2014 Summer Preview: Fair Em

Elizabeth Jordan, our ASC Theatre Camp Session 1 dramaturg, is a graduate of the University of Houston and holds a BFA in Theatre Dramaturgy. Elizabeth worked as the Literary Associate for the Landing Theatre Company and has completed dramaturgical work for the Houston Shakespeare Festival and the Classical Theatre Company. She also served as the New Play Coordinator for the Dorset Theatre Festival. Elizabeth is currently working on all three of our Session 1 plays, including Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and the anonymous play, Fair Em. Elizabeth shares some intriguing information about Fair Em in her post below. Stayed tuned for more posts from our camp dramaturgs about our other 2014 camp shows.
- Kim Newton, Camp Director

Why isn’t Fair Em in my Shakespeare anthology? Who is ‘Anonymous’?

Fair Em title page, 1631 (Q2)

Fair Em title page, 1631 (Q2)

You’re excited about Session 1 and want to get a sneak peek on the upcoming plays, yet every time you Google “Shakespeare’s Fair Em,” nothing sufficient pops up. That is because Fair Em is an anonymous play, likely written in 1590 or 1591. Scholars have tried to pinpoint a single author of Fair Em, but due to its elusive history, no certain evidence exists about the play’s authorship. What we do know is that Fair Em was originally performed by a prominent Elizabethan acting troupe called the Lord Strange’s Men (1576-1594).1 In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, companies of performers produced plays, under the license of royal or noble patrons. The actors worked collaboratively on blocking and other staging considerations, and the company would often have only a few days to rehearse before performing at the public playhouses or at the royal court. In the early 1590s, at the time of Fair Em‘s composition, Shakespeare was a member of Lord Strange’s Men, and he later became a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.1 Scholars have also suggested other playwrights who might have written Fair Em, including Robert Wilson and Anthony Munday.

Source Material for Fair Em

The source for Fair Em is “The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bednall-Green,” a ballad that was popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.2 The ballad tells the story of Bessie, an innocent young woman of poor parentage who leaves home. On her own, she gains four suitors of varying social statuses. Bessie chooses the most faithful of the lovers and brings him home to gain the blessing of her father, a blind beggar. In the second part of the ballad, Bessie has her wedding feast among the nobles of the country. Her father disguises himself and reveals at the party that Bessie is actually of noble birth. Lord Strange’s Men revived these characters from the ballad in the story of Fair Em.

The script we are performing at the ASC Theatre Camp this summer has many more twists and turns. Fair Em contains a split plot with the main story focusing on William the Conqueror’s quest for love in the Danish court. William’s character is based off of the historical William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England. William travels to the court of King Zweno in pursuit of the princess Blanch. William instead becomes enamored of Mariana, a Swedish princess who is already betrothed to the Marques of Lubeck. Together, Blanch and Mariana devise a plan to trick William, and he ends up taking the wrong princess back to England.

Meanwhile, three suitors, Valingford, Mountney, and Manvile, pursue Em, the beautiful daughter of the Miller of Manchester. Preferring Manvile, she pretends blindness to evade Valingford and deafness to avoid Mountney. Ultimately, Manvile proves unfaithful to Em, then loses both of the other women he pursues. Em marries Valingford, the one of the three who has remained true to her.

In the end, the Miller of Manchester reveals himself as Sir Thomas Goddard; both he and Em are of the gentry class. The two plots come together as William recognizes that Goddard’s banishment was unjust and revokes it. Em makes William realize that the world does contain virtuous women, which helps to reconcile him with Blanch.

What records do we have?

The story of Fair Em has been largely overlooked for over 400 years. Originally, this play was found in the libraries of King Charles I and King Charles II, bound in a book called Shakespeare Vol. I along with several other plays wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, including Mucedorus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Later, Shakespeare Vol. I. fell into the hands of David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and director of the 18th century. By 1840, the volume was split up when transferred to the British Museum.3

Scholars now recognize that Shakespeare had an active role in writing plays not found in the 1623 First Folio of his works. Popular opinion groups these co-authored plays together with others of curious attribution, known collectively as the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Several of these early plays, including Fair Em, can be considered Romance Histories, a genre that incorporates historical personages in entirely imaginary and comic frameworks.4 Even though we do not have enough evidence to identify its true author, Fair Em reveals much about the theatrical world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, and its study encourages many intriguing questions as to how we keep and record the history of plays. I cannot wait to see this rarely produced play on its feet!

