by James Haro
It has become a universal truth that William Shakespeare is the greatest playwright in the English speaking world. We, as theatre artists, have inherited his legacy and thus we pay homage to his work by working in, speaking of, or putting on his plays. In any theatre community there will most likely be a Shakespeare production up and running at any given time of season. It’s about as constant as church on Sunday or kids choking on hot dogs. If you browse any local theater’s postcard table sometimes almost half the materials are Shakespeare related. Just in the last year I’ve attended a production of “The Scottish Play” at The Wilma and Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lantern Theater Company, both in Philadelphia. Just two productions of a likely thousands upon thousands that were going on at once in this country alone.
It’s been proven time and time again how much can actually be done with Shakespeare’s plays. There are those that attempt modernizing the Bard’s work, finding reason to use cellphones in productions of Twelfth Night, or jet-skis in productions of The Tempest, or what have you. Then there are traditionalists who bring everything back to the 16th Century. However, whatever way it is presented, whatever flair or twist is used, there is something important to reflect. What is behind our continuous treks back to Straford-Upon-Avon, and is the trip really worth it anymore? Who know’s how many new plays have been put aside by producing companies in order to put up another re-imagining? How often are we putting our safe bets on theatre’s history rather than investing in its future?
Here’s my small case against producing Shakespeare. It’s been done…and done…and done. If we as theatre artists all agreed on the spot to stop producing his work I think it would certainly open our eyes a bit. Instead of expending so much energy trying to conceptualize a new production of Hamlet, what if that energy was spent toward realizing a new play by an unknown playwright? Again, there is a lot of creative license that comes with producing Shakespeare. Public domain, anyone? However, our universities pump out hundreds upon hundreds of playwrights a year, certainly at least a few of them deserve more care and attention then the goodly corpse we worship. It’s not a lot to ask. What if we could replace half of the productions of Shakespeare with productions of new plays in order to find the next Sarah Ruhl. Would it be any harder to fund? Certainly fostering new voices is just as important and noble as preserving the Bard’s work, maybe even a bit more worthwhile. We complain and complain about Hollywood being out of ideas, how they just keep rehashing the same stories and franchises and brands. Don’t we do that in the theatre industry as well? Our franchises are Shakespeare, Our Town, The Music Man, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. We present these works over and over and over again. Isn’t a revival just as fruitless as a remake?
Of course not. It’s not the same, I know. Our art doesn’t exist for moving pictures, it exists for moving people. When a production is gone the only record that exists of it in most cases is our memory. Thus revivals are much less redundant. Every production of Shakespeare will be somebody’s first. That is almost always the case with me. I was overjoyed with the Lantern’s production of Midsummer. My smile was SO WIDE. There is something to be said about a piece so old that can still entertain 21st century minds. Shakespeare is so overproduced because it is so good, kind of like how you can find Seinfeld on at almost any time on almost any network, and if it’s on I’ll watch it.
What exactly am I getting at then? When all is said and done, as long as people keep attending church, as long as kids keep choking on hot dogs, we will continue to produce Shakespeare’s plays. However, that doesn’t excuse the lack of effort put toward producing new works, especially in regional theatre. We can do both! We can have our love affair with Shakespeare and begin new ones with many newer less rotting, dusty playwrights. Shakespeare’s eternality is a universal truth, but we need to focus on breeding more story tellers to create new truths just the same. It’s just a given nowadays; Cinema has Citizen Kane, Television has Seinfeld, we have Will. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com.