Defining Classics: On “Traditional” (Pt. 4)

Uncle Vanaa (Photo by Al Foote II) 

YEAR-END ISSUE: Defining Classics
Resident Dramaturg KATE FARRINGTON examines the word “traditional” in all of its deceptively complex connotations when applied to theatre.

On “Traditional” (Pt. 4)

The Familiar:
“Traditional” American Shakespeare?

One of my favorite professors in college was 85 years old. She’d designed our intensely classical English Lit curriculum, so I suppose we had her to blame/thank for being flung into The Iliad on day one of freshman year and not coming up for air ‘til we hit Omeros in the spring. For those of you who know the term, you’ll understand when I say she was a New Critic through and through. Text was everything to her.

She was a reedy little woman with a halo of white hair and a lilting southern accent straight out of Faulkner. She had lived her life studying, teaching and championing the power of the written word. Even more impressive, she’d done it with a visual impairment—she always made me think of Greek oracles or blind seers.

One day, in the wake of a marathon debate about Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, our class started discussing the complexities of writing novels in a pluralistic society. In her always mild tone, she told us not to focus too narrowly on the novel as a cultural weathervane. She believed we were entering a post-literary world. The long-form written word might not be the wave of the future and we should be prepared for a return of the recited or visualized epic poem told to listeners around a fire—or a screen. You could tell that the idea excited her. “We’ll be like Homer,” she said simply.

That exchange had a deep effect on me. To be able to take a long view of human cultural trends—to think of the novel or the play or even webisodes as different but equally important expressions of human art and ingenuity was inspiring. For a woman of 85 to offer the idea was humbling to my 21-year-old self.

So in thinking about our third definition of “traditional” (partiality to a favorite style from an earlier cultural moment) I can’t help but think of Dr. Louise Cowan, who always tried to imagine on a larger scale.

Theatre is wonderfully malleable. One culture favors masks, another favors puppets. One time period insists on happy endings, another can’t get enough tragedy. Sometimes actors are required to be larger than life, sometimes life-sized is just right. Sometimes playwrights are made much of, sometimes (most of the time) they barely scrape by. Theatre changes to meet the needs and expectations of the time.

But once theatre has answered those needs, once audience expectations turn into complacency, it’s time to challenge them. Theatre thrives in the process of change. And that means what we consider “traditional” shifts with each generation. What was conventional to an audience in 1600 was a style of acting we would find stilted, loud, and stiff. Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet was fascinating and right for its moment—but I don’t think you could sell the same interpretation today.

And that’s the way it should be.

The last 100 years of classical theatre in America have been a whirlwind. We began the 20th century with productions of Shakespeare boasting live rabbits bounding through onstage forests or monarchs in real suits of armor—our own version of Naturalism where the design was as important as the action. Those productions were all about spectacle.

In the mid-century, while American Realism was in its prime, classics largely continued to reflect a period visual approach. But it was combined with modern psychological depth, where the actor and the actor’s interpretation reigned supreme. I think of the Theatre Guild, or the touring productions from London with Olivier and Gielgud.

In the 1960s and early 70s, launched by productions like Peter Brook’s carnival-esque Midsummer Night’s Dream or Richard Burton’s stripped down, ultra-hip (or should I say mod?) Hamlet, America dove into our own exploration of the avant-garde in Shakespeare, and the stage saw work by directors of startling vision.

It was the text itself that seemed to take star billing in the 1980s and ‘90s with scholars debating hidden Catholic codes or searching for authorship clues (leading to some fantastically nuanced productions), or blockbuster movies like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet going for an uncut version of the play as a bold move. This was, in many ways, the “avant-garde” of the late 20th century—to dig into the words on the page. And it was here that The Pearl began its journey.

Now the world of classic theatre is shifting again—has been for a while, in fact.

Ours is a visual world. Images and spoken word are the primary communication touchstones in a digital world where we’re constantly being asked to split our attention between six different tasks. Emojis are our version of pictograms—hieroglyphs instead of words, racing through cyberspace conveying metaphor and emotion.

