Professional actors. Professional productions.

When is a Shakespeare Festival not a Shakespeare Festival?

June 7, 2011 - 9:06 AM

This is a guest blog post

by Bruce Wheaton Co-Founder and Associate Artist

When is a Shakespeare Festival not a Shakespeare Festival?  Setting the Door Ajar.


This fall, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company will revive one of the most influential productions in its bright fifty-year history-- Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss.  What?  The traitors.  Say it aint so.  This is the Royal Shakespeare Company, not the Royal Whatever Company.


Actually, the RSC has routinely produced alternatives to Shakespeare over the last five decades.  The English version of Marat/Sade was first offered in 1966 and blew a much-needed air hole in 20th Century theatre.


Of course the RSC hasn’t forgotten its namesake “S.”  He’s their touchstone, their artistic anchor, their budgetary bedrock.  Don’t worry--the RSC is always loaded for Bard.  But that doesn’t mean the company doesn’t sometimes stretch its legs a bit by producing such writers as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard—or Peter Weiss.


Live theatre is an art form that thrives on freshness and shrivels under routine.  The RSC has stayed vital because it knows that from time to time it must look outside the canon for fodder if it wishes to invigorate the imaginations of its actors, directors, and designers—if it wishes to touch the imaginations of its patrons.


Besides fresh ideas, live theatre requires vigorous attendees.  Offering an occasional alternative to Shakespeare can broaden the audience pool for the entire range of offerings.  “Shakespeare isn’t my cup of tea—but, gee, I liked Marat/Sade.  I think I’ll give Hamlet a try.”


The RSC is not the only Shakespeare company that regularly produces works by other writers.  The practice is common in North America, too—perhaps even the norm.  The rationale for doing so is that strong.  Check the schedule of Canada’s prestigious and long-lasting Stratford Shakespeare Festival.    Look at the offerings of two of the most respected and durable Shakespeare theatres in the U.S.—The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Asheville and Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. 


Such groups thrive for decades on end not because they maintain a narrow focus on their central author but because they routinely expand the context in which Shakespeare’s plays live, breathe, and engage patrons.


Sometimes things need to change to stay fundamentally the same.  In 1966, as the RSC prepared to open Marat/Sade, Bob Dylan visited England with a group of back-up musicians later known as The Band.  Dylan was feeling pinched by the routine of acoustic folk music and invited the fellas to turn on their amps.  The crowd boo’d at the electric sound.  “Judas,” shouted one purist from the back of the hall.  Dylan turned to Robbie Robertson and whispered, “Play [extremely] loud.”  He did—and folk music was never the same—and better than ever.


This summer, Iowa City’s Riverside Shakespeare Festival will present-- in repertory with Two Gentlemen of Verona-- Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill.  It is a change, for certain, something of a break with tradition here—but one that might be welcomed by those eager to see the local festival prosper, grow, and continue to reinvent itself. 


Come on guys.  Play it loud.

Written by Bruce Wheaton

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