This speech was delivered on Friday, October 25 on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage as a Keynote Address for the 10th biennial Blackfriars Conference. Watch the video above to see it in action, or read along with the transcript below.
Backwards and Forwards (or, Towards a Slow Theatre Take 2)
I understand that uniting page and stage is a core ambition of the Blackfriars Conference and I just want to say that it has been a real joy to watch that in practice these last few days.
It is an apt ambition because I believe ASC is uniquely positioned at the intersection of scholarship and practice, as a place to look both forward and backward, or should that be backward and forward?, at the same time.
As ASC’s resident practitioner in chief, I’m truly honored to be invited to speak to you and reflect on some of the things I’ve learned since I first came to Staunton.
You know, one of the things about being a director that is often overlooked is that although we traffic in ephemera and sublet our imaginations, we work very much in the real world.
The problems I deal with in my work are often very physical, temporal, and, let’s be honest, financial.
Directors are actually the opposite of dreamers. We are planners. We are problem solvers. And we know that the problem with a really good dream is that when you wake up, you have to figure out how to solve the damn thing.
I recall a long time ago being in tech with a musical version of the medieval French romance, Aucassin and Nicolette when the producer, who was also somewhat corruptly redirecting enhancement money to meet her company’s payroll, walked in and said to a Tony-nominated costume designer who was herself hand-stitching a doublet, “I just love when it all comes together – it’s the magic of theatre!”
“It’s not magic,” growled the Tony-nominated costume designer, “it’s just a lot of f-cking hard work.”
So yeah. Practice is a lot of hard work. But I think that practice, particularly here in the Blackfriars, can bring one closer to Shakespeare in ways large and small.
Here’s a little example – these chandeliers. I know there’s been a lot of study around this topic. And of course “brightness” is an inherently relative term, and we can’t account for the relative differences in levels of darkness to which we might once have been accustomed any more than we can fully factor in that, were we to go by Elizabethan life-expectancy, more than half of you in this audience ought to be dead by now. But when I arrived, all the chandeliers were at a single height.
I know that was partly based on one drawing of a similar indoor playhouse from the mid-17th century. If you look at the drawing it does indeed show chandeliers at a height over the stage but also, it shows actors on the stage and audience in the balcony and the only place for the original artist to indicate the chandeliers, which he clearly wanted us to know about, was in the band of space between the two.
This struck the practitioner in me as wrong. And I couldn’t quite believe that Burbage would have had it this way either – with all the chandeliers at one height the interior above playing space was largely blocked from view. And if you sat in the balcony, you were looking through candles at the stage. However, if you stood in the above, you could start to see a way where, at a series of gradually escalating heights, you could make most of the chandeliers disappear into the architecture. Surely Burbage, who had eyes that functioned essentially like mine, would have wanted the majority of his audiences to see if for no other reason than the overwhelming practicality of needing to charge a premium price for their tickets to pay for the renovations and exclusivity conferred by his vision for an indoor playhouse.
So we tinkered with the height and we’ve arrived at what I think is, for the moment at least, a workable compromise. I don’t know or claim to know that this is what Shakespeare or Burbage would have done, but I do know that if they were here they would support and understand why I was doing it. I believe wholeheartedly that we would speak the same language when it came to patron services and a dependence on ticket sales.
In the course of preparing for this talk, I looked back at what began as my audition monologue for this job and, upon my appointment, was subsequently released as a “vision statement” that might now threaten to become a bit of a manifesto.
At the time, with apologies to Jerzy Grotowski, I called it, “Towards a Slow Theatre.”
I wasn’t thinking of the plays themselves being slow, obviously, but of the Slow Food movement: of the return to finding value in that which is artisanal, small-batch and made by hand; of the importance of that which is local, traditional, and sustainable; of the things that require an investment of time to both create and appreciate. I was thinking of embracing all those elements that make theatre so special even if they make it confoundingly hard to sell. Coming out of a glutted NY market where the best way to get someone to see a play is to tell them how soon it will be over, I was keen to reconnect with the self-evident truths of our classical canon, and not apologize for that which makes them great.
