Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 72
What exactly counts as a Shakespeare adaptation? And why bother in the first place? We talk with three writers who have wrestled with these questions.
Craig Wright is a TV writer and showrunner whose play, Melissa Arctic, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale set in rural Minnesota, premiered at the Folger in 2004 and went on to play across the country. Chris Stezin’s play Mac, Beth, which just ended a run at DC’s Keegan Theater, involves a businessman and his PR executive wife plotting to kill the CEO of Duncan Enterprises. Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri’s new play Tell My Story – Hamlet in the world of online fan fiction – opens this summer as the next work by the DC playwrights collaborative The Welders.
They are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 3, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “It Is A Copy Out Of Mine,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Casey Vandeventer and from Cecily Meza-Martinez at NPR in Washington and Leo Delagula at NPR-West in Culver City, California.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Let me ask you a question. Is this Shakespeare?
[CLIP from 10 Things I Hate About You]
Joseph Gordon Leavitt as CAMERON: You okay?
David Krumholtz as MICHAEL: Just a minor encounter with the Shrew. Your girlfriend’s sister.
CAMERON: Wait, that’s Bianca’s sister?
MICHAEL: Mm. The mewling, rampallian wretch herself.
MICHAEL: OK, same question: Is this Shakespeare?
[CLIP from Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth]
THIRD ACTOR: Yob?
SECOND ACTOR: Yob. Yob! Yob? Polonius, separating kidneys reeks cat boils frankly gangrenous on bit dripping maggots.
THIRD ACTOR: Oh, sod the pudding clerk.
MICHAEL: And one more question: Why adapting Shakespeare? Why bother?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “It is a Copy Out of Mine.”
The clips you heard at the top were from a Hollywood movie and a long-running play. The first was from 10 Things I Hate About You, which hit movie theaters in 1992. The other was from Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Tom Stoppard. Both can roughly be called adaptations of Shakespeare, though that can be kind of slippery as a definition. In this podcast we talk with three people who’ve wrestled with this question and others as they have worked to adapt the plays of William Shakespeare. Craig Wright is a TV writer and showrunner whose play, Melissa Arctic, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale set in rural Minnesota, premiered at the Folger in 2004. In Chris Stezin’s play Mac, Beth (pronounced Mac-comma-Beth), which just ended a run at DC’s Keegan Theater, we watch a businessman and his PR executive wife plot to kill the CEO of Duncan Enterprises. And Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri, whose new play Tell My Story—Hamlet in the world of online fan fiction—opens this summer as the next work by the DC playwrights collaborative The Welders.
The three came in to talk about working with Shakespeare, working around Shakespeare, and when and why they’ve done it. They are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BOGAEV: All three of you seem to come at this issue of adapting Shakespeare very differently; and I say it’s an issue because there is this sense that Shakespeare has been adapted so many times before—why do it again? So I’d love to hear your individual takes on that. And, why don’t we start with you, Alex? What was your motivation in adapting Hamlet?
PETRI: I sort of wanted to do something audacious this year, given the fun of the political climate and given the sense that you can sort of do anything if you just believe in yourself. I mean, if Donald Trump can be president, then I thought, well then I can re-write Hamlet. But also, I was drawn to Hamlet because to me, the nugget of the play that focuses on Hamlet attempting to solve his problems by having a series of actors come in and perform something that happened in his life, when you think about it, that’s a completely ridiculous thing to do. When you’re like, “Ah, maybe there’s been a murder in my life. Why don’t I hire some actors and they’ll perform something for the suspected murderer and we’ll see if that’s a way of solving my problems?” And I thought, what a bizarre thing for a person to do, bet there’s a play in there. So, that was sort of the germ of it.
Shakespeare has been one of those things—I’ve been a Shakespeare junkie for decades and decades and- or decade and decade, it’s just something that’s so much in the culture and comes through our pores so much and that everyone has the sort of the idea that they’ve encountered it in some way and so when you’re writing new work as a playwright, it’s hard to say, “Well, there’s this concept about this thing,” but if you say, “So it’s loosely tied to Shakespeare,” everyone says, “Oh Shakespeare! That thing that I understand and went to school for!” And so, the combination of those two things was really what motivated me.
