When Shakespeare is trending, it’s usually for historical reasons. Perhaps the burial site of Richard III has been discovered, or there's renewed conjecture over whether the Bard wrote all of his plays himself.
What you don't see are many debates over content. In 400 years, we've worked that out — for the most part.
This week, Shakespeare theater companies all over the country — including Shakespeare Dallas — are feeling heat from a New York City production of Julius Caesar that starred a Donald Trump lookalike in the titular role.
The famous and highly regarded Public Theater hosts a Shakespeare in the Park production every year. This year's Julius Caesar, which closed Sunday, lost funding from two corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, because of its controversial depiction. (The latter withdrew support from the play but not the theater at large.)
Moreover, angry protestors attempted to rush the stage during last weekend’s performances. Apparently they'd never read the play, or they would have known that Shakespeare didn't advocate for killing Caesar. According to a statement by the theater, the disruption only lasted a minute and the protesters were removed.
But the controversy is continuing to grow. Likeminded people have begun Googling "Shakespeare in the Park" and shooting off emails to whomever comes up in the search, including plenty of companies outside of New York that have nothing to do with the Public Theater fiasco.
Shakespeare Dallas, which has been around since 1971 and performs outdoors in Samuell Grand Park every year, has been receiving threats since Julius Caesar made the news. Artistic director Raphael Parry says they were all a bit puzzled at first. Their public relations director advised that they sit on the news, but the emails continued pouring in. More than 80 emails were sent with varying degrees of threats.
“Your a disgrace. You should be ASHAMED that is the PRESIDENT. I hope you die and so do you family,” reads one email.
Another goes a bit further, bringing terrorists into the rhetoric.
“You truly are a bunch of freaks, and bottom suckers," it reads. "We should send all you freaks to ISIS. They would eliminate your stench on this earth with real knives. Just think they hate somebody who doesn't know what bathroom to use. You fall in the category of Genital Warts something you suck on every night. Do another fucked up play and see what happens. I can smell your stench all the way to Texas.”
Another could have been cleared up with some simple research.
“I HOPE YOU ARE NOT PART OF THE SAME ORGANIZATION IN NEW YORK CITY. IF SO? I HOPE YOU LOOSE ALL OF YOUR FUNDING AND YOU GO OUT OF BUSINESS. THAT IS THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES THAT IS BEING DISRESPECTED? I WILL NOT VISIT YOUR SITE AGAIN IF I FIND OUT YOU ARE?”
Parry and his team responded to each email with things like, “I think you have the wrong theater. We aren’t doing Julius Caesar.” They got one reply back acknowledging the error with an apology.
Parry says the vitriol was alarming and raised safety concerns for the outdoor venue, where performers are more vulnerable. The artistic director was nervous about responding in a way that might upset someone prone to violence. However, even before these threats, the company prepared for the worst.
"We have an off-duty police officer with us every night," he says. "We perform in an open area, and we’ve undergone safety training.”
Still, the company remains optimistic.
“We’re a pretty open, friendly environment,” Parry says.
It doesn’t hurt that Shakespeare Dallas is doing funny, lighthearted plays this season.
The world premiere of Quixote, adapted by playwright Octavio Solis and directed by Gustavo Tambascio, opens this weekend. Parry says this performance, set in present-day West Texas, will be part of an effort to reach North Texas’ Spanish-speaking community. The play references the infamous border wall, but Parry says the decision has strong roots in the text.
“There are some social justice issues in this play. In the original book, Don Quixote builds a wall in his mind," he says. "The play isn’t political, but it is about people being kept apart.”
The company is also producing the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, which generated a positive response from patrons. Parry says Shakespeare Dallas has received letters of support from theatergoers following the misguided Julius Caesar controversy. Even before the Public Theater news, attendance for the show was triple what it normally sees for preview performances and opening weekend.
The comedy is a bit of a spinoff, featuring buffoonish Sir John Falstaff, who first appears in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Although it's not one of Shakespeare's most highly regarded plays, Parry says it’s a crowd favorite. While the threats are unnerving, the show must go on.
Meanwhile, Texas Christian University's annual Trinity Shakespeare Festival is up and running. Artistic director and TCU professor Thomas J. Walsh, who says he hasn't received any angry emails, leads the Fort Worth festival. According to Walsh, it is having one of its best seasons yet.
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The Trinity Shakespeare Festival has two productions running in repertory, Richard III and Measure for Measure. Although the Fort Worth company hasn’t had to deal with the outrage Shakespeare Dallas has, Walsh is concerned about what threats of violence can mean for the arts.
“The arts flourish in the United States because of the First Amendment," he says. "Artists and audiences are free to argue and debate ideas. I encourage argument and debate over the arts. But we can't let the argument turn to threats and then violence. That is counter to our fundamental beliefs as Americans.”
For now, both companies are focusing on the positive ways Shakespeare brings audiences together. Parry is grateful for a comedy like The Merry Wives of Windsor and hopes it will ease the tension.
“People love this show and are responding to it enthusiastically," he says. "Laughter is a great tonic for hate.”