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Witches will frolic at 'Haunting Humanities'

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

LAWRENCE — Back in the baby boom years, when the annual network television showing of the classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” was a big deal, young Jane Barnette’s favorite bits were those featuring the Wicked Witch of the West.

It sparked a fascination with witches on stage and screen that continues to this day in her work as associate professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University of Kansas.

After her first book, “Adapturgy,” about the dramaturgical process of adapting literature for the stage, was published in 2017, Barnette turned again to witches and began examining what their representation says about audiences (i.e., society) throughout history.

Barnette will impart some of what she has learned and give participants a chance to don “witch face” makeup and costume elements during the Hall Center for the Humanities’ “Haunting Humanities.” The free event is set for Oct. 24 at Abe & Jake’s Landing. Participants can masquerade that night and/or practice for Halloween.

“We conceptualized it as an immersive haunted house of the humanities,” Barnette said. “The notion is you go to the different rooms and hear a scholar perform or do something else nontraditional. So English Professor Jonathan Lamb will invite participants to perform scenes from Shakespeare that include ghosts or the supernatural. Music Professor Brad Osborn will invite participants to perform in the musical genre of death metal. He will be in full death-metal gear, which will be very intense, and he’ll have people listen to certain pieces of music and talk about what they mean. It’s related to research for his next book.”

After those small-group experiences, the participants can come together to chat informally, share a beer and watch a dance performance.

Barnette said witch-makeup designs leave few traces in the archive and may not merit a full book, so she has begun to focus on the portrayals of a group of archetypal witches from theater history. In late March and early April, she will direct the University Theatre production of a new play named after one of them, “Sycorax,” who is the mother of Shakespeare’s half-man, half-beast character, Caliban, from “The Tempest.”

Just as the lead characters in the 2003 musical “Wicked” are implied by those in “The Wizard of Oz,” Sycorax is neither seen nor heard from in “The Tempest,” but merely referenced. Barnette is eager to bring her to life on stage next spring.

“Her story is one a lot of people have wondered about,” Barnette said. “This play has only been produced twice before. It is a prequel to ‘The Tempest’ and imagines Sycorax’s life.”

The other archetypes Barnette is researching for the book are “the three weird sisters in ‘Macbeth’ — the Scottish play — and then Medea,” the sorceress of Greek mythology.

Barnette also plans to incorporate “the concept of the Wicked Witch of the West and how it took on a life of its own – from Elphaba in ‘Wicked’ to memes criticizing Hillary Clinton.”

“Then the other type is this sort of seductive or housewife witch, like the character Samantha in the TV series ‘Bewitched.’ You see a lot of these in the 1950s and ’60s.”

A modern take on the domestic sorceress, Barnette said, is the 2016 independent film “The Love Witch,” which will be shown Oct. 29 at the Lawrence Public Library as part of the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity’s “Feminist Fright Fest” series.

Unlike Samantha Stevens and "The Love Witch," however, most witches are portrayed as ugly and frightening, Barnette said, with green skin, grotesque visages and hairy warts as their hallmarks.

“I’ve been thinking about skin color itself and how certain levels of cultural bias and racism are deeply connected to the makeup choices, or the lack thereof, that we have,” Barnette said. “The choices to portray certain ethnicities or races in certain ways tell us a lot about what the culture is seeing in terms of its prejudice.”

Nor is it just about skin color, Barnette has found. The pointed witch’s hat, she said, traces its roots back to a peaked hat that Jews were forced to wear as an identifying mark in medieval Europe.

“I have always thought that our country is way too focused on monotheism,” Barnette said. “And then I started to think that, for some folks, witchcraft is just a fantasy, but for others it’s actually a religion that is non-Christian.

“How does that translate on stage? What is the image the playwright gives you, and then how do designers bring that to fruition, using stage makeup or headgear? We often see some kind of hat or headpiece that has horns because of that idea from Christianity that witchcraft is a kind of demonology.”

In centuries past, labeling someone a witch might lead to her trial and death. Today, Barnette said, it’s still an anti-feminist tool.

“One of the common themes we see in the literature is that witch hunts were an attempt to quiet shrill or powerful women, to call them witches,” Barnette said. Significant research, she said, “suggests that a lot of so-called witches, people convicted and even killed as witches, were actually just women who were troublemakers.”

Photo: Dancer Danielle Bausinger portrays the Wicked Witch of the West in the Kansas City Ballet’s Oct. 12-21, 2018, production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Credit: Kenny Johnson

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