Enter the Line, See Where it Leads You
This is the third in a series of conversations between two members of the faculty, one with decades of experience at Hampshire, the other fairly new to the College.
L. Brown Kennedy and Mei Ann Teo got together on April 19, with a camera rolling, on the second floor of the Kern Center. Brown is a professor of literature who arrived at Hampshire in 1973, during its earliest years. She has special interests in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature and culture (Shakespeare, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Milton, Renaissance and Reformation cultural history, theology, and historiography). Among her other teaching and research interests are the literature and culture of the southern United States, women’s writing and the representation of gender, the representation of childhood and children’s literature, and Irish literature and culture. She is continuing a study of Virginia Woolf as a reader of Shakespeare, writing on Milton and the Temporality of Paradise Lost, and coediting, with Rachel Conrad, professor of childhood studies, a collection of essays: Literary Cultures and Twentieth-Century Childhoods. Mei Ann, an assistant professor of theater who joined the faculty two years ago, teaches directing and dramaturgy. She is a maker of theater and film whose many works have toured U.S. and international festivals in China, Singapore, Scotland, Belgium, and Canada. She was the former chair of drama and resident artist at Pacific Union College. Among the films she directed is the documentary Please Listen to Me, about marginalized and at-risk youth in Singapore. She also codirected and produced the short film Not Here, which received the Singapore Film Commission’s Short Film Grant and was screened internationally. She is currently directing the world premiere of Dim Sum Warriors, a new musical written by Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, composed by Du Yun for Theatre Above in Shanghai, and is working on a film to be shot in Singapore.
Mei Ann: When you think about all the courses you’ve co-taught over the years, what’s one class that really surprised you . . . that was really fruitful?
Brown: I could actually pick from five or six. But here’s an early one. David Smith, who was a founding faculty member, set up an interdisciplinary seminar on the Seventeenth Century in England and the Americas. Penina Glazer was in political theory, Miriam Slater in feminist social history and the Renaissance, and David in American studies (a field that at that point didn’t really take Native Americans into account, which was one of the things David was working on). I had come out of graduate school with a multidisciplinary background, but I still thought I was doing something radical putting literature and social sciences together. Back then we had a different kind of Div III advanced learning requirement, which I liked, called an integrative seminar. In this case, we each brought three or four students into this seminar and they had to work with each other.
Mei Ann: A ratio of three or four students to each professor?
Brown: Well, that one time at least, to mix us all up and stir the soup. It was an investment, and a lot of good things grew out of it. Pedagogically, I learned a huge amount. You couldn’t just teach from a point of view. You were directing — getting people engaged with the material, seeing the kinds of questions they asked, different questions depending on people’s training. It was amazing. Another amazing moment, a few years later, was when Ellie Donkin came to one of my Shakespeare seminars. I thought I was going to get to sit there and watch . . . but not with Ellie.
Mei Ann: No?
Brown: I’d never done theater. We were studying The Tempest and she assigned roles. She assigned me Prospero — which I didn’t want! — and had each of us pick one line and a gesture. We spent the next ten minutes going around the room repeating the same line and gesture. I don’t know why, but I picked “This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child.” And I discovered all kinds of interesting things were going on with gender in the play, with Prospero’s contempt, how twitchy Prospero was, how anxious. When I picked a gesture, and I don’t know where it came from, I picked this very jerky kind of movement. And suddenly I realized he’s really scared. Then we have Sycorax, who scares him a lot. Why does Sycorax scare him?
Mei Ann: That’s why I love theater. That’s exactly why I love theater. It’s all of the possibilities inside that line. I mean, that’s literature too, right? The way in which we each read something is going to be completely different. I love Shakespeare as a drama test: there have been so many productions of Hamlet, and all of them are incredibly different from each other. Even if the directors all place Hamlet in World War II, even if the setting in itself is the same, the way we enter into that text and the complexity of how Shakespeare writes make the production completely different. We could even be sitting at the same performance and get a completely different read on the reasons these characters have chosen to do something. It’s what I try to do when I teach, to foreground the material and to get my students to enter it. I don’t foreground the argument for them. I let them find what the problems are in the moment, and they figure it out.
