This is Tessa Zimmerman, reporting on Towards a Slow Theatre: Artistic Leadership and Classical Theatre in the Digital Age, a Keynote speech by Ethan McSweeny.
Dr. Cohen introduces McSweeny, artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center and director of the company’s current productions of both Julius Caesar and The Willard Suitcases. Dr. Cohen expresses his hope that this “Globe-trotting freelance director” has brought his own suitcases to Staunton to stay.
McSweeny shares his reflections on what he has learned since coming to the American Shakespeare Center. He is a known for elaborately staged, ambitious and textually grounded productions such as a Romeo and Juliet featuring a Vespa driving Mercutio and scaffold covered Guthrie Theatre, a Midsummer Night’s Dream in an abandoned theatre with mixed period costumes, and a Twelfth Night set in an airport lounge.
McSweeny describes his initial “Ren-fair” assumptions about the ASC, and subsequent discovery of the “intimate and infinite” room that is the Blackfriars Playhouse that led to the realization that his previous work of adapting spaces to allow for accessible and honest productions had always been pointing him here.
McSweeny argues that we come to the theatre to slow down. Theatre is the most temporal art, and time is our most precious commodity. Real time does not slow down. However, “Pretend time can take us anywhere.” McSweeny argues for a slow theatre, a place not to go back in time, but to take the time to “just be together.”
Technology that is all around us, and its many advances, make anything possible, but when anything is possible, little matters. The imagination is our most powerful tool. McSweeny points out the decline of attention span, and the erosion of imagination. The ASC, then, is a place to “reassert the human.”
McSweeny jokes that his musical theatre “I want” song encompasses a few things:
-To establish the ASC as a cutting edge company that does not rely on technical tricks, but on the performer, and the words.
-To cultivate our own skills to sustain and nurture artists so we can sustain and nurture audiences.
-Maximize accessibility for everyone
-Create educational tools to serve all levels of learning through the living stage
McSweeny addresses the oft-quoted ASC phrase: “We do it with the lights on,” and how our lights-on approach changes our theatre experience. The lights make us accountable not only to the actors, but to one another.
True success, according to McSweeny, is in creating genuine theatre experiences, and art that matters; learning from the past and working carefully to build to our goals, embracing exploration and innovation, and idea of slowness; developing a narrow deep focus, and training the minds of young people, lest we lose our capacity to think.