Shakespeare’s relevance

Today, the second full day of the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference, found us taking a backstage tour of the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) as well as hearing a plenary speech by Kent Thompson, the Artistic Director of DCTC.  I’m glad our costume designers weren’t with us; the shop space now enjoyed by DCTC would turn their eyes green in a split second and I’m not sure we’d be able to pull them away.

Kent Thompson made some very interesting points during his talk.  He was the Artistic Director for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for 16 years prior to joining DCTC six years ago.  Kent, like so many folks in the theatre industry of late, is seriously contemplating how our society has changed over the past few years and what that forebodes for the theatre and, more specifically, those of us producing Shakespeare.  He said two specific things that I’d like to address here: 1) kids’ vocabularies are shrinking and this (and other factors) will ultimately mean that we will need to adapt or “translate” Shakespeare’s words in order to have them understood and 2) we need to change how we view a visit to the theatre and reconsider rules such as no eating, texting, or photography.

First, about the need to adapt or translate Shakespeare’s work to make it accessible and relevant.  I have experienced first-hand what happens at the Blackfriars when kids (anywhere from 5th through 12th grade) attend a student matinee.  I’ve watched those kids sit for two hours or more, completely enthralled by the story playing out before them and pulling them into the action, and then force three curtain calls because they don’t want the experience to end.  These are full performances of a wide variety of Shakespeare’s plays with no modernization or “translation” of the language.  Kent was a bit dismissive of the idea that “if the actors know what they are saying, the audience will be with them.”  But I would like to say that truer words were never spoken.  One of the most engrossing theatrical experiences of my life was watching the National Theatre of Greece perform Elektra in modern Greek.  I didn’t speak a word of Greek, modern or otherwise, but I knew exactly what was happening on that stage.  When it comes to Shakespeare we are not even talking about performing a piece in a foreign language, this is our language and if those speaking it on stage know in their bones what their words mean then we will, too.  Don’t believe me?  Pick any week of the year and come to Staunton.

The second point I wanted to mention from Kent’s speech was the idea that we need to alter the way we view the decorum and rules requisite to attending the theatre.  A colleague of mine disagreed whole-heartedly with this idea.  However, the American Shakespeare Center already embraces much of what Kent mentioned.  Do we see this as a radical breaking of the sacred peace and quiet of a theatrical performance?  Not even close.  Instead, it is simply going back to what theatre has been throughout history prior to the invention of the electric light and the subsequent placing of the audience in the dark.  Not only do we keep the lights on the audience (allowing for much more direct interaction and engagement of the audience), but we also allow eating and drinking inside the Playhouse.  We go so far as to have a rolling refreshment cart on the stage during the pre-show and interval music.  Attending a theatrical performance need not be a “precious” or fragile experience which the merest crinkling of a snack bag will completely destroy.  Instead, it can be (and has been for centuries) a party, a transformative communal experience complete with food, drink, and all range of emotion.

This is what makes us unique in the spectrum of entertainment: our ability as creators of theatre to connect with our audience, live and in the flesh, with stories that challenge and comfort (as Kent quoted); that get under our skin and make us feel.  None of this is exclusive to the producers of Shakespeare or even classical plays.  With modern work, too, you can choose to isolate the audience or engage them.  I do believe we Shakespeare types have a leg up in the audience engagement arena … it is embedded in the DNA of these plays.

Please tell me about the ways you are embracing the culture of inclusion, whatever plays you produce.

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s relevance

  1. Thanks for sharing Amy. Kent’s dismissal of “if the actors know what they are saying, the audience will be with them” seems flat out lazy to me.

    I’m kinda tired of artists making excuses or blaming the audience when they don’t get it. Sure it happens, but I’d rather take responsibility and make sure I’m doing what needs to be done to fill the void rather than “translate.”

    Perhaps we need to fill in the gaps somewhere along the way.

    As for your 2nd point, doing what’s appropriate for a particular production seems right. And what you’ve been doing at ASC seems to be right in line.


  2. Some years ago there was a film version produced of Romeo and Juliet, we are all familiar with it, I am sure.

    A lady who works in a gas station,and who by no fault of her own was not the best educated,or well spoken of the people I regularly spoke with, commented that it was, “… wonderful how they managed to update the language to enable modern audiences to understand.” She was stunned when she discovered that other than a few cuts the language in the movie was unchanged from the original.

    I think this speaks for itself.

    As for the second point, I believe there is a standing rule at London’s globe reminding patrons that any food or drink placed on the stage will become fair game for the actors. This seems entirely reasonable to me, and I have always been frustrated by theatre snobs dictating that Shakespeare, or any other playwright, should be treated as though we were at a funeral. Audiences should be engaged by the event.


    Andy Welch

  3. I disagree with the comment about kid’s vocabularies. While they *may* be shrinking, some kids use words far more complex than adults did even 30 years ago. Not only that, in order to grow a vocabulary, kids must be exposed to words that they may not understand. You may not reach all of them, but you will reach a few.

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