So parts of today might be “Towards a Slow Theatre, a mid-flight update”? Or “Towards a Slow Theatre: one-year report”? Or “Towards a Slow Theater: Are we there yet?”
My first year at ASC has actually been anything but slow – the experience of joining this company felt like trying to leap on a moving train. Or at least what I imagine leaping on a moving train feels like. Daniel Craig always makes it look so plausible.
Probably some of you are by now over-familiar with the origin myth surrounding how I wound up here at ASC in the first place. For those who are not, I’ll hit some highlights, and for those who are, you can use it as an opportunity to note micro-changes in the evolving narrative.
It is relevant because part of it is a story of how a freelance director mostly known for elaborate stagings of classics that, while always rigorously grounded in the text, were also technically sophisticated and imaginatively very ambitious: a Merchant of Venice set on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s for example, (a choice made to emphasize multiple immigrant populations competing to get into the enfranchised Belmont of a WASP Portia); a Romeo and Juliet overly inspired by a trip to the incomplete Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for which I convinced the Guthrie to cover its entire old (and huge) stage with scaffolding and Mercutio perished crashing his vespa in an attempted getaway; a Much Ado About Nothing set in the hacienda of a Cuban plantation that emphasized the island’s multicultural heritage and the roots of revolution seething under colonial exploitation; a Midsummer set in the remnants of an abandoned theatre in which the fairies emerged from traps in the floor to dress themselves in discarded mixed-period costumes and Titania’s bower was a flying piano (look, Irina [Brook], your Dad had already claimed the feather bower and the white box so I was kinda stuck); a Tempest that interpreted the Masque with enormous puppets so large it took a cast of a dozen island spirits to operate them (and it turned out that once assembled they couldn’t leave the stage house because there were no doors big enough); and, most recently prior to coming here, a Twelfth Night set in a contemporary airport departure lounge that began with a plane crash represented by 35 odd suitcases crashing to the ground over the thrust stage from a grid some 40 feet in the air.
And that’s really just the Shakespeares that come first to mind. But in spite of that list, I am not a revisionist. Quite the opposite. I am an interpreter. I don’t set out to “do” something “to” the play. I set out to explore the play. Often those choices that I’ve described were not made all at once, as though with a declarative thunderclap. They were not the product of a single “eureka” – as compelling as it would be to dramatize it that way. They were incremental. They were painstaking. They were collaborative. They were the product of a daily series of problems to be solved, problems that had to do with the most creative use possible of the resources available, the talents of the collaborators, the demands of the space, the needs of the text, the finances of the producer and always the time available, the time to create, build, rehearse, prepare, and polish.
They were, in short, the product of a lot of f-cking hard work.
Since I don’t usually know exactly where I am going when I am inside a process, it’s often only at the end that I can look back and discern the pattern and recognize the idea, the unyielding, determined idea, underlying a series of instincts. I think looking back on the work I was doing prior to coming to ASC, I was unknowingly responding to the need to create spaces that so surprised an audience that it took them out of their assumptions about Shakespeare and allowed them to experience the work as though for the first time. And in massive, large houses with audiences disciplined to look for formal, scenic innovation changing the location and playing with period was one way to keep them awake.
(A quick parenthetical detour about that: a lot of my job boils down to keeping the audience relatively awake. We laugh but I always tell actors, don’t feel bad when someone falls asleep. In most theatres – not this one – you have a busy day, you rush to the theatre, you skip a meal or maybe replace it with a drink, and then you sit down and we turn off the lights and tell you a story.
What do you think is going to happen?)
So when the recruiter leading the search for a new artistic director of ASC contacted me, he wasn’t calling to recruit me, he was calling to ask for suggestions of folks I thought would be interested in the job. And I’ll tell you I gave him a real good list. But I felt like a bit of a fraud because I didn’t really know this place. I had a vague understanding that there was a company and that they embraced original practices in some kind of recreated environment that wasn’t Globe but was some other Shakespearean theatre I’d never really heard of. Frankly, it all sounded a bit too Ren Faire for me – and while I don’t want to cast any aspersions on Ren Faires, that wasn’t, to my way of thinking, where a serious, committed interpreter would want to work. The staff all know this, but among my personal rules is that I don’t want to ever serve Shakespeare with a side of mutton, or see a decorative extra “e” added at the end of a word.
