Like Shakespeare

Something occurred to me this weekend, while mowing the lawn.

How come when a movie actor wants to portray his project as having quality, he’ll say that it’s like Shakespeare (I’m thinking of the Spiderman reboot, although there are other examples)… but if you went up to the average moviegoer and said “Hey, you want to go see a Shakespeare movie?” most of them would look at you like you were crazy? It’s as if “like Shakespeare” means “very good”, but “actual Shakespeare” means “I won’t like it.”
My theory is that it has to do with our own lack of confidence in ourselves. We’ve all been taught that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of literature. The best of the best. So to compare yourself to such a high standard inherently puts you up there near it, at least. And that’s pretty good.
But, at the same time, we also think that Shakespeare is therefore out of our own reach. That it is too difficult for us to understand. We fear that we will not be able to appreciate it, to discuss it and offer our opinions afterward. So pre-emptively we decide that just wouldn’t like it to begin with.
That makes me sad. People want “like Shakespeare”. But they’re afraid of actual Shakespeare, because they don’t think they can handle it. I wonder how to bridge that gap?

9 thoughts on “Like Shakespeare

  1. I think to a large degree it is a gap that people must voluntarily bridge themselves. They need to decide not to be close minded, based on what high school did to them, and opt instead to give something a try. Can they be made to do so? I don't know.

    But once they do make that choice, certain things can be done to make them not regret it. For example, I feel many more people would enjoy a standard Shakespeare production at a local community theatre. But local theatres rarely do so because, "People here aren't smart enough for it."

    That kind of attitude reinforces the notion that people won't enjoy him. One shouldn't have to go to the Folger, or a fancy festival, in order to have access to Shakespeare's works being performed. Nor should a person have to be a professional actor to take part in his plays. Imagine would a person could learn by actually being IN one of the plays, if they were willing.

    But being willing doesn't matter, if nobody ever offers that chance.

    Secondly, if people are willing to present Shakespeare in a manner that is more comfortable to the less experienced consumer.

    Purists have their place, and can do wonderful things. But I see so many companies that travel about and don't use lights. Interact with the audience all the time. Have jugglers run up and down the aisles between acts. Play and sing their own music in the lobby before the show. All because "this is how it would have been done in Shakespeare's time."

    But people who do not do a lot of theatre now are not used to this idea of the theatre. They have a modern conception of what it means to go to a show, and if more Shakespearean would allow themselves to simply accept that, more people might give it a try.

    To that end, I offer one final suggestion. I don't think it would kill anyone if for certain productions, a narrator, or guide were to come on before each scene, or at least each act, and lay out what is about to happen. It could be incorporated into the show somehow, but if people knew that a certain company always helped people out with the language, or with the plot twists every so often, they idea that he is too difficult may be lessened.

    In other words, the choice is theirs, but a bit of openness and creativity on the part of that present the Bard wouldn't hurt matters.

  2. Ty, I really think you're misrepresenting original practices productions. My experience with original practices comes mostly from the ASC, and their performances have always been great and easy to follow, even for my non-Shakespeare-obsessed parents watching with me. You see, the ASC does Shakespeare with the lights, includes audience interaction, and uses extensive doubling, not because they're purists, but because they believe Shakespeare knew what he was doing. As scholar Paul Menzer said, "Nobody writes a play in the hopes that, someday, the technology will exist to perform it." Shakespeare wrote in an awareness of the staging conditions of his time, and using them reveals much of what makes the plays so wonderful. I'm always struck at ASC shows that their style is NOT purist, but populist. They make the language understood. They elicit laughter and tears. And they do it all with a fully -engaged audience, because they're willing to try performing Shakespeare on his own terms.

    This is not to say Shakespeare can't be performed in the dark, or in proscenium staging, or with advanced technological gimmickery, but I do think Shakespeare always works better if we trust him. Believe that the Bard knew what he was about. And I think more people would discover the joy of Shakespeare if there were MORE ASC-style companies that used original practices.

    I can't help but feel, also, that a narrator explaining each scene would make the audience feel like talked down to. Shakespeare uses plot-summarizing Chorus' when he feels the need (R+J, Henry V) so any added test had better be up to that standard. Really, the job of plot synopsis is better left to a good program. Include a handy page labeled "Stuff that Happens in the Play" and maybe a scene-by-scene synopsis and your golden.

  3. Alexi beat me to most of the points I was going to make! Not that that will stop me from talking. 😉

    At ASC Education, we focus a lot on helping people get rid of the "ShakesFear". We have whole workshops and programs dedicated to showcasing how Shakespeare really isn't hard, no matter what your high school English teacher convinced you. (And we also help those teachers cure their own ShakesFear so they don't pass it on to their students!). He writes about real people, he deals with real emotions, 98.5% of the words he uses are still in use today, he builds directions right into his text — we help people to see all of these things, and we give them the tools so that they can go explore the words themselves. It's just such a joy to watch the light bulb go off in someone's head — whether it's a high school student or a fifty-year-old man who never thought he'd "get" Shakespeare — to watch them realize, "Oh, wow, I *am* smart enough for this. This can be for me, too." Changing someone's mind is just plain *awesome*. And it isn't just teachers and scholars that we work with — we run seminars for professionals, we provide regular workshop days for the FEI leadership institute, and just a few days ago, a small group of us gave a presentation to some veterinarians. We reach out, we take every opportunity we can get, and we don't lock ourselves in the Ivory Tower.

