Understanding Peter Sellars

Shakespeare Unlimited : Episode 106

Director Peter Sellars once staged Antony and Cleopatra in a Harvard dormitory swimming pool. His King Lear owned a Lincoln Continental. His work is complex. But what confounds some audience members has also won him ardent fans. One of them is Ayanna Thompson, a scholar of Shakespeare and performance studies who is now director of the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University.

Thompson’s new book, the latest in Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare in the Theatre series, explores Sellars’s influences and tracks the predominant theme of his work: a laser-like focus on race in America. We talked with Thompson and Sellars himself about what can be gained from striving to understand the sometimes impenetrable. Thompson and Sellars are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Visit our Shakespeare and Beyond blog to read an excerpt from Thompson's book, Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Soundcloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published October 2, 2018. ©Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Understand Thee Well,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Brian Mendez at public radio station KJZZ in Phoenix. Special thanks to Julia Carnahan, Peter Sellars’s assistant, for her help in making this interview possible.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: What might we come to understand when we take the time to try and understand the things we can't understand?

[THEME MUSIC]

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The very idea of understanding a piece of theater, or misunderstanding it, or failing to understand it, has, for much of the past 40 years, been a predominant topic whenever the conversation turns to theater director Peter Sellars. Since the time he staged Antony and Cleopatra in a dormitory swimming pool at Harvard, Sellars, the recipient of a 1983 MacArthur "genius grant," has been confounding audiences and critics.

His work has always been difficult. One reviewer called 1987’s Nixon In China, “good for a few giggles,” but “only intermittently understandable.” Writing about his 1994 Merchant of Venice, the New York Times said of the audience, “Those who held out to the end had the glazed look of hit-and-run victims.” But that impenetrability also has its ardent fans. One of them is the scholar of Shakespeare and performance studies Ayanna Thompson, who is now director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University.

Dr. Thompson is the author of a new book about Peter Sellars, the latest in the Shakespeare in the Theatre series from Bloomsbury. In it, she explores his influences, from the avant-garde marionette theater he watched growing up in Pittsburgh to the Russian agitprop director Yuri Lyubimov to Japanese Kabuki, and tracks the predominant theme of his work, Sellars’s laser-like focus on race in America.

Dr. Thompson came into the studio to talk about all of this recently and joining her, we’re happy to say, was the subject of the book himself, Peter Sellars. We call this podcast "I Understand Thee Well." Peter Sellars and Ayanna Thompson are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: Ayanna, let’s start with you, because I know that one of the things that you’ve always appreciated so much about Peter, and why you were so excited to write this book, is his willingness, as you put it, to never shy away from confronting America’s racial history. So, before we get into individual productions, could you please put his work for us in a broader context of theater as a whole, why he stands out for you in this regard?

SELLARS: Oh, my God. [LAUGH]

THOMPSON: That’s the best.

BOGAEV: And we’re just going to be pretend you’re not here, Peter. [LAUGH]

THOMPSON: No, it’s the best. The thing is, I want Peter to interject, because it wouldn’t make sense without him disagreeing.

BOGAEV: Of course.

THOMPSON: But I think what makes Peter’s work remarkable is that he doesn’t aim for clarity, and so much commercial Shakespeare theater now in the US and the UK and Canada aims to create productions that are extremely clear in their rhetoric, and it’s very unlike reality.

BOGAEV: But particularly regarding race and racial history.

THOMPSON: I’m getting there.

BOGAEV: Okay. [LAUGH]

THOMPSON: If that’s all right. But what I appreciate about Peter is that his productions, he wants to look more like our world…

BOGAEV: Our messy world?

THOMPSON: Our messy world, where you don’t often understand people’s intentions, where you can actually be looking them in the eye and not understand what they’re saying, and race is central to this for him as part of the way that he’s reflecting the world we’re experiencing. So, even going back to his earliest Shakespeare productions at Harvard, he was making his Harvard students, and all the other luminaries who were then flocking to see his productions, think about what is it that we think we know about Shakespeare, and how is the world that he’s presenting us, in all its glorious Technicolor and complexity, different from what we assumed.

