Designing Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 21

There's an old Broadway saying (sometimes attributed to Richard Rodgers) that "No one ever walked out of a theater humming the scenery." Nevertheless, costume and scenery designers can be vital to the success of a play.

In this episode of the Shakespeare Unlimited series, Steve Martin talks with Denise Walen about the sweeping changes in costumes, scenery, and other staging choices in the 400 years since Shakespeare's time.

From elaborate settings and carefully researched costumes that were meant to educate audiences, to modernist stripped-down sets or fanciful reimaginings, Shakespeare productions have long responded to the theater choices of their day. As for the future, Walen is sure: whatever changes lie ahead, Shakespeare's plays will still take the stage.

Denise Walen is an associate professor in the department of drama at Vassar College. She was the curator of Here Is a Play Fitted, a Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © February 25, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Here Is a Play Fitted," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Steve Martin is the former program director of WAMU public radio in Washington, DC.

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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, “Here Is a Play Fitted.”

That line from A Midsummer Night's Dream was the title of a 2013 Folger exhibition. It looked at the impact of set and costume designers on performances of Shakespeare's plays—from his time, to the extent that we know about it, to our own. The exhibition explored how the strikingly different choices of these artists affected the audiences' imaginations and, interestingly, what those choices tell us about the times in which the plays were performed.

The curator of that exhibition is the guest on this podcast: Denise Walen, an associate professor in the department of drama at Vassar College. She is interviewed by Steve Martin.


STEVE MARTIN: So, Denise, when most people are watching a Shakespeare play, they're probably assuming they're seeing an authentic presentation of Shakespeare's work. But one of the things you pointed out in the exhibition you curated at the Folger was that every presentation of Shakespeare is made a bit different by the theater professionals who are staging that performance. Would you talk about how that happens?

DENISE WALEN: Well, in part it's that theater professionals want to present the play to the audience that they're given. And so, depending on who the audience is that the production's being presented to, the play can change drastically. And certainly, historically, our sense of what is dramatically good or bad or right or wrong changes with time.

MARTIN: Is it correct that the stage in Shakespeare's day was mostly bare except for a few props such as a throne, a bed, etcetera?

WALEN: Yeah, all the evidence that we have suggests that there was nothing like a contemporary set. What we know about Shakespeare's stage is that it was a bare stage. There's some evidence from... There's a wonderful guy, he owned the Rose playhouse, Philip Henslowe, and he kept great records about some of the costumes he had and some of the sets, but that evidence can be ambiguous and really mysterious.

For example, he does talk about thrones or monuments, but one of the pieces of setting that he writes in his inventory is “the city of Paris." What could that possibly be? [LAUGHS] How is the city of Paris represented in a set piece? But it does tell us that the set pieces were minimal: tables, chairs, beds, populated by sometimes lavish groups of costumed individuals, and it was the costumes really, then, that gave a spectacle. So scenes from the history plays, scenes from plays like Romeo and Juliet, the ball scene, would have been really quite wonderful.

MARTIN: Talking about the costumes, I'm interested—were they always historically correct for the time period of the play from the beginning or did that change over time?

WALEN: In Shakespeare's time, for plays set in the Renaissance, what was used was Renaissance clothing, and the companies got their clothing from noblemen. Sometimes clothing was given to servants as thank yous, or when a servant was left an article of clothing which the servant couldn't wear, and so they would turn around and sell it to the theater. So there were beautiful aristocratic clothing that was authentic and real, and just lived-in, everyday clothing, and so the costumes themselves would have been lavish ermine, and velvet, and ermine, and all these wonderful textures and beautiful colors, things that your ordinary Englishman or woman wouldn't have seen.

