Artistic Directors Talk Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 10

Shakespeare's words and stories may be timeless, but what does that mean when you stage his plays for a modern American audience? That's a challenge that artistic directors relish as they explore the plays' many possibilities. This podcast episode looks at some of the ingenious approaches they’ve come up with, as well as the thinking behind them.

"What's Past Is Prologue" features the voices of artistic directors from Oregon to Minneapolis to Washington, DC. These interviews were first conducted for the Folger's NEH-funded radio documentary series, Shakespeare in American Life, produced in 2007 to commemorate the Folger's 75th anniversary.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © September 10, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "What's Past is Prologue," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster. The music was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams. We had help gathering material for this podcast series from Amy Arden.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director.

This podcast is called, “What's Past Is Prologue.” It features the leaders of American theaters talking about how they keep Shakespeare alive. In 2007, the Folger presented a radio documentary series called Shakespeare in American Life, in honor of our 75th anniversary. Though the series was three hours long, a good deal of material was left out on the cutting room floor. We're happy that this podcast allows us to share some of those interviews and the insights and ideas they contain with you now. Still, we wanted to mention the timing, since some of the people have moved on to other jobs since we interviewed them.

How do you take words and stories written by a 16th-century Englishman and make them relevant to 21st-century American audiences? Well, that's a problem theater directors face every season, when they decide to remount Shakespeare. Here's a look at some of their ingenious solutions, as well as the thinking behind them.



GORDON EDELSTEIN: I'm Gordon Edelstein. I'm artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre and we'll be presenting A Midsummer Night's Dream.

JOE DOWLING: I'm Joe Dowling. I'm artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, and this season, we will be doing Hamlet.

PJ PAPARELLI: I'm PJ Paparelli. I'm the artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Juno, Alaska, and I'm producing Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night this season.

LIBBY APPEL: I'm Libby Appel, and I'm the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

BARTLETT SHER: My name is Bartlett Sher, and I'm the artistic director of the Intiman Theatre, and this season, we are producing Richard III.

GERALD FREEDMAN: My name is Gerald Freedman, and I'm dean of the School of Drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

MICHAEL KAHN: I am Michael Kahn. I'm the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.


[CLIP from Hamlet:]

Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.

EDELSTEIN: When you have the joy of having Shakespeare live in your theater, you are reminded why he is a towering figure in the history of drama.

[CLIP from The Tempest:]

Full fathom five thy father lies.
    Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
    Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change       

SHER: So much of modern drama has come from Shakespeare and having him in the season once a year allows our audiences to see the greatest theater from 400 years ago, as well as the greatest theater from now.

[CLIP from As You Like It:]

Are you he that hangs the verses on the trees, wherein Rosalind is so admired?

I swear by the hand of Rosalind, I am he, that unfortunate he

DOWLING: It isn't just a matter of how Shakespeare fits into the season. Shakespeare's always at the heart of the season.

[CLIP from Othello:]

            I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites!


PAPARELLI: When we watch these plays, we learn so much about behavior, why people do the things they do.

EDELSTEIN: Quest for power, romance, shifting cultures.

KAHN: Political discourse makes you take a look at Shakespeare differently.

DOWLING: We identified so much about our common humanity, so much about civil discourse, so much about politics, so much about philosophy, psychology, so many different areas of human existence.

KAHN: Shakespearean characters can behave one way in one scene, another way in another scene, and that is their character. They're neither good, bad, noble, whatever, and that's what makes them very modern.

DOWLING: There's nothing in the contemporary world that I can think of that Shakespeare didn't write about.

[CLIP from Love's Labor's Lost rehearsal, Shakespeare Theatre Company:]

KAHN: Dumaine and Longaville, could you, when you sit down, end up over here, on this side, both of you together? All right, let's just see how that would go.

KAHN: People say to me, "Gee, it's always surprising that your plays seem so topical." Well, yes, no. My favorite story was when I did Timon of Athens. Now, Timon of Athens, a play written by Shakespeare, which is really talking about the growth of capitalism in Jacobean England, but he set it in Periclean Athens. His audience didn't know anything about Periclean Athens. Well, so he transposed the period to talk about things that are happening in his own time, about boom and bust.

And I thought, you know, I'll do what Shakespeare did, we don't care about Jacobean economics. So, why don't I set it in the '80s? I did it in 2000. Because it seemed to me that it was important to remember that there had been a boom and there was a bust, we're back in another boom. I thought that’s an interesting play to remind us of the problem. It was very successful, which was nice for a play that's considered sort of runt of the litter.

But I got a letter back from an audience member, with all their tickets for the season torn up, and saying, "I'm sending this back to you. I'm very angry. You're trying to influence the presidential election." I was so thrilled by that letter, to think that a 450-year-old play could make somebody so angry that I was addressing this election, the fact that it influenced the election, [LAUGH] but the fact that somebody could feel this about a classical play was thrilling. I wrote back to her, I said I was terribly, terribly sorry that she was that upset. And it was the best letter I'd ever got from an audience member, because it made getting up in the morning worth it.

