WHAT WOULD SHAKESPEARE DO? Advice from 400-year-old Players

In August, some sad news spread across the Shakespeare world – Shakespeare Santa Cruz, an acclaimed 32-year-old professional company on the UC Santa Cruz campus, was told by the University that it will have to close in December, unless its board members and fans can manage to re-invent it as an independent non-profit.

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SSC’s 2013 production of The Taming of the Shrew.

SSC’s predicament follows others in the Shakespeare community over the past several years. In 2011, the Bay Area lost its all-female Shakespeare company, Woman’s Will, due to financial struggles. In August of this year, the 36-year-old North Carolina Shakespeare Festival temporarily suspended operations due to financial challenges, and now hopes to raise $100,000 by Oct. 31. Every time we get the news of another struggling or fallen comrade, Shakespeare producers think “There but for the grace of Will…” It could happen to any of us. We all live a tenuous existence, because producing theatre in America means trying as hard as you can not to spend money.

“What is wrong with this country?” lamented one friend on Facebook when I posted the news about SSC. “Ugh, it’s not like this in Europe/South America/Australia” was a common reaction in the community. We rant against the broken system, we watch in horror as our government spends billions of dollars on defense, prisons, and security while the NEA struggles by on pennies, we vote our socks off and donate and sign petitions, but at the end of the day, we live here. We love our country with all its faults, but we believe people can’t live without art. So how are we going to provide it, while staying within our ever-tightening budgets?

Shakes got to get paid

I should probably have one of those little bracelets with the words “What Would Shakespeare Do?” etched into the plastic. I like to think back to the way theatre companies were run when he was around, and the advice he might give if he was here today. I think he’d start with this:

Spend money on people, not stuff. Shakespeare’s company was called the King’s Men, not the Globe Theatre. Today, theatre companies tend to be named after concepts or buildings, not after the artists and managers who comprise them. In Shakespeare’s day, theatre-makers knew that no matter how nice their building, it was the people that made the company. Richard Burbage, the lead player of the Lord Chamberlain’s/later King’s Men, gathered some great people around him – including Shakespeare. Like a sports team, a company would tout the names of its players and compete to sign on a favorite guest actor as a shareholder. Of course, having a talented playwright among the players was also crucial – great actors required great words to speak.

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The modern-day British company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

In the two centuries after Shakespeare, when audience members like Samuel Pepys wrote about the plays they saw, they hardly mentioned the scenery or the costumes. They wrote about the text, the acting, and the actors. Companies were managed by actors up until the Victorian era, which saw the rise of spectacle and design and the building of gorgeous new theatres – and the hiring of administrators to manage them. The age of stuff had begun.

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A Victorian theatre. Stuff galore.

Today, we’re surrounded by stuff. The acquisition of stuff has become a national pastime. Movies are filmed entirely about stuff, with people as supporting players to heaps and lashings of toys and gizmos and stuff. Our experience of a play has become intrinsically tied to the number of women’s toilets in the restroom and the color of the carpet in the lobby. Broadway productions advertise their special effects before the names of their leading actors, and we refer to musicals as “the one with the helicopter” or “the one with the chandelier.”

All this stuff comes at a cost, to our companies and to our society. Just as we should examine the effect of rampant consumption on our world, we should try to get back to an age when art wasn’t all about spectacle. This means a major shift in the way audiences experience plays. As many of our theatre history professors taught us, audiences used to go to “hear” a play. Now we go to “see” one. But audiences still crave great words spoken by great actors – today’s “golden age of television” features thoughtful writing and powerful performances. Even while stuff-driven films and plays dominate Hollywood and Broadway, audiences are turning to television for more people-driven story-telling – and that’s the kind of story-telling theatre does best.

So let’s spend our precious pennies on the people at the heart of the art. To do that, we’re going to have to spend less on stuff. How? Here are some ideas from Shakespeare’s company:

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Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Use a unit set. Shakespeare is about language and the actor-audience connection, not elaborate concepts or fancy scenery. Shakespeare’s company did their shows on a simple wooden framework with many useful elements that worked for a number of shows. Several modern companies have gone the same route. Some site-specific companies get rid of scenery altogether.

