All the world’s a stage at 20th annual Shakespeare Colloquium

Guests fill a lecture hall at the 2011 Shakespeare Colloquium on ‘Othello,’ featuring Professor Ian Smith of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. (Photos courtesy of Harry Keyishian)

By Kenna Caprio

It’s been twenty years of sonnets, verse and rhyming couplets. Twenty years of understanding text on the page and stage. Twenty years of educators and fans coming together for one reason: the Bard.

“In 1992, an organization called the Shakespeare Globe Center was raising funds to build the new outdoor Globe Theatre in London,” says Harry Keyishian, Fairleigh Dickinson University English professor emeritus and Shakespeare Colloquium facilitator. “They were running programs in the U.S., and asked me if I would organize something — they gave funding and (we had) funds from N.J. Council on the Humanities. We put together six individuals to speak.”

And two of those speakers — Professor Jean E. Howard of Columbia University and Professor Phyllis Rackin of University of Pennsylvania — return for the 20th Colloquium this October to explore William Shakespeare’s histories, from Edward III to Richard III.

Following the success of the first events, the N.J. Council on the Humanities offered financial support again in 1994. The Colloquium grew into an annual event from there.

“Dr. Keyishian has a very good network, and a finger on the pulse of the different trends of Shakespeare,” says Michele Marotta, former English teacher and executive board member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English.

It’s becoming more commonplace for teachers to get their students up to perform a Shakespearean play, “instead of parsing it on the page,” says Marotta, who has attended at least 17 Colloquiums.

That philosophy, exploring both the page and stage, appeals to other Colloquium-goers, too.

“You learn how important it is to get on your feet and experience it. Getting out of the chair brings it alive,” says Lisa Black, a Westfield, N.J. lawyer and Colloquium attendee. She started frequenting the annual October event to enhance her performances — Black has acted with a variety of theater companies in New Jersey and New York for the past six years.

As for teachers themselves, the Colloquium also offers a chance to step away from the classroom and reboot. “Even just the sense of getting outside of the classroom, shaking the dust out of your brain is important,” Marotta says. “Some of the topics really do make you think differently about Shakespeare.”

One year, Keyishian secured Andrew Gurr, chief academic advisor for the Globe Theatre rebuild, as a guest speaker.

“He (Gurr) had a model of the Globe that he brought with him. And that’s important for teachers, because you’re always trying to show the theater of Shakespeare’s day,” says Marotta.

Past topics have highlighted the objects of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and performance as it pertains to film, and the role nature plays in “Macbeth.” Each year has a theme — “Romeo and Juliet”: Ritual and Revenge or In Shakespeare’s Day: Society, Politics and Theater — and then each speaker delves deeper into particulars.

“So much that passes for faculty development activities in New Jersey is dry and technical and dedicated to pedagogy only,” says Keyishian. “What teachers crave is to really engage with the play and have an intellectual awakening toward the play,” adds John Mucciolo, superintendent of the Glen Ridge, N.J. schools. Alongside Keyishian, Mucciolo is the co-coordinator of FDU’s Best Practices workshops each spring, which often focus on a specific Shakespearean play.

During a Best Practices program on Shakespeare’s sonnets in 2009, Meg Schaeffer, artistic director of the New Players Company, gets everyone out of their chairs to participate. Best Practices, a springtime event, is an outgrowth of the Shakespeare Colloquium.

That awakening is what FDU alumna Amelia Wolfe Wright counts on each year.

Now a high school English teacher at West Morris Central High School in Chester and an adjunct at New Jersey City University, Wright looks forward to finding new topics of discussion to take to the classroom. Her personal interest in Shakespeare grew out of class she took with Keyishian, which she recalls as the first time she understood the Bard.

“Finally I understood the beauty of the language, and I want to share that with my own students, so that they don’t have to wait until junior and senior year of college to feel that way,” she explains. “I don’t want them to see English class as just reading books and answering questions. English is about communication and analyzing something as intricate as Shakespeare. If they can understand Shakespeare, they’ll be able to understand their college roommates and bosses and everything beyond.”

Though the Colloquium and Best Practices target middle school and high school teachers in particular, Keyishian is pleased to have such a loyal audience that extends to students, seniors, actors, directors and professors.

“This Shakespeare Colloquium plays another role in the state: in adding to the culture it adds value to the state by maintaining high standards and intellect,” says Keyishian. “FDU has outreach to the community and continues to educate after people graduate.”

“There is no other local forum like it,” adds Joseph Penczak, director of Troupe of Friends, a Westfield-based community theater group. “Everyone should have some Shakespeare in their life. His themes are timeless. It’s nice to know that nothing’s changed in four hundred years.”

This year’s event on Saturday, October 20, focuses on Shakespeare’s plays on English history, covering topics including: the power of women shaping history, the image of the martial Scot and the theatrical power of plays in performance. The Shakespeare Colloquium, a free daylong event at the College at Florham, is funded in part by the Columba University Seminar on Shakespeare. Financing also comes from the Maxwell Becton College of Arts and Sciences, the Provost’s Office and Sigma Tau Delta (the International English Honors Society).

For more details or to register, call 973-443-8711 or email Keyishian at

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