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Making space for 'groundlings' just the core of a plan to revitalize studies of the Bard

Terri Bourus has a Shakespearean vision for IUPUI. That is, to develop a center that focuses on researching and performing the drama of the early modern period including, and perhaps especially, Shakespeare. Included in this vision are courses designed especially for the study of early modern drama, faculty to teach those courses and a stage on which to act and learn how best to bring Shakespeare to life in the 21st century and beyond.

"My pedagogical approach is primarily performative," Bourus said. "The text is the foundation of what I teach, but it is also extremely important that this literature be performed and seen on the stage to truly understand and appreciate it."

For seven years, Bourus has been teaching Indiana University students about the literature and drama of the 16th and 17th centuries (otherwise known as the early modern period) in England. Central to those studies has been a focus on Shakespeare's dramatic art.

Bourus began teaching at IU Kokomo in 2002, and in 2007, accepted a position at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where she now serves as associate professor of English drama. She has conducted three acting residencies: one with the Actors From the London Stage, one with the American Shakespeare Center and one with the director Ivan Fuller. She also has taken students on study-abroad programs to visit the great theaters in London and in Dublin. Last year, Bourus organized a trip to Staunton, Va., where students and faculty participants visited Blackfriars Playhouse.

Bourus' current project encompasses several components for the study of early modern performance. This will be a center that will have at its core an academic curriculum of study. Radiating out from that core will be a theater, actors, directors, scholars and, primarily, students. Another important aspect of the center will include an annual pedagogical acting residency that will bring the American Shakespeare Center and other actors and directors to campus.

Last spring, the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI brought the American Shakespeare Center's Piercing Eloquence Tour to the IUPUI and IU Kokomo campuses, thanks to an IU New Frontiers Visionary Scholars Grant that Bourus received. The tour included 14 workshops as well as six performances for high school and IU students, faculty and the general public. However, because there was not an adequate stage for the actors to perform at IUPUI, the performances were staged at the Christian Theological Seminary theater space.

"IUPUI has a theater now under construction that can serve as a performance space for early modern stagings," Bourus said. "It will need to have a thrust stage and seating for 300 to 400 audience members -- called 'groundlings' in theaters such as the Globe in early modern London. The nature of theater -- especially early modern theater -- is that it's interactive. The actors and the audience should play with each other, with and through the language; that is, in fact, where we get the word 'playhouse.' And in order to 'play' effectively, it's very important that we have an appropriate stage -- a stage that will support the development of a workable laboratory for performances, workshops and classes."

The center will benefit not only IUPUI students but also the city of Indianapolis since plays will be collaborative and open to the public as well as students. Bourus said future residencies can visit other IU campuses -- campuses with faculty and students that share her vision for the study of Shakespeare and early modern drama.

Along with the residencies, Bourus plans to bring visiting scholars to campus regularly. The actors will go into the classrooms and work with students to bring Shakespeare's written word to life. The scholars, some of the best on the international scene, will visit campus for lectures and other events including, perhaps, some semester-long classes in Shakespeare studies (both performance and text) at IUPUI.

Last summer, Bourus spent three weeks at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where she worked with faculty to learn how to develop a curriculum in early modern studies. She then spent six weeks working with the National Endowment for the Humanities' Summer Shakespeare Institute held at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia, the home base of the American Shakespeare Center. The center re-creates Renaissance conditions of performances, allowing visitors to gain a better understanding of Shakespeare's great works and of the human theatrical enterprise.

Bourus worked with top scholars specializing in the early modern period and worked with NEH participants to stage a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. The experience, Bourus said, allowed her to practice what she teaches and to be a better teacher, scholar and performer.

Last fall, Bourus taught a course on women writers of the early modern period in addition to working on her plan to create a Shakespeare center at IUPUI. She plans to continue working on this plan during 2009.

Bourus has won prestigious awards for her teaching, including two Trustee Teaching Awards, the Amicus Award, FACET and the Claude Rich Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Read Bourus' first-person account of the one-week Actors From the London Stage residency she brought to IU Kokomo in 2006: Read a story about the American Shakespeare Center's Piercing Eloquence Tour that brought performances and workshops to IUPUI and IU Kokomo last spring: