The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How do theaters entice new audiences with Shakespeare? There’s the rub.

A conference considers anew how much Shakespeare is good for a theater’s health, and for audiences

(Daniel Fishel for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Change is coming again to classical stages that had already exchanged their tights and doublets for T-shirts and fatigues. With their customer bases aging, their staffs downsized after the pandemic shutdown and their leaders desperate to find novel enticements for younger theatergoers, Shakespeare companies are under perhaps unprecedented pressure to reexamine their missions and broaden their identities.

The conversations occurring now go to the very heart of what many of the dozens of troupes across the country were founded to do. How much Shakespeare do audiences really want these days? What adjustments are required in the performance of his canon to accommodate those who do not buy the line that Shakespeare is the “greatest” playwright of all time? And does the process of rethinking his centrality in American culture — “decentering” Shakespeare — open stage doors more widely to the imaginations of contemporary writers?

What’s bubbling up is a reconsideration that goes beyond the modern-dress productions and colorblind casting that were in the vanguard a generation or more ago. The long, hard look extends to which plays are done, who gets to direct and perform them — even to whether Shakespeare worship itself is a hindrance to theater moving forward.

These concerns became even more urgent as theater artists were coming to grips with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, tragedies that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. Within the theater community, outrage was channeled into a widely circulated manifesto, We See You, White American Theater, signed by hundreds of artists of color. The document demands redress for historically underrepresented artists — particularly those who are Black, Indigenous or otherwise identify as people of color.

“The pandemic has come along at a time when the Shakespeare industry is having a reckoning,” said Austin Tichenor, managing partner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a 40-year-old comedy troupe whose trademark is Shakespearean sendup. “It has given us the opportunity — and not only the opportunity, the necessity — to look at how we do business.”

Some of the issues made it into the agenda of the annual gathering of Shakespeareans, which was held earlier this month in a downtown Hilton in Pennsylvania’s capital city. In one session, for instance, a standing-room-only audience assembled to hear the provocative suggestion that the way to treat the most famous playwright in history is to cut him down to size.

“This pedestal we have put him on should be smacked down to the floor!” declared Tai Verley, artistic director of Revolution Shakespeare, a Philadelphia troupe. Nicolette Bethel, an anthropology professor and head of Shakespeare in Paradise, based in the Bahamas, related another problem with the worship of the man for whom her group is named.

“Shakespeare,” she said of a Bahamian education system formulated by the British, “was the weapon that was used to tell us we were not good enough.”

So it went during “Give Delight and Hurt Not: The Practicalities of Decolonizing Shakespeare,” a panel held as part of the week-long Shakespeare Theatre Association conference. The 75-minute session was an exercise in passionate consciousness-raising for representatives of many of the organization’s 125 member theaters; it was founded in 1991 to bolster friendships and swap ideas in this specialized segment of the theater world. And if the panel’s topic seeded some new thinking in the still predominantly White association, that seemed to be for the good. Because as some in the room later acknowledged, a sector facing so many challenges needs all the shaking up it can stand.

Omicron could not come at a worse time for Broadway

Among most of the 140 conference-goers — from theaters as varied in size as the sprawling Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., to the modest Gamut Theatre Group in Harrisburg, host of this year’s event — I sensed an abiding respect for Shakespeare, even as his perch atop the pyramid was being questioned. “We used to say ‘Shakespeare is for everyone.’ Well, Shakespeare’s not for everyone,” averred Stephen Burdman, artistic director of New York Classical Theatre, which tours New York City parks and other outdoor venues with free summer classics and multicultural audiences in mind. “Maybe,” Burdman mused, “if White men had been not been the predominant culture, Shakespeare wouldn’t be ‘Shakespeare.’ ”

Classical theaters have long been stepping outside the boundaries of the Shakespeare canon: As far back as the 1980s, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon partnered with producer Cameron Mackintosh on “Les Miserables.” The boundaries, though, are getting blurrier all the time.

D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company recently staged the world premiere of “Once Upon a One More Time,” a lighthearted feminist fairy tale with music from Britney Spears’s songbook. The engagement, billed as a “pre-Broadway” run, may have raised some purists’ eyebrows. But it was also, according to Artistic Director Simon Godwin, the biggest selling show in company history.