Brown: I think that’s the difference. Obviously it’s not a difference only about Hampshire teaching. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Marjorie Garber, at Harvard. She wrote an essay called “Shakespeare in Slow Motion.”
Mei Ann: I love that.
Brown: Her argument is that we tend to read in terms of a pre-set narrative, in terms of this theory or that argument, and that you need to enter the line when you’re teaching Shakespeare, enter the line and work with the line and see where it leads you. I think Hampshire teaching is like that, the way learning here is student led. As faculty, part of what we try to do is get students to understand that they can interpret. Nina Payne, who was one of our founding faculty in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts — a fabulous writing teacher and really exciting to be on committees with — used to say writing is a human wright, as in w-r. I think that’s true. Writing is a human wright (as well as a human right). But I also think interpretation is a human wright. We’re trying to get students to understand that there’s something in there, in the text, that they need to be thinking about. It’s not just free form and anything goes. There’s something you’re trying to get at. And you’re trying to get at it in a community of readers. That’s another reason I love having theater students in my classes: they’re used to reading with each other and arguing about “where this ought to go.” The line may hold all possibilities, but you can’t actualize all possibilities in one production simultaneously. “Well, if we take it this way, then these other things change.” What can change makes teaching plays so exciting. This is all very obvious to theater students in a way that, sometimes, literature students have to learn.
Mei Ann: Well, it’s about whether or not we’re serving an author’s vision or inhabiting what the author has offered to us — figuring out what that means in this moment for the audience we’re going to meet. Those are two very different perspectives. In addition, at Hampshire we’re able to critique things that in the mainstream might not be critiqued, right? We might also be looking at the impact that the worship of Shakespeare has had across the world. For instance, I’m from Singapore. I’m from a British colony, and my theater education as a high schooler covered next to nothing about Asian theater. I learned the Greeks and Shakespeare. What I saw happen in my country is that new plays would feel the need to reference Shakespeare in all sorts of strange ways, as if it was necessary to validate. I don’t blame Shakespeare. I love being inside a room that’s rehearsing that text. It’s always thrilling — the ideas are so big, the emotions are so deep and powerful and passionate. The language, I love the language. But I’ve also witnessed the impact of colonization, of mind and soul and body, in many different ways, which includes literature. If we look at the Shakespeare productions in this country and what people don’t produce because of, say, limited resources, we really need to investigate whose stories we’re telling again and again. Is it enough to put black and brown bodies into Shakespeare plays? And what does that actually mean? A mentor of mine, Leslie Ishii, talks about how she’s classically trained as an actor, and after some time she realized that all her opportunities to act would be in the classics because there wasn’t as much new work being produced by Asian playwrights for Asian bodies. She started to wonder if this was the only way they could see her now, in their frame. She asked, “Am I recolonizing myself?” When she said that I was like, “Oh, my goodness. I had never even thought of that.” To think about the wide impact of how we raise one culture up, raise up one writer, is of great importance to me in my teaching.
Brown: I wish we had this conversation three days ago. I would have asked you to come to my class. We Skyped with Delia Jarrett-Macauley and talked with her about her book Shakespeare, Race and Performance. She was involved at the University of Warwick with what they called the Multicultural Shakespeare project, which mapped the history of black and Asian Shakespeare performance in Britain. The book is a collection of essays by actors, producers . . . people who aren’t scholars, on doing Shakespeare in a black or Asian body and the effect that different kinds of audiences can have. One of the interesting things that came out in the conversation was a reference to a production of Julius Caesar in Sierra Leone postwar. The question I asked Delia, which I’ll also ask you, is what’s the difference between color-blind casting in the Royal Shakespeare Company, where you are, as you say, framed — you’re framed by a very definite context, it’s a national theater, it’s the national poet — and a production of Julius Caesar by kids in a village in Sierra Leone, where the actors are all from the community and the community all knows each other? They both could come under the broad heading of doing Shakespeare in a multicultural context. But they’re totally different. I guess my question for you is ...
Mei Ann: . . . Does color-blind casting actually exist?
Brown: Not so much.
Mei Ann: And what is it, right?
