Bernard Shaw’s three hour play about heresy, feudalism, and Protestantism, Saint Joan, set new records for single ticket sales at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Romeo and Juliet, a play about teen suicide currently nearing the end of its run at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, is posting the strongest sales for a production of a play by Shakespeare in five seasons. Henry IV, Part 1, which deals with dysfunctional father-son relationships and ends with multiple deaths on the battlefield, sold out (Folger Theater) and was the talk of the Washington, DC theatre scene during its six-week run last fall. It may be that I directed these productions, but I harbor no illusions that my direction inspired brisk box office business. I did have wonderful collaborators: designers, actors, craftspeople, and the administrators who selected the plays to begin with and were kind enough to hire me to direct for their theatres, and it’s true that any success in the theatre is the success of many, never one. But I’m clear about one thing: these are terrific scripts; classics, all; challenging for the people bringing them to life and for audiences attending performances; and I guess because in the midst of unceasingly bleak news, any glimpse of light in the ever-darkening tunnel in which we have found ourselves is worth snatching at and clinging to.
I actually think the larger lesson is really a familiar reminder. People still like gathering together in darkened spaces where they can hear a great story well told. One need only look to box office statistics from the film industry for verification; while everyone else is in free-fall, movies are posting impressive attendance: 2008 was the American cinema’s strongest year among the last several. (And, yep, movies are still a bargain – less expensive now than, when ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, they were 30 years ago.)
But a three-hour play by Shaw in which a young woman is burned at the stake?? A three-hour play by Shakespeare in which two innocent teenagers kill themselves?? A three-hour history play about usurping kings, mystic Celts, and savage warfare?? Doesn’t seem like comforting background music for the present uncertainty of our lives, but perhaps it speaks to the place of theatre and the arts in society, even in the direst of times. (I remember visiting Bratislava, Czechoslovakia – not long after the Russian invasion, and some time before there was a Czech Republic – and being impressed by the number of people strolling around the town square after sunset. The message seemed to be: “we’re here and we’re not going away.” Maybe that’s what’s happening in theatres and concert halls right now. And at GRSF.)
We’re about to gather in Winona for our traditional season planning/design weekend meetings, which includes our second-ever “Season Preview” event at the Vision Center at Signatures Restaurant, Sunday afternoon, March 8. In light of upwards of $80,000 in budget cuts this season, we’ve confined our pre-season planning work to on-line SKYPE conferences; lots of emails, trading of jpegs and PDFs; individual cell phone calls; and as much in-person conferring as we’ve been able to manage as the GRSF administrative, technical, and artistic staff meanders about the country, like Shakespearean Bedouins, engaged in whatever full or part time employment keeps us gainfully occupied until we return to Winona. But our 2009 season productions have not been far from our minds, despite distance and other preoccupations, and the excitement and momentum is building steadily to our March planning weekend, to our first day of rehearsal, Tuesday, May 12, and to opening weekend, June 26 – 28.
Without giving too much away in advance, GRSF audiences will be treated to a unique pairing of two wonderful plays. They’ll recognize many returning favorites among the 2008 season acting company, and will again be treated to the design work of
Meg Weedon (costumes, Macbeth, 2007; The Merchant of Venice, 2008), Scott Neale (sets, 2007 & 2008), and Lonnie Alcaraz (lights, 2008). The plays (Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest, both considered comedies – one early, one late — at least by our now-familiar and familial GRSF Front Porch Speaker Peter Saccio, who returns to the GRSF “Front Porch” Sunday, July 26) will challenge the company to stretch and grow in new directions (and give our audiences the chance to stretch and grow right alongside us). We’ll continue to provide a host of education and community outreach programs and as many special events as we can manage to responsibly include in the schedule (watch for updates about a benefit performance of founding company member Jonathan Gillard Daly’s play, The Daly News, which took Milwaukee by storm last December and January, scheduled for Monday, July 13), and do our best to keep our productions as affordable for playgoers as we can. There will be opportunities for young performers in our Shakespeare for Young Actors workshop (and in Love’s Labour’s Lost itself), for teachers in our annual Directing and Writing and Rhetoric Workshops, for middle and high school students in our “Chill With Will” nights at the theatre, and for those stubborn, anti-Shakespearean hold-outs, at our “Skeptics’ Night” performances. And because we’re playing on Saturday, July 4th, we’ll be grilling brats, and finding unique ways to celebrate America’s independence: music, sparklers, patriotic speeches for all! We want to deliver as full and as memorable a season as we can, given present circumstances.
But back to that darkened room. When I taught high school, I often took my beginning drama students to the football stadium where they squeezed together on the bleachers to watch their classmates perform monologues from Greek drama in the center of the playing field. The challenge was for the actors to invent ways to be seen and heard, and for their auditors to discover what it was like to experience great language and great stories, projected from afar, without the usual barriers of cushioned chairs and arm rests. It wasn’t a darkened room per se; rather, being outdoors, it took that much more focus and concentration to participate in this simplest of lessons. But the students’ close proximity meant they could feel each other breathe. Laughter or the physical reaction we manifest when we experience suspense, violence, pathos, or terror on stage rippled outward among them; they shared a truly communal experience, not terribly different, I imagine, from that of the ancient Greeks attending the first-ever play festivals – or, perhaps, Shakespeare’s “groundlings”, taking a break from their daily grind to gather around the Globe Theatre stage and be among the first to hear his newest plays.
In the darkened room of the WSU PAC mainstage theatre this summer (and in the Black Box Theatre, with our Intern/Acting Apprentice Company project of Shakespeare’s Hamlet), we’ll laugh together, shed a tear together, be penetrated by ravishing language together, and maybe even sing together. We’ll also differ in our opinions together, even when we’ve sat side-by-side at the very same performance. I’m encouraged by what’s happening in cineplexes and some live theatres around the country (notwithstanding the sudden, lamentable, – and cautionary for us — closures of good friends such as Madison Repertory Theatre and the Milwaukee Shakespeare Company, to name only two early casualties of the economic downturn from among legions more, nationwide), and as always, we’ve all been heartened by the messages of encouragement that we receive from supporters in Winona and the region. Though our presence in the city will never please everyone and the value of our work will never be affirmed by all, enough people seem to agree that the city’s desire to become host and home base for a brand new Shakespeare festival has been a good one, challenged as we all are by the need to tighten belts and establish priorities as we do our best to keep our communities vibrant, alive, and solvent.
We’re not out of the woods by any means. We’ve got money to raise, and the list of specific needs – from borrowed vehicles to temporary housing to off-site rehearsal space – grows daily. (Just call or stop by the office; we’ll gladly tell you how you can help!) But perhaps in our darkened room this summer we can provide a bit of optimism or momentary relief from the fear and uncertainty which have us in their grip. Great plays, like great music, architecture, sculpture, painting, dance and all of the arts, lift the human spirit and transport us above the common bound. Perhaps attendance trends reflect our shared and increased need for escape during this harshest of winters. Or maybe these trends, where they’re occurring (for they’re far from universal), help us remember when we gather together to hear a great story well told, that we’re all in this together. And somehow, together, we’ll find our way out.