Theatre Does Not Apologize

Originally posted in Cultural Weekly on November 23, 2016.

Dear Mr. President-elect,

I’d like to explain something about the theatre, because you seem to misunderstand what theatre is all about.

You recently asked the cast of Hamilton to apologize to the Vice President-elect, Mike Pence. You tweeted:

The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

You tweeted that because, at the end of Friday night’s performance, with Mike Pence in attendance, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon read this message from the stage:

You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out.

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.

Here’s the thing about theatre. It is not a safe place. Theatre is dangerous. It challenges the status quo. All good theatre confronts its audience. That has been true since Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Molière and Beckett, and for Hansberry and Albee, Wilson and Pinter, Parks and LeCompte.

Theatre, good theatre, makes its audience uncomfortable. And theatre does not apologize for that. Theatre never apologizes.

As Mayakovsky said, and Brecht said after him, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

This, Mr. President-elect, is the hammer of theatre. We, all artists, all culture-creators, will not apologize for what we do.

Sincerely,
Cultural Weekly

 

Image from the official Instagram feed of Hamilton: Actor Brandon Victor Dixon reads a message to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Latino Theater Company’s Narrative of Change

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 7, 2016.

Thirty years ago, when we were young and beautiful, we were part of Los Angeles’s theatre revolution. At its heart was the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and the seed within that heart was the nascent Latino Theater Company, founded by José Luis Valenzuela, its artistic director, and the company’s playwright, Evelina Fernandez.

I first met José Luis and Evelina in the offices of Bill Bushnell and Diane White, who were running the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, where I was the dramaturg. José Luis, Evelina, and a trio of loyal actors were founding a theatre lab. We went on to build and open the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which housed that lab. After the Theatre Center folded as an organization in 1991, the Lab became an Initiative, and finally a Company; ten years ago the Latino Theatre Company took over the lease and now runs and programs the house we all built together.

Today we are older, and beautiful in a different way.

“We learned it takes a long time,” José Luis said. “It takes forever,” Evelina added. We were having breakfast in Downtown LA’s Arts District under a cloudy sky.

“Thirty years ago it didn’t matter if we were great or not,” José Luis said. “We were Latinos, off to the side.”

Back in that day we all did theatre because we could. We did diversity before it was a common word; we called it “multi-culturalism” and made it our by-word not out of political correctness but because that’s the way we experienced our world. Our theatre was new and fragile, the stuff of sweat, long days and longer nights, new playwrights coming into dress rehearsals with fresh pages, preview performances where offended audiences might not show up for the second act.

“You remember when we were young, you and I?” José Luis sipped his coffee. “It was about the Wonder Boy. So if you were not brilliant at 27, you were a loser. Some of our friends, who were brilliant at that age, are gone now. It got so bad for them after that first year or two of success. It was easier to disappear. But we lived through it.

“That is just the fate of American culture and our theatre. We went through performance art, post-modernism, minimalism. We struggled with the idea of important theatre that matters, theatre with a clear narrative – which for many years was not what the national dialogue was. Somehow, that’s coming back. Once again, the story is important.”

It reminded me of Beckett. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. “I just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” I said.

“It’s necessary,” agreed Evelina, reflecting on why she writes her plays. “These stories are necessary for the country and the world to understand that there’s a whole other narrative that isn’t being told about my people. We’re stubborn, we believe in it. We feel we have to do our part.”

“But here’s the problem, the contradiction, I wrestle with,” I began, heading into the complications of the art. “It’s important to change the narrative—but it is so hard to get butts in seats. Where is the audience for the important work?”

“It’s not the lack of an audience. It’s how do we support that audience and change what success means in the theatre?” said José Luis. “People see income as success. But theatre’s not about profit. We had 12,000 people come to see 19 plays in one month. That’s a lot of people. We sold the tickets for $5, so everybody came. We’re doing the Mexican Trilogy right now, and it’s a huge production. I have to sell 2,000 tickets at the regular price. Then I can sell the student tickets at $15. There are already 1,000 students who want to come for $15… but that’s only $15,000. I wish we could sell all the tickets for $15… then we’d be sold out! There would be no empty seats. But because wealth is not equitably distributed to the arts, we have to be the ones who keep searching for paths to financial stability.”