Instead of hiring scenic designers to create endless expendable backdrops, let’s hire them to build functional pieces that can be used creatively season after season. In 2014, SF Shakes will use the same basic unit set for the third year in a row – the designer’s task is to adapt it from the bleakness of Macbeth to the comic lushness of The Taming of the Shrew. Designers often thrive on limitations, imagining creative solutions inside the confines of existing parameters.

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SF Shakes’ unit set changes from Henry V to Macbeth with a coat of paint.

Re-use and Recycle. Back in 1598, Richard Burbage and his father, the owners of the Theatre (one of the first early modern performance spaces) had a rental dispute with Giles Allen, who owned the land their theatre sat on. After the lease on the land expired, Allen claimed the theatre building was his as well. Burbage was able to lease a new package of land in Southwark, across the river, but couldn’t afford the timber for a new theatre. In the middle of the night of December 28, 1598, Burbage, carpenter Peter Street, and the other players took apart the entire building piece by piece and carried the lumber across the river from Shoreditch to the new site. In the spring, they re-built it as the Globe. Now that’s recycling!

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Shakespeare’s company had a stock of basic props and a wardrobe of expensive, well-maintained costumes, donated by their upper-class patrons. These costumes were highly valued by the companies of the time and represented a significant part of their net worth. Rather than buying and building new props and costumes for every show, let’s value and maintain what we’ve already got.

Re-using the same old things may not sound very satisfying, but let’s think about evolving the role of guest designer into something more like what the Elizabethans had – a full-time paid wardrobe master. Small and medium-sized companies like SF Shakes usually can’t afford to put designers on staff, but if we were to combine all of our costume design budgets into one position, it would be closer to a reality, providing a designer with a steady source of employment and an artistic home.

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The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Do it with the lights on. I’m stealing this one from the American Shakespeare Center, where all performances are done with early modern lighting – general lighting with no specific lighting design for each show. Shakespeare’s Globe in London also does this, and their new indoor space will be lit only by candlelight. Yes, lighting design can be incredibly cool, but daylight brings its own beauty, and it sure is cheaper.

Design is a beautiful part of the art of theatre, but it’s a relatively new idea, and not one that existed in Shakespeare’s time. If budgets are tight, rather than sacrifice artists, we should sacrifice new scenery, new props, and new costumes, and invite designers to create the whole aesthetic of the company rather than just one show. This does mean audiences will need to adjust to not seeing shiny new visuals every time they attend a show. I’m hoping that in time, seeing a familiar prop or costume might become as fun as seeing a familiar actor.

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Skull (Skull of Yorick). Four seasons with SF Shakes, including Shakespeare on Tour (Yorick, Hamlet, 2010; Cauldron ingredient, Macbeth, 2012), plus numerous Shakespeare Camp productions (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013). Skull is thrilled to make its Free Shakespeare in the Park debut this season. Thanks to Cauldron and Swords for all the fun times on the prop shelves.

With any luck, less money spent on stuff gives us more to spend on people. So how would Shakespeare’s company spend it frugally and effectively?

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The cast of Henry V (2012) – a cast of 14 actors.

Hire enough actors to do the plays justice. Shakespeare’s company had about eight share-holder actors (the core company members), another eight hired guns, plus several apprentices and paid technicians such as the wardrobe master. Casts were about 14-18 actors. For many smaller union houses in America today, a cast that size is impossible. Seen a lot of productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged or one-man Hamlets lately? There’s a reason – fewer actors to pay. Modern playwrights are told to write for casts of 2-4 actors in order to have the best chance of being produced.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s article about SSC’s closing mentions Actors’ Equity salaries and how they’re a large part of the budget. Yes, that’s true – actor salaries and benefits make up a huge percentage of our Free Shakespeare in the Park budget as well. But that makes sense. We’re doing theatre! Paying actors, the heart and soul of theatre from its beginnings, should be the top priority.

In order to produce Shakespeare, I spend a lot of time with a spreadsheet figuring out how few actors we can get away with and still have a production that makes sense and honors the playwright’s intentions. Yes, there have been great 3-person productions of Shakespeare, but I like my Shakespeare with lots of people in it. I like there to be room for interns, apprentices, and masters, so that it’s possible for an actor to start as a spear-carrier and end up as King Lear. That means larger casts, and paying actors.