PAPARELLI: Why do people keep going back to the same bloody 33 plays? I mean, there's a lot of plays out there, but there's something about these plays that are truly healing at the end of the day.

APPEL: When people go to see the plays, it's as if for the first time. They're experiencing them all over again, not in a familiar way, but rather in a way that excites their sensibilities in new ways.


DOWLING: There's a certain kind of illusion that you have to trick up Shakespeare to make him relevant. Shakespeare's genius is like the great geniuses of composers, such as Mozart or Beethoven. You don't have to trick them up to actually create the genius into that contemporary audience, see the genius.

SHER: I generally don't tend to be a person who is all that interested in, "Should it be updated? Should it be anything else?" Because the stories almost never really require it. What most people misunderstand about what makes Shakespeare contemporary is, they always want to make the answers to that based on period, or language, or old versions of what they saw when they were a kid, versus what makes it actually relevant in the context that you're doing it in the moment.

DOWLING: There is no "trick" to Shakespearean production, other than to actually listen to the text and to play the play with an honesty and a directness.

PAPARELLI: What the tendency has been is, "Let's try to make this accessible in another way," rather than really taking the time to understand the technique of how to make the lines clear, understanding what the form is.

KAHN: If it's kabuki, or in roller skates, or it's in, you know, farthingales, as long as somehow the ideas come from the text and are expressed with the text.

DOWLING: I've seen productions with motorcycles onstage that have worked perfectly well, and I've seen productions where everybody is dressed like gangsters that were perfectly awful. So, I think it entirely depends on what the vision is, and whether that vision is realized in the director's reading of it.

KAHN: If your concept gets in the way of telling the story that's written, so that it obscures what you're talking about, then that makes it inaccessible.

FREEDMAN: My guiding principle is, "What effect do I think Shakespeare intended this to have on his audience, and how can I create that kind of immediacy now, today?"

PAPARELLI: There was this period of time where everyone was modernizing Shakespeare, and I think now, and I've found myself as a director, creating a more timeless world now, one that feels half in the past, half in the present. But I'm hoping that people have started to come back around to understanding that the real power of a Shakespeare play is in the language, and that we've kind of exhausted all these sort of external ways of making it accessible.


APPEL: I still get the occasional letter of, "Why can't the festival go back to showing us Elizabethan Shakespeare? I'm not interested in seeing your modern interpretation."

SHER: I think that "traditional" performance in people's minds means something from either Stratford, Ontario, in the '50s and '60s or the Guthrie in the '70s.

DOWLING: "Traditional" usually means played in a way that became fashionable during the Victorian era.

SHER: Certain kind of clothes, some sense of Elizabethan-ness, and that's what they mean when they think of "traditional" Shakespeare versus contemporary Shakespeare.

EDELSTEIN: You have to, of course, ask the question, "What is doing Shakespeare his way?" When he did Julius Caesar at the Globe, he didn't put people in togas, he put people in Elizabethan costumes.

KAHN: Everybody was in modern dress in Shakespeare's time, so if you really want to talk about what's "traditional" Shakespeare, I guess they would be in jeans.

APPEL: I'm not very sure when people say, they wish that Shakespeare would be produced "traditionally," I don't think there is such a thing. There was a period after Shakespeare died and for the next, really, two to three hundred years, where Shakespearean plays were found by great actor-directors, and they changed the plays for their own style. During the 18th and 19th century, King Lear didn't die, Romeo and Juliet woke up in the tomb and remarried. Then in the early part of the 20th century, Harley Granville-Barker and William Poel really found the extant plays and went back to doing the plays, seemingly as written. That trend lasted until the early '70s, and people started to get permission to interpret the art differently.

PAPARELLI: There's a much more pared-down look to Shakespeare, I think, nowadays, than there were, say, you know, even 10 years ago.

EDELSTEIN: Whether you make it contemporary or not contemporary is completely beside the point. The point is, are you making the text clear, and how are you making the text speak to the audience that you have today?


KAHN: I think you can actually tell about the culture by the way Shakespeare's performed. The thing is that, you know, when they talk about that Garrick was, you know, a realistic actor, I imagine if we saw Garrick now, we would find him very rhetorical. I mean, I grew up on John Gielgud; he was a brilliant, genius actor. When I listen to him now, we would not want to talk that way.

There's another thing that happened. When I was growing up, what was Shakespeare? It was the upper class. Princes all were very, you know, they had to have English accents, because they were all aristocrats. Well, the '60s came along, and princes got scruffier in the play, and Hamlet got to be Everyman. And so, if you look at Laurence Olivier's Hamlet now, which was, I guess, a lovely movie at the time, it looks pretty dumb.

