IF in March

We’ve got two staged readings this month: Machiavelli’s Mandrake on March 10th, directed by Jacob Crawford, and Aristophanes’ Women at the Assembly on March 25th, directed by Prof. Steve Burch of UA’s Dept. of Theatre and Dance and held in conjunction with the Dept. of Modern Languages & Classics conference “Women, Democracy, and the Ideology of Exclusion.” Both shows will take place at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center (620 Greensboro Ave). Stay tuned to our Facebook page for details! And don’t forget Strode’s next Shakespeare in Film offering on March 23rd, Trevor Nunn’s 1996 Twelfth Night.

Mandrake poster copy.png

Women of the Assembly copy


IF Spring 2016

Just a brief note about everything IF will be doing this spring:

  • There will be a production of Aristophanes’ The Assembly Women, directed by Steve Burch, on March 25th at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center. The production will be part of “Women, Democracy, and the Ideology of Exclusion from Antiquity Through the Early 20th Century”, an international conference will be held at 205 Gorgas from March 24-25, 2016, organized by Prof. Tatiana Tsakiropoulou-Summers (Modern Languages and Classics): womenanddemocracy.ua.edu
  • In conjunction with UA’s EN 208 courses (World Literature II), IF will hold informal readings and film screenings about once a month in Morgan 301, featuring the work of Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Beckett, and Soyinka. Details TBA on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/313455652125964/
  • Finally, the Strode Shakespeare Film Series continues, starting tomorrow (Jan 13) with Billy Morrissette’s 2001 appropriation of MacbethScotland, PaFor details, check out our department page: http://english.ua.edu/grad/strode/films


We hope to see you at one of our many events!


Program Notes for Scotland, Pa. by Tyler Sasser:


Theatre people always say that Macbeth is the unluckiest of plays, particularly for actors who literally risk “breaking a leg” should they bid each other “good luck” before a performance. Such a hapless reputation, however, has not taken away from the immense popularity of the Scottish play. With Romeo and Juliet, Juliet Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth has long been a staple of American high school education. The Scottish play often serves as our introduction to Shakespeare, if not to theatre more broadly.

One reason is because of its brevity. At merely 2,000 lines long, Macbeth is approximately half the size of Hamlet. Macbeth speaks almost 30% of those lines, thus making him more central to his play than any other Shakespearean protagonist, except Hamlet who speaks about 38% of the lines in his play. Since we spend so much time with Macbeth—by comparison, Lady Macbeth essentially exits the play in 3.4, only to return briefly in 5.1—audiences and readers at times find themselves identifying with him. Bloody career aside, Macbeth’s intense human desire to see his ambitions realized—no matter the cost—can become very personal for us.

Macbeth was first published in the Folio (1613), the collection of Shakespeare’s plays published seven years after his death. It most likely was written near the end of 1606, and it is often identified as the last of the so-called “great tragedies” of Shakespeare (Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello). As is so common in Shakespeare, the playwright borrows his narrative from another source. In this case, Shakespeare turns to the famous Chronicles (1577) of Holinshed, a popular history of England, Scotland, and Ireland familiar to the playwright and his contemporaries. Chronicles tells the story of Lady Macbeth, a high noble woman and cousin to King Duncan, whose husband and son are murdered. Macbeth marries her, and becomes king after Duncan dies in battle. As in the play, Macbeth never fathers a child.

Shakespeare significantly alters this history, and in the process provides us with fast-paced action and tragic characters. To be sure, Macbeth is a dark and bloody play. Probably the most famous and controversial (and there are many) adaptation of the play is Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, produced in the aftermath of the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by members of the Manson Family. As you will see with Scotland, PA, the play does not always inspire gloomy productions, but it is simultaneously unsettling and compelling. It forces us to realize, with Macbeth, that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.”

Scotland, PA

Scotland, PA irreverently repackages Shakespeare’s Macbeth into a 70’s style mystery, and like all good satire, this one is based on disgust.

Writer-director Billy Morrissette began drafting his script while forced to read Macbeth in high school and flip burgers at Dairy Queen. Of his employment, Morrissette disingenuously states, “I hated my boss, and I wanted to kill him.” Hence, while Shakespeare’s play is about murdering the king of Scotland so Macbeth can take his place, the movie is about murdering the owner of a burger joint so Mac can become owner. The movie also is about the fast-food style bloodbath that follows.

