A Shakespeare Summer Surprise

In the summer of 1998, I was privileged to be selected as the British Universities Summer Studies Program (BUSS) grant recipient by the Kansas City Branch of the English-Speaking Union.  The program is now known as TLAB.  At the time I was a theatre arts teacher at Lee’s Summit High School in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.  I always taught a unit on Shakespeare and was actually preparing to direct Much Ado About Nothing for our fall play that year as well.  Naturally, I chose the option to study at the International Globe Centre in London by enrolling for their “Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance” course.

The course was a brilliant series of lessons and activities that forever changed the way I taught and directed plays.  It was, quite simply, a life and career changing experience.  Not only did we get class time with actors and directors, but we also got to try out our newly forming ideas by directing each other on the actual stage of the now rebuilt Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames.  However amazing that experience was, the day that is forever etched in my memory contained our field trip to Dulwich College in the southern part of London.  After a visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery and viewing of portraits of legendary names in the history of theatre, we walked over to Dulwich College.

We got a sense of the history of the place when we walked in and were greeted by a whaleboat mounted in the hallway.  The librarian of the college, who was our guide that day and a close friend of our teacher, explained that was the boat that Earnest Shackleton and a few members of his crew had used in a dangerous and risky voyage from Antarctica to South Georgia Island to save the rest of the company on his ship, the Endurance. Looking at that small craft made us wonder how they had survived the 800-mile journey through rough and stormy seas. Amazingly, he succeeded and his alma mater, Dulwich College, got to keep the boat. 

We were then guided through the great hall, classroom areas, and the library until we came to a small study next to it.   At that point the librarian told us that he and our teacher were going to get a ‘spot’ of tea and would be back shortly.  However, he said he had some resources laid out on the table in the study that he thought we might be interested in.  They left and we turned to the table.

The next sound was that of 20 some odd jaws dropping to the floor as we realized what lay on the table.  There in front of us was a First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected works, Phillip Henslowe’s diary, the contract for the building of the Fortune Theatre, and several other late 16th century and early 17th century documents associated with the theatre world at that time.  Just lying there.  In the open for us to actually peruse.  Which we immediately, and reverently, began to do.

If you have ever been near a First Folio, then you know the extreme measures that are usually taken to protect them.  At the Folger Library, where the largest collection of Folio’s reside, you usually are not allowed to even touch them, even if you have research credentials that grant you access to the collection.  A research assistant is more than happy to gently turn pages using white cotton gloves while you peer through a glass shield. (or so I’ve been told).  When the Folger Folios made their grand tour around the United States, they were kept in sealed glass ‘vaults’ that people had to reserve times to see for a brief moment.  

And yet here I was, reading Much Ado About Nothing from just about the closest thing we have to an original copy of the work. (There was a quarto version published in 1600 which became the main source for the version that appears in the Folio.  I also didn’t realize at the time that Much Ado had actually been written in 1598 and so I was directing the show for its 400th birthday.)  I had the sense that time was no longer a barrier and the print on the pages could have easily been applied only a few days or weeks prior to my reading.  

Just as exciting was seeing Henslowe’s entries in his diary as he carefully noted the ‘gate’ for each production by his acting company.  He also carefully included more mundane entries about personal matters and, at times, a rather agitated note about a lawsuit filed by or against him.  Interestingly, even though Shakespeare was not a part of Henslowe’s Lord Admiral’s Men, some of his plays did appear in the ledger.  It seems audiences had a great appreciation for the gory Titus Andronicus, as it was noted as being profitably performed several times by the company.

By then, I was on sensory overload and just barely had a chance to glance at the Fortune contract before our teacher and the librarian returned.  We gushed about the incredible experience we had just been given, as the librarian ushered us back through the great hall and to the entrance.  The conversation in the Tube on the way back to the Globe was filled with personal discoveries and revelations.  For me, I knew that I now was going to have to buy the Norton Facsimile of the First Folio which the Globe gift shop had prominently on display.  I did and used it in classes for the rest of my teaching career.  Today, it still stands proudly on top of a bookshelf in my office and gets shared at many English-Speaking Union events.

The BUSS program support changed my career and gave me new ways to reach the students in my care.  Armed with those ideas and techniques I was able to instill a new appreciation for the brilliance of a true hero of the theatre.  I am forever grateful to the men and women of the Kansas City Branch of the English-Speaking Union at that time for funding my trip to London.  

Footnote—Dulwich College also has a pop culture connection that few know about   Three years after our visit, the final scene of the American comedy Legally Blonde was filmed in the Great Hall we had walked through that day.  The story goes that the producers discovered through test screenings that the planned ending for the movie was not working.  They quickly wrote the graduation scene but discovered that Reese Witherspoon was in London preparing to perform in The Importance of Being Earnest.  The location scouts decided that Dulwich’s Great Hall fit the bill as a Harvard look-alike and so she delivered Elle’s graduation speech in front of its beautiful arched window and the movie went on to become a huge hit