Jack DesBois

Throughout the year, S&P program students have the opportunity to hear from specialists in a wide range of areas within the world of Shakespeare and performance. Internet cartoonist Mya Gosling was one such special guest; on October 5, 2018, she visited to lead a workshop on, as she described her artistic niche, “acting Shakespeare with stick figures.” Gosling began creating comic strip adaptations of the Bard’s works in 2013 after sharing some Shakespearean doodles with friends on Facebook. Two and a half years later, her internet comic “Good Tickle Brain” (named after a quote of Falstaff’s from 1 Henry IV) had become an online sensation, enabling her to leave her job as a library cataloguer and draw stick figures of Shakespeare characters full-time. Today, her comics (which also include “Keep Calm and Muslim On,” a comic-commentary on Muslim-American life, and “Sketchy Beta,” a chronicle of the author’s rock-climbing travails) are a mainstay of popular Shakespeareana, as evidenced by their pride-of-place in the American Shakespeare Center gift shop.

About two dozen S&P students, professors, and friends gathered in a campus classroom to hear Gosling reveal the “top-secret magic” of her art. “It’s all in the eyebrows,” she instructed us, demonstrating under a digital document projector the various configurations of facial expressions that constitute “the building blocks of how I act through my stick figures.” By adding one of a handful of mouth types to her chosen eyebrow form, Gosling created in front of our very eyes the palette of emotions her simple art form offers her: angry, sad, suspicious, doubtful, surprised, quizzical, dead. “The simplicity of the stick figure,” she explained, “represents the universality of Shakespeare.” She added, “I don’t do legs because legs are too much trouble.”

Having gifted her audience with the tools of her craft, Gosling then offered the rest of the workshop to our creative energies. Each participant chose a play from Shakespeare’s canon to distill in a three-panel comic strip, mimicking Gosling’s own immensely popular “Three-Panel Plays” series. Thus ensued ten minutes of near-pure creativity. This workshop style of sharing Shakespearean comic strip art is a fledgling idea of Gosling’s; she explained to us the three principles underlying her belief that comic art has great potential as a tool for creative engagement: (1) everybody can draw stick figures (and if you think you can’t you’re mistaken), (2) stick figures are non-threatening, even when slaughtered and baked into pies, and (3) the wide range of emotional “acting choices” renders the form remarkably flexible. The task of truncating a play, or a character’s arc, into three panels can be quite revealing about the play’s essential themes and the artist’s relationship with the source material – and, as the workshop participants discovered when Gosling shared their work under the document projector, the results can be highly entertaining.

Gosling hopes to expand the scope of her three-panel Shakespeare workshop, which she has so far shared with college and graduate school audiences. The form holds great promise as a teaching tool, and an accessible engagement platform, for high school-age and younger students grappling with Shakespeare’s plays. And Gosling, with her unassuming sense of humor and her life-long love of Shakespeare, is the ideal mediator between students and the Bard’s infinitely rich stories, characters, and language. The only problem: how do you draw a cross-gartered Malvolio with no legs?

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