Imagine if you can: it’s a Monday night, theatres all over America are “dark” as the actors, stage managers and run crew take their one night off a week. .* A group of theatre lovers—actors and an audience—have gathered at the Lansburgh to hear something that could introduce them to their new favorite author, character or speech. Or it could be utter dreck—luckily there’s no ticket price. For this evening, the only payment is passion; the only punishment is a few hours’ boredom; and the reward, if everything comes together, is, like all discoveries, literally priceless. It’s one of my favorite rituals at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, albeit lesser-known, one only for the true initiates and theatre masochists. Like all the best things, it’s kept like a secret. Four to five nights a year, we read plays lost to history, plays that have fallen out of the canon through a combination of prejudice and benign neglect.
I’m talking, of course, about the ReDiscovery Series.
* There are 52 Mondays in a year, and on most of those nights, there’s some kind of STC event scheduled so as not to conflict with our normal performance hours. Opening Nights for the mainstage, the multiple and massively popular “Mock Trials” thrown by our Bard Association, “Will on the Hill,” NT Live Screenings—I’ve just listed about 20 Mondays right there. Monday nights at STC fill up quick and they’re always special, the nights you remember years later. A few years ago, Affiliated Artist Ted Van Geithuysen performed a one-night-only, solo performance of Hamlet, directed by Ethan McSweeny, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It was on a Monday night.
Over my last four and a half years at STC, we have read rare plays that belong on any serious theatre lover’s list of plays to see before they die. Plays such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (read during STC’s 2011-12 season), which single-handedly launched German Romanticism; William Congreve’s Love for Love (read during STC’s 2012-13 season), a comedy as beautiful and sad as it is witty; and Luigi Pirandello’s Enrico IV (read during STC’s 2013-14 season), in a new translation by Tom Stoppard, a play that, like Hamlet, seems to invent an entirely new genre, using the theatre to map the contours of the human mind. They’re in my own personal canon of the 100 plays to see before you die. (I will discuss that list, including those three plays, in a Drewmaturgy column in the very near future).
We’ve also read plays – unknown to all but a few – that are just a damn good time in the theatre: Wild Oats by John O’Keeffe (which we read in 2013-14) is a metatheatrical romp worthy of Michael Frayn, except that it was written about 200 years earlier. It radically adapts As You Like It to a Jane Austen context, and it manages to contrive an ending worthy of Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, or Oscar Wilde at their most over-the-top. In other words, it’s delicious. In 2013-14, we partnered with Spain Arts & Culture to do a special reading at the former Spanish Ambassador’s residence. We read Calderón de la Barca’s Golden Age classic Life is a Dream, in a new translation by Helen Edmundson. Once we read it we discovered, to our great delight, that the play is far more than an intellectual meditation on the theme of reality vs. illusion. It’s also a swashbuckling action film, stuffed with swordfights and daring escapes that would put Alexandre Dumas père (and fils) to shame. It was yet another memorable, miraculous Monday night.
The last few seasons, however, we’ve done something different, and (in my opinion) even more important. In 2014-15, in preparation for the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival this fall, we read five plays by five female American playwrights, covering five different decades of the 20th century. This year, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we’re presenting works by contemporary authors reflecting on his work and legacy. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Lansburgh during a rehearsal of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, a “response” play to Othello in which our most decorated living writer reverses Shakespeare by letting his tragically silenced woman speak for herself. We’ve just read Edward Bond’s Bingo, which dramatizes Shakespeare as a brilliant writer (which he was) as well as a self-interested capitalist (which he also was). Later this season, we’ll be reading two one-acts by Tom Stoppard which put Hamlet and Macbeth, respectively, through the dramaturgical woodchipper, and a new work by Constance Congdon, written entirely in blank verse, on the theme of Shakespeare’s relationship to Christopher Marlowe.
In other words, we’ve decided to shift our focus to works by historically under-represented writers, to critical responses on the classical canon. We’re trying to accomplish something grand: instead of merely reading neglected works from the dustbin of history, we’re introducing our audiences to new perspectives; instead of expanding the canon by looking backward, we are trying to challenge our understanding of what the canon can be going forward. Part of my job will always be to unearth old plays, and it’s one of my favorite activities, but I would be neglectful of my duties if I stopped there, without asking how these plays resonate with contemporary audiences.
For those of you who are a little annoyed that we have kept the ReDiscovery Series such a secret, check your programs again. Over the last four and a half seasons, the ReDiscovery Series has functioned as a feeder system for an average of one production a year on our mainstage. From David Ives’ three “transladaptations” of French comedy in rhymed couplets to Jeffrey Hatcher’s two adaptations (of Gogol’s The Government Inspector and this year’s The Critic); from former poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s “free” adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s epic Wallenstein to the most marked evidence of our recent shift in thinking, this year’s radical reimagining of Salomé by Yaël Farber… All of them started out as ReDiscoveries. To find out the full schedule, click here: https://goo.gl/MI5OoN