Fringe: Shakes No More

08.29.12 | 14 Comments

CATEGORIES #stealthisidea, alternatives, festivals, fringe festival, rabble rousing, steal this idea, theatre festivals, theatrical ecosystem

Fringe Festivals are a time for experimentation in theater. I look forward to seeing the mix of sights and sounds at the Capital Fringe Festival every year.

There’s one thing I don’t understand: Why do so many people decide to produce Shakespeare?

I will never produce a Shakespeare play for a fringe festival. I don’t really need to because there are always at least a handful of other companies who try it. Sigh.

Here is why I will not see their shows:

It will be too long. Don’t even try to tell me it won’t. You’ll either brazenly book 150 minutes for your show (length hog!) or you’ll say that it will squeeze into 90 but run into the next show with your inability to get your actors to speak all the lines fast enough.

But Karen, I edited the play! Aw, little munchkin lambie pie – I know you tried. Editing is really hard! What to take out, what to leave in, which actor gets shafted while others get to speak all of their lines as written. Editing is a bear. An angry, frothy-mouthed bear who is covered in bees. People spend years studying at PhD level to tame this terrifying Bee Bear. If you don’t have a great handle on this part of the process, plus the help of a good dramaturg, odds are you’ll end up stung, swollen, and in the belly of Bee Bear, who will proceed to make sure your show will be (see above) too long.

Bad Shakespeare is torture. And 9 out of 10 times, you will be producing bad Shakespeare. Rehearsals are hurried, actors may be inexperienced and need more time than the director (who also may not be that experienced) can give them. It hurts my ears to hear words mispronounced. It hurts my brain to hear actors rush through the language without clarity of meaning, tone color, objectives, or intent. How will your audience understand the more archaic terms if your actors are shaky on them?

Don’t even get me started on the cross gender casting that happens for no good reason other than you have waaaaay more actresses than actors ready, willing, and able to work for you. Take the opportunity to do something with the actor to make the role more than just her standing there in men’s clothes, saying the lines. This leads me to…

If your actors have zero experience with Shakespeare, you are setting yourself up for another battle with Bee Bear. Uneven talent can lead to the aforementioned torture. If I see one more actress doing a lovely job as Juliet have to deal with some leaden, ham handed, slightly-too-old for the part Romeo, I will walk on stage and kill them both so that the audience doesn’t have to bear another moment. The play ends that way, anyway, so I’m just doing us all a favor so we can go see something else.

Every single play has been done approximately 9,762,462 times. I counted. And yes, that clever variation of setting Twelfth Night in a disco in the 1970s? Done. That other one, too. Yup, that too. All of them have. been. done.

So what can you produce instead of Shakespeare?

I’m so glad you asked:

Did you know that approximately 1 Squijillion plays have been written since Shakespeare died in the 17th century? I know, crazy, right? Some of them are even interesting!

Have you seen a play that you like? Find out who wrote it & see if you can find more of their works – maybe one of those would be fun to try.

Don’t freak out, but some of the playwrights who wrote one of these squijillion plays might even live in your town. They can be found in coffee shops, writer’s groups, local colleges, and at local theaters. Seek them out. They have such goodies for you.

Think of a subject/concept/issue that is meaningful to you in your life as an artist/director/actor/painter/dancer/Samoan/dry cleaner. Search for plays on that. Modern stories are just as important as stories that were written centuries ago. Let your art reflect your life.

Try devising something of your own. Some may say that this could lead to the triple somersault issue I brought up in the first list, but there is a difference. If you have a vision and surround yourself with creative people who are excited about the project, you really can’t fail. You will create something. It will be new and, at minimum, interesting as a process. Even if the production doesn’t turn out to be the most critically acclaimed of the festival, you will still have succeeded at making something unique & all your own. And nobody will write condescending blog posts about how you murdered Shakespeare again.

Take some inspiration from the present. Go forth and make beautiful, challenging, satisfying theatre. Bee Bear and I will be watching.