“What I take from that is, currently audiences want euphoria,” Godwin said in a Zoom interview. “They want a party, they want celebration, and to get people out of their homes, the offer needs to be euphoric.”

Finding a harmony between Broadway sizzle and some of the more sobering stories in the classical canon is an ongoing project. “How those things relate to each other will be fascinating for us all to track,” Godwin added. “And the one thing that is certain is, we’re all going to have to be enormously flexible.”

New varieties of that elasticity are evident in shows by writers of color who are using the dramatist as inspiration. The 2022 season of Cal Shakes near Oakland, Calif., for instance, consists entirely of Shakespeare adaptations by Latina and Black playwrights: a bilingual “Romeo y Juliet” by Karen Zacarias and a modern-verse “Lear” by Marcus Gardley. In Manhattan last summer, the single attraction of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park was Jocelyn Bioh’s critical and popular hit, “Merry Wives,” based on “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and set among the West African immigrant community in Harlem.

Shakespeare returns to Central Park with a "Merry Wives" that lives up to its title

Seeking contemporary relevance, classical theaters are increasingly receptive to playwrights’ departures from original texts. “When it comes to the work of Shakespeare, we feel like we are in collaboration with our playwrights in treating these plays like new plays,” said Amrita Ramanan, dramaturge and senior cultural strategist for Play On Shakespeare, an Oregon-based group that supports writers on their adaptations of Shakespeare. The ventures that Play On is backing include the Cal Shakes “Lear.”

Referring to Shakespeare’s plays, Ramanan added that Play On is “not necessarily holding them on a pedestal, not saying that these plays must be read and must be seen, but actually asking ourselves what are these plays about? What is the story being told? What are the resonances today?”

Many Shakespeare theaters, of course, pioneered years ago what used to be called the “nontraditional” casting of actors of color. What seems to be advancing now is a greater degree of diversity in the power structure of these companies. Nataki Garrett and Karen Ann Daniels are Black women running, respectively, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and D.C.'s Folger Theatre; Eric Ting, an Asian American, heads Cal Shakes, and just last month Brandon Carter was appointed the artistic director of American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. — the first Black man and person of color to hold that job.

Brandon Carter is named to lead American Shakespeare Center

Daniels ran the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit before assuming the jobs of artistic director and director of programming at the Folger last fall. She, too, is thinking about what stories a more diverse audience would be drawn to. “That’s where I’m starting my conversation,” Daniels said by phone. “We want to be in a relationship with more people. And I also think there is evidence that people want to be in touch with what Shakespeare means — but they also want to be able to interpret that themselves, not be told.”

For this vision of a Shakespearean theater world that invites in more ideas, more experimentation with the text — and more people — even the Shakespeare Theatre Association has to evolve. The organization — which requires that a company devote some of its programming to Shakespeare — is trying to move toward a more inclusive membership. It is, at the very least, attempting to understand contrary perspectives, some rejecting the argument that Shakespeare’s texts are boundless treasures; that they may even inflict some harm.

Could reducing our Shakespeare dependency be a boon, long term, to theaters that have held him up for so long as peerless? Matthieu Chapman, an assistant professor of performance studies at State University of New York at New Paltz, believes the theater has been weakened by its Shakespeare fixation. A conference attendee as literary director of New York Classical Theatre, he said more people may be alienated than attracted to theater through the cultural enshrinement of Shakespeare.

“You can make it all the way through K through 12, college and grad school, never reading a Black playwright,” Chapman said. “You won’t make it past ninth grade without reading Shakespeare. So then, what does that do to our culture as a whole?”

It’s the sort of question that will test Godwin’s observation that those who run the dozens of theaters bearing Shakespeare’s name must remain flexible. Because the future of the Shakespeare industry may depend on how nimbly they bend.

Read more:

A Broadway show about life after incarceration finds its most avid audience in a New York City jail

He was cast in a juicy role in ‘Mrs. Doubtfire.’ The pandemic has made his Broadway run as heartbreaking as it is thrilling.

Military suicides are increasing. Theater of War is offering more than just a show of sympathy.