Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts and Culture Reporter
Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director at The Old Globe Theatre
Related Story: The Globe Makes Shakespeare More Accessible
CAVANAUGH: This summer marks a transition for Shakespeare at the globe. Adrian Noble has been director for the past four seasons, but this will be his last year in that position. Barry Edelstein comes to the organization with a passion for KPBS. Arts reporter, Beth Accomando talked with Edelstein about Shakespeare, contemporary audiences, and why you shouldn't be afraid of the bard!
ACCOMANDO: One of the things I feel is most important about Shakespeare, when you introduce it to young people, that they get introduced to it in the right way. When I was a kid, my dad took me to the back of The Old Globe and made me put my ear up against the side door to hear the opening lines from Richard III. And for me, Shakespeare has always been something that I looked forward to and enjoyed. How did you get introduced to Shakespeare?
EDELSTEIN: Well, first let me say, that's a wonderful story! And that speaks to the relationship that the Globe has with so many people in San Diego who had their first experience with Shakespeare and theatre in general here. It also says that you have a very good dad. So dad, if you're out there, nicely done. I got introduced to Shakespeare in a fairly routine way, which is in school. I was an actor in junior high, I guess it was. This is at a time when public schools still had arts funding. And I was in the suburbs of New York City, and so a lot of school teachers were people who were theatre artists in New York. And their day job was teaching at suburban schools. So we had a really uncommonly interesting and sophisticated drama program. And one of the things that the drama teacher did was some Shakespeare. So that's when I was first introduced.
ACCOMANDO: You just did a program or show called thinking Shakespeare live which was a really great way to deconstruct Shakespeare and make it feel very accessible. Talk about what that was and what you might hope that can achieve in the future if you're going to revisit that in any way.
EDELSTEIN: A big part of my life has been teaching. And I train actors and have trained actors consistently alongside my directing career for a long time. And then eventually after years and years of teaching a Shakespearean acting course, I wrote a book which took that class and put it on paper called Thinking Shakespeare. And one is aware of the fact that many, many people are simply intimidated by these plays. The culture tells us that Shakespeare is revered, it puts him on a pedestal. We're all supposed to love him. And it can feel a little bit like cultural spinach. Even though sometimes we go and go we don't get it, the entire civilization is telling us you're supposed to get these things. So I thought to the extent that that I have the knowledge and the ability and the experience, I should try and help people take away some of that mystery. And that's what that program was about.
ACCOMANDO: I took Shakespeare classes when I was in school. But it was coming from the literature department, and I found that the approach you had, which was how directors and actors approach it, made the language really come alive in a very different way. One of the things you did was talk about how at the end of each meter, there's kind of a pause for a question. Can you elaborate on that?
EDELSTEIN: Sure. So the study is a very close one of the language itself. Now, actors 400 years ago wouldn't have needed people like me to come and explain what happens at the end of a verse line or where the stress falls or which word you need to stress because this was the culture in which they are trained. The vast majority of Shakespeare's poetry is written in a meter called iambic pentameter. Each line of verse has 10 syllables in it. And 5 of them are stressed, and 5 of them are unstressed. Penta is 5. So it means 5 sets of 2 syllables. And those syllables are called Iambs. That's really all it means. Shakespeare knew he was writing in this meter, and writing in lines that were 10 beats long, then he would go and start a new line. And as a sophisticated writer, he understood that he could do something with that 10-beat form, encapsulate thoughts that really were only as long as that line was, and then start a new thought on the next line because he lays out the lines 10 syllables as a time. Hamlet as a soliloquy, the first in the play, he's alone and pondering how miserable his life is since the death of his father. And wants to just disappear. So he says oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt. Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt. That's 10 beats. The next line is thaw and resolve itself into a dew. So there's a break after melt before thaw. So there's a moment where he's asking what else. And that's really it. So one trick is to cover the text with the piece of paper so that you can only see one verse line at a time. And then force yourself to think what next, what next? And then slide the paper down and see the next line, and then slide the paper down and see the next line. And before you know it, you're thinking your way through the language 10 syllables at a time. And that's why I call my book Thinking Shakespeare. Because what we really want to do is take the characters' thoughts and insert them in our own skull so that we are playing people who are doing exactly what I'm doing right now, which is thinking up the language that I'm using as I speak.
ACCOMANDO: Reading those lines and hearing them out loud, if you read it, you might not hear the dew not only as 2 words but as saying goodbye, adieu.
EDELSTEIN: There you go. A little pun on a due and adieu. So regards who are looking for some relationship with Shakespeare, you can say here are three little tips. Always look at the verbs in Shakespeare. He has this addiction to antithesis, to be or not to be. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. And he habitually writes in opposites. And actors train themselves to lift those opposites out of the text. Well, we as readers can also go through the text and see, oh, look that word is opposite to this word, and that somehow brings the thought to life in an interesting way.
