Out, Out, Brief Candle: The Fleeting Nature of Summer Shakespeare

Do you remember summer sleep-away camp? That bubble of time that seemed to both last forever and be over much too fast, that indescribable mix of sensory experiences – the dirt under your fingernails, the smell of campfires in your hair, the taste of mess hall pancakes, the squishy squeak as each kid in your cabin turned over in their sleeping bag. The friends you made – how you talked about everything, spilled your deepest secrets, told your best lies. The last day, when the new friends tied bracelets around your wrists, hugged you and promised to write. Then your parents picked you up and drove you by the mall on the way home, where the back-to-school displays were up in every store, and you knew that that magical time was over, done, filed under memory.

Summer Camp

Since Tuesday, I’ve been staying in Pleasanton, preparing for Macbeth to open this Saturday. This is the first time in my 12 seasons with the Festival that I have stayed on site, and as I joked with my interns the other day, it feels a lot like Shakespeare sleep-away camp. As we mop the stage after unexpected morning rain showers, nap in the shade in the afternoon, or beat off the June-bugs that dive-bomb our heads at night, we’re forming friendships, arguing about politics, learning who we are. We’re all very different, but it doesn’t matter, because we all love Shakespeare.

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Summer and Shakespeare have always been intertwined. In Queen Elizabeth’s time, all theatres were open to the sky, so the start of the theatre season came with that other blessed and magical time in England, spring – when the grey fog of February and March began to lift occasionally, and daffodils began to push through the frozen earth.  It’s hard for us in Northern California to understand that shift in the very quality of the air, which brings with it a vague anticipation, an intangible longing.

I am addicted to that feeling, and that’s why I do theatre.  Like summer, a play exists for only a brief moment. It is born in anticipation and ends with nostalgic longing for what is gone. The friendships made over the course of one production can last a lifetime, or they can dissolve into air, into thin air.

Shakespeare Camp Staff

No pictures or video can ever really capture the feeling of live performance, though they may serve as triggers for memories. As Clayton Lord argues in Theatre Bay Area’s outstanding book Counting New Beans, memories are the always elusive, eternally thrilling reason that audiences attend the theatre:

“What we traffic in is memories. Theatre, particularly, but all the arts, are representations of abstracted or concrete parts of this world, pushed out from artists to audience with the goal of sticking in the head. We are memory makers.”

Lord goes on to say that memories are more vivid, more “sticky,” when the arts experience is preceded by some kind of pre- or post-performance engagement. Those of us who make the art know this is true – we have lived and breathed the show 24-7 for what we call “tech week.” Everything else falls away, and this play, these people are our only world. Our memories of the experience are stronger, our connection to the arts organization much more powerful.

Hanging Out

We want you, our audiences, to experience theatre in the way that we do – as something anticipated with joy, completely immersive in the moment that it exists, and remembered with longing. Counting New Beans cites Alan Brown’s report to the Irvine Foundation:

“From the resurgence of knitting circles to the growing legions of rusty musicians and aspiring storytellers, Americans are activating their own creativity in new and unusual ways. This phenomenon is not limited to culture, but part of a larger ‘participation economy’ in which social connection eclipses consumption. Increasingly, Americans want to meet the people who make our products, share in the work of the makers and make things ourselves.”

Witches

At SF Shakes, we want to engage deeply with you, making your experience with us personal and memorable. At Free Shakespeare in the Park this year, our intern company performs a Green Show called “Witchipedia” half an hour before show time. This 15-minute comedy presents historical and social context for the play in a fun, kid-friendly, audience-interactive way. For years, our Shakespeare Campers have had the opportunity to perform the same play that we present for Free Shakes, allowing them to develop deep connections to the story and characters. This year, we will experiment with post-performance “pub chats,” either in a local restaurant close to the park venue or virtually, over Twitter. Finally, our new Shakespeare For All program, directed by Education Program Manager Steve Muterspaugh (who also plays Banquo in Macbeth) makes creating a Shakespeare production a collaborative community experience, in which first-time actors appear on stage with SF Shakes professionals.