But then I made a serious mistake.
It was a day or two after Christmas. If you know ASC then you know that’s one of the three days in the year when there isn’t a show going on. But Amy Wratchford met Nancy [Anderson] and me at the front door and we walked through an unprepossessing lobby into
This space. This beautiful space. This wooden, hand-carved, human-scaled space. This room that is both intimate and infinite. This craft that can be sailed to a million worlds, unbounded by the ordinary laws of physics.
This space that is now starting to feel a bit like home.
You see, when Nancy and I walked into this space, we had both been working regularly in the kind of glass, steel and concrete culture palaces that Irina referred to yesterday as “theatre mausoleums” – spaces where the primary intention of the creators was not, really, to make theatre. It was to make other things. Parties perhaps. Functions. Multipurpose venues. Meals. Money, mostly. Wonderful things all, but not, ultimately focused on art, focused on the human, focused on the actor, the supreme and maybe the only truly essential ingredient in making THEATRE.
I believe in the power of spaces to evoke plays and performances. Throughout my career I’ve never had a good answer to the question “what play do you want to do” because my follow up is always, “where do you want me to do it?” There are certain plays that I want to do in certain spaces. Plays are not abstract for me. They are concrete. They happen in and are informed by the places in which they are made. So it’s hard for me to separate thinking about a play without thinking about a location, and having that be an integral part of the making of it.
Anyway, we saw the space, we got back in the car and as we drove away, heading up to my brother-in-law’s home in the back hollows of West Virginia, Nancy said to me, “are you sure you don’t want this job?” I said, “no, Nancy, don’t be ridiculous. ASC is some kind of original practices outfit. They don’t want me, a guy who just crash-landed Viola in Illyria by way of a commercial airliner.” Then we spent the next two and a half hours coming up with ideas of things we wanted to try in this room. And the next day I called the recruiter, to ask if I could suggest one more name. He politely told me that the list was closed, but, with a sigh, asked out of curiosity who it would be that I would suggest. “It’s me,” I said.
Now, if this were a film we would simply cut to me being here and it would all seem so easy and so inevitable. It wasn’t. Like everything, it was a lot of work.
But as with my shows, looking back a year plus, I now recognize that way more of my work was indeed pointing me toward the Blackfriars and ASC than I realized. Pointing me toward a space where the core value is honesty. Where the moment-to-moment truth can’t hide behind scenic invention. Where the actors and the words stand, unadorned, right in front of you.
Because once I had visited this room, I couldn’t really go back.
One of those steps was this Towards a Slow theatre manifesto. I am going to share some of it now, but with the proviso that Irina’s keynote yesterday kindly gave me permission for creative digressions!
Towards A Slow Theatre
There was a celebrated Romanian director named Liviu Ciulei who ran the Guthrie and was a feature for a generation of artists at Arena Stage and NYU. I never actually worked with Liviu, but I have worked with so many people who did that I think I can even do a pretty good impression of him. English being only one of his several languages, Liviu was sort of the Yogi Berra of theatre directors, inventing malapropisms that often revealed deeper truths. One of my favorites is: “We have a lot to do, and very little time, so we must work slowly.”
I invariably start rehearsals with that reminder. “We have a lot to do, and very little time, so we must work slowly.” I take it to be a caution that no matter how rushed you may feel, it is vital to take all the steps, and that the step you skip may be the one that will cost you far more in the long run.
I was thinking about that phrase and this magnificent theatre when it occurred to me that this is actually one of the things we as audiences come to the theatre for: to slow down. Theatre, more than any medium, is temporal: I’ve long conceived that, as a director, what I do is sculpt in time.