-Elizabeth Jordan


  1. Thaler, Alwin. “Faire Em (And Shakspere’s Company?) in Lancashire.” PMLA 46.3 (1931): 647-58. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by: Modern Language Association.
  2. Mannel, George W. “The Source of the Immediate Plot of Faire Em.” Modern Language Notes 28.3 (1913): 80-82. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  3. Kirwan, Peter. “The First Collected “Shakespeare Apocrypha”” Shakespeare Quarterly 62.4 (2011): 594-601. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.
  4. Dean, Paul. “Shakespeare’s Henry VI Trilogy and Elizabethan “Romance” Histories: The Origins of a Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly  33.1 (1982): 34-48.JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.

Why You Should Love Henry VI, Part 3

The ASC Theatre Camp 2014 sessions feature a fantastic selection of plays by Shakespeare, including Measure for Measure, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry VI, Part 3, and one anonymous play, Fair Em the Miller’s Daughter. Lia Razak, the ASC Theatre Camp Session 2 dramaturg and an ASC Education Artist, is an avid fan of Shakespeare’s  Henry VI trilogy, which portrays the bloody battles and family feuds of the Wars of the Roses.

Lia Razak is a Philadelphia native who graduated with honors from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a BA in Shakespeare and Education. She currently works as the American Shakespeare Center’s archivist and an Education Artist , and she started with the ASC as an education intern during the 2012 Actors’ Renaissance Season. During that time, she chronicled rehearsals and research extensively on the ASC Interns’ Blog. We hope you will enjoy her insightful and enthusiastic appraisal of one of the shows of Session 2, Henry VI, Part 3.

Why You Should Love Henry VI, Part 3

            I know that a play named The Third Part of Henry the Sixth does not necessarily inspire excitement in the average Shakespearean. The show is not one of the “biggies” (though it should be), always getting passed over for the Hamlets and the Macbeths and the Romeo & Juliets, and therefore remaining unfamiliar to high school and undergraduate classes across the land. Plus, the title implies the play’s place within an overall narrative, perhaps one that would make no sense without its two preceding parts. Moreover, it’s a history play, and not even one of the “good” ones like Henry V or Richard III, so one could be safe in assuming that instead of encompassing the immortal themes that make the rest of Shakespeare so compelling – love, death, jealousy, betrayal, musical clowns in funny hats, what have you – we are instead going to be mired down in pointless and needlessly complicated arguments over the nitty-gritty of the royal succession in 15th century England. Right?


Here following are my top reasons why everybody should love Henry VI, Part 3 because seriously, this play is amazing.

  1.  Queen Margaret: Who’s Margaret, you might ask? Oh, nobody – just the best female character in the entirety of the Shakespearean canon. Margaret is what would happen if you gave Rosalind’s line load to Lady Macbeth. She is smart, ruthless, and more than a match for all of the men around her. They just cannot handle her fierceness, which is probably why they call her a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.” But Margaret’s ferocity is not just implied, or seen – it is heard. By that I mean to say that Margaret gets to talk. A lot. She is no Ophelia, whose importance is largely symbolic (173 lines to Hamlet’s 1,506). Margaret appears and gets to talk (at length) in the play’s most important, male-dominated scenes. She also might get a bit stabby at points (more on that later).
  2. Richard: Richard, hunchback Duke of Gloucester, did not just spring fully formed from the pen of Shakespeare onto the pages of Richard III. He appears for the first time in Henry VI, Part 2, but he really gets his bearings in Henry VI, Part 3. Do you really think the great opening lines of Richard’s title play (“Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York”) came about without any preparation? Richard starts scheming for the throne long before he is in a position to steal it from his brother Edward, that “sun of York,” and much of the fun of Henry VI, Part 3 is watching Richard’s character development. Why does Richard hate his sibling so much? What was his relationship like with his dad… oh, is that where all those mommy issues came from? Added bonus: you get to watch him square off against Margaret, and trust me, that is a battle you want to see.
  3. Fights: Henry VI, Part 3 takes place smack dab in the middle of the War of the Roses, so yes – there is a lot of squabbling over the nitty-gritty questions of the royal succession in 15th century England. But do you know how they handled those questions? They fought. It was not called “The War of the Roses” because it took place in a courtroom – we are talking large-scale battles here, with some of the most brutal combat sequences in all of Shakespeare. When you have characters like Margaret and Richard fighting it out for power, you are not going to get clean, gentlemanly fights. These are knockdown, drag-out brawls, and nothing is off-limits, including (but not limited to): severed heads bandied about stage, the multiple (on stage!) deaths-by-stabbing of children, and the highly poetical and horribly cruel torture and murder of the Duke of York. I can imagine Shakespeare’s actors getting together to read through their cue scripts for their first rehearsal for this show and saying, “Wow, Will, don’t you think that’s a bit… much? No? All right… how many broadswords do we have? We’re probably going to need to make another head-in-a-bag.”
  4. Epic: Yes, Henry VI, Part 3 cannot hide the fact that it is the third part in a series. This series is known as the first tetralogy, and it encompasses all three parts of Henry VI and ends with Richard III, so Henry VI, Part 3, is definitely right in the middle. What you are in the middle of, however, is an epic. Shakespeare’s take on the War of the Roses in his first tetralogy finds easy modern day parallels in things like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The Starks and the Lannisters find their beginnings in the fight between the Yorks and the Lancasters. (The aural similarity in those family names is no coincidence). Richard would give Tyrion a run for his money, while Cersei and Margaret would probably find themselves getting along quite well (each while simultaneously plotting the other’s downfall). Shakespeare’s grand scale in 3 Henry VI is easily on the same scale as Martin’s, or as Tolkien’s in the Lord of the Ring series – and lest we forget, where does all the awesome stuff happen in those stories? The third book – that’s where Sauron gets destroyed, where climactic weddings (both Red and Royal) take place, and where the long-simmering broil between York and Lancaster finally erupts into a storm of swords.
  5. Poetry: Henry VI, Part 3 is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (dated as early as 1591), but the sophistication and beauty of his language is already apparent. This play has rhetorically sophisticated passages, full of sound and fury, signifying all sorts of things. From King Henry’s bemoaning of his kingly state, wishing he could be a common shepherd, “so minutes, hours, days, months, and  years / pass over to the end they were created / would bring white hairs, unto a quiet grave,” to Margaret’s indignation at Henry’s disinheriting of their son, Prince Edward (“Hads’t thou but loved him half so well as I / Or felt that pain which I did for him once / Or nourished him, as I did with my blood / Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there / rather than have made that savage Duke thine heir”), to any of Richard’s scheming soliloquies on how he will “add colors to the chameleon / change shapes with Proteus, for advantages / and set the murderous Machiavel to school” in his wicked pursuit of power, Henry VI, Part 3 is chock full of delightful passages ripe for exploration.