Queen Bess

For some people, summer means a favorite campsite, a vacation cabin in Tahoe, a trip abroad. For me, and for my friends and colleagues here at SF Shakes, summer means the smell of cut grass in Amador Valley Community Park, meal break runs to Safeway and Starbucks up the street, a mix of sunscreen and bug repellent on the skin, car trunks full of picnic blankets, sunhats, scarves and mittens, late nights coiling heavy cables, the smell of gas from the generators, gallons of fake blood, very real sweat, and occasional tears. Sure, we could be doing indoor theatre, somewhere with a roof protecting us from sun, wind, and rain, but that wouldn’t feel like summer. It wouldn’t really feel like Shakespeare. In the park, we can imagine what it was like to be those other Players, 400 years ago – June-bugs probably dive-bombed their heads as well.

We hope that for you, too, summer means packing a delicious picnic, finding the low-backed beach chairs that didn’t break last summer, digging out the sunscreen and the wide-brimmed hats, packing the warm blankets and layers for when the temperature drops, and coming out to the park to take part in the magical, fleeting thing that is live theatre. As the sun sets over the stage and the incredible language of Macbeth lures you into its thrall, put away your phones, your cameras, those futile attempts to make permanent something that was meant to disappear. You’re part of something transitory and elusive, something that exists only for that moment, something that we hope will become a cherished memory. Perhaps you’ll recall the words of Puck at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.”

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My Voice is in my Sword: Violence in “Macbeth”

Last Friday, I went to see our young Shakespeare campers perform scenes from Macbeth and Twelfh Night at McLaren Park in San Francisco. During the brief intermission between performances, a few rambunctious young campers leaped on stage and at the command “Die dramatically!”, they enthusiastically stabbed themselves with cardboard daggers, chopped their own heads off with paper swords, and performed various other horrific deaths, all to the delighted laughter and applause of their parents. As one of our favorite camp t-shirts says, “It just wouldn’t be summer camp without swords, daggers, and poison.”

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Later that day, I watched our Macbeth and Macduff rehearse their thrilling final confrontation as staged by choreographer Andrea Weber and reflected on our relationship with violence. When is violence just good clean theatrical fun, and when is it something deeper and more disturbing? Should children ever perform violence? I’d like to argue that controlled exposure to stage violence, followed by reflection and conversation, can actually help children and adults understand the darker side of what it means to be human.

It’s pretty much impossible to live in America in the 21st century and shield ourselves and our children completely from violence. From the school shooting of the week to terrorism across the globe, we’re daily reminded of the worst side of humanity. We struggle with the eternal questions – are human beings essentially good, but flawed by society? Or are we sinful and violent at the core, and control those dark instincts only through education and other civilizing influences?

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As R.A. Foakes argues in his fascinating book “Shakespeare and Violence,” it’s probably a bit of both. “Human beings, especially males, have been addicted to violence since myths and legends first circulated and recorded history began,” he writes. “It appears that we have instinctual drives that prompt us to defend ourselves when attacked, to use violence if necessary to protect family, tribe, or nation, as well as to maintain or improve status.”

Shakespeare, Foakes posits, was deeply interested in the problem of violence. In his early career, like many of the other playwrights of the time, he used violence as spectacle, designed to provoke enjoyment and catharsis, much like modern-day summer action flicks or video games. My teenaged interns always ask when we’re going to do Titus Andronicus – the ultimate horror-action flick, Shakespeare’s Tarantino play, in which the violence is so over-the-top that it eventually becomes comic. I think, as does Foakes, that kids are attracted to it as a safe way to work out violent impulses: “If all humans are capable of violence… then one reason we are fascinated by violence on TV or movie screens may be because watching and identifying with it harmlessly releases impulses everyone has and normally represses.” The bloodbath of Titus looks like fun because it doesn’t ask a lot of difficult questions or present very complex characters, but it does give actors and audiences the opportunity to experience horror in a safe way, easily shrugged off when the play is over.

Titus

If Shakespeare’s earlier plays made violence into entertainment, his later plays, like Macbeth, take a much more nuanced approach. In the great tragedies, he seems interested in what “turns on” the violent instinct – the turning point from which there’s no going back, when the protagonist abandons his nobler impulses and gives in to the heart of darkness.