“It didn’t used to be that way,” I said. “When western theatre started in Athens 2,500 years ago, theatre was considered so important to the fabric of society that the audiences were paid to go to the theatre. They didn’t pay to go. They were paid to show up. One day we should get a gigantic grant and do a play where the audience is paid to come see the play. It would have to be a very political play, because it’s an inherently political act, to pay the audience to show up.”

“That’s what they do in politics” nodded José Luis. “They pay people to show up, because they need them to send the message out.”

“That would be ideal.” Evelina agreed. “Let’s do that.”

Could a theatre do something that revolutionary? José Luis and Evelina had to get to rehearsal, and I had an appointment with a laptop. It was time to end breakfast, but of course the conversation would go on. Theatre is vital because it becomes the canvas on which all social and human issues are splattered, no matter how young or old you are.

Image: José Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernandez going over rehearsals for La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Kansas City Choir Boy: Love and Inspiration

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 21, 2015.

Love lost and inspiration found hover like the angel of death over Kansas City Choir Boy, an intricate one-hour operetta with music and lyrics by Todd Almond and starring Almond, Courtney Love and a troupe of sirens and musicians. In less time than it takes most performances to set their wheels in motion, Kansas City Choir Boy navigates the entire course of a relationship. It’s theatre not to be missed.

The story is simple. A musician (Almond), holed up in a Midwestern motel room, sees a TV news report that Athena, a former lover (Love), was murdered in New York. He spirals to a fantasia of remembrance, playing through their courtship, love-play, and Athena’s decision to find her fortune in the big city.

Yet, under Kevin Newbury’s careful and sure direction, this simple thread creates a complex web. Almond’s songs are musically adventuresome, and his lyrics match them; they are filled with well-worked references and call-backs to fire, stars and light, imagery that is mirrored in Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s LED-rich set design.

Almond is immediately likable and relatable as a performer. He is tall and handsome and unprepossessing, and he moves with unselfconscious ease. Love has never been better. Her rounded, grounded portrayal of Athena is the center of the operetta’s wheel. Her husky voice holds melody perfectly, and gives earthy realism to her stately bearing. More than anything else, you sense that Almond and Love are having fun on stage: they enjoy being performers.

Kansas City Choir Boy details its love story in a way that brings to mind the central scene of Godard’s Contempt, in which Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot enact the beginning, middle and end of their relationship in a single walk through the unfinished doorways of their house, clad in sheets that make them look like Greek gods. “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically,” Piccoli says in that film. “When I say I want to fade away, I think you misunderstand,” sings Love, over and over, at Kansas City Choir Boy’s climax.

Thanks to Beth Morrison and Beth Morrison Projects for producing the show and bringing it on tour. It is hard to produce theatre that strays from the mainstream, but that’s the theatre that most needs support and is most rewarding. Kansas City Choir Boy is especially rewarding, and this is a show lucky theatre-goers will remember for a long time to come.

Kansas City Choir Boy plays through November 15. Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling CTG Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles) or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performances. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.

Top image: Todd Almond and Courtney Love in “Kansas City Choir Boy” at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Carrie the Musical: Better Than Blood

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 14, 2015.

Carrie The Musical is an invigorating revival of a show that succeeds because of its newfound intimacy. Staged in an immersive environment by Brady Schwind – the fabulously rococo Los Angeles Theatre has been transformed into a high school stage within a stage – Carrie brings the audience into the action with a mix of bravado and theme-park ride.

Stephen King’s well-known novel, on which the play is based, tells the story of a bullied teenage girl, entrapped by her mother’s religious dogma of sin and salvation, whose telekinetic powers wreak vengeance on her tormenters. King’s power in horror has always been that he allows the inside to come outside, and he will take his readers to places we hope can’t be real, but are. Children die. Abuse is rampant. Blood can come from everywhere.

