What theater makers learned from 2020

2020 has been a challenging year for everyone. The performing arts—an industry predicated entirely on gathering in groups—has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. But if you’ve been reading our monthly blog posts about where to watch Shakespeare online, you already know that theater makers have persevered: creating small performances with artists living in the same household and socially-distanced audiences, exploring Zoom and other live-streaming tools as venues for performance, and taking time to examine their industry’s ingrained biases and inequities. We reached out to some of our theater partners to ask what the events of the past year have illuminated for them about Shakespeare and theater.

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Séamus Miller as Angelo and Amanda Forstrom as Isabella in Measure for Measure at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Photo: Brandon W. Vernon.

Lesley Malin, Managing Director, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company:

“If 2020 has made me appreciate anything, it’s how incredibly hardworking and versatile theater folk are. My costumer is doing bookkeeping, my technical director is doing grant writing, and my education director is producing a holiday video. Our staff is dedicated to each other and to the theater and it gives me tremendous hope for the future. And if 2020 has taught me anything about Shakespeare, it is that he is truly “not for an age, but for all time”—including this pandemic time. His depictions of humanity and resilience in the face of adversity are eternally comforting. Most of all, his enduring promise of a return to normalcy after the world has been turned upside down, as we see in each of his plays, assures us that we will once again gather with our friends and family and that life will be ordinary once again.”

After kicking off the year with a production of Measure for Measure, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company pivoted to online offerings, like their virtual exhibition about the life of Ira Aldridge or their Facebook Live performance of King John:

Ty Jones, Artistic Director, Classical Theatre of Harlem:

“What have I learned during the pandemic? That the power of theater is real and the people who make it are heroes. We have shifted to Zoom/online platforms to continue to tell stories that give meaning to our lives. We as theater people have been conditioned to improvise, adapt and continue to shine light on the human condition. I continue to stand in awe of my brothers and sisters, who despite the terrible conditions, make art that move us in profound ways.”

Carl Cofield, Associate Artistic Director, Classical Theatre of Harlem:

“The preservation of Classical Theatre of Harlem this past year required fast thinking—something with which theater makers are familiar. We decided that we should maintain our course to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. When you look at the critical conversations of the day and the creatives that were having them, it’s very humbling. We are standing on the shoulders of giants who equipped us the knowledge and the tools to improvise and adapt to any circumstance. The measure of a society is how well it treats those most in need, and we humbly submit that as artists, we are ready to serve.”

⇒ Related: Watch our interview with Carl Cofield on the Shakespeare Lightning Round.

Diana Lauren Jones as Cordelia, Jessica Powell as King Lear, Ron Chapman as Duke of Burgundy and Yohana Ansari-Thomas as King of France in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2020 Free Shakespeare at Home production of King Lear.

Rebecca J. Ennals, Artistic Director, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

“In 2020, as a producer of live theatre, I expanded my definition of what theatre can be and can do. I miss being in-person, of course, but we also found new ways to engage our audience. It’s fair to say that long past the pandemic, virtual theater and online engagement will continue to play strong roles in our programming. At the same time, as a producer of Shakespeare, I’m actively reckoning with the harm that Shakespeare’s dominant place in theatre culture has done and continues to do. I’m reconciling my deep personal love for Shakespeare’s language and stories with a deeper understanding of what other stories I’ve neglected to tell due to his outsized influence.”

⇒ Related: Learn about the technical innovations of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s virtual King Lear.

L. Peter Callender, Artistic Director, African-American Shakespeare Company:

“In his forward to Errol Hill’s Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors, John Houseman—who I would later come to know personally during my years at the Juilliard School—wrote of Black actors as interpreters of the plays of William Shakespeare: ‘Inevitably, it is a record of high potential, bright hopes, repeated frustrations, and tragic disappointments.’

“Yugoslavian born theater critic John Simon, with his racist and homophobic criticism of Black actors wrote that we cannot and should not do Shakespeare because the language was beyond our comprehension; that we could not form the words properly so that they might be understood. I would like to thank those imperious, brutal words for lighting a fire under me that still roars!

“As a young Black boy from Trinidad, as was Errol Hill, Shakespeare opened up the world of dramatic literature and poetry for me; a world I had to pretty much discover on my own. In high school, I read as many of the works I could get my hands on and Hamlet’s speech to the players were the first lines I memorized all the way through. To this day, I consider Shakespeare’s works the reason I am the actor and director I am. However, times have changed and so must our thinking of the works and their impact. Twenty years ago, the thought of changing or updating Shakespeare’s text was sacrilegious, but now, referring to Othello as ‘thick-lipped’ or ‘the beast’ or the way Petruchio treats Kate or even the derogatory language used against Shylock, and some will say, ‘Why are we still mouthing the words of our colonialist past? Why continue to place ‘Master Shakespeare’ on that pedestal as the playwright of all playwrights?’

“As a Black producer and Artistic Director of a Shakespeare company, I proudly stand with my acting company as we tackle the beautiful, lyrical language and imagery; the historical retelling of these great stories with characters as broad and deep as our oceans. But as a Black man in America, I must grapple with the matters crippling us all today. I must come to terms that what really matters is how we interpret these works and which of the plays we should continue to produce—how do we make these works our own? How do we shape them to tell our stories in our way, with rhythm and style and music that illuminates these timeless tragedies and comedies?

“The answer is to do them with the grace and the deep importance they deserve … because in that process we remind the world and ourselves that his eloquence and his words were written for us as well.”

African-American Shakespeare Company Artistic Director L. Peter Callender interviews Selma’s Colman Domingo:

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Mariah Parris as Lady Macbeth in the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s January production of Macbeth.

Denice Hicks, Artistic Director, Nashville Shakespeare Festival:

“In 2020 Shakespeare reminded me that hard times bring out the best (’tis true that we are in great danger; the greater therefore should our courage be’) and worst (‘for some of you there present are worse than devils’) of humanity. And that better days are always just a sunrise away: ‘O, tis the sun that makes all things shine.'”

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

“The transfer of energy from actor to audience and back to actor is powerful in a live setting. Actor Scott Ripley, who was in our Pericles in 2015, said it was like a ball being tossed back and forth. That energy seems the engine for storytelling, for theater, and we will experience that again. But 2020 has taught us that, with technology, that transfer of energy and ideas can happen in virtual space. We’re finding all sorts of new ways to bring together actor and audience. Some ways seem almost as good, some might be better—at least at spanning distance and expanding access.”

Our Folger ENCORES series brings amazing past performances from the Folger stage to the web—like this clip from Folger Theatre’s 2015 production of Pericles co-produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Guthrie Theater:

 


The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Classical Theatre of Harlem, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, African-American Shakespeare Company, and Nashville Shakespeare Festival are members of the Folger’s Theater Partnership Program.

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