SELLARS: Oh, my God. I have to just say that the thing that I love is reading Ayanna Thompson’s work. I mean, I’m sorry, it’s the best, because she moves into the zones where people think they’re doing one thing, but they’re probably also doing something else, and where, in fact, there are a bunch of unannounced things. And Shakespeare, of course, is all about characters like that, and Shakespeare’s all about your second, third and fourth thoughts, all moving through this incredible, dense forest of poetry. And so that kind of thrill is what we’re dealing with every day. And so, what is the backstory, and the backstory, and the backstory. So, Shakespeare’s all about the backstory. And of course, race is exactly one of those things which again, just from the melatonin point of view, doesn’t exist, and meanwhile, is constructed in all these imaginaries.

BOGAEV: I love how you both have already integrated race into everything else and that it’s not segregated into some category.

SELLARS: And Shakespeare, particularly the nightmare is teaching plays like The Merchant of Venice, where it’s often presented as, you know, Shakespeare's anti-Semitic play, and no, no, Shakespeare’s, actually, race is signaled, triggered, and responded to through all these invisible signifiers or barely visible signifiers, and so…

THOMPSON: And throughout many of the plays, not just the [OVERLAP]

SELLARS: Right, right. Hello.

BOGAEV: And this is wonderful and we’re going to talk about Merchant of Venice soon. But Ayanna, actually, I want to start with the play that you ironically end your book with, which is Peter’s 2009 New York production of Othello at the Public Theater. And that play started rehearsals in September of 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, and you point out that there was a lot of talk back then, and after the election as well, about how America was a post-racial society. So, how did the production situate itself in 2008 and address this idea of a post-racial America, and I’ll start with you, and then we’ll get Peter’s take on his own take.

THOMPSON: Well, the production was amazing, because I think Peter was exactly using that play to respond to what was going on in the world in 2008, which was that many people were saying, "That absolves us, then, of having to talk about race, because clearly, we must be beyond that, if he is just about to be elected." And Peter’s production so brilliantly showed a world in which there were many people of color in positions of power, not just Othello. And this caused, I think, a type of cognitive dissonance for theater reviewers, who just decided that he was presenting a post-racial society, when in fact, what the production, it seems to me, was doing, and I want to stress that Peter’s productions aren’t something that you digest, and then you say, "Aha, I got it," but what I think I’ve come to, the production was showing you that even in a world where people of color can achieve various positions of power, racism and racial insecurity abound. And that those silent, deadly killers, both literally and metaphorically, operate in our society and if we allow them to go unchecked, that destruction and devastation is the ultimate end, and that was incredibly hard for theater reviewers and audience members to face, because that is not the common narrative that we get: "We’re getting better. We’re obviously better. We’re better, and so that means we don’t have to address past wrongs or past harms." And Peter would not relent. The production would not relent.

BOGAEV: Well, Peter, does this ring true to you? And I do want our audience to be able to visualize this production. We’re going back to 2008, and Ayanna quotes you in her book saying that you wanted to take Othello’s racial baggage and place it on stage next to the early 21st century world, in which the youngest guy in the world is a black man and he is the president. So, could you, and how did you do that in theatrical terms?

SELLARS: Oh my God. [LAUGH] Well, first of all, what you just heard is why I love Ayanna. She’s incredible. Now, of course, we are aware of how much rage was directed against Obama while he was president and what it meant. Iago, this is the language of Dick Chaney, this is the language of the whole system, which is not going to kill what you love, it’s going to actually make you kill what you love, in order to join something that was never true. And so, one of the things we just had to do right away was make the duke, had to be a black man. And then, what is blackness for Othello? Well, of course this question of what is the Moor, what is the North African Spanish side of everything? So, casting John Ortiz as Othello, who is not officially black, but of course, in America the signal of blackness, of course, is carried by Spanish-speaking people, and the subtle thing, and you’re black but not black, and maybe white, maybe this, maybe that. All of those images are so vivid, and I didn’t want just the James Earl Jones, "Hello, I’m officially black and I’m appearing in an ad about your credit card." I wanted to get beyond this kind of single point definition of what blackness meant and blackness as an official status and locate blackness in a really complex place, which is, of course, like whiteness, in a complex place. And, just to say, "Okay, there’s range here."

