Shakespeare 400 Chicago: Barbara Gaines

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 71

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Chicago mobilized the city’s cultural and administrative resources in an unprecedented way. In this episode of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, Barbara Gaines, founder and Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, reflects on the anniversary celebration, Shakespeare 400 Chicago. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published April 18, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “In This City Will I Stay” 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 Hannah Kennedy and Alida Szabo at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Collin Ashmead-Bobbitt at WBEZ in Chicago, and Jake Gorsky and Jeff Peters at the Marketplace studios in Los Angeles.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: On November 13, 2015, a group of artists and city officials stood in a theater lobby in Chicago, ready to give their city an audacious gift.

BARBARA GAINES: Thank you, Mayor, thank you, Jenny, and all of our distinguished and beloved guests. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and this city dreams big.

WITMORE: With those words, Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, kicked off Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death like no other in the world. Behind the announcement was an unprecedented mobilization of the city's cultural and administrative resources. Just how unprecedented was made clear by the presence at the ceremony of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

RAHM EMANUEL: And so to everybody that's here that has made Chicago unique, made Chicago home, and to the intellectual and cultural enrichment of this great city, Shakespeare 400 Chicago will continue to both honor Shakespeare, and honor our great city. So to all of you, thank you very much.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called "In This City Will I Stay." Shakespeare 400 Chicago has been over now for four months time, which is enough to take stock and give an impression of how it went. We asked Barbara Gaines to do just that, and she was kind enough to agree. She's interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BOGAEV: Well, just so everyone listening has a sense of the enormity of Shakespeare 400, why don't we start with a speed round of statistics? How many theaters participated? How many people attended? That kind of thing. Overwhelm us.

GAINES: [LAUGH] Okay, here we go. We had 60 cultural partners in this effort. We had 863 events, 1,000-plus artists, 1.1 million attendees, and 38 restaurants and chefs participated.

BOGAEV: I mean, that's like the Olympics of Shakespeare.


BOGAEV: And there was an international component, too, right? That went from straight-up performances...

GAINES: Oh my gosh, yes. We had many, many international, well, from 11 different countries. Sometimes several different performances from the same country.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] So I wonder, I'm routinely one of five other people in my local art theater watching foreign films with subtitles. So you didn't find that with the foreign-language productions that it put people off?

GAINES: Oh, my God, no.

[CLIP from Company Theatre Mumbai’s Piya Behrupiya (Twelfth Night), directed by Atul Kumar (from India)]

GAINES: This is what happens: you sit down, you look at the subtitles—and the acting is so brilliant, you don't need the subtitles. You're completely mesmerized by the work on stage, because the work we chose was electrifying. Great art does not need words. Great art stands alone.

[CLIP from Theater Zuidpool’s Macbeth, composition by Mauro Pawlowski + Tijs Delbeke (from Belgium)]

GAINES: The city opened its great big beautiful cultural heart, not only to the culture of Chicago and to international visitors, but we also opened it up in a great way to the entire city of Chicago. For instance, one of our performances is known as Shakespeare in the Parks, and it's free. And we go to 19 parks all over the city, in the south side, the west side. But we really get out to parks that are underserved culturally, and we had— you know, at first we thought we would have 50 people at each performance—we had a thousand people at each performance. People brought their lawn chairs, their dinners. We performed on a truck that opened up to a stage, and just did, you know, this fabulous production of Twelfth Night.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] I love that. Like a food truck, it's a Shakespeare truck.

GAINES: Exactly. It's a Shakespeare truck. And it traveled all over the city. So we really brought Shakespeare, and continue to bring Shakespeare, to people who don't even like to come downtown. We go to them.

BOGAEV: I love that community aspect of it, and also just the diversity of artistic endeavors. You had kind of quirkier productions like Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths, which was all of Shakespeare's death scenes, right?

GAINES: Oh, we did. One of the funniest evenings in the theater was watching every person who ever died in a Shakespeare play die, you know, in 70 minutes. It was so—

BOGAEV: In kind of Monty Python form, right?

GAINES: It was totally Monty Python. Then we had The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, a Chinese Hamlet from the Shanghai Peking Opera. I mean, we had [Ricardo] Muti conducting Falstaff, we had Declan Donnellan from the Pushkin Theatre in Russia, directing probably one of the greatest Measure For Measures I've ever seen, with physically and sexually and... it was a shockingly brilliant production. The Joffrey Ballet, Chicago's dearest, one of the dearest ballet companies here in the city, did a brilliant production of Romeo and Juliet. And then we had Jonathan Pryce, the great international actor, who played Shylock, from the Globe, from England, Merchant of Venice.

