Summer Shakespeare: To be; or TOO MUCH?

Let’s put this out there right away… I am a lover of Shakespeare.  This should be no surprise.  I’ve studied his plays for the better part of my life. I am adorned with numerous tattoos in his honor. As I have mentioned in past blogs, the First Folio is a sort of bible in my life. So admittedly, I’m first soprano in the choir that pushes Shakespeare on the masses. 

However, with the enormous amount of Shakespeare that happens in our small city during the beautiful summer months, I tend to wonder if we are doing the Bard a service or if we are diluting his genius. Over the past summer we have been able to see: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (multiple companies), Macbeth (multiple companies), Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, Anthony and Cleopatra, Love’s Labors Lost (multiple companies), Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Henry IV 1, The Tempest, As You Like It (multiple companies) and maybe more.    

We also have The Complete Works Festival going on over the next two years in which the committee has planned to perform the ENTIRE cannon of Shakespeare to honor the 450th and 400th anniversary of his birth and death, respectively. For someone like me, this is true “Bard-on” material, but for someone like… say… my partner, it means sitting through a bunch of mediocre Shakespeare in order to be captivated by one or two moments.  So… who’s right?

He has no real investment in Shakespeare no matter how much he supports the thing I love.  He doesn’t learn something from any and all productions like I do (yes, even the bad ones).  He goes to shows with the same expectation as most people: he hopes to be either educated, stimulated or entertained.  And let’s be honest, some of the productions he has had to sit through simply are none of the above.  But he is the audience we hope to gain; someone like me is already hooked.

I’m firmly on the fence on this one.  As a practitioner of theatre, I LOVE the amount of work that it generates for actors, directors, designers, and managers.  As a scholar, I love to see some of the greatest works of theatre performed summer in and summer out.  But as an audience member… I just can’t do it, and frankly, in many cases, I don’t want to… and remember, I’m the converted.  I can’t get out to see everything and still really enjoy my “Portland summer” as well.  So are we dividing our audiences’ time as well.  Are they having to choose one of us over another, and is there really enough of an audience base in this city to make this a good business practice for anyone?

What about the talent? By putting on so many productions we are limiting the availability of the talent in this town and thus limiting the professionalism of our own productions.  I see this as a big problem that is really hard to talk about because it dances around the idea of talking about who is talented and who is not. But it is a valid discussion as the level of professionalism tends to be a high indicator of success… or vice versa. And in a day and age where getting a printed review is the most challenging part of putting on a production, are we also not creating an environment that makes it impossible to review everything and more likely to review nothing?

Do we, instead, do a service to ourselves, our companies, and the thing we love by communicating amongst theatre companies and not overlapping titles with other companies within a season in order not to saturate the community?  If so, how does something like The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival fit into that scheme when their entire mission is to get to the point of performing all 37 plays in one year?  And who get’s first choice?  Do we go with some of the high-roller companies since they are likely to put on the more lavish and (by contemporary standards) more entertaining shows?  Or do we invest in the smaller companies who make their entire bread and butter in summer Shakespeare? Or do we develop a system of honoring both? OR… do we maintain the status quo and enjoy the fact that we have some of the most prolific summer Shakespeare in the country?

I have no solid answers.  I’m just figuring out the questions.

I think we can safely file this under “First World Problems.”



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