BOGAEV: Was it like fan fiction for you?
PETRI: Exactly. And that’s what the whole play is about, actually, is what becomes, what gets to be fan fiction, what gets to be literature. The act of using other people’s stories to tell your story is both what I’m doing with this play and is what the characters in the play are doing in order to tell my story. And that’s actually the title of the show, taken from, of course, Hamlet’s last words to Horatio, “Tell my story.”
BOGAEV: Which is really fun to juxtapose fan fiction with Shakespeare. I mean, talk about a high/low. Does it worry you?
PETRI: Well, I think a lot of literature is fan fiction. Shakespeare himself, if you sort of loosely define fan fiction as, you’re taking something that you don’t own and you’re making a story about it, that was what he did with Holinshed’s Chronicles, that’s what he did with other stories that have been loosely floating around the ether. He would take them and he would put some of the best poetry in the English language on to them and suddenly they’d become his. And, there’s a lot of stuff like, Apocalypse Now is fan fiction. It’s just Heart of Darkness, but it’s set in this-it’s a cool Vietnam War alternate universe re-telling. And, so, I was trying to sort of take back the term “fan fiction” as well and say like this is a thing that I’m putting my name on and people can come to see as opposed to something that I’m burying in the bowels of the internet where a lot of fan fiction is put as a labor of love, as opposed to sort of displayed proudly.
BOGAEV: Well Chris, turning to you, your motivation to adapt Macbeth, it seems very specific to a problem that a particular theater was trying to solve and then, and you came in.
STEZIN: Yeah, and I mean it’s a baldly commercial motivation, I have to say, which, you know, is pretty okay I think, given that Shakespeare’s motivation a lot of the time was baldly commercial. But I was talking with the artistic team of a theater, here in D.C. and talking about a production of Macbeth that I was just kind of trying to sell them on behalf of a friend of mine who’s a director and he had this really cool concept production, you know, this heavy metal Macbeth. You haven’t seen Macbeth ’til you’ve seen it with an AC/DC score. But, you know, they were like, “Well, we’ve done Shakespeare a couple of times and it’s a hard sell for us and we think what would be a better sell for our audience is sort of a modern re-telling of a Shakespeare.” And I said, “Well, while we’re on the subject of Macbeth, I can see that working really well in a high-pressure business environment. I think that could be a lot of fun.” And that struck a chord with them and then we were sort of off and running.
BOGAEV: Were you a Mad Men fan? I kept thinking that while I was reading the play.
STEZIN: Of course, yes. Of course I was. I was watching it, like all the time at the time we were having this conversation. And then this was probably right smack in the middle of the run. And the idea of, you know, I mean you watch that show and it’s so clean, sort of the surfaces sparkle and the idea of Macbeth set in that sort of that environment where the violence is bloodless, as it were, that interested me a lot.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s bring in Craig now, and as I understand it, your motivation, and it’s kind of your over-arching motivation, that your motivation comes out of a desire to wrestle with problems in works of art. And almost to cut it down, cut art down to size.
WRIGHT: Well, yeah, that sounds misguided when you say it that way, but I think it’s inherently misguided. I’m a big fan of The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom and he talks about this notion of misprision and how, as a writer, you’re sort of required to misunderstand or miss something about an existing work of art in order to buy yourself the license to continue writing at all. And it’s like, if Shakespeare exists, why write? So, you have to sort of make a mistake in your read of it, or you have to find something, at least that you perceive is a problem.
BOGAEV: Or something that you wrestle with in order to give yourself a wedge into the conversation?
BOGAEV: That’s how I think of it.
WRIGHT: And that wedge can also be historical. It can be that things have changed since then, so that there’s a way in now. And when I read The Winter’s Tale I found myself annoyed on several levels by the fact that the wife had been hidden away in a closet for 20 years. I didn’t—
BOGAEV: 16 years?
