Faculty Feature: Matteo Pangallo

November 15, 2019

Matteo Pangallo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and started at VCU in the fall of 2017. He teaches classes on Shakespeare, early modern drama, book history, and theater history.

Matteo Pangallo holding a copy of his book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's TheaterCan you tell us a little about yourself? 

I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts (no, I’m not a witch). When I was in sixth grade, I was introduced to Shakespeare when I joined Rebel Shakespeare Company, a summer camp that stages two or three plays each year. My first role was as Duke Senior in As You Like It (my twin brother played Duke Senior’s villainous brother, Duke Frederick). From that moment, I fell in love with Shakespeare, the richness of his language, the depth of his characters, and how both come to life in performance. I continued to act throughout high school and college — for some reason, I was often cast as the villain: Antonio in The Tempest, Soranzo in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy. (I didn’t mind. Villains have more fun, after all.) I also started to direct plays in college, and when I graduated I returned to Salem and founded a small theater company so I could keep playing around.

When did you know you wanted to teach?

My parents were both educators, and both my brother and I married educators, so teaching has always been important in my family. I decided that I wanted to be a professor of English, though, when I was an undergraduate: I took three courses on Shakespeare from three different, equally excellent professors, each of whom taught the plays in completely dissimilar ways from each other. I realized that Shakespeare’s capaciousness, the almost infinite potential for interpretation of his plays and their ideas, meant that his work was perfectly calibrated for a lifetime of teaching, discussing, exploring, and studying. 

You joined VCU in the fall of 2017 after a three-years as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. Has teaching VCU students influenced how you view your research or teach your classes?

Junior Fellows at Harvard are not permitted to teach, but teaching is what called me into this profession, so returning to the classroom when I arrived at VCU was very much a welcome experience. VCU’s students have pushed me to innovate both how I teach and what I teach, leading me to develop new courses that speak to the contemporary social, cultural, and political contexts students are experiencing in their daily lives, especially as those experiences relate to matters of equity, inclusion, and justice. These courses have included classes on Shakespeare and race, Shakespeare in the #MeToo Movement, and representations of immigrants in early modern drama. I’ve found that VCU students think about, and care about, literature as a real, living subject and not merely as some abstract or theoretical pursuit partitioned from the problems and challenges of our times. This has catalyzed me to teach with attention to how Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists continue to work in the world and in our lives.

How do you keep the readings and materials relevant and interesting to students?  How do you decide what to put on your syllabi?

One of the advantages of teaching Shakespeare is that his plays have something to offer almost any student and there are numerous different methodologies and approaches to studying his plays. That diversity certainly helps animate student interest in Shakespeare. I try to shape my other courses around ideas, topics, or problems that speak to what students seem to be interested in, such as a particularly engaging character archetype — as in my ENGL215: Reading Literature course on pirates in literature — or a particular subject that appeals to students’ own identity as both scholars and artists — as in my ENGL301: Introduction to the English Major course on adaptation. Graduate and undergraduate students in English are also deeply interested in the multidisciplinary field of book history, which is my other teaching specialty. As the most fully “digitally native” generation yet, students today show a keen awareness of how navigating the ideas, problems, and methods that emerge from studying the history of the book can help us think critically and carefully about the future of the book as well. I design my book history courses to provide students with the kind of experiential learning opportunities that can help them discover the practical context underlying and surrounding much of the theoretical and critical work that they have done in other English courses; these opportunities include field trips to libraries, museums, archives, conservation labs, and other book-related sites, experimentation with a working hand-press, classroom visits by people who work in book-relevant careers, hands-on examination of books, manuscripts, and other textual objects, and practice with scholarly editing.

Choosing engaging or important readings and topics is only one small part of sparking and sustaining student interest in a course, though. I think an even larger share of student interest depends on fostering students’ sense of ownership over their learning, of giving them true autonomy to find what is most interesting, enjoyable, or provocative to them, and then helping them explore whatever that is. This is why I try to incorporate open-ended assignments in my courses as much as possible, allowing students to choose their own research topics, write their own paper prompts, design their own case-based learning opportunities, or pursue creative projects that draw upon our course discussions and readings.

Are there any texts you’ve taught that garnered a surprising student response?

One of the more surprising responses that I encountered in a VCU course was in my senior seminar on representations of immigrants in early modern drama, which looked at how the theater both reinforced and interrogated particular stereotypes about the people who were termed, in the period, “strangers”. The texts for the course included a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plays that, while quite popular and important in their time, have become quite obscure and so are not available in modern editions; we, therefore, had to read most of them in facsimiles of the original editions. Not only did the students find telling resonances between how these plays portrayed immigrants and some of the current cultural responses to immigration, they became enthusiastically interested in decoding the early modern printed page and exploring the history of how plays moved from performance to publication. In the process of carrying out that work, we often found ourselves engaging in deep theoretical discussions about canon-formation itself and how curricular choices (in designing courses, assembling anthologies, structuring majors, and so forth) might be productively shaped around variables derived from historical context. This meant that we also had conversations about the often problematic politics of canonicity. I had not set out to make a course that would enter that territory, but it turned out that the nature of the subject and the texts we read naturally led into it — and I’m glad that it did, since I can now see that those kinds of questions and debates are fundamental to what the senior seminar should provide.

