Board President Louis Fantasia Speaks at the Arts Club of Chicago 5/6/16

 

To be new made when thou art old:”

Shakespeare and Chicago; Sam Wanamaker and Me

[Louis Fantasia speaks to members and guests of The Arts Club of Chicago, May 6, 2015]

 

I fear that, like Shakespeare’s most notorious villains, – Iago, Aaron or even Richard III – I have lured you here under false pretenses. Not that your lovely club (the Arts Club of Chicago) bears any resemblance to a blasted heath, dank cave or the Tower of London, but that you have come here only to be robbed of your expectations.

 

I imagine, given the generous announcement made about my talk, you expected to hear how Chicago’s own Sam Wanamaker fell in love with Shakespeare while watching hour-long versions of the Bard’s plays at the British Pavilion at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

 

Or how, refusing to return to the States to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Sam let his passport lapse and lived and worked in London for decades.

 

And how, grateful to his hosts, he wanted to see where Shakespeare’s theatre had stood and found only a plaque from the Anglo-Indian Shakespeare Reading Society on the wall of the John Courage brewery.

 

And how, outraged by it all, Sam launched a forty year campaign to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe (or something very much like it) near its original site, and battled British indifference, lack of funding, legal challenges from the street-sweepers of Southwark Borough, lack of funding, competing claims to the original and authentic designs of the theatre, the number of sides, thatched roof, placement of the stage in relation to the sun, lack of funding, and no little scorn and ridicule from the London theatre community in pursuit of it all.

 

And how, ultimately, he found support in an international network of Globe Centers, including one right here in Chicago, that believed in him and his vision; his dream. And how, with supporters and donors such as Rhoda Pritzker and Gene Andersen and Dan Coffey here to name just a few, Sam built his Globe as an educational resource for people everywhere.

 

I won’t tell you any of that.

 

I won’t tell you how I met Sam Wanamaker in 1981 in a nearly abandoned warehouse with a large stuffed bear and a replica of the 17th Century Cockpit stage in it. And I won’t tell you how Sam asked me to run acting and directing workshops for American theatre students, and later a teacher training institute for American educators at the Globe, or devise educational out-reach programs with my distinguished colleague Hugh Richmond of UC Berkley, so that people could see that if this is what the Globe could do now, before the theatre was built, imagine what it could do once the theatre was up.

 

I won’t tell you about my time on the Globe board, or my experience directing on the Globe stage or any of the tales I might have from what turned out to be a more than 20 year association with Sam and the Globe.

 

But…

 

I will tell you that it was all an accident, and that I am the most reluctant Shakespeare “expert” you will ever meet.

 

I flunked Shakespeare at my alma mater, Georgetown University, as an undergraduate English major. The F is still on my transcript.

 

When I was in junior high school, my class was taken to see a production in Boston of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I remember nothing about it except that everyone spoke with fake British accents. That seemed silly to me, because my grandparents were Italian immigrants who spoke with Italian accents, and they were laughed at because of them. Why were the British ones any better? No one seemed to know.

 

A few years later, my high school drama teacher took us into Harvard Square to see Olivier's film version of Othello. This was the movie theatre where I had snuck out of the house to see films by Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, and yet here was this actor in blackface, rolling his eyes around the screen. I know it was supposed to be a landmark production, but I couldn't keep from laughing. But this was Shakespeare, dear boy! It was Olivier! What did I know? My family still had plastic slipcovers on the furniture.

 

I avoided Shakespeare in graduate school, and in the early stages of my directing career. His plays were stale, irrelevant and incomprehensible; out of touch with reality and the human experience. They were, let’s face it, boring.

 

And, then, because of an accident, I met Sam. I had directed a production of Macbeth at an American college in Strasbourg (my first Shakespeare play; I picked the thinnest text; and did it before an audience that didn’t speak English). Because that production earned some notoriety (beginner’s luck, I promise you) I was asked to run a theatre workshop for students at the American College in Paris. We needed a venue for a visit to London, and my colleague Elaine Turner arranged for us to use something called "The Museum of the Shakespearean Stage".

 

This turned out to be the aforementioned warehouse in South London with little in it except the bear, the Cockpit stage, and Sam Wanamaker.

