To be an artist in the theatre is something special. Theatre is similar to film in that it has writers, directors, technicians and so forth, but theatre lacks a permanence that film possesses. Your favorite film remains the same every single time you watch it (which is lovely), but theatre is necessarily temporary. You can never quite pin it down. Admittedly, a single theatrical production will likely have the same director, actors, designers, crew, script, etc. from night to night, yet there is something fundamentally different from one performance to the next. Just as a moment is captured, it disappears. It exists only in the space and time that living people are in a room together. It exists between the actors, yes, but more importantly it thrives in that fraught space between the actors and the audience. Sometimes, it only lasts the length of a breath.
By nature, a theatrical production lives, changes and - perhaps most importantly – it dies. Ultimately a play lives only in the minds of the people who were in that room. And if you weren’t there, then no number of photos or reviews or stories at the bar can recreate it. Now, this is all very well and good, and it’s part of the magic that we all love so much. But if those of us in the theatre are ultimately sculpting in butter, then the great question “Why?” can rear its ugly head a lot. And the “Why?” is what keeps me honest. And keeps me up at night, as my wife can attest.
If everything we are doing ultimately disintegrates, then I feel a great need to be a part of something larger. This is where the classics come in. They are a direct link not only to the musty-dusty “past,” but to our very history. By working in classical theatre, one becomes a part of the larger theatrical narrative.
Shakespeare’s plays (for example) were here for centuries before I was even a notion. Centuries before my great-grandfather sailed for America from England. And they will be here long after I am dead. These plays, and their relationship to our very culture, are larger than any one person, or even one group of people. They have been translated into countless languages. They have been taught, in some form or another, in nearly every corner of the English-speaking world (much to the chagrin of many high schoolers everywhere). They have crossed borders of countries in times of extremity and war. They are quoted, intentionally or unintentionally, by most folks in their daily lives.
By working with these texts, one gets the chance to become part of the history. In a business devoid of permanence, an artist can claim a foothold. Now that is something.
Now, this is not to say that every production of The Tempest or Macbeth is immediately ennobled. But anybody who’s played Lady Macbeth in their church basement as part of their community theater’s spring show is now part of the story. And the story just keeps unfolding. It’s a bit like the “begat” section in the Bible – you can trace the lineage all the way back. I saw Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, who saw her father Michael Redgrave give his Prospero, who saw Robert Atkins’, who saw Benson’s, and so on back to the first. Back to the first.
It’s one of the reasons I love the classics as much as I do. It’s one more way I remind myself that the work ultimately isn’t about me. It’s about something larger. A direct connection with our history as artists, storytellers, people. And there’s a responsibility that comes with it. One isn’t simply creating an ‘evening out’ that can be forgotten within a few days but, rather, doing everything possible to do right by all those who came before.
Classical plays can feel like medicine. There is something sickly familiar, vaguely sweet yet ultimately distasteful as we swallow them down and mutter to ourselves how it is for our betterment that we take in these necessaries. But my hope, my goal is something very different. These secondary classics have the opportunity to thrill and challenge us in unexpected ways. It is far less likely that we can quote passages of Timon from the dark of our seats.
Timon of Athens is a particularly curious case. There is no record of its ever being performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime – it exists within a fractured history. Never popular, and often regarded as a co-authored piece or an unfinished manuscript, the responsibility to its history becomes very large. We can only trace it back so far before it disappears into a cloud. In this case, the story of this play is a mystery. And our job as artists is not necessarily to try to solve it, but to give you the pieces of the puzzle and let you try to figure it out on the car ride home. In that way, you are part of the history as well.
Co-Founding Artistic Director
Philadelphia Artists' Collective
Thanks for reading the PAC blog, where we share what's happening behind the scenes, what we're thinking about this week, and what classic stories are inspiring us right now.