My very earliest challenges as a young director during the 1980’s were plays by Shakespeare. I was part of a group that started an outdoor Shakespeare festival in an area of New England where most of our audience had, at that time, never seen a play at all, much less a Shakespeare play. We were categorically not surrounded by Shakespeare experts; there was no one to tell us what the scene was about or what the words meant. The actors and I had to figure it out on our own, and we learned if we’d gotten it right when the audience came. Even when it didn’t work, it never occurred to me that there was a problem with the play that Shakespeare wrote. The burden was on me and the actors to discover the secret key to every scene, to follow the labyrinth to the treasure in the center of the play. The joy of Shakespeare is in the searching and the discovery, in the long meanderings down myriad passages of meaning, in the collaboration with one’s artistic traveling companions, and the ultimate triumph of grasping something true and good to share with an audience.
At about the same time, I started a program in the local public library where actors could read a new play aloud each week for an audience of community members. I had everything I needed for this: a gorgeous and intimate public space; a company of actors (Shakespearean actors, no less!); and a network of friends who knew lots of up-and-coming playwrights. I think it was the freshness of the entire enterprise in that tired and economically-depressed region of the country that helped this festival catch on. Audiences flocked in crazy numbers both to see the Shakespeare and to get up close to young writers in our “Plays in Progress” program.
I noticed right away, however, that there was a difference in the way people responded to Shakespeare on the one hand and new plays on the other. Due to my enthusiastic but sometimes misguided direction of the Shakespeare in the early days, audiences were occasionally confused about what was going on. Their response to this confusion about a moment in Shakespeare was to accept it, to bear personal responsibility for not understanding an idea that was, perhaps, too large to be comprehended all at once, and to focus fully on the next scene. No one questioned the playwright, not Shakespeare, though sometimes they questioned the acting and the direction; usually they bore the burden themselves.
The experience was completely different with the new plays. If audiences didn’t understand the play right away, or if someone had the slightest idea of how to make the play better in his or her estimation, audience members would not hesitate to prescribe, proscribe, re-scribe or pronounce their own solutions to challenges they perceived in the play they had just experienced. I am the kind of person who believes that people are generally good, with benevolent motives, but what could explain the conflict that arose so predictably after each play reading? I was in charge of facilitating these discussions, and, while the experience was new and exhilarating for everyone, I observed that the playwrights often felt diminished and discouraged afterwards. This had not been my intention at all, and I wracked my brains to figure it out. The answer, of course, was staring me in the face from across the park, where the Shakespeare was playing.
Here is how it goes: we expect Shakespeare to know what he is doing. He is a four hundred year old authority and a font of wisdom and truth. Done right, his plays are amazingly entertaining, emotionally engaging, and stunningly complex. We are reverential, perhaps overly so at times. However that isn’t how we think about the living, breathing playwrights who write contemporary plays. We feel we know as much about life and the world as they do. We have a thing or two to say about what they write. And, of course, we have the best of intentions; we only want to help.
This is when I formulated my “Shakespeare Rule” for talking about new plays. What if we at least pretended that every new play we approached was as perfect as a Shakespeare play? How would we talk about it differently, if we assumed that it contained everything it needed already to succeed and that the burden was on us to penetrate its meaning? What if we gave full credit to the author, whether the play works or not? What if we listened more carefully to what that author’s particular individual voice is trying to say instead of bending its meaning to suit something we already know? This was a completely different way of thinking about plays for me – and very difficult at first. But the results of this approach are very clear. Either we grow to fully understand the play as it was conceived and written by the playwright or – we don’t. We spend time discussing what the author created, not what she or he didn’t. We allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable in the presence of new or even flawed ideas. And we come to honor the leadership role that artists play in inventing the language necessary to describe and shape the future.
The Shakespeare Rule is why I was so inspired by the Laura Pels Foundation Keynote Address delivered by Richard Nelson on April 9, 2007, at the annual meeting of A.R.T./New York. Mr. Nelson speaks fervently about the necessity for taking the playwright’s leadership role seriously:
"…I am not saying that a playwright should avoid and ignore comments and reactions to his work, quite the opposite. But I am saying that our mindset toward playwrights should be this: 1) the playwright knows what he is doing, 2) perhaps the play as presented is as it should be. So that the onus for change is not on the playwright but on others, on the theater. And the theater is there with a full array of tools to support the playwright as he or she attempts to improve upon his or her play. How to improve a play should be the domain of the writer, with the theater supplying potential tools, a reading say, or a workshop with clearly delineated goals. These are tools that should evolve out of a need, as opposed to being a given."
For those of you who want to read the whole speech, here is the link.
As for me, I have given Mr. Nelson’s recent words a prominent place in my thoughts. I have labeled it “the Nelson Principle” and it resides in my library next to “the Shakespeare Rule.” I’ve made lots of copies to share with the playwrights we work with, in case they haven’t seen it already.
John Clinton Eisner