Faculty Focus: Shakespeare in Love
- Paul W. Gillespie 2017
- Paul W. Gillespie 2017
- Paul W. Gillespie 2017
For Shakespeare scholar Kate Moncrief, dissecting texts with undergraduates in the classroom is immensely rewarding. But, bringing those texts to life on stage adds an important dimension to her teaching and scholarship.
Her background is in English and theater, and among her many publication credits is a volume of essays, Shakespeare Expressed, that focuses on Shakespeare in performance. Now Kate Moncrief, professor and chair of the English department, is reigniting her own creativity and rekindling her love affair with Shakespeare by returning to the stage. Whether she is serving as a dramaturg for a professional theater company, acting as literary seminar director for one of the nation’s top Shakespeare festivals, playing a leading role with the Sun Valley Shakespeare Festival, or performing with faculty colleagues and students in Decker Theatre, Kate Moncrief is in her happy place.
“Acting is about vulnerability and bravery. We ask that of our students all the time,” Moncrief says. “I got to a point in my teaching career where I decided that it was time for me to take a risk, too. I’m happier when I get to be creative, and that translates to the classroom.”
Last summer, Moncrief tapped into that creative vein when she was invited to become literary seminar director at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, a destination theater in operation since 1962 that draws audiences from around the country to enjoy professional performances and to study Shakespeare texts. At the peak of the season, the Festival has nine plays running in three theaters and audience outreach tied to the performances six days a week. Part of the Festival experience included in the ticket price are hour-long literary seminars—this year directed by Washington College’s own Shakespearian scholar, Kate Moncrief, and her longtime scholarly collaborator, Kate McPherson, who teaches at Utah Valley University.
“I would describe it as a public humanities position,” Moncrief explains. “We begin the morning seminar with a little background and scholarly information about the plays, and then open it up to audience discussion. One of the fun things at Utah [on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City] is that a lot of national parks are nearby. So, people will come for a week, do some hiking, and see all the plays. So we’ll have people come for several days in a row, and some have been coming year after year. I met one person who attended his first season with his parents as a little boy, and has never missed a season in 55 years. These audience members are quite educated. They have a memory of other productions, they really are embedded in Shakespeare, and the level of discussion tends to be elevated.”
Moncrief has fielded questions about gender, a particular character, a director’s intention, a line that a character spoke—offering in-depth analysis worthy of any level-400 undergraduate class.
“The educational director, Michael Bahr, made it very clear that this is a teaching position. It’s not simply a public relations position,” notes Moncrief. “We have the autonomy to lead discussions, to question choices, to engage with audiences, and that’s wonderful. Keeping a foot in the professional world also informs both my own scholarship and the way that I’m able to teach in the classroom. For me, Shakespeare is not just meant to be read, but to be performed.”
As a dramaturg with Chesapeake Shakespeare Company last year, Moncrief worked on productions of Othello and Wild Oats. She worked as a scholar with the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, conducting pre-show lectures. And she started acting again. Two summers ago, she was with the Sun Valley Shakespeare Festival in Ketchum, Idaho, performing a leading role in Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gina Gionfriddo’s 2012 play about women’s pursuit of happiness. Earlier this fall, Washington College audiences saw her portray Lady Undershaft in George Bernard Shaw’s classic, Major Barbara.
“The Utah Shakespeare Festival is pretty special—it’s a big deal and I’m thrilled to be doing it—but for me it’s part of a landscape of scholarship in Shakespeare and performance,” Moncrief says. She points to a forthcoming article on Pericles: The Prince of Tyre in Palgrave’s volume, Literary Cultures and the Child, as well as a new article on Hamlet. Back to the professional stage this summer, she will serve as dramaturg for Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost—directed by Brendon Fox, an assistant professor of theatre at Washington College. After the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production opens next summer, she will return to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in her role as literary seminar director.
This spring, Moncrief will be teaching one of her favorite courses, “Hamlet and Its Afterlife.” Focused on 400 years of adaptation and appropriation, she says, the course asks “Why do we still care about this play? We see it in everything from The Simpsons’ Hamlet to John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, to Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell. Why has this character and this play so infused our modern culture?” For this class, Moncrief collaborates with Nancy Cross, WC’s director of educational technology, as students write, direct, edit, perform, and film their own Hamlet adaptations.
“It’s really about the intersection of performance and text—getting students up on their feet and speaking the language of Shakespeare.”