by Maddie Buttitta
The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has recently passed; unsurprisingly, his “death day” was celebrated with great mirth throughout this past year. Celebrations notwithstanding, within the time-honored tradition of performing, analyzing, producing, and regularly transforming the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, some might think there is no need to add to the already immense catalog of early modern drama, as well as the scholarship of which surrounds it. While not an early modern work, Emma Whipday’s new play Shakespeare’s Sister unveils the fictional Judith Shakespeare’s journey of stepping out of the “within” of domesticity, and into the “away” of London, of being a female playwright in 16th century England. First performed as a staged reading at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, as a part of their Masterclass Trust’s “Pitch Your Play” scheme, Shakespeare’s Sister had its international priemere at our very own American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse on February 24th 2017. I recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Whipday via email about the different aspects of bringing Sister to the states, the process within producing new plays, and the research within the work itself.
Q: What was it like seeing your play come to life in the United States as compared to England?
EW: It has been hugely exciting to watch my play come to life at the American Shakespeare Center; I feel that the unique staging conditions at the ASC have been more significant than the US/UK divide, as no other US production would have been quite like this, and these conditions are absolutely perfect in bringing to life the theatrical world of Elizabethan England which I explore in my play. It was exciting to hear my words spoken in American accents, which made certain lines sound more contemporary or current – perhaps because I was consciously borrowing some sentence constructions and vocabulary from early modern English, and US accent is (I believe) closer to Shakespearean English than many British accents! And it was wonderful to see how the US audience responded to the actors in the shared light and interactive atmosphere of the Blackfriars.
Q: What are some misconceptions regarding new plays that more people of which should be more aware?
EW: I think many institutions that support new writing emphasise the necessity for contemporary relevance, and assume that new plays need to portray the contemporary world to speak to social and political concerns today. However, Shakespeare set so many of his plays in the past (and elsewhere) because this enabled him to speak to contemporary issues through encouraging his audience to imaginatively engage with different times, worlds, and experiences – and that’s what I was trying to do with Shakespeare’s Sister. I have encountered the misconception that a play needs to be about our current cultural moment to be relevant; but I believe that re-imagining the past, and challenging how we think about our theatrical history, is an important way of engaging with contemporary culture.
Q: Along with sounding the fathoms of historical fiction, you are also currently researching brother-sister relationships on the early modern stage. How has your work in Shakespeare’s Sister (with the relationship between the very real William Shakespeare and the very fictional Judith Shakespeare) influenced your research, or vice versa?
EW: My interest in familial relationships in early modern England – their political significance in a world where the home is represented as a microcosm of the state, and what happens when they go wrong – certainly influenced my portrayal of Judith Shakespeare’s domestic life in Act One of Shakespeare’s Sister. In writing Shakespeare’s Sister, I was also influenced by the brother-sister relationship in Measure for Measure, one of my favourite plays. This in turn has inspired by current research project on brothers and sisters on the early modern stage – so my academic interests have inspired my creative work, and this in turn has prompted further academic research.
Shakespeare’s Sister, which priemered on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage on February 24th, runs at the American Shakespeare Center until Friday, April 7th. Check their website for more details.