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice]

JONATHAN PRYCE as SHYLOCK: Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?

GAINES: There's just so many different artists, so many different projects, and some of them were really little, you know? And, let me tell you how the restaurants started to join in. The nationally syndicated television chef Rick Bayless, at Tapolobompo, he made magic in the kitchen, channeling A Midsummer Night's Dream. I mean, it was so delicious, you wanted it to run through October, November, December, becau—well, then I would have been 500 pounds. Then we had Tony Mantuano's Italian cuisine, which married the love and tragedy interpreting Romeo and Juliet, in his café, Spiaggia. Ryan McCaskey explored the contradictions in The Winter's Tale at his two Michelin-starred Acadia, in June. And it went on and on like that. And so, some people celebrated Measure for Measure, some people, the dish of ancient Rome inspired by Julius Caesar. I mean, let me just say, the only thing that prohibited us from going on and on these restaurants, is that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, and we had 38 restaurants. If he had written 60 plays, we would've had 60 restaurants.

BOGAEV: Oh, it's an amazing lineup, just of food and chefs, let alone ballet and visual art. And I know it's like asking which of your children you love this, but is there one that stood out as your favorite event, your favorite surprise?

GAINES: Well, I would say—yes, I would say Declan Donnellan's Measure for Measure was extraordinary. The Romeo and Juliet from the Joffrey. The Lyric Opera's Romeo and Juliet. And quite frankly, the thing that's always my favorite, no matter what we do at Chicago Shakespeare, it's always free Shakespeare in the Parks, because then you see little children sitting, I mean 3-year-olds, sitting in the grass, watching Shakespeare, and interacting with the actors as they do, and you just see an entirely new generation of theater-lovers being born. So I guess that would have to be number one for me.

[CLIP from Henry V]


For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now abed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

BOGAEV: Something like this was natural for the Folger, to create a 400th anniversary celebration for Shakespeare on such a grand scale. But that you took this on in such a big way was hardly inevitable. So was the thinking behind your decision?

GAINES: Well, we have been accused of being opportunists, I must admit. And we have—

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] There are worse ways to be opportunist, I have to say.

GAINES: Yeah, right. And look, we've always, my business partner and I, Criss Henderson, we've been business partners for about 27 years now. And I have to say, I give him the credit for the idea. And then Doreen Sayegh was the executive producer of it, really, or the general manager of it. And the two of them really spent, you know, hundreds and hundreds of hours dealing with this. And Criss and I travel all around the world to see projects, we always have, because our international program is great and thriving. I mean, I think the most important thing is that this a huge anniversary. Shakespeare, you know, the legacy is 400 years old. And he changes lives inside prisons, he changes lives outside in the parks. He changes lives sitting at home and reading a sonnet. There is always hope, there is always hope for me in the universe, because he is a civilizing influence. So there is a community that comes together when you're doing Shakespeare. It comes together in Montana, it comes together in Korea. They do Shakespeare in Japan, in Russia. I mean, in all of eastern Europe, Shakespeare is very popular.

BOGAEV: Well, I hear this word "community" coming up over and over in your conversation. And perhaps you've already answered this question, but I'd like to ask it, because I think at some point, every production of Shakespeare, or every festival, faces this inevitable question: who is Shakespeare for? Who is your festival for? And I wonder, what was your answer to that for the festival, and also, what is your guiding philosophy at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on that score?

GAINES: Well, I can tell you that our guiding philosophy is an inclusive philosophy. We've been in the present building that we're in now for about 17 or 18 years. It's on Navy Pier, which is the Midwest's most visited tourist attraction. And we saw, before we moved to this space, Criss Henderson and I looked at the city from this beautiful pier, and we realized that the last thing we wanted was for Shakespeare to be elite. And so as we looked at this beautiful city, and we've realized they were building this building for us, that it had to be for everyone. That we had to bring in suburban and many inner-city schools. That we had to bring in as many different people, as much as we could, because Shakespeare has the greatest range of human sympathy, of human empathy, than any writer who's ever written.