This Carrie begins with blood, menstrual blood, visible manifestation of the inside coming out and a foreboding image of what’s to come. Emily Lopez, in a stellar performance as Carrie, has her first period in the high school gym shower, and the other girls, mean as mean girls can be, mock her. Carrie is meek and reserved, a mousey outsider who attracts torment. Her normally modest clothing and fundamentalist, Bible-induced attitudes, learned from her mother, only add fuel to the fire. Thanks to inventive staging, half of the audience is seated on risers that move throughout the show, at times backing away, at other times closing in to create a feeling of claustrophobia for Carrie, heightening the impact of her scenes.

The book has been modestly updated, in ways that sometimes work, sometimes don’t. All of the characters have cell phones, which didn’t exist in when the play premiered in 1988. It’s a nice touch that Carrie begins to shift her self-image when she looks at an iPhone selfie. But other attempts at updating don’t work: a throwaway line about gender fluidity falls flat.

The songs (music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, who collaborated on the classic 1984 film Footloose) function, often well, but none are memorable. They do not have the raw, nerve-touching aesthetic of today’s best stage musicals, and I wish they did. The music is well-rehearsed and perfectly performed, and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is a model other LA theatres can learn from.

In contrast to the songs, the performances are memorable. The cast is energetic and committed. Kayla Parker as Sue Snell bravely frames the story; Valerie Rose Curiel, as Carrie’s main school antagonist Chris, is a tightly wound “perfect” cheerleader with sublime unrepentance. Other notable cast members are Jon Robert Hall and Ian Littleworth, who bring subtlety and strength to their roles.

Strongest in the cast is Misty Cotton as Carrie’s mother. With a mane of red hair and an Old Testament temperament, she preaches the gospel of Jesus and sin. Cotton’s performance is the center of the Carrie wheel: she is strong, passionate, convicted of her own brand of justice, and the cause of Carrie’s psychic trauma. The show would not work without her, and hers is a performance not to be missed. When Cotton, aghast at her daughter’s emergent sexuality, says that she wishes she had not had her, you can imagine that the subtext is “unsex me here.” Lady Macbeth has nothing on Carrie’s mom.

The Shakespeare analogy goes deeper, too. Some theatre pieces offer nothing but surprise; that’s what happens when you see a new play. But other theatre performs repetition compulsion. When we see Macbeth or A Winter’s Tale, we know exactly what is going to happen, and many of us even know the lines. Still we buy our tickets. There is pleasure in seeing an old story told again.

So it is with Carrie. In case anyone didn’t know the story with its over-determined set-pieces, audiences are greeted in the lobby by blood-splattered prom queens, and the magnificent Los Angeles Theatre is decked out in its vase subterranean ballrooms and vestibules with the detritus of high school gone wrong: creepy locker rooms, abandoned showers, a pig that has given its last.

The pleasure of an old story comes with the fusion of inevitability (Carrie must do what she does, and there will be blood) with surprise (how will the blood be spilled?).

In Carrie the Musical, spilled blood may be what gets patrons in the door, but it is the variegated performances, inventive staging and psychology that keep us there. As with any theme-park ride, be prepared to fasten your seatbelt.

Tickets on sale through November 15. Information here: http://www.experiencecarrie.com/

Top image: Emily Lopez, as Carrie (left) and Misty Cotton as Carrie’s mother, in Carrie the Musical. Photo by Jason Niedle.

Huh?!? Audiences Deserve Better Sound Design

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on June 3, 2015. 

In Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening at The Wallis, you can understand the actors who sign the songs better than the actors singing. That’s because the sound design is haphazard, and the audio mix, on the night I attended, was uneven, not responsive to the ebb and flow of voice in relation to the live musical instruments.