 

Perched in the balcony over the Cockpit stage, Sam, in his Liberty’s shirt and cardigan sweater, watched me work over several days. I had no idea who he was, until he introduced himself and invited me to join the Globe project. "This is where we're going to re-build Shakespeare’s theatre," he said. I tried not to be too skeptical. There wasn't even a hole in the ground at the time. That area of Southwark was then better known for being one of the last parts of London where you could still see rubble from WW II bombing raids, than the home of Shakespeare's theatre. Multi-million pound loft conversions had yet to gentrify the area then. And, yes, if I had had brains or money at the time I probably would have bought a warehouse for five thousand pounds and have been retired happily by now.

 

So, what am I going to talk to you about? Even the most nefarious of Shakespeare’s villains come clean in their soliloquies.

 

I am going to talk to you about how, despite the marvelous architecture of the great new Globe itself, or the splendid performances of Mark Rylance and the Globe company at home, or on tour, or on Broadway, Sam’s real legacy is not in London nor on Broadway, neither is it in the authentic or not so authentic architecture, costumes or performances practices.

 

It is in the energy and excitement and dynamism I saw from students representing public, private, and parochial high schools across Chicago at last night’s Battle of the Bard High School Shakespeare Slam on the Navy Pier. Everything that Sam wished for has come home, full circle, in greater measure than he could have ever imagined.

 

What I learned from my twenty-plus years with Sam and the Globe project is that each of us, if we read intelligently and without fear, has the right to our own authentic Shakespeare. There is no authority that can issue its seal of authenticity to us. Each of us, institution or individual, engaged in teaching, producing, editing or playing Shakespeare, can offer only an interpretation - and only a possible, provisional, interpretation - of a constantly changing and challenging body of work. The authenticity for that reading, for that production, comes not from the Globe or the RSC or the Folger or Huntington libraries, but from the heart.

 

Does that mean I am saying that every high school student’s interpretation of Shakespeare performed last night is as valid as something you would see at the Globe or the RSC or your own Chicago Shakespeare Theatre?

 

Yes, I believe it does. Please note the word I use: “valid” – not good or bad, or right or wrong, but valid. Each reading, each production, which struggles to come to grips with meaning, interpretation – even if it’s a five minute scene done with two folding chairs on an empty stage – must struggle with making choices. And making choices means taking responsibility for them.

 

The biggest change in teaching Shakespeare since my own miserable youthful experiences described earlier, is that we now realize that Shakespeare is best taught through the choice-making process of performance. This was the pioneering work done by Peggy O’Brien at the Folger Library, Hugh Richmond, the Globe’s US Education Director, Patrick Spottiswoode, the Globe’s Director of Education in London, and of course others, including, I hope, myself.

 

It is hard to image today, that, barely a generation ago, the idea that students should be allowed to get up on their own feet in class, move the desks out of their pristinely straight rows and actually decide what Shakespeare’s words meant TO THEM was considered not only radical, but heretical. I will come back to the heresy issue in a moment, but I want give you just a couple of examples of just how big a change this has been.

 

When I began, in 1988, as the Education Director for the Globe’s Western Region, I really had no idea about what was going on with Shakespeare in schools, but I was quickly enlightened by the first two appearances I made in that role.

 

First, I was asked to sit on a panel for the Los Angeles Unified School District on “teaching Shakespeare across the curriculum,” which was the educational fad of the late 1980s.

 

My colleagues on the panel talked about how their students sewed Elizabethan costumes, and held Renaissance banquets, and studied the reigns of Henry, Mary and Elizabeth. They learned Elizabethan jigs and swordfights, and made maps of the new and old worlds, and so on and so forth. When it came time for me to speak, I was rather overwhelmed by all of this, and asked, rather sheepishly, “when do they read the plays?” “Oh, God, never!” was the reply. “The language is much too difficult. We show them the movies!”

 

Oh…

 

That same year, I was asked to give a speech to the California Association of Teachers of English on Shakespeare’s language. I talked about, how, after spending the night together, the tone of Romeo and Juliet’s language shifts, and becomes more mature. They are no longer boy and girl but man and woman. Henceforth, they speak like adults.

