event musings: why shakespeare? why now?

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Drama Desk presents:
Why Shakespeare? Why Now?
Moderated by Carol Rocamore
Panelists Julie Taymor, Daniel Sullivan, Scott Shepherd, Michael Pennington, John Glover
Friday, April 4, 2014 at 11:45am
Sardi’s Eugenia room, 234 West 44th Street

  • “It’s like a cliff face, Lear.” (Michael Pennington on the role)
  • “When they like you, they really like you. The warmth is overwhelming.” (Pennington on American theatre audiences)
  • “I love to read Shakespeare. I am comforted by it. You always feel he’s telling you the truth.” (Daniel Sullivan)
  • “Even if you could find out who he was, it still wouldn’t help you none.” (Pennington on the authorship question)
Sardi's Panel dais before the fun began. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
Sardi’s Panel dais before the fun began. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Sardi Shakespeare Panel Flyer finalShakespeare’s plays have thickly populated New York area stages this season. Certainly this is always the case in any season —  for reasons including tradition, royalty-free-ness, the challenge of grappling with the poetry — yet this season seems unusually full. In this 450th birthday year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Theatre for a New Audience, Broadway houses, and numerous smaller venues have featured Shakespeare plays. And on a recent Friday afternoon in the middle of the Broadway theatre district, several directors and actors, and a moderator-academic convene to unpack some of the objective and subjective reasons behind the simple question — why this particular author’s plays, and why now?

Moderator Carol Rocamore noted at the outset that the event’s question-based title was indeed rhetorical and observed that these works clearly attracts the best theatre artsts — earning warm chuckles from the audience, and a kind of embrace of the theatre artists about to speak. She deftly addressed questions to individual panel members to spread attention evenly and thoughtfully, and wound up the midday conversation welcoming a few questions from assembled Drama Desk members and guests.

Michael Pennington was asked to reflect on how he knew he was ready to play Lear, his current role in the second production at Theatre for a New Audience‘s new Brooklyn home. The realization happened organically, he noted, and involved a phone call and doing the dishes. “At my age people ask — what about Lear?” His realization that he might want to do the play came in 2008 while doing the dishes, and within the next few days Peter Brook called him to participate in a program of Shakespeare sonnets that was seen by TFANA‘s Founding Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz. Pennington observed young director Arin Arbus (later to be his director the current Lear at TFANA) in a social gathering, and was inspired by what he saw. Pennington noted about preparing for Lear: “What happens is that you ricochet off the walls.” He mused on the “cliff face” of the role — its “savage, unremitting, cruel” nature. He reflected that Hamlet (which he had performed multiple times including 1964 and 1981) at least allows an actor monologues and soliloquies a moment to reflect. Lear, he noted, provides “no such thing.” And selecting the perfect moment in an actor’s life is also tricky — finding the perfect moment when you’re “old enough but young enough to learn the lines.”

A Comedy of Errors. 2013 Shakespeare in the Park. Delacorte Theater.
The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare in the Park, Delacorte Theater, May – June 2013.

Daniel Sullivan reflected on inspirations and strategies for his transformation of The Comedy of Errors at the Delacorte in summer 2013 into a 90-minute farce. He began his colloquy with the declaration that his inspiration came from the spirit of the actors. And on the length, he noted that “it felt like a one-act idea.” The original musical inspiration for this production was Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” gave him the mood. Sullivan cut that text by sitting with a dramaturg before hand with an eye toward “eliminating anything  we felt we could not make clear.”

A Midsummer NIght's Dream. Theatre  For a New Audience. January 2013.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theatre
For a New Audience, October 2013 – January 2014.

Introduced by Rocamora as “a theatre magician,” Julie Taymor began with a discussion of “ideographs” in her work — a concept of symbols representing core meanings. Taymor’s is a visually based rather than a word-based theatrical sensibility (at least to this observer of her work) and represented in her observations this day. She speaks first about visual “first impressions” and “height” and “depth” of imagery before she addresses text-based meaning. Her ideas for A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the first production in TFANA’s new Brooklyn space, immediately preceding Pennington’s Lear — stemmed from core concepts of “shadows” and “dreaming” out of Shakespeare’s text (she immediately recited several examples). She elaborated that this “ideograph” / core concept for Lion King would be the circle visual. She notes that she responds as a director who is a designer — or a director who works with designers.

