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Shakespeare the Showrunner

By Sharon Ruwart

Hi all, big Shakespeare fan here. I’ll be watching all 39 of the Play On! Readings at Classic Stage this month. No formal connection to the theater – I have a day job – I just couldn’t pass up the chance to take part in this possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear all of these “translations” at once!

Why so much Shakespeare? The simple answer is that I grew up on the Bard. My parents took the four of us kids to the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare festival on a regular basis starting when we were very small. I have vivid memories of seeing Julius Caesar when I was about eight or nine, worrying about how my little brother next to me was handling the stabbing scene (he loved it, of course – swords! Fake blood!). Watching a younger Maggie Smith, Christopher Plummer, and the great William Hutt stride the boards and OWN that language – can’t imagine a better way to get infected early with the Bard bug.

Since then I’ve been a regular Shakespeare-goer, even setting myself a challenge in 2016 of seeing all of his plays performed in a calendar year. So, the Play On! Festival is actually my second go-round of the “Shakespeare slam!”

I have some friends – well, maybe a lot of friends – who are avid theater-goers but find it hard to believe that I’d voluntarily sign up to sit through around 80 hours of Shakespeare in a single month. To me, it’s the equivalent of a lot of people’s average TV commitment, which makes sense because Shakespeare was basically the first showrunner.

Imagine: he’s dashing off scripts – up to four full-length plays in a single year, sometimes in a “writer’s room” of collaborators – while managing a theatrical troupe (the talent), politicking with network bosses – in this case, royal patrons – building a state-of-the-art soundstage known as the Old Globe, all while wrangling budgets, keeping tabs on the competition, staying abreast of censorship regs, ripping story ideas from the headlines, and keeping his finger on the pulse of a rabid fan-base who constantly demand fresh programming. Centuries before fans hounded Game of Thrones author George RR Martin to “Finish the damn books!” or demanded more Deadwood from David Milch, Shakespeare was running hard to satisfy his insatiable audience while making a buck or two for himself and his creative crew.

Far from being a lofty “auteur,” carefully crafting epic lines with an eye toward history in a quiet, book-lined study, I picture Will sitting in a tavern, with a table littered in to-do lists, half-finished drafts of new plays, scribbled-over lines for that afternoon’s rehearsal, as the bench opposite him seats a revolving cast of actors, merchants, bill-collectors, and the odd audience member demanding that he write a sequel to Merchant of Venice starring Portia in a 16th century Judge Judy role.

For me, hearing his plays go by in the rapid-fire Play On! format is like binge-watching a combo of, say, House of Cards, The Crown, Atlanta, Transparent, Charmed and Deadwood back to back. Drama, humor, history, evil-doing, murder, love, gender-bending, comedy and a bit of magic, all blended together in a glorious mish-mash of uneven quality and lots of heart.  It’s not all great – even our favorite TV series have boggy bits and throwaway subplots that make our eyes roll impatiently – but we stay engaged in those imaginary characters and their worlds.

So as I sit and listen to talented actors bring these stories to life, with nothing more than music stands and a few hours of rehearsal, I’m filled with admiration that a single man – with a lot of help from collaborators, actors, and audience – was the driving engine for so much great content-creation. Give him a Netflix deal!

If you come to one of the Play On! Readings, look for me in Row B, seat 208 – I have those seats for every single one of the 39 plays (thanks husband)! Another reason to seek me out is my ever-present stash of home-baked “Gingerbard” cookies, which I bring to every performance. Happy to share!