We are faced with a world and a planet that seems to be spinning faster and faster and faster, and many of us wonder how long the center can hold against these widening gyres. But when we sit in a theatre, we give over to the experience our most precious commodity, our time, and we allow ourselves to bear witness together. Real-time never stops on stage. Like the biological reality that after 90 minutes a healthy percentage of the audience will need to use the restroom, for example. But pretend time can take us anywhere. We can speed it up and slow it down, calling attention to a micro-moment or to the great sweep of history, “turning the accomplishments of many years into an hourglass”.
Shakespeare knew this of course. Because while he may or may not have been Shakespeare and may or may not be the greatest writer who ever lived and may or may not be this and that, he was a MAKER of theatre.
A Digression: Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?
At various times in my life I’ve been fascinated by the old ‘was Shakespeare Shakespeare’ question – I mean, you can’t really do this and get fully away from wondering, can you? I distinctly remember my disappointment as a twelve year old that the RSC bookstore in Stratford-Upon-Avon was silent on this subject – it struck me then as rather intellectually un-rigorous, although now, as the temporary proprietor of a destination theatre, I see why they might not have wanted to advertise themselves as the home of an impostor.
Sure, on some level the question is immaterial –the work itself is all that matters.
But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t actually NOT matter that we don’t know for sure if Shakespeare was Shakespeare – it is, in fact, CRUCIAL that we don’t know for sure. The mystery at the core of the true history of the author is one of the sustaining forces within the work itself.
If we knew about Shakespeare what we know about, Tennessee Williams, say, or Harold Pinter, or Caryl Churchill, or Tony Kushner would he in fact still BE Shakespeare?
Years ago, I directed a revival on Broadway of a play by Gore Vidal (who, in an intoxicated boast, once responded to my flattering contention that he was the “American Shaw” by thundering, “Shaw?! I’m the American Shakespeare” – a point I don’t think Shaw could have made better himself). Anyway, the play was called The Best Man and it concerns a pair of presidential candidates deadlocked in their party’s nominating convention and the machinations that go on behind closed doors pitting morality against ruthless political efficiency. A period piece, obviously. The design included a painted front curtain that was a representation drawn from my family’s archives of a photo of candidate John Kennedy addressing the Boston Garden the night of his election. In it, the candidate is a silhouette in the foreground, and all you can see spread out in front of him, in remarkably sharp-focus detail to the very back of the arena, are the individual, upturned faces, 100’s of 1000’s of them, all pouring their energy, their hopes, their dreams into the empty vessel of the shadow candidate.
To me, I sometimes think of Shakespeare like that. As an empty vessel we fill with, well, ourselves.
What’s Voltaire’s line about God? If Shakespeare didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.
OK. Enough detour. We could dive down that rabbit hole and stay forever.
Nevertheless, in my understanding and experience, Shakespeare was imminently practical. He made his living as a working artist in a trade that has not greatly changed in the intervening 400 years. He lived in a world of actors with large personalities, of financial demands from producers, of nefarious business partners, of fickle audiences, of political instability and change, of fires, plagues, and other random acts of god. He lived in a world that is, with a few technological exceptions, identical to ours. To me, it is because he was so real and so practical that continued research and exploration into his practices is essential.
What I think is so important and so vital about the mission of ASC is that it gives us a window into the performance conditions that predominated in Shakespeare’s time, and in so doing reminds us that he is not at all distant, but very present, immediate, and alive.
It’s a trick of two-way time travel, really. Backwards, Forwards, Forwards, Backwards.
So I’d like to point us towards a slow theatre. A place where audiences congregate to look at life through the prisms offered by Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and classics old and new. Not a place to go back in time so much as a place to take the time to breathe and laugh and cry and sing and just be together. One horrible reality that a contemporary director must confront is that almost every design conceit for a classic ultimately puts something in the way of the play. I am not saying we shouldn’t be allowed artistic freedom to reinvent, and I will champion new and exciting interpretations of classic work to my last breath. But it is important to understand that by and large the further we get from the original conditions the harder we make our own job.
