William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest playwright of all time, whose works are performed worldwide more than 400 years following his death, is more often performed on the professional and academic stage than at the regional, community or youth theater level, much to the frustration of the Bard’s fervent fans.
For those who have discovered and love Shakespeare’s magic, without being forced to dissect and analyze the challenging language in a dry classroom setting, one can seldom get enough of the entrancing prose and poetry of the Bard of Avon.
Many in southeastern Michigan were introduced to Shakespeare’s plays through school or family trips to Stratford, Ontario, and by watching productions at Wayne State University’s Hilberry and Bonstelle theaters, which annually initiate new generations to the works of Shakespeare, from the comedies to his tragedies to the histories.
Yet the struggle continues to mount more productions locally, overcoming supporters’ fears of audience indifference, the difficulty of the work and the neighboring talent pool, which local groups have repeatedly proven to be plentiful.
Actor and director Kirk Haas said Shakespeare’s stories, whether funny or serious, follow themes which are relevant today, whether it be the battle of the sexes, greed versus honor or good versus evil.
“I believe that Shakespeare should be done at least once a year per theatre season in all theaters that have the actors who will commit to learning the language,” he said. “You can’t approach Shakespeare out of fear. Do your homework and quit your bitching. You’re not alone out there.”
Haas, who was first introduced to Shakespeare at the Startford Festival in Ontario as a boy, said it is important to keep the original poetic language intact as much as possible, because that is where the artistic language and poetry come alive.
“I have seen 50 or more Shakespearean productions in my lifetime, and many blew me away, most were okay and some sucked,” he said. “But they got up there and did it.”
Haas said he spent eight summers with Shakespeare Royal Oak’s Water Works Theater Company, which he said provided some of his best moments in theatre.
“All I wanted was to play the Ghost of Hamlet senior and I got Polonius instead,” he said. “Who can complain about that? I had a major part in my favorite play.”
Shakespeare’s plays need to be done more often, Haas said.
“I would love to direct Shakespeare on the community theater level,” he said. “I love teaching actors how to analyze the script and learn how to communicate using some of the world’s greatest poetry and language.
“I have performed my share, and I believe I can bring to life his stories and language to a new audience, if only these theaters would stop being scared of Shakespeare. If it was that bad to produce it wouldn’t have survived 400 years on the stage.”
Actor, playwright and director Paul Bruce of Dearborn, who also received his initiation to the Bard’s works at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, said that he finds Shakespeare’s plays amazing.
“I am fascinated that such a magnificent vocabulary and intricate rhyme scheme are so beautifully integrated into these compelling stories,” he said. “I love the comedies, but I would like to see any of these pieces performed in the area. They are highly under-represented in the world of community theater.”
Bruce said that he thinks many local venues fear that Shakespeare’s works are too difficult to stage and interpret, which he feels is not true.
“In truth, they are really not much different from any other type of theatrical piece, in terms of the basics,” he said. “I’ve seen Shakespeare done very beautifully on a shoestring budget with minimal sets and costuming.”
Bruce said Shakespeare’s plays are appealing today because of their timeless stories and stunning wordplay.
“I think many of the stories are timeless,” he said. “I have seen productions that change the locations, time periods and costuming for the shows, and the stories still ring forth beautifully.”
Bruce added that he would be eager, as well, to direct and design the set for a local theater willing to mount a Shakespearean production.
Actress, director and educator Nancy Florkowski of Redford Township, who works with the Motor City Youth Theater Bard Bums, believes strongly that Shakespeare can be understood and performed by children.
“I love Shakespeare, however, reading ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’ in high school was a grueling experience, and studying and being tested on a different Shakespearean script each week in my early college years was even worse,” she said. “Shakespeare was written to be performed and studied in the process.”
Florkowski said that when she later directed abridged versions of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with her eighth-grade drama students, the experience was much more positive.
“It was amazing and exciting for all of us, as well as for the parents, who were impressed by their children’s performances,” she said.
