If the present ceaselessly calls out to the past in life — and it does — it also does so in art. So, for example, we have many iterations of Jane Austen’s novels cast in the present day, including the movie “Clueless” and, a little more fancifully, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” There have been television series in both England and the U.S. which put Sherlock Homes squarely in the twenty-first century. There have been frequent versions of the Dracula story which have moved him into today’s world, including one at our own Fringe Festival.
So why not Shakespeare? No writer, living or dead, has had the word “timeless” associated with his name more frequently than the Bard. So why not prove it, by building a contemporary play around the ideas and themes Shakespeare spun together four hundred years ago?
In bucolic Staunton, Virginia, that idea has become flesh and blood at the American Shakespeare Center. In ASC’s Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries program, playwrights are invited to submit plays “in conversation with” one of the plays in the canon. Last week, ASC’s Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny announced the winner of the company’s third cycle of the program: L M Feldman’s Thrive, or What You Will, which plays on themes developed in Twelfth Night.
Thrive dramatizes the real-life adventures of Jeanne Baret, who, in 1766, took off on a three year voyage circumnavigating the globe disguised as a man. Born into an illiterate family in rural France, she became the lover of the botanist Philibert Commerson and a competent botanist herself. She and Commerson schemed to get her on Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s round-the-world sea voyage by disguising her as his male servant. Because Bourgainville anticipated that Commerson would be taking plant specimens with him as they studied flora previously unexplored by white men, he gave Commerson and Baret a large cabin with its own privy, thus allowing them to keep their secret. Until they couldn’t, with catastrophic results.
Twelfth Night is also the story of a woman who disguised herself as a man — in this case, Viola, who finds herself in a strange land after surviving a shipwreck. Viola dons male attire, calls herself “Cesario”, and enters the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke assigns Cesario the task of winning the suit of the Lady Olivia, who lives with her lunatic household on the other side of town. Olivia is having none of Orsino, but she finds Cesario a comely lad, and sets her eyes firmly on “him” Chaos, as we say, ensues.
I interviewed McSweeny and ASC literary manager Anne G. Morgan after the award’s announcement and asked them how they reconciled the frivolity in Twelfth Night with Baret’s more somber experience.
“The thing that was the most resonant,” to him about Thrive, McSweeny says, “was the very real danger that comes with cross-dressing. We see so much cross-dressing in Shakespeare…in our versions of it, it’s always played only for laughs, and never for danger. So it made me think about what is Viola’s choice, when she chooses to dress like a man? Clearly, it’s partly for self-protection, right?…I think of many of my friends who’ve travelled alone as women and [are] at risk, with a whole different level of vigilance than I bring to travelling alone as a man.”
If Twelfth Night has elements of danger and tragedy in it, as McSweeny suggests, Morgan points out that Thrive is more than the harrowing instant when Baret’s identity as a woman is discovered. There are “moments of darkness and danger, [but] there’s also the joy of the journey and the discovery of all of the plant life and this relationship that she has with Philibert Commerson. There’s so much there that really gives the play a buoyancy that allows the seriousness to land when it does, but that’s not the whole thing. This is not a play that is about this one event, but rather a play about this figure, and their journey.”
Thrive is actually the fifth play to come out of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries program. Last year, ASC produced Anne Page Hates Fun, Amy E. Witting’s reaction to The Merry Wives of Windsor, and 16 Winters, or The Bear’s Tale, which was Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s response to The Winter’s Tale.
Starting April 27, you’ll be able to see Emily Whipday’s The Defamation of Cicely Lee, a story about a maidservant in 1611 accused of adultery, written in response to Cymbeline. On September 24, Anchuli Felecia King’s Keene, a story about two scholars of color who are trying to do their thesis on the first actor playing Othello who was, um, actually Black, will debut. It matches, naturally, with Othello.
McSweeny anticipates that, following ASC’s tour, Thrive will premiere in the spring of 2021 at Blackfriar’s.
The Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries selection process, 2020
Thrive went through an arduous review process before ASC anointed it as this year’s winner. Entries had to thread a needle: they had to be strong plays in their own right, but they also had to match up with one of the Shakespeare plays offered by ASC for this purpose, and they had to be playable under the ASC conditions, which mirrored conditions during Shakepeare’s time — lights up all the time (meaning, among other things, no blackouts); no sound except what is produced on stage; no special effects.
