Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 172
In Shakespeare’s time, people talked about going to hear a play and going to see one in equal measure. So what exactly do we hear when we hear one of Shakespeare’s plays? What information do we gather from its words, music, or sound effects? What if it has been adapted, updated, or translated? We ask Dr. Carla Della Gatta of Florida State University, co-editor of the new book Shakespeare and Latinidad. Her study of Spanish-language or bilingual Shakespeare productions has led her to think a lot about the act of listening to a play. She talks to Barbara Bogaev about the ways a production of Shakespeare can challenge us to hear in new ways.
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FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Hearing a Play, with Carla Della Gatta
Dr. Carla Della Gatta is an assistant professor of English at Florida State University. She is the author of Latinx Shakespeares: Staging U.S. Intracultural Theater, which will be published in 2022, and co-editor of Shakespeare and Latinidad, which was released by Edinburgh University Press in June 2021. She is a past Folger fellowship recipient.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published July 20, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “You Have Heard Much,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Leonor Fernandez edits a transcript of every Shakespeare Unlimited episode, available at folger.edu.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: A lot of us talk about “attending the theater.” I’d like to invite you now, to completely rethink what you mean by that.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
The theater that Shakespeare wrote for is not like the theater of today. For much of Shakespeare’s career, there weren’t many special effects. There wasn’t much scenery and there weren’t a lot of props. The plays that Shakespeare wrote—especially the early ones—were primarily designed to reach the audience in two ways: through their ears and through their imaginations.
According to Dr. Carla Della Gatta, that’s an approach that the best theater—including the best productions of Shakespeare—does, or at least ought to strive to do. They should make you “attend” the theater. Give it all of your attention.
Dr. Della Gatta is an assistant professor of English at Florida State University. I hosted her recently on a web series for Folger members we call Virtually Everything, and while I had a whole bunch of questions I wanted to put to her, we ended up spending almost an hour talking about how audiences hear plays. Dr. Della Gatta specializes in Shakespeare’s interaction with Latinidad, so this focus on hearing is not unusual—when Shakespeare’s in Spanish or when it’s presented bilingually, after all, hearing is important. But Dr. Della Gatta has many other thoughts on how drama can flow into your ears and then into your imagination. Those thoughts are fresh, and we wanted to bring her back in so you could hear what she has to say. She joined us for this podcast episode that we call “You Have Heard Much.”
Dr. Carla Della Gatta is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Carla, why don’t we start with this experience that you had when you watched Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, in high school? The movie that most of us, many of us who are a little older, that was our first introduction to Shakespeare. Why don’t you tell us that story?
CARLA DELLA GATTA: Well, I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was a high school freshman, and I asked the teacher, “Was this movie before or after West Side Story?” Because I was familiar with West Side Story. The teacher said, “The movie came afterwards,” and I said, “Oh, because the Juliet is also Hispanic,” using the terminology that I used back in the late 1980s.
The class and the teacher corrected me because Olivia Hussey has pale skin and blue eyes, although she has black hair, but she has a British accent. I was corrected, and I was a bit dumbfounded. I didn’t understand and I was embarrassed in class.
It took me over 20 years to realize that Olivia Hussey is actually, in fact, half Argentine, and that my ear, I could hear her inflection through her British accent. It greatly informed how I was able to hear someone’s ethnicity, even if the visual of it didn’t connote what people generally understand to be a representation or to be someone who looks as if they’re South American or Latinx.
BOGAEV: You must have felt very good about that, finally figuring that out 20 years later.
DELLA GATTA: I did, but it was 20 years later, so I didn’t have many people to share that with.
BOGAEV: Well, so this fact that you—back then, even—relied as much, if not more, on your ears than your eyes, in regards to culture, when you’re experiencing theater, what is the significance of that? I mean, how does it come into play in different situations, in different performances?
