Collaborative Art; Uncollaborative Industry

How do we get the Shakespeare theatre industry to talk to each other about anti-racism?

For several years now, I’ve described myself in bios as a “director, actor, scholar.” Though I’ve never had a desire to follow a traditional academic path and work full-time in a university, I have endeavored to keep a foot in that world. A good portion of that can be chalked up simply to intellectual curiosity, but I also often reflect on what it is I gain from academia — what it gives me that perhaps I am not finding from my great love, theatre. And how academia in turns makes me a better theatre-maker. This post is my attempt to muse through admittedly complex situations while keeping to a readable length.

During the week of February 15th, I attended an online symposium arranged by Wendy Lennon on Shakespeare, Race, and Pedagogy. (I’m grateful for Harry R. McCarthy’s stellar live-tweeting of the symposium.) It was a wonderful experience — both educating and reaffirming. As I watched each session, I would see names pop up in the chat of colleagues from all over the world. People I had met, people I tweet with, people whose work I had read. I felt this tremendous sense of community through it. And it was a sense of community I’m not getting from theatre right now, so I started to wonder why that was. And how to change it. Because the community that I felt at the symposium is allowing academia to have the important conversations that we haven’t gotten to in the Shakespeare theatre industry. We instead are stuck still trying to convince people that these conversations need to happen in the first place.

This is of course not to say that racism and sexism don’t exist in the academy. They obviously do. I’m only a sometimes scholar, and I’ve still experienced sexism in academic settings. But I’m also engaged with a community of scholars who are forging an anti-racist path in Shakespeare pedagogy; a path that I keep looking for and failing to find at large in the Shakespeare theatre.

The speakers at the symposium spoke about how to engage with racial justice in the academy, with their students, and among readers of Shakespeare. All of what they asked, said, and thought has a place in the theatre industry as well.

Ian Smith’s talk “Reading Shakespeare & the Racial Blind Spot” argued that readers have been positioned as white and thus detached from racial history; “white individuals do not typically acknowledge the processes of their own racial formation and positioning.” Smith noted that because white people can imagine existence outside of race, whiteness has a history of denial which makes critiquing it difficult and this aspect is what leads to the racial blind spot. But it’s not just readers to which this applies. The audience members of our theatres are also historically positioned as white. When Smith said, “understanding the historical formation and impact of whiteness must be regarded as the critical component in reading and pedagogy,” I thought about not just reading and pedagogy, but performance.

Ambereen Dadabhoy and Nedda Mehdizadeh treated us to thoughts from their forthcoming book with Cambridge Elements, Anti-Racist Shakespeare (can’t fucking wait to read this). They argued that we are untrained in seeing whiteness; that whiteness has been excluded from discussions of race; and all of this results in whiteness being “rendered as the human norm” (in the words of Dyer). This is harmful because “teaching Shakespeare without interrogating his constructions of whiteness reproduces structures of white supremacy and is ultimately a disservice to our students.” I think you see where I’m going here: performing Shakespeare without interrogating his construction of whiteness reproduces structures of white supremacy and is ultimately a disservice to our audiences and our artists.

Dadabhoy and Mehdizadeh ended their talk with a provocative idea — instead of treating Shakespeare’s relevance as a given, what if we focused on his salience? What is made important to our students? Or, I would offer, what is made important to our audiences?

I could go on about every session. These are timely, important, critical conversations to be having. They are what I so want my work in Shakespeare and early modern theatre to be about. But they are almost completely missing on the theatre side. We haven’t managed to move our conversation past demographics. We haven’t managed to ask real questions about how toxic workplaces become so in the first place. I’ve had to leave groups (yes, plural) on facebook of Shakespeare theatre lovers because a week couldn’t go by without someone extolling either Isaac Asimov or Harold Bloom, both serial sexual harassers and bad men who do not deserve our respect or our attention. (Seriously - why are there theatre professionals and members of the general theatre public for whom Harold Bloom is the only “Shakespeare academic” they can name? jfc). Why are we so far behind in the theatre? WHY IS WILLIAM BALL STILL BEING RECOMMENDED AS AN EXAMPLE OF ‘GOOD’ DIRECTING? Is it any wonder we also haven’t been able to engage with artistic questions about what’s contained in the plays themselves and how we present them?

To be clear, it’s not that these thoughts or thinkers are missing from the theatre. It’s the conversation part, the connecting, the building on them; that’s the step we are missing. Why is that? Why is the anti-racist academic community always sharing ideas and articles and talking to each other on twitter, but the Shakespeare theatre industry isn’t? Why is it when one of my terrific theatre colleagues writes an article on Howlround, it doesn’t get the same level of community engagement? When I do attend anti-racist events and conversations hosted by theatres, why do they feel like individual one-offs, instead of a line of continuing practice? Why aren’t the artists and leaders who are pushing anti-racist thought in the Shakespeare theatre being picked up and supported by the entire industry? Why weren’t we listening to them five years ago? Why does it feel like the work is only happening in individual pockets? How come we are an industry founded on collaboration (you can’t make theatre without it), but yet as an industry, we don’t collaborate?

Admittedly, I do think there are some fundamental structural differences between academia and (American) theatre that are important factors at play here:

  • When an academic publishes an important piece of scholarship, the entire academic community can read that scholarship. When theatre artists create an important piece of theatre, the entire community cannot experience that piece of theatre.

  • At least in traditional paths in academia, research and publishing is part of the job description. Such engagement is not expected in the theatre industry. And perhaps what might be our industry equivalent — ongoing training and building ensemble — is not part of wider American theatre culture.

  • Our capitalist society doesn’t give us anytime in the theatre industry to do anything but churn out the next performance. There is no economic space for a theatre organization to do something else. There is no economic space for individual artists to do anything else — most theatre professionals I know are working multiple jobs trying to keep their head above water.

  • There’s probably some part of the industry loneliness i feel that is tied to critical mass — I’d guess that worldwide there are more people employed in Shakespeare academia than in Shakespeare theatre.

  • Maybe specialization is more common in academia? If you are an academic writing on early modern drama, that is your research specialty. And while there may be actors who only work in Shakespeare or directors who only direct Shakespeare, perhaps this is less common? I can get in debates with academics about the best early modern plays you’ve never heard of. I don’t get to do that with theatre people. (But see above — how are you supposed to read random unproduced early modern plays if you’re trying to figure out how to afford rent?)

  • There’s probably something to say here also about anti-intellectualism in America and that actors are actively discouraged from being smart.

  • Pedagogy and scholarship is able to continue in the midst of the pandemic in a way theatre cannot. It’s hard to see how new modes of thought might change our art when we can’t go to the theatre at all right now.

How do we fix some of this? Or at least shift some of this? How do we get the Shakespeare theatre industry talking about not just how toxicity is showing up in our workplaces, but how it’s showing up in our art. How do we analyze whether we are producing theatre that is meaningful to our audiences, versus harmful? How do we disentangle ourselves from the specter of Shakespeare’s genius and allow that we have every right to be in a room with him? That we have every right to question him. How do we engage with each others’ thoughts and explorations and become better artists ourselves as a result? I don’t have the answers here. But I’m looking for others who want to ask these questions with me.