WRIGHT: Or whatever, a long time. It seemed improbable to me. It seemed condescending to the male lead and it also, most importantly to me, missed a crucial opportunity which was I felt that latent in the play was the notion that art restores life. And so, I just thought, well, let’s make it really restore life. Let her be dead. It’s certainly a better Act One break. And then I just followed that to its conclusion.
BOGAEV: So, I’m curious, do you often go to Shakespeare for source material or for inspiration, or was it this one?
WRIGHT: No, I’d say it was this one thing. I tend to be interested in a couple things in my work: time and mortality. And so, The Winter’s Tale is really good for that. I’m also big into fertility. So The Winter’s Tale is big for that too. But, other than that, I mean, he’s out there doing his thing.
BOGAEV: So not Lear?
WRIGHT: Well, I’m a big; I’m a huge fan of Lear in a real abstract way. But Lear is so perfect, like even I can’t see the problem. And, I’ll just tell a story real quick. I think the best adaptation or approach to Lear that’s been done is Godard’s movie King Lear which was so good. And in it he has, so Cordelia, you know, I won’t get the line exactly right, but you know Lear is doddering and pissing and moaning and asking his daughter’s to prove their loyalty, and when he turns to Cordelia he’s like, ” Don’t you love me baby?” and she says you know, “I will be the perfect pattern of patience, I’ll say nothing.” And Godard makes that like the marching orders for the artist. So that when culture looks to the artist to say, like, “Feed my vanity, feed my vanity,” the art is looking back at the culture and saying, “I’m not gonna say anything.” That, so first of all, Shakespeare nailed it. If anyone had anything to say about it, Godard did. I can’t even get in the way. That’s like…
BOGAEV: So interesting. It was a very controversial film and, did you know Godard never read Lear? Or saw it?
WRIGHT: More power to him. It’s like he obviously found a way in, he’s like, I know what to do. He certainly understood Cordelia.
BOGAEV: Well he watched all the filmed adaptations of it. So he was basing his understanding of it on, or not really understanding, he wasn’t really interested in understandings of Lear, he was basing his reaction, his engagement with the play on these filmed versions of it. And he said once, “I had a vague idea that there was this girl who says nothing. And that was enough. That was all I needed to know.”
WRIGHT: Exactly, it’s sort of like these, I think these works of art, they’re sort of like giant boulders that fell of the cliff on to the highway and 9,999 people will approach the boulder and say, how will I get around it? And then one person will stop and just paint it. And, that’s the guy you want to be, or the girl you want to be. It’s like, stop trying to get around it and just treat it like a canvas unto itself and move forward.
BOGAEV: That is so perfect. You said that because, and also that you mentioned this Godard film, because I’ll never forget the introduction to that film, that I saw at the 92nd Street Y—although I can’t remember, I think it was Richard Brody from The New Yorker, did it—and he said something like that for Godard, the idea of re-discovery isn’t just a metaphor in that film. That it’s a personal responsibility. Which is an interesting context for this conversation. That it’s a personal responsibility, if you’re going to make an adaptation, that it’s a rediscovery. And that it springs out of that motivation. What about you, Alex? Didn’t you once write a play with all of the women in Shakespeare’s tragedies?
