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Saturday, June 3, 2017

O Brave New World, That Has Such People In't: Grassroots Shakespeare Company's The Tempest and "Original Practice"

Amber Dodge and Jason Sullivan in Grassroot Shakespeare Company's
production of The Tempest.

I was thrilled to bring my little family to Grassroots Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Shakespeare’s many masterpieces, it is a beautiful, delicate piece, and a personal favorite. 

Written in his waning years, it is supposed to be Shakespeare’s last, non-collaborative play, generally seen as his swan song before he retires to Stratford Upon Avon with his family. It seems to be one Shakespeare’s more personal plays and, like the other plays he wrote in this final period, it is in the realm of “tragicomedy,” or what are later called Shakespeare’s Romances. These late plays of Shakespeare mix tragic beginnings with happy endings, have lots of spectacle (to compete with the Jacobean masques that were becoming popular), redeem flawed characters and offer forgiveness over catastrophe, focus on family relationships, and seem to be the mature reflections of a playwright at the end of his life who is seeking a final peace. Along with A Winter’s Tale, it is perhaps Shakespeare’s best example of the genre, despite the affection I also hold for Pericles and Cymbeline.  
The Tempest, on its surface, is a deceptively simple piece, thus easy to mar. Thankfully, Grassroots Shakespeare Company also has a deceptively simple style that hides a more mature understanding of Shakespeare that is up to the task of representing such masterpieces of the English language. 

Now that is not to say Grassroots Shakespeare Company is flawless, nor all they claim to be. Grassroots claims to be an “original practice” Shakespeare Company—though it is a claim I believe ought to be contested. 

For example, Grassroots Shakespeare Company claim that Shakespeare’s actors brought their own costumes and props. They certainly did not, at least not for the characters within the gentry. As noted Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt mentions, what a person wore in Elizabethan England mattered, and the Kingsmen who would have performed The Tempest certainly understood this:
Dress was the opposite of democratizing—nothing could be further from Shakespeare’s world than a culture in which magnates and workmen often wear the same clothes. It wasn’t simply a question of money. By royal proclamation, silks and satins were officially restricted to the gentry. Actors were exempted, but outside the playhouse they could not legally wear their costumes. [1]

To have a royal character, like Prince Ferdinand or King Alonzo in The Tempest, dressed from the closet of an actor, as GSC claims they did, that would have been seen as deeply disrespectful in the stratified society of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It’s possible that actors may have worn their own clothes for a lower-ranking character in Shakespeare’s plays, but for a “higher” bred character, as they would have seen it, Elizabethan government and society would have been seen as societal blasphemy. The color, the fabric, the fashion, etc. that would represent a certain class was all dictated by British law and highly restricted.

Such practices may rub against our more modern, democratic sensibilities, but Shakespeare’s society was anything but democratic. Entertainment was not just entertainment, it was also a way that those in power buttressed that power, and they weren’t going to have some upstart crow of a playwright, nor a gleeking actor undercut their authority. Now, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare didn’t place political messages and moral stands in his plays. He just had to be sly and subversive about it, lest the Master of Revels cut off the offending feet of verse.

But that battle was not fought over costumes, and both iterations of Shakespeare’s Company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men, adhered to those societal rules, just as they adhered to the ban of female actors, or the 1606 act of Parliament that declared, “. . . That if any time. . . any person or persons do or shall in any stage play, interlude, show, maygame, or pageant jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy name of God or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity, which are not to be spoken but with fear and reverence, shall forfeit for every offence by him or them committed, ten pounds.”

 At the introduction to Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest, one of the actors made a joke about the odd costumes they employ as part of their claim to original practice, comparing her much better costume to that of an (admittedly) lesser one made by another actor. But, despite GSC’s claims otherwise, the theatre companies in Shakespeare’s day certainly did not have such a slap-dash attitude about their costumes—the costuming was a vital part of how they did business.