Florkowski has since directed a full-length version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the high school level, youth productions of “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a Steampunk version of “The Tempest,” a Shakespearean remix, and, for two years, a Hatfield and McCoy version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I enjoy directing Shakespeare with youth more than with adults, and I enjoy directing Shakespearean more than non-Shakespearean plays with kids,” she said. “Each subsequent play became more fun and exciting. The dedication and growing knowledge of the kids made us all hungry to do more and more.”
Florkowski said the Bard Bums spend a minimum of 100 hours rehearsing, studying and playing before presenting their final work, with the youth being told that their job is to help the audience understand what is happening on stage.
“We use full scripts that we cut or revise for better understanding, keeping as much of the Bard’s original language as possible,” she said. “Because community theatre is very popular in Michigan, there are many actors out there who love to see other actors perform.”
Florkowski suggested that a Shakespeare festival be formed featuring local theatre groups.
“I would love to have adults take children seriously, so it would be necessary for MCYT Bard Bums to be a part of it,” she said. “Shakespeare’s works will always be current, even if they are interpreted differently by different actors and directors.”
Actress Connie Cowper of Rochester, who has enjoyed seeing performances both in Stratford, Ontario, and at WSU’s Hilberry, has performed with Shakespeare in Detroit, Shakespeare Royal Oak and with Rochester University’s Uncovered Theater.
“I have played duchesses, queens, doctors, sailors and soldiers,” she said. “My favorites are ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘King Lear’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The characters in these plays, as in other Shakespearean works, have clear motivations for their actions, yet we as actors can add so much to backstories that are not necessarily revealed by the playwright.”
Cowper said she finds memorizing the dialogue to be a great challenge with a long- lasting reward.
“The words often sing like poetry, that still stays in my brain long after the show has closed,” she said. “The plots of Shakespeare’s plays are universal, encompassing the best and worst traits of humankind.”
Cowper said that love, hate, revenge, nobility, avarice and grace all are evident in Shakespeare’s work.
“With the pandemic, I’m watching more TV than I usually do, and I see the characters and story lines in ‘Succession,’ ‘Bridgerton’ and many others as clearly lifted from the Bard,” she said.
Cowper said a modern trend that she loves seeing is women playing Shakespearean roles originally written for men.
“Watching Janet Haley as Prospero in “The Tempest” and Carla Milarch as (the title character) in “Richard III” was breathtaking,” she said.
Actress Kez Settle of Clawson said a high school crush on a British classmate introduced her to the works of Shakespeare.
“He turned me on to Shakespeare’s historical plays by first loaning me ‘Henry IV,’ but it wasn’t until many years later that I actually saw a live production,” she said.
Settle said she loves seeing Shakespeare’s plays on stage and in films.
“One of the things I find so fascinating is how they can be set in any period of time and still be relevant,” she said. “I used to be intimidated by his works, but I had a really great instructor in Barton Bund, and he really made it accessible, and made me realize if Shakespeare is done well, it is understandable and relatable. I fell in love with Shakespeare in that class.”
Settle said Shakespeare is still appealing today because it reflects the human condition so well, no matter what the time period.
“There were political, spiritual, social and economic injustices in Shakespeare’s time, as they exist in pretty much every time in history,” she said. “While the landscape and the players may change, the human element does not. Shakespeare sticks his pen in the very vein of humanity and draws out the dark bloody essence of what it means to be imperfectly human.”
Settle said she thinks people are intimidated by Shakespeare because of the language.
“Perhaps they are afraid to go see it because they may not understand it and find that embarrassing,” she said. “There is also a little bit of elitism that I would like to see dispelled about Shakespeare. It truly is for everyone.”
Settle said she thinks the focus needs to be on making Shakesepare more accessible, since his plays are so relatable to everyday life.
“It needs to be a shared experience and not a club,” she said. “So much of our language today — common colloquialisms — can be found in Shakespearean text. We aren’t that removed from his world or his stories. We are his stories.”