Shakespeare, Rock’d

07.27.10 | 12 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, ideas

The Washington, DC area loves Shakespeare.  I’m not sure I can say why, exactly – perhaps he’s the most bi-partisan playwright – but the facts are indisputable.  Year after year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, the Folger Theatre, and the Washington Shakespeare Company, among others, put the Big Bad Bard front and center, and a fat handful of other companies take a whack at him for a play or two, too.  His work is so prominent you’d think his face was on the one dollar bill. (Maybe even a little too prominent, but that’s a subject for another #2amt post.)

Most of what the nation’s capitol sees are fairly safe (if often very high-quality) interpretations, but we do have our share of out-there, experimental productions, too.  In recent seasons, for example, we’ve had an extra-gorey Titus, a radio play version of Merchant, a movement-based adaptation of Midsummer, and two different versions of Macbeth: one with an all-naked cast and one with illusions designed by none other than the great Teller himself.  You can definitely get your iambic pentameter served up any way you like it.

For my money, however, nobody quite lights the folios on fire like the Taffety Punk Theatre Company.  (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the board, as well as a playwright whose work the company has produced several times; they also commissioned me to write a new prologue to Cardenio Found, a little-known possibly-written-by-Shakespeare relic.)  They’re doing things no other Shakes-centric company in the area seems to be doing; the past two seasons, for example, they’ve staged all-female productions of Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure strong enough to make you forget the performers’ genders three minutes in.

None of the company’s work is quite as audacious, however, as its annual one-night-only Bootleg Shakespeare production.  Here’s the drill: actors are cast, they learn all their lines on their own, and they gather the day of the show to rehearse for a whopping six hours or so before the show goes up.   The show’s director stays on book during the performance – the actors call for lines maybe a dozen or so times at most – and blocking is… well, let’s call it organic.  The company makes use of whatever set is already on the Folger Theatre’s stage, improvises costumes and props at the last minute, and relies on the simplest light and sound cues imaginable.  It’s nothing short of acrobatic.

Most impressive, however, is the fact that it all comes together brilliantly, which is largely a testament to the skill of the thirty or more performers with the talent and daring to pull it off.  Every year the event (which is ticketed, but free) earns the company riotous standing ovations, high critical praise, and standing-room-only houses.   (Last year, 30 or so people had to be turned away at the door.)  It just plain WORKS for everyone involved.

But why?

At least part of the event’s tremendous appeal is the derring-do of the whole thing, to be sure.  Everyone likes to watch high-flying maneuvers performed without (much of) a net.  But the Bootleg is a great deal more than a gimmick: it’s damn fine work, and it’s radically different than the typical Shakespearian rag we see in DC.  Its rawness is what sets it apart; the shows are distinguished by their lack of polish.  Most of the city’s shows are thoroughly rehearsed, carefully costumed, brilliantly lit jewels – or, if they aren’t, they’re at least trying to be.  The Taffety Punks, by contrast, are made of rougher stuff: coal instead of diamonds.  Yes, diamonds sparkle… but coal ignites.

The secret of the Bootleg’s success is that the company’s ever-growing audience genuinely prefers a less “perfectly” constructed theatrical experience.  The flaws in the shows – if you want to call them that – really are quite minor (an incident with a missing dead body in Cymbeline notwithstanding), but they’re enough to make Shakespeare’s epic scale more human, more accessible.  Taffety Punk shows aren’t meant to sit on a shelf like museum pieces – they’re to be handled, used, tossed around, chewed on, and lived with.

Frankly, I think we could all use a lot more theater like that: productions that focus less on achieving the perfect illusory qualities – the right scenic design or sound design, the perfect beat between two uttered lines – and more on the urgency and importance of the story being told.  I honestly don’t believe that the audiences we aren’t reaching (but would like to) give a damn about the nuances we care about – the Taffety Punk audiences are among the youngest and most non-traditional in the city, I hasten to note – and we’d probably do our work a lot more light-heartedly if we stopped sweating the small stuff.  Besides: the play IS the thing after all, isn’t it?  (And by “play” I mean the script, of course, not the production.)

So what if we stopped worrying about buying the best material for our costumes, scrounging the budget for an extra week of rehearsal time, or pouring money into some visual effect only a few audience members are likely to even notice?  What if we stopped focusing on what we don’t have, or absolutely need to have, and started putting our energy into just making it happen, earnestly and with complete dedication, no matter what resources we have?

I think we’d all be Taffety Punks.  That’s what I think.  And that’s a very fine thing to be.

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  • Wow!!!!!! I love love love this!!!!! There is certainly room for all sorts of theater and I would hate to do away with the deeply thought through production- but oh how I wish I had been in that theater with you! There is something about unrehearsed, balls honest spontaneity that has the capacity to bring out truth and excitement that could never be rehearsed. It's as if they brought the best of film technique to shakespeare…what an inspiration!