How sad. The audience misses out on Steven Sater’s heartbreaking, involute lyrics, like these that open the show, which, if you could hear them, would make you cry from the first A minor chord:

Mama, who bore me,
Mama, who gave me
No way to handle things,
Who made me so sad.
Mama, the weeping,
Mama, the angels
No sleep in heaven
Or Bethlehem

Or these:

Haven’t you heard of the word of your body?
O, I’m gonna be wounded.
O, I’m gonna be your wound.
O, I’m gonna bruise you.
O, you’re gonna be my bruise.

I know the lyrics because you could hear them clearly when Spring Awakening had its original Broadway run at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and I saw the show more than once. That’s also a reason I know that good, clear sound is possible. However, we rarely get it in theatre and music venues.

Sylvie Drake, Cultural Weekly‘s theatre critic, told me, “I long ago gave up understanding what they’re saying at all shows, especially the ones with music. It never seems to work. I now make it a point to request a script for (a) ALL new plays and (b) something like this one, not new, but newly interpreted. Some theaters make it a practice to automatically provide one, which tells you something in and of itself.”

It’s not just a theatre problem, and certainly not a problem with The Wallis itself, which is a wonderful space with good sight-lines and acoustics. It is a matter of attention to the live audio mix and the way microphones are used to capture, or not capture, the performance. I’ve watched, and appreciated, music artists like Andrew Cole refuse to start his set at the House of Blues until the sound mix was right. Good for you, Andrew, and thank you. The audience deserves great sound.

One recent evening I went to HOME, a venue in Beverly Hills that hosts a Thursday jazz night. (HOME is a twee acronym for House of Music and Entertainment. Sadly, it is neither.)

I might have been able to forgive HOME’s inhospitable, cavernous design and harsh lighting, if the sound had been good, but it wasn’t. (Actually, I could not forgive the harsh lighting. Who wants bright table-spots at a jazz club?) When the singer began, you literally could not understand a single word. Why? Here, the sound is disadvantaged from the get-go because the mixing panel has been foolishly placed to the far left of the stage and out of the way, so the mixer cannot hear the sound in the house. Compounding this insensitive sound design choice, the proprietors don’t seem to care.

I went up to the evening’s host after the first song and let him know we could not hear the singer. “Yeah, it’s a problem,” he said, and walked away. Tellingly, he didn’t go over to the mixing board and try to make any corrections; he just let the night play out, content to watch people order over-priced food and drink.

jazz

Thursday night Jazz at HOME in Beverly Hills

As someone who has spent years of his life in theatres and performance venues, believe me when I say it does not have to be this way. Excellent, clear, well-balanced sound is entirely possible. In fact, with newer technologies, it is easier than ever before. It simply takes venues that value sound quality as much as all other aspects of the audience experience, and producers who put the resources of time and attention toward achieving it.

Top image: Daniel N. Durant (Moritz) and Krysta Rodriguez (Ilse) in Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kevin Parry.

The Bedford Shakespeare: The Bard in Hypertext

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on January 28, 2015. 

Most editions of Shakespeare’s plays are exactly what you’d expect: text, footnotes, some introductory remarks. They cram words into your ears, but don’t give much sense of them, or the context of the plays, or how the plays make context for our lives today.

A new edition, The Bedford Shakespeare, is different. It presents the 25 most-studied plays as part of an experiential banquet, which also includes essays, contexts, explanations, quotes from actors and lots of illustrations; one of the authors calls it “a hypertext reading experience.” I imagine students will find their appetites expanded with this encounter. I recently talked with the authors, Russ McDonald, Professor of English Literature at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and Lena Cowen Orlin, Professor of English at Georgetown University and Executive Director of the Shakespeare Association of America. (Full disclosure: Bedford/St. Martin’s is also my publisher.)

ADAM: Hi, Russ and Lena! First off, I have to congratulate you. The book is quite an undertaking, and I learned a lot from it.

RUSS: Thank you. The Bedford people did such a splendid job on the physical book that I have to say that, when I open it, it feels friendly and inviting to me.