 

I was interrupted, before I could finish my talk, by a matronly woman who had clearly been teaching Shakespeare longer than I had been alive. She proceeded to correct me by saying that I was wrong and that Romeo and Juliet never did and never would, illicitly spend the night together. They were too innocent and pure.

 

I countered with examples of the “nightingale” and the “lark,” marking the passage of night and the dawn’s arrival, etc. “No, that is Shakespeare’s poetry. He would never be so vulgar as to imply intercourse.”

 

Well, I lost it. I started shouting at the poor woman, saying not only did she not know how to read a play, but that her students were not interested in the play’s poetry but in the intercourse (which was not the vulgarism I used in the heat of the moment).

 

I was taken off stage kicking and screaming, and was later informed that the dear lady was right: much of LA Unified was still using bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare with all the juicy bits cut out. She had been teaching the play for forty years and never realized that Romeo and Juliet had, well, intercoursed.

 

Just an aside, but perhaps the only thing worse than those old versions of Shakespeare are the current “No Fear” editions popular in schools. I tell teachers to tear them up in front of the students. Nothing will instill fear more quickly in a student than to see a page of Shakespeare followed by a page of an English “translation” – “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I” – “Oh what an idiot I am!”

 

Really? All that does is send a signal that you are too stupid to figure this out for yourself; just like the tons of footnotes in most editions tell us we need to look up every other line to get a play’s “meaning”.

 

When I do workshops, I have an exercise that I was almost tempted to do with you all today. I take twomonologues – Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face…” and Romeo’s “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…” I ask

people – student, teachers, actors to take a pencil or a marker and blot any word they don’t understand, or any word they would feel stupid saying, or something that sounds too Elizabethan-y for them, etc., such as “fain, fain!”

 

Only once has anyone ever blotted out more than 10 or 15% of Shakespeare’s words. We know 85% to 90% of Shakespeare’s supposedly difficult language. So what’s the problem? Why does the language seem so difficult? Let me tell you the one time my exercise failed first.

 

I was on a tour of the Pacific Rim for the Globe, giving workshops and lectures in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. I was invited by my friend Ken Keyes to do a workshop at the New Zealand National Youth Drama School, and did my exercise with forty or fifty students. All more or less hit the 10-15% mark on the two R&J speeches, except one little brat, who blotted out everything except two words:

 

Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night
Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke: but farewell compliment!
Dost thou
love me? I know thou wilt say 'Ay,'
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear'st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers' perjuries
Then say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think'st I am too quickly won,
I'll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world…
etc

“Love me?” And she was absolutely right, even if she was just being a brat. The only thing Juliet really needs to know in that speech is whether or not Romeo loves her, or is he just trying to get into her knickers. So… Back to the problem of language.

 

Elizabethans, like most early modern Europeans, possessed two characteristics that we do not: they were metaphysical and were what I’ll call meta-lingual. They believed in the spirit world, the reality of heaven and hell, and a life after death; in the pantheistic world of fairies and witches that populate Shakespeare's plays. To an Elizabethan Queen Mab, Puck, the weird Sisters, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father might actually exist.Secondly, Elizabethans were obsessed with what I call meta-linguistics. They were forever making puns and forming rhymes, but they were also aware of the concrete value of words - oaths, curses, vows, proclamations, edicts, banns. Their words carried much more weight - literally - than ours do today. Remember, Elizabethans came to "hear" a play, not see one.

 

Today, we are primarily literal and visual. Ours is the world of the atom, genome, pixel and digit; the world of the sound bite, shot, and frame. The Elizabethans could hear a play or a court case and retain much of it in memory. We, in turn, can watch the year's news highlights on television go by in 60 seconds on New Year's Eve and identify every split-second shot – as well as where we were when we first saw it, something that would drive an Elizabethan literally to Bedlam!

 

What I have come to preach – and here comes the heresy – is that language is the least important element in Shakespeare (I think I can hear that matronly English teacher keeling over in California even as I speak).

 

Think about it. You walk into your kitchen to make dinner. What happens? Do you say “ouch” and put your hand on the hot stove? Or do you put your hand on the stove and then say “ouch”? The impulse is much more important than the language: just think of all the other words you could use at that moment. The real difficulty is in getting to the impulse that lies beneath Shakespeare’s language.

