Two Households – Love by the numbers in “Romeo and Juliet”

I imagine you’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet. Even if you’ve never seen it, it’s impossible to avoid references to it in popular culture. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t a part of our cultural fabric and riffed on in every type of imaginable media, from children’s cartoons to action movies to popular musicals to chart-topping love songs.


Now try to imagine a time, back in the 1590’s, when those two names weren’t household words. They may have been vaguely familiar to some. Although it was originally an Italian story, English readers might have read Arthur Brooke’s 1592 verse adaptation, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet:

Love hath inflamed twayne by sodayn sight.
And both do graunt the thing that both desyre.
They wed in shrift by counsell of a frier.
Yong Romeus clymes fayre Juliets bower by night.
Three monthes he doth enjoy his cheefe delight.
By Tybalts rage, provoked unto yre,
He payeth death to Tybalt for his hyre.
A banisht man he scapes by secret flight.
New mariage is offred to his wyfe:
She drinkes a drinke that seemes to reve her breath.
They bury her, that sleeping yet hath lyfe.
Her husband heares the tydinges of her death.
He drinkes his bane. And she with Romeus knife,
When she awakes, her selfe (alas) she sleath.

At about the time Brooke’s poem was published, a young poet had just arrived in London and was making a name for himself as the author of Venus and Adonis, which was pretty much the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Every housewife had to have a copy of this sexy little volume.


Fondling, she saith, since I have hem’d thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I’ll be a parke, and thou shalt be my deare:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountaine, or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountaines lie.
Witin this limit is reliefe enough,
Sweet bottome grasse, and high delightfull plaine,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure, and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest, and from raine:
Then be my deare, since I am such a parke,
No dog shall rowze thee, though a thousand bark.

Everyone was waiting to see what this young man would come up with next. Rumor had it that he’d been writing some new poems in the sonnet form popularized by Sir Philip Sidney in his Astrophel and Stella, written in 1591. These new sonnets were different from the Petrarchan ones of Italy. Instead of a 14-line poem that started with an octet of eight lines with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, followed by a sestet of six lines that went CDDECE, Sidney popularized a new rhyme scheme with four quatrains followed by a couplet, that went ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. While Petrarch introduced a problem in the octet and solved it in the sestet, Sidney introduced the problem in the first quatrain, expanded on it, then solved it neatly in the final couplet.

The Petrarchan scheme was very well suited for the Italian language, while this new scheme suited the English language. With its simple construction and its final couplet, the scheme was easy to remember and mathematically satisfying. Soon Sidney’s form had taken off among the young lovers of the city, and we can imagine them slaving away to compose odes for their mistresses.

Peachum drawing

A scene from Titus Andronicus, also known as “the Peachum drawing”

Around that time, Shakespeare seems to have become a hired gun for some of the city’s theatre companies, and eventually joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was for them that he began to write a few popular plays, such as The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI cycle, and Titus Andronicus. But nothing he’d written yet had shaken the theatrical firmament. He was still more successful as a poet.

His sonnets weren’t published until 1609, but a few may have already been circulating among his “private friends” in 1594 when he began to work on a unique play that would capitalize on the new sonnet trend.


First of all, he began it with a sonnet:

Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their childrens end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Not only was it unheard of to use a sonnet as a prologue, he also cleverly embedded the “twos” that were so much part of the scheme into it. Two households. Two foes. A pair of star-crossed lovers. Two hours traffic of our Stage.

Shakespeare didn’t stop there. He surpassed himself by actually including a sonnet spoken by two people – the very first moment Juliet and Romeo meet, they speak a perfect poem together, a brilliant demonstration that the two are destined to love each other. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact this must have had on his audience – it would be like us watching a very clever hip-hop musical like In the Heights, in which one popular art form is combined with another.

Zeffirelli hand to hand

Rom. If I profane with my unworthiest hand,
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips two blushing Pilgrims ready stand,
To smooth that rough touch, with a tender kiss.

Jul. Good Pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much.
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For Saints have hands, that Pilgrims hands do touch,
And palm to palm, is holy Palmers kiss.