Mei Ann: I think that, like with everything, we have to understand context, intent, and impact. That in each of these productions we’re looking at completely different context, completely different intent, and the different impact they have on a society and on people. If we don’t consider those, we’re talking apples and oranges. I don’t make rules like “That’s not allowed” and “That is allowed” in performance. I don’t think it’s useful for us. But I love the process of unpacking. This village, these people. I know of a producer/director who made Antigone in Burma. Sometimes, in places that see more difficult circumstances than we do, it’s useful to use that frame to allow us a bit of space from what we experience. By taking on that frame or looking through that lens, it enables us to see ourselves in a safer way. But the resonance is always clear. Sometimes it’s a responsible thing to do, to have that separation.
Mei Ann: So, what is the context of this color-blind casting, the actual context of it? Where are we doing it? It’s the Royal Shakespeare Company? Okay, well, what other actual stories do those bodies, those black and brown bodies, get to tell of their lives and their histories and their heritage? Until we have a context where that is alive and well and sustained and not tokenized, then we have a problem of simply placing these bodies into a color-blind situation where they’re supposed to be invisible. Where their very skin is supposed to be invisible.
Brown: It’s a funny term, “color-blind casting.”
Mei Ann: It’s a lie, that’s what it is. Is the intent to reveal the way we have multicultural families in the world? Is it like, I want to have a world in which all of these people survive together? There are a lot of problems when you cast white Prosperos and black Calibans. What are we perpetuating?
Brown: Especially when you consider that the first black Caliban was in 1945, and that until then costuming of Caliban was as an animal.
Mei Ann: Exactly.
Brown: Caliban is not invariably cast as black, but you rarely have Prospero cast as black. Yesterday, one of my students mentioned that in New York recently they cast Prospero and Miranda as black and Caliban as white. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.
Mei Ann: Yes, I think that’s impact — intent, then impact. Is that healing to watch? It could be.
Brown: In preparing for our conversation today, I thought I’d ask you what you’ve gotten to do at Hampshire that you might not have gotten to do someplace else. I’m thinking of the freedom faculty have to try to figure out both what students think they want and what we as faculty think they may need. The way we build the curriculum by working with students. In the early ’70s, I was told I was being hired as the “traditionally trained” person in English. “Okay. That’s not how I think of myself, but if it gets me a job . . .” We’re talking 1973, the feminist movement, and all the young women and many of the young men wanted to read women writers. So how do I do that? In all my graduate training I had read one novel by a woman and no novel by a person of color. Not one! What can I do to teach this material and, honestly, keep one foot someplace where I have training, so I’m not completely skating onto thin ice and have some range of reading to fall back on. Miriam Slater came to my office in the basement of Dakin House (where there were then faculty offices) with a young woman, a wonderful Hampshire student, who wanted to do her Div III on Virginia Woolf. Miriam looked at me and told the student, “She’s not what you need, but she’s a trained professional!” I thought, “Oh, my Lord, I’m a trained professional! What shall I do?” By that point I had studied one novel by Virginia Woolf. But that Div III trained me, and I fell in love with the writing. I decided I could develop a course on Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, setting those writers in conversation with each other, and have the students carry on that conversation. This discovery was incredibly interesting to me, though it doesn’t seem so radical now, changing up the “major authors” thing. I’m going back to our early conversation now, how we can create spaces for arguing about what’s “not there” in a text. That if you have a couple of voices in dialogue over a semester you can discover that the great writers are wonderful and exciting, but don’t possess truth.
Mei Ann: Tell me about this no possession of truth. I always think we read those writers to get at some truth.
Brown: The better the writer or the better the dramatist, the more aware you get that no one owns the truth. And the more the text is aware that it doesn’t own it. The text makes spaces for ambiguities.
Mei Ann: I totally agree. I think what they do is not possess the truth, as you say, but offer us a way of searching for it, right? We see the mechanism of how it’s searched for, and that’s actually what I hope to get better at. How do I search better, and how do I offer that to my students, to search better?
Brown: The thing about setting up two writers in dialogue, it’s protective. I admit it. But then I moved on to teach Faulkner and Toni Morrison in dialogue . . .
