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Just More Shakespeare

March 24, 2013

I, like many others both in theater and out, think William Shakespeare is the greatest English writer in history, and perhaps the greatest artist in history. Twas not ever thus. I did not appreciate Shakespeare in my youth, perhaps because his works were so poorly taught. They sat us all in rows in classrooms, reading words meant to be heard, in archaic language we struggled to understand. If one only read the script of “Citizen Kane,” one would not see what the big deal with that was, either.

It was not until adulthood, when I was no longer forced to read Shakespeare and could come to him in my own time — and actually see the works on stage — that I at first appreciated, and then loved, his works. I watch every version of Shakespeare on film that I can find, I go see as many Shakespeare productions as time and ducats will allow, and I do now read his works. I have aided my wife in three youth productions — “The Tempest,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Macbeth” — and have been pleased to help children come to an appreciation of the Bard that eluded me until I had passed my first quarter-century.

But while Shakespeare may be the greatest writer, he is not the only writer, and ambitious theater folk sometimes forget this.

A playwright friend recently said on Facebook that the upcoming Joss Whedon production of “Much Ado About Nothing” left him cold, and far from the excitement many of his theatrical peers were expressing. He had nothing against that director’s particular vision, mind you — it was “just more Shakespeare.”

Another friend, an early teacher of mine who runs her own women-centered theater company, lamented the frequency of (mostly bad) Shakespeare productions at Fringe festivals, taking up room in a space intended for new and experimental efforts. “Every single play has been done approximately 9,762,462 times,” she said. “And yes, that clever variation of setting Twelfth Night in a disco in the 1970s? Done.” (The Onion had some fun with this concept recently.)

She went on: “Did you know that approximately 1 squijillion plays have been written since Shakespeare died in the 17th century? Some of them are even interesting!”

One of the most fun things I’ve done this year was an impromptu staged reading of “Much Ado” with a group of friends — some actors, some not. I was having a lean season, and it was pure joy to just revel in those lines. (I got to be Dogberry, which was a plus.) But I have no burning desire to perform Shakespeare on stage. It’s not that I would pass up the chance, but that there are so many other things I also want to do. It seems many rising young directors and theater company founders just want to repeat the work of the last 400 years.

Shakespeare is at the apogee of human creativity. But he is not the entirety of it. There is an undiscovered country beyond the Bard, and more of us should seek it.

Peter Sig

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