  • plainkate

    Lots to discuss here. You write so well. I love a well-turned phrase.

    I am thrilled that Taffety Punk is firing people up with their work. However we get 'em. That said, this feels like a false dichotomoy: we don't have to choose between museum piece classical theatre and vital, unrehearsed 'bootleg' classical theatre. Shakespeare ain't easy, but there are several companies in this country that deliver vital, rich, thoughtful, nuanced productions that are far from museum pieces, that are far outside the gates of the cultural church that Shakespeare often regrettably becomes. There is a lot of value to rehearsing. That is why we do it more often than we don't. American Shakespeare Center rocks the text and tests the limits of bare stage production; American Players Theatre investigates, explores and rediscovers the language, the storytelling. I could go on, but maybe I should save it in case Mr. Loehr decides I need to write a post about it.

  • Thanks, Kate!

    I actually don't think I'm suggesting a dichotomy at all, actually. I think what I'm saying applies equally to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, with all of its ample resources, and to the Taffety Punks: the path to genuinely engaging audiences is in letting go of perfection and embracing the story. For STC that might mean not building quite so elaborate a set; for the T-Punks it means casting a paper bag in a minor role instead of another human being. (I'm not exaggerating — ask me if you want to know the details.) The frayed edges in the work are what make it easier for audiences to connect; they see themselves in the struggle to make it work, and they end up rooting for the play itself to hold together. A polished production, on the other hand, is like oiled-up teflon — there's nowhere to grab hold.

  • plainkate

    But there is your dichotomy right there: you are positing frayed edges v polished production, with the implication that frayed edges are inherently better. They are certainly exciting, but polished does not by definition equal museum piece.

    I read that article where the critic was wishing there'd been more disasters in Taffety Punk's production: are they engaged in the story or are they, with respect, engaged in whether there might be an entertaining train wreck due to lack of rehearsal? If they are rooting for the play to hold itself together, are they also engaged in the story?

    (I agree with you on telling the story.)

  • Hey now, don't be knocking the polished production. I don't think that part's true at all. Partly because there's always the chance in any production that something will go horribly wrong–that's just a risk in live theatre, no matter how you minimize it. And it can be quite thrilling to see something that is pulled off perfectly live and in real time right before your eyes.

    There's room for all different styles, which is the wonderful thing. I've seen rough shows, barebones, improvised, full-scale, professional, children, you name it. One is not inherently better a style than another. One of the best interpretations I've seen of Hamlet was in a classroom setting.

    But at the end of the day, if I had to name the best Shakespeare I've seen, it would be Patrick Stewart in the Tempest in Central Park. Not one slip, not a siren, not even a raccoon. Yes, it was completely by chance that nature stayed out of the way, but the performance itself was flawless, polished to a high sheen. And at the end, Stewart cut his mic for the final speech, and the world melted away.

    Ironically enough, one of the most disappointing Shakespeares I've seen was Patrick Stewart in the Tempest that winter at the Broadhurst Theatre (as I recall). The show was reblocked for the proscenium stage–which was not a big deal–and the few replacements in the cast really did not match up–you simply can't replace Bill Irwin, though God bless 'em, they tried. So the show, perfectly performed, was less than what it had been out in the wild. And the most magical moment of the show, when Stewart cut his mic? While still impressive, his voice was swallowed up by the acoustics of the room. Where the Delacorte amplified him naturally, the Broadhurst muffled.

    As you've said–and as we all always end up agreeing–the story itself is paramount. Goodness knows, I love the Punks' Bootlegs, not because they're ragged, not because they can devolve into a train wreck, as the one writer noted, but because they put on a damn good show that tells the story. Even hobbled by the Broadhurst, Stewart and the Public still told a good story indoors.

    In the end, audiences may connect with the struggle to make the show work. But if they're not engaged with the story itself, that's all they'll remember. And a good story should engage them whether frayed or polished.

  • Very sorry I missed the Bootleg performance last night. You make an eloquent case for its necessity. My editor over at the City Paper wants Taffety Punk to make the next one even rawer by cutting that six-hour rehearsal period in half.


  • Thanks, Chris — I read your editor's take and got a good laugh out of it… but I think he misses the point. It's still ultimately about the story, not the production and its challenges… though I do think those challenges give us a way to see THROUGH the production elements to the story itself.

  • I'm reminded of two things. One is Peter Brook's description (in The Open Door) of a late-stage rehearsal in each of his productions. He brings his ensemble to an elementary-school classroom, where the actors perform their show, for the students, using whatever props are handy.

