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January 13, 2010

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Terry Teachout

I think this is the most provocative comment to arise from this discussion--not excluding my original column.

Bear in mind that it's essential to disaggregate Shakespeare-only and Mostly Shakespeare festivals and companies from this data set. I would be very interested in knowing how frequently other professional companies perform Shakespeare as opposed to, say, Chekhov or Shaw (to take only the most obvious examples). I suspect that it would change the picture considerably if this adjustment were to be made. But I also suspect that even after doing so, Shakespeare would be significantly overrepresented.

Here's another thought experiment: what if every Shakespeare-only and Mostly Shakespeare festival in America were to devote one of its Shakespeare slots to a classic play by a different author next season? Would they lose money--and if so, how much?

Rob Weinert-Kendt

Respectfully, Terry, I'm not sure which festivals you're considering "Shakespeare-only" and "Mostly Shakespeare." Utah, Oregon, Alabama--at every one of them, old Will constitutes just half or often less than half of the programming. Even the Shakespeare Theatre in DC this year is not offering an all-Bard feast, and Shakespeare and Co. doesn't do only Shakespeare. Indeed, do you know of ANY festivals that only do Shakespeare? And when you say "disaggregate," do you mean don't count any of the other classical or new-play productions at places that use "festival" and "Shakespeare" in their name? In many cases the words "festival" and "Shakespeare" don't tell the whole story (many of these "festivals" are year-round LORT theaters, and a quick Google shows, again, that Will is just a part of the programming), and "festivals" by whatever definition still constitute a huge portion of theatregoing in the U.S.

All that said, even when Will fills only four out of 10 slots at every festival countrywide, that adds up to a lotta Bard.

David Cote

Actually, Terry, I made this point yesterday ("We will always have Chekhov, Williams and Shakespeare—which is to say, we will always have mediocre productions of the same 12 classics. Could we perhaps discuss why the same classics are done over and over and not more obscure works by the same authors?")

But Isaac has identified the problem more strongly and clearly in the overproduction of Shakespeare. The real discussion that needs to happen is how to diversify our classics. As you know, New York has this problem. Do we really need the Roundabout's production of The Glass Menagerie? How long before we get another Hedda Gabler? As for Shakespeare, I'd be willing to sit through Timon of Athens in an innovative production. And we need a Troilus and Cressida badly.

But I want to repeat my initial misgiving: There seems to be a strong bias against new work underlying your initial concern. Does anyone really believe that a healthy theater culture would not have a preponderance of new work? I don't know what proportion of new to old (whatever the cutoff points) is healthy, but I am certainly happier that the reverse is not the case. If TCG reported that 75% of our play production were of works written before the New Deal, you might be delighted, but I'd be horrified.

And of course, we're both critics. So there's a power issue at play here: The Shiva-like ability to create and destroy, to pronounce deathless classic or contemporary dross, to write history in the living rock of history and all that jazz. I don't take that stuff lightly. Perhaps you have a crystal ball I don't know about.

Scott Walters

Here's something else that disturbs me, and is connected to this discussion: all those classics -- 20th-century and before -- are all the same damn plays that appeared in your undergraduate play anthology. Which leads me to wonder whether we are, in fact, essentially illiterate when it comes to the history of literature.

Scott Walters

Which is pretty much what David wrote. Sorry.

Terry Teachout

Those aren't the ones I'm talking about, Rob--not the pseudo-festivals that are in fact rep companies with diversified repertories and year-round or warmish-weather seasons. Putting aside the real summer festivals that do only one or two Shakespeare plays each year, usually in outdoor performances, here's a fast snapshot of this summer's or last summer's offerings at the smaller-scaled shops:

California Shakespeare: two Shakespeares, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a new Steinbeck adaptation
Chesapeake Shakespeare: three Shakespeares, “Lysistrata”
Colorado Shakespeare: three Shakespeares, “Our Town,” “The Fantasticks.”
Hudson Valley: two Shakespeares, “Complete Works (Abridged)”
Illinois Shakespeare: two Shakespeares, “The Three Musketeers”
Kentucky Shakespeare: all Shakespeare
Georgia Shakespeare: mixed rep, no other classics
North Carolina Shakespeare: mixed rep, no other classics
Pennsylvania Shakespeare: two Shakespeares, “Playboy,” “A Funny Thing”
Seattle Shakespeare: three Shakespeares and “Electra”
Shakespeare Dallas: all Shakespeare
Shakespeare Festival at Tulane: three Shakespeares, one new play
Shakespeare Festival of Michigan: two Shakespeares, “Side by Side by Sondheim”
Shakespeare Santa Cruz: two Shakespeares, “The Lion in Winter”
St. Louis Shakespeare: three Shakespeares, “Treasure Island”

This list, I think, gives a more typical sense of what most ordinary theatergoers experience at a "Shakespeare festival," and that's where the opportunity lies--as well as the risk--for broadening the average American playgoer's sense of what a "classic" play is. The problem, I'm sure, is that Shakespeare has become a brand, a Good Housekeeping seal of classic status. No other great playwright of the past has that kind of pop-culture name recognition: it's like ballet companies doing "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker."