PETRI: Yeah, I love writing with Shakespeare’s characters. Because, I think part of it is, I enjoy having—the play itself was called Tragedy Averted and it was all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroines go to summer camp and fix their lives. And it was sort of a dopey premise, but a premise in the sense that it gets you in the door in a way that a lot of like, “Oh it’s going to be helmed by female characters, and are you excited about it already?” Maybe you’re not. And this was sort of like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of Lady Macbeth, I’ve heard of Ophelia; let’s see what these girls can do.” And so, it was neat and I think it was fun for the actors and the whole idea of The Welders, which is the theater company is we’re a playwrights collective and we’re sort of taking the reins of production back into our own hands and not sort of waiting around for permission to make art. And so I thought it was sort of the perfect fit was to go into this imposing piece of work that’s Hamlet and sort of take the reins of that and try to take it out for a spin and not worry, you know, were we going to crash into the sun. Because the whole concept of how much art do you own, and how do you—are you painting on the boulder—I think is a fascinating one, because, the internet is lovingly wallpapered with all kinds of writing that people have done with characters they don’t own and they just, they run away from The Avengers movie and they thought, “Man, I want to know what’s going on with that character?” Maybe they’d made meaningful eye contact with this other character and they want to see them get together, and so people have written these things. And, teen girls, like a very specific subset of teen girls, grow up sort of learning how to write by taking other people’s characters and figuring out like, what’re their verbal ticks, what are the things that they like and dislike, how do you write a story with them? And there’s this wonderful community of that. And so I thought, wouldn’t that be a neat way of directly engaging with what you’re trying to do when you’re adapting Shakespeare, by being like, yes, this is fan fiction, yes this is the world where this is happening.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s get to this idea of what you keep and what you don’t. Or what you expand on. And in all three of your plays, you all play off of some of the main features of Shakespeare’s originals. Craig, you have the insane raging jealousy, you have the baby who’s raised kind of by a shepherd type who falls in love with the son of the guy who the father was jealous of, and you have Time appear as a character. And Chris, you have the twisted sisters—even though they’re coder geeks in a wi-fi cafe, which is wonderful, and we’ll talk about—and you have the driving ambition, though in your play, the king gets, well first he gets roofied and set up, and then he gets murdered later. And Alex, your Hamlet’s mother is remarrying the man that he thinks killed his father. And, first, why did you choose what you chose to preserve or resurrect and when do you allow yourself to just run wild with the story? How do you navigate those choices? And I’ll start with you, Alex.
PETRI: There’s only so much you can cut away from it and have it still be the thing. It’s like that Ship of Theseus problem, where you take off the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and you replace him with something different, is it still the Ship of Theseus, is it still Hamlet? And I got rid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and I don’t think it did any measurable damage to the play. I think Tom Stoppard can have them, they’re fine, they’re, you know, they’re on a farm upstate or whatnot. But it was fun playing with it and at what point does this cease being recognizably Hamlet and just become its own play? I guess, part of that’s plot and part of that’s tone and part of that’s what do you think the play is about? And if you preserve that thing that you think is the through-line, then everything else that—like the pirates, they’re Deus-Ex-Machina-ing it away and there are not any pirates in my show, but I don’t think that impairs the essence of Hamlet.
BOGAEV: Yeah, or even, does it matter if you get completely away from the play? I mean, I was thinking of Simon Russell Beale has talked about this and he said something like you can do whatever you want with Shakespeare, as long as there’s some coherent emotional sense that harkens back to the text. Chris, how do you think about it? And how does it apply in your play?
STEZIN: It’s interesting because, you know, as playwrights, or maybe I should speak for myself, as a playwright, I’m mostly just interested in telling the stories that I want to tell. So, the way I approached the Shakespeare thing, because I didn’t want to do sort of a slavish recreation, so I just, I kind of read Macbeth, I let it marinade, and I figured, after a certain amount of time, the things that were important would stick with me and the things that weren’t would kind of fall away and I’d have, as you said, hopefully sort of the emotional essence of the play. And I hope that’s what happened. And again, you know, I didn’t feel too bad about that because I feel like that’s probably—and I don’t want to give myself too much credit here, obviously I’m no Shakespeare. But, as Alex mentioned, you know, Shakespeare would take what was useful and he would retell those stories and he would just jettison what wasn’t useful. And he would make the story his own. So that’s kind of the way that I wanted to approach it.
BOGAEV: Well, why were the weird sisters useful to you? Was just that a fun idea?
