“Living London: Literature, Theater, Art, and the City”

16 February 2021
By Gray Harrison

This week, the Miscellany met with Juliane Shibata and Pierre Hecker, faculty directors of the upcoming spring 2022 London program, to talk through what is new, what is coming back from past years, and why students should be getting excited for the program. Read the interview below, and check out the program website for further information.

Gray: I’d love to hear some details on the program — how it’s unique this coming year and what’s exciting about it for potential applicants.

Pierre: One thing that English majors might know who’ve been on the program before is that we’ve changed the title. That was a departmental decision after a fair bit of work, to rethink and reframe what the program is, what it does, and how it fits in, both to the major and to Carleton more broadly. The new title is “Living London: Literature, Theater, Art and the City.”

The “Living London” part, in some ways, is the key to the message that we’re trying to get across. This is about experiencing life in a major world city that is a center for art, culture, theater, literature, food, music, architecture, politics and economics, and this program is not about replicating the Carleton experience of close reading and essay writing in classrooms. It is about having a lived experience that, to the greatest degree possible, leverages everything that London and England have to offer.

Something that’s unique to this next iteration of the program is that it’s being co-directed by an artist, and we are really trying to go beyond the bounds of English literature and make this a program that tackles a wide range of British culture. 

Juliane: The timing will be in the spring, so there will be access to more cultural site visits that would otherwise be closed in the winter. In terms of the art experience and observational drawing, my whole goal is to have students encapsulate some of those experiences through being still, and really observing and being able to record — whether that’s a detail of a drawing from the Renaissance in a museum or just sitting on a street, waiting for a bus– all that gets wrapped up into an encapsulation and record of their study abroad. 

Gray: What was the impetus for expanding the scope of the program beyond literature and theater?

Pierre: For us, it’s not so much of a new decision. When we led the London and Ireland programs before, this was very much our ethos, to create something that’s both interdisciplinary and trans-historical. In some ways, we’re more bound by the requirements of our departments and our disciplines when we’re on campus. But, to have a fully immersive experience requires us to be attentive to all of the other aspects of culture. This program is going to be very much grounded in Tudor and Stuart Britain. We’re very interested in the English Renaissance, and that’s where a lot of our focus will be.

As Juliane said, the spring timing is intentional; things really start opening up in England after Easter. All these extraordinary private houses that are intact from that period become accessible after that time. Places like the Globe Theater start performing after that time. We are going to spend time in Oxford, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Windsor, Canterbury… and what those places look like in March and April is just so dramatically different from what they look like in January and February. I love to go in spring because spring in England is absolutely explosive and magnificent. The whole place comes to life, and it lets us do things that we couldn’t otherwise do. 

Gray: How will the courses be structured? Will there be a mix of going out into the city on a daily basis with a classroom component?

Juliane: There will be an observational studio component that’s more traditional once a week. So, for instance, Monday would be the studio art component where students are learning about still life and gaining skills of observing and working on proportions, and then let’s say on Wednesday we would go to a site, whether that’s a museum or a historical house in the area. That component would be looking, but students would also be given a prompt for what to record in their sketchbooks. It will be a little more free-flowing, but I will also be walking around the site to give pointers. So, we have those two components, a workshop setting and also an application of those skills. I hope it will be a good balance of learning to look and also applying it. 

London program

Pierre: One of the things we do is we try to devise a kind of organic whole out of what would normally be three separate units of credit, like you would have at Carleton. Juliane and I are always in conversation about what our assignments are, where we’re visiting, what the priority is, what the history of that place is. And so in that way, the courses are all, to some degree, in conversation with one another. 

The most traditional course on the program — it’s probably the course of the longest standing, certainly on OCS, if not at Carleton — is the theater course. There’s a way in which this course has long been the jewel and the crown of the English Department. And we do an extraordinary thing. We see dozens of shows, in every kind of venue, in famous theaters like the National and West End theaters, but also in more fringey places like pubs or outdoor theaters.

Getting to see really high-order theatrical production is just a magnificent experience and opportunity. Students love it. I think last time we scheduled 28 shows, and we had students who were going on their own whenever they had a free minute, who saw around 40 shows in 10 weeks. It’s a kind of unrepeatable experience, and what we bring to that is the expertise of someone like Jane Edwards, who has been an important theater critic in London for a very long time and has taught with us for a very long time. She’s a deeply cultured and brilliant critic, and has probably forgotten more about London theater in the last five minutes than the rest of us will know for the rest of our lives. Beyond that, touring backstage, we get to meet directors, actors, and designers, and have real access and insight into the contemporary London theater scene. We get to do that in London and in Stratford, and it’s just a really great and important part of the program. 

