“I am back at Vassar, so I’m going to answer with passion more than knowledge,” panelist Bill Barclay ’03 quips. The question is “Why Shakespeare?” and as the alums ponder their respective career paths, they begin to reflect on their decisions as starry-eyed undergrads to sell their souls to The Bard.
The alums address students and faculty at an event in the Rose Parlor commemorating the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. With impassioned scholars of English and Drama listening, the panelists reflect back on how their undergraduate experiences emboldened them to pursue a career in the world of Shakespearean theatre and prose.
One panelist remembers his British literature class, and how one groundbreaking evening spent holed up in the Vassar library devouring Twelfth Night would forever redirect his hopes and ambitions. Another describes her devotion to Elizabethan theatre to be life-long.
The differences in their experiences are distinct, but all express similar sentiments regarding Shakespeare’s impact on their lives. Gwen Ellis ’08 is an actor, Bill Barclay ’03 works as the Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe, Matt Hunter, ’08 is a visiting assistant professor of English at St. Joseph’s University and Elizabeth Rivlin ’92 is the Associate Professor of English at Clemson University.
Each career path was carved out by an infatuation with the canonical texts, and each alum now devotes his or her life to the analysis of Shakespeare’s written and spoken word.
In response to “Why Shakespeare?” the consensus among panelists is this: in reading his works, one learns more about themselves than one does about him. Reading and studying the Bard is, as they explain, an introspective process, and one that encompasses the range of human emotions, shortcomings and lived experiences. As such, they urge students to not be gentle with his works, to not revere them as unchangeable or sacred. The most insightful adaptations of Shakespeare, they maintain, are the ones that play with interpretation, space and delivery.
On her reasons for bringing this talk to campus, coordinator and Professor of English Leslie Dunn provided, “I don’t remember whose idea it was to organize an alumnae/i panel, but we were all really enthusiastic about it. We wanted a panel that include both scholars and performers who could speak to how Vassar had prepared them for the work they are doing now, as well as to the place of Shakespeare in today’s world. We were very lucky that the stars aligned and they were all come to campus on Monday, November 7th and Tuesday, November 8th. They also visited drama and English classes, met informally with students, and caught up with their old professors. I’ve attached their bios if you want to include more information about them in the article.
“They spoke about what Shakespeare has meant for them, how much Shakespeare has to say about the world we live in now, and how many different forms and meanings ‘doing Shakespeare’ can take in that world. The faculty who organized the panel—Zoltan Markus, Denise Walen, Hamit Arvas, and myself—deliberately kept the questions very open so that the panelists could speak from their individual perspectives as scholars and practitioners and have an impromptu conversation among themselves. We also wanted to leave plenty of time for questions, particularly from students. All the panelists told me afterwards how impressed they were by the students’ questions. And the professors were all very, very proud of their students, current and former.”
Students in attendance agreed that the panelists’ stories inspired hope that a life dedicated to Shakespearean studies can be maintained outside of Vassar.
Yvette Sagan ’19 said, “I’m a drama major and a computer science correlate. I thought the resumes of the panelists were very impressive, which is encouraging because if they can do it, so can I! The organizers of the event did a great job of getting people with varying experiences and applications of Shakespeare in their lives. It was great to see how differently shakespeare can be used and interpreted and applied in life both academically and for theatrical purposes.”
Drama and Sociology double major Karli Bentley ’17 added, “As someone who hopes to perform Shakespeare professionally in the future, I was really interested to hear from the panelists and how their experiences with Shakespeare at Vassar have informed their work with the Bard in their lives since they graduated. In particular it was really reaffirming to hear them talk about Shakespeare’s plays as living documents that can be reshaped and adapted, because that’s really what I hope to do. I have a lot of respect for traditional productions of Shakespeare plays, but there’s just something really satisfying about tearing up his work and putting it back together in new ways. The panelists weren’t precious with Shakespeare, and that was really refreshing to hear.”
Jay Leichtman ’18 is a Biology Major whose interest doesn’t extend as far as that of the panelists or the aforementioned students, but even so they found the talk to be enjoyable.
They said, “The panelists all seem like people who really know their stuff when it comes to Shakespeare, and it was great to see people talking about something they have a passion for. It was also sort of a career fair, in that it showed just how many different jobs there are that you might not guess even existed, but that Vassar grads have had.”
Of the outcome of the event in general, Dunn concludes, “For me, the best part of all the ‘Shakespeare at Vassar’ events was that they gave us a chance to celebrate the creativity of our students and faculty, to make visible (and audible) the connections across generations. To everyone who participated, including our audience, much thanks.”