STEZIN: Because it was a fun idea, I felt like in the way I told it that they would offer a lot of opportunity for comedy, which I thought would be important in this play so that it wouldn’t just be a slog. And then, you know, I mean just functionally in the story, they provide a lot of the impetus, right?
BOGAEV: Right and for people who haven’t seen it, they’re these computer geeks and they’re in a—
STEZIN: Yeah, so, I mean instead of witches, you know, instead of the supernatural we have technology. So, instead of witches, we have these hackers, these computer geeks who hang out in the wi-fi cafe all day. And, you know, that made sense to me and again, just from the function of storytelling, I needed that outside force that sort of planted that thought in my protagonist’s head, “Hey I can be great”. He has that thought planted by the witches and then by his more intimate partner until he comes to believe it and then the dominos start to fall.
BOGAEV: And then the death?
STEZIN: The death of Duncan. Yeah, so…
BOGAEV: Which is at first kind of metaphorical.
STEZIN: Right, exactly.
BOGAEV: The roofying part. He gets set up to be a—
STEZIN: Child molester.
BOGAEV: Gets drugged and then yeah, gets set up to be a child molester.
STEZIN: Yeah. They drug him and take some pictures, set him up as a child molester and then there’s the whole awful, you know, sort of death by media and then he’s sort of shunned by everyone who ever loved him and basically he falls apart as a result of all of this. And it kind of becomes the walking dead, right? He’s effectively nullified. And that’s enough, you know, that’s enough for them to seize power and to make their rise. But at a certain point, memories start to come back to him and then they actually do have to get their hands actually bloody for the first time.
BOGAEV: Well, Craig, how did you think about this then? How did you think about what to keep, what not to, what was the essence for you?
WRIGHT: Not without, not without some prickly resentment. At the risk of sounding like a television writer—
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] I’m never going to get away from that now—
WRIGHT: I think at the outset a lot of these issues are whether the writer identifies them as such or not. Or structural necessities that—if it’s a boat, you know, it’s gonna require this or that or the other thing to be a boat and when it no longer floats, it’s no longer a boat. Now everyone’s gonna have a personal opinion about when it’s a boat and when it’s no longer a boat. And if you have some ingenious idea in your head, you could be the person who says, no it’s still a boat, all you have to do is this, right? But for you, you have to know when it’s a boat and when it’s no longer a boat. And so, Chris, I think correctly so, identifies that Macbeth is not Macbeth without the external pricking of his ambition. It’s a different story. Plus, it’s a story with no beginning. You need Macbeth to be told from outside that something is resident in him that he hasn’t identified yet.
BOGAEV: So his wife is not external enough?
WRIGHT: Apparently not, that’s not how the story works. It’s like, then you’re doing a different thing. And, you’re gonna have to have a different ending. It’s like the structure dictates so many of the things. So, yeah, the weird sisters are really important there. So now, to go back to the way I see it, my tendency and I think you can’t overestimate this, it’s like you could tattoo this on the forehead of every person around you if you had the time, is to remember that being born is a predicament. And, people are born with holes in them and emptinesses and problems to solve. And if you’re an artist, those problems take the form of artistic puzzles. And so slowly you work to fill in the spaces that only you perceive need to be filled. And that’s gonna be—
BOGAEV: And what’s the space that you were filling?
WRIGHT: I’m saying that’s going to be how you approach the problem, what to keep and what not to keep. So, I was really specific. I didn’t change anything except the one thing I wanted to fix which was, she’s really dead. Now, there is one other aspect to it. I transformed it into modern day, modern-ish day Minnesota, out of a sort of a desire to memorialize something I liked about Minnesota. So, I applied that as well, but I’d say that too is filling a space in me that I had to fill.
BOGAEV: You’ve written a series of plays in rural Minnesota.
WRIGHT: Yeah. So, there was that, but I’m just saying, through a sort of combination of the structural necessities of the piece, and your own existential predicament, you find your balance point of what to keep and what to throw away.
BOGAEV: Well here’s a very, pretty minor change, but a significant one, I guess, at the same time, why did you choose to have the dead wife depicted in a painting instead of a statue?