    Also, I can't tell you how many times people ask us, about ASC shows, "So, you changed the language, right? You modernized it, didn't you?" And we just have to laugh a bit, and shake our heads — no, we didn't change it. ASC productions just make it as easy to understand as it *should* be.

    I think the idea about a narrator could work for productions geared towards very young students — age 10 and below, perhaps — but otherwise, all that does is reinforce the idea that Shakespeare is hard. It's like telling the audience that they need a translation, which is so misleading. It validates their fear, rather than helping them cure it.

    So what do we need to do? Just… more, really. We're expanding our outreach every year, and I hope that other companies will do the same.

  4. @JM – We tend to use F1 as our "when in doubt" guide — it's at least the basis for all of our texts, which doesn't mean we won't decide to conflate with earlier Qs (or perform Q1 Hamlet, as we did a few years ago, to my utter delight), but F1 is our starting point. For the study guides, we use the F1 text unless otherwise noted (usually for comparison, in that case), and we only use F1 stage directions. We also have some "textual variants" workshops and activities that focus on the difference between F1 and the Quartos, and on editorial alterations through time.

    And can I just say, I think it's fantastic that you do anything at all with Shakespeare in elementary school? I love it. Get to them early, before they're told that it's hard and they should be scared of it, and you've got such a better chance of hooking them for life. We see this with our Midsummer Day Campers (9-12 year olds) all the time.

  5. Cass, I've been trying to implement many of the things you speak about since I left Riverside Shakespeare in NY many years ago.

    "So, you changed the language, right? You modernized it, didn't you?"

    Same kind of reaction we used to get at Riverside. "For the first time, I actually understood what was going on.", etc. Nice to hear someone's picked up the ball, so to speak, after so long.

    As far as narration, it's not absolutely necessary, but it works well with younger students around the age you mentioned. It doesn't have to have the quality of "talking down" to someone. It can be an opportunity to give those students less eager to "act" an opportunity to work on delivery and projection and the rest; some of the things they've worked on in classes leading up to the performance. This is, of course, in a regular elementary school setting, where most of my work in this regard is done, not someplace particularly devoted to Shakespeare.

    I know this is off topic, but I'm curious. Is there a focus on F1 in any of the teaching at the center?

  6. That's part of the the problem. All of that is fine if people want to be part of a workshop, or to be educated. But I think the majority of people who are not into Shakespeare would not take well to a workshop, interactive approach. I have never seen any productions put on by the company of which you speak, so I don't feel comfortable in responded directly to their effect, but I have seen productions that are similar, if I am understanding what you are saying. And I think that that method has the potential to descend into distraction from the point of the play.

    If you have a comic character walk in a fall over, someone will laugh. But is that getting them more in tune with the Bard's work? Not really. (Again, having not seen anything done by "ASC", I can't make specific references to what they do. It is an example.)

    I also cannot totally agree with the notion of playwrights not writing something that can "some day" be performed. Naturally, I don't think they literally thought, "This won't be at it's best until they discover better lighting" when they created a play, but I am still not a huge fan of "trust him, he knew what he was doing, so let us do EXACTLY what he would have done." After all, like I said, we also used to cook our meat over an open flame, and dump our toilet waste into the streets back in the day. I don't think we need to bring that back in order to establish ambiance.

    In other words, it is my view that theatre, especially the classics, can and should adjust in some venues to the modern conventions. It is only by doing so that you will ease certain people into something they otherwise would not try.

    I see no harm in staging it like a "real" play. (Shakespeare, after all, did this as well. We know the actors of his plays didn't generally dress as the time period of the plays dictated, but as the time period of the production dictated. (In other words, clothes of the time of Shakespeare.) This was in a sense accepting a modern sensibility, and I don't see a problem with doing so more often in the modern time. We just can't assume people want all the bells and whistles of work shopping something. I know I wouldn't be comfortable with it. Certainly not if I had to divert my time and energy away from my performance as an actor in order to screw around with someone in the audience just to get a reaction. I'd rather stay in character.

    As for a narrator thing, it may not be everyone's style, but I really don't see how that is more of a "talking down to" than some of the other things suggested here. One doesn't have to stop a production, bring up the lights, and hear a lecture, but to say, "Shakespeare didn't put it there, so it is NEVER" needed, borders both on Bardolotry, as well as assuming everyone will respond to the same things in the same way.

    I own some great copies of some BBC and CBC Shakespeare radio productions dating back to the 1940's and 1950's. Hardly a group of hacks there, and yet in both, a brief, dramatic overview of the coming scene is read, to set the scene, and it takes nothing at all away from the production.