THOMPSON: Because systemic racism is opportunistic, right? And so that’s why the terms of the game keep changing so that like, whoever needs to get called out can get called out, at whatever moment the system needs it. So, like, today, it’s…

SELLARS: And whoever needs to be elevated can exonerate the system by doing their Booker T. Washington "pull up your bootstraps" image.

THOMPSON: That’s right.

SELLARS: And to say, nothing’s wrong with the system, it’s just individuals who are lazy. And so just to get that was really, really essential for taking away these giant sweeping categories and, to me, that’s Shakespeare. Shakespeare is going into infinite complexity of any human being and saying what is that person carrying with them and to me, the romance of Desdemona and Othello is this romance about inventing a future world. And the promise of that, of course, is what haunts the play.

BOGAEV: Ayanna, you wrote about this production that it upended everything you thought you knew about Othello, and you said it a moment ago, that it’s something that haunts you, that you come to later in different realizations. So what haunts you about it years later? What do you come back to?

THOMPSON: Well, I’m used to being invited to productions of Othello, because as a black Shakespeare scholar, that’s sort of the cross we have to bear. I don’t get invited to a lot of Hamlets. But I’m used to seeing Othello, where they’re very legible. You’re like, "Okay, right. Here’s the moment where self-doubt enters in." I’m used to different visual palettes. Peter’s was totally different. It was, as I said, there were so many people of color on stage. They were saying things to each other that were horrible. There were past wrongs that were clearly committed that they were trying to cover up, but no one would talk about. And, in the moment of watching it, it’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable. But then, thinking, reflecting about it after the fact, you think more and more about the complexity of humanity that he’s representing on stage.

SELLARS: What’s so moving in Shakespeare is the people who are apostrophizing endlessly have the space to do it, but that doesn’t actually give them access to truth. And, Shakespeare shows you, the longer the speech, the more weirdly delusional. And the more you can feel this person either struggling or not able to recognize that they’re struggling. Shakespeare doesn’t think that working-class people are stupid, which is really intense in a play of a lot of people taking themselves very seriously. So, to me, those things are magic. Those things are the touchstones in Shakespeare. Truth comes when you’re waiting. And suddenly, everything you expected isn’t going to happen. And so, suddenly, you have time you didn’t think you were going to have, and what does that reveal? It reveals thoughts that you had decided not to think. And suddenly, you’re thinking them. And everything that you had told yourself you would not think about today suddenly floods your mind. And you end up saying things you never intended to say. And Shakespeare’s so interested in that. Those scenes are so rich, pregnant actually, in the case of Act 2. I could do Othello and never get over Act 2. It was really irritating to me that there were subsequent acts.

THOMPSON: It probably felt that way.

SELLARS: No, because Act 2, you could start going into again the whole intense stuff of Cassio and the alcoholism and the crazy, intense ways in which all these people are trying to hide from themselves, from each other, their crazy relationships. Meanwhile, while they’re trying to preserve a kind of media image of themselves and Shakespeare… how do you know in 1603 what the age of media would be like? What that kind of self-presentation was all about, and how much effort is being put into the self-presentation to mask a reality that is so ghastly that is immediately behind the surface?

BOGAEV: You put a fine point on that with your staging. You had voice-overs and edited sound clips and you used timed musical underscores, and on the stage in Othello, you had these television monitors and microphones. Critics had a field day with all of this, pro and con. But we could talk about Othello forever, but I would like to come back to something that Ayanna said about how your work stays with her, and how she lives with it, and she dwells with it, and it evolves, because this really gets to the heart of what I think you expect from your theater, you expect from art. And I know that you had an experience like this very early on, and it was even before college. It was a gap year before college. You were in Paris and you saw a production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann at the Paris Opera in 1974.

[CLIP from Tales of Hoffmann: operatic voices sing in French]

BOGAEV: Take us back there. Tell us about your reaction and this idea that you have that the destination is not opening night, the destination is the rest of the life.

SELLARS: Well, I was plunging into European culture and I was seeing my first productions by Peter Brook, my first productions of the Bread and Puppet Theater.

[CLIP:]

VOICE 1: Where are you going?

VOICE 2: I am going to the river.

VOICE 1: Why are you going?

VOICE 2: The river is cold.