WRIGHT: Oh, that was sort of a combination of things. One, the idea of an actress standing still on stage and then suddenly coming to life just didn’t work for me. Maybe it worked for Shakespeare, it just didn’t work for me anymore, I couldn’t see her standing still that long. But more importantly, in general, I would say except maybe in Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream the depiction of art in art is never any good. And, you sort of have to make a joke out of it. So whenever you do a movie or a play or anything about someone who’s a great painter, it’s like woe betide you if you look at that painting, it’s never going to be as good as you think that painter’s supposed to be. So, to make it a painting allowed me to have it be my really main character. The young girl who’s trying to find, see her mother, who died, who she never knew. My main character is able to be down stage center, looking out at the audience so her entire need for a mother is facing you. Right? So you have total access to her need and the painting is presumed to be right in front of her. And so we get what we really came for, which was the depiction of the need.
BOGAEV: It solves so many problems.
WRIGHT: Yeah. It was pretty smart. [LAUGHS]
BOGAEV: If you say so yourself. So, Chris, I think you said that you went back and you read Macbeth before you started writing the play. While you were writing, did you keep going back and forth reading?
STEZIN: No. No, I didn’t. Like I said, I wanted to just give it a good read. And I’d seen it, obviously, a couple times. So you know, the general contours of the story were pretty familiar—
BOGAEV: And is the idea, because you didn’t want to be slavish to the original or reading it over and over again kind of can kind of get in your head too much?
STEZIN: It can get in your head, and the thing is, and then you start looking at like plot point by plot point and there are a lot of plot points that just weren’t going to be useful to me, you know? So I felt like, yeah, I’ll read it, I’ll soak it in real good and then I’ll just kind of start writing and forget about it. I think I went back to it once. I kind of wanted to check the timing of when Macbeth goes back to the weird sisters and says, “Hey, how’d you know that?” But that’s kind of, I think that’s the only detail I went back and checked.
BOGAEV: So that’s kind of like a craft reason. How about you, Craig? Did you not go back to the original or did you consult with, did you have an ongoing conversation with it?
WRIGHT: No, I consulted it continually. I actually monitored, if I remember correctly, the relative length of each scene so that I wouldn’t allow a scene to go longer, in relative terms, than it did in the original, because I thought, well, this is the time it takes to do this scene. The only one I expanded, I believe, was the hypnosis scene.
BOGAEV: That’s interesting. So…
WRIGHT: In other words, I mean, for instance, like, if I was doing an adaptation of, like, you know, “Someone Like You” by Adele, I mean if that note’s a quarter note, are you going to stretch it into a whole note? It’d be weird.
BOGAEV: Maybe it would spur you; it would free your imagination? Maybe it’d be liberating?
WRIGHT: I did it once. The hypnosis scene is one extended whole note. Otherwise I try to stick to the melody of the piece.
BOGAEV: So would you go back to it when you were having problems too?
WRIGHT: Oh exactly, yeah.
BOGAEV: And why? Would you think well oh, if I’m having a problem it’s because I didn’t make the scene exactly, I didn’t get the same rhythm?
WRIGHT: Well, look, I mean, I don’t know how other people think. But, in general, I’d say there’s this paradox in art, which is that you probably go into the arts as an escape from reality. And yet, to become useful to society as an artist you actually have to become responsible to reality. More responsible even than a person who isn’t doing the work you’re doing. So there’s this terrible paradox. So, you’re always like straying off towards this childish desire to just play and then you have to like—okay that playing informed something, I learned from it now, pull it back. And so, you can come, you can become quite enamored of your own voice so you’re sitting there writing and typing, “Oh this is so great,” well suddenly the play doesn’t work. It’s like, well go back to Shakespeare, look, well guess what? You made the scene go on too long, there’s two extra moves in the damn thing, it’s like, get it back in line. Shakespeare knew what he was doing.
