No single figure has been more central to the commentaries of language, story telling, and theatre than William Shakespeare. However, as renowned and celebrated as he may be, many view his work as shrouded with elitism and intimidation. Yet, how exactly has the once populist playwright for the masses gradually become alienating to modern audience? What is being done to bring Shakespeare back “to the people?” These were among recurring questions explored during the UNC School of the Arts’ The Shakespeare Colloquium, held January 13-16.

Most Americans are first exposed to Shakespeare as a form of required reading in school, among various grade levels. This approach has been detrimental to how people respond to or engage with Shakespeare’s text, which, as it is with any play, is intended to be performed by skilled actors. The entirety of Shakespeare’s collection has been solidified into the American canon as esteemed literary text, yet is rarely recognized as performance text. Although technical structure and line-by-line analysis provide an enriched understanding of the artistic genius at hand, in order to achieve a truly authentic introductory experience, performance is essential. Shakespeare, understood from an exclusively academic perspective, only propels notions of elitism and social despondency.

However, the theatre, as an institution, must take accountability for its role in such a negative reputation. Historically, many productions fall victim to cliché beliefs of how one is to “put on” or “act in” Shakespeare. With hesitance to step outside confounds of Elizabethan staging and dress, in combination with over-affected speech and dramatics, it is no wonder why there is disconnect among current audiences.

It must be remembered that Shakespeare was a contemporary. Each play, to a varied degree, was a tabloid and pop culture source of its time. Shakespeare staged all of his work with props, costumes, music, and acting styles consistent with his time period and current events. It could be argued that due to Shakespeare’s lack of written production notes, and as a result of numerous contemporary references throughout the plays – regardless of where and when staging takes place – his almost 40 plays were written to always be contemporaneous to the audience viewing them.   

By no means is this to imply that period specific productions are in any way ineffective, simply to note that Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves freely to interpretation. However, if the production strives to address the accessibility of Shakespeare, making cotemporary choices provides a less cumbersome point of entry for the audiences observing the play.

This past year has witnessed a great resurgence of unorthodox theatrical depictions of Shakespeare. The Broadway and Off-Broadway stage welcomed two productions of Romeo & Juliet with contemporary staging. The David Leveaux directed version, staring Orlando Bloom, even centered on an interracial love affair and modern racial tensions. Avant-garde New York theatre St. Ann’s Warehouse produced an all-female cast production of Julius Caesar, set in a prison and accompanied by a heavy metal band onstage. The prominent Chicago Shakespeare Theater celebrated a successful run of Othello: The Remix, a fresh adaptation set to hip-hop music.

However, modernizing the setting and context of the play is only one component for engaging audiences with Shakespeare. The UNC School of the Arts Dean Emeritus of Drama, Gerald Freedman, honored speaker on the last night of the Colloquium stated in reference to Shakespeare, “People don’t care about a new production, they just want a good production.”

Freedman, whose extensive expertise and resume include being the artistic director of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and directing the 1968 Broadway production of King Lear, along with 26 other professional Shakespearean productions. He also has been awarded an Obie Award, and was the first American invited to direct at the Globe Theatre in London, England.

Freedman has built a career around breaking the social stigmas surrounding Shakespeare, and has redefined the theatrical method to classical theatre. The most profound contribution lies in abolishing the grandiose British accent. In an interview about his approach to Shakespeare he said, “When I first came into the business of doing Shakespeare in New York City, we were under the spell of the Old Vic, the English Old Vic, both in their way of speaking and their way of production. And we, I think, were a little self-conscious about our dealing with Shakespeare… We began to change it. When I say change it, I mean make it more American in feeling.” By encouraging American actors to handle the text in the way most natural to them, as well as introducing the Stanislavski acting technique, often referred to as “Method Acting,” Shakespeare productions have begun to be seen as less threatening for audiences.

What was a trend has become more of a standard among directors in the business, who in their own right have also aided in the process of popularizing Shakespeare and continue to further develop it. The key is, however, to be fearless in risk taking and not jailed by traditional approaches. There is still much to be done in shaping what twenty-first century Shakespeare looks like in the theatre.

North Carolina is rich with opportunities to bridge social gaps and enlist new generations of Shakespeare fans. Just to name a few of this season’s coming attractions, are Raleigh Little Theatre and Bare Theatre’s co-production of Two Noble Kinsmen: Fire & Shadows, Elon University’s Much Ado About Nothing, Triad Stage’s All’s Well That Ends Well, and UNC School of the Arts’ extensive Shakespeare-packed season of a variety of productions, all of which will surely employ their very own creative method in keeping the essence of Shakespeare fresh and, most importantly, accessible to all.