We are also inheritors of an ever-shifting and diverse cultural landscape that reflects more openly and proudly than ever before the variety of experience Americans bring to the table. And I would argue that in a very real way, our spoken, visual, and endlessly diverse cultural world bears an intriguing resemblance to Shakespeare’s own. His audience was literate, yes, but books were a luxury most working class people (the bulk of Shakespeare’s audience) couldn’t afford. Reading was a practical skill used for business. Language was a game to be played with new words popping up to replace old ones every minute. Poetry was heard, seen, and above all felt—not read.

Does this mean that Shakespeare’s text is doomed to languish in a pictogram world? Not at all. It means that the current crop of directors and actors have taken the previous generation’s textual work to heart, and are ready and eager to find new ways to convey Shakespeare’s complexity, diversity, depth, and nuance—ways that will have maximal impact on the post-literary generation Dr. Cowan so presciently foretold.

Perhaps no generation of directors has faced such an intriguing challenge—but I think they’re up to the task.

The 21st Century Pearl

I said at the beginning that you might be surprised what approach to classical theatre The Pearl favored.

All of them.

As champions of great plays across history, The Pearl’s mission is to find the best way to tell a story in the moment we’re telling it—to find an approach that evokes a true emotional response in our audience. That is how we best serve the spirit of these plays and these stories—by never letting ourselves be governed by a single school of thought, but instead opening ourselves up to the full range of possibilities these tales bring with them. Sometimes that means highlighting the gorgeous “otherness” of a classical work by luxuriating in a play’s original language, setting, and style. Sometimes it means challenging accepted notions about a play by reimagining how we might tell the story—with what actors, in what landscape. Always we will strive, as we always have, to be true to the spirit of every play and to honor (without being slavish) a playwright’s hopes for his or her work.

This season we’ve already offered you a Shakespeare play that celebrated our (and your) familiarity with the work by coming at it from a new angle. In the spring we’ll bring you a classic play you probably don’t know—Georges Feydeau’s Le Dindon, in a translation that lovingly and laughingly evokes a past where romance and mayhem go hand in hand. And we’re honored to bring you a heartbreakingly beautiful adaptation of The Seagull in Stupid F***ing Bird—transporting the emotional complexity and frustration of Chekhov’s world to our own.

Theatre is an ongoing conversation between artists and the scripts they take on, between audiences and the stories they want to hear, between the needs of past, present, and future. Theatre must embrace tradition and innovation in equal measure.

We are so grateful to have an audience that is as keenly interested in the conversation of theatre as we are—that understands the larger story of why these works matter and that wants them to stay vital for generations to come. We were glad that Midsummer was able to spark such a wonderful conversation and we’re excited to share the rest of this important season with you.

Thank you. Thank you for caring enough about The Pearl that we felt we had to respond to your comments in the detail they deserved. Thank you for making it possible for a classical theatre to survive and thrive in New York City. Thank you for adding your voices and your support to the story of theatre. We can’t do this work without you, and we wouldn’t want to.

I look forward to seeing you in the spring!


Kate Farrington

Kate Farrington
Dramaturg and Associate Artistic Director


Click here to support the work of Kate Farrington and The Pearl!

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Defining Classics: On “Traditional” (Pt. 3)

Sean McNall, Carol Schultz, and Joey Parsons in "The Rivals" (Photo by Al Foote III)

Sean McNall, Carol Schultz, and Joey Parsons in "The Rivals" (Photo by Al Foote III)

YEAR-END ISSUE: Defining Classics
Resident Dramaturg KATE FARRINGTON examines the word “traditional” in all of its deceptively complex connotations when applied to theatre.

On “Traditional” (Pt. 3)

The Expected:
Finding New Doors

I know what A Midsummer Night’s Dream looks like in my head.

It’s verdant, green, and lit almost entirely by fireflies. The Duke’s palace looks like a rustic English country house with (totally anachronistic) ionic columns. The forest is all oaks and weeping willows on gently rolling hills. When I read the play that world is as present to me as my own.