DELLA GATTA: Well, theater is a highly visual medium, of course, and we tend to enjoy the spectacle. We have swinging chandeliers, or turntables, and wonderful special effects. But listening, rather than the visual, I think I was highly attuned to it; my father spoke five languages and I was taken to the theater in languages that I did not speak, so I became accustomed to having to hear what was going on. And, as well, growing up in a house that was not bilingual, but not entirely monolingual, shaped the way that I was able to listen to people.
BOGAEV: Well, it’s interesting because the Elizabethans used to say, “I’m going to hear a play,” not, “I’m going to see a play.” What drove that for audiences back then?
DELLA GATTA: Well, it was the theater of oratory, which is why we tend to use the term audience rather than spectator. They didn’t have our type of set design or wonderful special effects in the way we understand them today, but it was also a way of using the verbal and the language to call on imagination.
For example the opening lines of Hamlet, you have two male actors on stage and one of them says, “Who’s there?” And the response is, “Nay answer me, stand and unfold yourself.” What this signals is one of two things: that either the two characters—who are standing next to each other—one of them is visually impaired, or that it’s nighttime. So, the audience understands that these are night watchmen. That was a way for the audience to know that this is being set at nighttime because all shows were performed during the day.
When we go to see Hamlet now, the lights turn down in the theater, we get nighttime sounds. We’ll get a fog machine and all this starts to happen, so we’re not forced to use our imagination in the same way. But the Elizabethan and the Jacobean audience was certainly accustomed to doing so.
BOGAEV: Ah, so more a theater of the mind, and you’re saying it was coming in through their ears. So, did Shakespeare—and it sounds like you’re saying this—he consciously leaned into this aural aspect of theater? Did he do it more than the next guy?
DELLA GATTA: Yes… well, he certainly was a great storyteller, so maybe he did it better than the next guy, if not more so. But it was also, kind of, the theatrical concept of the time; that people would come to the theater and bring commonplace books and try to pick up words and phrases that may have already been out on the street and that were heard in society but became more popular when going to the theater. Much in the same way that radio plays and the radio started to shape our slang and our phrases, you know, earlier in the 20th century.
As theatrical practice progressed, they were able to stage things more visually. For example, when Shakespeare writes in a tempest in Twelfth Night, he actually doesn’t stage it. But much later in his career when he writes The Tempest, the theater has gone indoors, and due to improvements and what was able to be done for special effects, he was actually able to stage a tempest. That changes during Shakespeare’s time, what with the emphasis on the visual could become more so because of advances in that.
But nonetheless, part of the reason why we look to Shakespeare is for the poetry and for the way that he uses words. I extend that to the aural soundscape which takes into consideration language and accents, sounds, music, noise, silences, for what that’s able to give us. Not to drown out the visual, but to compliment it.
BOGAEV: So, now you’re talking about the style of poetry. Can you give us an example?
DELLA GATTA: Well, for example, when it comes to conjuring up images for the audience, sometimes we get direction as to what we know the actor is supposed to be doing. In the Merchant of Venice when Portia describes Bassanio, she says he’s reading a letter, and she says, “There are some shrewd contents in yonder same paper that steals the color from Bassanio’s cheek.”
Even if the actor is in fact not looking pale and we don’t see the color remove from his cheek, we know that that’s what she is seeing. We know that we’re supposed to imagine that that is happening. And with that we’re forced to imagine that the actor has actualized that.
Through his poetry we get that information, verses today’s playwrights often don’t have to write that in there. That’s given to us more easily through makeup, costuming, lighting, and so forth.
BOGAEV: What about meter and rhyme? How does the poetry and meter and the kind of verse that Shakespeare used and the variety of it, play into what we’re talking about?
DELLA GATTA: Well, Shakespeare really has a lot of creativity in what he was doing, so the poets and the playwrights that proceeded him were more informed by artifice. We have sonnet sequences in which characters and plot are developed within very stringent ideas of how the sonnet should be structured, which starts to break open in our ideas of early modern playgoing in theater.