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Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear. He started as an apprentice at the RSC.

In no other profession do highly-trained, multiple-degree-carrying professionals get asked regularly whether this is just our hobby or if we get paid. Nobody assumes that anyone can walk off the street and become a doctor or a firefighter or a pastry chef. But we get asked that almost every weekend. And it’s not like we’re asking for much – a highly successful and respected local union actor, one who works steadily for most of the weeks of the year, might in a very good year make about $30-40k from acting. Should we resent providing the people at the heart of our art with that small sum? I don’t think so. That’s where the money should be spent.

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Doyle Ott plays the violin as Craig Marker (Henry V) looks on.

Hire virtuosic actors. The actors in Shakespeare’s company could act, dance, sing, fight, play instruments, mentor apprentice actors, write, improvise, and learn lines for 6 different shows a week. Yes, actors are a big line item in the budget, but hiring the right actors brings enormous benefits. Well-trained actors save us money on microphones because they know how to project their voices. They save us money on understudies because they take care of themselves. They save us time in rehearsal because they arrive prepared and ready to work hard. They save us money on musicians because they know how to play music. They save us money on teachers because they also know how to teach. They save us money on therapy because they are generous, humble, hard-working, and love our companies as much as we do.

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Definitely don’t model your business decisions on The Merchant of Venice.

Be financially transparent – and not just to the board of directors. Shakespeare’s actors WERE the board of directors – the shareholders in his company. They were completely responsible for the financial decisions, and since Shakespeare himself made a nice chunk of cash, they were obviously good at it.

Actors get a bad rap for being arrogant, greedy, self-centered, and lacking in basic life skills. And yes, some actors, just like some people in general, are divas who complain constantly and require special treatment. So let’s not hire those actors – if we do, we’re encouraging that behavior. And let’s stop treating the rest of them like irresponsible, wasteful children who can’t read a spreadsheet. Actors are some of the smartest people I know – and they have to do really, really complicated tax returns. Let’s have open conversations with the artists about where the money is going.

An actor recently asked me if he could get a $500 travel stipend on top of his Equity salary. It was not a ridiculous request – he makes about $250-$550 a week before taxes, depending on the number of days he works, and he travels from a long way away. But $500 was simply not in the budget. In fact, our apprentice actors (non-union, post-college actors in their 20s) only make $500 for an entire 4-month run. I explained this to him, and he was shocked  – and quite satisfied to drop the issue. A lot of people, including those working in the company, don’t know the realities of a theatre company budget and what we’re doing with how little. Sometimes we’re told “Just replace it” or “Just write a check.” Knowledge of the real numbers can help everyone in the organization to understand why choices have been made.

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SF Shakes Teaching Artists.

Create a core company. Shakespeare’s actors worked with one another 6 days a week for every week of the year. These guys knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and had the kind of intimate chemistry that creates stage magic. We know from Shakespeare’s will that they thought of each other as family even when dividing up their possessions.

One way today’s theatre companies are cutting back on actor salaries is by having much shorter rehearsal processes. This is tough on everyone involved in the production, and particularly difficult with a two and a half hour Shakespeare play. A few years ago, we cut a week out of our rehearsal period, meaning that we put the show together in just 3 ½ weeks. Working with actors who teach and train together year-round can help make this achievable. SF Shakes has a core company of 20 Resident Artists – casting these actors, who already know each other so well, saves rehearsal time and builds on already-existing relationships.

That said, we shouldn’t stop refreshing our company with new talent – the King’s Men brought in hired players (non-shareholders) for every production. Readings are inexpensive ways to meet new artists, and at minimal financial risk, since AEA stipends for readings are $25-40 plus travel.  We use our Free Shakespeare in the Parklet readings to get to know actors we haven’t worked with before or not in a long while. We only have 5 Equity contracts for Free Shakespeare in the Park, but by inviting artists to participate in readings, they know they’re in our thoughts. We can see what skills they have to offer and how they fit with our developing company aesthetic.