All the plays in my head are like that—fully realized landscapes only I can see. I know them like old friends. I also, of course, know what “my” Jane Eyre, Bleak House, and One Hundred Years of Solitude look like. And with the novels, my head (and yours) is really as far as the authors ever intended their stories to go. Our individual imaginations are the fullest realization of their vision.

But the plays in my head are incomplete. The art of theatre is the art of collaborative imagination, and a play’s script is not its full realization but its starting point.

Our second understanding of “traditional” is less positive than the first. For people who are not solely moved by authorial intent or ruffs and hose, a traditional Shakespeare production can seem like a wasted opportunity to connect to a play in new and different ways.  Let’s talk about what makes this impulse to seek out the new and different such a crucial part of theatre’s history.

Imagine the blueprint of a house. Looking at it, we can see clearly where walls, windows and doors should go, and measure in our minds the height and depth of rooms, stairs and counters. We can see the flow of the building.

But if you gave that blueprint to 17 different architects, you’d end up with 17 totally different houses. Colors, accents, architectural movement and decoration would all be as unique and personal as the people who chose them.

Theatre is exactly the same. A production of a classical play may be just one of a long line, but only once will that particular group of actors, director and designers come together to tell the story. Their production will be different from every other version out there, even if the exact same lines, scenes and actions take place. And, of course, each audience brings something different to the story as well—Merchant of Venice in 2015 evokes utterly different reactions in an audience than it did in 1815. Same blueprint—utterly different final product. Each Shakespeare production is unique and may or may not have any direct relation to the play’s original run.

And to tell the truth, we couldn’t fully reconstruct Shakespeare’s original productions if we tried.

We know basic stylistic facts: men played all roles; there was at least some minimal doubling of roles; there was little in the way of props or scenery (at least in the public theatres), and what was used was moveable; actors wore contemporary dress, often fashionable cast-offs donated by wealthy patrons; lighting effects were minimal, even in the indoor spaces like Blackfriars; most plays, comic or tragic, ended in an antic post-show dance by the actors.

But we don’t know precisely what stage conventions were employed to turn a teenage boy into Cleopatra or how realistic the effect was. We have no records of specific props, costumes or sets. We don’t know what the music that accompanied Shakespeare’s songs sounded like. We don’t know which roles were doubled, or, with a few notable exceptions, who played which parts.

We don’t have a single visual image from the original “run” of any Shakespeare play.

Most interesting of all, the scripts that have come down to us were never published by Shakespeare himself—the first authorized collection of his plays wasn’t published until seven years after his death. How much was taken directly from the scripts The King’s Men owned—and how much influence did the company’s actors have on word choice or cuts? Shakespeare certainly wasn’t there to “proof” the text.

In the absence of such historical detail, we must instead rely on the power of the script and the imagination of artists to spark a really good production. And it’s those later, non-original and period-tampering imaginations that have kept Shakespeare going strong.

Theatre, forever and always, is about change. A particular style rises to popularity, flourishes, and is then challenged and supplanted. Each generation reinvents the form for itself—and those blasts of innovation, of rejecting the status quo, have led to the most profound moments in theatre history.

If David Garrick hadn’t decided to turn Shakespeare into a vehicle for his particular talents in the 18th century, the “bard of Avon” might not have reached the widespread popularity he did—even if Garrick’s cut texts would be considered mutilations today. If Edmund Kean had not sacrificed clarity of story for emotional impact, the Romantic era would have been the poorer. If Henry Irving hadn’t turned the plays into operatic (lengthy) evenings or if Gordon Craig hadn’t cloaked them in brooding expressionistic grandeur—if Gielgud and Olivier hadn’t championed their lyrical beauty the 20th century would have lost important influences. If  Peter Brook hadn’t unleashed their inner id or if Julie Taymor had not filled them with visual poetry—Shakespeare would have languished long ago.