In fact, there exists from this time period a business diary that belonged to the producer of the Rose Theater, Philip Henslowe. In it we learn a great deal about how an Elizabethan/Jacobean theater company would have been run, including

…the titles of lost plays, what playwrights were paid, and who collaborated with whom. Other entries list gate receipts, expenditures for costumes and props, and in some instances on which days particular plays were performed.[2]

One of the things we learn from Henslowe’s diary is that those costumes did not come cheap. A theatre company in Shakespeare’s day would have spent
£300 a year on costumes, which would equate £35,000 in Britain’s currency today. [3] To show how clothes ranked in the production hierarchy, Henslowe bought one “black, velvet cloak, embroidered with silver” for £20 10s 6d, while he paid only £6 for a new play.[4] A proper coat was worth more monetarily than the entire script! And that £6 for the play wasn’t just for the royalties—in that period the rights to the play were bought outright, for perpetuity, from the playwright. Shakespeare didn’t own his plays, the Company did. Fortunately for Shakespeare, he was also a shareholder in the Company.

Thus the haphazard costumes I saw in Grassroot Shakespeare’s production of The Tempest had very little to do with “original practice.” Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre companies invested a great deal in costumes and props, and such items were seen as such a high commodity that they were often passed down in an actor’s will. [5]

Some of the claims Grassroots Shakespeare Company make about “original practice,” though, hold up a little more under scrutiny than their assertions about costumes. Yet even some of these other assertions also break down upon closer inspection.

Grassroots Shakespeare claims that there was no role of a director in Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre, which may be technically true. The modern understanding of a director, at least how we use the term, doesn’t really occur until the 18th and 19th centuries. However, even way back into the origins of theatre in Ancient Greece, the playwright and what was called the “chorididaskolos” (translated to the trainer of the Chorus) would take charge of rehearsals, while in Roman Theater, that role was taken by the “dominus.” During the Middle Ages, the Cycle Plays were managed by the “Pageant Master.” In the French neoclassical era, the English Restoration, and throughout the 1700s, the leaders of a production were the playwrights and leading actors. So it was also in Shakespeare’s day, the playwrights and leading actors would take the lead.[6] And let us not forget in Shakespeare’s own comic portrayal of an acting company in A Midusmmer’s Night Dream, there is what I would consider a director: Peter Quince.

But it is true that their understanding of a director was very different than ours. Yet that still doesn’t mean that it was a democratic process, or that an actor was one among equals. There may or may not have been a formal director, but there was a definite pecking order. James Burbage got all the best roles—he was the one who originated nearly all of Shakespeare’s leads from Hamlet to Macbeth, Othello to Lear, Richard III to Prospero.[7] Will Kemp originated comic roles like Falstaff and Dogberry, until he would later embark on a solo career[8] and be replaced by Robert Armin.[9]  Meanwhile, the nameless-to-history young boy apprentices would end up playing the women’s parts and pages, as other junior members divvied up the rest.

There were no auditions for a play (as Grassroots Shakespeare holds), but rather the roles were assigned, as happens in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. As mentioned, senior, share-holding members of the Company would get the best roles, except when Shakespeare would sneak in a particularly impressive woman’s role like Rosalind for the boy apprentices to play. Shareholders like Burbage and Shakespeare also received the lion’s share of the receipts.[10] Clearly, Burbage was the main man of the actors. Meanwhile Shakespeare held a peculiarly prominent place as the playwright, [11] while occasionally taking on smaller roles like, rumoredly, Hamlet’s Father. Burbage, most likely, was the closest thing the Company had to a director, or perhaps Shakespeare. Appropriate or not, they were the leading lights of the Company.

Thus when Grassroots Shakespeare proclaim to us, as they do on their website [12] and before their every show, that we’re getting a more true version of Shakespeare from their “original pratice,” that’s just not true. Sure, their plays are in the open air, without lights (although Shakespeare’s Company did use candlelight in their indoor Blackfriars Theater built in 1608), but they also have no permanent theatre like the Globe with seating for the rich and a Groundlings pit for the poor. Sure, sometimes Grassroots does gender-bending of roles in certain productions, such as their 2016 all female cast of Julius Caesar, or their 2016 all male cast of Taming of the Shrew, but in this production of The Tempest, nearly all the roles were played by the appropriate gender, except for a little cameo of Caliban’s mother Sycorax; and Ariel, who was not played as a man, but rather a woman (Ariel is often portrayed as a woman or genderless anyway).

