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   Date: 1/21/10 Bookmark and Share

Notes From Abroad

Emily Brown ’11 traveled to England last fall as a participant in the renowned British American Drama Academy’s London Theatre Program, a semester-long undergraduate conservatory acting program for the study of classical theater. When she auditioned and won the role of the conflicted Isabella in the program’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, she was challenged with questions of artistic interpretation, morality and presentation. She wrote about her experience for the Gate.

In Defense of my Character

By Emily Brown ’11

As a young performer my relationship to the stage, audiences and roles shifts and develops with each newly completed acting credit on my resume. Very often I am handed characters who have to face challenges and encounter situations I can only relate to through intuition and imagination. However, part of my own character exists within every dramatic text, and a new part of me awakens every time I embody a new theatrical persona.

So it was with my recent role of Isabella in Shakespeare’s dark comedy Measure for Measure, which I was honored to receive when I auditioned after eight weeks of intensive conservatory-style training at the British American Dramatic Academy’s (BADA) London Theatre Program.

In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna, fearing he has let the morality of his country slip, bequeaths the saintly Lord Angelo with all of his royal power (and the responsibility to rectify the sins of the people). The puritanical strictures of the law weigh most heavily upon Claudio, an unwed man who has gotten his betrothed with child and is condemned to death for the crime of lechery, a helpless scapegoat to the unforgiving Angelo. Claudio’s sister is Isabella—my character—a young woman of fierce faith and chastity, who is about to enter a convent when she hears of her brother’s imprisonment. Conflicted by her own religious beliefs and the immense love she feels for her brother, she confronts Lord Angelo herself. The ultimate test of Isabella’s loyalty to either God or her brother arises when Angelo falls in love with her and offers to free Claudio if she will freely offer him the gift of her sacred chastity.

Emily Brown ’11 (background) as inmate Isabella in an interpretive production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Many people find it very hard to understand the motives of the characters in this play and often condemn Isabella for refusing to sleep with Angelo to save her brother’s life.

My challenge was to make Isabella a young woman that I not only sympathized with but also deeply understood morally. She lives in an ugly world where human life is brief and painful and her only comfort is the belief that eternal glory awaits her after death. I had to allow the religious extremes and realities of Isabella’s world inform the decisions she has to make as dictated by Shakespeare’s text, as well as the way I, the actor, presented them in a way that was truthful, relatable and moving.

Director David Freeman had a unique vision for presenting this piece. After cutting the original text to about an hour and a half, he directed our cast in incorporating live and video-projected images and scenarios extracted from the Stanford Prison Experiment. The famous psychology experiment, conducted in 1971, assigned roles of prison guards and inmates to Stanford University undergraduates, some of whom interpreted their roles overzealously, to failed and controversial results.

We wove Shakespeare’s original text with excerpts from improvisations we had done in rehearsal, taking turns embodying both prisoners and guards, simulating the original experiment and focusing on the psychologically damaging effects of abusive power and consuming victimization.

The extreme nature of what happened in a simulated prison at Stanford University forty years ago helped me find the extreme emotions, beliefs, and realities necessary to stand on that stage speaking 500-year-old lines, and to fully defend my character’s controversial choices in front of a modern audience.

In the final performance, BADA helped me to understand the empowering effect the defense of one’s character can have on a young actor and inspired me to use it again as I stumble, exhilarated, into new theatrical landscapes.

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