In the past month, I have received five press releases about upcoming productions of 13 Shakespeare plays. Well, technically one is a performance of his sonnets. If Mama Mia! is ubiquitous, Billy Shakes is omnipresent. As a nerdy lit major in college, the idea that I would someday grow tired of the Bard or iambic pentameter seemed impossible. He's the king of playwrights, a poetry god and his sonnets fed my romantic urges.
I've never planned a theater season before, so rather than chalk it up to a lack of creativity, I decided to do a quick investigation into the question, "Why so much Shakespeare?" I called up a few directors and actors and posed that simple question. You know what I found? Shakespeare is cheap, well-attended and these crazy dramatists love the heck out of him.
My first stop was with young, hip director Dylan Key, who didn't seem too surprised that I would want to know something like that.
"That's a great question," Key says. "The answer of course is that he remains our most prescient critic of our own self, the inventor of the human, continually a theater artist's most demanding challenge and most delightful collaborator. But still, that's a great question."
What a naive whippersnapper, I thought to myself, he'll soon grow jaded and bitter. Surely, theater veteran and Shakespeare Dallas artistic director Raphael Parry would be ready to gossipmonger about his buddy Billy.
"Shakespeare is the greatest storyteller of all time -- iconic characters, twisting plots and unbelievable events," Parry says. "His plays are still relevant and engaging to people around the world. Let's keep it going."
I quickly decided Parry was not to be trusted, since he obviously wants to sell tickets to his Shakespeare in the Park summer season, which includes everyone's favorite Much Ado About Nothing. Let's see, WaterTower Theatre hasn't produced Shakespeare lately, maybe artistic director Terry Martin knows something these other jokers won't tell me.
"One, great plays with universal themes," he says. "Two, name recognition, and we all know that will sell more tickets than new plays. Three, no royalties."
There it is, the truth at last. Shakespeare is free to produce. Brad Baker, the head of Collin College's theater department wrote me a mathematical equation: "No royalties + freedom of artistic concept + public brand recognition = MONEY!"
Then again, I couldn't jive with this idea that producing Shakespeare was all about money, because I've never known anyone in theater -- outside of managing directors and executive boards -- who made decisions based on the promise of monetary success. Plus, when actors hit the boards as Hamlet, Iago or Beatrice, it's hardly a financial boon for them. To get the scoop, I hit up local actor Austin Tindle, best known for his Shakespearean roles.
"It's tricky because so many people only have the experience of a few badly produced versions of Hamlet and don't understand the experience of effectively using a tool like Shakespearean text," he says. "The most religious experience I've ever had came from working on that text and opening myself up to my most unedited impulses, like I was speaking from my soul for the first time."
Why so much Shakespeare? The answers are simple: Quality, easy access, and most important, the audiences can't scoop up tickets quickly enough. Year after year, we buy tickets to whichever theater is producing King Lear or pack our picnics and head out to Samuell Grand Amphitheatre (1500 Tenison Parkway), because it's fun, even if we don't understand why Lady Macbeth can't just wash her hands or why Petruchio is such a dick. And as long as we're buying, the theaters will keep selling. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's one of world's greatest poets. Turns out I was raising much ado about... well... nothing. Happy 450th birthday, Billy!
Why break a tradition? See Shakespeare Dallas' production of Much Ado About Nothing opening Friday, June 20 or head to Fort Worth for Trinity Shakespeare Festival's The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors.
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