Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What Do You Want? Carmen Khan on Why Philadelphia Needs a Great Shakespeare Theatre

Why should Philadelphia have a great Shakespeare theatre?

I want to answer that question with a question. What do you want? After our basic needs have been met, what is it we want? I think we are all seeking meaning in our lives-to have access to and participate in something deeper than the everyday. Humans from the dawn of time have been seeking this meaning. From the first exquisite lines we drew in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, we have been trying to give expression to our humanity-our imaginative impulse.

We weren’t trying to explain the hunt when we drew on those cave walls, we were trying to find the meaning of the experience. That was the beginning of a tradition we would carry through the ages.

When this creativity is nurtured, we see the development of great civilizations. When you think of all of the great civilizations, what do you remember about them? The highest expressions of their arts and culture. Blossoming creativity made these civilizations great not only aesthetically, but also economically, because innovation, collaboration, and invention were prized. When we think of ancient Athens we remember the vases, the buildings, and the art.

We, even today, visit the great cities of the world simply because of their arts and culture–Paris, London, Rome, cities throughout China, India.

I love Philadelphia and I'm sure that you do too. So many of us have spent our lives in efforts to uplift the city. We all want it to be a great city and we've made great strides towards that goal. We have over 400 cultural organizations, many of international renown-one of the best orchestras in the world, an internationally renowned art museum, the Barnes with the largest collection of Cezannes in the world, and dozens of performing arts institutions.

So, why should Philadelphia have a great Shakespeare theatre?

Simply put, he is the best.

Shakespeare is the pinnacle of expression of the English language. He is not only the greatest of English poets, he is also a global phenomena, he's translated into over 80 languages. Fifty percent of the worlds children study Shakespeare. A Zulu king in the late 1800s translated Shakespeare into Zulu because he thought it would uplift his people and become part of their higher education. This global Shakespeare was celebrated at the cultural Olympiad in Britain last summer when all 37 of his plays were produced by 37 companies from around the world in 37 different languages.

Shakespeare has achieved this global influence by being an extremely personal author. It is more than likely Shakespeare's plays have been taught to you at some point in your life. If you, like me, love his work, there was a moment that elevated him from old words on a page to something that lives inside of you. Mine was when a teacher read words that appealed to how hopeless I felt growing up poor in England, words that related to how bleak I felt my future was.  They were,

           Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

            Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

            To the last syllable of recorded time;

           And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

            The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!

            Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

            That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

            And then is heard no more. It is a tale

            Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

            Signifying nothing.

Those words lifted off the page and sunk into me. It’s an experience I have not been able to shake since. Even though I felt hopeless, and even though the words were hopeless, having my feeling expressed so exactly, as if my very nerves were framed and hung in a gallery, made what I was feeling that much clearer and less frightening.

Have you had an experience like that?  If yes, you know why Philadelphia needs a Shakespeare theatre.  If no, you are why Philadelphia needs a Shakespeare theatre.

- Carmen Khan, Artistic/Executive Director

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Cramlet": A Commentary On Fitting Shakespeare’s Longest Play Into A Half an Hour

  The character of Hamlet speaks about as many lines as make up the entirety of A Comedy of Errors, which clocks in at about 2 hours. It was, then, with equal measure of delight and dole that I shouldered the task of cutting all of Hamlet down to a half an hour to use in our education programming. Delight in the challenge of it, and dole in the... challenge of it. The end goal of the endeavor was to have a version of the play without narration that high school students can perform at the end of a week long Shakespeare residency taught by a tag team of their classroom teacher and one of our teaching artists.
  It’s a noble goal but it sometimes seems impossible. It would be easy to condense the play if all that I had to care about was plot: The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet to revenge his murder, Hamlet’s like, “Heck yes I’m gonna avenge your murder, also blooblooblooblah, I’m actin’ crazy”, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, HAMLET AVENGES, everybody dies. See, easy. The problem is that what’s great about Shakespeare isn’t his plots, which often seem to be held together with Elmer’s glue and bits of cello-tape (I mean, really, send multiple copies of that letter, Friar Laurence); what’s truly astoundingly magnificent about Shakespeare is the way he uses language and develops compelling characters. Hamlet uses his 1,438 lines to develop a character so complete, on leaving the play it’s hard not to think a little bit like him. It’s as if his mind is transparent and we can see a complete human being’s cogs turning and neuroses bubbling about. Not only that, the words! Oh the words words words! 

            What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

            how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

            express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

            in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the

            world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,

            what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not


  I mean, that’s just... I mean, READ THAT!  Read it over and over again! Read it out loud!
  The problem is, as I’ve just demonstrated, to educate someone in Shakespeare, you can’t just give them a large chunk of text and exclaim in all caps, “READ THAT.” It’s not helpful. If a student doesn’t care about Shakespeare, reading a large block of antiquated, overly loquacious text isn’t going to open their eyes and make them sigh in profound, revelatory beauty no matter how enthusiastically you endorse it. You have to espouse in them their own love of Shakespeare through inviting them to engage in it. So, allowing students to perform Shakespeare: good idea. Giving them way too much complicated text: bad idea. The complexity is clear, my job in cutting 7/8ths of Hamlet is to preserve the spirit of Shakespeare, but in a manageable dose. The quotation above remained in its entirety, but the 11 lines that sat above it in the original text which are equally good, are gone. 

  At times, cutting the play can feel perverse (splicing and recombining swaths of text like a taxidermist configuring a jackalope) and at other times liberating when the sense of a scene or a monologue suddenly resounds significantly more clearly and attainably. I know I have a responsibility to give young people an invitation into the ranks of Western Culture. Who cannot quote Hamlet? Only children. By the time you enter adulthood you know the phrases, “To be or not to be,” “To thine own self be true,” “The play’s the thing,” “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” They’ve grown into your mind like roots and shape your thoughts without you even knowing it. Exposing young people to these foundational lines is essential, but in palatable dosages. Knowing what to cut is a matter of knowing what is most significant. The lines can’t stand without the story, but the story’s junk without the lines. In other words, my task in cutting Hamlet is to find more art with less matter.     

- Tessa Nelson, Company Manager and Dramaturg for Much Ado About Nothing