The picture was from 1998 and for over 15 years it has dogged me on the worldwide web. With a few scrolls down through my name on any search engine (pass the covers of my books and headshots; you know, the important stuff an author cares about), there it was, always waiting for me.
Me in tights.
“Hello Scott, want to see your legs?”
When I signed up for the graduate-level course in Medieval Literature (at Michigan State University), I was expecting a challenge.
Actually, I was expecting a massive challenge!
I heard rumblings from past students of the class, everything from translating to long writing assignments. While I love diving into classic literature, I have to be in the right mood for the older, more historical entries. I’m not the kind of person to relax with Chaucer on a Sunday morning (even though I do have a pic of him on my wall and I did once mimic his style in a very long short story). At least Chaucer can be a little bawdy and playful, but you have to earn the Chaucer in such classes. And usually that due is paid by Caedom and Margery Kempe.
Medieval literature, the literary equivalent of a hairshirt.
But it was required for my MA, so what could I do? I decided to put my own writing aside for a semester and accept my fate.
However, as we got closer to the start of the semester, my fellow students and I started hearing from the professor. This year we were to do something different, something special. It was obvious the professor was thrilled and he wanted us to feel that way as well. Maybe with another group of students he would have gotten a bigger reaction, but typically bookworms (i.e., graduate students in English Literature) don’t usually like to be thrown on a stage.
Yes, I said “stage.” See, we were not going to be studying Medieval Literature, we were going to be performing it! Watch out Broadway!
A theater professor had recently adapted a series of passion plays, focusing on the decisions and downfall of Pontius Pilate, and somehow our professor thought we were the best for testing the script out.
I considered writing to the professor complaining about it, maybe even dropping the course, when I got to this important bit in his e-mail: We would only be working on the play all semester, there would be no reports or other reading, and this course would still cover our Medieval Literature requirement.
“Hello Pilate! My name is Scott D. Southard, I’m an English Major who is dodging a bullet. It is nice to meet you.”
Usually, there is a certain vibe in an English class. I wouldn’t call it calm, more of expectations; with students usually having quiet conversations together and the others who are going through their books waiting for the class to please, please begin… then counting down the minutes until they can leave.
We are not a band of extroverts. I like to classify us as “confident introverts.” In other words, we know we are the smartest in the room, we just don’t need to tell you.
Yet, there was a weirdness in this class. Different sides were sneaking through in my fellow graduate students. Some were actually excited (with shaking legs), others (who I never would expect) were nervous. To make matters worse, there were no assigned books for the class, so it was like we English students were without a limb. We had to actually talk and converse.
The class was also more full than a typical graduate course, since the professor decided to bring in some theater “ringers.” Actual undergrads were in the class! And they were easy to spot, they were the ones looking at us and smiling in an annoying knowing fashion.
When the theater professor and literature professor strolled into the room, it felt almost rehearsed. There was banter between the two of them as they walked us through the next few months. They had structured our semester more like a local civic theater production than a class with acting lessons, auditions, and a lot of rehearsals. There was not even any times set aside to study the history of the piece we would be performing!
For a while this didn’t sound so bad to me, I could do this. In many ways, I had grown up around the theater, working backstage at my local theater as my younger brother performed in plays. Some of the first girls I ever dated were actresses (I don’t know why that point feels important, but it is true… a lot of actresses). I could do this!
It was all seeming very doable until the end of the syllabus review when the professors explained that we were to be performing on campus… outside… for all of the world to see.
What should have been a class discussing some of the oldest text in the English language became a 101 course in Acting. To make the experience even more frustrating, some of the undergrads were excused from the classes (they could come back once we got to the important bits), and other undergrads were there to help us. Super.
We did pantomime; we performed soliloquies from Shakespeare (not Medieval Literature, might I snobbishly point out). I remember that assignment clearly, we had to select a favorite excerpt from Shakespeare and find a new way to act it out. I choose the final speech of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I did it as if he just realized there was an audience watching him the entire time!
I jumped in fear! I tried to escape!
When I realized I couldn’t escape, I slowly moved forward to the other students with hands outstretched and begged, “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended…” (I still have the entire speech memorized.)
For another assignment, I did a comic pantomime of a person searching frantically through a duffel bag looking for something to a song by Marcus Roberts. I totally Charlie Chaplin-ed it! I even found a condom in there (perfectly synced with a funny noise in the song), which made the students laugh.
Throughout all of this, our little band of brothers were beginning to size each other up. Some were definitely aiming towards the smaller parts, hiding in the shadows; while others of us were feeling more confident, more bold. For me, I figured if I had to do this, I might as well go into this full. In the worst, it would give me an interesting story to tell someday (hello!). And it’s not like I didn’t have experience on a stage, I was a jazz music major before I was an English major. All fine and good and then…
It was around this time that we first got the scripts…
I’m not the kind of person to criticize another’s work, especially a professor but… Okay, it was shit.
This was not an adaptation in the true sense of the word. That would take some art, or at least a bit of work. What he did was steal excerpts from plays based on the crucifixion of Christ (from the York Mystery Plays, for example) and then copied-and-pasted the bits about Pilate into one new file.
It was a mess!
Characters would come and go from the story for no reason, plot points would not make sense. To make it worse, he tried to translate the old English, but he didn’t have the skills for even that! His linguistic skills and vocabulary were too simplistic, leaving us mostly with words less than three syllables in length (hardly sounding “old school”). And in rhyme! All in all, it reminded me and my fellow students of Dr. Seuss.
Yes, this was Dr. Seuss as if he decided to rhyme the Bible. But Dr. Seuss would never have considered doing something like this. Grinch stealing Christmas? Ha! We would have that one beat.
“One fish, two fish, let’s kill the savior.”
(to be continued.)
If fiction is more your thing, I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan.
You can find all of these books via my amazon.com author page here. Thanks for reading!
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