Practical Text Deconstruction: giving some Shakespeare the once over in Germany

I worked with seven Theater Pedagogik students from the Osnabruck Technische Fachhoch Schule.  My workshop intended to explore how the eight elements of Bojeian story deconstruction might be applied to a piece of Shakespearian text in order to see how and whether that text may be re-presented as a text of inclusion, as opposed to the text of exclusion that Shakespeare texts can be portrayed as.

My session began with a simple name game played in a circle:  I name myself, throw a small pocket size German-English dictionary to a workshop participant and suggest they repeat the exercise.  Before long, all participants have picked up the idea and are beginning to establish the names of the other members of the group.  I develop this game eventually by plucking at random a word out of the dictionary, repeating my name then throwing the dictionary to another participant, again suggesting that participants repeat the exercise.  I encourage participants to pick any word, quickly, whether this be German or English, comprehensible or incomprehensible.  I accelerate the game so that participants eventually build up a chain of six words, five of which are taken from the dictionary, the sixth being their name.

I then request the participants to write the words onto flip charts I have attached to the wall.  I encourage them again to write quickly, with little time to consider of reflect on what they are doing. Once up on the wall, I ask members to construct an imaginary story using the six words of another group member, but using additional words as they see fit.  Eventually, short stories are generated by each of the group members about the other group members.  Given these short stories are based around six random words, the stories themselves display remarkable levels of abstraction, illogic and fantasy.  Nevertheless, members construct stories which are intelligible to varying degrees: the point being made here that human’s abilities to generate meaning is deeply ingrained in our psyche and that our powers of interpretation and meaning-making are perhaps as essential as our ability to breath and digest and reproduce. We focussed on three of the deconstruction techniques that Boje and Dennehy propose, in particular:

Reinterpreting the hierarchy: writing a letter is frequently about trying to present a  story from one point of view: introducing a second point of view which distorts and attempts to force its own control on the emerging narrative means that story writers are constantly reassessing and reinterpreting the hierarchy they are trying to establish.

Establishing rebel voices: the automatic letter writing exercise – especially in larger groups acts to deny the authority of the one voice.

Denying the plot: these writing exercises are designed to confound plot at all stages of its possible grip.

Tracing what is between the lines: constructing words from six random words encourages participants to trace and generate what is not said by filling in the blanks and imagining possibilities, however ludicrous or far-fetched.

After these warm up exercises, I then present participants with two pages taken from Steve Gooch’s Cut Shakespeare version of The Winters Tale. Apart from the Gooch technique of presenting his cut version of the play in a mix of bold and ordinary type face in the document, I provided no other contextual or explanatory information about the play.  Participants claimed not to know anything about the play at all and a number of them professed difficulties with understanding the language. This prompted a discussion about the status that Shakespeare has within the traditional literature canon and how this compares with the place of Goethe in Germany.  Students’ alienation from the text thus provided a metaphor of disability within the group: in one sense students could be seen, if viewed through a medical lens, as having a deficit in that they had a lack of intelligence to grasp a text presented to them: in another sense, if viewed through a social lens, the text had the effect of disabling them as there were no immediately apparent mechanisms open to them which would assist them in accessing the text.

However, participants were open to attempting to read the piece and began by identifying particular phrases – whether in bold or in ordinary type – which caught their attention. These phrases were discussed and possible meanings established.  I confirmed for participants that there was no right or wrong answers in this process.  After some initial caution in the process which I interpreted as participants wanting to know whether they were giving me the right answer or not, they continued to work on the pieces in two groups: one group of three men participants, and one group of four women participants.  The two groups then developed their own interpretation of the texts which they presented back to an invited audience of other students after about 15 minutes preparation.

The men’s group presented a non-verbal presentation in which the ‘king’ – identifiable by his posture and mimed cape – issued control of his kingdom and subjects through the use of visible computer remote control which he wielded at random both at imaginary characters in the play and to the audience in an apparent attempt to control their words and actions.  This control was in vain though: as he continued his attempts at control, the two other actors – who take on the role of off-stage, stage managers, steadily removed parts of the set and his costume whilst he was apparently oblivious to their actions.  Eventually his set and key costume elements – wooden blocks and scarf – were taken away from him and he was left with nothing apart from the ability to curl up, foetus like, on the stage floor.  The presentation ends in silence and finally, on applause, the actor acknowledges the audience and the presence of the two stage managers within it.

The performance was touching and regarded sombrely by the audience. We were left with a picture of a dying, reducing king whose influence and power was steadily declining.  We were encouraged to feel pity for him: a far cry from the usual portrayal of Leontes, the king in the ur-text, who is portrayed as a man who suffers from extreme jealousy which leads him to lock up his wife (and thus brings about her eventual ’death’) cast his new born daughter into the wilderness and lose his son into the bargain.  In this scenario, the text has been decentred from a  performance intended for two actors playing within Shakespearian conventions, to a performance for one solitary actor performing to an unseen multitude of other characters off stage as well as two actors playing the roles of two stage managers.

The women’s group however produced a piece which was far more pantomimic in character.  They produced a script which was performed in a graphic, comic style.  A narrator announces characters who gesture or offer a few words at particular moments to reinforce the words of the narrator.  They played with theatre conventions of the stage curtain (by using the black out curtains of the rehearsal room in a mock theatrical manner) and stage lighting (by switching the overhead neon lights of the room off abruptly at the end of the presentation).  They bow together, as a company at the end of the performance with tongues firmly in cheeks. The script they produced is as follows.

Schauspielerin: Es gab einmal einen König.  Dieser König hatte eine sehr gute Königin.  Doch die Königin gehörte einer feministishcen Bewegung an. Immer wieder schrie sie: Erhängt alle Ehemänner!  Und ihr Mann, der König sagte: Du bist ein Teil vom Nest voller verräterinnen.  Er wart ihr sogar vor, der sahn sie ein Bastard, und nicht von ihm selber.  Als eh ihr eines morgens den Hals umdrehte, schrie er: Nimm den Bastard! Der Sohn reif verstört: Ich bin nichts, bei diesem guten Licht!

Licht aus.

Alle: Besser!

In summary, both groups managed to significantly rewrite the Shakespeare text presented to them using the elements of story deconstruction described previously.  The text work particularly offered participants to use the eighth element described: resituation: i.e the ability to find a new perspective, one that resituates the story beyond its dualisms, excluded voices of singular viewpoint.  Participants reauthored the story so that the hierarchy was resituated and new balance of views was attained.  They re-storied the text so as to re-present dualities and margins and thus scripted new actions.

Whilst this process took place over only a few hours on a Friday afternoon, it offers a number of possibilities that can be used in further text workshop exercises, particularly with groups of participants who may have felt traditionally excluded from participating in an integrated interpretation of a Shakespeare text.

(Extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations; reflections on cultural leadership)

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

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