Dueling Shakespeares: How to turn the arrival of the Starbucks of Shakespeare into a media moment

by Smartie on March 22, 2010

New York City’s independent theater contingent cried foul when the New York Times’ second string theater critic Charles Isherwood delighted that New York would finally get some Shakespeare worth watching when the RSC crossed the Pond and set up Edwardian shop at the Armory.

New York is finally getting some “real” Shakespeare.

Them’s fightin’ words.

New York has piles of Shakespeare and a number of smaller companies do Shakespeare quite well. Some with a blogging platform rallied and called him out. But the outcry didn’t move much further than living a few days in the theater blogosphere, and it certainly fell on deaf ears at the Times. With the exception of feeling purged, what good did it do?

In as much as Charles prefers attending the RSC to, say, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is obvious.  He is certainly entitled to his opinion–he’s a critic afterall–but let’s hope he doesn’t  review any indie Shakespeare since it appears he’s predisposed to hate it.

But does he really believe that New York theater is devoid of Shakespeare? I doubt it. While the tone of the article did suggest that New York is devoid of Shakespeare worth watching, we have to remember that the newspaper business is about eyeballs and buzz. And for several days, the New York Times had both, at least within the theater community.

So how can we turn this frown upside down and create a media moment?

The RSC comes to town and we have, well, the RSC, a behemoth brand. Let’s call it the Starbucks of theater. They may have a celebrity or two in their midst, and ticket buyers know that they will pay a premium price but it will be a safe (known) quantity.

Then we have, for example, a company like Red Bull representing Park Slope’s own Gorilla Coffee Shop. Taking this even further, like the similarly named energy drink, this Red Bull creates it’s own brand of caffeinated Shakespeare. This ain’t your Grandma’s Bard.

I would love to see a young company take action and present the exact same Shakespeare play at the exact same time. Throw down the gauntlet and be the scrappy underdog. And take it even further, let’s inject a little Bronx Bomber pride into this. The Brits may do “proper” Shakespeare, but the scrappy New York companies do it kick ass.

Maybe show up at the RSC’s turf and stage a brilliantly bloody fight in front of the Armory. This has to be some seriously Vampire Cowboys-style brutal choreography. And do it again. And again. And again. Be in front of the Armory for days at a time, several hours a day. Hand out postcards and fliers to the circle of audience that surrounds. Hell, pass the hat and make a buck.

Added bonus? It would make a hell of a photo op.

Pitch this to the media. The media is nothing if not navel gazing–I am sure a few other outlets would be thrilled to take the Times to task, but they need a news hook to do it. Perhaps the Times would take it on themselves. If a story one of their critics wrote created enough of a sensation on and off line, maybe they would revisit it.

What other creative ideas do you guys have? How else can we spin this? Share ’em! I wanna hear  ’em!


Dave Charest March 22, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Great ideas here Karen. I hope someone is smart enough to use them!

I also love “caffeinated Shakespeare.” Gems.

Looking forward to more posts.


Smartie March 22, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Thanks for commenting, Dave! You popped the sites commenting cherry!
I would really kill to see someone go to town with this! How cool would that be?
And yeah, I drink way too much coffee. I can pretty much caffeinate anything.
Let me know if there’s anything you want to read more about.

Randall Stuart March 23, 2010 at 12:28 am

Yes, or set-up guerilla booths, ala a Renn Faire, and give iambic pentameter tap-dance lessons….”Five Feet a’Flying”. So many ideas abound….but your keen observation, SmARTie, is that there is a divide and disconnect between the journalists’ world and the actual art which is being producing, actualized and illuminated by the countless lovely troupes who are Bard-crazy and, p’raps, crazy enough to dive-in and do it. Having just completed two weeks teaching at a Junior College with students who perhaps “shouldn’t” be doing Shakespeare, my heart still leaps that they are going for it, and finding something ancient and beautiful within it. It’s a leveling plane…it’s a text for all people. (Love your idea of the identical season.)

David J. Loehr March 23, 2010 at 2:45 am

I would take that challenge in a heartbeat.

I’d even up the ante, and there’s plenty of time. Why not rally a bunch of companies to do a variety of Shakespeare, from traditional to modern, from romantic to bloodsoaked. Reservoir Macbeth. Inglourious Hamlet. Do plays about Shakespeare. Do Cardenio or Thomas More, play with the “not quite” Shakespeare plays.

Better yet, find a group of companies, each with a clear style and vision, and dare them to interpret the same play in their own unique way. If it’s one that the RSC will be doing, all the better. Spread that through the year, collaborate and coordinate on the marketing, make it an EVENT. Draw new audiences to new companies out of curiosity. “I saw Red Bull do it, now how would the NY Neo-Futurists do it?” for example.

Bring the Public into it–this helps to add legitimacy–and make some noise. Call the whole shebang “Shakespeare in New York!” as opposed to the RSC in NY.

Yeah. That upped the ante.

Can you imagine what it’d be like if I drank coffee?

Smartie March 23, 2010 at 8:33 am

Randall, I love the tap dance idea! That’s so AM TV friendly too! It’s like a summer lemonade stand but for Shakespeare! I agree about the journo disconnect too. But I think it’s an audience disconnect as well and we need to remember that leads into the journo disconnect (think about what audience are they writing). There’s a lot of comfort in the familiar. So the challenge is making a fun accessible Shakespeare that will get everyone excited, even if you aren’t a known quantity. Taking the Starbuck’s idea further–if you are traveling to the UK, notorious for bad coffee, where do you go for your AM fix? You know Starbuck’s from home, you know what you’re getting when your order it. Thus you go to Starbucks (of course, when I was in the UK, their coffee was as bad as any place else but that’s beside the point!)

Dave, that’d be brilliant and fun! And that would require indie companies actually working together, which I don’t think they do enough. Strength in numbers, afterall.

Scott March 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I can’t believe anyone listens to Christopher Isherwood about anything. He’s a good writer, but he has the taste of a blue-haired old lady.

He likes that old style, Shakespeare-by-the-numbers piffle for the graduate school crowd. I take it as a compliment that he doesn’t think there is any Shakespeare in New York.

Cas Marino March 23, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Karen, thank you for this. After failing at catholicism and starting to wane from Congregational Christianity, I’ve been searching for a new religion.

Seriously I applaud, appreciate, and will now (“a”…”a”… I need another “a” word…) ADHERE to your advice (bonus word!). Art feeds its own young; thank you for the mentoring.

And I will keep you posted; I invite other companies who may be interested in a grass roots uprising (The Bangers and Mash fundraising supper was a hoot of an idea) to contact me via email about a FLASH MOB…

Heather Claus March 24, 2010 at 7:23 am

What a wonderful post! Lively, well-written, and entertaining, along with being informative and inspirational.

Why not send actors dressed in their character costumes out through the streets – especially where the tourists hang out. They would speak in iambic pentameter, and offer witty rejoinders, while handing out “2 for 1” passes to their theater (of course, the price would be appropriate for a profit…).

I’ve seen with theater that 1 price is almost always easier to swallow than 2 prices, even when the total is the same.


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