The Heretic’s Foundation II: New York’s Shakespeare Problem



By John Hudson

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Heretics challenge established orthodoxies and this column combines three juicy ones: real estate, acting styles and Shakespeare.

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Now that the last year of recession, financial crises and the decline in theatergoing have put an end to any possibility of a Shakespeare theater being built on Governors Island in the foreseeable future, it is time for rethinking. Although it was supported by a long list of arts leaders, including Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, Randall Bourscheidt at Alliance for the Arts, Reynold Levy at Lincoln Center, Gerald Schoenfeld at the Shubert Organization and such financial leaders as George Soros, this $78 million plan was fundamentally a product of the financial and real estate bubble that has burst. I say it is time to go back to basics.

It is safe in the short term-but bad long-term strategy-for such major nonprofit institutions as the Brooklyn Academy of Music to continue importing star-studded foreign productions of Shakespeare. For one thing, they effectively siphon our dollars overseas. For another, these productions do nothing to build capacity and infrastructure here in New York City. They provide no income, and no training that I know of, for New York’s actors and theater professionals. They deprive our local economy of the full economic stimulus that a homegrown production could provide.

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What is our alternative? Once, we might have had a few of them. In 1997, the Riverside Shakespeare Company, based at Columbia University and sponsored by the chair of its theater department, was dissolved after two decades in existence. In 1998, the National Shakespeare Conservatory was dissolved. And in my opinion, the Public Theater totally abandoned its ambition to provide New York with a substantive Shakespeare festival some years ago. Yes, New York City independent companies produce many revivals of the Bard each year. Manhattan universities still present half a dozen or more student productions each spring. Plus let’s not forget companies other than the Public offering Shakespeare for free in city parks and in other modest productions. Yet as Charles Isherwood of the New York Times has written, it is a “puzzle and a problem” that New York does not have a large Shakespeare theater.

One reason perhaps is the sheer difficulty of the plays themselves, along with the need for productions to be supported by scholarship. It’s no coincidence that some of the most successful Shakespearean theaters co-exist with centers for Shakespeare scholarship: the RSC resides just down the road from the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham; the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. is just across town from the Folger; and the Globe is partnered with King’s College London. Whether these theaters use that scholarship effectively is a completely different question. But by simply by being proximate to one another, together with opportunities for scholarly conferences and for networks of students, there is created every manner of cross-fertilization. And it’s in that cross-fertilization that exists tremendous marketing advantages that New York’s scene at the moment lacks.

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What New York is known for is training, especially in the realistic and naturalistic acting methods developed by Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner and Adler. This is all very well for working in TV, film and commercials, but it has created a body of actors who are ill-equipped to perform Shakespeare’s plays-at least without undoing some of what they have been taught. These works are highly metatheatrical, incorporate extensive direct address, use complex multilayered allegories, multilingual puns and the characters are emphatically not ‘real people,’ but complex literary figures which, to be comprehended, require the creation of a particular alienation effect. To perform them in accordance with the way they were written requires a highly presentational acting approach. Performing them as superficial narratives in a realistic style and in high-concept directorial settings obscures rather than elucidates their underlying meanings. Although such Shakespeare may attract pop culture audiences, it only delivers a tiny fraction of their potential value. Claudia Alick’s horrific claim that Shakespeare is “American theatre’s little black dress, appropriate for all occasions and able to be paired with just about everything” is an indictment of a theater that ignores the plays’ inherent meaning.

The hoo-ha over the last few years on rallying support for a new Shakespearean theater in New York has diverted attention away from issues far more pressing than real estate. Originally several companies performed the Shakespearean plays. A dedicated company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was established in 1594; for the next five years they performed at various theaters before the building of the Globe and the Blackfriars. So having a physical building need not be a priority, but because of the difficulty of the work, having an ongoing semi-permanent ensemble of actors is. As monologist Mike Daisey has emphasized (in his How Theater Failed America), too much attention goes to bricks and mortar. Not enough attention goes to constructing the human capital of an ensemble that can work together over time.

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Such an ensemble, supported by the necessary research, dramaturgy, speech, technical and audience-development specialists, could be funded for a fraction of the cost of the so-called New Globe, and it could perform in preexisting spaces around New York City.

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And at this particular point in time, it could also deliver extraordinary value. Why, one might ask, does it matter if, or how well, these 400-year-old plays are performed? And what is the need to do anything about it now? If Shakespeare’s plays are superficial amusing entertainments, mysteriously created by a glover’s son from Stratford, and now appreciated only by a cultural elite with tastes for obscure English history, then truly it does not matter at all. But if, as the latest scholarship and a few experimental New York productions seem to show, these plays actually mean something radical-and utterly heretical to established dramaturgical views on the plays-then it may matter very much indeed.

The potential exists for pioneering a completely new understanding of the plays-to test out the latest Shakespeare research in performance on stage. While nobody was paying attention, Shakespearean performance quietly reached a point of discontinuous innovation, a ‘black swan’ moment of unpredictable transformation. The next year or so will indicate whether New York’s arts institutions are savvy enough to seize on what Kelly Morgan (former associate director of the Riverside Shakespeare Company, and now a theater professor at Fitchburg State College) calls the “breathtaking new avenues” for performance that have almost miraculously opened up.

John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He is currently consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This Fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.