Rom. Have not Saints lips, and holy Palmers too?

Jul. Ay Pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Rom. O then dear Saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray (grant thou) least faith turn to despair.

Jul. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers sake.

Rom. Then move not while my prayers effect I take:

(They kiss!)

Well, the audience went nuts for this new play. We know this because an unauthorized quarto of the play was published for the mass market, with an introduction stating “it hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely.” It probably made Shakespeare’s reputation and paved the way for his other great tragedies.

Why do audiences respond to R&J with such enthusiasm? Well, sonnets aren’t the only things about Romeo and Juliet that are mathematically satisfying. Dualities come up over and over again as we consider Romeo and Juliet – starting with its title. Not only does it include two names, its lesser-know subtitle includes an antithesis – the most excellent and lamentable tragedy. It also straddles two genres. In the first half, the play is clearly a comedy, full of rhyming couplets, until its mid-point and the death of Mercutio, at which point it becomes a tragedy, and the couplets all but disappear.

Family symbols

The characters themselves exist in pairs. We have, of course, the two rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Shakespeare also gives Romeo two close friends, Benvolio and Mercutio. Benvolio is non-violent and in favor of a measured approach to life:

Ben. I do but keep the peace, put up thy Sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

While Mercutio is reckless and chaotic:

Mer. O calme, dishonourable, vile submission:
Alla stucatho carries it away.
Tybalt, you Rat-catcher, will you walk?


Each lover has an older advisor who is not their parent – Juliet the Nurse and Romeo the Friar. Paris is presented as a looking-glass Romeo, the lover who might have been. Romeo also has two loves, the unseen Rosalind of the first act, and ultimately Juliet. Even the servants appear in pairs in the very first scene, Sampson & Gregory vs. Abram & an unnamed Montague servant.

The language itself is full of dualities and dichotomies. Scholars have made much of the light vs dark and day vs night imagery in the play. Consider this speech of Juliet’s:

Jul. Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus lodging, such a Wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in Cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close Curtain Love-performing night,
That run-aways eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen,
Lovers can see to do their Amorous rights,
And by their own Beauties: or if Love be blind,
It best agrees with night: come civil night,
Thou sober suited Matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Plaid for a pair of stainless Maidenhoods,
Hood my unman’d blood bating in my Cheeks,
With thy Black mantle, till strange Love grow bold,
Think true Love acted simple modesty:
Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter then new Snow upon a Ravens back:
Come gentle night, come loving blackbrow’d night.
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the Face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in Love with night,
And pay no worship to the Garish Sun.

Farewell scene

Or the farewell scene:

Jul. Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:
It was the Nightingale, and not the Lark,
That pierc’t the fearful hollow of thine ear,
Nightly she sings on yond Pomegranate tree,
Believe me Love, it was the Nightingale.

Rom. It was the Lark the Herald of the Morn:
No Nightingale: look Love what envious streaks
Do lace the severing Clouds in yonder East:
Nights Candles are burnt out, and Jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty Mountains tops,
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Jul. Yond light is not daylight, I know it I:
It is some Meteor that the Sun exhales,
To be to thee this night a Torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone –

Rom. Let me be tane, let me be put to death,
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon gray is not the mornings eye,
‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cinthias brow.
Nor that is not Lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads,
I have more care to stay, then will to go:
Come death and welcome, Juliet wills it so.
How is’t my soul, lets talk, it is not day.

Juli. It is, it is, hie hence be gone away:
It is the Lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh Discords, and unpleasing Sharps.
Some say the Lark makes sweet Division;
This doth not so: for she divideth us.
Some say, the Lark and loathed Toad change eyes,
O now I would they had chang’d voices too:
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence, with Hunts-up to the day,
O now be gone, more light and light it grows.

Rom. More light & light, more dark & dark our woes.