Mei Ann: Amazing. I want to take that class.
Mei Ann: This is a much more politically engaged campus than I’ve worked in. I taught at a conservative Christian school for seven years, Seventh-day Adventist, where the politics were very different, and controversy would start from rules like the faculty couldn’t wear earrings. The dorms weren’t co-ed and . . .
Brown: Let alone the bathrooms.
Mei Ann: Yes, no gender-neutral bathrooms. It is a very beautiful place, much like here, but educationally so different from Hampshire. At the end of my first year here, I participated in a workshop with faculty from across their campus to look at the narrative evaluations we write. Of course, the conversation had to be brought back to our Hampshire pedagogy. What are we trying to do to help our students learn? How do we guide an entire learning process?
Brown: It’s not no earrings, it’s no grades.
Mei Ann: Yes, from no earrings to no grades! Is that progress? Let me ask myself . . .
Brown: Whenever I’ve worked on a co-teaching collaboration with one or two other faculty, we’ve found it important to find an hour a week to sit down with each other, without the students, and really talk through the pedagogy. I found it really helped, though it was hard with everybody’s schedule to find an hour. When I co-taught a course on the history and literature of childhood with Penina Glazer, then retiring as dean of faculty, and Rachel Conrad [professor of childhood studies], Penina would come in the hour before class and say, “Okay, what’s the pedagogy?” And we asked ourselves, “How are we going to do this? What are we going to have the students do? We’re not just going to sit there and talk to them, are we?”
Mei Ann: I love it.
Brown: And when you’re teaching with someone from another field, you realize that there are things you take for granted about your own pedagogy. It makes you step back and say, “Oh, why do I do it that way?”
Mei Ann: “How can I learn and grow?”
Brown: “What do you do that I don’t do?” A real difference about teaching at Hampshire is that cross-fertilization can happen so much faster.
Mei Ann: That’s what I’m really excited to learn more about. I’ll be co-teaching a class with Christopher Tinson [associate professor of Africana studies and history] about the flag, called “For Whom It Stands.” I’m developing a course with Uditi Sen [assistant professor of South Asian studies and history]. Lourdes Mattei [associate professor of clinical psychology] and I are starting to talk about how we can teach a class on the family.
Mei Ann: Michele Hardesty [associate professor of U.S. literature and cultural studies] teaches graphic novels and I teach the staging of graphic novels and comic books for performance. I’m excited about all the possibilities to co-teach with different colleagues, as well as my own theater faculty.
Brown: It’s been the absolute super thing for me about Hampshire. You don’t get bored. In a similar way, you can be completely prepared for a class, and then something very different happens in the room. You say to yourself, “I came in here with this lovely woven thing — and they’ve just dismantled it!”
Brown: I have a question for you, if you’re willing to go there. You said that you came from a conservative Christian background. When you first said it, I thought you meant your first teaching job. Then I thought you might also be talking about family.
Mei Ann: Oh, all of it, yes.
Brown: Because I do, too. I was thinking, Boy, you’re very direct about this, and comfortable saying it. For me, it’s what I’ve talked about the least.
Mei Ann: Why is it that I’m so open about it?
Brown: Well . . .
Mei Ann: I think it’s because I’m so new here and nobody knows about me and how I am in the world. But to be home here, I feel like I want people to know things about my history that seem contradictory. Like the fact that I have a finance degree from undergrad, and that I come from an extremely conservative Christian background. These are two things people don’t expect in a theater professor, or in someone who is so active in the scholarship that I work in. I think it’s partly me wanting to be seen in a way that might not fit the narrative of being a Hampshire professor, my way of being vulnerable. And I guess it’s through that vulnerability that I hope to connect with other people. I’m so glad you told me.
Brown: We can have a conversation.
Mei Ann: Another conversation! Where I am right now is, I’m deeply searching at the intersection of artistic, civic, and spiritual practice. That’s from where I wake up and live my life. Part of that is understanding history and . . .