[CLIP from Hamlet, 1948]

My lord, I have remembrances of yours
That I have longèd long to redeliver.
I pray you now receive them.

No, not I. I never gave you aught.

My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich.

KAHN: So, that's the cultural mores of the time change, and so does Shakespeare. I'm sure we're going to look odd. I actually think, as a matter of fact, I said to my kids at school, at Juilliard, that pretty soon we're going to be teaching '60s naturalism, '70s naturalism, '80s natural, all styles. And styles, of course, are happening faster all the time. The only thing I don't want to see in Shakespeare, otherwise we shouldn't do it anymore, is thinking that its strongest vehicle is not the language. It's not visual, it is the language.


APPEL: I'm doing a production of Richard III, which is about a 1485 period in English history. Now, who in America is particularly interested in 1485 England? Not necessarily at all. Most Americans don't even know what was going on in the 15th century in England.

SHER: In Richard, you have an entire culture, entire society standing by, while tyranny is sort of running rampant, and not speaking up in the face of some kind of evil.

APPEL: Richard III resonates so strongly with the world that we live in, a world where people grab for power. The consequences of that power grab, the murderous spree of dictators, in order to keep their power, it resonates so strongly that people don't really need to know the English history at all, to recognize that Shakespeare is speaking for our very own time.

SHER: Any time an interesting artist is going to approach a classic, they have to find the immediate significance for themselves and the culture they're living in at the moment.

FREEDMAN: In Titus Andronicus, when I was invited to direct that at the New York Shakespeare Festival, the tradition then is to have a lot of artificial blood on stage. But I was asked to do it during the Vietnam War, when the nightly newscasts had real blood, people laying on the ground, with limbs chopped off. I thought, well, this is ridiculous, you can't pretend to do that.

So, I abstracted it. I did it in metaphorical ways, using masks, for instance, and material, colored cloth, for instance, to indicate death or bleeding. I happened to be in Paris right before Easter time, and I went to a church and I saw all the statues covered with purple cloth. And I thought, "What is that?" Well, during Lent, they cover the statues with purple cloth, as if they were not there. I said, "My goodness, I can use that." When somebody dies in Titus, I just envelop them, had somebody envelop them with a cloth, and they weren't there.

As a matter of fact, in the production, Titus has two of his children's heads brought to him on a tray or whatever, to say, "Hey, this is your payback." Because I had been using half-masks, I brought on half-masks on the tray. And Walter Kerr, who was a famous critic at that time, noted that the audience gasped. It was more frightening than if you'd brought in a fake head.

APPEL: When you have an African American playing Goneril, and a Caucasian playing Regan, and an Asian American woman playing Cordelia, you listen to those women and what the sisters' plight is about, with much different ears.

FREEDMAN: One director did an Afrocentric Othello, at which had tremendous impact. Actually, he took race out of the equation, because he had Iago as a black man and Othello as an Afrocentric general, and so, the whole context changed. It was no longer about race, it was about something else.


EDELSTEIN: What the requirement is, is that you understand the text completely, and as deeply as you possibly can. Then you have to understand what it's doing and saying to you, and what it might be doing and saying to this moment in time.

APPEL: It is crucial to interpret the plays within the sensibility of who you are as an interpretive artist for the world that you live in. You have got to be unafraid to express your personal connections to the plays.

EDELSTEIN: You must take into account where you're doing the play, and when you're doing the play. You are trying to communicate to a specific audience at a specific time, just like Shakespeare himself was doing. What does this play have to do with what it's like to be alive today, here and now?

PAPARELLI: Peter Brook said the plays were like mirrored balls, you know, like a disco ball. If you shine light on it, it just illuminates in a million different directions, and it all depends what kind of light you want to shine on it. Because the plays continually reveal themselves to you at different times of your life, it just means something else. Love means something else at a different time of your life. Loss means something different.

KAHN: It's the director's, the actor's job to understand the play and then to find the best way they know how to illuminate that play.

PAPARELLI: Whether you're an actor, designer, or director, you pour that into the play, and all of a sudden, the play reflects it in so many different directions and speaks to so many different people. So, I mean, that power, that kind of infinite number of possibilities that are inside the plays, that's what I've fallen in love with.

KAHN: My responsibility as a director and as an artistic director of a Shakespeare theater is to, of course, pay honor to the playwright and the playwright's intention, but you have to see it through your own contemporary eye.



WITMORE: You've been hearing the voices of Gordon Edelstein of Long Wharf Theatre, Joe Dowling of the Guthrie Theater, Gerald Freedman of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. You also heard PJ Paparelli, who is now artistic director of the American Theatre Company in Chicago, Libby Appel, artistic director emerita at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Bartlett Sher, who is now resident director at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York.

“What's Past is Prologue” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott was the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. The music in the piece was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Amy Arden.

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, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.