LENA: Thanks! I have to confess that I learned a lot from it, too. You know, most scholarly research publications are narrow and focused, but the world of Shakespeare is a big one. Here, we had the chance to think in terms of poetry, history, imagination, performance, human relationships, argument, emotion—it was fun! And it was fun to know that, no matter how many ideas we tried to open up, for teachers and students these are just springboards to more.

ADAM: There are a lot of Shakespeare editions out there. Why do another one?

RUSS: This is, of course, an essential question. The kinds of books we use change over time. It used to be, in the 1950s and ‘60s, that almost everyone in American colleges used the G. B. Harrison edition. As students, Lena and I were among the first to use the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, and this was followed by the Riverside Shakespeare and David Bevington’s revision of Hardin Craig’s old edition.

All these editions, and we should also include Greenblatt’s Norton Shakespeare, are fundamentally similar: a comprehensive Introduction to the period, then introductions to each of the plays, with textual apparatus and such. But they all look fundamentally the same: indeed they look as if they might have been edited in the eighteenth century, with a large body of text on the page and then notes at the bottom of the page.

The Bedford Shakespeare is intended frankly as a pedagogical edition, a volume that contains many of the classroom strategies, topics, and illustrations that we have found helpful in our years of teaching. And these materials are integrated into the presentation of the play text. So that, for example, accompanying Macbeth’s great soliloquy in Act One, scene seven is a five-hundred word analysis of the loaded word “success” as it functions in that speech and indeed throughout the play. Readers do not have to stop and absorb that discussion, but they may do so, or they may come back to it. We have also (as you’ve noticed) dismantled the formidable General Introduction and chopped it into twenty-five “Contexts” designed to enrich the reader’s understanding of early modern European culture. Finally, the extensive emphasis on performance—production photos (and not just the RSC) and quotations from actors distinguishes this volume from most Shakespeare texts. We hope that some of the visual materials will stimulate readers’ imaginations about possibilities for staging and for interpretation.

LENA: When we first talked about the Bedford project, Russ pointed out that the way in which Shakespeare’s plays are presented on the printed page hasn’t really changed since the first “modern” edition in 1709. Until he said that, I probably took it for granted that every Shakespeare play needs a long, scholarly introduction and then two columns of small, dense type on each page. Our genius editors at Bedford had a different vision. This is more like a hypertext reading experience, with pop-up information and illustrations, all keyed to individual Shakespearean lines. Often, I bring together several short quotations to show that Shakespeare has been understood in different ways by different critics and actors and that there’s room for new ideas from students, too. Next, we split that long, scholarly introduction into two parts. Before the play there’s a very brief preview that gives some important start-up information and, we hope, identifies some of the most intriguing aspects of the play. The students don’t encounter our own interpretation until after they’ve read the play and developed some interpretations of their own. We also provide simple plot summaries for two reasons. First, students can read a scene and then check back to make sure that they’ve got the gist. Second, we want them to understand that Shakespeare is about much more than plot; plot’s just the beginning. Finally, we add some information about the afterlives of the plays to show Shakespeare’s long influence in world culture. For me, assembling the supporting material for each play was like doing a jigsaw puzzle of meanings and ideas. I hope that every student will find at least one piece of the puzzle that captures their interest and inspires them to think in more sophisticated ways about Shakespeare.

ADAM: I was thrilled to see Titus Andronicus included, because it is often omitted from works that don’t include all the plays. How did you decide which plays to include?

RUSS: Since we were basing the contents on the plays that mostly get taught, the core of the book was pretty easy to determine, but there were fuzzy cases at the margin. Actually, Titus has come into fashion in university courses in the past two decades, partly owing to Julie Taymor’s film. After twenty-five we had to give up: Lena especially wanted The Merry Wives of Windsor, I wanted Pericles, and we both wanted 3 Henry VI, but physical requirements prevailed.