BOGAEV: Alex, you’re nodding. Is that what was going through your mind or was that your process too?
PETRI: For me… it’s similar, because I’ve both written sort of an adaptation loosely inspired by something where you’re coming up with all of your own words and setting it in a different time period, and that’s sort of what this is. But I’ve also done sort of more direct adaptations where you’re sitting there on top of the work and I’ve like—trying to do a musical version of this PG Wodehouse novel, for instance—and we would be sitting there working on it and we’d be like, why isn’t this song working? And the answer would be that we’d forgotten what the scene was about. And if you go back to the text, there’s almost always an answer in the text itself and you’re usually making it harder for yourself than you need to be by thinking, “Well, if I move piece A over here, and I insert tab six into slot nine,” and really if you hue to the structure, all those pieces that are load-bearing pieces that you decided to build your metaphorical ship on, those pieces are there for a reason and they go as far as they go for a reason.
The one thing, I have sort of put the play aside and didn’t consult it scene-by-scene because we’re also losing a lot of stuff, when you’re taking this epic, massively long play with pirates in it and turning it into a much more intimate high school setting that revolves around like the online world, created by fan fiction writers. So, I didn’t want to remind myself of what I was missing and think, “Oh man, maybe I’ve got to, is there a way we can put more ghosts in this thing? We’ve got to, maybe there’s a second ghost?” I didn’t want to have that regret, so I tried to just sort of go back occasionally for language, because people love hearing “In a nutshell!” oh that’s something that is said in Hamlet and therefore that line means that this play has a connective relationship and so many Shakespeare phrases just pass into our language. So having that kind of exchange where you’re sort of winking at the source material and waving and letting it know that you know what you’re doing.
BOGAEV: You know, I want to pick up on something you said way back in the beginning of the conversation, and this gets back to the painting the boulder. Let’s talk brass tacks, just commercial programming for a theater, is it okay to publicize a play as “based on Shakespeare” for marketing reasons? You know, even if there’s really only a drop of Shakespeare in this play? So, how do you, what do you think of that, Alex?
PETRI: I think yeah, it’s totally okay to—Shakespeare’s in the public domain, which is so rare these days for like great works that everyone’s seen. After 1919, the things that everyone knows about and you can sort of grab and run around with are increasingly rare and it’s something that so many people are familiar with and… it’s like a national park kind of. You can go and you can take your dog there and you can throw a Frisbee at it. And people will have whatever response they have to it. It can be a negative response, where they’ll say, “Oh, I’ve heard enough of this,” or it can be, “Oh, I’d love to see that story.”
And I think, I was seeing a production of Romeo and Juliet fairly recently and I was sitting behind an old man who got more and more indignant as the show went on because he—finally he turns to his companion, because Juliet’s doing her monologue, and he goes, “She’s playing it for laughs.” And he couldn’t believe that Juliet was getting laughs out of this language. And I thought, well that’s why people keep going to see Shakespeare! Because you can keep doing things with it and you can get…these nuggets of it, and you don’t have to use the exact words to tell the same story. And any chance to get everybody together talking about the same thing—in a culture where everyone’s sort of on their own corner of the internet, having their own conversation, when you have something like Shakespeare where everyone still has this connection to it in whatever tangential way—that’s really exciting and should be cultivated as much as possible.
BOGAEV: I’m gonna call that the drunk Shakespeare hypothesis. Which I just recently saw. Craig, what are your thoughts on this?
WRIGHT: I would say, yeah, whatever you can get away with goes. It’s like if at your theater that saying that gets people in, do it. If it doesn’t, if you’re just looking for a well-made play and you can find a young playwright who can invent anything on his or her own that works. I say you can find someone who can at least found something that worked and copied it, well God bless, make a play that works. There’s no rule.
BOGAEV: I just mentioned drunk Shakespeare and it’s kind of crazy to think about it, but it applies because at the end of this particular production I saw, which was Romeo and Juliet, the nurse kills Juliet so she no longer commits suicide at the end of the play, and a number of the other people in the audience had had quite a bit to drink and they were arguing whether it was still Romeo and Juliet if Juliet doesn’t also commit suicide.
