Heretic’s Foundation XII: Can Innovation Remake the Theater Industry?


By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

The Obama administration is urging innovation and reinvention of our industries to stimulate the economy. Thus, it is an excellent time to consider how this might apply in the independent-theater sector.

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To begin, “innovation” specifically means the act of introducing something new. Paradoxically, some of the most innovative theater occurring in New York isn’t popular in the broadest sense and doesn’t cater to widest existing taste. Instead, it aims at a market that has yet to be fully formed. Some of it, indeed, is almost invisible — precisely because it is so innovative that most people have yet to comprehend its value and benefits.

But innovation is no singular organism. Business strategists stress that there are three kinds of innovation: innovation at the level of the product/performance, innovation in underlying processes and production technologies; and innovation that creates new models that redefine how the totality operates. Speeding up the extraction of coal from a mine, for example, is a process innovation. Creating solar power technology or wave energy is a business model innovation — a redefinition of the conceptual underpinnings of that particular field. Innovation at the product level is usually incremental and low-risk. Innovation in a business model creates new ways of tackling problems, generating completely new, “out of the box” solutions. Not surprisingly, the least important kind of innovation is in the product or service level. The most significant kind of innovation is in developing new business models which, according to recent research, generates the largest gains.

Now let’s apply all this to the theater industry: a simple product innovation might be changing the traditional concept of a character; a process innovation might be a new staging technique; a business model innovation might question the concept of the play itself. Occasionally, all three types of innovation occur at once. With apologies for being self-referential, consider my theater ensemble, the Dark Lady Players, which recently presented three performances at the Where Eagles Dare Theatre entitled Shakespeare’s Three Marys.

At the product/performance level, we redefined Hamlet by having the title character played by a woman. While rare, this isn’t innovative because some 200 women have played the role before, including Fanny Furnival (the first Hamlet onstage, in 1741) and Sarah Bernhardt (on film). However, in our Hamlet, the character is being demonstrated as an allegory for Helios, the sun god; Ophelia is depicted as an allegory for the Virgin Mary. Neither characterization has ever been shown on a stage before — thus, they count, as innovations.

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Shakespeare’s Three Mary’s, in our view, also has an innovative staging, with the Shakespearean characters played on one stage while, on a separate stage, are performed equivalent passages from medieval Mystery Plays. While it’s well-known that the Shakespearean plays drew on Mystery Plays, the use of alternating spaces to indicate intertextuality has never been, to my knowledge, done before.

Finally, the production redefines the overall industry model by collapsing together parts for analogous characters from multiple plays and performing the anti-Christian satires beneath the surface, which suggests, as I’ve previously noted, that the plays weren’t written by William Shakespeare at all, but perhaps — I say probably — by Amelia Bassano Lanier, England’s only Jewish poet.

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When radical innovation changes multiple parameters, it’s a challenge for audiences to understand: they depend very much on existing mental models. Let’s take a non-theater example. In 1778, the Nootka Indians couldn’t understand how Captain Cook sailed across the sea in a little dingy — they had no mental model with which to see his sailing ships. Similarly, until new mental models are developed, many people will be unable to acknowledge certain innovations — and groupthink will remain very strong. I would argue this is true of the special interests that get rallied in support of Mr. Shakespeare’s authorship. Those firmly committed to the dominant paradigm have their business processes, their education, their training systems and their customers all stuck in one mindset; rarely are such individuals nimble and agile enough to reinvent themselves, to build new competencies.

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Speaking bluntly and more specifically, I believe Shakespeare dogma — that a glover’s son from Warwickshire could arrive in London speaking the Warwickshire dialect, and in a period of three years learn beautiful standard English, fluent Italian, a knowledge of Hebrew, knowledge of the Court, develop proto-feminist values in a male-oriented society and learn more about music than any other playwright of the period, all while working as an actor — is a splendid yet totally implausible myth. In terms of what we know today of the sociology of knowledge and how social networks contribute to human learning, it makes no sense. Indeed, Shakespeare dogma dates back to a perfidious 18th century Romantic assumption that the plays were written spontaneously in an outpouring of divine inspiration. It was not then known that the plays were actually composed through a literary and scholarly process in which the author, for instance, consulted 14 different translations of the Bible to make 3,000 different references, carefully taking out those in the source texts and putting in a completely new set to create complex allegorical meanings and multilingual puns in Hebrew and Italian.

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However, a group of New York playwrights — including five from Manhattan Theatre Source’s playwrights’ group, SourceWriters — has begun creating plays about Lanier, following her recognition by the Shakespearean Authorship Trust as a leading contender for the authorship of the Shakespearean plays. As a major poet from a family of Venetian Jews (who were the royal recorder troupe), and as mistress to the man in charge of the English theater, Lanier was certainly equipped with the necessary skills to author these complex allegorical plays. The acceptance of this idea is also truly innovative.

John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is 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.

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