This month’s post comes to NYC via Vancouver. I spent last week at the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference, in which some five hundred Shakespeareans, from locales as diverse as the City University of New York and Western Australia, convened to discuss all things Shakespeare. As always, the conference was a smorgasbord of topics, from early modern food systems to using data in Shakespeare. I had the pleasure of auditing Deborah Cartmell and Siobhan Keenan’s outstanding seminar on Shakespeare and advertising, which examined (among other issues) the value of Shakespeare’s brand in today’s society.
That in the twenty-first century, Shakespeare is its own brand requires little explanation. For example, Stratford-Upon-Avon sustains a booming tourist industry on the back of the birthplace and the Royal Shakespeare’s Company’s home base, and summer stock across the world sells its wares by identifying as a “Shakespearean” company. Yet, the question of what the brand means and how it is manipulated in support of a broader artistic agenda intrigues, in particular, how it is used to represent something that is simultaneously exclusive and widely accessible. Joseph Papp’s New York Public Theatre, which began life as a vehicle (quite literally) to bring Shakespeare to the masses, now perpetuates the Shakespeare brand on two levels; one, the exclusive, name-branded Shakespeare in the Park, whose success has resulted in a splendid permanent amphitheater in Central Park, and is subject to the increasing pressures of commercialization, dependent on star vehicles and subject to an increasing level of corporate sponsorship, and two, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit, that reconnects with Papp’s original 1957 mission of bringing Shakespeare to the under-privileged by touring the boroughs while using a small company of players to present one play, on the go, to community centers, prisons, and shelters. Sandwiched in-between is the Public’s permanent home base at Astor Place that presents a repertoire that almost exclusively consists (and worthily so, I might add) of new American drama, written by a culturally diverse body of young playwrights. Shakespeare in the Park website entices theatregoers to “skip the line” by making a donation that begins at $200 and caps out at $2,000, to guarantee their choice of seats. In a time of fiscal hardship for the arts, one can hardly begrudge the Public the opportunity to draw some revenue from their most high-profile productions, which, presumably subsidizes the Delacorte productions and their numerous public arts programs.
Nonetheless, what the Public has inadvertently branded as a two-tiered notion of Shakespeare. At one end, there is the Bard; the embodiment of summer stock, designed to be savored and appreciated by the lucky few who access (or sponsor) tickets. Until the recent emergence of the online lottery, such a privilege was only afforded to those willing to take a day off work and camp out in line in Central Park for their seats. At the other end of the spectrum is Shakespeare “raw”, dynamic and accessible, to speak (for a lesser price) to the multitudes who may not otherwise have access to quality theatre. These two polar opposites are the epitome of the Public’s janus-faced branding of Shakespeare, arguably representing the two Shakespeares as a reflection of the disparate economic worlds that characterize New York. What the Public Theatre illustrates is Shakespeare’s capacity to straddle both the corporate world of luxe culture, and to reflect the experience of the modern-day groundlings, offering a poetic articulation of shared human experience that can resonate, or inspire, by making the representation of privilege accessible.
By no means is the Public’s bifurcation of Shakespeare unique. The duality of commodified Shakespeare can be seen elsewhere in New York’s stage culture; Sleep No More has moved from Punchdrunk’s unique, underground, site specific performance to an established, mechanized, and quite expensive experience of “raw” Shakespeare, and Drunk Shakespeare’s promise to “provide fresh points of entry to the work so that modern audiences will be exposed to the intrinsic power of Shakespeare” is predicated on one’s willingness to pay $58 to participate in a Manhattan bar crawl (the site is not clear on whether your admission includes a drink). What these New York examples beg is an awareness of what the Shakespeare brand means, and the intriguing question of the wealth of variations of “authenticity” that such marketing proffers. The plays may stay the same, but our uses, like New York itself, are continually evolving; never at rest.