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Kids watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Children’s Fairyland, Oakland.

Produce new plays, but keep the old. Shakespeare’s audiences apparently liked seeing the same plays done again and again. Sometimes a new writer would spruce up an old favorite with some new material – Thomas Middleton probably added some witch scenes to Macbeth, for example – but the focus was more on having a rotating repertory of different plays every week than on re-imagining new versions of successful productions.

These days, it’s very rare for a regional Shakespeare Theatre to keep a show in the repertory after a season is over. Even if a production is a hit, it disappears never to return – and when the same play does return, it’s staged completely differently by a different director.

At Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s The Taming of the Shrew this season, I sat between a woman who was seeing the production for the third time, and a family who was seeing it for the second – in the same summer. At Free Shakespeare in the Park, I frequently meet people who are seeing the play for the second or third time. I wonder if we’re underestimating our audience’s desire to see – and hear – productions again and again. Of course, we should do new productions – Shakespeare’s company added new plays to the repertory regularly – but with a few exceptions, like Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern or beloved productions of A Christmas Carol that return every year, today’s non-profit theatres no longer have a repertory they can return to again and again. Re-mounts save money and make money – they’re worth exploring.

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Hamlet is a pretty good play, I hear. (Carl Holvick-Thomas in the title role.)

Trust the plays. I might be putting myself out of a job by saying this, but in Shakespeare’s time, there were no directors. The playwright gave each actor a “roll,” or rolled-up piece of parchment, on which were copied just their lines and cues. There was very little rehearsal. Actors relied on implied stage directions (“I embrace thee” for example), indications of status, and the relationships they already had with each other to “stage” the plays.

With the rise of spectacle in the Victorian era came the rise of directors. By the 20th century, directors had become the all-powerful decision-makers for every production, and actors, who had been managing theatres and working collectively for centuries, were required to perform according to their preferences. Now each Shakespeare director is expected to put their unique stamp on the play – productions are now called “Taymor’s Titus” and “Zeffirelli’s R&J” rather than Shakespeare’s. It sometimes seems like Shakespeare directors don’t trust the plays for their own merits – they have to propose a unique “concept” for every production. We’re told by marketing studies that our audiences have very short attention spans and might start checking their Twitter feeds if we don’t have enough shiny things to engage them. And maybe deep down we’re afraid we’re a bunch of weird and crazy nerds, nobody except us actually likes Shakespeare, and we have to put a bunch of stuff on stage for people to look at when they can’t understand the words.

We directors can’t lose track of the reason we fell in love with Shakespeare in the first place –  words, words, words. If the audience can’t hear the words, if we direct an actor not to stand when the script says “I stand” because we’ve decided that’s not a unique enough choice, if we’re not there to facilitate the actor-audience connection and getting the heck out of the way the rest of the time, then we’re not serving the art. Besides, stuff costs money – words are free.

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Actor Alex Lenarsky working in the SF Shakes office.

In defense of stuff: Some kinds of stuff makes it easier for people to do their jobs. It’s always nice to have a computer that isn’t 20 years old. It’s great not to stand in line at the restrooms at intermission, and we all like clean, safe facilities to work in. We can’t build scenery without hammers and screw guns, and we can’t make costumes without sewing machines. Stuff will always be with us, and that’s a good thing.

But if you – may heaven bless you – are planning to make a major contribution to a theatre company, please consider contributing to a salary for an actual person. There are a lot of capital campaigns for buildings, lobbies, bathrooms, and all those tangible material things. Fund-raisers know that it’s easier to get people to donate to solid bricks and mortar than to general operating costs, including the amorphous magic that makes an effective artist. If you want to give to something specific, consider endowing a fellowship for an Equity actor for four months of summer employment – that’s about $12,650 including insurance, benefits, workers comp, payroll taxes, etc. Sure, that actor’s performance won’t be around when you’re gone. It won’t stand there as a monument to your love of the arts forever. But it will provide a lot of people with some wonderful experiences and memories, and you’ll know an artist was compensated for helping to create them. Doesn’t that matter more than a bunch of stuff?

“Good my lord, will you see the players well bestow’d? Do you hear? Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” – Hamlet

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