Between page and stage: Dr. Joe Falocco's NEH project to prepare instructors to teach Shakespeare

Shakespeare from page to stage

Between page and stage

by Anastasia Cisneros-Lunsford

Dr. Joe Falocco's NEH project to prepare instructors to teach Shakespeare 

To read, or not to read the works of William Shakespeare? That is a question a Texas State University English professor will answer this summer when his "Shakespeare Without Fear: Teaching the Plays" project premieres.

It is funded by a $63,000 research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and awarded through the Summer Seminars and Institutes for College and University Teachers. It supports professional development programs in the humanities for high school teachers and college and university faculty.

The one-week Shakespeare program, devised by Dr. Joe Falocco, an associate professor in the Department of English, will help ease the anxieties of contingent faculty or community college and non-tenure-track/adjunct faculty who are called upon suddenly to teach Shakespeare in English and theatre courses. Sometimes they must prepare lessons on short notice and with little preparation time before a semester begins, Falocco explains. "One of the silliest things that happened in the American academy is the division of the study of Shakespeare between English and theatre," Falocco says. "It’s like the division of kingdoms in King Lear. You can’t reasonably understand the plays as performance if you don’t understand the text, and you can’t really understand the text unless you understand the performance context. I don’t think of it as two different things. I think of it as one thing that overlaps the two disciplines."

Falocco has 40 years of experience performing Shakespeare, as well as 17 years teaching about the Bard of Avon, including seven years at Texas State where he teaches Shakespeare electives for English majors. He also teaches a general education course, British Literature to 1785, which includes the epic poem Beowulf and readings by satirist and essayist Jonathan Swift.

"You can't reasonably understand the plays as performance if you don't understand the text, and you can't really understand the text unless you understand the performance context."

 – Dr. Joe Falocco

A formative experience for Falocco came early in his career when he spent a year on tour with the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, the forerunner of today’s American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. The company was founded by his mentor, Ralph Alan Cohen, who has run similar NEH seminars for both high school and college lecturers. "His whole premise was this intersectionality, this overlapping of what we think of as English studies and what we think of as theatre studies," Falocco says. "That has been my inspiration ever since."

On the first day of his Shakespeare class, Falocco shares a lesson that is difficult for English majors and graduate students to understand. "Shakespeare’s plays are NOT literature," he says. "By which I mean only this — they were not written to be read. They were written to be performed."

Falocco’s formula to take away the intimidation of teaching Shakespeare requires participating scholars to work hands-on. A resident company of actors — including Texas State acting students — will perform scenes for the seminar participants at the Curtain Theatre in Austin. The reconstructed early-modern playhouse inspired by the Globe Theatre in London includes many of the architectural features of Shakespeare’s original stage.

Seminar participants will understand how the stage worked, giving them a connection with how Shakespeare’s plays were performed during the Elizabethan period.

"(Seminar) alumni will be able to bridge the gap between page and stage when teaching Shakespeare," Falocco says, adding that after the seminar, these speedy Shakespeareans will be prepared to guide their students as they read the plays and stage scenes in their classrooms for public consumption.

So, do we read or not read Shakespeare?

"Shakespeare is not the thing on the page. Shakespeare is the thing on the stage," Falocco explains. "And the way to read the plays profitably is to be able to envisage their performance in your mind."