We get iambic pentameter, duh-dun-duh-dun-duh-dun-duh-dun-duh-dun, and the lines begin to rhyme. By time Marlowe develops this, it starts to break from having to be perfectly rhymed, and where Shakespeare takes it is that he fluctuates it greatly. We have the fairies in the Midsummer Night’s Dream that will generally speak in trimeter. We have characters that fluctuate between verse and prose, and we can hear that in their rhythm.
Characters share lines and we can see that visually on the page: when one character begins to speak and then the next character picks it up, we see a blank space in our text, and we understand that they’re finishing each other’s sentences, much like when Romeo and Juliet meet: they form a sonnet together and we understand that they’re enamored of each other because they’re in each other’s rhythm.
Shakespeare does this expertly well. And others did it too, but the way that he’s using language to designate that characters don’t always speak the same way, depending on who else is on stage, or who might be listening, or who they’re talking to, is the way that we speak and change the way we speak depending on our audience and what we’re saying to people today. That’s one of the ways in which Shakespearean language is so varied. It relates to the way that we’re communicating, kind of, mimetically in our everyday lives.
BOGAEV: I’m thinking that we did a podcast many years ago about Shakespeare and languages that have no common root with English: Hindi, and Korean, and Japanese. It was almost unanimous with translators that we talked to that they would translate into modern day language, because if they didn’t, no one would understand this archaic, whatever, Hindi or Korean or Japanese. You could say the same thing about 21st-century Americans too, right? That most of us don’t really know what’s being said most of the time when we’re listening to Shakespeare, when we’re listening to a play.
DELLA GATTA: Well, yes, but we don’t actually have to understand everything that’s going on onstage in order to get a sense of it. Sometimes when we have an antiquated term—simply… that “wherefore” meant “why”—and when we translate something, it translates into contemporary English or into another language, it modernizes and it makes it easier for people to understand even if they don’t actually speak that language.
Even within the text, Mercutio says to Romeo after he’s been out all night, “Bonjour.” Whether the audience at the time understood that expression in French, they understood that it was a greeting, and that the sound of French or another language was meant to connote something in the joking manner in which he uses it.
There is this assumption that if we don’t understand certain phrases—I don’t speak any German at all, but if I hear some German on a stage, I can recognize what that’s meant to cause me to think. I watch a lot of shows with closed captioning on, because translation interests me greatly.
Sometimes when music comes on, the close captioning says, “Music plays.” Sometimes it says, “Romantic music playing.” Sometimes it will say, “1980s music.” Sometimes it has the title of the song. Sometimes it has the lyrics, because when the music comes on, what is it meant to give me? Is it meant to give me the affective quality of the type of music, or I am supposed to know the lyrics from a familiar song and I realize that the lyrics have something to do with the action that’s going on in the show?
BOGAEV: It’s curious though, because we’re getting all the same cues. We’re getting visual cues, but we’re also getting all of these aural cues from the change in tempo and the different kinds of verse. Isn’t it true also that, I think it’s ninety-nine percent of the words that Shakespeare uses are in our vocabulary today?
DELLA GATTA: Yes, about 99 percent, but they meant different things then. Words had—were more malleable and had expanded meaning than what we understand today. So, today we’ll use the word “gentle” to mean “kind” the way that we understand it. But in Shakespeare’s time it could also connote “gentility” and also being “gentile,” meaning Christian. So, when we see the word “gentle” or we hear it on stage that’s not a difficult word and we think, “Oh, I don’t understand what it means.” But it meant something different and something bigger.
There are expressions and phrases in modern English that might be new. We can go see a play by Clifford Odets from the 1930s and there’s language there and phrase and expression that we don’t understand, but we can move through that. We don’t need to understand everything because the way that the experience—especially of live theater—works is that there’s what’s being spoken onstage, there’s the lighting, there’s the dramaturgical signifiers, the people sitting next to you. There’s so much to negotiate that the dialogue is only a portion of it.
What might be unclear due to antiquated language, or new phrases, or a foreign language can be made more clear through all of these other vehicles for communication. Likewise, it is not, in my opinion, necessary to understand every single word that is spoken on stage. Some of that dissociation actually can convey more of a feeling or part of a plot because we just don’t know what it is.