BOGAEV: So I imagine you just throwing your tentacles out to every possible population demographic.

GAINES: Well, we are. Yeah, and you look at the mess that the world is in, and you go, this is a salve. This inspires people. This shows people that you can make the world a better place, merely by being a better soul.

BOGAEV: Well, getting down to brass tacks, then, there are a handful of templates, I guess, for doing a kind of festival like this. The celebration in London during the Olympics comes to mind. Did you all decide you were going to start this from scratch, and do it Chicago way, or the way that you wanted? Or did you model the festival on others you'd seen?

GAINES: Well, we were invited. The Royal Shakespeare Company invited me to bring my Henry IV Part One and Part Two to a great big complete works festival at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006. And it was a great festival, with companies from all over the world. And that was very inspiring for both me and Criss. And I would say that, you know, that was one of the triggers. But for me personally, the trigger was when I went and saw my first international shows here, thanks to the International Theater Company that now does not exist here in Chicago. But when I was a young actress, like in the '80s, I saw the Suzuki Company from Japan do The Trojan Women. And I suddenly said, “I'm hungry, I'm hungry for more international work.” And then, thank God, we started the theater, and Criss joined, and you know, he has enormously great skills to organize all of this. And we just knew that Chicago is one of the great cities on this globe, and we wanted to be the kind of—what is it?— electric zapper for the arts. For people to think of Chicago as one of the world's hubs for culture. And this was made possible, and only made possible, because of Chicago's generous cultural community. For instance, the Lyric Opera and us, we have a wonderful relationship, as does the Joffrey and the Symphony and the Art Institute and Newberry Library, all of these museums and libraries, we know each other and we're friends. I remember the first time I mentioned it, I think it was either to the Opera or to the Joffrey, "Would you be interested in taking part in three or four years, in a Shakespeare 400-type of project?"  Not one person said anything other than, "Oh my God, we'd love to." It's the spirit of Chicago. It's in the Midwest, right smack in the middle of this country, and there is something about the Midwest heart, and I say this as an ex-New Yorker, that is so generous, and is so "We can do this," kind of attitude.

BOGAEV: And so hospitable, too, and I love this image of Chicago being the electric zapper for the arts. [LAUGH] Now you mentioned your Henry IV series that you did on Stratford on Avon, and one really ambitious element of festival was this two-part distillation, or you called it I think "binge-watching" of six Elizabethan history plays. They were called Foreign Fire and Civil Strife. Tell us more about what the two parts consisted of, first, and about your vision for them.

GAINES: Okay, the two parts, there were different kinds of wars, right, being when you're attacked or when you are the attacker, foreign fire, and of course, civil war. The umbrella title of Tug of War is not just physical force, but the tug of conscience, the tug of what is right and what is wrong. And those tugs happen in every skirmish, whether it be in a schoolyard or on the fields of France. So the first three plays was a play that, I don't know if it was done in this country. Nobody could find it, it probably was, I'm not saying we were the first, because it's not important. But it was the little-known play of Edward III, which is about—

BOGAEV: Which is controversial, because some scholars don't believe Shakespeare had anything to do with it.

GAINES: Right. I can say, after living with Shakespeare for most of my life, is that he wrote about four or five scenes in it. Because you know someone's rhythms when you love them.

BOGAEV: Right, and there's this other group of scholars that believe, right, Shakespeare helped to write Edward III.

GAINES: Yeah, I don't care how they put it. The important thing is that it was written, and it's about a very lusty king, who's absolutely a great warrior, but the truth is, he started a phony war. His lust, and his lust for war and lust for women, are really what this story is about. It is about, can you control your own emotions, or are you reactive? This is a great play to do right now, and boy, let me tell you, people know it. They appreciated that, they love that play. Then we went right in, because they were all edited quite... They had to be edited, because who wants to sit through 12 hours a day of Shakespeare? I certainly don't. So it was just five hours' running time, with some meals thrown in. The second one was Henry V, which people know. He went over to France, and started another war, because dad told him, Henry IV on his deathbed, dad said, "Hey, you've got a lot of civil wars here, people are angry at us. So if you start a foreign war, everybody will get behind you and they'll forget about the civil war."