    Also, the high-wire act is part of any live performance. There's that thin line between exhilarating tension and anxiety. The former is the engine for improv comedy, for any difficult stunt performed live, and whatever else involves presenting (not representing) something in front of the audience. As a director, my own goal is to get the actors to present instead of re-present their work, so that even small details have a slightly different combination in each performance. When the audience feels that they are seeing an individual performance, whether it's a climactic scene or a singer-songwriter's between-song banter, the more the performance takes full advantage of its medium.

  • Hold on there, cowpoke. I'm not sure we're agreeing just yet. (Though yeah, probably, we are.)

    The best Shakespeare I ever saw was at the Shakespeare Theatre Company here in DC in 1996. Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3. I will never forget it as long as I live. And I will admit: the production values — all in the service of the storytelling — were very, very high. It had none of the “flaws” and “frayed edges” I've referred to here… and I loved every blessed second of it.

    But I'm not the audience most theaters are trying to reach (or, perhaps, should be). I'm an educated theatergoer, a practitioner with a refined palate. I knew how to appreciate the subtleties, and I valued them, and I wasn't so in awe of them that I felt alienated from the story.

    At the risk of making a broad generalization, I will say that I don't think that's true for most irregular (let alone non-) theatergoers. Some of the people who don't go see plays at all, I suspect, think of the theater as too refined and haughty a place for their tastes. They see all that emphasis being placed on finery and f/x and whiz-bang sets and fancy programs (as well as the resulting high ticket prices), and it feels… uncomfortable. Mind you, I'm not saying anyone CAN'T appreciate fine art… I'm just saying they don't care to. When you make it Shakespeare, furthermore, with all the linguistic/comprehension challenges he presents, it becomes even less appealing.

    Enter the T-Punks and the Bootleg. It's a far less rarefied experience, and as a result, the theater is filled not only with typical theater patrons, but with lots of young people who usually devote their entertainment dollars to music and movies. This is their kind of show.

    And this brings us to the nut of the problem: I think we might be making theater too much for our own tastes instead of for the tastes of the people we ostensible wish were bringing in through the doors. We like things all nice and polished, so we make theater that's all nice and polished, and all we get in our houses are middle- and upper-class audiences with a preference for tidiness.

    What if we looked beyond our own tastes a bit, then? And what if we opened the doors a bit earlier, when things were still a little bit rough? Would we start getting new people in the door?

    I don't actually know the answers to these questions — I really, honestly, only ask them to be provocative. But I have seen what happens with the Bootleg, and I suspect that it's more than the high-wire act that's drawing people in… and I'm completely certain that an extra three hours (let alone three weeks) of rehearsal time and a few thousand dollars for stagecraft would ruin the magic, too. What do we make of that?

  • By now I think we may both have grown tired of the question of whether audiences can be engaged in the story AND paying attention to something else… and we can agree to disagree, of course.

    Honestly, though, I think the truth is that they're inseparable: following the story and rooting for it to hold on. I think whenever we're engrossed in a story, part of us feels “held” by it, and wary of losing that hold, and wanting it to continue: I think that's why we feel a bit bewildered when, at the end of a really good story, the final words drift away and we're cast adrift into silence.

  • All true… but there is so much room for both…I have seen actors who have blown my world with their raw humanity (liev schriiber in Hamlet at the Public in 2000 or so) become wooden and actory in an overwrought, over stylized, over designed intellectual presentation (liev schreiber as HenryV in the Park). One of the most profound theatrical experiences of my life was in the early 90's- One night I went to see The Father at ART- great cast, music by philip glass, highly conceptual set- and ..ehhh… the very next night I saw E G Marshall and Colleen Dewhurst sit on a bare stage and read the text of “love letters” and you couldn't mop me off the floor. Clearly The Father is a far superiour piece of writing… but what did love letters give me- profound, unrehearsed humanity. I'll take a genuine moving human experience over a million dollar concept any day.

  • I work for the country's best symphony orchestra. We are all about the polish and perfection and nuance, as are our critics and much of our audience. Reading the reviews is mystifying to me, who is from the theater world and somewhat music-illiterate. These people know when the phrasing at the end of the slow movement is a little more subtle or a little more sibilant than the last time they heard the same piece with that famous other conductor who brought out the “shimmery” strings, whatever that means. It's like remembering that one bit where Patrick Stewart took the unexpected breath in the middle of the iamb… This is very much an important part of their music experience, and if we didn't work to deserve that attention, we wouldn't be who we are.

    However, even though I work here, I think I would really enjoy classical music if it were a little more from the hip, a little more frayed, a little more urgent. A great many classical works lend themselves to that sort of passionate urgency, but as soon as Lang Lang starts playing around with tempi just a bit, the classical police let you know about it…