The Summer of Our (Dis)Content?
By Maureen Lee Lenker
Summer Shakespeare has become as much a seasonal rite as lazy beach days or s’mores around the campfire. Since Max Reinhardt’s legendary 1934 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl (made into a film only one year later), summer Shakespeare has become an indelible part of Los Angeles civic culture, with dozens of productions popping up annually, with both union and non-union actors. Companies blanket the county, from Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon to the Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC) in Griffith Park to Shakespeare by the Sea in the South Bay.
On the 400th anniversary of his death, what makes Shakespeare endure as a seminal artistic figure in a city thousands of miles from the land of his birth? What brings Angelinos back to Shakespeare summer after summer? Why has a Moliere summer festival never taken hold? Is The Imaginary Invalid or Tartuffe not as theatrical, and goofy, and accessible as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet?
What’s more, in a town full of talented actors and directors, are we getting the best of the Bard or mediocre takes on his work? Either way – as a town with a thriving but an often obscured theater community – what should we expect from our Shakespeare productions? And finally, whether we’re producing traditional or innovative productions, how can companies draw in new audiences to ensure this summer pastime continues into the future? In a series of conversations with the artistic teams of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, and the Independent Shakespeare Company, Stage Raw set out to find answers to these queries.
Part One: All the World’s A Stage
Across the United States, from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. to Ashland, Oregon, Shakespeare has become nationally produced and adored. Both Ellen Geer, Artistic Director of Theatricum Botanicum, and Kenn Saberton, director of Shakespeare Center’s Twelfth Night and a former Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) member, note that more Shakespeare is produced in America annually than in Shakespeare’s home country. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Globe, which regularly delights tourists and Brits alike along the banks of the Thames throughout the summer months, was brought back to life by an American, Sam Wanamaker.
While companies such as the RSC, the National and most recently Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick often produce exquisite intimate pieces of theatre, it is the homespun, unpredictable nature of outdoor theatre at the Globe and across America that best embodies the play’s original production format. Kenn Saberton says, “Shakespeare’s Globe was basically outdoor Shakespeare, so it lends itself linguistically in that he’s very good at describing lighting and weather, even if you’re outside in the middle of a very hot afternoon.”
Shakespeare Center Artistic Director Ben Donenberg echoes this sentiment: “Shakespeare wrote the plays with the assumption that they were going to be performed outdoors, and the way he uses language and rhythm and vowels and consonants creates stories that can project over vast spaces.”
Perhaps Shakespeare dominates our national summer civic culture then because the warm weather and long days are naturally conducive to this format (and where are conditions more ideal than in perpetually balmy Los Angeles?). In contrast, Shakespeare’s Globe regularly faces the prospect of rain – and when I saw Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth there earlier this summer, the torrential downpour may have had an atmospheric affect, but it also made it nearly impossible to hear the actors. (It also doesn’t hurt that Shakespeare plays exist in the public domain, thus saving companies hefty fees for performance rights.)
Shakespeare’s language is designed to exist in an outdoor space while removing us from it – transporting us across meadows and seas and time zones to places with atmospheric diversions. Independent Shakespeare Company Artistic Director David Melville relishes the opportunity for audience engagement with an outdoor performance: “You can’t control the audience’s experience with lighting and sound effects and stuff like that,” Melville explains. “They have to make a conscious decision to participate.”
But even if summer Shakespeare seems a natural fit for the plays, how did William Shakespeare, a poet described by his contemporary Ben Jonson as “not of an age, but for all time,” come to hold a place of such prominence on the Los Angeles summer calendar? In a town Woody Allen once condescendingly described as “a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light,” how did the foremost symbol of poetry and playwriting come to have such a hold?
This first requires dispelling two assumptions – one, that Los Angeles is an anti-intellectual town, and two, that Shakespeare is a decidedly highbrow artistic pursuit. Both are common misconceptions. While New Yorkers and East Coast bastions of thought may still sneer at Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland, the purview of celebrities and the star machine, those of us who live here recognize it as a site of rich artistic innovation and intellectual dynamism. What’s more, Shakespeare was never meant to be purely for the intellectual elite. As David Melville explains, “Shakespeare absolutely wasn’t about appealing to one demographic of intellectuals, although, he certainly in his lifetime moved in intellectual circles. His job was to entertain everybody.”
But how can Los Angeles companies fight against these misperceptions and conquer the challenge of winning over audiences who view Shakespeare as an incomprehensible high school reading assignment? In short, how can (and does) our city restore Shakespeare to the masses?
With inimitable dry British humor, David Melville retorts, “I think if you start by approaching it by not boring people, then that’s a step in the right direction.” Certainly, creating a production that engages and excites an audience (as the ISC’s The Tempest does this season) is a crucial first step. But across the board, the artistic directors agree that it comes down to two factors – ensuring the language and meaning of the play are clear and making the play vital and relevant to a modern audience.