Would we have liked all these earlier productions? Probably not. But each of them was right for their particular historical moment and helped advance the reputation and evolution of these plays onstage. Shakespeare relies on the kindness of strangers—his scripts, his significance, lives or dies on the talent and innovation of men and women who generation after generation “finish” his work.

And yes, sometimes the search for new approaches leads directors and actors down blind alleys. We’ve all seen that happen. (Ask me sometime about a truly unfortunate production of King John I saw a few years back.) But it is that spirit of exploration that drives all theatre forward—and, at its best, ensures that theatre survives.

Our production of Midsummer presented actors playing multiple roles in contemporary clothing filling a relatively undecorated space with body and voice. I can’t think of a more direct shout-out to what we do know of Shakespeare’s original performance conventions. And that director Eric Tucker created a distinctly “modern” (though never purely 2015) onstage world also mirrors Shakespeare’s own contemporary approach to building a play—on a giddy mix of mysterious lands and pop culture.

I don’t go to the theatre to see the plays in my head—I go to see the plays in other people’s heads. I go to see actors say a line in a way I’ve never heard it, or make a choice about a character I would never have thought of. I follow directors who place the play in a landscape that is strange and unfamiliar, one that I have to think about before understanding. I go to have my vision of the play expanded, enriched, and, yes, sometimes challenged.

I talked before about the “time travel” aspect of theatre. Time machines should work both ways. For some people the thrill lies in seeking out authorial intent—in going to the world of the play. For  others it’s the excitement of innovation, of seeing a classic play catapulted into the modern world through directorial intent, that moves them  Some of the most profound moments I’ve had in the theatre have transported me to Elizabethan England. But others, equally poignant, have air-lifted the play right to my doorstep. My theatrical life would be the poorer without both of these experiences.

Whichever path you choose, “Shakespeare’s Play” can only be completed when actors, designers director, and audience bring it to life. Whether that happens through period costumes or contemporary settings, all artists are attempting the same feat—to finish the work William Shakespeare began.

And, as we’ll see, each generation does that a little differently.


Next: Traditional as “The Familiar” |    Read Part 1 |    Read Part 2


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Defining Classics: On “Traditional” (Pt. 2)

A Winter's Tale (Photo by Richard Termine)

Rachel Botchan and Dominic Cuskern in "The Winter's Tale"

YEAR-END ISSUE: Defining Classics
Resident Dramaturg KATE FARRINGTON examines the word “traditional” in all of its deceptively complex connotations when applied to theatre.

On “Traditional” (Pt. 2)

The Original:
Searching  for Shakespeare’s Play

A season or two ago a somewhat exasperated patron asked why no one could just “leave well enough alone” when it came to costuming a Shakespeare play. Why put so much effort into creating a 20th century look that, for her, had nothing to do with the world of the play? We asked her what look she preferred for Shakespeare—Elizabethan? “Victorian or earlier,” she answered. “But better to not pick a time period at all than the wrong one. Why not just use…nebulous robes?”

I confess I smiled at bit (does anyone else think Nebulous Robes would be a great name for an Aristophanes character?) but I get what she meant. Tying Shakespeare’s plays too directly to any time period has its share of potential pitfalls.

This particular audience member falls into the first of our three definitions of “traditional”—people who want to see Shakespeare’s play unencumbered by what they see as detritus. These plays have survived because of their inherent strength and too often what we “do” to them makes them seem smaller (to these audiences) than the play on the page.

Based on conversations we’ve had in the lobby, here’s a small sample of what it seems people are looking for when they want a “traditional” (“Original”) production:

Language: Fidelity to text should be the cornerstone of a production. There’s no need for modern interpolation or improvisation with language this rich.

Casting: All major roles should be played by individual actors with little prominent doubling. Or if there is doubling, it must be justified by Shakespeare’s text and not simply a director’s concept.

Setting: Victorian propriety, medieval grandeur, and Elizabethan opulence all have their place, but setting Shakespeare in a contemporary world diminishes the scale of the story. Hamlet doesn’t need to take place in Denmark in all its 16th (or 13th) century glory, but courtly majesty has more to contribute to the Prince’s story than contemporary teen angst or corporate ennui.

