Amy Wratchford, Managing Director of the American Shakespeare Center, was in the midst of a presentation to my MFA class about the administrative side of “arts administration” when she dropped the bomb that exploded my worldview. I remember it vividly: it was May of 2015, I was knitting, the room was too hot, all of my classmates were bouncing slowly up and down on the exercise balls the group had silently consented must replace all chairs, and Amy was so very excited to confide in us that in the American Shakespeare Center would be opening its 2016 Summer/Fall season with a production of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
I distinctly remember Amy punching the air with a self-satisfied “yes!” as everything I ever knew or loved crumbled into dust around me.
This should probably go without saying, but we’re the American Shakespeare Center, not the American Shakespeare-and-also-the-occasional-uncannily-well-timed-modern-rock-musical Center.
Admittedly, no, we don’t exclusively perform Shakespeare. But we’ve been open for more than 25 years (performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse for 15), mounting between 16 and 18 productions a year since we added the Actors’ Renaissance Season in 2005, and Shakespeare only had a hand in 38 surviving plays. We would be super bored if we only performed Shakespeare. And anyway, isn’t “Shakespeare” less the name of a specific playwright than a generic phrase referring to a vaguely Renaissance-y time period? You see “Shakespeare” in the name of the company and it basically goes without saying that we also perform the works of his contemporaries: Marlowe, Middleton, Beaumont, Fletcher – sometimes even Beaumont and Fletcher because let’s face it, they all collaborated anyways. And even if they didn’t, it’s all iambic pentameter at the end of the day. “Shakespeare and his contemporaries” opens the door to many plays, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ain’t one of them.
Okay, yes, I will also concede that we perform works that do not fit into even my loose definition of “Shakespeare.” We perform Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol every year — but show me a theatre that doesn’t. We’ve performed Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac twice, once in 2007 and again in 2014, but we used the Anthony Burgess translation both times — which puts Rostand’s rhyming French Alexandrine verse couplets into the very Shakespearean rhyming English iambic pentameter couplets — which makes it basically Shakespeare. Yes, we’ve done Tom Stoppard’s 1964 adaptation Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead, but we did it in repertory with Hamlet, so that hardly counts. Okay, fine, we’ve even done a “rock musical” before – the 2014 smash hit Return to the Forbidden Planet, but every line of dialogue in that play not set to the tune of a jukebox musical number originally came from Shakespeare. And I’m pretty sure George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare were actually the same (undead) person (which explains Arms & the Man) and everybody knows that Shaw was a huge admirer of Oscar Wilde (Importance of Being Earnest) which is arguably similar in style to Wittenburg by David Davalos who just so happened to be in an off-off-Broadway play with Kevin Bacon! Wait, what are we talking about?
The actual criteria for deciding which shows we’ll perform at the Blackfriars Playhouse is less about a certain author or time period and more about identifying plays that work in our space — that is, that work with Shakespeare’s staging conditions. Will the play work on the merits of its words alone, sans sets or lights or soundscapes on a bare, universally lit thrust stage? Can it be done unplugged, with live sound cues and acoustic instruments? Does it include natural opportunities for contacting the audience? Does it allow for continuous flow of action — the Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” — where actors in a new scene enter while speaking even while the previous scene’s actors are exiting? Does it have opportunities for actor doubling? How about cross-gender casting? Can it be done in “two hours traffic of the stage”? If the answer is yes to most or all of those questions (as it is for the aforementioned plays), then it deserves at least a fair trial on our stage. If it works super well, we might do it again (see: Cyrano, Importance of Being Earnest) and if it doesn’t… well, at least we tried?
I’m assuming this “why not try?” philosophy was behind the decision to stage Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and let me tell you why we should not have tried. First – no, it can’t work on the merits of its words alone because roughly 74% of its words are expletives (and 40% of statistics are made up on the spot). No, it can’t be done unplugged – it is a rock musical written for electric guitars and strobe lights, not Patrick Earl with a fake microphone backed by Chris Johnston on a cocktail drum kit. Any potential moments of audience contact would be forced upon the play, not built into it — because Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was not written with a visible audience in mind. It has huge, cumbersome sets that wouldn’t even fit inside our building, let alone allow for a continuous flow of action. Also, it’s a terrible play, and a musical to boot.
No, I had never seen it or read it, but that’s not the point. Did I mention I hate musicals?
I wasn’t rooting for the play to fail so much as I had already accepted the inevitability of it doing so. I made doomsday predictions about having to leave Staunton, towing along my three degrees in Shakespeare while searching for somewhere else to work, because this disastrous production would cost us all our subscribers and close the ASC’s doors for good. I went to the dress rehearsal in gloomy spirits, bracing for the impact of a trainwreck.