WRIGHT: Well, I would say, by my standards, it sort of isn’t. Because to me, the rule of Shakespeare for me would be the actions have to happen and that’s—
BOGAEV: Right, you’ve laid that out.
WRIGHT: So, yeah, I like that. Again, I just want to call attention to something, which one of my favorite stories ever, my friend Paul Sparks was in a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And there’s a very famous speech in the middle of the play where they talk about being in a box, and how would you know if you’re in the box? And, the director had designed the production so that prior to this there had been two rather long pauses. And so they do the box speech—and remember, the way has been prepared by these two massive pauses—and they do the box speech and then they just stood there and they did not do the rest of the play. They just were like, “How would you know you’re in a box?” And they stood there until the audience left.
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] That is so wonderful.
WRIGHT: It was so good. Such a good idea.
BOGAEV: There must have been some mad people though.
WRIGHT: Oh yeah, really mad, they were yelling, they were yelling at the actors, “Who do you think you are? What is this? I want my money back!”
BOGAEV: That’s theater. That is theater.
PETRI: How many nights did that run? That sounds amazing.
WRIGHT: Oh, it ran and ran.
BOGAEV: Chris, I didn’t mean to leave you out of this.
STEZIN: That’s okay, I’m actually still stuck back thinking about how many productions of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen where I wished at least one of those would have taken a quicker dirt nap.
PETRI: [LAUGHS] Just kill Juliet as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter who does it, just get her out of there.
STEZIN: Juliet or actually Romeo, Romeo’s more annoying, but anyway…
WRIGHT: Well, honestly, if you kill Juliet early he’d probably fall in love with Mercutio.
PETRI: [LAUGHS] Mercutio was there for that.
STEZIN: Now there’s a play. I might go write that one.
WRIGHT: Anyone want dibs on that thing?
STEZIN: [LAUGHS] I’m not giving you any money if I write that Craig. I do think the theater-going public is more versed, if you will, in Shakespeare.
STEZIN: Hey, hey, I’m here all week. And I, and like Craig and Alex, I think that anything goes, you know. If you can say, you know, based on an obscure line from an obscure, never-performed Shakespeare play, and that will sell you some tickets then, you know, go with God and sell some tickets. If it gets people into the theater, you know, as far as I’m concerned, anything goes.
PETRI: There’s also though the reverse engineering of like, “Oh well, I saw this Baz Luhrmann movie and I guess it was based on this thing from a long time ago,” where by continuing to talk about this thing you’re insuring that maybe 50 years from now we’ll still be having conversations like this.
STEZIN: That also brings up, interestingly enough, the other side of that coin, which is when you do something like we’ve done, you know, is that piece gonna stand on its own? For someone who doesn’t have that frame of reference, who’s maybe not so schooled in Shakespeare, will they go into the theater and watch that play? And be able to follow it from beginning to end with no troubles? And come out saying, “Hey, you know, that was a good story, well told, and that was a good evening in the theater, Shakespeare notwithstanding.”
BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much. This has been fantastic. I just really enjoyed talking with you all and meeting you all.
STEZIN: Same here, thanks so much.
WITMORE: Craig Wright is showrunner on the Oprah Winfrey Network megachurch drama series, Greenleaf. His Melissa Arctic, an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, premiered at the Folger in 2004. Chris Stezin has twice been nominated for the Helen Hayes Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play in Washington, DC. His play Mac, Beth ran at DC’s Keegan Theater in January 2017. Alexandra Petri writes the “ComPost” column in the Washington Post. Her new play Tell My Story will open July 22 as the next production of the DC playwrights collective, The Welders. Alex, Chris and Craig were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“It Is a Copy Out Of Mine” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Casey Vandeventer and from Cecily Meza-Martinez at NPR in Washington and Leo Delagula at NPR West in Culver City, California.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.