But then, when you get into something like the Roman plays, costuming may have still been Renaissance clothing, and yet, there's a wonderful little document, it's a drawing from the play Titus Andronicus, which is set in kind of ancient Roman times. There are characters drawn in the picture who are clearly in Roman togas, but there are also people in that same sketch who look like they're carrying Elizabethan military equipment, one of them is dressed looking very Scottish. It's an ambiguous document. As time went on, actors and actresses wore what was fashionable for the time. They didn't wear historical clothing specific to the given play. That doesn't come in until the middle of the 19th century, the kind of 1840s.

MARTIN: Why was that?

WALEN: Why did the historical accuracy come in?


WALEN: Part of the credit I would give to an actor-manager named William Charles Macready. He really believed in Shakespeare as an instructive tool, and he thought that these plays should be presented in something like the time and place that the plot is set. A play like Othello, which moves from Italy to Cyprus, he had researched a port in Cyprus, and so for a scene in that play, that port is sketched.

And then a kind of antiquarianism started to emerge in the 19th century. It was a popular movement, to learn more about, you know, our ancestry. People like Charles Kemble. And a wonderful actor-manager named Charles Kean—he had a group of historians research all the costuming, clothing from the times, architecture of the times, and his productions are extraordinary representations of historically accurate settings. He does a production of Richard III: at one point, there was a shower of arrows from one side of the stage to the other side of the stage.

MARTIN: Shooting arrows.

WALEN: Shooting arrows across the stage.

MARTIN: Did any of those arrows ever end up in the audience?

WALEN: No, there's no report of anyone getting hurt from Kean's productions of Richard III.

MARTIN: Interesting. When we begin to look at Shakespeare productions in theater history, there seems to be a shift that goes back and forth, where everything is stripped down, then everything is opulent, and then everything is stripped down again, then everything is opulent again. Is that correct?

WALEN: [LAUGHS] Yeah, generally speaking, yes, in its own way. The stage was stripped down in Elizabethan times, though the costumes were quite lavish. There's a slow build from the Restoration through the early 20th century—for me, a kind of inevitable march towards greater and greater realism.

Stage technology had changed by the 1660s, and so you started to get set designs, really mostly painted flats and wings. And then, again, through the 18th and 19th century, this move towards more and more realistic-type scenery and setting and costumes.

In the exhibition, one of the productions we looked at was this wonderful production by a brilliant man named Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He put on an amazing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the things that production is noted for, I had heard about it, you know, for years and years as a graduate student, and it was wonderful to me to actually open this promptbook: He had live rabbits on stage when the lovers went out to the forest.

MARTIN: Did they get out into the audience?

WALEN: No, no, they never did, but they were criticized in some reviews as being, you know, far too entertaining. So when you get to that level of realism, things start to shift. Because people really see that spectacle, and what the audience sees has taken over from what the audience hears. And so right when realism is at its height, there's a movement against it.

Some of the great Expressionist designers really went back to a kind of stripped-down style. People like Edward Gordon Craig, and in America, Robert Edmond Jones uses flights of stairs and ramps and ladders. In the early 20th century, he does a series of productions, and starring either John or Lionel Barrymore. He does a production of Macbeth, and the set designs for that were really interesting, because again we now go back to a bare stage, and there are three really gigantic masks hanging from the stage, representing the three witches. So right, everything kind of switches back to a stripped-down stage.

MARTIN: You mentioned something about a promptbook, and in the exhibition there were promptbooks from the 18th, 19th century. Could you tell us what a promptbook is?

WALEN: Right. I love promptbooks. I just think they're fascinating documents. So, you have a script of the play, but so the promptbook will be the script, the acting script, and often in a promptbook, one side of the page will have the text of the play itself, and then the other side of the page will have a series of notes, sometimes handwritten, sometimes small drawings, to show character placement on the stage, to show the movement of an actor, sometimes to write out a small character detail, something that they might do with a letter.

They're called promptbooks because a member of the company, the prompter, would have been following that book. They have become, over time, incredibly detailed documents.

