Birthday Greeting

It’s been another eventful weekend here on this planet; a crucial election in France, demonstrations on behalf of science funding, and rational thought and inquiry in general, on all seven continents. I’m therefore going to devote today’s post to the man behind the weekend event most important to the fate of the world’s liberal humanist traditions.

Obviously I’m talking about Shakespeare’s birthday here.

I was extremely fortunate; the very second play in which I ever performed, in my freshman year of college, was a first-rate production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was Quince, which is a terrific role for a fledgling actor – significant enough to make you work and push yourself, but not so taxing as to overwhelm your physical abilities to play the part. It was an ambitious production, helmed by an RSC adjunct and fueled with lots of early-90s experimentation and angst. It had a cast of twenty-five intensely talented students, all getting to flex their muscles with Shakespeare’s verse and rising marvelously to the occasion. It had raging cast parties. It was exactly the sort of production that serves as a kind of divining rod in a performer’s life, confirming to an idealistic thespian that this, indeed, is what acting is all about, and what you’re supposed to do with your life.

And it’s a good thing, too, because for the next few years, all the Shakespeare productions I performed in sucked.

There was a summer of three plays in rep, which sounds delightful – except that the company all viewed the classic parody The Art of Course Acting as an actual acting textbook. Then there was a production of Love’s Labor’s Lost with some of the same people, faux-Renaissance costumes that could not have been more decrepit had they dated from the actual Renaissance, and a half-dozen audience members at any given performance. There was a production of Cymbeline where the audience was routinely outnumbered by the rats which scurried into our outdoor courtyard around Act IV Scene I every night. (An uncut production of Cymbeline, mind you – not because the company believed in original practices or the like, but because the director hadn’t bothered to read the play before rehearsals started.) There was a production of Comedy of Errors which toured parks and outdoor venues, one of which listed its events for the week in chronological order on a marquis as you entered, and which had scheduled a puppet show a few days before our performance. Yes, Gentle Reader, our company joined the ranks of all the bands who have lived out This is Spinal Tap in reality – if we told them once, we told them a thousand times, “Shakespeare company first, then the puppet show!”  Indeed, we had it even worse than Spinal Tap – the puppets had a bigger dressing room than we did.

It’s not enough to love Shakespeare. You have to have a kind of religious faith in him, in order to endure the kind of crap which is repeatedly done in his name.

Endure I did. I was cast in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2001 production of Hamlet. In following years, I performed in their productions of King Lear and Macbeth as well. And here, at last, I'd found again what I sought in Shakespeare – productions with something to say, filled with ambitious creative people rising to the challenge of the language and making it speak to today’s world. And lest you think I’m implying that only prominent companies can accomplish this, I’m happy to say that I’ve had this experience with the Shakespeare plays I’ve done since, even though they’ve mostly been guerilla-theatre productions with smaller companies. It doesn’t matter; the genius is always there, a source of power waiting to be tapped.

But I still find myself thinking about that run of terrible Shakespeare I experienced in the nineties. (I can say that about a lot of things in the nineties, but that’s another story.) I keep wondering about why those productions failed as spectacularly as they did. There’s always convenient excuses – people are fond of throwing up their hands and saying that American actors can’t handle Shakespeare, even though actor training has progressed to the point where a well-trained actor from this country has the same skill set as his peers across the pond. And people love to mock directors for ruining Shakespeare with their wacky, post-modern, trendy ideas – but if anything connects the crappy productions I’ve done, it’s the fact that they didn’t have an idea in their heads.

No – when a Shakespearean production is undone, it’s undone by laziness. The common factor of the bad productions I’ve been in has been a director who’s insisted the cast doing nothing but tell the story – and then not understand the story. Nobody is going to want to go to the trouble of heading out to a theatrical production if all they’re going to see is the Cliff’s Notes. And no actor can thrive in such a limited environment – either you go on autopilot and lazily recite your lines, or you flail as you try and come up with an interesting performance with no meaningful feedback to help you shape it, no larger vision to try and serve.

Shakespeare’s not a talisman. You can’t brandish him around and call it a day if you haven’t gone to the trouble of understanding him, both in his context and your own. No, he’s a challenge, an ongoing effort to take this marvelous tradition of an idealized past and make him work today. And frankly, that’s true of all these wonderful Western traditions we’re so convinced are under attack today. They only work if we put in the effort of making them work. Trot them out lazily without understanding them, expecting to be hailed and lauded simply for knowing they exist, and you’ll wind up turning them to crap instead.

And nobody needs that.

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