Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Little Help?

If you happen to find yourself near a park where some kind of ballgame is being playing, and the ball gets loose and lands near you, chances are someone will yell, "a little help?" For whatever reason that seems to be the ball yard translation for "Can you throw my ball back to me please, since you're standing there?"

It's easy enough to do, so I venture to say most people do it. I would, and have. It doesn't ruin my day, and it lets the folks get on with their game quicker. It's a nice thing to do.

Sometimes I think audience members for classical shows, such as those of Shakespeare, may be thinking, "a little help?" when they don't follow what's going on. At least those who are not tuned into Shakespearean language and such.

That is of course assuming that they come to see the show in the first place, and haven't dismissed it right away as soon as they hear it is Shakespeare. (Or Greek Tragedy, or something of that kind.)

I feel that audiences may get more out of such plays if productions were willing to give them "a little help".

For this point, I'll stay with Shakespeare. (But it could apply to any classical theatre, so long as it's in the public domain.) I've been reading Shakespeare for years, and I still have trouble with some passages. That's the nature of his language, and how removed it is from our own in some ways. So when I think of someone who has never read it or seen it performed, I have no problem seeing why they would be reluctant to do so. I applaud people who say, "Sure, I'll try it anyway," but I can't blame those who feel intimidated by not knowing what the characters are saying, or what exactly is happening. It can be tricky. 

Yet I think Shakespeare has much to offer, both young and old alike. So if by doing a few unconventional things within the production of a Shakespeare play we can convince, say 30% of those who previously refused to watch to give it a try, why shouldn't we do that? A little help.

Actually, some productions do in fact do this, to a degree. Especially productions for younger audiences. (Though to me, when such productions eliminate all of Shakespeare's actual words, it defeats the purpose to somewhat.) But there are also shorter productions. Workshops. Handouts to explain the scenes. You can even of course go online and look into the play before you go see it. Numerous ways to see what is going on in a Shakespeare play you might not otherwise understand.

Reasonable, but problematic for me in a few ways. To begin with, not everybody wants to invest in a workshop before a play, or a talk-back afterwards. Theatre is suffering from dwindling attendance as it is. If our goal is to get people back into theaters to enjoy productions of Shakespeare and other such classical plays, I don't think we should expect people to spend even more time at the theatre.

As for handouts, they can be useful, but how many average theatre goers can either memorize the entire thing before the curtain comes up, or find a way to read it in the dark during the performance without distracting everyone around them? It needs to be as little work as possible if audiences not familiar with such works are to embrace the notion of actually watching and enjoying a performance.

One possible solution? (And I imagine somebody somewhere has done this, but I'd like to see more of it.) Have a host. A chorus of sorts, if you will. (Which Shakespeare himself did, to a degree, in Henry V.) A Meta-Character. Perform The Merchant of Venice as a full, regular production, but  before each act, (or even before key scenes) have this Meta-Character speak to the audience in modern language in order to guide them into what is about to happen, or to remind them of where they are in the story. 

I don't mean to bring up the lights every half-hour and clear the actors off the stage to make room for some pompous stuffed shirt to come out and deliver a verbal Cliff Notes Lecture. I mean come up with creative ways to create a character within the action but not directly affected by it, to move in and out of the story as needed to make sure the audience is still hanging in there. (Sort of like Arthur Miller did with Alfieri in A View From A Bridge.) Let this Meta-Character establish a relationship with the audience at the start, and let him reappear to tidy things up a bit for those not as used to the language. He doesn't have to explain every word of every line, he merely needs to keep the boat sailing. Just make sure everyone knows he himself isn't a Shakespearean creation. 

And let his lines be brief, but memorable. Suited to the mood of the piece, but removed enough from it so that the audience still feels they are not left alone to fend for themselves. Let him know more than the audience does, but also allow him to discover things and reflect on them as they happen.

It doesn't have to happen for every production. I still want to see conventional Shakespeare performed. But I have more experience with it, and can enjoy it more than less experienced people. Have a "Shakespeare for Rookies" production once in a while, with this Meta-Character. Bill it as a more accessible version, and try to get more people to come. (Especially on the community level.) Then, surprise, what the audiences see is still 95% a standard Shakespeare play. By the end they may not even feel they need Meta-Character.

And that's when they become willing to go to a more conventional production.

I've shared this idea with a few people before, and their reactions are usually negative. Though my views on this seem to be unpopular if not controversial, I'll respond to a few common complaints about this approach.

-It will take people out of the story

Why does it have to take people out of the story? Perhaps for people already in love with and familiar with what is happening, there may the briefest of speed bumps. But if what those who already know the play would call a speed bump should make certain things less confusing to a newbie, would that not tend to keep them in the story, instead of zoning out of it, waiting for intermission? Or worse, just leaving? Besides, if you put a little time and thought into it, you can come up with ways for this to be interesting in its own right. You're an artist. Think of something.

