Rogues and Vagabonds: Pop-up Shakespeare and the history of performance

Over the last two weekends, we’ve been performing “pop-up Shakespeare” in unexpected locations in Cupertino and San Francisco, as part of the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet project. This is the first time we’ve performed pop-ups anywhere but SF, and I had some trepidation about moving outside the “only in San Francisco” bubble. I imagined suburban police officers with little else to do arresting us all in front of the library, for “vagrancy and incendiary speech-making.”

Maybe I’ve just been reading too much. The latest entry on my summer book list is Nigel Cliff’s “The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America.” I absolutely love its vividly imagined descriptions of what it was like to be an actor and theatre-maker in the two and a half centuries after Shakespeare.

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As Cliff tells it, two hundred years ago, theatre really mattered, and Shakespeare mattered the most. In defiance of the French and German dramas preferred by the upper classes of 18th-century London, middle-class theatrical entrepreneurs reclaimed Shakespeare as England’s native son, deeply populist, a playwright the man on the street could understand. Regular working-class and middle-class people filled the theatres every night. Theatres were part social club, part political gathering, part artistic entertainment. At Drury Lane or Covent Garden, audiences might encounter prostitutes roaming freely among the seats, picnics spread out in the galleries, and plenty of fist-fights. Many times, the tragedy on stage was drowned out completely by the noise from the audience. The next day, fights broke out in the streets about favorite actors, favorite plays, even favorite line readings.

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Theatre riot, 1700s.

Actors and theatre-makers were so influential, so capable of inciting strong feelings, that they had to be stopped. Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s 1737 censorship law, the Licensing Act, reads:

…every person who shall, for hire, gain or reward, act, represent or perform, or cause to be acted, represented or performed any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce or other entertainment of the stage, or any part or parts therein, in case such person shall not have any legal settlement in the place where the same shall be acted, represented or performed without authority by virtue of letters patent from His Majesty, his heirs, successors or predecessors, or without license from the Lord Chamberlain… shall be deemed to be a rogue and a vagabond… and shall be liable and subject to all such penalties and punishments…

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Actresses preparing, 1700s.

Victorianism eventually managed to repress the audience’s boisterous behavior – according to Cliff, Queen Victoria herself chose spectacle over Shakespeare and preferred French melodramas to the native theatre – and the Shakespeare revival died out in England. However, in the 1830’s, Shakespeare was reclaimed and newly adored in America, and again the audiences were full of ordinary people relating to the all-too-human characters. African-Americans in particular embraced Shakespeare over other playwrights, with companies of Black actors performing the Bard to sold-out theatres like New York’s African Grove Theatre – where non-Blacks sat in a cordoned-off section in the back of the house. As Cliff puts it:

Every year, on the Fourth of July, America bonded around fiery rhetoric about its heroic struggle against the English tyrant, and every year Shakespeare was paraded, not as an example of England’s cultural dominance, but as an enlightened ally of the American dream.

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African-American star Ira Aldridge..

Being an actor in 18th and 19th century England and America was a dangerous profession – you were alternately celebrated and reviled, you lived on pennies per day, you might roam from town to town by covered wagon or steamship complete with all the hardships of the frontier. If you were an African-American actor, you were in danger of being attacked by a white mob after the show. There was nothing safe or comfortable about working in the theatre.  In some ways, this is still true – stereotypes of performers are alive and well, and lord knows we still survive on pennies per day (adjusted for inflation) – but thanks to Actors’ Equity Association and standards of ethics for theatre managers, there are at least comforts like travel stipends and health insurance.

But these days, theatre-goers in America have become a little bit like the Victorians. We spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to big-budget Broadway spectacles while neglecting the little theatre doing new plays just down the street. If a good play incites strong feelings, it would be very bad form to get into a fist fight at intermission – or even a passionate argument. When we enter one of the plush theatres downtown, we’re pleasantly enveloped in sotto voce conversation, greeted by courteous ushers, and given the hairy eyeball if we let loose with an unseemly guffaw. Thankfully, many theatres lately have relaxed enough to let us bring in a glass of wine and a cookie, but heaven forbid we arrive with a roast chicken and sausages. It’s a lot more civilized, but it’s kind of sterile. It’s a little too safe. It’s a little too comfortable.