[CLIP from Foreign Fire]

KING HENRY (in disguise): I myself heard the King say he would not be ransomed.
WILLIAMS: Ay, he said so to make us fight cheerfully, but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed and we ne’er the wiser.
KING HENRY: If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.
WILLIAMS: You pay him then. [director’s cut]You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock’s feather. You’ll “never trust his word after.” Come, ’tis a foolish saying.
KING HENRY: Your reproof is something too round. I should be angry with you if the time were convenient.
WILLIAMS: Let it be a quarrel between us, if you live.
KING HENRY: I embrace it.
[Director’s Cut]
BATES Be friends, you English fools, be friends.

GAINES: And then the third play of that day was Henry VI, which tells about the ending of that war. And quite frankly, then the second day was Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, and Richard III, which was all about civil war. But the theme, of course, is what's important. It's those tugs, it's those pulls. All of us can be seduced. All of us feel grief when we see soldiers die in battle. And I put onstage, and they were onstage the entire time—it was flooded with music. I mean, artists gave us permission to use their work. We had a rock-and-blues band, rock-slash-blues band on stage, playing songs from people like Nina Simone, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen was there a lot—

BOGAEV: Yeah, you really staged, you know, folk rock protest musicals, throughout this series.

GAINES: Exactly, that's exactly what I did. It was folk rock, the teenagers loved it, the 90-year-olds loved it. I mean the songs were so piercingly honest, and for me, it was the marrow of all six plays, because when you hear Tim Buckley, was the artist who sang it, all of the actors sung really well, and you heard the first lyric out of anyone's mouth, is you hear this sad song, and the first lines were "Once I was a soldier, who fought on foreign sands for you."

[CLIP of Jim Buckley’s “Once I Was”]

Once I was a soldier
And I fought on foreign sands for you
Once I was a hunter
And I brought home fresh meat for you

GAINES: "I wonder, I really wonder, will you ever remember me?"  And that's basically what these six plays were about.

BOGAEV: Oh, that's gorgeous. And help us visualize it. What was this done in, men in tights, or modern fatigues?

GAINES: No, no, everybody in the first three plays had on… I guess you'd call it gauze. And the kings had long robes, but the soldiers just had things that, you know, like a jacket that came to their waist. But gauze, which in some way showed frailty. Great frailty.

BOGAEV: Right, kind of ghostly.

GAINES: Very ghostly. And these songs, of course, were the soul of Shakespeare's plays, because they were parallel, and they dug down to—I mean, listen, there's another song, Leonard Cohen. Okay, now this you're going to love. So, three years ago, I asked my costume designer to consider using Donald Trump as Jack Cade. Literally since the second three plays were in modern dress. I said, look, Jack Cade is anti-education—

BOGAEV: He was the populist blowhard during the reign of Henry VI.

GAINES: Yes. Right, and he wanted to destroy all of the government. He wanted to destroy libraries, and he wanted to destroy schools, and stuff like that. And so I said, three years ago, having no idea, I said, “Look, I think we should, you know, use his hair, and use his suits,” and so the first thing you see of Jack Cade, in the section of the second day, the first thing you do is you hear someone singing, as he comes down on a red white and blue tire, and dressed up with the hair, and the orange makeup, you hear Leonard Cohen, the actors singing Leonard Cohen's song, from “The Future.” He says, "Give me absolute control..."

[CLIP of Leonard Cohen’s “The Future”]

Give me absolute control

over every living soul

And lie beside me, baby,

that's an order!

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Nothing grandiose or crass about that. But here you're setting up my other question that's on the tip of my tongue, which is, it's so often the case in fraught times like this, that once anything strays into politics in the theater, people get offended. And I'm thinking, for instance, we once talked with Michael Kahn, of course the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company here in DC, about how he did a production of Timon of Athens, back in the '80s, that people in Washington took as a critique of Reaganomics. And he said that people canceled their subscriptions. So did you get any blowback?

GAINES: Well, of course, realizing that this decision was made long before he ever thought he was going to be a candidate, I was nervous. And thousands of people saw that production. We got two letters of complaint. Only two. So how about that? Tens of thousands of people, two negative reviews. So, you know what, and an artist, I have to be very honest with you. We only can do what comes from within us. And our board of directors at Chicago Shakespeare has put up with me for 30 years of... I get afraid, but ultimately, I mean, I do, I get nervous, but ultimately you could only do what's in your heart, or you're not an artist. So I put it on, and you pray...

BOGAEV: Certainly if you're talking about war, and war creep, and proxy wars and phony wars and endless wars...

