As a part of our ongoing fundraising campaign around TBD’s work this fall, our two directors – Cody Holliday Haefner and Tom Kapusta – are fielding YOUR questions. Throughout the remainder of the campaign, we’ll continue to post your questions and our answers here on our blog. To ask a question of your own, check out our fundraising page and be sure to select the “DIRECTORS IN QUESTION” perk.
Tom’s gonna tackle our first question, which is:
How do you sell Shakespeare to a young audience and/or an audience that isn’t already sold on it? How do you think TBD’s interactive ethos helps you do that?
What a great big difficult question! Listen, let me just start this response by saying I’m no expert. I have a little experience; and that’s what I’m going to draw on here.
It’s interesting that you bring up young audiences AND audiences not totally sold on Shakespeare, because I actually think the ideal approach is actually the same for these two groups. And I’d toss in a third group, too: audiences who may be “sold” on Shakespeare, but actually don’t enjoy it very much.
I have had the good fortune to witness a number of really fantastic Shakespeare productions specifically designed and directed for young people. The through-line between each production is that they are completely unpretentious, full of ridiculous humor (as appropriate – though even King Lear had its moments of hilarity), and always shockingly modern. And the children are totally engrossed and taken with the thing. There’s a point in Lear when Edmund (the bastard son of Gloucester) has said he’ll marry both of the terrible sisters, and he has this monologue where he wonders which he should marry. “Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?” he asks – and in this production, he really asked the kids – and the kids gave him immediate feedback. “NEITHER!” “GONERIL!” “EWWW” (there was some disgust at the sight of kissing, too). It was awesome. They were completely unafraid of the play… because they didn’t know they should be. The kids always loved the shows, and demonstrated their deep understanding of them during the question and answer portion after every performance. Even the adults in the room would say, “if only Shakespeare were like that all the time!”
But the secret is that (in my experience) the really great, professional productions of Shakespeare are also completely unpretentious, full of ridiculous humor, and always shockingly modern. But they’re for a different audience – most folks come in expecting it to be hard to understand and boring, or they’ve come to do their cultural penance for the week or month or whatever. And that kind of audience will miss all the joy of Shakespeare, and that makes me really very sad.
So the trick – and this might finally start to point towards an answer to your question – is to craft a performance context that says, “it’s ok to laugh when you want to laugh, or to boo when you want to boo, or to like or dislike any part of this. It’s for you.” I think there are a lot of ways to create that context. I think Hamletghosts is remarkable in that it aims to create it through the performance itself. There ways to foster that context independent from the performance at hand, though – things like building a strong base of recurring audience members, and having a company with a certain track record or reputation for valuing those audience members’ reactions to the work. I also think this context needs to be present in the creative process too: the artists (especially actors) need to have a child-like wonder and curiosity about Shakespeare’s words in order to access their brilliance in an unpretentious, humorous, and modern way.
I actually hadn’t fully realized the connection until you posed the question, but The Brewing Dept.’s interactive ethos is really meant to help create this ideal performance context. Something like the Othello reading was a great example of that context at work: it was a small, but invested audience, and everyone – artists included – were willing to experiment and set aside what they knew about the play. For this reason, we gained some really insightful feedback about the play, the characters, it’s troubling spots, and its strengths on its own terms, not in terms of what Othello “should” be. And if we do have the chance to produce Othello, we’re going to have a better handle on presenting it in a way that really captures an audience’s imagination and reinvigorates the play for performance today.
There, that’s a novel of a response. But it was actually a lot of fun to think about. Great question! And thank you for helping make TBD’s fall a success!