The last time I led the program, I taught a course called “Shakespeare’s England,” which, as you can probably guess, was very Shakespeare-focused. The new course will be called something like, “Masterpieces of Renaissance England,” and there will be some literature involved, but it’s also going to be about material culture. Students will be challenged to think of places– like Hampton Court, like the theaters we visit, like Anne Boleyn’s family home, like Middle Temple Hall, like the paintings and visual artifacts that students will encounter in Juliane’s class — as texts that are worthy of our attention, and that are talking to each other. If you want to understand a Shakespeare play, it can mean something to have walked to Anne Hathaway’s house from his birthplace, or to have tried to shoot a longbow, or to have participated in falconry training and to know what it’s like to whistle a raptor down the wind. 

Juliane: And also, looking at the archeological digs of the old theaters, you’ll find remnants of pottery, or hairpins… it’s like time travel.

Pierre: Especially in a country whose history goes back to the Romans and Vikings, and where literally, physically, there lies layer upon layer of accumulated knowledge and experience. That’s one of the great things about not being tied to the really tight confines of a normal ten week syllabus. If we’re going to spend ten weeks in London, we want to taste as much of everything as we can, and that means it’s not going to be about sitting in your room reading a book and then writing a four page essay on it. We could do that here, and the students would be better off staying here if that’s all we were up to.

Gray: I think that’s the thing that I love about the OCS programs, or at least the one I was on, in California. Every single day was an experience, and entirely different from the last. It wasn’t about doing a ton of reading or writing every week. Our whole day would be packed with conversations and interactions, and that kind of learning is so cool to me. I wish it was more a part of regular academia.

Pierre: I think you’re right. It’s those encounters. The things that students are going to remember are encountering the artists that we introduce them to, and encountering these places, and having an experience. It’s not about the old-fashioned sense of what a piece of homework is. To go into a special collections library in London and actually hold a 400-year-old book in your hands… that’s a moment that people don’t forget. 

Gray: What is one specific aspect you’re most looking forward to that’s new about the program, or some part of London or England that you’re excited to revisit?

Pierre: The first thing that comes to mind is that, if, by the time the program goes, London has liberated itself from the pandemic to some extent, we are going to see this incandescent explosion of culture. The theater is going to come roaring back with everything that we all imagine– the excitement of getting back to normal life and being able to encounter other people in person. The thought of being back in a theater with other people, having that live experience — I find that really thrilling.

Juliane: I think for me it’s the breadth of the theater. The last trip we took was pretty interesting in and of itself, but now we’re thinking about “how does the theater change?” How does that experience of being in the same room, performing live, instead of over Zoom, change? How are those things going to come back, in script or production? There’s been a long hiatus where artists have continued to make art, and how does that all funnel out again into the world? That will be really exciting. 

Gray: And I’m sure artists will be thinking about the impact and after-effects of the pandemic in their work itself.

Pierre: It’s also a political moment, after the last four years here, after the election, after the insurrection, and now that Brexit is becoming a reality in Britain. There’s a lot that’s fraught, but a lot that’s interesting. What else are you really looking forward to, Juliane?

Juliane: I love Hampton Court Palace, and I love Stratford. It’s a little calmer and greener than the bustling city of London. Hampton Court Palace is just fascinating to me. 

Pierre: It’s so beautiful in spring. The flowers go absolutely bonkers. Everything is beautiful. We also have secrets planned. We have secret places that we go and secret people that we meet, and, I think, some really exciting surprises that will be in store for our students. It’s one of the advantages of doing programs like this with institutional backing. It’s one thing to go to one of these places as a tourist, but we get to do it, being able to leverage practically half a century of Carleton relationships and experience and contacts. 

Gray: I really do have good memories of my OCS program. It’s crystal clear. I just get this wave of nostalgia every time I think about it, and I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people who have gone on the London program.

Pierre: As faculty members, that’s the the thing that we dream about. It’s what we hope — that it will be a transformative experience in a positive way, and students will look back on their college experiences and think, “this was one of the great moments.” And there is totally extra credit available for students who get married who went on my program!

Gray: Amazing. Thank you both so much!

There will be an information session on the program on Zoom on February 24, at 5pm. We’d love to see you there!