In Conversation with Dr. Richard DiPrima, July 25th 2012, Telephone, Folder a.07 41 minutes 15 seconds raw transcript.
Suzanne: Hi Richard, it’s Suzanne with Phil, here in Vermont.
Richard: Hello Phil, good to meet you.
Phil: Hello Richard, where are you?
Richard: At the moment I’m in Indiana to take care of come business.
Phil: Apart from having the potential of a severe thunderstorm here for the next hour…
Richard: It’s been a very strange Summer — at least in Madison it was bone dry, a couple of down-pours but it has been very hot. You guys been all right over there?
Phil: Suzanne was just joking about our impending Tempest, and I wondered if Caliban will call in and ask questions?
Phil: I am also just looking at your new book title, Actor’s Guide to the Language of Shakespeare which is some 800 pages in extent.
Richard: Yes, 850 pages, something like that.
Phil: How long were you working on it?
Richard: Writing it, I would say about five to six months; working on it, those are principles I have been working on with the kids for two and a half decades. It didn’t all happen in that five or six months.
Phil: A favorite Shakespeare title is “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Compleat Being,” by Ted Hughes. He wrote it as a series of letters over ten years. It traces a consistent pattern of mythological themes throughout the work.
Richard: Sounds fascinating.
Phil: I am already contracted to lend it to Suzanne. Twenty five years ago, is that when you established the program initially, and was it primarily Shakespeare, then dilated on it to include Dickens and Shaw?
Richard: I started it in Madison in nineteen eighty, and it’s been there ever since. The briefest thumbnail on that; there were in my awareness some Shakespeare programs around here and there, but I didn’t like them. My own kids were involved and I remember talking with some of their friends who were asking me what this or that meant. I thought, O my god, they are cutting this, bowdlerizing this for kids, I wish that someone would have a different approach that would respect both the material and the kids. That was the sort of beginning of it. We started in 1980 with the idea that we will do full length uncut and unbowdlerized Shakespeare and just bring it within the range of perceptions of the kids — then let’s see what they can do with it. Of course they are not going to understand it at first glance, of course not, but that doesn’t mean that we should spring over to patronizing them; acting as if they cannot understand at first glance there is something wrong with their minds. It was our responsibility to deal with what is really there, and what is really there is not changing the story or cutting it. It is to sat that we have the job to say that you can use this marvelous material with your own marvelous minds. We did that and my wife and I in a big life change in the mid eighties in Chicago both took psychology doctorates, and we thought we would end the program then; but the families and the kids kept phoning — at the time the program was one full length play per Summer — and Madison families kept asking after it, we had started in Chicago and were there for ten years very successfully, but we kept coming back to Madison to do it there too. We then moved down from there and started briefly a psychology practice in North Carolina, though we were busy traveling back and forth to Chicago since we had family in both places. Finally we moved back to Madison at the request of both families. That’s the thumbnail of how that all happened. It was only Shakespeare for the first twenty years or so and we did Shakespeare in both those cities for ten of those years; started doing more than one play a summer, adding another play and started to do workshops, uncut themes or sections on a theme to give a again a feeling for the real scenes and language of Shakespeare. In 2001 we started doing some George Bernard Shaw and started a Dickens dramatic reading society for the kids and their parents mixed. Did two very large productions. At just about the time we were starting the Royal Shakespeare Company did a monumental production of Nicholas Nickleby, which got a lot of attention worldwide for a ten and a half hour production over two days — nobody has done it since the early eighties, some companies have done it with a few hours cut out, we did it with the kids in 2007. So there have been other projects. Our great, great, great concentration has always been on Shakespeare, always will be.
Phil: Fascinating introduction to a huge range of possibilities. How long was your full Hamlet, Richard, about 5 hours?
Richard: I should say that Hamlet is the exception in that we do a full length, but there are 3 versions of Hamlet; the second quarto is about 4,000 lines long, the first uncut folio is about 3,200 lines long, and the so called “bad-quarto” is much shorter than that. Ours was between the length of the folio and the second quarto. I didn’t use every line in the second quarto but we took a very full length and added some other things back. A little longer to the folio version and it came to about four and quarter hours.
