Shakespeare theaters face a dilemma
BY Peter Marks
The Washington Post
Friday, August 24, 2018
STRATFORD, Ontario — With generations of older, devoted playgoers getting grayer, costs of production rising and entertainment competition ever stiffer, North America’s temples of Shakespeare are being compelled to think more creatively and assertively about the gateway theater drug they push.
And to accomplish it without muddying their mission and selling their souls.
At festivals and other classical theaters from coast to coast, companies are commissioning dramatists to write new plays to comment on Shakespeare; building more talks with actors, designers and scholars into schedules; opening roles and directing slots to more diverse artists; looking to more commercial fare to supplement their programming; and even developing signature foods that visitors want to come back for. The Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, Utah, for one, might tinker with the plays but it does not mess with Puck’s Chocolates, a staple snack that the Salt Lake Tribune once called “the stuff of festival legend.”
“We have to do more than put on a play,” said Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of this theater mecca’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the most renowned in the English-speaking world. “We have to give people an entire experience.”
The question of how a big, aspirational classical theater confronts a culture in which youth is held up as a golden ideal — and plays of old can be dismissed by large swaths of the population as boring — is a particularly burning one at the moment for another of the continent’s classical stalwarts, Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. With the retirement of founding artistic director, Michael Kahn, scheduled for the end of the 2018-2019 season, the company is engaged in the first search for a leader in its 32-year history. A decision is to be announced before the end of the summer, company officials said.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company has had a distinguished run in the nation’s capital, winning the Tony Award for best regional theater in 2012. Strong attendance in its longtime downtown home, the 450-seat Lansburgh Theatre, led it, in 2007, to build a 775-seat theater: the $89 million Sidney Harman Hall. It is a handsome space, but its dimensions have proved vexing for many directors — and difficult to fill, both in terms of artistry and audiences. As a longtime theater artist who has worked there multiple times puts it: “The space is too big. It’s a black hole. Once you create a space in which the actor can’t reach the audience, you take something away. And everything in the Harman is just trying to overcome this deficit.”
The company’s next leader, it appears, will have to fashion rosters of offerings that better utilize the flagship Harman; growth, it seems, has not been a hallmark of the final Kahn years. Between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 seasons, for instance, attendance at the main stage productions dipped by 9 percent, according to company figures.
Evidence abounds, too, that as the audience’s knowledge base of the classics contracts, the canon of producible plays is shrinking: More and more, receipts from musicals - such as the wildly popular revival of “Camelot” in Harman Hall, the biggest box-office success in the company’s history - are needed to subsidize the plays that are the basis of these organizations’ existences. And even then, theaters are hard-pressed to go beyond the old classical standbys. In the 2015-2016 season, for example, a revival of the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me, Kate” filled 70 percent of the seats in the Harman, and a production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” on which it’s based, filled only 53 percent.
This portends deeper contemplation at STC over how to electrify audiences with the work of the playwright who is its namesake - and how to think more creatively about the other things a classical theater might offer to stimulate greater interest.
“I think the hard part for us is the times are changing so rapidly, and we have to plan as much as a year ahead,” says Chris Jennings, the Shakespeare Theatre’s managing director. “People have to feel it’s both great theater and connecting to their lives.”
One can sense, in visiting other companies and talking to leaders of classical theaters across North America, a revolution in how to package Shakespeare is not only gradually gaining momentum but is also being viewed as essential.
At Stratford, for instance, an ethos prevails of theater as not simply a passive entertainment. More and more, it’s a conveyance for other social and intellectual activities on the sprawling festival campus.
It’s midmorning on a warm summer Saturday, and a little black-box theater on George Street with the steep rows of seats is practically filled with Shakespeare lovers. A shocking number have pads in their laps and are taking notes - as if this were a graduate-level seminar on the sonnets.
But no one here will have their knowledge tested on the soliloquies in “Antony and Cleopatra” or the references to flowers in Ophelia’s mad scene. The gathering is called the Forum, one of 150 such extra, nonperformance meetups on Shakespeare and other theater topics the Stratford Shakespeare Festival now provides each season for the thousands of visitors to this midsize town (pop. 31,000) on the Avon River.