GAINES: Yes, that's right, that's right. And so I try and be fair to both sides, if you want to know. He is an extreme character. But there were other people who really wanted to go to war, who were good people. I just didn't agree with them. But they were given, you know what I mean, they were given fair consideration in this Tug of War.

BOGAEV: Well, as much as I don't want to move on from politics, and it's hard to move on from politics, there is an interesting Shakespeare angle to this series in that you have these Henry VI plays, and we did a podcast recently with Eric Rasmussen who edited the Arden editions of the Henry VI plays. And he was joking about how hardly anyone ever does those plays, and how maybe now that people think that Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote them together, maybe this got people excited about these plays, and they'll start putting them on again. And I guess what I'm saying, is that most theaters consider them very challenging plays to put on, and people consider them in the audience challenging plays to watch. So how did you think about that problem?

GAINES: I didn't worry about it. I'll tell you why. Even Shakespeare's weakest plays are better than 95 percent of anybody else's. Tom Stoppard said that, so I'm quoting him. Badly, I'm sure it's a paraphrase. I have the most extraordinary group of 14 actors. I mean, many of these people I've worked with for years, and some of them, the younger ones, obviously I hadn't. They were so outstanding. They know how to tell a story. They were hilarious. They broke your heart. They were electrifying. They were singers and actors, looking at your faces, because this was done in a thrust, so it's a great sense of community. There's no distance between actors and audience in our stage. And man, it was electrifying. It was just electrifying. And I had three letters that said, “Why couldn't they be longer? Why did you have to cut so much?” There were many letters about that.

BOGAEV: Right, you did a lot of artful editing, and I did because again, I worried. My job is to worry about everything in the world, by the way. And so I wanted also to be very considerate to backs and necks and legs, you know. [LAUGH] But the wonderful thing was that yes, a few people left, but the beauty of this production was that it spoke to the hearts of children of all ages, and that the little ones got it. I mean, 10-year-olds sat there and wanted it to go on, and when you finally... This was the first person in my life, because of the actor involved, Timothy Edward Kane, that really made me understand why Richard III became Richard III. Now, I couldn't have done that without the talent of the 14, 15 people. And they are Chicago Shakespeare's... the reason we have been so successful.

BOGAEV: Well, maybe you've just answered this, but what lessons did you learn from this 400th anniversary that you would put in a time capsule for people planning the 500th in Chicago, which will probably start… in six months? [LAUGH] Well, you know, what might you tell them? [LAUGH]

GAINES: [LAUGH] Barbara Bogaev, you masochist, you. Um, I'll tell you what. I've always known this, but maybe a lot of people learn this: that there is absolutely no difference watching a King Lear from Belarus and watching a brilliant production from St. Petersburg, Russia, or from Rwanda, or from Ireland, or from Wichita. It is… all souls in this world are connected, and make a festival wherever you are. Find any excuse. Shakespeare's 413th birthday. Go for it. Festivals are a place where all different kinds of people will come together to celebrate not only who we are, but where we come from. And if we don't know where we come from, then we will continue to make the same mistakes. And there is hope in the arts and all of the arts, so mistakes can be seen and viewed and felt. You can see the continuation of—in Troilus and Cressida, the foolishness of a war started because somebody stole somebody's wife. And for 11 years on this Trojan plain, tens of thousands of people died. They died, and what was left? Nothing. And the saddest thing is that mankind did not learn from that war. Our job as artists is to show how similar we all are, to care for one another, to bridge that empathy gap. Empathy means you can stand in the other person's shoes, and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is essential, so we don't keep making the same mistakes, and that's what artists do. Our mission isn't to blame, our mission is to become conduits between differences and celebrate what we can share, because we share an awful lot more than we are different.

BOGAEV: Well, that is such a beautiful thought, and such a natural and for conversation I don't want to end, but I just had such a wonderful time talking with you. Thank you so much, I really enjoyed this.

GAINES: Well, thank you, Barbara, and I hope you visit the theater the next time you come to Chicago.


WITMORE: Barbara Gaines is founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. "In This City Will I Stay" 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 Hannah Kennedy and Alida Szabo at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Collin Ashmead-Bobbitt at WBEZ in Chicago, and Jake Gorsky and Jeff Peters at the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles. 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 am Folger Director Michael Witmore.