    I mean truly, I find it hard to believe that without some sort of extra help, most people, even in Britain today, are going to know right off the bat who all those relatives are in Richard III just based on how people speak on stage.

    I am about adapting. Evolving. Enhancing. I concede that all of that is subjective, and certainly the methods described work for some. But in the end, I am about engaging people directly in the drama of a story, not in the notion that Shakespeare never made a mistake.

  7. You're attributing a level of bardolatry to us that we don't have,Ty. Saying Shakespeare was a good craftsmen of drama is a far cry from saying he never made a mistake. ASC productions are cut, so often the very hardest language isn't presented to the audience. On the other, the cutting takes the form of liposuction rather than amputation (i.e. shortening individual speeches rather than hacking away scenes and characters.)

    I'd encourage you to seek out an ASC show and give it a try. You'll almost certainly realize that the ASC's style is far more populist and less "high-falooting" than a standard proscenium staging with the audience in the dark. In fact, far from being a pedantic throwback, original practices productions are a superb way to free audiences of the misconception that Shakespeare is "hard" or "only for smart people."

    As one small example, it's quick easy to "screw around" with an audience without dropping out of character. Why? Because Shakespeare wrote it into the script. You can bet that Shakespeare meant for Falstaff to coax the audience into a chorus of "No"s with him during his catechism on honor. Can this approach work today? Absolutely, as the recent production of Henry IV, Part 1 at the Blackfriars Playhouse can attest. Full audience interaction, but no need at all to drop out of character.

  8. Hate to seem like piling on, Ty. I surely understand your point of view. But I'm also one who has seen how the power of the words can work when trusting the writer.

    I've also made it a point to have the audience uppermost in my mind when I direct, ever since I learned about the importance of proximity, for one thing. Separating the work from the audience is what a major part of the problem has been, I think.
    And it's a difficult concept to get across to those who are entrenched in the idea that a theatre experience has to be more like a high mass rather than a celebration of inclusion. Film and television venues haven't helped either.

    You're absolutely right about people being too used to the format they've been presented with for so long.But I can also attest to what works in the same way Cass and Alexi can. It's not bardolatry. It's an understanding of not what but HOW Shakespeare wrote. Alexi's right. We have to trust that S. knew what the heck he was doing when it came to the circumstances he was writing for. Once that's taken in and accepted, the What follows a lot more easily.

    The problem is, as you've noted so well: where do we begin and how? I believe, from personal experience, that it begins in the classroom–and far earlier than high school–not necessarily in a workshop, although I do those too whenever I can. It's truly amazing to see how accessible the work can be when it's not placed on a pedestal or relegated to the province of those "in the know". But there are those who have been in the know about this mode for a long time. And it's not surprising that you're somewhat resistant to it. Not having the backing of an 'organization' and being mostly on my own, resistance is mostly what I've been greeted with.
    Most college productions I've seen fall woefully flat on their faces when treated in the same par for the course way. It's only then that the professor who directed it begins to wonder what went wrong. What went wrong? Quite simply, Everything. And it began with the first rehearsal.

    Why? I think it's because Shakespeare is treated like any other playwright whose work would work quite well on the proscenium stage. The problem is, Shakespeare isn't like any other playwright. And the problem with community theatre productions isn't that people are too dumb. Quite frankly, it's because the actors are too inexperienced to handle it. Therefore, the audience doesn't get it. Couple that with conventional mode in attempting to handle verse form and you've got a recipe no one ever wants to taste again.
    I could spout on this a lot longer but I'll shut up now. The rest is in an essay I wrote some time ago. Sometimes I wonder if those who hire me have even read it. If they had, they wouldn't be so amazed when they see the results of its philosophy in their students.

    There is a way. It's not 'purist'. It's 'Shakespeare'.

  9. PS Ty,

    I mentioned that these ideas have been around "for a while" but have met "some" resistance.

    You might be interested in investigating a couple of authors whose work will explain the concept of "leaving it to Shakespeare" much better than we could possibly do here. Their books are out of print but available and aren't too, too expensive.
    One is by Ronald Watkins, "On Producing Shakespeare"–first published 1950! The other is "Prefaces to Shakespeare" by the great director and conceptual genius Harley Granville-Barker, published even earlier, circa 1930's.

    Although Watkins takes you through a staging of a performance at the Globe, and Granville-Barker advocates a return to the actors (and thus, Shakespeare) by wrestling the work from the hands of scenic designers, their philosophy doesn't necessarily suggest an absolute pristine process of "original practice". But both are advocates of investigating what's in the work itself that tells us how better to get it across to an audience, and why staging and venue are so important as agents in communicating, understanding, and thus generating familiarity and popularity for the work of our man.
    "On Producing Shakespeare" is more hands on and diagrammatic about how we get to the 'whys'. It advocates a return to the 'principles' of original practice, no matter the venue, by exploring what drives the action in a play by Shakespeare. i.e., It's all embedded on the page.

    I think it might help explain how those who have investigated some of these concepts without prejudice can be so gung-ho about trying to implement the philosophy in some fashion.

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