Joe “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) and Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney) are unhappy with their life working at Duncan’s, a burger stand operated by Norm “The King of Burgers” Duncan (James Rebhorn). After Mac is passed over for promotion, the McBeths elect to take things into their own hands and make true the prophecies of one fortune teller (Amy Smart) and two stoned hippies (Tim Levitch and Andy Dick). Scotland, PA faithfully follows in the tradition of Macbeth being Shakespeare’s bloodiest drama, as a gruesome murder brings the amiable scatterbrained Lt. Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken) to investigate.

Anyone familiar with Macbeth will enjoy, even if superficially, the parallels Morrissette creatively imbues into his movie, such as Pat’s grease-stained hands. Yet despite the comedy, Scotland, PA maintains much of what makes Macbeth memorable. For instance, LeGros’s Mac resembles a feckless Macbeth easily led by his wife, and Tierney’s Pat recalls traditional performances of Lady Macbeth when she challenges her husband’s manhood. Further, this fast-food themed appropriation uses food and hunger not only for laughs, as when viewers see Christopher Walken with a carrot hanging out of his mouth, but also recalls its Shakespearean original. With approximately 30 references to consumption, Macbeth is chock-full of food-related imagery, whether Macbeth’s metaphorical hunger for ambition or the physical hunger noted by the witches. Even one of the most famous lines from the Scottish play—Lady Macbeth’s lamenting that her husband is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness”—suggests a dramatic concern with nourishment. The film’s fantastic soundtrack, composed almost entirely of Bad Company songs, also makes telling connections between play and film. “Bad Company” playing as Mac first approaches the stoned hippies (i.e., witches) is a hard rock caution, and “Can’t Get Enough” sums up the ethos of both Mac and Macbeth.

Morrissette happily dedicated Scotland, PA to all the burger flipping students who, like himself, read Cliff Notes instead of Shakespeare. If you are one of those people, then bon appetite!

Lucky Number Seven

It’s hard to believe the life that Improbable Fictions has had thus far: twenty five separate staged readings since 2010, covering Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Euripides, Elizabeth Cary, and Terry Pratchett, readings that have drawn on actors and audience members from the University of Alabama and the community of Tuscaloosa. It’s my pleasure today to announce a few details about the seventh season of IF. (Wait a moment, I’m quickly checking my math…yes, SEVENTH SEASON).


Wednesday, October 7th, 2015, 7:30pm at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center (here) IF will present Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, adapted by Alaina Jobe Pangburn and myself back in 2010. You can find the script here (Helms.Jobe.Twelfth Night Script, Aug 2015), and if you’re interested in participating you can reach me at nrhelms@ua.edu. Hopefully this time around I’ll just be directing and won’t have to play Orsino as well!

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015, also at the CAC at 7:30pm, IF will present Shakes’ Hamlet, adapted and directed by Jacob Crawford, whom you can reach at jcrawford1@crimson.ua.edu.

We’re also working on a reading of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine in December and a possible performance at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in October. Details will be announced when I have them!


The Selfless ‘Inside Out’: Not a Problem

I’d like to take a moment to respond to Alva Noë’s piece “The Awkward Synthesis That Is ‘Inside Out'” on NPR’s Cosmos and Culture, which I think misrepresents Pixar’s film. I’m sympathetic to Noë’s reactions…I’m just not sure Noë saw the same film I did.


I should start by noting that Noë isn’t reviewing Inside Out, nor am I. If you’re looking for that, check out the always-eloquent A. O. Scott on nytimes.com. Noë’s main contention is that the film never gets around to portraying characters, and in fact presents people as zombie-like automatons. He writes:

In a way, that’s the movie’s real point. Life’s true dramas, it is implied, are internal and there’s little more to dad or mom or place than the role these play in triggering events inside of Riley — or inside each of us. And that, finally, is where the movie falls flat. It purports to the be the story of a girl, but in fact there is no girl character in the film. Riley is not a person, she is a robot, a complicated vessel whose actions and intentions are controlled by persons — emotions and memory workers — inside of her. Riley is no more an agent in her own right than is, say, a ship an agent in its own right. Or, to change the image, she is like a puppet controlled by the team working in headquarters: She is empty.

