Towards an Anodyne Theater
“Oh my God, they killed Shakespeare - you bastards!”
- E. Cartman, 2010, exiting The Donkey Show
The a.r.t. has undergone a complete corporate and commercial transformation.
In a stated attempt to “expand the boundaries of theater,” a.r.t.’s new artistic leadership presented a season of shows in 2009-10 targeting a wider, younger audience. The working aesthetic is called “populist.” First up was a festival of three shows entitled “Shakespeare Exploded.” None of the shows used Shakespeare’s text.
The Donkey Show, Sleep No More and The Best of Both Worlds were all productions that took an element, plot line or characters, from Shakespeare and placed it in a different, more popular genre or setting - a disco, a haunted house, and a gospel revival. The texts were not used. New shows were created in more popular, “profitable” genres. Shakespeare serves the The Donkey Show as an effective marketing tool, but the process is not adaptation. It is not reinvention. It is, simply and precisely, exploitation. The resulting shows were popular, fun, and in one case visually stunning, but they contained none of the power, intellect, and beauty of Shakespeare. They didn’t need to. That’s not how they seek to impact the audience.
How did academia respond? Well, in a related panel discussion, a leading Harvard Shakespearean scholar, Marjorie Garber, apparently didn’t miss the text at all. Happily confessing that she “shook her booty at The Donkey Show”," she affirmed that "It's still Shakespeare," and “it will cause people to pick up and read Midsummer Night’s Dream.” To that last quote I say, “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” (That’s Shakespeare for “ain’t gonna happen, IMO”).
What’s happening at a.r.t. is not “expanding the limits of theater.” It is diminishing it into a populist form. These shows seek to impact the audience the way a drug like cocaine does. By introducing elements of sex, drugs, booze, hot dynamic music, and the power rush of the crowd, and also by blurring the line between performer and audience, you can create an anodyne state in the theatre - pain-controlled, and intellectually narcotized, with, ideally, a euphoric rush or two or three. And it’s an environment where people will be more inclined to spend at the bar.
What has also happened simultaneously at a.r.t. is an almost complete replacement of the artistic and production staff and acting company. So, references to “a new direction for the company” or “how the ART thinks or feels about an issue”, are meaningless. That company no longer exists. That company WAS its people, giving heart and soul to Robert Brustein’s vision. That company has been replaced with a corporate model, complete with the power centric CEO (the Artistic Director being so officially named). The company’s new Financial Officer was formerly at Clear Channel, two words that send a chill up the spine of Equity Actors everywhere. For me, Clear Channel Entertainment’s mega-holdings reveal an almost monopolistic, money and power driven entertainment conglomerate with a moralistic bent, that should be avoided, not embraced. (unless money and power are atop your priority list). If Clear Channel, the WalMartian monopoly of entertainment producers, is the model they’re aiming for, we might truly be looking at the start of the “death of the theatre” debate. I believe the stakes are that high here.
Outside of the not for profit world “populism” is more accurately called “commercialism.” Prior to my work at the A.R.T. (17 seasons 55+ productions 1993-2009), I was an actor/director in the Boston production of Shear Madness - the poster child for “populist” theatre - for thirteen years - playing more than 3,500 performances, and casting 50+ actors in the show. Shear Madness is the longest running, non-musical play in the history of the American theatre, now in its 31st year, having grossed over 100 million dollars worldwide. Like Paulus Populism, the Madness formula includes audience interaction, a broadly popular genre from which to draw (mystery whodunit), music, and a bar in the back (plus waitress service to your table). I’ve had some of the most fun and gotten some of the biggest, fullest, wildest laughs of my career on the Shear Madness stages. I loved being in the show and I love the show itself for its ability to be funny and fun, night in and night out. I DO NOT think of Shear Madness as inferior theatre. BUT, Shear Madness, like The Donkey Show, isn’t psychologically intricate, thought provoking, heartbreaking, illuminating or insightful into the intricacies of human behavior. To imply that these commercially viable, fun shows are more than that, is a con job.
When I first heard about the Blow up the Bard festival, I was disheartened. I believe that the power and beauty and unique voice of Shakespeare is in the text - in the three-dimensional, amazing, intense human characters he created, and in the poetry and prose that so eloquently speaks to the human condition. I have had the good fortune to have lived inside 25 or so of the 37 or so of the plays. The plays of Shakespeare have helped me understand and navigate my own life. I first saw Shakespeare’s plays in Forest Park in Queens. Joseph Papp would send out trucks from his theatre in Manhattan with young actors such as James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer to set up and play in Othello and the Scottish Play in rep on alternating nights. I watched, mesmerized as a 12 year old and I was thrilled, captivated, truly shaken by the experience. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen or heard. It motivated me to become an actor and try and carry on the traditions I came to cherish. My experience of my life is so much richer because of Shakespeare’s works.
Did a.r.t blast the Bard because they believe the language to be antiquated, too boring, or not accessible enough to mass audiences? In Shakespeare's time the actors were an integral part of the development and interpretation of the plays. Four hundred years later, actors are rarely, if ever part of the choosing, interpretation, and casting. (The Actor’s Shakespeare Project, voted best theatre company by local media, as a notable exception). The best recent adaptations, in my opinion, Andrei Serban’s The Taming of the Shrew, and A Merchant of Venice, were examples of Shakespeare productions that truly spoke to our modern sensibilities. Serban demanded a clarity and specificity in the playing that made the plays burst out. Not every element worked every time, but boring simply could not survive in a Serban show. Most importantly, Serban used the language, the text spoken by actors, to powerful effect. He certainly would contribute outrageous imagery and stage pictures, but it all worked with the actors to create even more power, clarity and excitement. And all without actually having to blast the Bard to bits.
What’s at stake right now is the direction of theatre in America, the function of the actor in the theatre, and the model of the regional theatre company moving forward. In my mind the stakes have never been higher. I believe we need to focus on and prioritize the reasons for doing theatre in the non-profit venue. My hope is for money and power to lose the top spot on the list, to a theatre of ideas, insight, and great heart.
A.R.T. Company Actor 1993-2009