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Karen Lange

Karen Lange, Co-Artistic Director, Pinky Swear Productions

Karen is proud to be an actor, singer, improviser, and producer. Credits: Killing Women, Carol's Christmas, Cabaret XXX: Les Femmes Fatales, Be Here Now and Freakshow (Pinky Swear Productions), Romeo and Juliet (Red Eye Gravy Theater Company), Life with Father (American Century Theater),Unintended Consequences (Senior Moments Theater), House of Blue Leaves (Dominion Stage), Wonder of the World (Port City Playhouse), Hay Fever (Rockville Little Theater). Karen has been performing with Washington Improv Theater's iMusical, since 2006, performing in over 125 shows. She is also part of the DC/NY musical improv troupe Vox Pop, who can be seen in festivals around the country. Other favorite improvisational projects include POTUS Among Us, WIRT, and Seasonal Disorder. One of her films, The Bad News Bearer, which she co-wrote and performed in, won a script award and the Best Picture prize at the DC 48-Hour film festival in 2008. Karen is a graduate of the Studio Theater Conservatory. She teaches improvisation and musical improvisation at Washington Improv Theater.

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  • ocatagon

    I can blissfully say the Kansas City Fringe has been largely Shakespeare free in its eight years. We’ve had more Greek adaptations than Shakespeare. Most of the material at our Fringe is locally written, and it’s become a proving ground for new playwrights.

  • well this is a really stupid rant. it’s thoughtless and uses hipster lingo to make a thin statement, or at least a specious one. there’s crap shakespeare done by uber-professionals and fab revelatory shakespeare done on the street by amateurs. blanket statements like this dumb the conversation down.

    • I don’t know that “Go forth and make beautiful, challenging, satisfying theatre” is a thin or specious statement. And I wouldn’t say that this is a blanket statement except in relation to producing at fringe festivals. The only absolute here is that she herself won’t produce or see Shakespeare at one.

      Bear in mind, Karen lives and works in DC where there’s no shortage of Shakespeare at every level from Shakespeare Theatre Co down to the Folger and on down to the stripped down, rehearse-and-perform-in-one-day “bootleg” shows of Taffety Punk. (Not surprisingly, theirs’ are often the most fun.) Odds are you can find multiple productions almost every week out there. And you’re right, there’s professional crap, amateur brilliance and everything in between.

      For my part, I don’t go to Shakespeare at fringe festivals either. It has nothing to do with the perceived quality or potential lack thereof, it’s just that if I’m taking the time and money to see fringe work, I want to see something new, something I can’t see or read at the drop of a hat. Hell, the complete plays are on my iPhone at all times, on the home screen no less. Does that mean I might miss stripped-down brilliance? Maybe. But I’ll gladly trade that for taking a chance on a playwright I’ve never seen before, preferably someone local to that festival’s city. Again, might be good, might be bad, but I’m happy to take that chance.

      But in the end, this post is one person’s opinion based on her repeated experiences of poorly-produced fringe Shakespeare. The point wasn’t to say “stop doing Shakespeare,” it was to say, “it’s fringe, take a chance, do something original.” You may not agree with her, and that’s fine, but there’s no need to call it “stupid,” “dumb” or “thoughtless.”

      • Lambie Pie

        And yet she herself must think nobody at a Fringe festival can edit Shakespeare, and therefore must be stupid(and mocked). “But Karen, I edited the play! Aw, little munchkin lambie pie – I know you tried.” It’s condescending and fairly generic advice not really worthy of a read.

        • Ah, anonymity. Well known bastion of the wise and the strong.

          • Travis ‘Lambie Pie’ Bedard

            Ah, sarcasm. Well known bastion of those who can’t refute a point.