Meanwhile, in New York’s Central Park this summer, the venerable Public Theater has brought to front and center its Public Works initiative, a program mixing professional performers and nonprofessional actors from diverse neighborhoods around the city. Ensconced at the moment at the Delacorte Theater - in a slot traditionally reserved for a purely professional production - director-composer Shaina Taub’s Public Works 90-minute “Twelfth Night,” an effervescent, highly entertaining version pulsating with comic energy and boasting one of the best original pop scores in town. Smaller companies, such as Washington’s Folger Theatre, have been innovating, too, by joining forces with edgier troupes, such as New York’s Fiasco Theatre and Bedlam company, that are experimenting with new ways of mounting classical works.
“There’s no such thing as a noncontemporary production of Shakespeare,” avers Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, who directed the “Twelfth Night” with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who recently left Baltimore’s CenterStage to become artistic director of London’s Young Vic Theatre. “It’s always in the moment. But it’s our job to make it alive in the moment.”
Up in Stratford, the festival, which began life with a performance by Alec Guinness in the title role of “Richard III” in July 1953, has made a full-out commitment to innovation. “We have to create events, based upon the uniqueness of a director’s vision,” Cimolino says. This summer, Prospero, the ruler of the magical isle in “The Tempest,” is played by an actress, Martha Henry; actors of various colors and genders portray the pairs of confused twins - usually male - in “The Comedy of Errors”; and the Coriolanus of director Robert Lepage’s spectacularly cinematic tragedy of that title is assayed by a black actor. None of these choices in themselves is unique, but taken together, they are a statement by a leading institution about the classical field letting fresh imaginative air into its spaces.
Meantime, the festival, which year in and out attracts around 470,000 playgoers from April to November, about 20 percent of them from the United States, has stepped up efforts to fill the time for visitors away from its dozen shows in three venues (with a fourth theater being renovated and expanded).
“We’re trying to think more about young audiences. They want more context,” says Anita Gaffney, Stratford’s executive director. “They also want more engagement, and they want it before and after the performances.” As a result, Stratford is developing new late-night offerings and producing some works that would certainly have been out of the range of the King’s Men: This summer, it’s a revival of “The Rocky Horror Show,” a musical regular embellished with the requisite profane taunts from fans in the audience.
At Shakespeare festivals at opposite ends of the country, audiences that want Shakespeare in modern flavors will encounter playwrights hard at work trying to please them. At the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, “Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries” is awarding $25,000 commissions for 38 works created as companion pieces to Shakespearean originals: The first are “Anne Page Hates Fun,” by Ann Witting, inspired by “The Merry Wives of Windsor”; and “16 Winters or the Bear’s Tale,” Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s response to “The Winter’s Tale.” And in Ashland, Oregon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has recruited 36 dramatists to produce new “translations” of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.
It is, it seems, the inexhaustible appetite to understand the plays by a man Eustis calls “the greatest writer in the English language” that these theaters are stretching to sate. In the Seminar Grove at the Tony-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival, located at an altitude of 6,000 feet in southern Utah, theatergoers gather at 9 a.m. to talk about what they saw the night before. “We have a scholar who leads the discussion,” says Frank Mack, the festival’s executive producer. “They pass around a mic, and it’s really a fulfillment of the experience.”
The Utah festival thrives as much on sustaining a reputation as a reliable return destination for Shakespeare as for creating ancillary programs that appeal to “Bardolators.” “We have this package called ‘Complete the Canon’ - all of Shakespeare’s plays over six years,” says festival Artistic Director Frank Vaughn. But others are in the business of staking out new audiences for Bardolatry.
One of them, the scrappy New York Classical Theatre, travels each summer from one New York City park to another, providing a free and casual experience that hooks people who ordinarily could not even afford a ticket to one of the festivals: 30 percent of its audience, according to founding artistic director Stephen Burdman, live below the poverty line.
On a weekday evening in July, a crowd of 100 or so gathered by Castle Clinton in Battery Park for the company’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Parents parked their babies next to them in strollers, and older folk set their walkers against trees. As twilight enveloped the park, company acolytes pulled out flashlights - “Romeo and Juliet’s” lighting design. It was a wonderful way to see how a company can claim Shakespeare for new audiences and rekindle it for the more familiar, one beguiled city dweller at a time.