If you are already familiar with Global Shakespeares, the brain child of Peter Donaldson and Alexa Huang, then I’m willing to bet that your reaction was similar to mine the first time you visited the site: a combination of jaw-dropping wonder and academic/Shakespeare geek excitement. When I first visited Global Shakespeares in early 2012, I was looking for recent video clips of Shakespeare performances that would be beneficial for students in my Intro to Shakespeare class, who were beginning work on a social media project at the time. I’m generally quite fond of bringing performance-related assignments into my Shakespeare courses – these are plays, after all, and many of my students will confess to never having seen a performance of any play, let alone Shakespeare, before entering my classroom. Analyzing a performance clip, whether in class or as an at-home assignment, can be a great way to help students consider how performance – movement, gesture, costumes, props and so forth –can help even novice readers interpret Shakespeare’s language. But my funds for purchasing dvds of performances are scarce, and as I’ve discovered, YouTube is only a reliable resource if your primary performance interests are oriented towards shaky handi-cam clips of junior high school skits and community college class projects.
Thanks to Global Shakespeares, students, instructors, and Shakespeare enthusiasts alike now have access to a stunning array of performance footage from around the world, along with transcripts and a solid collection of essays addressing diverse issues in global Shakespeare performances. Since its inception in 2010, this open-access archive, hosted by MIT, has grown to include 397 cataloged productions with 75 video clips and video of over 30 complete productions from around the world. Given that much of the content on Global Shakespeares is provided by contributors from around the world, with an ongoing invitation to contribute performance summaries, video files, reviews, interviews, and scripts or translations for rare adaptations, the archive has the potential to grow along with the community it represents (click here for more details on how you can contribute to the archive). Even just a few minutes of browsing around the site underscores the extent to which Global Shakespeares is genuinely and earnestly dedicated to collecting and curating performance materials from around the world, with a distinct emphasis on performances from outside of North America and Europe.
It’s been my experience that many open-access databases and archives often suffer in terms of ease-of-use. Curation, as digital humanists are fond of repeating, is as much an art as it is a skill, and it’s clear that the staff who curate Global Shakespeares are very good at their art. Given the not-inconsiderable size of the archive, site navigation and search filtering is a snap. The main page defaults to a grid view of the database (you can select a table view if you prefer), with most recently archived entries appearing at the top.
Users can quickly filter what they see here by restricting the view to performances of specific plays, the source language of the entry or performance, or the region of origin for the performance, as well as directly search the archive. Searches can be filtered quickly and efficiently in the same screen – no backtracking to reset search parameters, just click to add or remove filters as you wish. Inside of a minute, I was able to first search for English-language performances of Hamlet staged in North America, then North American performances in any language, and finally, Arab language performance around the world. This little exercise also underscored the non-anglophile focus of the archive, as my first search returned zero hits, the second returned just one (a trailer for Mesnak, a 2003 French-Canadian film) and four Arab productions, ranging from full video of director Hani Afifi’s 2009 stage play I Am Hamlet to a brief clip of the “to be or not to be” speech from an untitled and undated production. As a bonus, Afifi’s production is accompanied by a link to a video recording of scholar Margaret Litvin’s seminar on the production, given at Cairo University.
If, like me, your primary interest in performance relates to teaching Shakespeare’s plays in the classroom, then you’ll find plenty of exciting material to work with here. The materials archived on the site are great vehicles for getting students to consider the plays outside of euro-centric norms and perspectives. Showing a few minutes of Patrick Stewart’s performance as Macbeth can be an effective way to help students think about the impact of physical gestures, the posture and proximity of one actor or actress in relation to another, the impact of enunciation and speech volume – but it won’t easily open a conversation into the cultural implications and expectations that ground many of these elements.
On the other hand, a viewing of Trono de Sangue, Brazilian director Antunes Filho’s 1992 staging of Kurosawa’s famed Macbeth adaptation, for example, highlights unique staging elements (the witches descend from the sky, startling audience and characters alike) and a decidedly Spanish-themed setting that wrenches the play out of Scotland. And just a few moments spent watching Norkio Izumi’s 2006 Nō-styled adaptation demonstrates the ways that carefully designed and staged adaptations can simultaneously reinvent the original story while also resisting “universalist” interpretations of the play; as the Global Shakespeares entry for the play notes, this adaptation was designed to appeal only to those intimate with the conventions of Nō drama, which remain obscure even to many Japanese natives. Watching and discussing these performances in conjunction with a reading of the play can lead students to consider how much of their own interpretations of Shakespeare’s text rely on cultural conventions and traditions.
For those who are more directly interested in performance for scholarship purposes, Global Shakespeares offers many excellent resources, including bibliographies of both print and web-based scholarly writings as well as links to scholarly articles and various other web-based performance archives. Moreover, here’s where the size of the archive really becomes apparent, as nearly 75% of the entries here do not contain a video file but often provide additional information and links to outside reference points. As an example, when I re-ran my search for North American performances of Hamlet in English without video files, one entry surfaced — Robert Lepage’s 1995 stage adaptation Elsinore, which was first produced at the Monument National Theater in Montreal in November of that year. Last but not least, the site also contains a blog section where Donaldson, Huang, and other Global Shakespeares staff post original articles, bibliographies, and crosslinks to scholarship hosted elsewhere.
Of course, the more users that get involved in contributing performance materials or records, the more the site will reflect the pulse of global Shakespeare studies and performances.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Global Shakespeares is that it represents the first steps of bringing together a genuinely global community of Shakespeare scholars, performers, and aficionados. The site is more than “just” an archive for cataloging and curating Shakespeare-related performances and media files from around the world, given its strong potential for becoming a true portal for conversations and research pertaining to global performances and re-imaginings of the Bard’s works.
Please also read the two-part interview with Professor Alexa Huang. Part 1 concerns Global Shakespeares; in Part 2, Professor Huang discusses her upcoming projects, teaching at GWU, and the Washington DC theatre scene.
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