’t ‘play’ anyone you can’t love. Love and judgement cannot coexist.”
Similarly, I learned that theater-going is also a physical, rather than purely intellectual, act. Before seeing Tracy Letts’s play Mary Page Marlowe at the Steppenwolf Theater, our leader Michael Stauffer asked us to notice moments in the play that cause us to “lean in.” This is a proposition I never would have considered posing to my literature students, but it is keenly attuned to how our bodies react to our surroundings, our emotions, and our memories.
When we returned to Arena Theater the next morning, we were greeted with this question, which was written on a gigantic post-it note with space for commentary: “What are the questions that are living in your body after experiencing Mary Page Marlowe?” The question reminded me to listen to my body, to the story it tells me, tells others, retells, rewrites.
It seems so potently obvious to me now that embodied knowledge is at the root of our Christian faith: Christ came to us in human form, made an atoning sacrifice of his body on the cross, and was physically resurrected. My body participates in this story, for Christ lives in me and I in him.
When I next teach Much Ado, I’ll ask my students these questions about their performances: How did embodying a character change your understanding of him or her? Of yourself? Of your relationship to others and to Christ?