We asked 5 artistic directors: How did making Shakespeare change in the 2010s?

Woo! What. A. Decade.

Here are a few news stories from the year 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill vomited over 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The FIFA World Cup in South Africa taught the world about the vuvuzela. Lebron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers and signed a contract with… the Miami Heat. If those events feel like they happened a lifetime ago, it goes to show what a wild decade the 2010s have been.

Shakespeare also had quite a decade. 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, occasioning global commemorationsThe Folger celebrated the anniversary by taking our First Folios on a tour of 50 US States and two US territories. That same year, our colleague Heather Wolfe made a series of exciting discoveries about Shakespeare’s coat of arms. The 2010s were also the decade when machine-learning algorithms helped change our understanding of how playwrights might have collaborated in early modern England. In the theater, Shakespeare’s Globe sent a touring production of Hamlet to 197 countries between 2014 – 2016. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Simon Russell Beale acted opposite a real-time, digitally-projected Ariel, played by actor Mark Quartley in a motion-capture suit. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female trio of Shakespeare productions, with Harriet Walter as Brutus, Henry IV, and Prospero, took London and New York by storm. Meanwhile, Glenda Jackson retired from Parliament after 23 years and returned to the stage with King Lear. Movies about or inspired by Shakespeare included Anonymous, Ophelia, All is True, The King, new film adaptations of The Tempest, Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the very fun Gnomeo and Juliet. Finally, just a few months ago, scholars made an exciting new discovery: the Free Library of Philadelphia’s copy of the First Folio belonged to and was marked up by Paradise Lost-author John Milton.

As we look bravely into 2020, we wondered what theater-makers made of the past decade. So, we asked artistic directors from five of our amazing theater partners around the United States: What has changed about making Shakespeare between 2010 and 2020? Here are their answers.

“Romeo and Juliet” at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Josh Smith

Rick Dildine (Artistic Director, Alabama Shakespeare Festival):

“Since 2010, there’s certainly been an emphasis placed on relevance and inclusivity within the stories. Artists, theaters, and patrons are always debating Shakespeare’s role in today’s culture and whether or not we should still be performing his canon. In St. Louis, we developed community-centric projects that asked citizens to co-create Shakespeare plays with us, and often that meant rewriting some moments to fit the people, places, and circumstances. [Dildine served as Artistic and Executive Director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis from 2009 – 2017.] We found increased relevance through local casting that reflected the community, original music, street shows, and stripped-down, language-focused productions.

“In Montgomery, Alabama, audiences are gravitating towards relevance and inclusivity alongside commitment to text. Shakespeare speaks to the extraordinary moments in our lives, moments that call for extraordinary language. Because so much of the world has sped up, many people only have thoughts in ten words or less that are texted or summarized into an emoji. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to Shakespeare: the great challenge of bringing the most extraordinary human moments to reality by using the spoken word. I think it’s human to want to speak the truth, hear the truth, and know the truth. Every community is finding its own way to perform its truth. I do not think that will ever go out of style.”

"Hamlet" at The Old Globe
Michael Genet (Ghost) and Grantham Coleman (Hamlet) in “Hamlet” at The Old Globe, 2017. Photo: Jim Cox.

Barry Edelstein (Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director, The Old Globe):

“I’ve been at The Old Globe for seven years. There’s been a seismic change in our work on Shakespeare in that time, driven mainly by two impulses. First is our arts engagement work in the community, which is centered almost exclusively on Shakespeare.  Our “Globe for All” tour brings professional productions of the plays, free of charge, to homeless shelters, senior centers, refugee centers, correctional facilities, veterans, and active-duty military, and other community venues. The productions are cut to 90 minutes, and they place a radical emphasis on clarity and accessibility of storytelling, as they play mainly to audiences seeing Shakespeare, and even live theatre, for the first time. A dozen other arts engagement programs also use Shakespeare as the center of their inquiries, in a similar spirit of openness.