(The first play I saw in this space was a Ren Season Hamlet. I’d seen about five Hamlets already that year, and not one of them had a set with a door. There were stairs, there were plexi panels, there were flying, turning, rolling things but no doors. We got to Gertrude’s bedchamber and Josh Innerst as Hamlet came in one of the doors (they are only temporarily down for the Roman Rep) and I thought, hmm. That was …. easy.)
Technology is now all around us, and it is changing so many things simultaneously that it even threatens to alter the chemistry of our brains. The theatre has not been immune to the lure of ever more extravagant technological innovation. Advances in lighting, in sound, in video, and in automation now make almost anything possible. But when anything is possible, little matters. When stage and screen can simulate almost any effect, it invites us as audiences to turn off our most powerful tool: our imagination. In practice, the more we connect technologically, the easier it becomes to disconnect from each other. ASC is a place to reassert the human, to put our need to connect at the forefront of the live theatre experience.
A Second Digression: Deep/Narrow focus
ASC is in the midst of a really amazing Strategic Planning Process that we received as a grant from Michael Kaiser’s DeVos Institute at the University of Maryland. Part of their environmental analysis shared some startling statistics of which many of you are probably aware:
Arts Education, the strongest predictor of arts participation in adulthood – has declined nationwide over the last 3 decades (and by the way, it has not done so evenly which has served to widen socioeconomic and racial gaps) and at the same time, attention span has continued to decline. According to a Microsoft study, since 2000, which saw the mainstreaming of the portable electronic device we still quaintly call a “phone”, the “average human attention span” has gone from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. That puts it slightly under the average attention span of a goldfish, which some poor researcher has measured at 9 seconds (we’re not, really, here talking about the quality of attention, nor what the goldfish is thinking per se). But the implication is that, right now, in 2019, a goldfish has a longer attention span than most digital natives.
And our techno-tainment conglomerates know this, and that is why content is getting shorter and shorter. See Tic-Toc. Or the ever-shorter distance between the end of one episode on Netflix and the beginning of another. Conversely, watching a play, especially a classic play, and especially a Shakespeare play, is an exercise in what ASC’s Education Director Sarah Enloe once called deep/narrow thinking.
I later learned that Sarah was actually talking about something else, but at the time I took her to mean that the attention one pays to a word-centered play is indicative of the narrow, deep focus that is a precursor to the kind of creativity that is being eroded by a technology that increasingly rewards only the quick-twitch attention.
This is, on some levels, going to be the fight of the next generation – to preserve the space for the human, for the satisfaction of narrow, deep thinking, and it turns out that theatre is one of the places where we need to stake our flag.
Back to the audition speech – skipping ahead a bit to what, in musical theatre terms, we would call the “I want” song.
I want to throw open the doors, and while preserving the concept of the company, make it possible to invite as many new artists into this experience as we can.
I want no trained American classical actor to feel like their career is complete unless they have at some point performed on the Blackfriars stage.
I want to see important and diverse artists get excited about what they can learn from coming here to create in a playhouse playground built in Shakespeare’s image.
I want to challenge the best directors in America and say if you think you are artist enough, come match wits with the finest plays ever written and give yourself no more tools than Shakespeare had to create vibrant, compelling, immediate, and vital works of theatre.
And I want to offer them an ensemble of actors and artisans who are the finest interpreters of this material in the country, with an experience and an intuition about Shakespeare that they’ve been cultivating through years of practice, training, and ongoing study.
Another Digression: Shakespeare is a muscle:
Skill with Shakespeare is a muscle. Like all muscles, if you keep it in shape, it will remain limber and strong. Left unused, it will atrophy. Like the lecture the other day on the difference between a gun and a sword: if you don’t stay in training with Shakespeare, you lose your swordsmanship.
That’s why successful, viable repertory companies matter so much. That’s why the Tour matters so much. You don’t get to become an expert like John Harrell until you’ve put in 10, 20, 30, 50,000 hours.
I want to cultivate our own skills. If we sustain and nurture artists, then we will sustain and build audiences. Audiences don’t come to see plays. They come to see actors perform plays. Loyalty to the home team is one of the greatest marketing and fundraising tools in the arsenal of any theatre company.