BOGAEV: As you’re talking I’m thinking of another guest we’ve had on the podcast called Meme García. They were here a few weeks ago when their Salvadorian American adaptation of Hamlet came out. One of the great moments in their play happens when the ghost does the, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” speech in Spanish.
And Meme told us about how they wrestled with that passage and they wanted it to be heightened language, but they found that a lot of older Spanish is just too much. It sounds too formal.
Now you would know this better than I would: were they talking about the idea of using, for instance in the case of Spanish, Español Antiguo—antique Spanish—or are they talking about something else entirely?
DELLA GATTA: Well, I actually have interviewed Meme for my book, so I’m quite familiar with house of sueños and the different versions of it. The Spanish Golden Age playwrights writing at the same time as Shakespeare were using more of an Español Medio which is after Español Antiguo.
But the Español Medio was a bit of an older language than our Shakespearean English or early modern English. The way that the changes come about with phenology and grammar that go to our contemporary Spanish are kind of more different than the shifts that we’ve had in English from the early modern period.
But it also has to do with style of translation, especially with Spanish. There are different types of Spanish and people hailing from over twenty different countries; so from Spain, they’ll use the “vosotros” form which is kind of, “you all” or “all of you.” In Argentina there’s the “vos” form, versus “for you.” In the United States, Spanish speakers here tend to use the “usted” and “tu” only. So it can sound more formal if it’s not actually more antiquated. Just in the same way when we’re hearing someone speak in English. If the dialogue in a play sounds American, and people are speaking with American accents, and one character says, “I was so pissed last night,” and that’s to connote being drunk, which is the British version of that term, versus “angry,” which is the American version of that term… If we understand it in the British way, it will remove us from the American setting of that play because a word that’s even used in our contemporary language has been used in a nationally different or different time period in that manner.
This is actually what I refer to as cross-temporal code-switching. Code-switching is switching between languages from different time periods and switching between these languages of early modern English and contemporary Spanish. Nobody talks like that, so the shift is going to create a rupture in the fluidity of any type of bilingual Shakespearean performance.
Part of that, I think, can be productive and jarring and drive audience members to experience a discomfort and also a different type of pleasure. It’s a way of listening that people are not accustomed to, but it causes audience members to pay more attention to other sounds, to work different muscles, and to do different work in the theater. I think that’s quite an exciting thing that Meme García, as well as other playwrights and directors, have been working on.
BOGAEV: So, to get back to what we were just talking about, it’s almost as if bilingual Shakespeare makes Shakespeare more… the experience of being an audience member, more akin to what it was like in Shakespeare’s day. That you’re integrating these different aural cues in a way that we maybe don’t generally—or maybe playwrights don’t trust audiences anymore to integrate them.
DELLA GATTA: Well Shakespeare was never monolingual. There are phrases in Latin and scenes partially in French and expressions in a bunch of different languages as well. When we flatten Shakespeare to connote only English, then that does a disservice to the writing of his plays as well as to our understanding of the way that we mix in other words and languages in our English today, whether we recognize that we’re doing it or not.
So, yes, the audience going to the theater in the early modern period was much more—if not bilingual—they were not so solely monolingual. Because English was taking shape and being formed at the time. I think that one of the things that bilingual versions of Shakespeare or semi-bilingual versions of Shakespeare can do is open that back up and flex certain muscles. But also translate those portions that might be difficult in words that we no longer have or that mean different things today, and actually invite other people in to make some things more clear.
BOGAEV: Now, this maybe is on a different tack, but I want to integrate some of the things we’re talking about: how we experience theater aurally, with how it affects what we see. I was thinking that something happens in theater that doesn’t happen when you’re watching a movie often. An example might be that you accept things on the live stage that you wouldn’t accept or, I don’t know, you get—or it would kind of make you stop and have to think when you’re watching a film. Like maybe people of different races in the same family. Or if someone says, “I have this dagger,” and they hold up a gun because it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare or something. They’re just theatrical conventions that make all of this go down easier; that contradiction between what you might be seeing and what you’re hearing. I wonder why that is, or what your thinking is going on there?
