The Summer of our (Dis)Content
Part Three: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”
By Maureen Lenker
Having already explored the plethora of productions on offer in LA and how best to evaluate a show’s merits or worth, we are left with one final conundrum in this exploration of Shakespeare in Los Angeles. Not “To be or not to be,” though that is, of course, always the question. But rather a question that plagues artistic directors around the world, not only those who produce Shakespeare – how to bring in new audiences?
Shakespeare has his own cottage industry (it only takes one visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon or the Globe in London to see that). He has a cadre of devoted fans – those who create a market for products like Shakespearean insult band-aids. Those people will always turn up when a production of the Bard is on. But how do you reach beyond that and into your community? How do you engage and grow new and unexpected audiences? With conventional productions that present Shakespeare in its purest, most traditional form? Or something more avant-garde and innovative that plugs into contemporary trends?
Educational outreach is certainly a component of building audiences and reaching underserved areas in communities who may otherwise never encounter Shakespeare in their lives. Both Theatricum Botanicum and the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles offer classes and outreach programs that directly engage with school-age children. They go outside of the theater and into the classroom to cultivate the next generation of Shakespeare fans. But what about the performances themselves?
“The challenge is to take something that can be seen as a little bit corny, and then reinvent it in a way that’s actually exciting,” says Independent Shakespeare Co.’s Managing Director, David Melville. This reinvention can range from a new setting to a streamlined cut of the action to merely a sense of energy and fun. Perhaps, most provocatively and effective, the Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC) also foregrounds a diversity policy as part of their mission statement. “When we really made a conscious effort to make that happen,” says Melville, “we realized that everybody felt they were represented on stage. And it was so inspiring for us to see little kids come up and say ‘Oh my god, I’ve never seen a lead like that, maybe I could do that one day.’”
As a result, their audiences tend to be the most reflective of Los Angeles itself, filled with faces of every age, ethnicity, race, and creed. This is also undoubtedly tied to the fact that their performances are free and in a public park where new audiences can quite literally stumble upon their work. Melville proudly recounts a tale of a group of teenagers sneaking off into the Griffith Park Hills, who stopped in their tracks, mesmerized by the work and even returned the next night to see the entire show. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “Reaching pockets of people that no matter how you market, you’re never going to get.”
Ellen Geer of Theatricum Botanicum notes that they mostly develop new audiences through educational outreach. Theatricum has grown an audience along with their company over the years, and Geer says this give-and-take allows them to explore with greater range each year, including branching out into lesser-known plays from Shakespeare’s canon or introducing inventive settings. For Geer, Shakespeare’s popularity is obvious: “I think the whole country and the whole world needs more empathy now and understanding and caring and giving. That’s why he’s become so popular.”
Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles Artistic Director Ben Donenberg says that his company’s strength derives from the fact that they purposely are not looking to engage with traditional classical theatre patrons. “We’re not really looking to connect with that kind of an audience, so the actors then feel a freedom to explore their characters and their roles and the way they use their language that I think is unique to the company. Because we have this LA-centric perspective, it starts out with them being a little closer to themselves,” says Donenberg.
That wasn’t always Shakespeare Center’s approach to audience engagement, and it took years of trial and error to arrive at their current mission statement to reflect contemporary Los Angeles in their work. “In the beginning,” Donenberg says, “I thought it was important to do great American Shakespeare, and then I realized, I don’t know what that is.”
That realization led him to a different approach. “We ask ourselves why must the play be done now, today,” he says. “If you can deliver on Shakespeare’s intentions within a context that brings the audience closer, there’s not much you have to do to strike a chord with the hearts and minds of Los Angeles audiences . . . but you have to ask the questions, what you’re trying to say, to whom, and why now?”
Shakespeare Center productions are notable for re-situating Shakespeare’s plays in a Los Angeles, which runs the risk of concept overwhelming text in an effort to draw connections for modern audiences. Donenberg insists, however, that he always looks for “a contemporary context that doesn’t undermine the logic of Shakespeare’s world.”
Kenn Saberton, who directed the Shakespeare Center summer production of Twelfth Night, finds that setting out to produce a very specific thrust or experience for the audience from the word go is counterintuitive to the creative process. “All you can do is try and understand exactly what it is those characters and people want in any part of the play and then put it all together and see what you’ve got. Trying to control the whole is hard if you want it to have any kind of authenticity,” he says.
For Saberton, engaging audiences is about finding some middle ground between challenging audiences and delivering what they might expect from Shakespeare. “You’ve got to have the desire to create something accessible, exciting, that doesn’t take too many liberties, but feels fresh,” he says. “I’m not saying it might not end up not working, but that’s different than just being dull.”
Melville echoes a similar point of balance, striving to push for artistic innovation while still enthralling the audience. “The story is first,” he says. “The story has to be clear and communicated . . . We try to always ask ourselves what’s going to be the most dramatic choice to make, what’s going to be the most exciting, and what’s clearest for the audience? Sometimes that does lead you back to the most obvious thing, but if we’ve gone on a journey to explore everything else, then that’s all you can do.”
Across the board, the consensus is that the key to cultivating audiences is keeping them at the forefront of decision making. Are you producing a piece of work that is comprehensible, relevant, fresh, and exciting for them? Melville is wary of companies that don’t take that to heart, saying, “You have to be careful about what the audience is going to take away from it – Is what you’re doing building the desire for them to want to come back to theater, or are you just pleasing yourself, in which case, they probably won’t.”
Focusing on audience engagement, whether that means giving a play a more accessible, contemporary context or delivering a quintessential (and comprehensible) Shakespearean experience, is key to all theatrical productions, not only Shakespeare. While artistic directors feel that it is challenging to find new pockets of audience members or win over those who dismissed the Bard in high school, they are certain the theatrical experience will remain a vital one. The packed houses at all of these productions, particularly the overflow of humanity in Griffith Park, suggests as much.
With the rise of social media and streaming entertainment, many naysayers mourn the death of the theatre and Shakespeare right along with it. But Ellen Geer remains confident, saying, “It won’t ever die. Because people need the experience of sitting in a group together and experiencing something smack dab in front of them where they can actually feel the breath of people.”
So whether an audience member is coming to Shakespeare for the first time or the fiftieth, he remains a dynamic and essential force in the American theatre and in the heart and soul of many artists and audience members. To use the man’s own words from Sonnet 18, “So long as man can breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”