Phil: Substantial. My wife teaches English and she likes Stevenson, and she likes Robert Louis because he doesn’t write down to children, he uses a fulsome English as if writing ‘for children’ would be insulting to children. Do you have the same sense of things?
Richard: Absolutely, completely, and that’s a very important principal.
Phil: Many people I have had these recorded conversations with talk of arts therapy, and they recommend programs which seem genuinely interesting, but I think, “O, does there have to be something wrong with you to take this?”
Phil: I often think I would like to do that activity. But I think you are describing a program which is preventative, or maybe better said, it increments one’s appreciation of things and overall expressivity.
Richard: Absolutely. It’s interesting you zeroed in on that. I think that is the heart of it all. Just taking off from what you just said, Phil, let me mention another little anecdote: I think it was 1986 and doing The Tempest or something and a couple of parents were gathered around and mentioning how their kids were growing, they had gained so much in confidence and use other kinds of speech, and I remember saying think of how the dendrites are growing as they work on this, work and work, on the language and what it means, emotionally and cognitively. When I said that there was no such thing as real brain imaging, and in the last few years people are producing all kinds of studies showing that if you can get people, especially young people, but people of any age, to really begin to deeply immerse in great literature, it changes who they are — not in some superficial or margined way — but that our brains are changing and growing. That is an important principal to us here and it’s happening to us all the time — the way our brains are changing over the next generation is in tweeting and texting, and only that. There is something very fundamental in, as you just put it, the increment. It is an emotional increment as well as an intellectual, verbal one.
Phil: Yes indeed! It seems to me that it fills out the orb of the human being, rather than stay huddled around a device representing only a partial aspect of it in a private corner. Something like this seems not optional, but necessary if individuals are to meaningfully function in society. Of self and group there are not so many substitutes for it, you can’t tweet wisdom nor learn to be a social being which can be half of you — this program seems to offer the possibility to do otherwise, but it is an uncommon factor these days isn’t it?
Richard: It’s not that common, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. We are not going to, nor should we, go back to something which is not internet based, but if we go only in that direction and lose the depth of what we have become culturally — I don’t only mean that in an abstract sense — but in a sense of culturally relating to one another. Then I think that we’ve lost something which is so precious” I believe personally that you look at the next few generations, that those who are going to lead us are, yes, familiar with the newest technology, sure, but who simultaneously who are very steeped in language along with inter-human connections and all that implies. This was the basis of something I mentioned early to which we added the Dickens Dramatic Reading Society, to pull people around together and deeply immerse in literature almost as a chamber music kind of thing in relating to one another — but that’s another story for another day. They all do relate. But I think you are absolutely on target about the essence of what this about, that’s its basic importance. Of all the kids who get involved with it, I don’t think they necessarily articulate why it means so much to them, but they get so deeply into what they are doing, they learn to love reading and feeling, the emotional element which means so much that they know there is no substitute for it.
Phil: I’ve just been reading a magazine named Parabola which is discussing the Arts and Spirituality, and an article by Alan Arkin who teaches drama, and he has people in his workshops and he asks them in one exercise not to be interesting, not to be creative — then at the end of the exercise he accuses people of being creative, and they are. He says about this that people cannot avoid being creative. A friend in town Kate Anderson head of the town arts committee says, “the arts are the natural language of human beings,” but like anything else they need exercise and as fulsomely as possible. Here is a question which often obtains ludicrous answers, but why do people come to Brattleboro? Often people begin to explain in a rational way then they admit they were actually aiming at Scotland or Nova Scotia
Phil: Would you care to rationalize? I mean, someone told me they stuck a pin in a map. I imagine though you considered something more pert about our area.
Richard: About building our first branch there? That is the happenstance of a wonderful family and the point was their oldest child seeing what this program can do — life took them in the direction of Brattleboro, and they said, “why don’t they do it here?” and you are now interviewing with that wonderful family. We have had other people say to us why don’t we do it other places; and they were both very important for my saying “yes” let’s go for it; one of them was the clarity that they understood what it was we were trying to do and that they would thereby be carrying on. The second was the area — I think frankly that kids everywhere can do wonderful stuff, but you have got to give it this, here is a fragile idea that doesn’t fit into any category that is out there right now. Therefore you have to give it the best possible soil to grow in, and my knowledge goes back to when I was in college, and spent time in different parts of New England including in Brattleboro, and what I know of it and its people gave me the sense that that would be the perfect climate, perfect soil for being receptive to these ideas.
