I use my scholarship primarily to investigate boundaries.
One of the boundaries I feel most concerned to address is that between critical thinking and creative practice. I have attended (and thoroughly enjoyed) several literature conferences and creative writing, theatre and art events; very few of these have combined the work of the scholar on the one hand, and the work of the artist or practitioner on the other.
As part of the English and theatre programme I am developing at Union Chapel School in Kolkata, I have been very fortunate in being able to address this boundary. The project in hand has been an original script based on one of Shakespeare’s plays (in our case “As You Like It”), devised and produced for entry in an all-India Inter-School Drama Festival organised by the British Council in Kolkata. Students involved in the production are in the fourteen to sixteen year age group.
A second boundary this project has enabled me to address is that implicitly made between critical thinking at the secondary and post-secondary levels. It seems to me that students at pre-university level have the capacity to engage with Shakespeare’s most profound ideas, and performance rather than reading, on its own, allows them to do this. I think the most engaged forms of critical reading are also essentially creative – but when you involve the body and actors’ emotions it triggers a rush of perceptual ability, which completely transforms the written page.
Because the remit of the Festival gave us the freedom to re-interpret Shakespeare, we also looked at connections between the parallel universes which quantum physics allows us to think may be possible, and our stageplot.
We didn’t know, going into it, how successful the project was going to be. But this is what I think we discovered.
That Shakespeare is so “act-able” (we made up this word because no other seemed to do) because he deals in fundamentals. Love is irrational and it can happen in a second (Orlando meeting Rosalind, Celia meeting Oliver), sibling relationships run the gamut between love and hate (Orlando and Oliver). What would have taken several classes to explain and theorise more conventionally was instinctively apprehended by the students, and then presented in performance.
In presenting on my work at the Third International Conference for English Language Teacher Educators and Teachers 2013 organised by the British Council and EFLU (the English and Foreign Languages University) in Hyderabad earlier this year, I had mentioned theatre exercises based on situations and vocabulary from “As You Like It.” A very senior scholar based in the USA put the question “Why Shakespeare?” I think he was putting the question that post-colonial theorists still ask – namely, can we separate Shakespeare from the Eurocentrism that continues to colour the syllabi of modern India (at the pre-university level there are three educational boards which predominate, and which do certainly focus on Anglo-American writers at least as much as on Indian writers)?
I think the answer to this necessarily lies beyond (though, of course, it doesn’t exclude) classroom discussions. The central thing we need to know about a playwright is – does s/he work? Has s/he produced a stageworthy experience?
If, four hundred and fifty years after his own time, Shakespeare can continue to move and connect with a group of teenagers, I think the answer to the question – “Why Shakespeare?” – is simply this. Because he is profoundly “act-able.” He works, at levels which actors vastly separated from him by time, experience and heritage, can both grasp and demonstrate. And, perhaps, the best argument with which to take on the cultural supremacist view is to simply show that groups of people across space and time, can and do connect with Shakespeare’s legacy. He is, of course, a national icon but he is also something more – a global one.