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

HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE: Casting Shakespeare for Today’s Audiences

A few weeks ago, in our weekly intern company meeting, I did a session about casting. After we went over the basics of headshots, resumes, cover letters, and interview etiquette, I set them a task – cast the 9 major roles of Romeo and Juliet (Romeo, Juliet, Nurse, Friar, Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio) from a large pile of headshots and resumes. The only parameters were that 5 of the actors had to be Equity, 4 non-Equity. I had carefully selected a stack of about 50 of the Bay Area’s top actors. Half were actors of color, and there were equal numbers of men and women.

The 15 students were divided into three groups of 5. Each had to present their choices, then explain them to the rest of the group.

The first group consisted of 5 bright, talented young people – 4 female, one male, all white. The cast they chose was also all white. They cast men in every role except Juliet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse. When I questioned them why they didn’t think about more racial diversity, or about casting women in some of the men’s roles, they looked startled, then a little sheepish. The young man said, “Oh. Well, we didn’t have much time, so we just did the easy thing.”

Aha.

I understand where these kids were coming from. As a member of the privileged white upper-middle-class, I know it is all too easy not to examine my choices. It’s way easier to go with my culturally programmed, default mental image of a character than cast someone whose face may not immediately come to mind when I think “Romeo.” But those of us in that privileged position have to stop doing the easy thing. We must pause and reflect. We must say “what if.” We must do this about race, about gender, about body type, about sexual orientation – about everything that makes us different from one another. There’s nowhere that I go in my community where all the people are white, or male, or slender, or straight.  But we all know how many films, TV shows, and plays feature mostly people of that description. This homogenization has affected how we all think – Juliet is forever white and lithe with long flowing hair in many of our minds, regardless of our cultural background. But only a very small number of real 14-year-old girls fit that description. How much more fresh and illuminating can it be to see her portrayed differently?

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Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet.

At SF Shakes, we feel incredibly lucky to have the audiences we do. Most theatres are dying to attract the kind of age, economic, and racial diversity that we get in our “theatre” every night at Free Shakespeare in the Park. But the diversity of our audience makes it even more critical, and even more urgent, that we start doing a better job of reflecting that audience on stage.

I’ve heard several arguments over the years to explain why theatre companies in general, and Shakespeare companies specifically, don’t cast more diversely. Here are some of the most common:

1. Shakespeare didn’t write enough roles for women/actors of color/deaf actors/you name it. You’re right. He wrote roles for able-bodied white men only, because those were the people allowed to perform on stage while he was alive. At that time, scores of people also died from the plague and thought everyone in the Southern Hemisphere walked upside down. We’ve learned some useful things since then. Besides, I believe Shakespeare wrote great CHARACTERS, to be played by the best actors at his disposal, and if we were alive today, he’d cast differently.

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B. Chico Purdiman as Benedick and Rebecca Kemper as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2012.

There is a core challenge to running a classical theatre – no matter how diversely we cast, at the end of the day, Shakespeare is a dead white guy. As much as I believe that his stories and characters have universal significance and appeal, I know the word “universal” itself is problematic, because it’s usually the white cultural elite who decide what that means.

Let’s be real, there’s some horrible racism in Shakespeare, and some heinous sexism, and we can’t do the plays without tackling that. But here’s the thing – Shakespeare’s dead, but his plays are living texts. There’s a reason they weren’t published at the time they were first performed – they were constantly changing even then. So I feel just as great about casting a female Hamlet as I do about cutting the line “liver of blaspheming Jew” out of Macbeth.

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Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899. You go, girl.

When I was in high school, I read Hamlet, and something happened. I didn’t relate to Gertrude. I sure as heck didn’t relate to Ophelia. I GOT Hamlet, and if you’d said to me, “but you can’t understand Hamlet, you’re not a guy,” I would have said “yeah, and I’m not Danish either, nor did my uncle kill my dad and marry my mom.” My 16-year-old soul was Hamlet, and that was the role I wanted to play. I think Shakespeare’s words belong to me, and to anyone else who wants to claim them.

2. The audience won’t follow the story if you cast women/actors of color/etc. We have been casting non-traditionally for SF Shakes’ Shakespeare On Tour school and library touring program for 25 years. The kids in the audience, many of whom have never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare, don’t have any problem figuring out who’s who. I recently saw Beli Sullivan, a female actor of color, play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Company, utterly convincingly. Audiences want to see well-performed, well-told stories. Directors and producers should not project their own biases on the audience, or assign them prejudices they may not possess. And if they do possess these prejudices, the play becomes a forum in which to confront them.

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Safiya Fredericks, Beli Sullivan, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Festival.

3. There aren’t any well-trained classical actors of color/women/etc. I’ve heard this one a lot from white directors – “I’d cast diversely if there were any actors of color with Shakespeare experience.” Where do people get experience? From being cast. Besides, who is judging the talent in this situation? Usually a white director or producer, with that cultural bias I mentioned earlier. “Good classical acting” is in the eye of the privileged. Diversity must be embraced on all levels of the organization – if we’re really going to fight bias, the decision-makers can’t be all from the dominant culture either.

There’s an unspoken, insidious feeling in the Shakespeare community that if you have to cast a woman, it’s because you weren’t able to get a man to play the role- and therefore the show won’t be as good. The fact is, there are dozens of talented, well-trained female actors available for work at any given time in the Bay Area – 50% of the casting pool (see the Counting Actors Project for some statistics of how many are working every month). All creative directors have to do is what players in Shakespeare’s time did in reverse – assume that women can play men’s roles, as much as men can play women’s.

