Sutro Library has many truly amazing treasures; rare books, archival manuscripts, antiquarian maps, but not the least is the 1623 first printing of Shakespeare’s plays, commonly referred to as the First Folio. It is not only one of the most important books in the English language, along with the King James Bible (of which Sutro Library has a first edition), but as Kurt Daw, Professor of Theatre Arts, San Francisco State University (SFSU) says, it is legitimately “one of the most valuable material and cultural properties ever printed.” Only around 235 are known to exist, and Sutro Library has two.
Shakespeare’s plays have endured and continue to fascinate. The stories are universal, infinitely complex and nuanced, and have remained culturally relevant 400 years after they were first performed. The First Folio is the reason the world has the complete authoritative versions of his plays. Without this first printing, the world would be bereft of masterpieces such as Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
To celebrate Shakespeare and to highlight the Sutro Library it seemed fitting to reach out to SFSU’s theatre department to come up with an innovative way to present Shakespeare and the Sutro to the the larger community.
And to that end, on the evening of October 23, 2019 the Sutro Library, in collaboration with Professor Kurt Daw, and Curator and Senior Librarian, Meredith Eliasson, of SFSU Special Collections and Archives, hosted our first ever: “Shakespeare on Page and Stage.” The event consisted of a workshop followed by live performances of scenes selected and performed by six advanced SFSU theatre students, with the First Folio on display during the performance.
Kurt Daw worked with the department chair to offer students one credit toward their degrees to perform Shakespeare at our event. He held auditions and chose Felix Bishop, Diego Cazares, Michael Pinedo, James Schott, Thomas Scott, and Olivia Weeks-Kristie. One of the cast identifies as gender fluid, while another cast member identifies as a Trans man, each exploring gender through performance.
At the workshop, Professor Daw spoke about what it would have been like for actors on the stage during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For example, wealthy patrons could buy seats on the Globe’s stage just feet away from where the actors performed. Furthermore, actors never received the entire play, rather they received only their own part, rolled up in a scroll – hence our modern parlance with reference to actor’s roles and their parts.
In Shakespeare’s company, actors were required to listen for a couple of words or lines to prompt them to act out their part. Playing with this idea of distance both temporally and physically, Daw provided students with single parts, with prompt lines. He then had each student stand up when they heard the prompt indicating it was their time to read. This provided insight into the experience of theatre during the Elizabethan era with the challenges it must have presented for the performers.
Professor Daw also spoke to the scholarship regarding the historicity of young boys playing the parts of women during Shakespeare’s time – because of their high voice, among other things. Rather, the reality was that there were just 12 actors, highly trained, and well-seasoned. It took years to be able to perform all the plays by memory, and be able to play more than one part in each play – which with only 12 actors in the company would have been necessary. To wit, the actors were journeymen craftsmen. In addition, actors would have been wearing contemporary clothing, and so it makes sense for modern performances to consider this when it comes to costuming.
After the workshop, refreshments were provided thanks to the generosity of SFSU University Librarian Debbie Masters. Afterwards, everyone gathered in SFSU’s Special Collections to see the performances. The actors chose scenes from Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, Henry VI, Part One, Julius Caesar, and of course Macbeth. Like in Hamlet, when the actors Rosencrantz and Gildentstern profess that every play consists of three essentials which audiences want: “blood, love, and rhetoric.” To that end, the actors explored themes of gender, betrayal, friendship, courtship, murder, and war.
One performance was especially insightful, in terms of notions of gender and our cultural perception of it. The scenes involved Viola from Twelfth Night, played by trans male actor, James Schott. Viola is disguised as a man and has attracted the love and attention of her employer Countess Olivia. The same actor portrays Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, who is at a loss to explain why he is the object of desire of Countess Olivia. The fact that only men would have performed this in Shakespeare’s time, gives indication that gender may have been more fluid in the past than we are given to understand.
We hope to hold this event every year, with slight variations on themes. This year the event coincided with the closing of our exhibit, “All the World is a Stage.” It also served to bring the Sutro Library to a wider audience, while at the same time illustrating the timeliness and importance of William Shakespeare’s plays, the relevance of artifacts, and some insight into Elizabethan notions of gender.