A dress rehearsal is never a true indication of the quality of a production, but nevertheless, I was confused when what I saw didn’t suck. I wrote that off as a fluke and remained pessimistic during previews. But they didn’t suck either, and then all of a sudden the play was open and running and not only did it not suck, it rocked. And not only did it rock — it sold. And not only did it sell — it worked. Prolific theatre reviewer Eric Minton of Shakespeareances.com wrote in his review that “In fact, the Blackfriars aesthete singularly enriches the quality of Timbers’ and Friedman’s piece,” which in its Broadway form took place on “a cluttered hodge-podge” of a set. “Scenic designer Donyale Werle’s inspiration seemed to have come from watching a Disney Bear Jamboree while sipping on an Andro-laced LSD cocktail,” Minton quips, citing his own review of the original production.
In comparison, the ASC set includes a giant flag, a desk, some stools, the actors and their instruments, and “the couple of dozen audience members sitting on ‘gallants’ stools’ on either side” of the stage, who, Minton notes, also “serve as props.” We told this story of our American history the way Shakespeare would have had to: unplugged and universally lit. As a result, BBAJ at the Blackfriars Playhouse took on all the best qualities of Shakespeare’s history plays. The production was not just a retelling of past events but a shrewd commentary on current ones, speaking as much about the insane political climate of today as it ever did about the insane political climate in and for which it was written (in the case of BBAJ, the 2008 Presidential Election). In short, it worked, and not by a slim margin… which meant both that Amy had been super right and I had been super wrong.
I can admit that now, because being so completely and utterly wrong about BBAJ at the Blackfriars Playhouse is one of the most refreshing things that has ever happened to me. It reminds me of something ASC co-founder and Director of Mission Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen likes to say: we think we’re smarter than the Elizabethans because we’re alive and they’re dead. We turn the last 400 years of knowledge into a weapon against our ancestors, always using the modern to re-examine the historical, as if being alive makes us more qualified than they to discuss issues of humanity (which, spoiler alert, haven’t changed in 400 years because evolution doesn’t work that fast).
Theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, has always provided a robust playground for this sort of recasting. In between the writing of Othello and today, we invented and dissolved the African American slave trade, for example. Shakespeare knew nothing about it, nor America’s resultant (and persistent) systemic racism, but try reading Othello without acknowledging what we know now. Rinse and repeat for The Merchant of Venice with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, or Taming of the Shrew with suffrage and misogyny — we are always looking at the past through the tinted window of the present. This not “bad” or “wrong” but it is limiting and laborious. By painstakingly applying 400 years of technology and criticism to his texts in a bid to somehow suddenly “understand” them on some sort of nonexistent (but super enlightened!) level, we are always working for Shakespeare.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse allowed Shakespeare to work for us, instead. The production offered up a new understanding of our present by staging it through the lens of the past — and I mean that literally. By using Shakespeare’s staging conditions, we discovered poignant moments of actor-audience contact that both didn’t (and couldn’t) exist in the original staging of BBAJ. At the Blackfriars Playhouse, those moments allowed (and sometimes even forced) audiences to identify personally with the play’s subject matter. Those moments cut through the expletives and dance numbers to create keen satire out of what would otherwise be merely gratuitous shock-jock humor with the occasional catchy hook. The conditions of the production brought out the best of the play itself, the hard questions and the moral ambiguities we’ll never escape, no matter who’s President. I watched this play affect audience members profoundly and personally, the way Shakespeare’s plays often do, the way that makes them discuss the whole thing over dinner for hours and years afterwards.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse proved that using Shakespeare’s staging conditions is not just a way, as our mission says, to “recover the joy and accessibility of the Renaissance stage” (emphasis mine) but also to discover the new and potentially hidden joys and accessibilities of the modern stage. The plays written for this staging conditions are not the only ones that thrive within them. Shakespeare’s plays can and do thrive superbly when performed in modern staging conditions – The Blackfriars Playhouse is not the only theatre to ever stage a successful, enjoyable, provocative, delightful production of a Shakespeare play. That’s not what the American Shakespeare Center does, but that doesn’t mean we think others shouldn’t. Modern explorations of Shakespeare making use of advanced modern technology are valuable and necessary for what it can teach and show us about Shakespeare and ourselves. We exist to provide that modern exploration of Shakespeare making use of early modern technology in the form of our staging conditions – which, of course, teaches us more about Shakespeare and ourselves. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a modern exploration of a modern play through the use of early modern technology, and in this singular and very unexpected instance, that exploration led us to profound new discoveries about this modern play that turned it into the captivating, convivial, thought-provoking theatrical event it never quite managed to be before.
The fact that we stand a good chance of discovering something magical when applying the same staging conditions to a wide variety of theatrical genres means that the Blackfriars Playhouse ultimately has no limit on its repertoire. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse shattered the limits of what we can do with (and learn from) Shakespeare’s staging conditions. I guess Amy was right to be excited, after all.
— Lia Wallace
*No, this isn’t a list. Dashed expectations are what you get when you click on clickbait.
Top photo by Michael Bailey.
All other photos by Lindsey Walters | Miscellaneous Media Photography.