Hello everyone! My name is Alexandra LaGrand and I am here to report on today’s keynote with Irina Brook.
Irina Brook is from the Théâtre National de Nice and her keynote is called “Mom, you mean Shakespeare wrote plays in English too?”
We began with Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, who expressed how glad he was to have met Brook without knowing immediately who she was or her accomplishments, because he might have been too starstruck to speak to her, let alone to badger her to come to the Blackfriars Conference. In spite of this, he was very glad to have spoken with her, and even more so that she agreed to come.
Brook began by noting how ironic it was that while she gave up acting twenty years ago, she has had to speak publicly more so now as an artistic director than she ever did as an actor. She joked as she took the stage, saying that she is reminiscent of a Shakespearean prologue with this keynote, having no notes or podium, and merely going on to discuss this topic.
She explained how the city of Nice is difficult, but that the theatre was built of marble within the city. Before taking on her role as artistic director, she was working with a touring company in small villages; however, she saw the opportunity in taking the role at the Théâtre National de Nice, because she would be able to reach so many people with theatre. She remarked how all she cared about was her theatrical mission to bring Shakespeare to youth. Through Shakespeare, she noted, they achieved something remarkable.
In her first year in Nice, she began a Shakespeare festival in the city. She explained that with Shakespeare, you could either be hooked for life or put off for life, so she did her best to hook the people of Nice and convert them into lovers of Shakespeare. That being said, she has met difficulty in promoting Shakespeare with the traditional historical resistance that is seen between the English and the French. Another challenge is seen through the inadequate translations of Shakespeare into French. She remembered her first production of Romeo and Juliet and how it was met with negative reviews, particularly in reference to the vulgar language – a direct result of the poor translations.
At this point, she added a parenthesis that her father is the celebrated Shakespearean Peter Brook, who directed (among many other things) the landmark “white box” production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970.
Even with the negative reviews from adult audiences, the Shakespeare festival was an enormous success with the younger audiences. She said how she can’t get away from The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She said that as a child, she watched the legendary Midsummer Night’s Dream production created by her father dozens and dozens of times, so it isn’t surprising that she cannot get away from this particular show. She joked that she also keeps trying to give up theatre, but Shakespeare keeps getting in the way.
She then remembered that all of her Shakespeare productions have been in French and she often forgets that it wasn’t originally in French. When she told her son that she would be finally producing a Shakespeare play in English, her son, Prosper, remarked, “Mom, you mean Shakespeare wrote plays in English too?” In the process of re-translating Shakespeare’s plays into French, Brook discovered that certain phrases retain the same richness and theatrical effect in both languages — evidence, to her, of Shakespeare’s unique magic.
Thanks to guidance from Tina Packer, Brook instituted an educational component to the Shakespeare festival. It was called “Shakespeare Freestyle” and some of the schoolchildren took it literally, performing Romeo and Juliet with hip-hop dancing and no speaking. Over the course of four years, she began to incorporate more and more instructions for the students to work within. She noted how in the course of the festival, for two days of the year, the theatre would be packed and lively like no other days in the year. She noted how it became a truly Elizabethan experience.
She went on to describe the educational workshops that she would host with various classes of students. Mixing public and private schools across various class levels, she noted how much support and joy there was for these teenagers to be experiencing Shakespeare. She noted how one particular teacher would bring her students back over the years until they were older and had attended the theatre for several years. Brook explained that they were made the ambassadors of the theatre for their contributions and excitement about it.
After twenty years and after leaving Nice, Brook remarked how she is still trying to give up theatre, “…except Shakespeare.” For Brook, there will always be Shakespeare. The kids, she said, are what make working in the theatre worth it, because of their demonstration of humanity and assembly of hearts and spirit. Ultimately, she said, she will give up theatre except Shakespeare and except for the remarkable sharing of experience between people. She argued that Shakespeare is something else, something magic, something dealing with warmth and humanity, something we don’t have in daily, mundane life. Because of this, she can’t help but continue to believe in the power of theatre… and the power of Shakespeare.
This keynote session ended with a small question-and-answer session with Brook.