Phil: Brattleboro and surrounds does seem to attract pioneering people in the humanities, in the arts and sciences too — I would agree with you. I had a friend who went to four or five mid-sized towns in the mid-west of about 50,000 people each and he didn’t find as much arts in them combined as Brattleboro has, which has only about 12,000 people from a catchment area of about 50,000.
Richard: I can very well believe that. Madison is a little bit different because of its university culture, and that’s why the program has flourished there. It was much more receptive. Chicago also had a lot of communities coming together, but logistically that was a little tougher. But I can really believe that about Brattleboro.
Suzanne: Brattleboro has about 12,000 people but in one of the most crowded corridors of artists, craftsmen, professors, right.
Phil: I have a friend named Susan Polgar and who was the world women’s chess champion — she is particularly interested in young people and their educations and especially young females. She grew up in Hungary where she suffered some degree of active and passive antisemitism but more so, male misogyny, a female in an almost entirely male word of chess players — then she qualified for the men’s world championship, and the men couldn’t take that and changed the name to just world championship. She doesn’t think the minds of young women are sufficiently challenged or that there are sufficient role models for young women, so young people are her particular interest also. I suppose I’ve learned quite a bit from her about a game where every move is a challenge, a problem, an opportunity and how young people are actually grateful for being challenged. From a psychological perspective, do you think that under-challenged is fair comment about passive culture in the United States? Is challenge the right word?
Richard: Yes. It is an excellent word for it. You see, what passes for challenge too often is a stylized narrow creation of local curriculum or set of activities. We say that our children are more challenged than ever because they are busier than ever. It is not the same thing. While we are being busy we are simultaneously too often treating children as if they are lesser beings because they are young, and then wondering why they are less than we would like them to be when they get older. It’s an absurdity. Let’s stop the world for a minute! Somebody was just saying to me during As You Like It and King Lear this summer, as well as Henry IV and Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night… they said “gee, this is amazing, I would never have thought that a young kid could do those lines from Rosalind,” and I said, “wait a minute, who do you think those lines for Rosalind were written for? Probably a twelve year old boy.” There were no women on the stage when Shakespeare wrote this. Who played Lady Macbeth? Imogen? The conception that to challenge kids we have to invent some little operational, measureable, statistical basis like the grading system or the SAT score. Then what we have to do is say whether they have succeeded on what we have set up as a first definition of what the challenge is and secondly how many extra-curricular activities can we drive them too in the course of a week — Phil, I am very, very proud that we never in thirty years of doing this have had anybody say the words to us, after their kids have been in the program for any length of time at all, they have never said the words ‘gifted’ and talented’ to us. They look around and realize that every one of those kids is gifted and talented, whatever the grade-point average is, and they are.
Phil: A very powerful thing for you to say, Richard. If you look at a school curriculum, what emotional exercise is there? What other subjects are there to engage both emotional and cultural feelings? Very often there are none. There are few things which are elastic, or examines qualities of things that you would recognize as even being sufficient exercise of these human sensibilities nevermind constituting a challenge. My friend Susan says she is glad to be able to exercise the minds of young men and especially young women — you can’t measure it with SATS or IQs, but you can value self-esteem.
Richard: If we begin to connect kids to the sense of great language, which is not an artifact, not a technology, it is the essence of who we are as beings — the old argument asks is there a possibility of real thought without language, which comes first, and so on… I don’t care to answer the question but I do know that to be able to embed in the minds of our young people great language as a part of them., it is possible to express feelings through language, and if you do that the feelings themselves change and grow, take on more texture — then the language does too. I tell a little anecdote in that book where we had just finished a production of Hamlet a few years ago and we always have a little ceremony when the kids get up and say a few of their lines again — and one kid said his lines, and then said he would give us more lines; this is from the No Fear Shakespeare [there is nothing more an anathema to me than burning books but if I had to do it it might start with the No Fear Shakespeare.] He said that he was going to give us another quote from Hamlet, but these are not exactly Shakespeare’s words but from the No Fear Shakespeare, and he quotes from the nunnery scene where Hamlet says to Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery; why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: and so on and so on, but No Fear reports Hamlet to Ophelia: Become a nun! I know about your cosmetics! …
Phil: Wait, wait; we are getting up from the floor. We are in recovery.
