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

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