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Curious passers-by in Cupertino.

With Free Shakespeare in the Park, at least there’s no problem with the roast chicken. We remove as many barriers to attendance as possible, but I still see people stand at a distance, or sit at picnic tables far off to the side, as if what we’re doing isn’t for them. They didn’t know about it in advance, or they didn’t get there at 6 am to set up their blankets, or, like one woman I met in Cupertino last Sunday, they’re convinced that this MUST cost money that they won’t be able to pay.

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Galen Murphy-Hoffman with Parklet audience members in San Francisco.

We started Free Shakespeare in the Parklet partially to remove those final barriers. You’re in the audience before you have time to worry about it. You can still walk away, but the stakes are low – you don’t have to find a seat, bring a picnic, plan anything at all. It just happens, and you happen to be there. It lasts 10-15 minutes, then it’s done and you move on. But hopefully you’ve heard something interesting – maybe it jogged a memory or created one, maybe it was just a little unexpected delight. Maybe you’ll come back for Macbeth, because hey, that was pretty easy to understand. Or maybe it was an annoyance! Maybe your day has been interrupted by stupid actors popping up and preventing you from getting your morning coffee unmolested. Maybe we aren’t doing it right unless there’s someone out there who calls us rogues and vagabonds and thinks we’re a terrible influence.

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Galen Murphy-Hoffman and Leighland Hooks in Doctor Faustus.

These last two weekends, we’ve brought scenes from Doctor Faustus and Richard III to Cupertino and San Francisco. In the first (on the theme of “Sorcery”), Faustus rejects philosophy, medicine, and religion in favor of magic, and makes his choice sound very appealing. Right in front of Cupertino Library and Grace Cathedral, he called on the powers of darkness to send him the demon Mephistophilis.

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Galen Murphy-Hoffman as Faustus.

As the director of the scene, one of my goals was to reach kids who are deeply interested in the battle between good and evil, as in their beloved Harry Potter, and want to see plays with life and death at stake. I loved watching the kids in the audience in Cupertino suddenly notice Mephistophilis creeping up from far away down the street – they pointed, and squealed, and whispered amongst themselves.

Nobody got arrested.

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Cupertino Library audience.

In the Richard III scene (on the theme of “Skullduggery”), the Duke of Clarence has just had a terrible nightmare. He did some pretty awful things to put his brother Edward on the throne, and it’s payback time. Watching the scene on a Sunday morning, I was struck by its deep debate about sin and forgiveness. Like Macbeth, the scene struggles with the concept of Equivocation –  is it okay to do evil if you’re doing it under orders from someone higher up the food chain? Is it okay to commit murder in the name of a righteous cause? Is there a Heaven, and if so, who gets to go there?

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Radhika Rao and Ryan Tasker in Richard III.

Richard III popped up in Cupertino right in front of a popular local brunch place. Some of the diners beat a hasty exit, dragging away spouses who looked back over their shoulders as long as possible. Others stayed, laughed, clapped, and asked us questions afterwards. The children especially watched wide-eyed and fascinated by the story unfolding in front of them, too young to know that this sort of thing is supposed to be an expensive indoor activity, observed safely from the dark in your comfy velvet seat.

Nobody got arrested.

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Tristan Cunningham, Brian Herndon, and Radhika Rao in Richard III.

This coming Saturday, July 27 at noon in Cupertino’s Memorial Park, we’ll be performing another bit of Skullduggery, a delightful scene from Measure for Measure, in which the young criminal Pompey does some community service to work off his sentence. He’s apprenticed to the taciturn, intimidating executioner Abhorson, and the two of them are charged with a difficult task – behead the notorious Barnardine, who has decided that he is not in the mood to be executed today. Measure for Measure has a dark, edgy humor that anticipates Macbeth’s Porter scene, and will feature our production’s Porter, Bill Rogue, as Barnardine.