Brown: . . . And talking about things that are really fraught right now. This is me speaking as a historian, the piece of me that’s done a lot of research on the U.S. South. I think what I’m most sad about at the moment is how . . . . What the civil rights movement was able to do was to draw on conservative Christianity and get people to speak from their best rather than worst instincts. But a kind of secularization or sexualization or whatever in the general culture has driven that away. It’s been a slow process. I don’t know the Seventh-day Adventist world at all, but I was raised Southern Baptist.
Mei Ann: It’s very similar.
Brown: My parents were first generation in college and taught in a small church-related school, both of them. This was in the South, and the community I grew up in was extremely open with respect to Muslim students, extremely open with respect to immigrant communities. Of course, it was only very slowly and painfully desegregated at all with respect to African Americans and whites. However, it feels to me that that piece of being conservative Christian that was seriously self-critical and with effort could change has broken down. I don’t know whether that’s true in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition.
Mei Ann: I’m no longer in the Seventh-day Adventist community.
Brown: . . . But for your family.
Mei Ann: I practice more in Buddhism and Taoism now, and even so in those communities there needs to be a healthy understanding of power and how power is wielded. I think that’s one of the big things right now, not only in the world but also on this campus: how my students resist power because of all the ways in which they’ve seen it manifest in a toxic way. I teach “directing,” and my students will say, “I’m not directing this, I’m facilitating it.” So I say, “Okay, what is the role of the facilitator?” And they’ll describe exactly what the director does. Then I’d say, “Okay, what is the role of a director?” And they’ll say, “Oh, I guess it’s the same thing.” They want to step away from the title because they don’t want to perpetuate toxic patriarchy. It’s such an important thing, for me too, to be self-critical, self-aware, and self-understanding. If it’s necessary that I wield power, then I wield power — but how can I do it with kindness and compassion and in a way that supports a goal of justice?
Brown: I think that’s the hardest part about making the chemistry of a class work. Because you have to let people who can lead lead, even if you want to say to them, directly or privately, “Tone down a little bit, give other people space.” Having enough energy and momentum so the class moves while giving people who don’t have confidence the room they need is the hardest thing. It’s also the reason that classes gel or don’t — not having a good mix of people who are able to both speak and listen, willing to listen. But there are things you can do. You can put them in small groups, mix them up, and assign roles. Or tell them that everybody has to take a turn directing, right?
Mei Ann: Yes.
Brown: My utopian idea is that in theater it’s all very easy because everybody has a part to play.
Mei Ann: There’s a beautiful saying that in theater “there is no small part.” We each come with uniqueness, and understanding how to construct spaces for that uniqueness is the thing. I get really large wait lists in my theater courses, so I construct scary things for the first few classes to do in order to weed out students who aren’t really going to go there with us! One of the assignments I have for “Directing Via Personal and Communal History” is to ask every student to tell every other student, one-to-one, their entire life story. They need to figure out how to do that. I say, “It can be as long or as short as you want. But it’s the integrity and honesty you have toward your own life story that’s at play. How are you going to connect with the other person or with your own story?” They start to learn dramatic structure over unwieldy material that they’re expert on — their own life. No one can say to them, “You’re not telling your own story right.”
Brown: That’s brilliant. And they also learn that nobody is going to sit still for twenty-five minutes of this.
Mei Ann: They ramble on and, in a moment, they start to see the shifting, right? One of my mentors, the brilliant performance artist Ernesto Pujol, offered me this exercise. As I was doing it, I was putting so much stock into my life story that after the third time none of the details mattered. I had to ask myself, Why do I speak about my life? I found that to be so valuable. In Buddhism there’s the Eightfold Path, and one is Right Speech. What if at every moment the things that came out of our mouths were considered and true, necessary and kind? What if we all practiced that?
Brown: The world changes.
Mei Ann: The world just might change.
Brown: I think you’ll have an amazing time teaching with Lourdes. I hope you say to her, “Whatever else we do, I want to do this exercise.” Because how interesting it would be for someone trained in psychoanalytic theory to think about what’s going on in that repeated act of telling a life story.
Mei Ann: That’s a great idea. Brown, I feel like I could have this conversation go on forever.
Brown: Just say when you’re ready for us to quit.
From Non Satis Scire, The Hampshire College Alumni Magazine, Summer 2017