DELLA GATTA: Well, we can tolerate visuals at odds and aurality at odds more so on the stage because of the setup of live theater. We see actors doubling in different rolls, that if we’re watching a film, we expect there to be a different actor playing that role. The construct of theater, it’s never entirely mimetic because we’re sitting there watching someone else’s living room or watching something happen on stage. So, there’s a different level of, as I’ve said, negotiation in which the presence of an audience will change the performance. Actors can feel the audience and the theater is inflected by the give and take between the actor and audience.
Casting is incredibly important, but when we see different people who may not look as if they’re from the same family, what I think you can do in theater is force us to question why we have those assumptions verses in a film we expect things to be, quote, “More realistic.” That’s one of the reasons that I have a lot of faith in live theater because it can push on the things that we’ve come to expect, and kind of chip away at the hegemony of our ideas about cultural understanding and racial representation.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s interesting. I was just going to say that it really does depend what assumptions you bring to theater. Maybe an example of this is, for instance, a lot of people find musicals weird or artificial and they just can’t go with people starting to sing in the middle of a conversation. But I grew up hearing musicals on reel-to-reel machines because my father was a big fan and that’s how he listened to them. So, when I finally saw a Broadway show it just seemed perfectly natural to me. I was expecting that, and I thought of them as a kind of opera already.
DELLA GATTA: Yes, theater can function in that manner, and we’re willing to let go of it. I will say, even in film, we’re ready to accept disjunction. There’s always going to be anachronism in the theater: “Draw out your sword,” and someone has a gun. Or you see a pillow and it’s supposed to be set in the 18th century, you’re like, “That looks like the 19th century.” You’re simply accustomed to dealing with that.
Aurally speaking, we’re much more apt to be able to listen to the radio then to watch television on mute. We have to have the aural soundscape inclusive of all those elements of sound and music and language and accent be somewhat cohesive, or have a cohesive motivation behind it, in order for it to make sense.
I think that’s where Shakespeare offers a great deal to being able to play with his work, because Shakespeare’s works weren’t monolingual, and neither is the culture that we’re living in. I mean, the United States was never monolingual from all the different tribes who were here. When the settlers came, there were the Dutch settlers and the Spanish settlers. But even once the United States was founded, Benjamin Franklin had a disdain for the German language and Thomas Jefferson proposed to have a bunch of English speaking, quote, “Americans,” move to Louisiana to make it more American. There was never a monolingual US, and when we look at productions in the United States to portray it as such, it is a false version of history.
BOGAEV: Yes, and I’m thinking of Meme García again, because when we had them on, they were talking about how their play is both in Spanish and English. And it shifts back and forth between the two languages in ways that native Spanish speakers in the U.S. often do. They said that doing this was the most American thing in the world.
DELLA GATTA: I’m from California and the original California Constitution from 1849 was written in both English and Spanish. It decreed that all laws had to be published in Spanish and English. So, when we talk about bilingual theater or switching between languages and even people who aren’t entirely fluent in a second language, the maneuvering between different languages, even in the way that we speak, comes out as well.
My first language is English, but I work so much with Spanish, and I learned some of it, not quite at home, but through my family and my experience. And sometimes we use the syntax of one language and the words of another.
So, I’ve actually said before, “The party was fun, right?” And it’s colloquial English so much that it doesn’t jump out at any one as problematic, but what I’m really doing is I’m using the syntax of Spanish and the words in English. What I should have said was, “Was the party fun?” But instead I’m saying, “La fiesta era buena, no?” And instead, I’m using that syntactical move of Spanish and the words in English. That is not known as a type of bilingualism. I am shifting between languages whether it’s in the structure or the grammar or the words because that’s my linguistic background.
BOGAEV: Hmm, so when you go to a play, are you still, more than ever, listening? I mean, do you just close your eyes sometimes to test out your hypotheses?