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Bill Rogue as the Porter.

Look for us on the playground near the set of Macbeth. We’ll be the vagabonds, the roaming players, believing that theatre still matters, Shakespeare still matters, and that he’s still America’s playwright and the voice of the people.

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Sorcery and Skullduggery: The Return of Free Shakespeare in the Parklet

In 2012, to commemorate SF Shakes’ 30th anniversary of performing Free Shakespeare in the Park in San Francisco, we devised a unique celebration – 30 separate performances of scenes from 30 of Shakespeare’s plays in small parks all over San Francisco– primarily “parklets,” green spaces devised from parking spaces in front of cafes and restaurants. The performances were designed to “pop up” – that is, they were announced only on Facebook and Twitter, and most of the people who encountered them weren’t aware they were about to happen. Suddenly, during the lunch hour, the afternoon commute, or weekend brunch hours, our performers would begin a scene from Shakespeare – about ten minutes long and designed to be self-contained, so that passers-by unfamiliar with the play could still understand what was going on.

At the end of each performance, we announced what had just happened and passed out flyers for Free Shakespeare in the Park. Then we dashed back to the office to post photos on Facebook – not only did we have fans seeing the performances live, we also had a virtual audience following the shows only through the on-line photographs.

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Gabriel McCulloch in Julius Caesar at City Hall.

From the end of July through the end of August, we performed almost daily, using about 75 performers of all ages and backgrounds, including Shakespeare campers, interns, and union professionals. We capped it all off on the 30th day with a community reading of “O for a Muse of Fire” around a bonfire on Ocean Beach, to which all were invited – performers, fans, audience, and a few refugees from another bonfire who happened upon our group.

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Henry V Bonfire at Ocean Beach.

Speaking as the one person who attended every performance and directed a majority of them, it was glorious, it was thrilling, it was a little bit dangerous – everything live theatre should be. It was also exhausting. When asked whether Free Shakespeare in the Parklet will be back again this year, I’ve said yes – but not 30 of them!

How could we not repeat such an exciting and successful experience? And, while repeating it, how could we not attempt to build and improve upon what we’ve done before?

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Jason Kapoor in The Taming of the Shrew at Mission Playground.

This year, we are in the process of planning a total of 15 performances of 9 scenes, plus a communal reading. Three scenes will appear only in San Francisco. Three scenes will appear in both SF and Cupertino. Three scenes will appear in both SF and Redwood City. “Thrice to thine and thrice to mine/And thrice again to make up nine,” as the Wayward Sisters chant in Macbeth. The scenes will revolve around the theme of “Sorcery and Skullduggery” in order to further explore the themes of witchcraft and crime in Macbeth. We will include two of the plays we didn’t get to perform last year – Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part 1 – and also explore three plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, and The Witch by Thomas Middleton.

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Stephen Pawley* in Cymbeline at Cafe Seventy8.

The plays will be presented in roughly chronological order of the time of writing, beginning with Marlowe’s game-changing Doctor Faustus. Christopher Marlowe is an endlessly intriguing character, a sort of cross between Stephen Spielberg and James Bond. Unlike Shakespeare, he was a University man, a graduate of Cambridge. He went from there to London, where from 1587 to 1593, he turned out an incredible string of successful shows before he was killed at age twenty-nine, including The Jew of Malta, Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts 1 and 2, and Doctor Faustus.

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Christopher Marlowe and his fabulous hair.

Not content merely to transform English playwriting, he seems to have also been a secret agent for the Crown, quite possibly spying on English Catholics abroad. While on the one hand he worked for the Queen, on the other he ran into trouble with the Privy Council for “seditious behavior” including atheism. Shortly after he received a visit from Sir Thomas Walsingham about these charges, he was “accidentally” killed in a tavern brawl. Historians have wondered ever since if this wasn’t a little too much of a coincidence.

Arguably, without Marlowe, there would have been no Shakespeare. My favorite kooky authorship theory asserts that in fact, they were the same person – Marlowe wasn’t murdered, but lived, only to disguise himself as the other playwright for the rest of his life.

