English 444: London Contemporary Theatre, or,
What Do We Do When We Watch Theatre?
The goal of this class is to make you more informed, confident and, especially, active participants in contemporary theatre. We will approach this goal in five ways. First, we will be seeing 5 theatrical productions during the course of the quarter, and discussing each of those productions both before and after we see them. Second, we will be reading parts of several of these plays before we actually see the production—thinking about possibilities for dramatic representations of what we read. Third, you will be writing about what you see. You’ll be keeping a theatre notebook as one part of your contribution to the formal work of the quarter, and I will be reviewing material from that notebook as you write it (more on the Notebook below). Fourth, we’ll be engaging in a range of informal dramatic exercises throughout the quarter, introducing you to a few theatrical techniques that will significantly increase your ability to “see” what’s happening on stage. And fifth and finally, we’ll be visiting a few physical sites with special importance to the history of drama in London. For this is the place, you guys!—this is for English-language theatre sacred ground of sacred grounds.
Structured writing for the course will be in the form of a Theatre Notebook. This should be loose-leaf rather than bound because you’ll be handing in assignments that will be returned to you for inclusion in the final notebook/portfolio. Assignments handed in week by week will be graded +, √, -; you will select one to rewrite/extend to hand in at midterm, and a second to rewrite/extend for the final Notebook review on or before July 21. At course end I’ll also ask you to do a 2-3 page Self-reflective essay to hand in with the notebook.
Course Grading: 350 Points, apportioned in the following way:
Weekly Notebook Review 50
The actual relation between total points accumulated and final grade is not entirely fixed; rather, I adjust to allow for the highest achieved total.
Why so much writing? You will write a lot in this class, although in fact I’m asking for less than half of what I’d ask at home in Seattle. Still, it may seem like plenty plus, so I want to explain why I ask it.
First, writing is the single most effective way most of us have to make the learning we do active. The mere reading of assignments, or watching of a play, is essentially passive. Though your mind goes through steps enough to make the performance make sense, it rarely goes much beyond that point, nor is it forced to build connections to the conceptual frameworks you already have with any kind of strength or resilience. Most restricting of all, however, is that without active and engaged work with pen (or computer) and paper your mind will also not do the re-structuring of conceptual frameworks you will need to make yourself comfortable with the active reading of literature.
Second, the writing you do will also prepare you for our (very limited) time together in class. With your having been actively engaged in writing, class sessions will move faster, group work will be more efficient, and every person in the class will actually be able to contribute to the whole. Our work will be more interesting because you will have made progress even before class begins.
Third, you will simply learn more. Having to write will force you to confront what you don’t already know, and will give you constant practice with the skills that active work with drama requires.
Finally, writing well truly is central to education in English. It is, after all, what the rest of the world thinks you learn in an English class. You SHOULD be doing constant writing—so much so that it doesn’t feel like quite such a big deal in the first place.
What I want. My criterion for these writings is ECI: “engaged critical intelligence.” You don’t have to be “right,” and you don’t have to be polished. You don’t even have to solve entirely whatever problem I give you. But I do want to see real effort, even if it’s only to narrate for me the difficulties you are having as you try to come to grips with the assignment.
How Much Time Should You Spend Writing? These are serious writing assignments, but in the past some students have taken them too seriously. Please understand: I’m not asking for a series of “English papers.” In specific terms that means: I expect from you the equivalent of either TWO typed pages, or ONE FULL hour of writing. If you truly want to spend more time than that—fine. Just don’t go over two pages (three if you are handwriting and write big). But it doesn’t need to be perfect. (Think ECI!)
My response to your writing. Because these papers are informal, I will also not read them with the same attention I give to your formal work. Their primary usefulness is in the writing itself. I take it as axiomatic that you will get more from this class by having written regularly than you otherwise would—and end of quarter evaluations from earlier classes confirm that most students agree.