“Second, our institution-wide emphasis on inclusion is changing how we make the plays, in particular how we cast them, and, in even greater particular, with regard to gender. It’s also changing who directs the plays. More women and artists of color are working on Shakespeare at the Globe now than ever before. These two evolutions in the direction of our work come together to result in productions that are imaginative, exciting, engaging, and representative. There’s a freshness to the work that makes it feel simultaneously contemporary and classic. I know that companies across the English-speaking theatre are working on their own iterations and combinations of the two impulses that are driving us, and I feel that this places our field at the verge of a golden age of work on the Bard.”

Edward Gero (Falstaff) and Avery Whitted (Prince Hal) in “1 Henry IV” at Folger Theatre. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Janet Alexander Griffin (Artistic Producer and Director of Public Programs, Folger Shakespeare Library):

“Listening—that’s what the best actors do, right? They listen to their colleagues on the stage, but they also listen and respond to audiences. Those of us who craft that precious exchange between those on the stage and those in the house are also listening more.

“Over the last decade, with relatively constant communication, it’s much more about producing a conversation than about producing a “show.” When we think about theater—for example, about selecting plays for our next season, about what those plays mean, or about how we market them—we increasingly must examine how our theater engages with the broader and louder cultural discourse of the 2010s. We solicit and get responses much more directly, from the time audiences start to think about coming until after they get home—sometimes during, with social media! We work harder to shape their experiences, to provide content, to give them access to the art and artists. It’s a vibrant relationship with all the responsibilities of maintaining the relationship.

“It makes us theater makers much better at focusing on the why; why the stories that Shakespeare told so beautifully are telling about our experiences, about our or somebody’s survival in an increasingly demanding, often fractured world. We’ve learned better how these plays appeal not only to head but to heart, surprise us, incite feeling, create joy. In the shadow of the Capitol, the big stories Shakespeare tells almost always feels critical to lives today.”

Stephen Michael Spencer and Jordan Barbour, In rehearsals for "Julius Caesar" at Theatre for a New Audience.
Stephen Michael Spencer and Jordan Barbour, In rehearsals for “Julius Caesar” at Theatre for a New Audience.

Jeffrey Horowitz (Founding Artistic Director, Theatre for a New Audience):

“On my wall is a 2009 quote from Peter Brook that begins ‘Shakespeare has never been a dead author. At every epoch; in every culture, he is alive, like an ocean in which every drop is on the move. —he can never be caught in a net. There can never be a definitive interpretation of his characters, nor of his staging.’ Brook ends by saying that Shakespeare’s work is a ‘passionate and adventurous exploration of all aspects of craft and life.’

“As Brook wrote in 2009, the ways that making Shakespeare changed in the past decade (2010-2020) are all the ways that artists discovered (and will discover) for how to make Shakespeare so that productions touch audiences. There is never one way of going about this and making Shakespeare is always changing. Whatever the way, the outcome is for the audience to be touched.”

⇒Related: Director Peter Brook on his famous Midsummer, Laurence Olivier, the Vietnam War, telling stories, and more.

Shakespeare in Detroit, The Merchant of Venice at New Center Park, 2016
The Merchant of Venice at New Center Park, Shakespeare in Detroit, 2016.

Sam White (Founding Executive Director, Shakespeare in Detroit):

“I have seen a lot of change the past decade as it concerns representation in the industry as a whole. Theatres have become more aware of the need to be inclusive in their practice. Specifically, I have seen a lot more people of color cast in acting roles throughout the American Theatre, which is lovely. However, I can’t say that without noting that I have only seen incremental, much slower progress as it concerns hiring classical directors of color, who don’t necessarily offer the same optic opportunities for theatres to market their work. It would be wonderful to see more representation behind the scenes.

“However, as it concerns the performances of the work, it’s been nice to see people get out of their comfort zones and experiment more with Shakespeare and have more fun. Sure, we have our tools that help keep the art form alive and well. But I think we can respect the tradition of the Bard whilst not turning off or turning away the next generation of butts in seats. So it’s been cool to see a lot more site-specific, Shakespeare-inspired work like Sleep No More around the country and the actual plays interpreted in ways that feel fresh and inviting for the next group of theatergoers and patrons who will keep our industry thriving for decades to come.”

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare in Detroit, The Old Globe, and Theatre for a New Audience are partners of the Folger Shakespeare Library. 

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