LENA: I am with you on Titus Andronicus. I think if Russ and I had had to decide which plays to include we would not still be friends. But Bedford conducted extensive research to find out which plays are taught most often, and that research guided the decisions. Plays go in and out of fashion; a good film version can move a less popular play onto the syllabus, for example. I think that’s what happened with Titus Andronicus. The reason I was so happy to include Titus is because one of my most memorable theater experiences ever was a production directed by Deborah Warner for the Royal Shakespeare Company. You remember that the character Lavinia is raped, has her tongue cut out, and has her hands cut off. After the scene of her brutalization, she is briefly offstage before she comes on again to be discovered by her uncle. I happened at this production to be seated on the aisle as the actress walked to the rear of the theater to wait for her re-entry. As she went back on, though, she tripped over someone who had fainted in that aisle. Later I found out that at every single performance, someone fainted or rushed from the room, nauseated. I was very concerned in the Bedford edition that our supporting materials should honor that moment. Go back in history and you’ll find it over and over again. The first major modern production was in 1923 at the Old Vic in London. They advertised that they kept an ambulance at the ready and stocked extra supplies of alcohol for patrons who needed to steady their nerves at the intermission. This is a very powerful play, and students today are more capable than their parents were of appreciating the significance of its grotesquery and violence and despair.

ADAM: In your Previews, there’s a recurring theme of strangeness vs familiarity, which is a version of “compare and contrast.” It recurs in different forms, as in your introduction to Henry V, where you discuss that we can read the play as “both/and.” How does Shakespeare do that? Do you think the familiarity is especially relevant to the modern reader, because we know Shakespeare even before we have officially read or seen the works? And was Shakespeare “strange” even in his own time?

RUSS: I would say that “familiarity” is something of a trap: I’d like students to read Hamlet as if they’d never heard of it before, although I admit the difficulty of this. The “both/and” phenomenon is actually an important critical principle, one of the characteristics that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. In a famous article in 1976 or so Norman Rabkin wrote about “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V,” arguing that the play invites you to see Henry both as a hero and as a thug, but that you can’t see both views at the same time. This multifarious way of looking is one of the qualities that make the plays endlessly readable and watchable.

LENA: Henry V is a great example of what you’re talking about. This play has a long history of being staged like a great patriotic war movie. In fact, there are two important movie versions, and while Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V is more aware of the human cost of war than Laurence Olivier’s was, still Branagh can’t help playing Henry as much of a hero as Olivier did. It’s irresistible: there’s a lot of action, and a lot of stirring inspirational rhetoric, and Henry wins the war and wins the girl. When you read the play, it’s easier to see that it’s much more complicated than that. Shakespeare’s audiences would already have known a play by another guy, a playwright whose name we don’t know, who wrote The Famous Victories of Henry V. So everyone probably expected Shakespeare to give them the familiar story of the most heroic and valiant king in English history. But Shakespeare had already written so many plays at this point that he wasn’t about to do something easy and uncomplicated, something that had already been done before. He did make this play strange, by showing the calculation, even cruelty, that goes along with a king’s kind of power and ambition. Today we’re ready to recognize the “both/and.” With the Bedford edition, we hope that students will learn that the first way they understand a play isn’t the only way and shouldn’t be the last way. Every play is always strange, in the sense that there’s always more to discover in it.

ADAM: Your contextual material pulls no punches, as in the discussion of race and anti-Semitism.

RUSS: Thank you. We tried to divide up the tricky topics so that neither of us was excessively burdened with writing about sensitive problems. In dealing with such matters as race and misogyny, it’s vital to maintain a sense of balance: we don’t want to read the plays only through the lens of our twenty-first century interests; on the other hand, Shakespeare makes these problems central to some of the greatest plays, and we deform the works if we give insufficient attention to such concerns. For us, the difficulty is to introduce such questions while taking into account both a modern and an early modern point of view. To take a single example, in a play like The Comedy of Errors, the beating of the servants by their masters can be unsettling, and yet the farcical nature of the comedy provides a kind of insulation for the audience. And still the violence can be troubling.