SELLARS: And of Patrice Chéreau. And I went to Patrice's Tales of Hoffmann and of course, I hated every second of it. I mean, not just a little, a lot. I just… Doesn’t he know what this piece is about? Has he no idea what this piece is?

[CLIP from Tales of Hoffmann: operatic voices]

SELLARS: This piece is colorful. This place is surreal. It’s phantasmagoric. It has all this stuff. And, he did a set that was entirely gray, entirely dark, strange, cold, crazy, with no color, no phantasmagoria of any kind.

[CLIP from Tales of Hoffmann: operatic voices]

SELLARS: I hated it so much that I wanted to ask for my money back, which... I’m not like one of those people. But I just said, I can’t believe I spent 10 francs on this ticket. And of course, now, 40 years later, I can actually describe to you every moment of the entire evening. It’s a production that stayed with me my whole life, and five years later, I realized it was the most important work of theater that I had ever seen.

[CLIP from Tales of Hoffmann: operatic voices crescendo and riotous applause]

SELLARS: Classical culture, I mean, the nightmare of classical culture, whether it’s Mozart or Shakespeare, is there’s usually a privileged, educated audience that wants to be flattered by their own knowledge and their sense that they know. The implications of white supremacy are all written into "I know Shakespeare." And so, the sense that you’re disrupting that circuit, that Shakespeare is something you don’t know, or is contrary to the way you’ve always assumed, is so upsetting, because you’re touching something that goes way deeper than a literary criticism moment. You’re actually moving into a core of why somebody goes to the theater, which is to have themselves reaffirmed in a certain image. And what happens when you’re making a theater that’s affirming other people and other realities and other possibilities?

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice:]

SOLANIO:
Let me say "amen" betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes, in the likeness of a Jew. How now, Shylock, what news among the merchants?

SHYLOCK:
You knew, none so well, none so well as you, knew of my daughter's flight.

SALARINO:
That's certain. I for my part knew the tailor that made the winds she flew withal.

BOGAEV: Yes, you want to challenge your audience, but you don’t want to alienate them, or do you? Because this idea that theater should be challenging and something that the audience grapples with over time... You’ve been criticized by critics for alienating people in the audience because of that. So, how do you navigate that distinction between provocation and getting people to this place, getting them off balance and alienation?

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice:]

SOLANIO:
And then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.

SHYLOCK:
And she is damned for it.

SALARINO:
That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.

SHYLOCK:
My own flesh and blood to rebel!

SOLANIO:
Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?

SHYLOCK:
I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.

SALARINO:
There is more difference between thy flesh and hers, than between jet and ivory.

SELLARS: For me, the Supreme Court moves too slowly. They're saying, "Oh no, the public isn’t ready for this decision yet, so we can’t make it." And for me, it’s like, "Yes, but where is the truth? I mean, don’t we want to do truly something that needs to be done in the history of human beings? Yes. Do we need to wait until it’s a better time to do that? No." For me, making theater, nobody needs to vote for me. Nobody needs to like me. I don’t need to flatter anybody. I can actually say, "We’re talking about things that, a type of truth, that was true in 1600, that will be true in 2600, and it doesn’t really matter what you think of it in the next ten minutes." And so, if this truth confronts some other truth that you’re holding on to, then excuse me, let the chips fall where they may. I mean, let’s see that. Let’s actually experience that, and let’s find out where your truth ends up, and let’s find out where Shakespeare’s truth is ending up. And let’s experience that in real time.

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice:]

SHYLOCK:
If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. You have disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, and heated mine enemies.

SELLARS: And the people who leave the room are part of the theater of it, and the people who stay are part of the theater of it, because if people start leaving, you have to say, "Am I going to stay here? Those are the real issues confronting America at this moment. Am I leaving here or am I staying? Am I going to say, Okay, I disagree with every part of this, but I’m going to participate in it, and I’m going to recognize that in democracy a whole lot of very complicated things are going to happen that aren’t going to be to my liking. And does that mean I quit and go home, or does that mean I actually stay in the game." And, not to alienate people, who knows what’s going to alienate anybody. You know, I also don’t want to think of the audience as a single fat person on a sofa watching television eating potato chips. You know, the audience. Who’s in the audience? A million people. Meanwhile, can we have something that would please a segment of the audience that nobody’s ever tried to please? I mean, so for me…

BOGAEV: And this has been your approach ever since you started. And I can trace it… and Ayanna, you trace it back to some of the earliest productions Peter did back in college. And I’m thinking of Peter’s staging of Coriolanus when he was a student at Harvard in 1977. Remind us, since I brought it up, what that was like.

