OPINIONS: What would Shakespeare be today?

Posted by: Thespuson 2003/7/11 5:20:00 6742 reads Shakespeare and Modern Audiences
We came across this image, and then we found the article...couldn't resist...especially given recent discussions (and of course the pic).

"If Shakespeare were alive today, there's no telling what his place in pop culture might be. Musically, he might be another tattoo-branded Eminem or Tupac Shakur, scribbling out reams of rhymes on barroom cocktail napkins (but with a decidedly broader world view). If he gravitated toward TV...

From the Denver Post 07/07/03

For modern Shakespeare audiences, accessibility is king
By John Moore, Denver Post Theater Critic

Ask a typical high-school student if Shakespeare ever had to be or not to be, and just guess which option any confounded kid would choose. Face-scrunching young novices would never believe the highfalutin blowhard was actually the most populist writer of his day, a top-40, sonnet-slinging songwriter who wrote and rapped for the masses.

If Shakespeare were alive today, there's no telling what his place in pop culture might be. Musically, he might be another tattoo-branded Eminem or Tupac Shakur, scribbling out reams of rhymes on barroom cocktail napkins (but with a decidedly broader world view). If he gravitated toward TV, he likely would be found on HBO, cranking out barrier-breaking scripts as prolifically as Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") or David E. Kelley ("Boston Public"). Or perhaps the Bard would helm a show like "Law and Order," a popular series just as well-known for, shall we say, borrowing plot lines.

But given the visceral way with which Shake- speare toyed with universal human emotions, he would probably be most at home as a cutting-edge filmmaker. He might be as conspiratorial as Oliver Stone ("JFK"), as chilling as Danny Boyle ("28 Days Later") and as provocative as the brothers Coen ("Fargo"), Wachowski ("The Matrix Reloaded") or even Farrelly ("Dumb and Dumberer"). Perhaps he might be all of them rolled into one.

Those were just a few of the suggestions made by the five guest artists who have joined the 46th ensemble of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, which opened Saturday. Hollis McCarthy, Sarah Fallon, Dennis R. Elkins, Tony Marble and Tony Molina, actors who have each taught Shakespeare to kids, believe the Bard remains nothing if not a 439-year-old hipster.

"Whatever he chose to do, he would be someone who shakes things up," said McCarthy, who plays Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" and Queen Gertrude in "Hamlet." "He would be getting in your face with what's really going on, but with a brilliant use of language. If he were a filmmaker, he would have all the eye candy, but with amazing storylines and real connections behind them."

The key to connecting disengaged students with the Shakespeare these actors know, they said, is passion in education. Molina, who will play Claudius in "Hamlet" and Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew," turns Shakespeare's verse into schoolyard rap, and suggests to his kids that they cast the stories in their heads with contemporary actors. McCarthy has her students transform his language into their own.

"If you can get kids to put it into their own words, it's amazing what you get back," she said. "When I was teaching 'Hamlet' in an inner-city school in Chicago, I gave them the 'Frailty, thy name is woman' monologue. I told them, 'It'll be filthy, but make it earthy, and make it your own.' And so 'frailty, thy name is woman,' became, 'All women are ho's.' And when I gave them, 'She would hang on him, as if increase of appetite,' it became, 'She was wound all 'round his jockstrap.'

"All the sudden - boom - they own the text, and they bring it alive. As actors, that is what we try to do for our audiences. We try to make it that immediate."

Molina initially rapped Shakespeare as a gimmick to aid in his memorization. "It was hard at first for me, but it was just so easy for kids because rap was the form they really understand most."

Fallon, who plays Ophelia in "Hamlet" and Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew," sees the key connection between Shakespeare and a contemporary audience as the universality of his themes.

"There is a reason these plays have been around for hundreds of years, and that's because they deal with issues we still see every day," she said. "Everyone knows about family feuds. Everyone knows about love and death and jealousy and revenge and being driven to madness - and you can attract kids with any one of those themes."

Marble, who plays the title role in Hamlet and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," finds it amusing that Shakespeare is perceived by some teens as inaccessible while teachers and parents do everything they can "to shelter kids from the two big baddies - sex and violence," otherwise known as the two Shakespeare themes kids can most easily identify with.

"Basically all you read in high school anymore is 'Julius Caesar,"' he said. "But, honestly, from the time you are 13 until you are 18, you think of nothing but sex. This sanitizing of our education, this elevation of math and science above all else to try to get these robotrons to come out as engineers is really frustrating to me. I mean, if you really knew what Romeo and Juliet were really talking about, you'd know that this is one of the nastiest plays ever written."

All things considered, Shakespeare is aging fairly gracefully in an era of unprecedented arts and schools funding cuts. Most year- round companies continue to slot at least one Shakespeare production each season (even if more out of habit than for any compelling creative need to do so). Shakespeare festivals continue to proliferate, especially in the western United States, and the National Endowment for the Arts has launched a nationwide initiative paying six big professional companies, such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis, to bring Shakespeare plays to 100 smaller towns in all 50 states. It constitutes the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history.

But it hasn't been a great year for Colorado's fest, which is older than all others but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The CSF lost $30,000 when Gov. Bill Owens vetoed funding for the Colorado Council on the Arts, resulting in a season that is a week shorter, a staff that is 20 people smaller and with reduced stipends. For the first time in CSF history, an entire production, "Cymbeline," will be presented by an outside company - Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts.

When a company facing dire economic times considers how to build up an audience base that seems to be getting less educated to Shakespeare every year, the challenge becomes how to make the material accessible and relevant without sacrificing the depth of the text.

"Every one of the directors has focused on making their show accessible in their own, very different ways - more so than in any other time I have been here," said Elkins, a seven-year CSF veteran who plays Polonius in "Hamlet" and Dogberry in "Much Ado About Nothing." "From the very beginning, ("Hamlet" director James M. Symons) said, 'This thing is going to make sense to 8-year-olds, and we aren't going to dumb it down one bit to do so."'

"Hamlet" has been sliced from a 4 hour, 15 minute marathon to less than 3 hours, Elkins said, "and yet not one time does it ever feel like something is missing." Director Robin McKee has moved "The Taming of the Shrew" to the 1950s, giving the famously politically incorrect battle of the sexes some reasonable context for its gender imbalance. Jane Brown turns her "Much Ado About Nothing" into a fast-paced, gun-toting, Colorado western.

"It's a fine line you have to walk when it comes to making Shakespeare accessible, but sometimes it's for the greater good because an audience doesn't want to feel stupid," Fallon said. "As soon as they do, they don't ever want to see Shakespeare again."

The actors offer this lifeline to anyone who has been tortured in an English class into studying and dissecting Shakespeare's words as though they were fragile pieces of fine porcelain: The Bard "was never meant to be read or studied in an English class," Marble said. "The truth is, it was only meant to be performed."

"It was never even written down in any legitimate form until after he died," McCarthy added. "Even in Shakespeare's day, I don't think people 'got' every word. Back then it was like performing at a ballgame, there was so much stuff going on out there. It was rowdy. You had everybody yelling.

"We talk a lot about getting people who go bowling to come watch Shakespeare. It ought to be that much of an egalitarian experience. That's who Shakespeare was writing for - the guys down in the pit. My own father thought he hated Shakespeare until he started coming to see us perform it."

No word yet on whether he might now give the Bard's contemporary, Eminem, a try.