It’s interesting to note that most of the scenes in the play take place either during the night or at dawn. One of the dawn scenes is the Friar’s first encounter with Romeo after he meets Juliet. the Friar’s first speech is a feast of antithetical structure, with each couplet providing two contrasting ideas about the same thing:

Fri. The gray ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check’ring the Eastern Clouds with streaks of light:
And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels,
From forth days path, and Titans burning wheels:
Now ere the Sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer, and nights dank dew to dry,
I must upfill this Osier Cage of ours,
With baleful weeds, and precious Juiced flowers,
The earth that’s Natures mother, is her Tomb,
What is her burying grave that is her womb:
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find:
Many for many virtues excellent:
None but for some, and yet all different.
O mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In Plants, Herbs, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile, that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give.
Nor ought so good, but strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue it self turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.
Within the infant rin’d of this weak flower,
Poison hath residence, and medicine power:
For this being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed Kings encamp them still,
In man as well as Herbs, grace and rude will:
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the Canker death eats up that Plant.

Friar Laurence

In this speech, often cut, Shakespeare subtly buries his theme – as the reverse of comedy is tragedy, the reverse of passionate love is violent hate. It is part of the human condition for one to lead to the other. The Friar preaches moderation:

Rom. O let us hence, I stand on sudden haste.

Friar. Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.

And later:

Friar. These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Note again the use of couplets, antitheses, and parallel construction.

When the Friar’s fears prove true, and Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, Juliet responds with a shower of antitheses:

Jul. O Serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face.
Did ever Dragon keep so fair a Cave?
Beautiful Tyrant, fiend Angelical:
Ravenous Dove-feather’d Raven,
Wolvish-ravening Lamb,
Despised substance of Divinest show:
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,
A damned Saint, an Honorable Villain:
O Nature! what had’st thou to do in hell,
When thou did’st bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous Palace.

The poetry and the rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet, which utilize these dualities, are part of what makes the play so satisfying. Just as the human heart is drawn to the paired beat of the iambic foot – da-DUM – our minds respond to sets of two, as if our paired genetic material needs to understand everything through couplings.


In our upcoming production, I am interested in exploring another set of two in the play – the two generations. On the one hand, we have the older folks, the middle-aged parents and advisors – Lord and Lady Capulet and Montague, the Nurse and the Friar. The Prince could also be of this generation, it isn’t stated. As Juliet says:

Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball,
My words would bandy her to my sweet Love,
And his to me, but old folks,
Many fain as they were dead,
Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead.

The parents’ generation is perceived as slow – hopelessly out of touch with their children. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are brought on by the tardiness of the older generation – the Friar’s message to Romeo of his plan to reunite them is delayed by his brother Friar John and arrives too late.

Lord Montague

A historical Lord Montague.

The younger generation, including Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris, and perhaps many of the servants, with the exception of Benvolio tend to act rashly and quickly. They have a secret life unknown to their parents, described by Lord Montague:

Mont. Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh mornings dew,
Adding to clouds, more clouds with his deep sighs,
But all so soon as the all-cheering Sun,
Should in the farthest East begin to draw
The shady Curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy Son,
And private in his Chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair day-light out,
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.

Ben. My Noble Uncle, do you know the cause?

Mon. I neither know it, nor can learn of him.

Ben. Have you importun’d him by any means?

Moun. Both by myself and many others Friends,
But he his own affections counselor,
Is to himself (I will not say how true)
But to himself so secret and so close,
So far from sounding and discovery,
As is the bud bit with an envious worm,
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate his beauty to the same.
Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow,
We would as willingly give cure, as know.

Juliet and Romeo do not tell their parents about their love, having been poisoned by the ancient feud. Ironically, the generations are divided by the very thing that they have in common. Romeo and Juliet were doomed to die, coming as they did “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes” – in both sense of the word, “fatal.”

The play ends not with the scene you remember, of the two lovers committing suicide. That happens by line 169 of the scene. Almost 150 lines later, the play ends. It’s important not to cut all of those last 150 lines, in which the older members of the community struggle to come to terms with what has happened completely without their knowledge. Of the six young people I mentioned above, only the temperate Benvolio is still alive – and not even in that final scene unless the director decides to include him. This is a massive community crisis, and Shakespeare does not end the play until the families are on the path to recovery.