Costumes: People rarely ask for faithful Elizabethan garb, but, as with modern setting, there’s something about seeing Portia in pearls and a cocktail dress that doesn’t sit right for them.

These stances have great merit. When I teach A Doll’s House, I always ask my students to remember that Nora is wearing a corset. Why? Because when wearing a corset your emotions have to be kept in some control—if your breath gets away from you, you put yourself in danger of fainting. You move with more deliberation because there is a constant niggling constraint on you. What a perfect expression of Nora herself, yes? Even if the director chooses to set A Doll’s House on the moon, understanding that original constraint is important to how an actor might approach the character.

As a dramaturg it’s my job to be deeply aware of the importance the original cultural milieu of a play. It matters that when Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice Jews had been officially banned  from England for centuries. It matters that stunning roles like Katharine and Cleopatra, that all female roles, were played by teenage boys. It matters that James I had different artistic tastes than Elizabeth I and that Shakespeare wrote to accommodate that. It matters that Shakespeare worked within the rules of blank verse and that when he chose to break those rules he did so deliberately for a particular effect.

But when we say we are looking for “Shakespeare’s play,” do we really mean that we want to visually re-create (or invoke) the original physical setting? Do we mean we want the text exactly as written?

Stephen Greenblatt famously starts Shakespearean Negotiations with the statement: “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.” I honestly teared up the first time I read that sentence, because…yeah. That’s what I wanted—had wanted since I first fell in love with history and classic theatre. There are moments when I’m watching an actor speaking words written 450 years ago, wearing clothes I’ll never wear, standing in a place totally removed from my world, and I get chills. Voices that should have been silenced by time are speaking to me, sharing universal fears and desires , as real and human today as they were then. I feel a kinship with people and places I’ll never actually see. That’s magic.

Or not magic at all, but time travel. Classic theatre is our way of traveling to long-gone worlds—and the visual cues that period sets and costumes give us can bridge the centuries between us and Shakespeare’s London. We want a production to connect us to that first performance.
But it is also true that it isn’t only the visual world of the play that does that.

When we say we want to see “Shakespeare’s Play” what we often mean is that we want to know what it felt like to stand in The Globe and be awed by the sheer power of “To be or not to be…” or be startled by the empathy of  “Hath not a Jew eyes?” We want to share in the moment in 1595 when an actor stood on a stage and spoke brand new lines of poetry that would echo across the centuries. We want to experience in the here and now the emotional urgency of long ago. We envy Elizabethan audiences not because they saw an “authentic” version of the play, but because they felt the force of the play in a way that’s hard to recapture—it was all revelatory to them. But we—burdened as much as buoyed by our knowledge of how questions of race, gender, and governance have evolved—have to work damn hard for the novelty and immediacy they took for granted.

So do we always need period dress or setting to get there? And in a world where we perform Shakespeare’s Play, what is the job of the director and designers? Is it simply to get out of the way of the script, to not burden it with extra-Shakespearean material?

Midsummer is one of the most popular plays in Shakespeare’s canon—meaning, we’ve all seen our share of productions. We’ve time-traveled to myriad times and places with this play and have been impressed by social hierarchy, poetry, and passion in those experiences. So maybe, in this instance, time travel isn’t the way to commune with the play.

For director Eric Tucker, Midsummer’s raucous comedy and consistent feeling of surprise became key touch-points. He wanted an audience to feel, as a 16th-century audience certainly would, the full brunt of the topsy-turvy world Shakespeare imagined into being. No ruffs or hose necessary.

If what matters is our emotional reaction to the play, then, whatever approach—corset or cocktail dress—that can get the job done is equally worthy of exploration.

So having talked about the merits of the “corset” approach, what is the counterpoint to this more historical or literary model in search of the original?


Next: Traditional as “The Expected” |      Read Part 1 here.


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Filed under: General