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Marlowe took the new iambic pentameter verse style that poets such as Sir Philip Sidney had explored in sonnets, and gave it to actors to speak on the stage. As it turned out, iambic pentameter suited the stage very well. In Marlowe’s hands, it had a muscular drive and structure that sounded as natural as a heartbeat. As Bernard Beckerman notes in his introduction to “Five Plays of the English Renaissance”:

Marlowe brought a stunning theatricality to the public playhouse. It was a theatricality that infused both language and action. In the few years leading to the appearance of Tamburlaine, English dramatic style became set, and Marlowe did much to set it. For more than thirty years before him, English playwrights and poets had experimented with stage speech… sometime in the mid-1580s Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd along with him, vitalized blank verse and stormed the stage with it. Whichever of these two men first showed the way, it was Marlowe with his mighty line who hypnotized the London audience.

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Doctor Faustus at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.

Of the top four hits of the London stage between 1588 and 1593, two were by Marlowe – Faustus and the number one hit The Jew of Malta. With these plays and others, Marlowe not only transformed the language of playwriting, he also brought to the stage the Renaissance incarnation of the tragic hero, a man caught between the sacred and the secular. As Faustus sells his soul to the devil, we can see the temptation – he has mastered the other arts and sciences, why not the occult as well? Marlowe makes Faustus’ thirst for knowledge appealing and understandable – as Beckerman says, “That he succumbs to powers greater than his own does not demean his attempt.”

The connections to Macbeth, written a decade and a half later, are clear – not only in the two plays’ shared concern with the occult, but in their ambitious heroes. As with the witches in Macbeth, it’s easy to imagine Elizabethan audiences fearing that Faustus was really calling on dark powers. Even now, his spells send chills down the spine. As he gleefully enjoys the spoils of his new-found power, we feel, as we do with Macbeth, that his comeuppance will be as terrible as his power is glorious.

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Phil Lowery in Macbeth at the Transamerica Redwood Park.

We will present a cutting of the first two scenes of Doctor Faustus this Saturday, July 13, at 12:30 pm in front of the Cupertino Library, and about a week later at an SF location to be announced, featuring Galen Murphy-Hoffman*, Leighland Hooks, Madeline Knutson, and Emily Nappi. (*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)

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Our second scene is from Shakespeare’s early history play The Tragedy of Richard III. Taken from Act I, scene 4, it is an exquisite little one-act all by itself. In it, Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, has been imprisoned in the Tower – he thinks by their oldest brother King Edward, but it’s really due to Richard’s machinations. Clarence pours his heart out to the Master of the Tower, Brakenbury – he’s had a terrible nightmare and cannot sleep, he’s so guilt-ridden over the deaths of the people he killed to get Edward to the throne. It’s all very ominous – it reminds one of Macbeth’s “Sleep no more”– and sure enough, as soon as Clarence is asleep, two murderers appear. And here the play turns deftly from poetic lyricism to comic repartee. One murderer is reluctant, so the other must convince him. Just as Clarence has reflected on mortality, so do the two clowns, until Clarence wakes up and the deed must be done.

Richard III was written in approximately 1592, as a sequel of sorts to the Henry VI trilogy of blockbusters. (We in the 21st century like our superhero movies – for the Elizabethans, the Tudors and Plantagenets were the big box office draw.) Although Richard III is often compared unfavorably to the great tragedies that followed, it is full of delicious scenes and memorable characters.

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Ryan Tasker* and Alexandra Creighton in Richard III at Pizzeria Delfina.

Richard III will be performed at the Oaks Shopping Center in Cupertino, by the big oak in front of Dance Academy USA, at 11:00 am on Sunday, July 14, and on Saturday, July 20 in San Francisco, location TBA. It will feature Ryan Tasker*, Radhika Rao, Tristan Cunningham*, and Brian Herndon*. (*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)

Watch this blog, follow us on Facebook or @sfshakes on Twitter for more information about upcoming Free Shakespeare in the Parklet scenes popping up near you – we hope to see you there!