Book Cover of Matteo Pangallo's Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's TheaterYour book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's Theater (2017, University of Pennsylvania Press), explores the plays written by amateur working-class audience members in early modern London. Can you tell us a little more about your book? How did you go about researching? What are some of the implications of your research and findings?

A number of dramatists who attended, read, and wrote plays for the professional playhouses of early modern London were not members of the commercial theater industry. Rather than mere outliers in a unified field of playwriting, that is, “lesser” professionals, these playwriting playgoers were a distinct group of dramatists. My book demonstrates that when we approach the plays by these working- and middle-class amateur playwrights as a kind of early modern “fan fiction”, they provide a uniquely audience-centered perspective on the stage, and thus serve as one means of recovering audience experience and expectations in the early modern playhouse.

The introduction defines the group and establishes the period’s concept of “amateurism” as well as the difference between “amateur” playwrights and those who wrote to make a career in the increasingly professional theater industry; it also offers an overview of what scholarship on the early modern audience has traditionally involved and how my approach in the book complements and in some ways challenges those traditional approaches. The first chapter connects the concept of the amateur with evidence of the different, often conflicting, ways playmakers, playgoers, and others thought about the playgoer as a figurative, but participatory, “playwright” collaborating in the making of meaning during a play’s performance.

The next three chapters focus upon the actual working practices of several playwriting playgoers. In order to understand how these writers drafted and revised to satisfy specific needs, including the tastes of a reader, the requirements of actors, and the censorship of the Master of the Revels, chapter three analyzes extant play manuscripts by amateurs – including Francis Jaques’s authorial copy of The Queen of Corsica, East India Company clerk Walter Mountfort’s authorial draft for The Launching of the Mary (written onboard a ship in the Indian Ocean), the peculiar scribal fair copy of aristocrat-turned-Islamic pirate Francis Verney’s Tragedy of Antipo, secretary Arthur Wilson’s playhouse copy and his authorial fair copy of The Inconstant Lady, and the newly discovered authorial draft fragment of Edward Herbert’s The Amazon. Chapter four uses plays such as apprentice scribe Robert Yarington’s Two Lamentable Tragedies, the playhouse copy of highway-robber John Clavell’s The Soddered Citizen, and the several authorial copies of the plays of William Percy (particularly Mahomet and His Heaven) to identify how playgoers understood and used the materials and practices of the playhouse; the chapter draws upon stage directions and other evidence in order to reconstruct how an audience member thought a play was prepared and performed. The fifth chapter turns to several plays written by playgoers who had prior experience as poets — jest-book author Robert Chamberlain’s The Swaggering Damsel, lawyer Alexander Brome’s The Cunning Lovers, and professional poet (and convicted poisoner) Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter — in order to determine how these writers shaped their dramatic verse for dramatic ends, and what that practice suggests about their recognition of how dramatic verse functioned theatrically in professionals’ plays. The book concludes by considering the ramifications of these writers and their work for how we think about the theater industry, authorship, and early modern audiences.

Recognizing that these dramatists were playgoers rather than members of the commercial theater industry compels us to ask questions about their plays that differ from the questions we usually ask of early modern play texts. Instead of requiring us to deduce what audiences wanted based upon what commercial dramatists wrote for them, plays by playgoers tell us directly what audience members desired to see and how they thought actors might stage it. Their plays invite us into the creative and theatrical imagination of specific audience members: rather than read the audience through plays by professional dramatists, as most audience studies do, my book reads the theater through the plays of the audience. Playwriting Playgoers thus contributes a new category of evidence to our understanding of the relationships between early modern audiences, the professional theater, and the plays produced by that theater.

Matteo Pangallo sitting in theater seatsIn addition to your study of early modern theater, you actively participate in theater ranging from positions as artistic director, director, and dramaturge. How do you approach modern performances of early modern work? 

When I was in my MA program at King’s College London, part of my time was spent at the Globe playhouse, both as a student and as a researcher. It was a tumultuous year at the Globe, as the founding artistic director, Mark Rylance, was leaving. Rylance was an actor and took an actor’s approach to early modern drama, with a particular focus on so-called “Original Practices” productions (all-male casts, period costuming and music, uniform lighting, thrust stage arrangement, etc.); the incoming artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, was a director, known for making directorial concepts the center of his productions and who voiced doubts about “Original Practices”, which he saw as dangerously close to “museum” theater. I like to think that my approach to directing early modern plays falls somewhere between these two perspectives. I think that it is important to be cognizant of the original performance practices and contexts, and how those gave rise to the play as we have it. For example, I insist that actors understand how Shakespeare used variations in the verse of his plays to convey information about characters’ moods and emotions, their actions, reactions, and pace. At the same time, theater is a living art, and so the creation of a new production of an early modern play must also have something deliberate and timely to say to its audience. I don’t believe theater should be about delivering a message or teaching a lesson, but I do believe it must be about communicating a story, and, more importantly, a story that matters now and that must be told at this precise moment. In some ways, I think of that as the true “Original Practice”.