“We certainly receive plays that are clearly written with our space in mind, and speak very directly to the Shakespeare play, but they may be lacking in some of the sort of basic strengths of playwriting craft that we expect with this project,” Morgan says. “And then we receive some amazing plays that really would be better served by being produced by a theater that has lights.” Both sorts of plays are quickly eliminated.
Morgan explains that, “once a play comes through our doors, and all these plays are stripped of identifying information, they go out to our reading team.” There are fifty of them, all familiar with ASC or the project or, at least, how playwriting works. Each read at lest five submissions, and each submission gets read twice. “About 25% of our application pool moves into the semifinalist round,” Morgan says, and are given about three days to submit an updated version, if they have one. “Semifinalist plays go out to our semifinalist panel…who spend a bulk of their time either professionally or academically thinking about either Shakespeare or new plays. They read each play twice, and narrow the field “to somewhere between fifteen and twenty finalists.”
Morgan is on the finalist panel, along with McSweeny, Managing Director Amy Wratchford, ASC co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen, and Associate Artistic Producer Jay McClure. They have two meetings: one to boil the literary pot down to five or six plays, and one to pick the winner.
Thrive came out on top of 261 entries, and Feldman will win, in addition to a production, a $25,000 prize. For her part, Morgan has won the Elliot Hayes Award from her fellow dramaturgs and literary managers in recognition of her work on this project.
McSweeny was resolved to take this year’s winner on the road before showing it at ASC’s Blackfriars Theatre, and he will do so with Thrive. “I was really, really driven to…put a show on our national tour. I felt like bringing this work to University audiences in particular was a great way to start a conversation about some of the things that are embodied in the values of Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries in the first place. But also start a conversation about what’s missing from Shakespeare. I mean, why do we have to do this? What are some of the things that are not reflecting our contemporary world in the way we might want to?”
The time frame of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project — ASC intends to do the entire canon, and the project will last for a generation or longer — makes Universities a particularly exciting venue to do the plays, McSweeny says. “We might be talking to a writer in a university setting, showing them an example of Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries, and ten years from now they’re going to be submitting [a play], which is, again, that sense of long-term engagement.” ASC has scheduled a staged reading of Thrive at Julliard this fall.
McSweeny is acutely aware of the marketing risks of doing new plays in a place which has become known for its production of classical theater. It’s a stretch for ASC, but, in McSweeny’s view, eminently doable. “Quite often [a potential new play audience] needs a little more information about what it’s about…although you would think wouldn’t it be fun to know less, that’s not how the marketing works.”
He thinks that by matching the new plays with the Shakespearian plays which inspired them, ASC can actually enhance marketing, and he has been pleased with the results so far. “Our opportunity [is] to cross-market from the Shakespeare originating title to the new play title — to say ‘you have enjoyed Merry Wives of Windsor, would you like to…take a chance on, Ann Page Hates Fun and offer those things as a package. So we work very hard. Last year was our first year introducing this kind of new work to our audiences. A lot of them responded even better than I would have thought to the presence of contemporary language on our stage.”
Morgan points out that ASC prides itself in recreating theater as it was in Shakespeare’s time, with one important exception, which her project remedies. “Prior to Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries, ASC had done all of this work re-creating staging conditions and rehearsal conditions but there was one that they had never done, and that was a living playwright responding and reacting to the actors in their space. And that’s what this project allows us to do.”
The finalists included two other plays which responded to Twelfth Night: The Humorous Adventures of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, by Travis Lowe, and Peace: Burial at Sea by Daniel Hasse. The other three finalists were Shakespeare and the Devil, by Matt Bird and James Armstrong (All’s Well that Ends Well), 7 Minutes by John J. King (Henry V) and Much Undone by David Valdes (Much Ado About Nothing). Although ASC awarded two productions each in the first two years of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project, Thrive will be the only winner in this year’s contest.
Playwrights: ASC seeks contemporary response to these four Shakespeare plays in 2021
ASC is looking for submissions in response to As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida or any part of Henry VI for the next cycle of productions. The submission window will be between October 1 and November 18, 2020. Guidelines are available here.