Moreover, my intent is that these exercises be useful to you whether I actually read them or not. Indeed, I will not collect every set of papers at the time you write them (though I will be collecting them all as part of the course notebook at quarter’s end). And when I do collect them, my comments will be of the “OK, ”good, or I’d like to see more thinking going on here” variety. If you want more specific response to your work, please come talk with me during my office hours. (Which are after each class meeting! Just come up and talk with me, and we'll sort out whatever needs sorting out.)
Late Papers. I do not read late response papers. With the reading of 6 to 8 sets of papers over the course of the quarter I will have trouble enough keeping them straight already, so late papers are simply to be included in the course-end notebook.
Attendance and Participation are part of the course, and full credit for them presupposes engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. I take role randomly during the quarter; I also use my review of your notebook/portfolio work to evaluate your class participation. Incomplete notebooks mean incomplete participation.
Paraphrase: an inevitable skill underlying the active reading/ viewing of many texts is simple comprehension. And some plays are tougher this way than others. Shakespeare’s English is different enough from modern English that most new readers / watchers work hard to get even the literal sense of a play. For a number of texts, then, many students will have made progress just by learning to paraphrase, and that is in fact no small accomplishment. Nevertheless, accurate paraphrase really is only a preliminary skill. It is something most teachers presuppose in formal writing, not something they give credit for.
Noticing: Paraphrase presupposed, then, the first level of active reading is the noticing of "What" specific details concerning choices authors or productions make. An author may choose, for example, to use a metaphor, or to elevate diction, or (in a verse drama) to switch mid-scene from verse to prose; an actor may choose to say a line with one inflection or another. Those choices are easily enough seen once one has pointed them out, but many new readers/watchers look right past them. The capacity to notice specific choices a writer or performer has made corresponds to "Whats, or Specifics," the most basic of my grading criteria.
Exploring: Active watching/reading’s second level is "“exploring" the word I use for working through the interpretive implications of the Specifics (or Whats) one notices. Having noticed that a particular expression is metaphorical, for example, can you explore the logic of that metaphor? How do its terms shape the way we understand a character’s utterance? Exploring obviously depends upon noticing (how could you explore something you haven’t yet noticed?), and is thus a higher order skill; it is also a more challenging task because it doesn’t have fixed, right-wrong answers. It is in this sense open-ended, and readers must develop a certain interpretive patience if they are to get beyond the superficial. Good explorations should be full, ”not sketchy, and thus my criterion for this skill is also double: “Exploration/Fullness.”
Integration: My criterion for the third level of active reading is Integration/ Power", and it stands for the ability to pull together, sort, and evaluate the many particular observations made while noticing specifics and exploring their semantic logic. Very often Integration begins by identifying how the observations you’ve made can be described as moves in a particular conversation. The observations we’ve made about stage design in 1 Henry 4, for example, might be seen as questions raised in a conversation about the relation of the tavern scenes to the need for social change. Such a hypothesis would supply a conceptual framework within which to organize discussions of the many places in the work where issues of social status might arise. A paper can become conceptually powerful only when writers can integrate their observations into this sort of coherent interpretive hypothesis.
Noticing, Exploration/Fullness, and Integration/Power are thus three grading criteria for this course. Other criteria I use include:
Responsiveness: A responsive essay does what is asked, and doesn’t do what isn’t asked. I usually write out my assignments quite fully, and the object of doing so is to make sure you know what you are to be doing. If for any reason you don’t understand what you should be writing about, PLEASE RAISE THE QUESTION IN CLASS! If you don’t know what you are supposed to do, others probably won’t either.
Well-structured-ness: A well-structured essay or paper will have a clear conceptual center, a claim which explains why you are writing and why your reader should be reading. It will keep its attention focused clearly on that center’s logic, excluding what is irrelevant. It will provide enough road signs--transitions, connections-- that your reader will know where you’re going and why. A paper with a strong center will follow clearly, avoid unclear digressions, and its different parts will all be relevant to the claim you’re making.
Presentability: A good paper will be as grammatically and stylistically clear and well-edited as you can manage. Though I do not set the same presentation standards for in-class work, I DO expect that in-class writing be literate and physically readable.