THOMPSON: Well, I think, you know, people were outraged.

BOGAEV: What did it look like, first of all? What did people see?

THOMPSON: Well, I think, you know, his style has been remarkably consistent, and this is why I’m always surprised when critics are like, "Peter Sellars, he did something we didn’t expect." I’m like, "You really should expect it. Right?" It’s going to have expressionistic lighting. It’s going to have a lot of technology, definitely use of microphones. It’s going to have moments where there’s intense music used, and it’s always going to be a multicultural cast. And, I think…

BOGAEV: And then some surprises. Back in Harvard you did an Antony and Cleopatra that was staged in the pool in a dorm basement, right?

SELLARS: Well, that was not just any pool. That was the "Gold Coast" dormitory built by Cornelius Vanderbilt for his son and his son’s friends. So, that pool…

THOMPSON: That was a royal pool.

SELLARS: …was a Roman bath, a Shinto shrine, a nightmare of marble, and at the same time, next to this cold, cold power architecture, just to go back to Coriolanus for a second, of course, the other thing is just what it means to defy the whole world and lose, not only the world but yourself. And there is a play where the silent woman is actually the power. And the power in the play is not from the people who are raving and ranting, but the power of the play is in that silence. It is everything that is known and not spoken.

BOGAEV: Well, what you just said is also a little emblematic of what I’m about to ask Ayanna, which is that, Ayanna, in your book, you make it sound like it was a good thing that this production, way back in college, flopped.

THOMPSON: Yes.

BOGAEV: I mean, you got a lot of flak for that, because, Ayanna, you write that Peter was forced to form his own theater company when no one else would work with him.

THOMPSON: Well, and he said, you know, jokingly, I think back in his earliest professional days, when he was remembering, two years earlier as an undergraduate at Harvard, that no one would let him direct, not even the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which I just love. The production was deemed such a failure that he was left to his own devices. So, left to his own devices, landed him in the Adams House pool.

BOGAEV: Didn’t you have moments of just crying into your notebooks?

SELLARS: No, the opposite. Any time you’re fired, I’ve been fired most of my life from very, very impressive positions. And in fact, it hurts. I mean, it never doesn’t hurt, but you suddenly realize you’re liberated and people begin to recognize that you stand for something. And that…

THOMPSON: Also, you recognize that you stand for something. I think that’s what… yes…

SELLARS: Yeah. I mean, that’s incredible. You can say that. I’m not allowed to say that, but you’re right. That’s intense, because then people start to regard your work as somebody who isn’t in the game to be in the game, and who isn’t actually playing around at all, and who is totally serious.

BOGAEV: Well, now is the perfect time, then, to talk about your 1994 staging of Merchant of Venice. Ayanna spends a lot of time in the book talking about this one production. And you did it in response to the Rodney King beating and the uprisings in LA that followed. So, what specifically were you responding to?

SELLARS: For me, what was really hard about that was nobody had the language.

BOGAEV: Although there was a lot of loud rhetoric going on.

SELLARS: Huge rhetoric, but the rhetoric was not communicative. And, for example, you know the kids who set the city on fire. We had all the airwaves all over America open as two white guys in a helicopter circled the fire and said, "Is that another fire down there, Pete?" "Yep, Bill, that’s a fire." You said, "Well, wait a minute, is no one on the ground? Is no one able to talk to someone on the ground about what this really means?" In fact, these gang members had studied different peace accords between the Palestinians and Israel. They had done serious work in economic theory, and they were drawing an economic map of Las Angeles in fire. They dealt with what a ghetto was. A ghetto is a situation, which hasn’t changed in 900 years, where a group of people is made to live in a horrible part of the city, pay double the rent, pay twice as much money for bad food, and be ringed by cops, and the rule of the neighborhood is money goes out of the community and no money is allowed in. Now, just to say. Merchant of Venice, of course, is about ghetto. What does it mean that one set of people have been made to live in a different economy?