 

And that brings us back to the issue of choice – or to extend the heresy analogy, free will.

 

One of the questions I constantly pose to students, teachers, actors and directors is: why does this particular character say these particular words in this particular order at this particular moment? Why does Juliet say “Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds”, and not horses, ponies or nags? Why does Macbeth ask if this is a dagger he sees before him, and not a hatchet, stiletto or penknife?

Because that word “steed” or that word “dagger” is the only word that that particular character can choose to use at that particular moment to describe the impulse (sun setting; murderous hallucination) that precedes it.

 

When I direct a Shakespeare play, the term that is generally applied to my productions is that they are “accessible” - often said in a vaguely pejorative tone, as if being understood was a bad thing. But there is a sort of inverse “Shakespeare meter” that says the less you understand a Shakespeare play, the better it must be. “Oh, God, I didn’t understand a word of that. It must have been brilliant.”

 

Looking back a half century, I finally realize that it was this implicit lack of choice, that Shakespeare was to be “done” a certain way, and read with a certain “awe” that put me off it for so long, and made me a bit of a heretic in my approach to it, even now. Those students last night have no idea how lucky they are to have been spared that.

 

Two more points, and then I am done. First, one of the curious things about the choice-making process I have just described is that it is “provisional” – what I decide that “dagger” looks like, or what I think a production of MACBETH is about, will change over time – whether it’s over two or three days of rehearsals or ten or twenty years of coming back to direct the “same” play again – when of course there is no such thing.

 

The MACBETH I did in France in the early 1980s, is a totally different play from the MACBETH I did in Los Angeles in the 1990s, or the one in Tokyo in 2006. Shakespeare’s language didn’t change, but every element of production was different: different cast, different audience, different emphasis – different director. The “Louis Fantasia” directing the play, I hope, was at least somewhat different from the “Louis Fantasia” directing it a quarter of a century earlier. That’s one of the great things about Shakespeare’s works – they keep expanding, enlarging. Every time you come to them, you find more: more of Shakespeare, more of life, more of yourself. How dare those “No Fear” editors (and others) say “this is what the play means?” It depends on the boundaries of venue, voice and time – place, performer, and audience – to make anything other than the most superficial meaning. The fact that that poor, matronly English teacher’s view of ROMEO & JULIET never changed once in forty years is a tragedy not just for her students, but also for the poor woman herself.

 

Finally, one of the talks I gave frequently in the ‘80s and ‘90s about the Globe was my “ROCKET TO THE MOON” analogy.

 

I said that, for American donors, educators and theatre professionals, building the Globe would be like going to the moon – not everyone would get there, but everyone would benefit from going there because of the spin-off technologies… and we have. Now, I would be the last to compare them to Mylar or Tang (you do remember Tang?), but I want to acknowledge Marilyn Halperin and Manon Spadaro before I close, even though I am sure they are familiar to many of you here today.

 

Marilyn is the Education Director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and Manon is the Founding Artistic Director of Chicago Youth Shakespeare. And not to take any credit for what they have achieved and continue to produce in your fair city, they both have studied with me – Marilyn at the Globe, and Manon at the Huntington, and so are living proof that the rocket’s journey to the moon was successful.

 

The title of my talk comes from Shakespeare’s Second Sonnet, which talks about beauty’s “succession” happening over generations. What began in Chicago in 1933, continues here more than 80 years later because of Sam Wanamaker’s vision and your support.

 

What a legacy, and what a brave new world it is!

Thank you.

 

Contact info

 

Chicago Youth Shakespeare
641 W Lake Street, Suite 200
Chicago, IL 60661

info@chicagoyouthshakespeare.org
(773)675-9592

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within the stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. - Julius Caesar, I, ii

The course of true love never did run smooth. - A Midsummer Night's Dream, I, i

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow. - Romeo and Juliet, II, ii

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so - Hamlet, II, ii

If music be the food of love, play on! - Twelfth Night, I, i

Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. - Julius Caesar, II, ii

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. - The Tempest, IV, i

The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. - Merchant of Venice, IV, i