Melville, Geer, and director Saberton all stress the importance of verse-work, education, and the necessity of casting actors who possess the technique and craft to deliver Shakespeare’s language with clarity and comprehension. Ellen Geer admits, “What scares people from [Shakespeare] is his elevated language.” Director Saberton echoes this sentiment: “If the actors don’t understand what they’re saying, then you don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of the audience understanding . . .There is no point in pretending Shakespeare is easy. There’s no point in pretending it’s up to the audience to do the work.”
Still, the companies are careful to stress that the language also should not be treated as foreign. “If you approach it from the perspective of it being something that needs translating, that’s the wrong direction. It’s written in modern English, and it’s really important that you work with actors who are keen to tell the story and the play through the language,” says Melville.
Geer stresses the need for actors and audiences to absorb Shakespeare’s language. “Once you get into the rhythm of him,” she says, “he reaches to the absolute center of the human heart. He reaches all classes, all cultures of people. . .It’s almost like a religion in a sense that it helps evolve your spirit when you really get into it.”
Making the language comprehensible is furthered by treating the plays as living, breathing works. Melville stresses that his company is encouraged not to be too precious with the text, especially when it comes to comedy. “If Shakespeare’s written a joke that made sense 400 years ago,” he says, “and it was topical then, [it’s] not funny anymore.” Melville wholeheartedly endorses occasionally adjusting or cutting text to make words or humor more contemporary for the sake of comprehension.
Still, merely ensuring productions are understandable is not enough to return Shakespeare to mass audiences of Los Angeles (Indeed, while ISC’s Tempest has flawless delivery and is also a raucous good time, Shakespeare Center’s Twelfth Night and Theatricum’s Romeo and Juliet offer superb verse execution, while failing to excite or intrigue.)
Beyond entertainment value, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles also hopes to restore Shakespeare to a mass audience by making him relevant for local audiences. Artistic Director Ben Donenberg says, “Our mandate comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he says the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature . . . Our vision is to reflect the history and people of Los Angeles in our productions where we consider Shakespeare a contemporary Los Angeles playwright writing about today.” Donenberg says this comes from a desire to attract a distinctively Angelino audience, rather than the typical patrons of classical regional theatre. Instead, he aims to pursue “any number of interpretative takes that remove the distance of doublet and tights.”
With Twelfth Night, they have set the show in the 1940s, using an air raid and dog fight in Santa Monica as a jumping off point for the opening shipwreck and ensuing events. Unfortunately, beyond an initial media montage that suggests the air raid and a director’s note, there is little to differentiate the play from its typical setting. It doesn’t disrupt the text, but it also does not necessarily provide any new insight into the play or Los Angeles with this particular overlay. Similarly, Theatricum places their Romeo and Juliet in contemporary East Jerusalem, translating the Montague-Capulet blood feud to modern terms, but over simplifying the conflict in the process.
Still, there is clearly something to reflecting the concerns, needs, and interests of the community as a way to return Shakespeare to the masses. Melville cites a commitment to “a spirit of playfulness, not being precious about it, and a real spirit of diversity.” The Independent Shakespeare Company succeeds in its combined devotion to language and a sense of fun, building a direct relationship with the audience by playing in it. Melville says, “We always try to incorporate them as an element, so that we can connect with the audience and we’re working with them to create something in our imaginations.”
It’s this connection with the audience, whether the production is outdoors in a park or in an enclosed intimate space, that both restores Shakespeare to his original mass appeal and makes it an integral part of American civic culture. Shakespeare is praised for his universality – the enduring resonance of his themes. Allowing an audience to reflect on the play’s universal truths in relation to their own lives, while also hopefully enjoying themselves, is what keeps both them and the artists returning to this work. And where better to return Shakespeare to the people than Los Angeles? A sprawling metropolis that relies on the optimism of the future and the achievements of the past to reflect on our present moment — a city, in that regard, not so different from Elizabethan England.
As Ben Donenberg says, “Los Angeles history is so diverse and so textured that to say I’m holding a mirror up and reflecting the people of my community means something specific in Los Angeles that it wouldn’t mean in a different community that doesn’t have the history, diversity, and vastness of space and geography.”
Shakespeare’s age was one of wonder – a time of unprecedented scientific discovery, geographical exploration, artistic and literary achievement; an age steeped in an appreciation for and celebration of the past, but also an era plagued by political and religious upheaval. How do we give Shakespeare back to the people, and why does it endure in Los Angeles? We accept that through fate or mischance we have become the very audience he was writing for.
Check back next week for Part Two in this feature series.