[CLIP of The Merchant of Venice:]

BASSANIO:
Here is six, here is six, but I have three thousand ducats. Here is six, here is six, here is six, here is six thousand ducats.

SELLARS: Shakespeare’s whole point about racism is, it’s economic. And, it’s just about what these people are paying and what you’re paying. You know, one part of the city, there’s no landscaping, there’s just cement. And, another part of the city, landscaping. That’s the basic simple version of Merchant of Venice, and then the question is, what does it mean that our prisons are filled with brown and black people, when in fact, most crime is not made by brown and black people. And of course, Shakespeare shows in Merchant of Venice, you are very happy to have the justice system render a verdict that is wrong.

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice:]

VOICE:
Colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themself the question constantly, in reality, who am I?

MOROCCO:
Pause there, Morocco
And weigh thy value with an even hand.
If thou beest rated by thy estimation,
Thou dost deserve enough.

SELLARS: Does that sound like Las Angeles? Maybe.

BOGAEV: How did you translate this myriad of ideas, the lack of precision of language, and the lack of meaning in language, and the economic disparity and race? How did you translate that to the stage?

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice:]

PORTIA:
A gentle riddance! Draw the curtain, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

MOROCCO:
Mislike me not for my complexion.

DIFFERENT VOICES:
Mislike me not for my complexion.
Mislike me not for my complexion.
Mislike me not for my complexion.
Mislike me not for my complexion.

BOGAEV: Ayanna, jump in here. What stood out for you in the staging of this play?

THOMPSON: Well, I think there are several things that stand out and I think are kind of representative of what Peter does on stage, at least in his Shakespeare work, is that there’s no one central area of focus for the audience, and I think audience members are used to having kind of giant arrows on stage. Here’s the important person delivering the message. Right? And, you’re going to walk away with the message. And instead, in Peter’s productions and in Merchant of Venice in particular, there were multiple things going on at the same time. Right?

SELLARS: The actor on stage delivering this beautiful speech, a television monitor that made him look monstrous, other characters reacting, doing their own separate thing, and so, the audience is unaware of where they’re supposed to focus, and they get this kind of divided sense of the experience.

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice:]

VOICE:
If her husband, lover, brother, son, father, had anything to say about the matter.

BASSANIO:

This is no answer, thou unfeeling man.

VOICE:
He might be castrated or lynched.

SELLARS: But of course, when we did those performances of Merchant of Venice, which had only two white people on stage, the judge, of course, and the white trash Launcelot Gobbo, that show was sold out for months before we did it. And then, of course, with the first preview, by the end of the evening, the Goodman has about 600 seats, by Act 5 there were seventeen people left in the theater. And the first people started walking out in the first five minutes.

BOGAEV: Ayanna, you said something very interesting about this production as well, that you felt it was important because it anticipated today’s "historical-cultural landscape," where "white Americans are forced to confront expressions of black American rage," and I’m quoting from your book. Can you expand on that?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean I think in the wake of the Los Angeles uprising, there was a sense that the black rage that was being ignited, literally, by the people on the ground was isolated. And I even think about Michelle Obama who got a lot of flak for when, I think right before Barack was voted into office, I think someone asked her how she felt about being an American, and she said, "Well, it’s complex, right?" And then people were like, oh, she’s unpatriotic. You remember the New Yorker cartoon by Barry Blitt that depicted her as like, you know, an Angela Davis, Black Power fisting person because she had made that statement. But I think we are at a point now, and Peter’s production really, really was so prescient, to say, "Actually, here’s this thing that white America has never wanted to face. And that is that black Americans and many brown Americans have this underlying weird different relationship to patriotism, America, concepts of America, that often become very racialized as white." And there’s this anger, this underlying anger, that we were not allowed to see on stage, and certainly not through Shakespeare.

SELLARS: And, can I interrupt and just add one more thing. Anger and hurt.

THOMPSON: Yes.

SELLARS: Because hurt is the wild card.

THOMPSON: Yes.

SELLARS: Anger eventually burns itself out, but the hurt doesn’t go away. And the hurt is what expresses itself in human beings in all kinds of ways.