The actor’s perspective was represented by two additional men who have recently performed in productions of Shakespeare. John Glover, who described himself as “always a Shakespearean actor at heart,” also pointed out that he is the only actor in the room who has played both Hamlet and one of the witches in Macbeth. The inspiration for three men to play the three witches in Jack O’Brien‘s 2013-2014 Macbeth at Lincoln Center came from O’Brien, including the idea of adding witch-y “familiars” that crawled around. “He pitched me a witch,” Glover laughed, to which he replied, “sure, I’ll come play with you.” A resonant part of Glover’s costume in this role was Glover’s own inspiration. After musing on hermaphrodites, “I decided I wanted to have breasts.” O’Brien never demurred but just restated Glover’s decision: “So, you’re going to have tits.” One of the best laugh lines, as delivered, of the afternoon.

The Wooster Group Hamlet. Richard Burton on Screen, Scott Shepherd at right. Public Theater 2007.
The Wooster Group Hamlet. Richard Burton on Screen, Scott Shepherd at right. Public Theater 2007.

Scott Sheperd spoke briefly of a one-man Macbeth, then at some length of The Wooster Group Hamlet that ran at the Public’s Newman Theater in 2007, and (in a gentle humorous correction to Glover’s claim) noted that he also once played a Macbeth witch — but without the tits. (He also, it must be noted, played the narrator Nick in the Elevator Repair Service‘s word-for-word creation of The Great Gatsby as Gatz at the Public in 2010 and again in 2012.) The Wooster Group Hamlet used a computer to scramble the play’s text, and also projected portions of a film of Richard Burton‘s 1964 Broadway Hamlet. (About that experience of performing along with a projected 1964 performance, Shepherd remarked: “I just had to learn to value this as an opportunity to collaborate with an actor from the past.”) Earlier this year, Sheperd performed again with The Wooster Group, again in their kind of Shakespearean adaptation, in Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida). Characters took on the frame of Native American’s in this production, lending additional resonance to images of earth, birds, and sky that exist in the text.

On assumptions that can and cannot be made about audience familiarity with the text and the stories. Taymor noted that she assumes that audiences are not familiar with the stories. Theatre for a New Audience, where she most recently worked, is about new audiences as well as performers new to the material. There were, she continued, 17 children in her TFANA production. She noted the importance of focusing on the most unfamiliar Shakespeare. Her film Titus (based on Titus Andronicus) is “the most extensive and astounding dissertation on violence.”

On British and American audiences. Pennington said there is little difference in general yet shared one “small truth.” American audiences, he noted with appreciation, really let you know they love you. “When the like you, they really like you. The warmth is overwhelming.”

On American west coast audiences. Shepherd has worked in theatre in New York City and in Los Angeles where, he observed, “it’s an under-served audience, so they are hungry and grateful.”

On lessons from Shakespeare that apply to other areas of work. Pennington reflected that “If you’re a Shakespearean actor, you spend half your time denying it.” He went on to say that “He’s the last word on everything — it all goes back to him.” Taymor appreciated his daring. “He’s the most daring … you don’t know who the hero is, ever.” Sullivan joshed about the royalty-free nature of his works. “Contemporary playwrights aren’t nearly as open to cuts as Shakespeare.” His next comments were lovely and serious and simple. “I love to read Shakespeare. I am comforted by it. You always feel he’s telling you the truth.” For Shepherd, Shakespeare “knew something that we don’t necessarily know.” It’s about discovery. Studying and performing Shakespeare provides him “a greater understanding of theatre … finding the key to some lost knowledge.”

Audience questions addressed the hope these well-crafted plays provide and recommendations on the lesser known shows (Pennington put in a nod for Timon of Athens as unfinished but “as good as Lear“)among other issues.

Pennington reflected with seriousness and humor in response to an audience query related to the persistent assertions that the uneducated William Shakespeare could not have written these plays. Yes, the authorship question. After noting the class-ist nature of the persistence of this question, Pennington concluded — “It doesn’t matter who wrote them. Even if you could find out who he was, it still wouldn’t help you none.”

Pennington spoke of our personal and professional connection to Shakespeare. “As with an old friend,” he noted, “you become more tolerant of him.” There are the plotting issues of letters being sent all the time, of the Act IV problem (things come to a halt, over and over), and Shakespeare’s love for ribald jokes, especially jokes about syphilis. These we forgive him, Pennington noted, because of the challenge.

The work is the work. The stories are the stories. The legacy is the legacy. The wonder is the wonder.

Martha Wade Steketee (April 10, 2014)

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