Cap. O Brother Montague, give me thy hand,
This is my Daughters jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

Mon. But I can give thee more:
For I will raise her Statue in pure Gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at that Rate be set,
As that of True and Faithful Juliet.

Cap. As rich shall Romeo by his Lady lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity.

R&J statue

The Romeo and Juliet statue in Central Park, NYC.

One final note – I believe that the structure of the play itself subtly conforms to the sonnet structure. Once again, let’s hear the prologue. The first quatrain sets up the problem:

Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:

In these lines, we have the first scene of the play, and the older generation’s dilemma – what is to be done about the warring families? In this quatrain we have the Capulets’ attempt to create good relations with the Prince through the Ball and the engagement of Juliet to Romeo. We also have the families’ reaction to the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio and Romeo’s ensuing punishment. The older generation has a high-stakes play of its own going on, and knows nothing about the secret romance.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.

In this quatrain we have the main plot of the play – Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love. Although they aren’t mentioned, we also have the Friar and the Nurse’s involvement in the affairs of the younger generation.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their childrens end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.

In this quatrain, we have both threads, the older and younger generations’ stories, woven together and brought to a climax and resolution, all tidily in two hours.

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Traditionally, the final couplet of a sonnet brings with it some twist. At first glance, this one is the humble request for the audience’s attention that prologues of the time often include. It also brings together the two halves of any theatrical experience – the performers and the audience. Read more closely, it’s also an argument for two essential things in human relationships – patience on one side, and hard work on the other. In order for two pairings of people to get along – two households, two lovers, two generations, actors and audience – patience and toil are both necessary.

I hope, when you come to see Romeo and Juliet, this essay will enhance your enjoyment of the production and let you in on some subtleties that you might not have noticed. And until then:

Jul. Good night, good night.

Rom. Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say goodnight, till it be morrow.


GUEST BLOG: OUR HEARTS ARE MIGHTY – My Internship at SF Shakes by Sabrina Rosenfield

20130721_Cupertino opening_3541

(Sabrina Rosenfield, above left, served as a Stage Management intern during the summers of 2012 and 2013, and an Education intern before that. Prior to high school, she attended Shakespeare Camp for many years. She’s now majoring in stage management at Emerson College. She offered to contribute a guest blog about her experience as an intern, and I eagerly accepted. If what she has to say inspires you, our internship application is now available.)

As I’ve gone through my first two months in Boston, studying stage and production management at Emerson College, I’ve found myself thinking about SF Shakes almost every day. For the past two summers, I’ve been a stage management intern for Shakespeare in the Park, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here without those experiences.

In many ways, I feel like SF Shakes formed the intern program around me. When I wanted to do design and stage management for Advanced Shakespeare Workshop, I was able to do that. The next year I became a stage management intern at Shakespeare in the Park. It was an incredible amount of work, but I learned a ton about theatre, and stage management, and myself.

Interns at work

Sabrina backstage with fellow intern Alex in 2012.

As an SM intern, my role changed from rehearsal, to tech, to performance. In rehearsals, I would be on book (during my first college show, where I was also on book, everyone constantly told me how good I was at it – thanks SF Shakes!) and sometimes make rehearsal props (the leek in Henry V as a roll of paper towels wrapped in gaff tape will always be one of my favorites). In tech and performance, I was backstage, doing prop hand-offs, quick changes, and setting up and striking every night. And, for about 30 seconds in Macbeth, I appeared on stage. Don’t let anyone tell you that stage managers don’t want to be noticed – I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.


Performance Interns entertain the crowd with the Green Show “Witchipedia.”

To be totally honest, I had some doubts about going back for the second summer. It’s a lot of hours to commit, and it was hard for me to explain to everyone why I was choosing to not make any money the summer before I left for college. It was a really hard decision to make, and I’m sure I shed some tears my first week of rehearsal, spending long hours in the SF Shakes scene shop while my friends enjoyed their freedom.