MARTIN: Was the idea of a promptbook that it would serve as a blueprint for the particular production only, or did designers and directors think that it might be somewhat of a historical document that might be used a hundred years into the future?

WALEN: That's a great question. Some promptbooks solely show one production, and so a person like William Charles Macready made very nicely detailed promptbooks, and he shared those with other people. Charles Kean actually got many of William Charles Macready's promptbooks and used them as kind of a blueprint.

But then there are promptbooks that belong to the theaters themselves, and in it the prompter would have marked, used different kind of characters to mark the actions of, say, an Edwin Forrest, as opposed to a Macready, or a Sarah Siddons, as opposed to an Elizabeth Farren, and it's a tribute, a very interesting note about the theater and theater people, and kind of the interesting kinds of information you can find in the promptbooks.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about sets. They're obviously expensive to build, costumes expensive to design. Did theaters reuse sets or costumes or did everything get thrown out and then rebuilt the next time?

WALEN: So, in the Restoration, when you started to get sets that represented specific places, those sets would have been reused, and they would have been fairly, kind of generic: the palace scene, the forest scene. And they were used, reused, so often that, in fact, playbills that were posted to announce productions, whenever there was new drawings, new set designs, that would be announced in the playbill itself, because it was a big draw for the audience to come and see, you know, a wonderful new set. Again, it's not until someone like Macready, where sets start to actually represent a specific place in time and you can't then reuse those sets.

It's at the turn of the century, though, that the idea that the set might actually affect how the audience understands the play, and so the atmosphere of the scene, a sense of the mood and texture, whether this is a somber moment, depending on what the director wants to evoke, and then how the scenery, how the set design is created.

MARTIN: There's an old Broadway adage that no one ever went home humming the scenery, but Shakespeare is so much about the words. So I'm just wondering what is the role of designs in helping to make a Shakespeare play fully realized, how do costumes and scenery help make Shakespeare work its best?

WALEN: Well, I think when the costumes and the designs really evoke an underlying theme within the play. There are plenty of people, and all along there have been people, who believe that Shakespeare maybe is not well served by scenery and sets, and you should strip away all of that. But I think that when the costumes and the sets can really give a, not necessarily a new spin, though that's sometimes very helpful as well, but can place the concepts of the play in a modern perspective for an audience, it opens them up to a whole new way of reading.

MARTIN: Okay. One final question: could you take a stab at being a futurist? Do you see Shakespeare productions living on for hundreds of more years, and what might they look like?

WALEN: Oh, I can't imagine a world without Shakespeare. And so much is done with Shakespeare, from very formal productions to productions that really adapt the plays. Actually, there's a company in DC that does these sort of movement versions, non, no line, they don't speak any of the text. But it's a movement-based production of the play. There's a group in New York City that does productions in an old warehouse, and you kind of wander around from room to room, in no set sequence, seeing scenes from Macbeth. My students absolutely love that. People adapt Shakespeare plays to kind of modernist senses and tales. There was a wonderful updating of Romeo and Juliet set in a boys' boarding school, and that's just one of really hundreds of adaptations.

So, what will Shakespeare look like? I think there will always be a movement to do Shakespeare with some sense of the past involved. Where the future will go, I think the modernist presentations, the sense of kind of placing Shakespeare in a contemporary world, I think that will absolutely continue, and so Shakespeare then will look like what the contemporary world looks like. I think there will always be, also, a use of different historical periods to set Shakespeare. Anything that helps a contemporary audience understand either the play or, more likely, the world in which it exists, is what will happen to Shakespeare in the future.

MARTIN: Denise, thank you very much.

WALEN: Thank you. A pleasure talking with you.


WITMORE: Denise Walen is an associate professor in the department of drama at Vassar College. She curated the Folger's “Here Is a Play Fitted” exhibition in 2013. Denise was interviewed by Steve Martin, the long-time program director of WAMU radio in Washington, DC.

Our podcast, “Here Is A Play Fitted,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.

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 out more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.