Basically, do not let Henry VI, Part 3’s title fool you. It is a match for anything in the Shakespearean canon no matter how you stack it, but especially on the stage. Great characters, great language, an epic plot, and some gloriously nasty fights await you within these pages – I, for one, simply cannot wait to make them alive.

-Lia Razak

ASC Theatre Camp Alumni Reunion

Former ASC Theatre Camp attendees are invited to attend an Alumni Reunion, January 17-19. Start your year off by reinvigorating your passion for Shakespeare, and reunite with friends and former campers for a weekend of watching performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse and participating in career-boosting workshops and discussion forums. The American Shakespeare Center is celebrating our 25th Anniversary this year, and we want you to take part in continuing our tradition of recovering the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre.

All registered alumni will have the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the creation of an ASC Theatre Camp Alumni Association and Youth Board. In addition to jump-starting our Alumni Association and Youth Board initiatives, reunion participants will receive tickets to two shows in our Actors’ Renaissance Season, The Servant of Two Masters and As You Like It. The weekend will culminate with a performance workshop led by an ASC actor.

Please click here to register for the reunion and reserve your tickets. For more information, please contact Kim Newton, Director of College Prep programs at kim@americanshakespearecenter.com, or call 540-885-5588 ext. 29.

For I must hence; and farewell to you all.

The ASC Theatre Camp Session 2 concluded with an energizing final performance day on Sunday, August 4.  37 campers performed a devised pre-show based on Renaissance court masques followed by one-hour versions of Shakespeare’s Richard II and The Taming of the Shrew and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Parents, friends, and camp alumni — 255 audience members in all —  gathered to watch the Session 2 campers take the stage and show their mastery of Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s language.Preshow_ASCTC_2013_MiscellaneousMedia036

As one of their camp directors, I could not be more proud of the confidence, eloquence, and professional poise that the campers displayed last Sunday. I feel truly blessed to be a part of this community and to see the campers’ passion for Shakespeare shine through their performances. Following the final shows, campers and their families joined the camp staff for a picnic on the beautiful hillside campus of Mary Baldwin College, our “home away from home” for the last three weeks.

While we shed some parting tears, we will carry the joy that our memories bring to us throughout the year — reciting lines by Lofton Lake,  making discoveries in the rehearsal rooms, developing new talents in our workshops, writing original sonnets, and coming together as a camp to support each other in hard times and good times. Thank you to the campers, parents, teachers, families, and friends that made the 16th year of the ASC Theatre Camp possible.  Check out the American Shakespeare Center website in November for next year’s application information. Summer of 2014 is right around the corner!

Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs

For I must hence; and farewell to you all. – William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Traveling Back in Time

This past weekend at ASCTC was kind of amazing. The weekend started with a Saturday morning trip to the farmer’s market. The weather was sunny and beautiful, and it thankfully came with the perfect breeze. After a relaxing start to the morning, the campers attended both rehearsals for their play and pre-show rehearsals. I traveled to the different rehearsals, and I was so impressed by how far the casts have come since the first read-through. The casts are really gelling well together, and I cannot wait to see what they present during the dress rehearsals at the Blackfriars Playhouse this week.


One camper performs Adele’s “Someone Like You” for What You Will

Saturday night, the campers got together to share their individual talents during the What You Will talent show in Deming. From singing to dancing to contortionist tricks, the campers had it all. Two of our campers acted as MCs, introducing each of the performances through jokes and dances. Some of the highlights of the evening including a group production of “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a choreographed dance to a Skrillex song, and a reading of original sonnets. It was a wonderful way for the campers to relax and to get to know their friends a little bit more.

On Sunday morning, we had the opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal of the 2013-14 World’s Mine Oyster ASC touring troupe production of Othello. It was a really fun opportunity for the campers to experience another show at the ASC at a more personal level. Because it was a dress rehearsal, the campers comprised most of the audience, so the actors delivered the the show primarily just to them. The actual play was fantastic, and it was a great way to start our Sunday.


One camper holds a friendly chicken at the Frontier Culture Museum.

After the play, we made our way to Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum. The Frontier Culture Museum is an outdoor adventure that allows you to explore historic recreations of farms and houses from different cultures. You get to walk through a 1700s West African farm, a German farm, an American Farm from the 1820s, and many more while museum workers recreate what life was like for the people who lived there. The museum is also a working farm in and of itself. This means that there are a ton of animals wandering the fields, from highland cows to kittens! We just had the best time relaxing outside in the beautiful weather. It was a wonderful break from the business of camp!

Once we traveled backed to the 21st century, we had the camp tradition of Sonnetpalooza. At the beginning of camp, each camper is given a name of another camper, counselor, or staff member. Each camper’s job is to secretly get to know his or her partner in order to write a sonnet. Then, on Sunday night, we read our sonnets to the other person. The best part about the event, though, aside from the beautiful poetry, is that the campers also dress up like the person they wrote about. Obtaining these clothing articles is a covert mission. The camper must sneak into the respective hall and steal clothes that the other camper leaves outside their door without anyone noticing them! It was so much fun, and a great bonding experience for all of our campers.

Sunday night ended with our first late night rehearsal in the Blackfriars Playhouse. Richard II took the stage for their first dress rehearsal and run through. I LOVED it. I really think the audience will be pleasantly surprised with the choices made by director Dan Kennedy. Attending these rehearsals is such a wonderful experience for me because it is the first time I get to see the campers present something complete, and every time I am blown away. I cannot wait for the parents and friends of the campers to have the opportunity to watch the shows!

Camp Intern

Connecting with the Audience

This week, the campers have had the opportunity to take two master classes that focus on connecting the actors with the audience. These workshops were Audience Contact and Neutral Mask. Audience Contact is extremely important for any actor when working in the Blackfriars Playhouse. As anyone who has seen a show at the ASC could tell you, the actors are communicating and playing with the audience consistently. Sarah Blackwell, the Education Artist who taught the class, focused on the  different types of audience contact. Actors on the Blackfriars stage can use the audience by casting them into roles, objectifying them, seeking information from them, or allying with them. The campers worked with Sarah to explore these moments in their own plays. Breaking the fourth wall is a new experience for our young campers, so having an opportunity to workshop their moments of audience contact was useful for them.

In Neutral Mask, the campers worked with Director Hallie Cooper. Neutral Mask, using a physical mask, explores emotion and movement of the body rather than the face. The idea is to find pure and honest emotion in situations. The campers started to recognize the difference between “acting” on stage and just being truthful to the moments of the play. By connecting in this manner to the text, the actors are able to give the audience a purer and more exciting experience. The process of Neutral Mask is an emotional and raw journey for the campers, but you can already tell how much it has influenced their performances in their plays.

The past few days of camp have easily been the most challenging days for the campers, but their have really formed a strong support system with each other. The campers are connected on a level deeper than “just camp friends.” Each of them recognizes how critical each actor is to the success of the shows at camp. However, the campers have begun to recognize how much more they are getting from the camp experience beyond the final performance. Throughout the past two weeks, I have seen the campers grow in their confidence, social connections, understanding of Shakespeare and text, and as actors. The American Shakespeare Theatre Camp is amazing, and I am so grateful to be able to witness the metamorphoses each performer is experiencing.