By the time we got to Pleasanton I remembered why I had wanted to come back so badly, and why struggling through the long rehearsals was totally worth it. Pleasanton is beautiful, and tech week for Shakespeare in the Park will always be one of my favorites. Stepping onto the Macbeth set for the first time was magical, opening the sliding doors and climbing the ladders. During tech week, we had a two-hour dinner break during which I would eat, read a book, and lie in the grass. It didn’t feel like work – it was warm, and comfortable, and magic. What a fabulous way to spend a summer. In Pleasanton, the nearby Safeway has a Jamba Juice inside it, and I became a gourmet (the Macbeth SM team liked to joke that the angriest they’ve ever seen me was at the inferior Jamba Juice in Cupertino). At night, we did dress rehearsals of the show and in between my handoffs I would hang out backstage with Rainier, Sarah, and Rasika, the three performance interns who played the witches in Macbeth. The times with them backstage are some I’ll always remember.

Hanging Out

That’s Sabrina in the lower right corner, with her Jamba Juice.

Some highlights during my two years as an intern:

– During Henry V, Craig Marker, who played Henry, came offstage opening night snapping frantically and pointing at a roll of gaff tape. It turned out he had split his pants right down the back seam, so we gaffed him back together and sent him back onstage.

– The huge storage container where we store all of our supplies, affectionately called the “bomb shelter” or just the “bomb”, has to be organized just so or nothing will fit. This process, called “Bomb Tetris” is an awesome late-night game I will never forget.

– During the Pleasanton strike for Macbeth, the sprinklers went off. At the time it was the farthest thing from funny, but looking back on it, watching our sound technician Leigh sprint across the field yelling “get the speakers!” is a fabulous moment of theatre I will never forget.


Leigh and his interns at the tech booth in 2013.

The usual stigma of being an intern is that you do all of the work with none of the recognition – but this isn’t the case at SF Shakes. The cast, crew, and staff are so appreciative and it makes working long hours in heat and cold so worth it.

Aside from having a blast, there are two huge things I’ve gained from interning.

The first is the people I have met. I’m still in touch with a lot of interns from the past two years, and there is definitely a bond between us all. When you end up lying down in a parking lot in Pleasanton at midnight, that tends to happen. I’ve also made amazing connections with the SMs and ASMs I’ve worked with. I lived near the stage manager for Macbeth, Justin, so we would carpool every weekend. I’ve been to his house, met his family, and spent countless hours in the car with him. We developed our own inside jokes and, when his assistant Stephanie and another SM intern Amelia joined our carpool, the SM team felt like a real family. Our last weekend before I left, we stopped and got ice cream together. Justin still texts me every so often to check up on me and make sure I’m doing ok on the other side of the country. These are friendships that are worth more than anything.


Intern friends relax backstage in 2012.

The other thing I’ve learned from interning is how to be a stage manager. I already had the interest in high school, or I wouldn’t have done it, but working for an Equity company is miles different from any high school experience. I’ve learned so much from my stage managers Les, Lydia, Justin, and Stephanie. In my stage management class at Emerson, I know a lot more than some of my classmates, simply because I’ve worked in that professional setting. I already know when Equity breaks happen, the differences between straight 6s, 7/8s, and 10/12s, and how long you can rehearse without a meal break. But even more importantly than all of the skills and facts I’ve learned, there is no way I would have known what to do with my life without SF Shakes. Without Shakespeare Camp when I was 8 years, I wouldn’t have gotten involved in theatre. Without being an SM intern, there’s no way I would’ve (or should’ve) decided to study stage management. Theatre is something you have to try before you commit to it. And a summer in the sun with some great people? What a great way to experiment.

So to go back to the question: why intern instead of getting a “real” job? Why work so hard for no monetary compensation?

Answer: because sometimes you have to make decisions with your heart instead of your head. Because some things are worth so much more than money. And isn’t that what theatre is all about anyway?


2012 Interns laugh as the cast of Henry V sings them a closing song of appreciation.

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.

Shakes SC

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.

Lord Chamberlain's Men

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.

Victorian theatre

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:


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!


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.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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.


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?


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.

Ian McKellan King Lear

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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?


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.


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.


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


Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest.

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.

Shakespeare Riots

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…

Actresses 1700s

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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!

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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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?


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.


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.”


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.

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:”


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.


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.

witch woodcut

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.

Painting a27

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?


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!