What made Shakespeare want to dig deeper? In 1605, the greatest terrorist plot of Shakespeare’s lifetime was discovered and averted –  the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholic dissenters attempted to blow up the House of Lords and the King himself. No doubt this extraordinary event obsessed the Jacobeans, and influenced their culture as strongly as 9/11 has transformed ours. Macbeth, probably written between 1603 and 1606, contains clear references to “equivocation,” the tactic used by Catholic priests to deny involvement in the plot. They argued that crimes committed in the name of God, for a holy purpose, were not crimes at all – a belief not unlike those of today’s jihadists. (For an excellent theatrical treatment of this era, read Bill Cain’s play Equivocation.) Here’s the Porter in Act II, scene 3:

“Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.”

porter2

Shakespeare’s audience would have found these references hilarious – but Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in a good laugh at the priests’ expense. As many of us wonder what leads people to blow themselves up in a crowded marketplace, or open fire in a classroom full of children, he wanted to know what leads people to commit violent acts in the first place.

James Gilligan, in his 1996 book “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic”, argues that every act of violence is preceded by an incident of shaming, in which the perpetrator is made to feel less than human. In Macbeth, this moment probably comes after Macbeth tells his wife about his strange encounter with the Weird Sisters, and she urges him to take fate into their own hands. At the top of Act I, scene 7, Macbeth decides NOT to murder Duncan:

“We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.”

Lady Macbeth then delivers two of the most shaming speeches in all of Shakespeare (and probably all literature):

“LADY MACBETH: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

MACBETH: Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH: What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

Lord and Lady M

By calling into question his very manhood, she shames him into performing the murder – and that one act, that tipping point, leads him down the road to serial murder, as we see later on, in Act III, scene 1, when Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. As he has been shamed, he shames the low-born men:

“MACBETH: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter… so of men.
Now, if you have a station in the file,
Not i’ the worst rank of manhood, say ‘t;
And I will put that business in your bosoms,
Whose execution takes your enemy off,
Grapples you to the heart and love of us,
Who wear our health but sickly in his life,
Which in his death were perfect.

SECOND MURDERER: I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Have so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.

FIRST MURDERER: And I another
So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune,
That I would set my lie on any chance,
To mend it, or be rid on’t.”

Macbeth and the murderers

The scene supports Foakes’ thesis that violence is both an intrinsic part of human nature and nourished by bad treatment, poverty, and difficult life circumstances. Real men, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both argue, have violence in their nature and aren’t afraid to kill. The murderers, who have been living in terrible circumstances, are inclined toward violence through nurture.

Macduff, later in the play, offers an alternative type of manhood, after learning Macbeth has killed his family:

“MALCOLM: Dispute it like a man.

MACDUFF: I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:”

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True manhood, Shakespeare seems to be saying, does not lack the instinct for violence, but tempers it with other feelings. Macduff’s first impulse is not to revenge, but to fully experience grief.

When we teach stage combat at our Shakespeare Camps and other education programs, we engage with both the need to make violence cathartic and fun and the need to make it real and meaningful. With older campers, we use the exercise known as “Air Broadswords,” devised by our colleagues at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts. It culminates in two performers retaining eye contact through a death scene, until one of the partners eventually “dies.” When we do this exercise with teens, we’re able to discuss what it really means to lose someone, and how violence has deep consequences. Using the final fight of Macbeth in which Macduff slays his former friend and ally in combat, we’re able to both enjoy his righteous revenge and experience his grief.

Macduff slays Macbeth

Some of our audience members have asked if our production of Macbeth is appropriate for children. I don’t want to answer for every child – it may be too scary for some – but I do want to argue that engaging with violence on stage, in a safe context, can lead to valuable discoveries and important discussions. Children and teens may start the play thinking the stage fights are awfully cool. We hope, by the end, they’ll reach new understandings about the causes and consequences of violence.

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Present Fears and Horrible Imaginings: Making “Macbeth” Scary Today

I saw Joss Whedon’s new film of “Much Ado About Nothing” yesterday. It’s more good than bad. I got the greatest enjoyment out of listening to the teens behind me gasp and giggle at the things they didn’t know were coming. You know you’re doing something right when there’s a huge reaction to “Kill Claudio.”

Joss Whedon movie photo 1

The film is set at an idyllic California mansion (Joss Whedon’s, actually) very much in the present day. Which led me to ponder again – what’s great about Shakespeare set in the here and now? What doesn’t work at all? Do you have to update the language or not? (Whedon’s film doesn’t  – other than a few pronouns for male characters switched to female – and yes, it’s slightly jarring to hear “Italy” constantly mentioned, and references to doublets and armor seem momentarily out of place, but we get over it.) And most importantly – have human beings changed significantly in the last 400 years? Are we incapable of appreciating the same things as the Early Modern audience, we with our short attention spans and our visually fixated culture, or can we still be tempted to turn off our devices and simply listen? Do the same things delight us? Do the same things frighten us?