I want to embrace the extended family model, creating artists who feel like stakeholders whether they are performing in a given season or not but I want to do it in a way that preserves and honors the home team, the core company of those who have put down serious roots in this community.
I want Staunton to be the hub of a nationally and internationally recognized brand for the best, most accessible, most vital productions of Shakespeare in the country.
I want to position ASC not so much as a place for “original practices” but as a cutting-edge, innovative organization that dares to produce without resorting to technical tricks, that puts the focus of theatre where it should be: on the handmade, on the performer, and on the words.
A Digression: How to write like Shakespeare
One of the most unexpected pleasures of this year-plus has been encountering new voices and seeing them contend with the problems and possibilities of this space through the SNC experience, which in the last year went from being an idea and a competition to real, actual plays being performed on this stage.
It is this space that puts them in actual conversation with Shakespeare, much more, really, than any specific play. Literary manager Anne Morgan and I have been contemplating a pamphlet called, “How to write like Shakespeare.” Increasingly I think that boils down to a very simple principle.
We live, in writing, in the age of the jump-cut, of the blackout, of the montage. These are all cinematic conceits. They permit modern writers to start a scene and, as soon as they have delivered one conflict or one complication, get out of it before the going gets too tough. This is not meant as a criticism of modern writers. It is a technique they must cultivate to write for the dominant mediums of our age.
But Shakespeare, although he had no problem writing many very short scenes, did not have recourse to the blackout. So he had to write his characters onto the stage, and write them off of the stage.
By extension, if you are going to spend the ink and the parchment to get them on and off the stage, then they really ought to do something valuable and important while they are there.
That sounds like an incredibly evident, obvious, even easy thing to do. But I suggest that if you think so, then try it. It only sounds easy because Shakespeare actually does it so effortlessly so frequently that we become quickly blind to it.
Or exposition. How often have we heard someone say, “oh, all that boring exposition.” First off, it’s not boring, its damned necessary. Second off, have you ever seen how FAST Shakespeare dispenses with it? Twelfth Night Act I scene 2: What country friends is this? This is Illyria, Lady” and 20 lines later you know EVERYTHING and EVERYONE you need to know to walk around in Illyria. (You also, interestingly, know everything that Viola knows, and you will spend the rest of the play largely walking in her shoes as she discovers more and more about the brave new world in which she must survive).
Back to the I want song:
Perhaps the greatest thing about Shakespeare is that he wrote for the widest possible audience – from illiterate groundlings standing in front of the stage to educated nobles fluent in multiple languages displaying themselves on stage or in the boxes. And Shakespeare was capable of speaking to all of them.
- I want to serve diverse audiences in the largest sense: diverse in age, in experience, in race, in ethnicity, in physical ability, and in sexual orientation. I aspire for ASC to maximize accessibility to everyone.
- And I want to embrace new technologies that are capable of expanding our reach and mission. ASC ought to be a pioneer in creating new and dynamic representations of the plays in ways that can be used to educate and broaden our audience – something I am enormously pleased to report that we are already accomplishing in our partnership with Stephen Wittek and CMU around VR Shakespeare.
I love that the foundation of this company has always been part research and part performance facility, straddling the worlds of the academy and the craft. And it’s clear that the touring arm, in particular, has a mandate to recruit artist/educators who can teach about historical practices and context as well as the plays themselves. I believe that all theatre is an educational opportunity and that the Education and Artistic departments are not separate but two sides of the same coin. We educate ourselves as artists and when we share that we educate our audiences, building connoisseurship in one another.
I want ASC to be a center for developing new educational tools in consultation with teachers that will help bring accessible classical theatre to life for students at all levels of learning all across the country.
And I want to continue to knit together the academy and the practice. I love the opportunity to use the living stage to do theatre archaeology.
Irina [Brook] spoke so eloquently about the kids of Nice and their experience of coming to know a living Shakespeare. I’ve always thought that one reason kids love Shakespeare is because they are used to observing grown-up behavior and, if not entirely getting what is going on, synthesizing meaning from what they have observed. Try this out: bring a 5- or 6-year-old to a Shakespeare play. Like Midsummer. Then ask them afterward what happened. If possible video the results.
