“But no one does that!” English and Theater Studies professor Joseph Roach, playing the character of Judge Brack, exclaimed.
The last line of “Hedda Gabler,” a response to its heroine’s abrupt suicide, rang so true that it elicited giggles from the crowd in Linsly Chittenden 101 on Monday evening. About 50 spectators had come to watch the 16th Annual Yale English Department Staged Reading, which this year featured Henrik Ibsen’s tragic “Hedda Gabler,” performed by four English professors and three graduate students, five of whom are teaching “English 129: Tragedy” this semester.
Conceived and directed by English and Theater Studies associate professor Murray Biggs, the annual staged reading project began as an opportunity to air a British or Irish play that even the English Department faculty had not seen, read or heard of, Biggs said. Last year the department decided to begin integrating the staged reading with its active curriculum by performing plays read in the Tragedy course. Biggs said English 129 was the logical curricular choice because it is the department’s largest drama course aside from its Shakespeare lectures.
The staged reading productions are primarily for the benefit of English 129 students, according to Roach, one of the five Tragedy professors.
“It always helps to hear a play on its feet, even if it’s a reading,” Roach said. “I also have a sentimental attachment to its being heard live — everyone is in the same place at the same time.”
Biggs explained that each actor’s unique interpretation of their lines, as well as their physical characteristics and idiosyncrasies, influences how an audience understands his character.
“What Hedda looks like, for example, will influence the audience’s understanding of who she is and why she is the way she is,” Biggs said.
English 129 student Julian Drucker ’16 said the show presented him with new insight into the meaning of certain lines, adding that he understood some differently when spoken aloud rather than read. After watching the staging, he said he realized that in its richness, Ibsen’s text lends itself to multiple interpretations.
“I think seeing facial expressions and hearing inflections brought a lot more insight into the lines, which by themselves can come across as a little ridiculous sometimes,” said Christopher Chow ’13, another English 129 student.
Biggs said the secondary purpose of the production is to showcase the performing talents of some faculty members and to encourage others with “undeveloped performance abilities” to take the stage. Biggs said that being a professor necessarily involves performing. Merve Emre GRD ’15, who plays Hedda in the production, noted a similar overlap between teaching and acting.
“I think of teaching as a different kind of performance, so it doesn’t seem that far out of field. I just happen to play a different character,” Emre said. “Everyone you’re working with is playing up a natural tendency that they already have.”
Though some of his actors do not have stage experience, Biggs said he defers to the fact that they have studied and taught the text.
“I don’t talk about interpretation; we discussed some aspects of the play but as a round table discussion,” he said. “What I’m interested in is making sure there’s a certain tempo.”
Emre, as well as another graduate student and two of the professors in “Hedda Gabler,” also participated in last year’s reading, Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” in which Emre played the female lead. Prior to “The Misanthrope,” Emre’s acting experience only included playing Snoopy in her fourth grade play.
All five “Tragedy” teachers have participated in the annual staged reading since the productions and the course became linked last year.