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Lisa Wolpe as Iago in Othello at LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

4. There just aren’t enough actors of color in the Bay Area. I’ve often heard “I want to cast diversely, so why don’t actors of color come to our auditions?” I’ve felt this often myself. According to the 2011-12 annual report, Actors’ Equity Association’s national membership is approximately 85% white – pretty discouraging if you’re a casting director.

There are a lot of class-related reasons for this disparity – whites are still at the top of the income bracket, and when upper- and upper-middle-class kids go to college, their parents can house and feed them while they take unpaid internships at non-profit arts organizations, or support them through the early desperate years as young performers. The result is an artistic elite – largely white, largely college-educated, often subsidized by mom and dad – and fewer actors of color in the casting pool. There are cultural reasons as well – if there are no actors of color on stage, non-white audience members don’t see themselves represented, and it may never occur to talented young people that this is something they can really do.

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Armando McClain as Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare on Tour 2010.

Does that let producers off the hook? No. I spoke to a few Bay Area actors of color who feel discouraged to audition for many companies, ours included, based on what they’ve seen us produce. As one actor said, many actors of color feel they can work more if they head to LA or New York, instead of waiting around for the obligatory August Wilson or David Henry Hwang piece.

We have a responsibility as cultural leaders to make sure our stages represent the population of the Bay Area – not only to reflect our audience, but to demonstrate that artistic expression is a basic human right, and that careers in the arts are open to all.

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Mia Tagano as Olivia, Stephen Klum as Feste in Twelfth Night, Free Shakespeare in the Park 2004.

So enough excuses –  besides reflecting our audience and pursuing social justice, here’s the most important reason to cast diversely:

1. It’s better for the art. As Hamlet says, “holding the mirror up to nature” is the right thing to do. It’s also essential to the work itself. Actors with varied life experiences bring different perspectives on the text, stories and characters. We’ve been performing Shakespeare’s plays for over 400 years. Would we still be performing them if we insisted on all-male casts, if they were only allowed to be performed on London’s South Bank with a permit from the Queen, or if they were never translated into other languages? I doubt it. Constantly looking at the plays from new angles has kept them alive and flexible.

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Top: Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar. Bottom: The RSC’s African Julius Caesar.

When I consider an actor for a role, I’m looking at so many things – the timbre of their voice, the way they move, the way their face expresses emotion, the way the atmosphere changes when they make a choice, the way they engage with the other actors on stage. Race, gender, size, and physical ability are all a part of this. There is no such thing as “race and gender-blind” casting. ALL casting means something, and one must always be mindful of what it means. Actors, as soon as they get up on stage, acquire a set of quotation marks – they are symbols. Their physicalities, their voices, their mannerisms all become a set of signals that the audience responds to, as each member of that audience projects his or her experience onto that actor. It is “easier” to identify with someone who looks, sounds, and acts like you. But it expands your humanity and deepens your empathy to identify with someone who looks nothing like you. (Bitter Gertrude has a great blog post on this topic.)

Can a person of color identify with a white actor? Of course. Can a woman identify with a man? Sure. They do it all the time. But let’s ALL try doing it, say 50% of the time.

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Alex Lenarsky as Celia and Maria Giere Marquis as Rosalind in Impact Theatre’s As You Like It.

Here’s the thing – if we really believe that Shakespeare is for everyone (and at SF Shakes we do, passionately), white directors and producers like myself can’t stand up on stage as privileged arbiters of taste, passing down wisdom from our enlightened perch like beneficial medicine. This will only contribute to the perception of Shakespeare as elite and difficult to understand – a problem that certainly didn’t exist 150 years ago, when even the most illiterate prospector in the West knew a bit of Shakespeare by heart. If we want a better world with more equality for all, we must show women in positions of power. We must show people of color as fully developed, multi-faceted humans instead of stereotypes. We must hire actors of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities, representing all the great diversity we see around us in the real world. Staging Shakespeare as living texts, constantly evolving over 400 years of history, gives us that opportunity.

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Radhika Rao as Brakenbury, Ryan Tasker as Clarence in Richard III, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

We’re practicing some mindful casting with the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet program this summer. We have 50% men and 50% women in the Parklet shows, and 40% actors of color – up from 30% last year. Our upcoming Shakespeare On Tour production of “Julius Caesar” has a rotating cast of 12, 58% women and 42% actors of color. And we’re making a commitment to build on this for all our productions to come. We will strive to improve gender parity and diversity on stage in future seasons, with the goal of 50% men, 50% women, and 50% actors of color in our casts. And we’ll embrace diversity offstage as well – I’ll get off this soapbox regularly to make way for our Resident Artists, who have varied backgrounds and nuanced ideas of their own about Shakespeare, social justice, and theatre.

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Maryssa Wanlass as Casca and Melissa Keith as Cassius in Julius Caesar, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

Remember that casting exercise I did with the intern company? The next two groups took a good look at their “Romeo and Juliet” casts. When they presented their nine actors, they had women playing roles like Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio and actors of color playing Romeo and Lord Capulet. They explained their casting in thoughtful ways – instead of “She just looks like a Juliet. She’s so pretty,” or “He was the only old guy we could find, so he has to be the Friar,” they said things like “I had a class with her and she’s so wise. She’d be a great Friar Laurence,” and “His cover letter is so passionate about Shakespeare and he’s done stage combat – he’d be a perfect Romeo.” They were looking harder, thinking creatively, and moving past what was “easy.”

“Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be: all difficulties are but easy when they are known.” – Measure for Measure

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Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest.

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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