Terry Teachout

Scott, take a look at my comment on Isaac's post from today called "A Clearer Picture 3."

Josh James

Man, I've been saying this for years ... no more Shakespeare, at least for awhile.

I've seen Midsummer & that Scot play far too many times ...

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist!

I'm sick of Shakespeare.

cgeye

I'm sick of 'regie' Shakespeare -- productions where the text is more or less used as a pedestal for the designers and director to express their (usually dissonant) personal style. 'Regie' is used as a term of derision when those newfangled Yurpean directors create a radical production of an opera most people loved just the way it was staged before.

Give me a clear, succinct yet full-text production with solid actors and a unified intent, and I'll watch it. Otherwise, I'm stuck watching style decisions as interesting as the business affairs negotiations for a blockbuster movie -- which, sadly, *are* the most interesting part of the process.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist!

I actually don't care how Shakespeare is presented. I'm sick of him and I don't want to see his plays. Period.

I'm more interested in lesser known classic plays and I'm more interested in new and modern plays written by women and people of color.

Shakespeare this, Shakespeare that. STFU.

This is the reason why the theatre world is suffering.

cgeye

Didn't mean to imply my opinion was yours, but Shakespeare in theatre serves the same purpose as the family sedan does in the auto industry -- no one cherishes, but it serves a purpose of predictability, and there's a huge installed equipment and institutional knowledge base, to serve it. Switching from it means we might get the Edsel, or the Tucker, but we won't know until we ask the same questions GM is -- is this trip really necessary?

Ian Gallanar

I would suggest that the enormous number of Shakespeare productions (and, for that matter, classical plays) may indeed have an effect on the number of new works being produced, but I think there are other reasons. Because of the economics of play development (and production), very few new plays are developed that are large in scope or, well, cast size. New plays that get developed in the traditional centers of new play development (like New York or Chicago) have to be smaller in terms of the number of artists hired to collaborate. The result tends to be plays that are more intimate in terms of subject matter and plays that deal with very specific issues or communities.
New plays large in scope are economically tough to develop.

Think of Broadway musicals. We are to the point where a majority of new offerings are revivals. Why? Not because audiences aren't willing to see new musicals, but because it's so bloody expensive to develop a big, new musical so they rarely get developed.

Classical plays, by their nature, tend to be larger in scope and certainly broader in their subject matter. I believe that the preponderance of Shakespeare productions is due to the fact that people are hungry for plays that are large on scope and nature. People love theater that is epic and universal. But if there are no new plays that are produced that possess these qualities, people will attend the older ones that do. There are a lot of very interesting "larger" plays from the twentieth century that don't get done as often because they haven't aged as well as, Shakespeare or Chekov or Miller.

Although Shakespeare is the granddaddy of big, sweeping, classical plays. he's not the only one--and I believe there is a hunger for the very best of these plays. At our theater, we have had great success with plays like The Country Wife, Cyrano de Bergerac and Lope de Vega's The Dog in the Manger.

Why do we produce Shakespeare and other classics? Not because we are necessarily classicists, but because we believe in the power of plays of this nature.

Tim Carroll, Artistic Director of Budapest's The Factory Theatre Company and former Associate Director at Shakespeare's Globe, recently spoke to the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America concerning the conventional way British and American actors and other artists are employed. His point was that, like painters or poets, Hungarian actors always hold down other jobs--allowing the economics of producing a play to allow for a much longer rehearsal period and much larger productions. In other words, the art takes precedence.

It's an interesting proposition. Can we create a more diverse canon of material by allowing professional artists more leeway in their compensation and therefore energizing and expanding our audience and creating more employment opportunities for artists?


Ian Gallanar
Aristic Director
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

cgeye

Exsqueeze me?

Leeway in their -- dear sir, it would be nice if our artists were compensated enough, period. It would be nice for them to have single-payer healthcare, so they wouldn't have to cobble more than one job together, along with their theatre work, to make ends meet, if they do.

How many of us know on a basis deeper than that of a fan, a full-time theatre artist who's not an admin? Someone who gets a salary all year, to act or write?

I know you know Hungary state-sponsored art's way different from American commercially-pressured work. But one should recognize that long rehearsal periods for one work take actors out of the pool for other opportunities to be seen and paid. Can any company ask that of their actors, in this economy?

cgeye

Found this gem online:

“With the RSC’s Swan out of action for refurbishment, you realise how rare it is to see Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration or late 18th-century plays: a generation is growing up that has no idea how to perform, stage or even appreciate Jonson, Webster, Congreve or Sheridan. A healthy theatre is based on a balance of past and present, but our current historical amnesia suggests Shakespeare was the only dramatist before Beckett.“

Adam

Theaters do Shakespeare because he's free and he's pretty great when he's great. Also, I forget where I heard this but Shakespeare is often used as a tent pole. People expect it in the season and people come to see it. It's appropriate for everyone so school groups can come. And you make money on Shakespeare especially if you can get good actors to do it.

The problem with him besides what you say above is that he overwrites, shows instead of tells, and teaches our audiences that art is supposed to bore you. That art is medicine that should taste a little bad and you go to the theater to take your medicine and it makes you a better more educated person afterwards. But does it? What does one actually learn from Shakespeare?

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