ACCOMANDO: How does that really impact the audience in the sense of the way an actor delivers a line? How can that make it more accessible and easy to understand for an audience?
EDELSTEIN: Our job in the theatre is to make it clear so that you can get screwed into the story and be transported by it. The last thing you want when you're sitting at the Globe is to be thinking about iambic pentameter. So our job is to do that to make the language as crystal clear as possible, and then the audience can just go along for the ride.
ACCOMANDO: You've just taken over as artistic director. What do you feel is your vision or goals with the Shakespeare program?
EDELSTEIN: Shakespeare has been the DNA of the globe since 1935. The place started during the second Balboa Park exposition with performances of Shakespeare by at that time nonprofessional community-based actors. And the story of this theatre is one of remarkable professionalization, and also consistent excellence over eight decades. So I believe that at the -- that the theatre is now one of the most important producers of Shakespeare in the United States, and we've got to continue to do that. It means that we have to remain deeply committed to Shakespeare on our outdoor stage, we need to bring Shakespeare indoors, and most important, we need to make sure that other people in San Diego have the same kind of experience that you had when you were a kid, which is your first meeting with Shakespeare came courtesy of The Old Globe. That means we've got to get Shakespeare off of our campus and out into the city and into neighborhoods that are so-called underserved, where access to the professional performing arts may not be as consistent as in other parts of town. So one of the things I want to try and do is use Shakespeare as a kind of ambassador for the Globe out into all corners of San Diego and Southern California. So Shakespeare has to remain at the center of this organization's life so that the things that take spear teaches us and trains us to do can perform the rest of our work as well.
ACCOMANDO: This summer there's going to be A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Merchant of Venice. Can you talk about both of them, what you think might be different or attractive to an audience?
EDELSTEIN: Well, this is it an interesting time in the Globe's life because for the past four year, the outdoor Shakespeare season has been run by, Adrian Noble, one of the giants in Shakespeare internationally. And this will be his last season running the outdoor festival in San Diego. I will take over programming of it starting in the summer of 2014. So audiences here have become accustomed to Adrian's approach to the work, which is extremely lose, extremely smart, beautifully designed, and he has hired a colleague of his named Ian Talbot to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream, and they've done two productions that are fast-moving, swiftly and clearly spoken, very, very inventive and imaginative. And just plain old smart. They are really engaging and involving evenings in the theatre. Two very different plays. The Merchant is a dark and difficult complicated piece. Midsummer is just a riot.
ACCOMANDO: And the third play this summer is not exactly Shakespeare, but reflects on Shakespeare. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
EDELSTEIN: It's a play from the mid '60s by Tom Stoppard. And he did this crazy riff, which is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Shakespeare, in Hamlet, and they get caught up in the political and spiritual machinations of this play as kind of bystanders, and they end up dead at the end of the play. And there's a famous line where somebody announces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. And Stoppard imagined the entire experience from the point of view of these two guys. They're friends of Hamlet, they get summoned to Denmark, he says all this crazy stuff to them, they can't make heads or tails of it. So you get glimpses of Hamlet that are the scenes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are actually in. And then they step aside and try and figure out what in the world they've just experienced. And it's a very, very famous play for two reasons. One, it is just unbelievably clever. You sort of dazzle at the invention and the wit of it. But also, it is a play in the tradition of Samuel Becket, Ianesquo, the mid-century absurdists who were pondering big questions of human existence: Life, death, why we're here on this planet.
ACCOMANDO: Your passion for Shakespeare seems to be obvious from the fact that you're not going to wait until the summer season to tackle a Shakespeare play. You're going to be doing A Winter's Tale in the spring?
EDELSTEIN: That's either passion or foolhardiness. The Globe has not done something indoors in 12 or 15 years. This is a play that moves me very, very deeply. So I thought I might as well dive in the deep end and do one I love the most. I believe that starts in February.
ACCOMANDO: I've had the opportunity to work with the San Diego Shakespeare society that does a student Shakespeare festival. And just recently they had a school from Moscow come. And there was I think 14-year-old girl who was doing Juliet with this amazing passion, and this amazing connection to it. And when I talked to her about it, she was, like, oh, Shakespeare is this really cool guy! And he's talking exactly about the things that I'm feeling. So I'm wondering, what is it that has made this guy, this playwright who's been dead for 400 years still connect to contemporary audiences all over the world?
EDELSTEIN: It is something of a miracle. One thing I have learned about Shakespeare over the years is that he is fearless in his willing think to admit that he doesn't understand things. And he has this idea that by admitting that we don't know, we begin a process of beginning to understand. I think that is what keeps him so relevant. All of us have things that we worry about and don't really understand. And Shakespeare gives us the courage to admit that we don't know. And we are allowed to follow our own curiosity and our own sense of astonishment at the beauty and extraordinariness of this world and start our own pursuit so we can understand more. And I think people hook into that part of Shakespeare. There's a wide-eyed sense of his relationship with the world that continues to engage us. And I think will never ever be exhausted.