Richard: And there was laughter there too, and I went to one and another and asked “why did you laugh at that?” Which is a very unfair question to ask somebody what’s funny about something, but finally a couple of them said, well, that’s not what Shakespeare was saying, paraphrases like that aren’t the same thing, it’s a whole different reality. Bingo! In classical times writers and philosophers, again in the Renaissance, and only quantum physicists are saying this now, realized that there may be something that can be defined by the way it is expressed or observed, in other words it is not the same thing to say, “gee, it’s morning,” and “ look love what envious streaks. Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East.” These are different things and we are losing the sense — immerse kids in noble literature, immerse them in the possibility, immerse them in the way you have to connect with not only the language but the feelings of the characters. They are never again going to turn back, never again going to think as superficially as they could of the emotional part of the challenge as well as anything else to become fully human. Not to go off into the sad exercises that someone is misguidedly giving them, while patronizing them at the same time.
Phil: I love this thing you are saying about enabling a deeper expression plus these differentiations about time, about a quality of time rather than the usual quantity of time. These seem aspects of culture which are quickly passing — I know some college professors who I ask how many different words do they suppose their undergraduate students electionally use in any week? They laugh at me when I suggest a thousand and estimate less than half that. What range of expression does that permit? An Elizabethan peasant farmer at the time of the Bard likely used several thousand, but today we are reduced to the extent of a Bart Simpson. I think you have been addressing something critical about the life of our times, and this in conjunction with the programmatic material Suzanne has provided should provide a sense of YSP in extent and also in importance. Is there something you would like to close with as an emphasis or that we haven’t yet mentioned?
Richard: How can you cover it? What we are talking about is the human mind and the human spirit — we have an unfair advantage when we work with Shakespeare because this is someone who took the most human part of us and left us with a record that we can relive, beyond that which anyone else I know has ever done. I don’t know of another human achievement over a ten to fifteen year period that is anything to compare with Shakespeare’s body of work — that is of course subjective, and maybe you could say well of what Einstein did or what Newton did, but if I had to take one individual single achievement I would take King Lear. Shakespeare seemed to have a greater accomplishment than, I don’t know, Alexander conquering Asia Minor. What difference did that make in the long run? I know what difference Shakespeare is making. Above all else, the only other thing I would like to add is that let’s never, never underestimate the joy the kids themselves get in doing something that’s wonderful when they realize that it’s being appreciated, that it’s possible, that no one is treating them as lesser, and they are free to be in the context of the greatest words and ideas anybody has ever created. With us we find kids coming back again and again and again. We have many kids now who have been involved of thirty major Shakespeare productions with us, kids who are now 16, 17 or 18 years old. My point is not just how wonderful that experience is, but that they are choosing to do so, and because there is joy in finding this kind of depth inside themselves.
Phil: A great peroration! All I might add is that in Shakespeare’s time if you referenced subjective knowledge it would be you validated it from your own experience, whereas objective knowledge was that which you had no experience of, was only intellectual, only seen from the outside. Subjective then meant ‘rings true to you.’
Richard: That’s right.
Phil: There is even a different sense of knowledge, now and then. This is wonderful stuff to be able to record, and thank you very much sir!
Richard: Thank you, when will this be published?
Phil: The rules are that I make a transcript of the audio recording, then you are the final editor of it. I am doing some film work at the moment, but in perhaps a week?
Richard: Should like to meet you in person, Phil. And to Suzanne, I really believe more than ever than we have chosen a place where this idea can be spread. Maybe we can have lunch together Phil?
Phil: Careful, Richard, we might put you in front of a camera, being short of authentic villains.
In Conversation with Dr. Richard DiPrima
August 13, 2012 8:22 AM