As I understand Noë’s point, he’s objecting to the portrayal of 11-year-old Riley’s emotions as the drivers of the human vehicle, linking that portrayal to outdated notions of the homunculus, the ‘self’ as the pilot of the ship that is the body (Noë points to Descartes as an originator of this idea). Noë objects that in contemporary cognitive science, the homunculus is grafted on to Hume’s notion that there is no essential ‘self’ and that we are in fact just a collection of cognitive abilities: emotions, perceptions, instincts, etc. Noë continues:

Contemporary cognitive science combines these two ideas in a most awkward synthesis: We are the brain, which in turn is modeled not as a self, but as a vast army of little selves, or agencies, whose collective operations give rise to what looks, from the outside, like a single person or animal; but, so the “Awkward Synthesis” would have it, some of the events happening inside of us really are ours, they really are experienced, and this is because they happen in a special way or in a special place — in what Dennett has called the Cartesian Theater.

This description does indeed fit Inside Out on the surface. On the outside we see Riley endure a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco: the long car ride west, the dingy new home, the awkward first day at a new school. There’s not a lot of action here. Inside, we see Riley’s basic emotions–Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear–the production of her memories, the storage of old memories and ‘core’ memories, locations that represent features of her personality, even a cotton-candy-composed imaginary friend. There is, however, no Riley inside Riley. The emotions refer to Riley, but she has no internal representative, and her external actions are cued by the team of emotions via a control panel before a very Cartesian theater screen, upon which can be shown both Riley’s current perceptions and past memories, stored by glass marbles that, when hit by light, project those memories upon the screen. The metaphor of the mind’s eye as a theater is very active here, as are the phrases ‘losing your marbles’ and ‘the train of thought.’

Noë concludes, “I’m surprised that Docter and the brilliant creators at Pixar don’t seem to appreciate that that there is something downright terrifying about this nihilistic conception of ourselves as zombie puppets living in a confabulated universe.” Does anyone besides Noë experience terror about the picture Inside Out paints of the mind? Certainly, the ‘awkward synthesis’ that Noë sees in cognitive science could lead to terrifying conclusions, if it is a valid objection to cognitive science. But that’s a discussion to be had about cognitive science, not about Inside Out, which never purports to be a definitive depiction of the mind. Noë is using the film as an excuse to question the underpinnings of cognitive science and then masking that as a review of the film:

If you measure the success of a movie not so much by how entertaining and truthful it is, but rather by the opportunity for energetic critical thinking that it affords, then Inside Out is a successful movie indeed. I fear — and the critical reception so far seems to back this up — that audiences will fall for the movie’s uncritical ideology of the self as made up of little selves who are pulling the strings inside and, also, the wool over our eyes.

What Noë doesn’t do is offer an alternative: how should Inside Out have portrayed the self? To my knowledge, neither philosophy nor cognitive science has offered a good answer to that question yet. And lest Noë throw the baby out with the bathwater, here’s a brief list of things that the film gets right about the mind:

  • Basic emotions: The role of the basic emotions in everyday experience is paramount, and emotions do indeed form the backdrop of all our actions. See Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. (Typically there are six basic emotions, not five, though the count is contentious. Surprise didn’t make the cut, though Bing-Bong’s lapel flower has six color-coordinated petals that gesture toward the full committee of emotions.)
  • Emotional memory: The emotions we feel in a moment are part and parcel of how we remember that moment, and moments are rarely ‘monochromatic.’ Our emotions are often a blend of the basic six, something the film makes clear by the end.
  • Sadness isn’t a mental health issue: imbalance is! Oddly enough, this is old wisdom: Aristotle’s moderation and Renaissance humoral theory come to mind, for a start. The film beautifully critiques the contemporary American belief that happiness is a right and an expected status quo. The pursuit of happiness is a right, but actually having such happiness at all times is an unrealistic expectation that stigmatizes a broad swathe of emotional experiences. Sadness, or melancholy, is as valuable as happiness. See John Milton’s paired poems ‘Il Penseroso’ and ‘L’Allegro.’