BOGAEV: Well, that brings me to my last, much too big question for a last question, but we’re talking about this racially charged political moment that we find ourselves in right now. What do you see as the role of theater? I’ll start with you, Ayanna. What’s the role of theater in this polarized time? What’s the place of Shakespeare, and do you think theater and Shakespearean theater is rising to the occasion?

THOMPSON: Most commercial Shakespeare theater, no. It’s definitely not rising to the occasion, because that’s not their intention. I think they intention is to offer entertainment that is clearly digestible. But that is not what I think we need, and that’s why I spent this time writing a book about Peter, because he throws down a challenge, that is, if we are going to take democracy seriously and if we do think that this is a social system that should survive, then we have to do the work. It’s not easy work. Which is having informed, complex conversations, disagreements, about things that really matter. And that is how do we encounter outsiders? How do we define our borders? How do we stop systems that oppress, you know, whole groups of people? That is what Shakespeare is asking in his plays. And Peter, in his productions, does not shy away from those large questions. And the optimism that I love about Peter is that if you put on a complex production, that those dialogs will ensue. And that’s the world I want to live in, where we can have those dialogs and those debates.

BOGAEV: Peter?

SELLARS: Ayanna, oh my God.

BOGAEV: Peter’s holding his heart.

SELLARS: Oh my God, I’m hyperventilating. It’s just like I want to frame that. Oh my God. That is the world I want to live in. And guess what? It’s the world we do live in. You know, the world we do live in is intelligent and things that were never true are never going to be true. And that’s one thing that time goes, you know, when we say, what’s sustainable? What’s sustainable is the truth. What’s not sustainable is the lie. And Shakespeare is all about that. And, they come back over and over again in whatever new disguise and whatever new costume. But they are going to collapse  because they will collapse. And that’s the heart of what Shakespeare’s project is.

I would just say, he wants it to be complex because it is complex, and if democracy was easy and could be solved easily then it would be just fine, but even baseball is complicated. [LAUGH] You know, I’m like, sorry. Anything you care about, like your own kids, are complicated. And, you’re not going to just solve it in one day because you have to feed them three more times tomorrow. And so it is with democracy. You can’t say, "Oh yeah, we did that, it’s fine now. "You know, it’s like, that was when they were eight. Now they’re 12. Now they’re 14. Now they’re… You know, like Hello. Well, that’s how you have to treat your country, that’s how you have to treat the democracy itself. It’s a big project and theater was invented as a way to get your hands on it, without those hands going to somebody’s throat. It’s that you actually can have a chance to test this out, to try to look at it, but all the people are just acting.

And that’s why Shakespeare wrote these glowing, glowing plays that are unbearable and go through things that nobody really is able to talk about, and Shakespeare found this weird, weird, dark, strange, miraculous language to speak of everything that’s unspeakable. I mean, Shakespeare is taking you through all of America and, he’s taking you, not through England, his plays have nothing to do with England. They have everything to do with America. They have everything to do with the country that thinks it’s the most powerful country that ever was. And guess what, power is actually not something you want to be. You know? And actually, life is about everything else and every other possibility that power isn’t going to offer you. And Shakespeare’s plays are about what power does to you, and also what the ability to renounce power does to you, and what the ability to challenge power does to you.

BOGAEV: Well, let’s just say, both of you, just come to every podcast with every guest. [LAUGH] Let’s just agree on that right now. Okay. Thank you so much, both of you.

SELLARS: Oh, Barbara, are you kidding? What a blast.

THOMPSON: Thanks Barbara. Thanks Peter.

SELLARS: Ayanna, I want to hug you across the airwaves.

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WITMORE: Theater director Peter Sellars is a recipient of a 1983 MacArthur Fellowship and is the creator or director of numerous works, including Shakespeare and opera. Ayanna Thompson is director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. Her book on Peter Sellars is the latest in the Shakespeare in the Theatre series from Bloomsbury. It was published in 2018. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

"I Understand Thee Well" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Brian Mendez at public radio station KJZZ in Phoenix. We would also like to thank Julia Carnahan, Peter Sellar’s assistant, for all her help in making this interview possible.

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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.