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A Taste of Spring: FILM 255: Seven-Minute Shakespeare

Condensing Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “The Taming of the Shrew” into seven-minute videos using only the actual text of the plays was a daunting task for Washington and Lee students who took “Seven-Minute Shakespeare,” a four-week Spring Term course, last April and May. Hank Dobin, professor of English at W&L, created it to be both a Shakespeare class and a film class that, in the spirit of W&L’s Spring Term courses, engaged the students in a creative challenge.

“There probably is no better way to study a Shakespeare play than to try to figure out its essence and to collapse it down using only Shakespeare’s words into what might be three or four minutes of dialog in a seven-minute film,” explained Dobin.

Dobin chose the two plays before class began. During the first week, the two groups of four students studied the plays, reduced the scripts to a manageable size, timed them carefully and produced story boards. Even so, said sophomore Josh Duemler, whose group filmed “Taming of the Shrew,” they had to pare the video still further.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Duemler, “figuring out how to spatially organize everything to make a scene work, not just with dialog but with movement. How much of the story can you convey quickly with movement so that you can cut down on the dialog, yet still preserve the essence of the play and keep it fresh?”

The University Library provided camcorders and wireless microphones, and the students selected modern period costumes from the Theater Department. Since the students would be mostly behind the camera, they recruited other Washington and Lee students as actors.

“During the principal week of filming, the students were working all day and sometimes into the night, depending on the schedules of their actors,” Dobin recalled. “Some of the students had some experience with film and some were novices, so the learning curve was very steep.”

Senior Ignacio (Nacho) Portela belonged to the group that filmed “Macbeth.” A double major in theater and business administration, he had taken classes in acting and directing. For him, the hardest part was staying organized throughout the process of filming, recruiting actors and getting everyone on time to the location 20 minutes outside of town. “We really appreciated that the actors were doing us such a favor,” Portela said.

Brandon Bucy, senior academic technologist at W&L, trained the students in iMovie to edit and move clips around, create special effects such as transitions and fades, and add music.

During the last week in the editing room, Dobin would drop by and find the students working late into the night. “I was pleasantly surprised by how committed they were to producing a really excellent final product,” he said.

“It was a lot of work, but it was very satisfying, and several nights I went to bed tired, but thinking it had been a lot of fun that day,” agreed Duemler.

The students’ hard work paid off with good results, engendering multiple viewings on YouTube.

“Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play and in some ways one of his purer tragedies. I chose it because I could see how it could be condensed to its essence, although there are four or five different ways to do that,” said Dobin.

“The video is fascinating,” he continued, “because, in the effort to tell the story in seven minutes, the students used not one of the major soliloquies. And it works. You can make the argument that the soliloquies are character developments rather than plot developments, and you really have a minimal amount of time for character development. They also chose to emphasize the witches and, in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, I think they were very creative and effective in having the witches in the corners clutching at her.”

“In ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ the students had to trim away a lot of the secondary plot lines and figure out which key scenes between Petruchio and Kate had to be shown,” explained Dobin. “They also had to trim some of the key scenes later in the play that help you understand how Kate gets from where she was at the beginning of the play to where she is at the end. They decided to purposefully make that an essential mystery in their production.

“But what I love most about it is how they incorporated modern technology in the moment when the husbands all summon their wives–by texting them on their phones,” he said.