HOW DO WE MAKE SHAKESPEARE ACCESSIBLE AND APPROACHABLE TO APPALACHIA AND BEYOND?
WHEN YOU THINK OF SHAKESPEARE MANY THINGS MAY COME TO MIND. Perhaps it’s people in posh accents, or a skull in the hands of an angsty man as he says “alas, poor Yorick!” Perhaps it’s ruffled collars, or Laurence Olivier or a disguised Gwyneth Paltrow.
Let’s say you’ve maybe seen a few shows. And, while you sat in your seat, your mind wandered off. You wondered if maybe you weren’t smart enough to understand the language. Now, what if you’ve taken a Shakespeare class? Did you have moments where teachers went on tangents on the historical significance of the “columbine” flower or who the heck “Hecuba” is? And you thought: “What does this have to do with anything!?”
What about the actors in the room? Have you gone on stage not really knowing what you’re talking about? Just saying pretty words because they’re pretty? Perhaps you’ve felt alienated in the rehearsal room, assuming your thoughts on the meaning of the text must be wrong because the scholar with twenty or more years of experience says differently.
Or, how about this: you are the scholar. Then, after studying a script for decades, you see an actor (who got the script three weeks ago) get on stage and usher in a whole new possibility to its meaning. And you wonder: “How did I miss that!?”
Wherever you are in that spectrum of experience, have no fear. Shakespeare is hard, and sometimes scary. Often, this stems from how Shakespeare is approached in performance and education today, tying it to elitist ideas and separating it from our own experiences. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a path forward.
Why are we afraid? I have a few ideas as to how this came about, and first is the price of a ticket. Shakespeare is often hard to see. If you’re in a community that regularly has Shakespeare performances, they’re usually not cheap or easy to get to. You might have to pay between $25 to $300 to see a play, depending on the theatre and the seat. Or, you may have to travel to a metropolitan area that has free Shakespeare in the summer. Both of these options are inaccessible to wide swaths of the country. While some companies have made great strides in providing accessibility to performances, [editor’s note: such as Alchemy Theatre, The Rustic Mechanicals or The Appalachian Shakespeare Center, to name a few!] the majority remains stuck behind that paywall. How can you hope to feel comfortable with something if you are never given the opportunity to see it in the first place?
Another reason for our fear is how Shakespeare is packaged. His work is marketed to us as a “high art”— something to be studied, not to be experienced. Often in performance or academic settings, plays are approached with lofty, intellectualized concepts that audiences or students may have trouble relating to. We are told that the Bard’s work is not for our world. It is the pinnacle of art, it is to be revered and worshiped. And, if you don’t follow these spoken and unspoken rules when approaching the work, you are “doing it wrong” and therefore excluded.
This marketing and practice of exclusion are not historically or textually accurate. Shakespeare’s plays were written for the masses! Poor and working-class people would pay a small ticket price to see the plays, alongside the wealthy aristocrats. The theater was a place where different class levels, while maybe in different seats, all watched the same play and had thoughts on it. In his text, Shakespeare talks about the human experience, something that we all go through. Even when he’s talking about kings, those kings are often tasked with problems we all experience. “To be or not to be” for instance is simply taking on the fear of death and what comes after it. That is quintessentially not elitist! In the simplest words possible he speaks to an experience we will all encounter: death. “To be or not to be.”
In addition to these big human experience themes, Shakespeare is funny! (And spoiler alert, dirty!) Sex jokes are not few and far between, and rarely subtle. Characters get drunk, characters are wild, silly and stupid. There are characters with a range of identities as well! Characters that are gender fluid or are widely interpreted to be members of the LGBTQ+ community. There’s historical precedence for playing with gender while casting Shakespeare. There are female characters that have voices, speak their minds and have power. There are plays that directly tackle racial intolerance. There are plays that are widely interpreted as exploring themes of colonialism, fascism, insurrectionism and more. Now, he is by no means perfect, with a handful of his works criticized for antisemitism and misogyny, but there is no denying his attempt at capturing a wide gamut of the human experience. There is life in Shakespeare.
How do we destigmatize? How do we relate to Shakespeare? Well, Shakespeare’s dealings in the human experience gives us a wonderful opportunity to take our own stories, from any background or identity, and apply them to his archetypal, powerful characters. Shakespeare isn’t divine, and his work is not perfect or fixed. We can mold it, shape it and explore it to talk about our times with his words — a practice that has always been done with Shakespeare’s works, throughout history.
I’m originally from Short Creek, West Virginia. It’s a tiny, unincorporated town (without even a red light) tucked between Wheeling, Wellsburg, and the Ohio River. My paternal family has lived in the house I was raised in for over ninety years. My maternal side of the family originated from Cameron, Glenville and Clarksburg, but resettled around Morgantown and have been in West Virginia for as long as anyone can remember. I was raised, steeped in both sides, with the value of this family’s history and deeply rooted to the places we inhabited. Growing up, I knew our region had its troubles — intolerance, poverty and underdogs. But how could I ignore the beauty of its people, its land and the innumerable gifts it has given that are so powerfully ingrained within me?
For a long time I thought that — being a woman from Appalachia — there wasn’t space for my experience in Shakespeare’s words. There wasn’t space for people who don’t have money or for voices that aren’t perceived as worthy. I hope to tackle this.
On the one hand, I aim to explore how Appalachian stories have a place in Shakespeare in an authentic and truthful way, and on the other to expose how non-monolithic Appalachia is! West Virginia especially is often generalized by overarching and vastly negative perceptions. While I by no means wish to shy away from the real problems that Appalachia endures (in fact, I hope to explore these problems through the world of Shakespeare), I also want to humanize our home by showcasing its rich community history and traditions.
How? By staging Hamlet within the Appalachian context, and seeing how this affects the narrative in a truthful, grounded way. What happens when you swap castles and royal bloodlines for old, lived-in homes among the hills and complex family dynamics? How does the language transform when blended with traditional Appalachian ballads? How does the message of Hamlet change when rooted in the old earth of our Appalachian home?
The rest of the creative team and myself are going about these questions in a few key ways. First we are setting out to workshop this project in Appalachia by filming key scenes as a proof of concept. Then we will base the initial workshop of the entire play in West Virginia to then move the production to New York City. We aim to source local Appalachian artists as actors, musicians, and aids in our research.
All this to ensure we avoid the stereotyping we so often see about Appalachian people. We want to see Hamlet through the eyes of these real people in a real home, one that isn’t dripping in royalty and riches, but rather in a home that is accessible and truthful: one we recognize. I don’t know how this will end up, but I’m excited to try. And, I hope to perhaps inspire the many folks who perceive Shakespeare as unwelcoming, to try it — to listen to his words and see if they relate to them too.
Look out for updates on Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country, by following along with Joana’s company, Rue 151 Productions. Check out their website and Instagram for more.