On a related note, I think of my process as a director as very similar to my process as a teacher. When I started directing, as an undergraduate, I thought that the director’s job was to tell the actors what to do and how to do it. Not surprisingly, this approach produced some breathtakingly dull theater — not to mention a lot of angry actors. I came to understand that the director’s job is, in fact, to observe, to trust the actors and other members of the company as collaborative artists with their own legitimate claims on the play, and to provide them during rehearsal with honest feedback, genuine questions, and specific suggestions for alternatives; in effect, to give the actors a structure and a goal, to help them form a community, and then to serve them by being the audience before the play has an audience. The best directors know that often the best thing they can do is get out of the way. My teaching followed a similar trajectory: as a graduate student instructor, I thought that my job was to deliver information into the brains of my students. I quickly found, though, that the best teachers do what the best directors do: they provide structure and a goal for the course, they serve as a resource when needed, they build a community in the classroom, and they ask genuine questions and provide honest feedback to the students, who are, like actors, collaborative artists (yes, learning is an art) with their own legitimate claims on the subject we are exploring. And they also know that often the best thing a teacher can do is get out of the way.

shelves of old books belonging to Matteo PangalloYou are listed on Humanities Commons as being an award-winning book-collector. Can you tell us a little about your collection of books? 

I started collecting books when I first became a graduate student by going to local book auctions and antique auctions. My primary interest was in tracking down imprints from the late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century print shop of Samuel Hall, a minor figure in the American Revolution and the first printer in my hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. To date, I have about twenty of his imprints, including sermons, almanacs, religious tracts, political tracts, and his own proof-copy of the March 5, 1771 issue of his newspaper. It was my Hall collection that won the 2010 Emily Silverman Book Collecting Award at UMass Amherst. My focus broadened when I took a graduate course on book history in which the professor regularly brought in books from his own collection to use as examples. I realized that I wanted to be able to provide the same thing for my students when I came to teach a book history course, and so I expanded my collecting focus in order to build a “teaching collection” of books that were affordable (I was a grad student, after all) and particularly good or illustrative examples of certain important ideas, problems, or phenomena in the history of the book.

title page from Comedies and Tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, GentlemenWhat inspired you to start your own book-collecting contest at VCU?

Participating as a grad student in the Emily Silverman Book Collecting Contest at UMass was both enjoyable and professionally useful to me because it made me think strategically about my book-collecting practices and conduct research into the books that I had. More importantly, though, it gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment in receiving some public acknowledgment for what is typically viewed as a private activity. When I came to VCU, I was struck immediately by the rich diversity of student interests and backgrounds and by the major role that books and book culture played for so many of them — classic works of literature, graphic novels, ’zines, poetry, fan fiction, drama, and more. It became clear that a book-collecting contest (with the word “book” very broadly defined) would be the perfect way to recognize and celebrate the many different ways our students think about and care about the written word. Fortunately, a number of my colleagues in English, several librarians and staff at the Cabell Library, and the owner of Black Swan Books all agreed and have helped make the contest possible, from serving as judges to publicizing the contest and from organizing the award reception and digital exhibit to providing all-important financial support in sponsoring the cash prizes.

What are your favorite things you’ve read this year?

Besides Shakespeare? The Mueller Report comes to mind — it’s virtually Shakespearean.

To help me get some kind of perspective on our current political situation, I’m on a slow, multi-year process of reading chronologically through biographies of U.S. Presidents. Much of it has alternated between bleak and turgid, but I’m just now finishing Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant (titled Grant) and it’s been both enjoyable and illuminating.

I also just finished reading Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles series to my 7-year-old and 4-year-old. One of the first young adult fantasy series (published in the 1960s), using Welsh mythology as its basis, Prydain was one of my childhood favorites and revisiting it in order to share it with my sons has been a real delight, especially because it has now let us graduate in our bedtime reading to The Hobbit. Going back to my childhood reading has also prompted me to go back to some classics by Farley Mowat that I used to enjoy in high school, including Never Cry Wolf and The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float.

For professional reading purposes, I’ve really enjoyed the expansive collection of essays in Michael Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen’s The Book: A Global History (2013, Oxford University Press) and Laura Estill’s thoroughly researched and engaging Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century English Manuscripts: Watching, Reading, Changing Plays (2015, University of Delaware Press). I’ve just started reading through the important new collection Teaching Social Justice through Shakespeare (2019, Edinburgh University Press), edited by Hillary Eklund and Wendy Beth Hyman, but it’s already sparking ideas for my future courses.

Thank you, Matteo!