Earlier this month, the Shakespeare Theatre Association (STA) held its 25th annual conference, hosted by the gracious staff at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival; the event was comprised of both a practicum component as well as a more traditional conference, filled with panels, plenaries and keynotes.
A Kind of History
Sidney Berger, then Producing Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, and Douglas Cook, Producing Artistic Director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, invited the producers, artistic directors and managing directors of over thirty-seven Shakespeare festivals and companies to Washington D.C. for an organizational meeting January 12-13, 1991. Out of that first session, STA was established to provide a forum for the artistic, managerial, educational leadership for theaters primarily involved with the production of the works of William Shakespeare; to discuss issues and methods of work; to share resources and information; and to act as an advocate for Shakespearean productions and training. The organization now has more than 100 member organizations from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries.
STA is a powerful resource network and an instrument of communication; it bridges the gap between scholarship and production; and it promotes more immersive, up-on-our-feet encounters with Shakespeare in schools.
As a freelance stage director with a profound love for Shakespeare, with substantive expertise in these plays and 20+ years of working on them with professionals, students and the incarcerated, I look eagerly forward to the opportunity to debate the plays, discuss all kinds of issues, and drink some wine with my fellow practitioners and comrades at STA each year. Full disclosure: What follows is definitely informed by my experience of this year’s conference; because there are so many break-out sessions, so many delightful branching discussions, I cannot tell you what happened at every meeting.
You can read more about the conference here.
During the practicum portion, practitioners share techniques, strategies, games and approaches to engaging with the text, to engaging with specific audiences and constituencies. Each day typically starts with a warm-up; San Francisco Shakespeare Festival Resident Artists Rebecca Kemper and Michael Truman Cavanaugh led Linklater and Commedia-based warm-ups throughout the conference.
San Francisco Shakespeare introduced us to their ‘pop-up’ Shakespeare, wherein they perform short scenes from the plays al fresco in San Francisco’s parklets. Each of us was assigned to a group and a scene by Artistic Director Rebecca Ennals; we found a public space, cast ourselves and squeezed in a brief rehearsal or two before sharing scenes from Comedy of Errors on a wheelchair ramp, Measure for Measure, Romeo & Juliet in a playground, Richard III in a labyrinth and Julius Caesar on the steps of Grace Cathedral. As Sean Haggerty, Associate Artistic Director of New York Classical Theatre, in the guise of Richard of Gloucester, said, “Wear this ring for me,” the bells of Grace Cathedral began to chime. As Lady Anne, I paused to wonder whether God was endorsing Richard’s plan or warning me.
A particular highlight of this year’s practicum for me was a field trip to Djerassi Ranch in Woodside, California, where we took a two-hour hike through redwoods and open fields to view more than 40 site-specific sculptures that were designed to be temporal (like theatre itself), ultimately fading, collapsing or decomposing back into the landscape.
After the hike, Ben Crystal, actor, producer and co-author of Shakespeare’s Words and The Shakespeare Miscellany with his father David Crystal, led a workshop on what I would call ‘instant relationship on the open stage’ through eye contact and exploratory movement with long bamboo sticks; afterwards, as the sun began to dip towards the ocean in the distance, he gave us all an opportunity to play with Original Pronunciation (or ‘pirate Shakespeare’), which, he says, “transports you back through the centuries.” You can hear the sound of OP from Ben and David here.
“I think madness & magic are a large part of what we do,” said actor Carl Lumbly during his keynote address; he spoke beautifully and powerfully, saying that Shakespeare is interested in what is behind skins: “Diversity is coming for you, and she is beautiful.”
As the conference proper got under way, there were breakout sessions: Neil Freeman shared his strategies for engaging with the verse; Sarah Stackhouse of Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston led a discussion about strategies for social change as artists; Lesley Currier of Shakespeare San Quentin, Matt Wallace of Shakespeare Behind Bars and I spoke about the power and value of Shakespeare as a tool for helping the incarcerated to find their voices, to develop their critical thinking skills, to think deeply, to negotiate delayed gratification, to cultivate non-violent conflict resolution skills, etc. Later in the week, ten conference attendees, myself included, were able to join Lesley for a trip to San Quentin; we spent a joyous afternoon participating in a workshop and rehearsal with her incarcerated students there.
The men in the program professed themselves delighted that Shakespeare practitioners from five different countries had come to work with them; my colleagues who had never been inside a correctional facility had their minds powerfully, movingly blown by the work and by the experience. I was delighted to deliver greetings and good wishes from the men with whom I work in New York state to their brothers in California; the incarcerated actor playing Macbeth at San Quentin said, “Tell them their greetings are respectfully received, and lovingly returned.”
A Crew of Patches: Diversity of Playwrights
Amy Freed, Bill Cain and Lauren Gunderson spoke about how Shakespeare has influenced them in writing new work. Amy Freed asked, “What makes a writer? Is language as the ability to reason a native genius or is it something that requires a kind of training?” She said that Shakespeare is a “recognition of our common torments in a public space” and that he gives her inspiration to write “big.” She said, “Shakespeare pitched high and low in a wonderful way as an inclusive author.”
Bill Cain said, “Our task is the August Wilson task: to reexamine our history to understand who we are.” He suggested that while he loves Shakespeare, he also perceives him to be a “mill stone around the neck.” Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, Director of Mission at the American Shakespeare Center, advocated for producing Shakespeare’s contemporaries (such as Fletcher, Middleton and Dekker) more often, and suggested that modern plays with a Shakespearean content are powerful, and that might just mean plays that “reach far and love language.”
A Cry of Players: Diversity Onstage
Lisa Wolpe, Artistic Director, Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare, and Rebecca Ennals advocated for cross-gender casting as a way of creating greater resonance in production. Rebecca suggested that actresses stop doing ‘victim’ monologues and that directors consider the potency and perspective a female actor might bring to a male role. Lisa said, “We don’t see all the magnificent people we live with onstage, and as a result, something inside us dies a little. Women want to play everything. And we can.”
Professor Ayanna Thompson spoke about casting policies: “a commitment to diverse casting is not enough.” Does a company articulate its casting model, either among its members, its board or with its audience? Is casting ‘color-blind’? Can there honestly be such a thing? Is a company casting with intention? Is casting cross-cultural? “You cannot be using race to help tell the story in one part of the play but not throughout,” she said. “It muddles the audience’s understanding, particularly if you are not articulating your casting policy.” She spoke about the unofficial Black canon: Mercutio, Tybalt, Macbeth, Patroclus, etc., and about the importance of theatre companies conducting sustained conversations about diversity internally and with their communities. She metioned Beverly Tatum’s Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria?. Dr. Thompson has also written extensively on this subject, including 2013’s Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America.
There were also breakout sessions by function (artistic, administrative, education, marketing) and by theatre budget size. There were sessions about using Shakespeare to engage children on the Autism spectrum, about Shakespeare and the common core, about using technology in education, and much, much more.
The Next Way
Next year, Shakespeare at Notre Dame will host the STA Conference, folding an agenda organized around social justice into the practicum portion of the week. Prison arts practitioners from around the world will meet at Notre Dame for our second annual Shakespeare in Prison Conference immediately before the STA Conference begins, hopefully facilitating a richer conversation among these two overlapping constituencies of practitioners.
2016 will also see the worldwide Shakespeare 400 celebrations; you can learn more about STA’s initiatives here.