-It's too much extra work.

So suddenly doing good theatre is supposed to be free of hard work? I don't know many actors who would refuse to work harder on a scene if they knew that the reaction from the audience would be twice as positive. This bit of extra work would, I strongly believe, allow more audiences to enjoy more of the play.

-It insults the intelligence of the audience.

Sometimes I think actors, playwrights and directors that are in love with their own vision, no matter how complex, tend to convince themselves that audiences are sure to "get it" if they are only left alone, and we don't insult their intelligence. The problem here is that if people actually don't understand what we are trying to do after all, we are forced to conclude that they must be unintelligent, and not that what we are doing needs work. But here is a newsflash: Intelligent people can also find Shakespeare confusing. I already mentioned that sometimes I myself do. 

Plus there are all kinds of intelligence, none of which bestows upon someone an instant knowledge without study of some kind. Take those do-it-yourself pottery mills, where you go in and make your wife a vase with her name on it for your anniversary. Is it an insult to your intelligence when the people who run those places explain how the wheels and the clay and the other equipment work? Are you stupid because you have to be shown the first few times? Or is that merely learning something new, and eventually being able to do it on your own, if you so choose? Why can't Shakespeare be approached in the same way? To assume it cannot be, and that audiences will forever be ruined to "pure" Shakespeare if these ideas are adopted is the greater insult to intelligence. 

This leads into a similar complaint:

-When performed well, any audience will be able to understand Shakespeare's language. There is no need for help.

I will concede that those who are trained and have practiced performing Shakespeare will be able to deliver a good portion of his lines in such a way that many will be able to sense the emotion and the motivation, and infer the rest from context. That's true with any play. But some rely so much on the perfect recitation of the meter and lines to produce clarity that it borders on a religion. As though Shakespeare's work were not writing, but a mystical spell which, when cast properly, removes all barriers in everyone that hears it, thus magically making its purpose obvious. No matter that the guy in Row G, Seat 114 has never read or listened to a word of Shakespeare in his life. Get the meter exactly correct, and he will instantly get it.

The "Open Sesame" of the theatre world.

The truth is, Shakespeare has endured for centuries because it is powerful and usually beautifully written. But people have also grown up hating it, and it is losing ground as time goes on. I don't think it will ever die. Still, need not hobble around, begging for younger people, or non-scholars, or those with shorter attention spans to love it if we could rid ourselves of this fallacy that well performed Shakespeare will always equate to well-understood Shakespeare. If all people truly understood it when it was performed well, do you think there would be so much aversion to it today? I don't. 

Besides, I'd rather keep the general spirit of the piece, with a bit of an aid for newcomers, than keep every word exactly as is, but resort to stunts. I think this happens quite a bit among the "purists" of the language. They keep the words and structure the same, but add antics and side shows in order to make it "more accessible" to modern audiences. (See here.) If greater accessibility is the goal, why does it matter what sort of device is employed?

This next response is one of the most common, but perhaps the least defensible in my view:

-It's arrogant/inappropriate to edit Shakespeare.

This is to laugh. Shakespeare himself sliced and diced work all the time. That of others, and that of himself. His contemporaries did so. Speeches or even whole new scenes were added to productions of old plays just to fit in with the specific event for which they were being performed. Other scenes would be cut from plays for the same purpose. That was Elizabethan playwrighting. 

Yet forget Shakespeare's own time. Look at today. A full length Hamlet takes about four and a half hours to perform, depending on a few things. Professional companies edit that play. The histories have been staged with guns and tanks. That's quite an edit, even if you keep all of the words the same. Olivier himself edited the words, and not just for his movies. The point being that the Bard's work gets edited. Added to. Subtracted from. Adapted. Re-imagined. Does any of that prevent "purist" productions from ever taking place again for those who want them? Does doing any of that take away from the majesty of the original work? Or does it enhance it, and make people sit up and realize there may be something there more worth exploring than they originally thought?

A little help. That's all I think it would take to win a few more fans to classical plays and stories. They recieve it when they read the plays in certain volumes, via footnotes and such. Why not when they come to see them? Obviously, having this Meta-Character in a production is not going to convince a hoard of new people to come see Shakespeare. It won't make everyone everywhere fall suddenly in love with Antigone. But is it really any less troublesome than assuming that if we do nothing at all and let everything be exactly as it is, the classics will come into their own again, and the public will embrace them? That hasn't exactly worked so far, and to continue on that track I fear will allow the continued disintegration of the public's interest in these beautiful, important, human works. And that would be a tragedy I'd need no help in understanding.

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