        • Wrote a much longer, more nuanced response, but the internet ate it. Here’s the short version:
          1. Most people CAN’T edit Shakespeare. It’s very difficult to do well, and most people trying to do it for Fringe are also trying to produce for Fringe — many discovering just how difficult that is, as well. Why make things harder for yourself and your show? Why make it harder for your actors, your director, your audience? It is possible to produce good Shakespeare at Fringe, but it is very unlikely.
          2. Producing bad Shakespeare is a waste of both (a) what could be a cool new take on an old, old play and (b) a Fringe slot. The only benefit to producing bad Shakespeare is the experience of having produced a show, which you can get producing a good show, too. You know, one that everyone hasn’t seen a bajillion times, one that everyone doesn’t already have an opinion about, one that doesn’t need to be cut to fit the rules of the festival.

    • Thank you for engaging the issue thoughtfully rather than blanket dismissal for “hipster lingo”, it moves the conversation forward.

      From your position you could likely add something of substance here, even in disagreement, rather than sniffing at what is honestly a reasonable opinion. Rather than snipe, respond to the issue rather than some perceived slight.

      Why is it a wise use of resources to use a new work / fringe festival to perform the most performed writer in every town every year?

  • moxie4me

    Careful, you could replace the word “Shakespeare” with “Improv” and make just about the same argument, Karen.

    • Absolutely. Improv is tricky. I could write a long post just on how I think improv can work well or be…well, another form of torture from the Bee Bear.

      My show has been running with a tight group for years & has the cache of being a musical, plus I’m not producing – just performing. We picked a concept & it hit a lot of people in a good way. I felt like the director & AD of the theater really put a show together rather than throwing some folks up who haven’t developed any chemistry or the ensemble shorthand that makes improv sing.
      A few years ago, there weren’t any improv shows in Fringe. I’m happy to see more people venture into self-production. I consider it an experiment. You succeed by finding a tight format and telling stories that matter – the funny comes from that. I’d be really sad to see short form shows, as I think you’re not pushing boundaries when you do that.

      Basically, I enjoy the fact that the Cap Fringe festival welcomes all kinds of theatre art. Heck, I’ve been able to perform as a rock singer for the past two years in Pinky Swear’s shows. That felt awesome.

  • smalltragedy

    While I hear you… I gotta say, I just saw a 2 actor Fringe version of Romeo and Juliet which clocked in at 90 minutes and was nothing short of genius. It worked. It shed new light on the story. And it had some of the best stage combat I’ve seen in a long time, including a scene where one actor fought himself. Just goes to show you, every rule has its exception.

  • Fascinating. I was out of town & didn’t see all the replies until now. I would like to say that I acknowledge and own my choice of style on this. Take it with a grain of salt, fellow theatre artists. It’s one woman’s opinion & you have a right to think it’s not breaking new ground. Go ahead, dismiss, and move on with your life. I’m not changing your mind. I also appreciate those who agree that there is, indeed, new ground that can be broken in Fringe Festivals across the country. David did a lovely job in his comment, enlarging on my assertion that it’s a great place to be creative.

    I do take exception to the “stupid” comment. Really, sir, can we be civil in our discourse? I don’t think you’re stupid for expressing your opinion. Why do you think I am? This is a blog. We can rant. And I can be a hipster or – shocker – try to approach this creatively. I’m not dumbing the conversation down by using a tongue in cheek style.

    I’m grateful for 2amt for connecting me with theatre artists across the country and for inviting me to share my voice, be it wry or heartfelt. I’m glad we all have a chance to share our voice as part of this community.

  • I think there’s merit to preferring original works at the Fringe Festival. I wouldn’t automatically exclude derivative works based on Shakespeare. I recall seeing a great “Clown Hamlet” at the Fringe a few years ago, which I liked better than the faithful-to-the-text production of Coriolanus I also saw there. Another example of an original Shakespeare derivative work performed at the Fringe is Charlene V. Smith’s “What Lamb! What Ladybird!” about Juliet. I also wouldn’t exclude works about Shakespeare (versus works of), in the genre of Amy Freed’s hilarious “The Beard of Avon,” for example. But Karen is right — there’s already lots of Shakespeare in Washington, D.C. (one reason I love this city!). At least for me, when it comes to Shakespeare at the Fringe, only original derivative works are of interest. Just my opinion!