The Shakespeare Royalties

Monday, July 18, 2011 Leave a Comment

From time to time, some degree of a moratorium on the plays of Shakespeare is considered. After seeing Much Ado About Nothing at Boomerang (a solid production that reminded me of what a profound accomplishment the character of Beatrice is) and Measure for Measure in the Park (an inconsistent production with a fantastic Lucio and a great concept for the Duke as a bumbling improviser enthralled by absolute personalities), I am even more grateful for every chance I get to spend with his plays. Unlike many others, I find even mediocre productions worth my time; every time I hear his words in motion, I discover something new.

All that said, Isaac was right to be concerned when (over a year and a half ago now) he pointed to a distressing reality in his post Our Shakespeare Problem (based on the data of TCG's Season Preview):
"By not looking at how much Shakespeare is done, we are leaving out a major piece of the puzzle of American Theatre.The numbers in this post are rough and have their issues, but that doesn't make them not-useful. What do you see? In the past decade, Shakespeare gets 1,163 productions, the next playwright down (August Wilson) gets 146. That's almost eight times as many productions! Yikes."
I suspect if the data were expanded to include all theatrical activity in this country, the numbers might be even more lopsided due to Shakespeare's dominance in theatre education.

Given that I can't bring myself to advocate for less of something I love so much, I wonder if there isn't a way to take advantage of the imbalance.

What if every production of a Shakespeare play paid a small royalty towards a national fund dedicated to supporting living playwrights?

If even half of the theatres producing Shakespeare opted into this program, and if the royalty payments were as low as $25 a performance, a sizable annual fund could still be created without placing a significant financial burden on participating theatres. The effort would of course need to be voluntary, as the last thing we need is even more financial/legal red tape on the creative process, especially with theatre's most central texts.

How to allocate the funds raised would be a more challenging question; I'd hate to see the money go through a traditional granting process, as so often those grants seem to support already relatively successful playwrights and theatres. As all playwrights are the inheritors of Shakespeare's artistic legacy, all playwrights should somehow be connected to this potential resource legacy.

Perhaps playwrights and participating theatres could each be given a vote in the allocation of the funds raised, with an online database used to tally and distribute the funds on a proportional basis. Such a voting process might be more likely to truly support the national breadth of playwriting activity then the more cloistered and mysterious process of traditional grantmaking.

But whether the funds be distributed through new or traditional means, the Shakespeare Royalties could go a long way to righting this imbalance in play production. Shakespeare theatres could produce our greatest playwright while at the same time helping to create opportunities for living playwrights, moving our playwriting ecosystem away from its Shakespeare-bound monoculture without throwing the Bard out with the bathwater.

Of course, theatres are unlikely to agree to something that isn't in their immediate self-interest unless there is a compelling wave of communal purpose. So, what do you think internet? Is it better to bar the Bard, or share in the Shakespeare royalties?


  • Martha Frankel said:   This comment has been removed by the author.
  • Randy Burgess said:  

    "Is it better to bar the Bard, or share in the Shakespeare royalties?"

    Since neither will happen, to choose either POV would be to argue in the mootest of moot courts.

    I am sympathetic to the underlying problem, of course. Yet I wonder if part of the reason American theater is neglected by its potential audience is not just competition from TV and the Internet etc., but that most local theater productions are, well, bad. Even if you've got Equity folks & an artistic director of some experience.

    Now, it is true that supporting bad theater leads eventually to an increase in the slight supply of good theater ... but this is a long-term proposition & a painful one to endure. And historically, once alternatives developed that were somewhat less painful (because more easily controlled, i.e. you can switch off a bad TV show if you wish, even though many don't) the theater was a dead duck.

    Shakespeare survives all this because he is a Known Quantity - so even if a production is not Great it won't be Too Terribly Awful. Nor will I be offending anyone if it's bad & I choose to leave at intermission; thus it much more closely resembles TV, rather than the local bad theater I have endured in the name of friendship & the dim hope of better theater.

    NB I exclude Flux from all this - Flux in my limited experience has been profoundly enjoyable & deserving of much more attention than it has yet gotten, although the NYT review of a production we missed (being up in the country) was exciting to see.

    More power to Flux, and not sure about what to do about more support for theater. Even the bad stuff is coming from people w/skill & heart & experience who are doing their very best ... and yet it is still agony at times to sit through. How can they do better theater, or how can the local experience be made more productive & less painful for those who wish to offer support? To me that is the real question.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Randy, thanks for your thoughts and the NB. Certainly, improving quality is critical, and I do think increasing financial resources allocated to new plays is one systemic way of doing so. Producing theatre at our resource level is exhausting - we all have different jobs, and scrape out rehearsals from so many conflicts it verges on miraculous that we arrive at opening intact. If we had the money to pay actors a living wage so this could be their only job, it would in no way guarantee quality, but it would increase the possibility.

    Now scaling that up on the national level, most playwrights are suffering from the same stolen hour syndrome (most authors of any kind, I know). My thought is that if we could leverage even a measure of the resources allocated to Shakespeare towards new plays and living playwrights, that increase in resources might purchase playwrights more time to write, productions more time to rehearse, and plays more productions to grow into their final form. All of these things would increase the chance of quality. if nothing else, it might even grant some playwrights health insurance.

    While you are absolutely correct - no one will bar the Bard - I'm uncertain that this kind of national effort is impossible. I agree it's highly unlikely, and would require leadership from some of the major Shakespeare institutions to move it forward.

    Anyway, good to have you around these parts again - hope all is well with you both!

  • Randy Burgess said:  

    Gus - you're right, I hadn't seen what is a fairly obvious connection. One playwright I know has had to scrape together the latest play he is workshopping via exactly the kind of stolen hours you mention.

    We do not live in a socialist democracy - the kind that Orwell favored - so it may be harder here than in Europe (and I say that not knowing at all what it's like in Europe).

    Anyway thanks for raising not just the idea but the issue - it may percolate in all our minds & even if a national S. fund does not emerge, something else good may happen.