More often than not, it is the adults who get frustrated when they think they don’t understand something and they get frustrated because they are afraid and it “makes them feel stupid.” This is a real thing. And we have to recognize and acknowledge it. All of us in this room speak Shakespeare. But you don’t teach someone a language simply by talking at them really fast. If that were true we’d all be fluent in French.
If anything, education reminds us all to be kids again, to open our minds to what we do not yet fully understand. Bring kids to Shakespeare. Almost all of you are here because of early exposure. So while that may not be a recommendation for the practice, I think creating opportunities for kids from 5 up to see these plays is vital.
A Digression: If you can master Shakespeare
ASC has as its core education principle the idea that “if you can master Shakespeare you can do anything.” And, often, our artist-educators in combination with our productions can impart a feeling of mastery to someone who comes in with little to no experience in a matter of a day or two.
There is a whole world of applications for Shakespeare-inspired learning – from corporate leadership to behavioral modification to grade 3 level reading comprehension. We’re fortunate to live in a moment where there is both an appetite for this kind of creative learning, and a profound need. But to do it, we are going to need to team up. Arts groups and Colleges and Universities need to work together to develop, test, and share approaches to learning that can be applied in different environments. There is no one size fits all approach.
What Blackfriars offers is not a limitation but freedom – freedom from the tyranny of having to design so much, a tradition that has been haunting Shakespeare in production since before the 19th century. “Immersive” experiences are a new buzzword in the culture business. In my opinion, all theatre ought to be immersive. We are, after all, the original immersive and participatory art form.
A Digression: We do it with the lights on.
Oy. When I got here they said it to me all the time. Kinda like how when you are in Morocco every time someone pours you a nice hot tea they smile and repeat the same joke about being in a largely dry country, “It’s Berber Whiskey” which, after about the 100th time on the 5th day of a camel trek in the desert really only serves to reinforce the fact that what you wish was that they WERE pouring you a proper whiskey.
So I was a little churlish about the phrase I must admit. And, even having had the experience as an audience, skeptical as an artist.
What do you mean NO lights? How dare you. Light is how I edit. It’s how I deliver focus. It’s even how I pace my shows.
Directing without lights at first felt like directing without an accustomed limb. There’s no way to do a storm without the strobes, dammit. How can I shift focus from the mob to the principle speaker? Well, it turns out you can actually do all that and more with the tools left you, in particular with an incredibly rigorous attention to focus, to movement, and to the constant interplay of the web of reactions and counter-reactions that drive moment-to-moment acting and text analysis.
And what does it do this “lights on” theatre? I think it changes our accountability ledger in the theatre experience in the most fundamental way. It makes us not only accountable to the actors, who we know can indeed see us, but it makes us accountable to one another. We are not isolated in the dark, hoping that our fellow theatre-goers don’t notice us napping, or opening cellophane wrappers, or checking our texts. We are here, present, aware, and accountable in the same space to each other. It is that aspect, really, that gives this place some of its sacred dimension, and it is that aspect, in the right hands, that makes even young audiences respectful.
Because ultimately, I think it means we are accountable to ourselves. You get to put your imagination in the game. And if you do, the rewards are infinite. If you don’t, well you get out what you put in.
But, for ASC…
Success won’t be when everybody decides to “do it with the lights on.”
Success will be when everyone who makes Shakespeare thinks about the lessons pioneered and developed at ASC and about how many ways this material can be accessed and how little it takes to make a genuine, real theatrical experience, whether you have the advantage of this playhouse or are forced to create in a classroom with the desks in a circle, or, god forbid, the courtyard of an inn while your city is closed due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.
More than anything, I want to be part of a place that makes art that matters.
I want to use the theatre to knit back together our fractured polis — to specifically reinvigorate classics in order to remind us that no matter how modern we become, our struggles to create and sustain a society are not in fact new, and that we can constantly learn from the past and see in it new and better reflections of our future.