Perhaps Pixar’s Inside Out fails in representing the self, but in the absence of any superior, definitive representation of the mind, I’ll take the cultural work that Inside Out is accomplishing. See it if you haven’t.

And bring a hankie.


Cognitive Disability as Straw Man

I’d like to point to two articles that have been trending on Facebook in recent weeks to point to a common thread I’ve seen in conversations about ‘mental illness.’ I’m using scare quotes here because the phrase ‘mental illness’ is itself problematic, for it implies that any deviation from statistically normal human cognition (called neurotypicality) is a disease, a problem for society, and something that can (and should) be fixed. Furthermore, the monolith of ‘mental illness’ stands in for arguments about other issues: priorities in higher education, freedom of speech, gun control, racism. ‘Mental illness’ is invoked to distract from other issues, and in the process actual cognitive disability is ignored.

brain gear

First, conversations about mass shootings often make this rhetorical move:

It’s Not About Mental Illness

In this Salon.com article (or perhaps rant), Arthur Chu takes recent media coverage of the Charleston, South Carolina shooting to task for characterizing the suspect Dylann Roof as ‘mentally ill’ rather than as motivated by racism. I’m not convinced that mass shooters are never or rarely mentally ill. See Adam Lankford’s research on the topic. What I find compelling about Chu’s essay is the following:

“What’s also interesting is the way “The real issue is mental illness” is deployed against mass murderers the way it’s deployed in general — as a way to discredit their own words. When you call someone “mentally ill” in this culture it’s a way to admonish people not to listen to them, to ignore anything they say about their own actions and motivations, to give yourself the authority to say you know them better than they know themselves.”

Cognitive disability is probably a contributing factor for such shootings, but that doesn’t make it the only or the primary factor. In addition, any relationship between cognitive disability and violence should lead us to care more for such issues, not to stigmatize the cognitively disabled. The stigma against ‘mental illness’ causes more harm than the illnesses themselves, and that stigma is being used to distract from pressing issues about racism and gun control.

Conversations about trigger warnings in higher education often employ this same rhetorical strategy:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses Now Deemed Too “Triggering” for Students at Columbia

To quote from the student complaint referenced in this post:

“During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.”

Assuming this student account is a complete retelling of the experience–which is a big assumption, I know–I think the professor made two key missteps: 1) underplaying the real trauma of rape in the text; and 2) dismissing a student’s concerns.

In my view, trigger warnings are an issue of disability; they’re words, topic, images that, due to a person’s pre-existing experiences, trauma, or mental health cause them to react to the world differently from other human beings. To be blunt, telling a person to ‘not be triggered’ is the equivalent of telling someone with social anxiety to ‘not worry,’ or encouraging a person in a wheelchair to suck it up and take the stairs anyway.

‘Safety’ in the classroom shouldn’t mean class discussions without mention of rape, violence, racism, etc. It should mean that accommodations are made for disability when it’s a legitimate concern. To continue the wheelchair metaphor, don’t demolish every multi-level building on campus, but please do build the ramps and elevators some people need.

However, many conversations about trigger warnings, as with many conversations about mass shootings, don’t seem to be about cognitive disability at all. Trigger warnings, which should be a therapeutic tool, have instead become the motto of a safe, unchallenging classroom that does not present students with challenging texts and situations. Such a classroom is the justified fear of faculty members that see how college has been turned into a commodity and students are now customers. Customers with potentially career-ending complaints. But such a fear has little to nothing to do with the actual purpose of trigger warnings: to help accommodate the cognitively disabled, those scarred by trauma or some misfortune of brain chemistry.

Real conversations about cognitive disability can and should be happening, but while the stigma of ‘mental illness’ is coopted by other discourses as a rhetorical tool those conversations are shackled.


Rude Mechanicals Presents All’s Well that Ends Well

Rude Mechanicals opens its season with “All’s Well that Ends Well.”

Allswell Poster-page-001 (1)The show is free and open to the public. The show runs from May 26 to May 30.

All performances will take place at Manderson Landing. Music starts at 7:30; show starts at 8:00. In case of rain (it will likely rain), the show will relocate to the Allen-Bales Theatre at the University of Alabama.

For more information, see the Rude Mechanicals Facebook page or call (205)348-0343.