LENA: I often teach a course called “Shakespeare’s Problem Plays.” This is a term from the turn of the twentieth century that was primarily about genre. Can you really call Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida comedies? And yet they’re not quite tragedies, either; labeling them is a problem. In my class, I expand the idea to include subjects that are problematic. Is The Merchant of Venice about anti-Semitism or is it anti-Semitic? Is Othello about racism or is it racist? Is Much Ado About Nothing about sexism or is it sexist? I always take my students to at least one local theater production, so I change the syllabus every semester to include whatever’s being staged. Believe me, every play is a “problem” in the sense that it is grappling with political and emotional issues that we’re still living with. This is one reason we still read Shakespeare: he was concerned with issues that have remained problems for 400 years. But I like to approach Shakespeare this way not because he’s a writer “for all time,” but instead to show how alive and engaged his plays were in their own moment and how they’re now vehicles for us to engage with the problems of our moment. Shakespeare is good for thinking with.

ADAM: For each of you, what was your first introduction to Shakespeare?

RUSS: I had two introductions, one disastrous, one miraculous. My tenth-grade encounter with Julius Caesar and As You Like It was not a success—the latter I was required to read on my own, and, well, I did not like it. Then in my last year of high school I had a splendid advanced studies teacher who taught us Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. My eyes were opened. I should also add that when I graduated from college I went to England and saw everything at Stratford-upon-Avon, including Judi Dench in the famous John Barton production of Twelfth Night, and I thought the plays were the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

LENA: Gosh, that’s hard to remember. I’ll tell you my first formative memory. I grew up in the American Midwest, in a town that hadn’t yet developed culturally. But in high school, my English teacher took us on a field trip to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew. One of the reasons I was so excited about the Bedford project was that it gives us an opportunity to suggest how many different ways students can encounter Shakespeare. Every time I read a play, I find something I hadn’t noticed before. Every time I go to the theater, I hear at least one line in an entirely new way. Every time I teach Shakespeare, a student understands something about a character that I hadn’t picked up on.

ADAM: How might parents introduce children to Shakespeare today?

RUSS: There are countless tools for doing so: children’s theatre, simplified stories, cartoons (like the student who, in a class on Hamlet, pipes up with “This is just like The Lion King!”), etc. I always think that seeing a production is key, but you shouldn’t force things too early.

LENA: There are so many more avenues to Shakespeare these days. It used to be that all people had were the prose versions known as “Lambs’ Tales,” published by Charles and Mary Lamb in 1807. In the mid-twentieth century we had Classic Comics versions. But now there are illustrated prose versions and simplified verse versions and amazing graphic versions. You can find nearly any Shakespeare scene on YouTube, and some of these are animated. Many professional theater companies have small groups of actors who will travel to local schools to do Shakespeare workshops and performances. They’re working to develop the theater audiences of the future, and they’re great at engaging students in lively and imaginative ways. Parents who aren’t actors can still try reading Shakespeare aloud.

The Bedford Shakespeare

The Bedford Shakespeare

ADAM: Tell me about the cover. That’s the Ninth Doctor from Dr. Who pointing to an orthodontic problem, right?

RUSS: Yes, I have had some funny comments about the particular canine tooth to which he is pointing. Bedford did consider an Othello shot and apparently took a vote among potential users. But clearly the cover does its job by instantaneously identifying the product: the image of Hamlet and the skull of Yorick has been something like a Shakespeare brand since the eighteenth century.

LENA: Hmm. Now that you point it out, that is one mean incisor. And good eye about the actor, Christopher Eccleston! Our wonderful Bedford editor Rachel Goldberg found the cover illustrations. It seems to me like the perfect choice because it’s an image that’s understood worldwide. A man with a skull: we all know that’s Hamlet; we all know that’s Shakespeare.

Buy The Bedford Shakespeare here.

Top image: Shakespeare’s first folio; courtesy Wikimedia.