DELLA GATTA: No, my eyes are wide open, and the emphasis on the aural is not to diminish the visual. The visual is just as important, but part of my reasoning for emphasizing the aural is that language play is germane to Latinidad. And my work on Latinx theater and Latinx Shakespeare, that’s just simply the way that Spanish in the United States is continuously evolving with different Latinx cultures moving together. To me, I don’t see that as anything different then working with Shakespeare, with poetry, and language, and rhetoric, and expanded ideas of what words meant. So for me the two are quite cohesive.
But nonetheless the visual markers can be a type of visual language too. But emphasizing the aural for me, in my research and work, I understand that theatrical representations of Latinx peoples are always contingent on a type of aural excess, that usually invokes the Spanish language or an accent even if that’s not mimetically accurate to a heterogeneous group of people. So, my emphasis on the aural is just simply the way that my ear has always been attuned because the visual, to me, is unstable.
BOGAEV: And if people want to find the best Shakespeare in Spanish, or Shakespeare that’s deeply imbedded in Latinidad where should we look?
DELLA GATTA: We should look all over. Some of the most exciting and innovative theater happens in smaller theater spaces and community centers and all over the country. I’ve tracked over a 140 Latinx themed Shakespeare productions, and they have occurred at large repertory theaters: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Public Theater, and very small houses as well, student productions, and everywhere.
This idea of speaking different languages on the American Shakespearean stage has a long history. Even in the late 1800s the Italian actor Tommaso Salvini, he would perform the role of Othello entirely in Italian with all the other actors speaking English. That’s because he was deemed to be such a wonderful actor that of course you would watch him perform in his native language.
In my research and understanding that there’s a genealogy of bilingual Shakespearean performance of Latinx actors and practitioners in Shakespearean performance also means that there is a genealogy and history of audiences for them. It’s not about necessarily creating a new audience, it’s about bringing that back to something that’s already been done before and getting people to feel more comfortable with their own experience with multiple languages.
BOGAEV: It’s very exciting. I mean, it seems to open up new ways to experience theater. I’m also reminded of another performance that I saw recently, by the founder of the London-based Théâtre de Complicité in which there were a bunch of binaural mics on the stage that he used in the solo show, and the audience all had headphones on. So we would hear—depending where he was—we would hear the voice coming from behind us or to our right or our left or in front of us, and it just created this 360 space; this amazing, very intimate new experience of theater.
DELLA GATTA: I think there is a great deal of opportunity as well. Especially in the current moment that we’ve been in with the two pandemics, one of COVID-19 and one of racial inequality that have been converging. What I’ve seen is a great deal more of bilingual theater or semi-bilingual theaters, especially with Shakespeare because Shakespeare is free and in the public domain.
There’s a possibility when creating entertainment via Zoom or other media to have actors from a bunch of different places to reach audiences that have not been reached before that forces people into a different type of creativity. I hope that some of the creativity from this time period moves into what happens in theater spaces when everything is hopefully reopened again soon.
It has to do with, for me, the negotiation of being in the theater and that experience, but also the role that art can play, how it coheres in the mind and experience of an audience. There are so many moments in our recent history that—for me personally and I think a lot of others—were quite visual days, in which we’re captivated by what we’re able to see on our screens. Sometimes the overabundance of that can cause us to go back to music and language and poetry and podcasts and all of that together.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity, and we have more and more people who are coming from different places. Over eighteen percent of the Unites States identifies as Latinx, and there are a lot of people who shift between languages, if they’re not fully bilingual, and we need to engage those audiences.
BOGAEV: I hope that all happens. I’m really looking forward to that, and I really was looking forward to talking with you and really enjoyed it. Thank you.
WITMORE: Dr. Carla Della Gatta is an assistant professor of English at Florida State University. She is the author of Latinx Shakespeares: Staging U.S. Intracultural Theater, which will be published in 2022. And she is co-editor of Shakespeare and Latinidad, which was just released by Edinburgh University Press in June. Dr. Della Gatta was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “You Have Heard Much,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.