Welcome to DIRECTOR’S NOTES – a project built around a new production of Shakespeare’s Othello containing two concurrent strands of programming. First, a series of written articles detailing the creative process of editing and creating a new performance text, which you will find right here on our blog every Monday. And second, a staged reading of the resulting text, which will be open to all of you to see (more details on that to come!). I am particularly excited to share these articles with you because they are a natural extension of the way I like to work as a director. Approaching Shakespeare, I’ve found that sharing the “insides” of the creative process is the best way to advance that creative process. Let me explain.
This is how I work: I treat Shakespeare’s plays like a calculus problem – there are just too many variables sometimes for me to solve in my head. So I need scratch paper. I need to write down and present my ideas in a coherent way. And even more importantly, I need to share those ideas with collaborators, and gain their feedback and ideas and plug them back into this grand, beautiful equation. These articles are an invitation to TBD’s entire audience to feed into this creation process that is authentic to the way I like to work. That’s the aspiration, at least. You can engage with us either in the comments here on this post, by emailing us at email@example.com, or by filling out our DIRECTOR’S NOTES Feedback Form. I look forward to hearing from everyone!
Why do Othello? Why are we doing Othello? What is at stake in our production?
Those are the questions we’re trying to answer in this series. I believe you have to have answers beyond a baseline belief in these plays as some of the greatest works of dramatic literature in world history – though that’s a good place to start. Finding those answers is the primary thrust of my work before getting in a room with actors and designers. In the end, this series will include the work done with actors and designers to find common ground on which to build our fully realized production. But our first few articles will cover the work that goes into producing the document which has the largest single impact on the answers we’ll eventually find: the play text.
We have to edit Othello. For one, it’s just too long. Modern performance practice just doesn’t square with performing Shakespeare’s plays uncut. Elizabethan performance style was fast, declamatory, and lacked today’s tendency towards naturalistic pauses. The prologue of Romeo and Juliet says “two hours’ traffic of our stage” – not “three hours and an intermission.” How do you edit Othello in a way that preserves the kineticism of the text, retains its complexity, and realizes its strengths while at the same time aiming to cut about a seventh of its total length? It’s a frustrating and fascinating question, in which there’s quite a bit at stake. To paraphrase director/author/philosopher/genius Peter Brook: if you’re going to perform surgery on Shakespeare’s play, you better know where its heart is.
I’m going to start with a seemingly heretical statement of my position on editing Shakespeare, one that seems to run counter to Peter Brook’s warning, above: you can do whatever you want to these plays. You’ve probably met the Shakespeare Police – those zealous English teachers, directors, or critics who’ll offer a “tsk tsk” to anything that is not “true to Shakespeare” and tell you there’s only one way of looking at these plays. You may feel otherwise, but I’m here to tell you that they have no power (and we’ll talk about the impossibilities of being “true to Shakespeare” next time). You’ll encounter the Shakespeare Police’s shadow in school, in the rehearsal room, or in the theater critic’s journal, but seriously: they have no power.
This is NOT to say, however, that it’s unfair to pass judgment about what one chooses to do with Shakespeare’s work. Even if your experience has not, history has proven them formidable and worthy plays: if you’re going to perform these texts, you better have an idea about what you want to achieve and how you plan to achieve it. And editing the text is a powerful tool in the “how” category. To me, that is the essential meaning of the Brook quote. If there is one thing you can – and should – be judged on, it’s how well your edit achieves your stated goal, and how well this translates through to the performance of that text.
And then there is the importance of mindset while working on the text. I once saw a production of Hamlet – it was at various points exciting, funny, and fresh. Then, in Act IV, Hamlet told Claudius, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed on that worm.” Taken by itself, this makes sense: cats do eat fish. But put in the context of Hamlet’s explanation for such a sentence (“Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”), it is nonsense. In that rehearsal room, no one asked what this line meant, or looked it up in a scholarly text to see if there was a footnote. I know this because “cat” should read “eat,” and because this is but one of the hilarious misprints in the (otherwise wonderful!) free, online edition of Hamlet posted on the MIT Shakespeare site. When you edit Shakespeare without a sense of curiosity or skepticism (and perhaps, in this case, transparency about not understanding what the text means), this is what Shakespeare can be: nonsense.
I’ve got my ideas for our Othello. Sharing them with you, receiving your feedback, and collaborating on them will improve my implementation of those ideas. But ultimately I can’t guarantee that those ideas are good. I can, however, tell you that I’ve got a healthy sense of academic curiosity and a skepticism of anything labeled “definitive” – even if it bears the name “Shakespeare.” And because of that – and because I have you all as a sounding board to question and keep me honest, I can tell you, definitively, that our Othello will not “cat of the fish.”
So on that note, I’ll leave you for the week to think about Othello. Have you seen a production recently or in the past? What impression of the play did it give you? I’d be similarly interested to hear from those of you who haven’t seen the play performed – where have you encountered Othello, and what impression did it leave you with? Share your thoughts in the comments or in our feedback form!