At our annual gala on May 1, I was introduced to a tall man, a stranger to me, as the new Artistic Director. “A-ha!” he said. “I have a bone to pick with you.” This gentleman’s complaint was that we have not, in the last 12 years or so, set any Free Shakespeare in the Park production in the original Elizabethan or Jacobean period. This is true. Our Resident Director, Kenneth Kelleher, tends to update things. He believes that modern audiences need more visual cues, more connections to our own time and place. He references the status indicators of the period – military uniforms and crowns on the men and skirts on the women – but hangs out primarily in the 20th century. Also, as I explained to my new friend at the gala, Elizabethan costumes are prohibitively expensive. All those slashed sleeves, codpieces, and puffy pants will cost you – check out the museum at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, with its high price tags for costumes made using original practices. Today’s Shakespeare companies have good reason to update.

Our upcoming production of “Macbeth” is set in a non-specific modern period. You won’t see any kilts, and references to Scotland and specific thanes will be downplayed. These choices are small and subtle. Where we’ve made bigger changes is in the world of the Witches.

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In King James’ England, witches were a very real concern. The King himself published a popular book called “Daemonologie” instructing good Christian citizens how to spot the work of the Devil:

The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished.

Witches were not cute children in pointy hats, or heroic figures like Hermione Granger or Professor McGonagall (though surely it can’t be a coincidence that she’s Scottish.) They were deformed, half-human creatures, Faustian beings who had given up their souls in exchange for great powers. Fear of them kept people awake at night.

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Do any of us lie awake at night for fear of witches? It’s unlikely. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies have all been recently revived in the popular culture, and can still inspire fear. But witches have been rendered benign (Bellatrix Lestrange notwithstanding), and not just by J.K. Rowling. “Bewitched”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed” all featured cute, sexy, lovable witches. I can’t think of the last time a wizened, ancient, warty witch made a frightening appearance in popular culture – probably Disney’s Tangled, but even she had a sultry alter ego.

“Macbeth” should be a scary play – chilling, thrilling, huddle-close-to-your-neighbor-on-the-picnic-blanket scary. If the Witches aren’t scary, we’ve got a problem. Ken knew this from the outset, and came up with a solution. If you look back at film, books, TV over the last half-century – what do we modern-day humans find scary?

Children.

creepy children

Think about it. From “Children of the Damned” to “The Omen”, “The Shining”, “The Exorcist”, and even the recent “American Horror Story”, creepy kids terrify us.  I’m not a psychologist, but there’s something about creatures that ought to be innocent and harmless turning on us that freaks people out. For some reason, it’s easier for modern audiences to believe that the Devil could lurk in an innocent child than in an ancient old hag.

So – Ken suggested a trio of very weird little girls as our witches, or Wayward Sisters. I was delighted – it makes sense, it will be scary, and besides, what an opportunity for some of our up-and-coming young actors! We’ve cast a terrific group – Rainier Pearl-Styles and Sarah Young of San Francisco and Rasika Raghavan of San Jose. Yes, they look innocent now…

Witches larger

As for the text, we’ve trimmed the witch scenes significantly. Arguably, when King James first saw the play in 1606, much of the witches’ language wasn’t part of the production. It’s likely that Act 3, scene 5 and parts of Act 4, scene 1 were written by Thomas Middleton, a younger playwright. Several songs in the Folio text of “Macbeth” (1623) are pulled directly from his play “The Witch”. Since these songs didn’t exist yet when Shakespeare wrote the play and were probably added after his death, most directors cut them, along with the Hecate scene of 3.5. Middleton’s witches seem more modern – rather adorable and fun, like the Fairies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Double, double, toil and trouble” (4.1) is probably Shakespeare’s own creation – in our production, we’ve turned it into a creepy nursery rhyme instead of a cauldron spell. You can learn it with us at this year’s Green Show, presented about 30 minutes before show time. It’s called “Witchipedia,” and yes, it features playful, funny witches, more in the Middleton or Rowling vein.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – what is scary to you? What delights or annoys you about modern versions of Shakespeare? You can write your comments here or just say hello in the park in a few weeks – we can’t wait to see you there!