So there is a lot to do. And we must work slowly. We must work carefully. We must be nimble and quick and take advantage of every opportunity while cultivating and nurturing our own garden, methodically building toward long-term goals.
A FINAL DIGRESSION: Shakespeare is a religion
Shakespeare, the world over, is a religion really. And like any religion, it has spawned various sects devoted to particular approaches and readings:
It’s all about the punctuation
It’s all about the line ends
It’s all about the mid-line poise
It’s all about the folio
It’s all about the quartos and play-scripts
It’s all about the lights on
It’s all about the lights off
It’s all about direct address
It’s all about the pronunciation
It’s all about footnotes
And on and on and on.
Like all religions, each sect must insist on primogeniture – that theirs is the one, true way. Which follows, then, that all others are apostates, or heretics who must be burned at the stake. I think if you look at the history of western theatre since 1614, you will see that at least once every other generation someone, somewhere, springs up and says, “I have the method to do Shakespeare that will restore the work to the way it was originally done, unlocking the genius that has heretofore been obscured.” Even the last century is filled with such examples: the early 20th century original practices of Granville-Barker brings us to the Folger. Then B. Iden Payne (himself influenced by William Poel) leads to Guthrie which leads to Stratford Ontario and the tent and Tanya Moiseiwitsch which also inspires Bowmer which leads to the OSF Festival which leads to Houseman and the American Shakespeare Festival which dovetails with Joe Papp, which connects to Tina Packer which leads to Ralph Cohen. Which somehow leads to all of you showing up here.
And that is really just the American side of the equation.
I am a Shakespeare agnostic. I believe. Wholeheartedly. But I don’t really care what path you take in your spiritual journey. And I don’t think there is one way. There are many ways and each is appropriate in different times and places. The key is to be open to the myriad possible solutions.
Not long ago I shocked a group of young theatre students at my high school alma mater by responding to a question about the “state of the theatre today” or something equally softball by declaring, “the theatre is dying.”
I had slightly underestimated my influence over this audience because I looked out at these suddenly ashen, downcast young faces. So I added,
“Fortunately it has been dying since Aeschylus.”
That’s the truth. We’re always dying. I look at the struggles James Burbage went through to acquire the first Blackfriars, the vision he had, the elation he must have felt when he got it, the money it cost to renovate and install a stage , and then? Then? Then the upper-class neighbors with better connections than you complain about the noise and the crowds and the traffic and the filth and the horse-shit, really, and get you thrown out of your big business gamble and you end up having to lease your field of dreams to some boy company that is intent on putting you out of business with feel-good kid fluff that doesn’t challenge audiences? And then you die???
The Blackfriars is not a museum for resurrection, it’s a laboratory for exploration, and, even, for INNOVATION.
It’s a place where we co-exist with Shakespeare the practitioner. The practical theatre-maker. It’s a place where we explore his staging conditions, and then bring in our own. The facts about the ever-increasing speed of our fast world are, on the whole, alarming. And their implications are rarely encouraging.
So I want to take this idea of “slowness” to the next level. I think that it is an essential quality of theatre. And that when we offer a theatre that is simply as fast as the world outside these walls, we offer our audiences only cold comfort, and no relief.
But I think the value of slowness goes way, way beyond that. If we don’t give our minds time for narrow/deep focus, if we don’t train the emerging minds of young people by exposing them to the real pleasures and rewards of that focus, we will lose the capacity to think.
Shakespeare is like thinking.
And we all know what Descartes said about that.
I’d like to return for a moment to the original conclusion of my first ‘towards a slow theatre’ manifesto:
I don’t think we need to be reminded that Shakespeare is modern, so much that we ourselves are ancient. That we are no different as humans than our Elizabethan forbearers, that we crave the same things and still find value in being seated uncomfortably close to our sweaty, smelly neighbor to watch and listen to a story being told, still hunger for the warmth of our fellow travelers when dusk gives way to night, still long for the reassurance that we are not alone.
Thanks very much for your time.