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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Lisa Merrill's Sharkespearean Inspiration

By Amanda Valentovic Staff Writer

Rhetoric professor Dr. Lisa Merrill’s, book, “When Romeo was a Woman” is being featured on a podcast with the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of its “Shakespeare Unlimited” series. The book focuses on the life of Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous Shakespearean actresses of the 19th century. The podcast also talks about Merrill’s other research on Cushman, including the letters she is currently transcribing.

Merrill became interested in Shakespeare because of the women who performed his plays. “I was interested in women who played male roles on stage, and who had an unusual degree of autonomy,” she said. “I realized that she was the most famous actor in the English speaking world, and people knew so little about her.”

The time period also fascinated Merrill, because of the people that Cushman interacted with. “She was the first Shakespearean actress to focus on the performance, and they were all with other women. In the circle of women whose lives Cushman touched, were a number of women of color, and that was unusual,” she said.

Merrill’s research gives readers a new idea about Shakespeare’s drama and its performers.

“People only look at the scripts,” she said. She went on to add that there are other parts of a performance to take into consideration – how the audience looked, how they reacted and even reviews. “Liveness is really important. The theaters were the entertainment venues in the 19th century; there was just the press and the stage, not any other organized activity,” said Merrill.

A reader can get a better context about the time period by looking at not just the literature, but also at the performers and the audience members in the 19th century.

As a rhetoric professor, Merrill uses her work as examples in classes like “Performance History.” Looking at traditional performers can help students with their own skills, and also learn about the history behind it.

“I’m interested in how performance is connected to historical movements,” Merrill said. A new class being offered in the spring called “19th Century Popular Culture” will focus on popular culture in the time period. “People will be studying circuses, vaudeville, illustrations and how all of that reflected the cultural and social issues of the time.” The class also focuses on popular culture.

Another class she teaches called “Nonverbal Communication” can help enhance students’ performance, without using words. “A lot of times when something is published, we don’t know how it sounded,” said Merrill. “Nonverbal Communication” teaches skills such as body language, which can transform a performance.

In addition to drama, literature and history students, Merrill thinks her research can also be of interest to anyone curious about women’s studies. Talking about Cushman, Merrill said, “She did performances for the sanitary commission, the Red Cross, for the Union Army. She was so independent and successful… here’s someone who just jumps in and takes charge and does all of this.”

Looking towards the future, Merrill is currently working on transcribing letters that Cushman left behind when she died in 1876. She left thousands of letters all sent to different people, and about 10,000 of them are in the Library of Congress. The project was called “Burn this Letter,” in reference to what Cushman would write on the top of her messages.

“I was so thankful that the person who got it didn’t burn the letter,” said Merrill. “There are letters all over the world. She was so famous; when you get a letter from a famous person you tend to save it.”

One message that Merrill wants to give her students, and anyone who reads her work to take away, is that they should find something they love that they want to do. “I really love what I do, and I think the most exciting thing about teaching is being able to share that with your students and make them realize that it’s possible for them to do that too,” she said. “If you’re doing something you love, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”

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