Thus what Grassroots Shakespeare have is not as much as “original practice” Shakespeare, as much as they have a house style. If they appear like anything in Shakespeare’s day, they are most like the traveling troupes of players wandering the countryside before the rise of the permanent theatres in Shakespeare’s adulthood, or when the theater companies would hit the road during times of plague in London. Setting up shop in various locations, even unlikely locations, making do with what little resources they had, and passing around the plate for donations after a production, Grassroots Shakespeare is very much in keeping with all of that, which is, admittedly, a wonderfully noble tradition that has its roots in Commedia Del Arte and medieval traveling troupes. What it is not, however, is original practice as Shakespeare’s company would have done it.

Now, all of that said, I don’t write any of that as an objection to how Grassroots perform their productions. Quite the contrary, I think when it comes to what matters when performing Shakespeare, all such academic hubbub is “sound and fury signifying nothing.” What Grassroots Shakespeare does right is the spirit of Shakespeare. Instead of making sonorous, plodding, dead-on-arrival museum pieces, Grassroots Shakespeare Company brings a living, animated spirit into all their productions. Addressing the audience directly, pumping up the energy, connecting with the Groundlings, those are all things that would have been done in Shakespeare’s day, although tempered by the more realistic acting style that Hamlet recommends to the players and which Richard Burbage was known for.[13]

Yet, despite what acting style may or may not have been used in Shakespeare’s day, in the here and now, strong energy is a boon to any production. And what an energy was created when my family and I watched their performance of The Tempest! The humor was also punched up, which is important with this particular play. The Tempest can be played almost too seriously (looking at you, Julie Taymor), which can rob it of its magic and whimsy.

We must remember, The Tempest was labeled a comedy in the first folio before fancy academics came up with the term Romance to label it with. Although the serious moments in the text should not be ignored, they also must not be allowed to take over. Grassroots Shakespeare understands this instinctively, and all of its players brought verve, life, and humor to their characters.

Although I was pleased with all of the players--GSC alwa
ys attracts strong actors--I was particularly impressed by a few particular actors: 

Jason Sullivan’s decidedly likable Prospero was wonderful, although playing a warmer and more positive spin on the character than many deconstructionists may be comfortable with, especially considering Prospero’s flawed and complicated history as a slave-owner of Caliban. Yet seeing Prospero as a reflection of a retiring Shakespeare as I do, I am apt to look at the character in a forgiving light—especially since I played him once myself—and see him as a masterpiece in complexity and humane, yet complicated characterization. I was very pleased to see Jason Sullivan pull out that nuance and flawed nature, while still keeping Prospero in a more compassionate—and comedic—vein. 

Although it took me just a bit to warm up to Paris Moore’s portrayal of Miranda, hers was certainly one of the funniest portrayals of the character I have ever seen. What she may have lacked at times in nuance, she certainly made up for in instinct and humor, playing the wide-eyed innocent to the hilt. Her portrayal often had me laughing…loudly. 

The gem of the show, however, was Amber Dodge Tinney’s portrayal of Ariel. It’s seeing performances like hers that makes me wonder most about Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s approach and aesthetic in not having a director, for it was whenever Tinney was on stage that the magic and mood of the play jumped up a notch. So much of Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s blocking, costuming, and general production value in their portrayals of Shakespeare is messy and haphazard—though that’s really part of their point. Like the rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, part of the fun is to see what the actors come up with on the fly, whether it is the hilarious or the legitimately moving.

Yet when Tinney’s moments came to the fore, they had a vision and verve that few of the actors could match, and it showed. She choreographed wonderful moments of mirth or magic—especially a striking moment at the end where the staging of the moment of Ariel’s final disappearance made me gasp in wonder. There was also a very funny moment of impish discovery when she, invisible, accidentally says, “Thou liest” out loud, and the characters think it is Trinculo. Tinney’s Ariel is delighted by the trick she suddenly is able to play and plays it with more in innocent delight than mischievous intent. I have never seen that moment played that way before and, based on the delightful evidence I saw throughout the play, I believe Tinney is chiefly responsible for such charming beats in the action. Even Tinney’s costume, as mentioned before, was a cut above the rest (although I also liked Prospero’s). Many of the actors could have learned a thing or two from Tinney’s instincts about theatrical costuming and presentation.

Although much of the impetus behind Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s philosophy seems to be built around the democratization of theatre by taking out meddling directors—just as the recent rise of devised theatre desires to take out the power hungry playwright—examples such as Tinney’s make me speak up for the other side. I would be very interested in seeing what sort of vision Tinney may have for a production of The Tempest as a director, based on the flashes of genius I saw from her during the production. And thus Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest highlighted for me a number of the strengths and weaknesses of their Company’s approach in ways I have never realized before.

On one hand, their stripping down of the production to its most basic elements highlights what is most important in Shakespeare: character and language. My wife Anne and I brought our two children and they were enthralled with the production, especially my 11 year old son, because the actors first and foremost made the language understandable and energetic in their performance. In that way, I can’t think of a better way to show Shakespeare to the young, or to those who may usually have trouble understanding it, than the aesthetic and style that Grassroot Shakespeare Company employs, all while offering refreshing takes on tales that more seasoned Shakespeare fans are already familiar with.

On the other hand, seeing what visionaries like Tinney do with the material makes me doubt, expedited though it may have been, that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men/King’s Men true “original practice” was haphazard, but rather filled out by a professional company that had long learned how to work with each other. They had a prior relationship with the text, working and re-working Shakespeare’s plays in repertory. They had learned how to read and respond to each other from a long, professional relationship, committed to a single company and, for the most part, a single playwright. They had learned how to present those plays with vision, care, precision, and expertise. There was nothing accidental about the success of Shakespeare and his company. They worked together on their vision from 1592 to 1613—over twenty years. Their shared experience amounted to a lot more than a few rushed rehearsals before every production. Their shared labor and experience gave humankind the greatest series of plays ever written, ever performed.

But it is not a one or the other, to be or not to be, director or communal acting—it is not that sort of scenario. One doesn’t have to take a “side.” The beautiful thing about theatre—the beautiful thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that they can be seen through many prisms, various visions, multiple styles, philosophies, and aesthetics, and yet become new, fresh, and wonderful every time they are performed. Despite my quibbles about how their “original practice” overstates its case, I have yet to go to a Grassroots Shakespeare show and not come away either thoughtful or smiling ear to ear. This production of The Tempest was no different. I came out of it with my feelings echoing Shakespeare’s words that I had just heard again: “O brave new world, that has such people in't!” Whatever practice that accomplishes that, is made perfect.

Grassroots Shakespeare Company tours throughout Utah, so be sure find a performance near you by checking out their calendar. https://grassrootsshakespeare.com/events/

Due to generous donations and grants, most of GSC’s productions are free, but audience members are encouraged to donate the suggested price of $5. Also be sure to check out their first musical production, The Fantasticks.

[1] Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 76.
[2] James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (New York/London/Toronto/Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2005), 10
[3] “Costumes and Cosmetics,” Globe Education, Shakespeare’s Globe, https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/uploads/files/2014/01/costumes_cosmetics.pdf (accessed June 3, 2017), 1.
[4] Ibid, 2.
[5] Ibid, 1.
[6] Edwin Wilson, Alvin Goldfarb, Living Theatre: A History, Fourth Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004), 343.
[7] John H. Astington (author), Phil Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Editors), “His Theatre Friends: the Burbages,” The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 248.
[8] James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 27.
[9] Bart Van Es (author), Phil Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Editors), “His Fellow Actors Will Kemp, Robert Armin and Other Members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men,” The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 261.
[10] This is how Shakespeare became a wealthy man in his time, complete with the title of gentleman and a coat of arms, when most other playwrights were making pittance. Fair or not, Shakespeare didn’t make his fortune as a playwright, he made his fortune as a theatre producer and a shareholder.
[11] Most Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights were free agents, cheaply selling their scripts to various companies. Shakespeare’s prominence in the company was unique, as was his attachment to a single group.
[12] “About Us,” Grassroots Shakespeare Co., https://grassrootsshakespeare.com/about/ (accessed June 2, 2017).  
[13] Living Theatre: A History, 213.


  1. Most enlightening, Mahonri, and I'm enthused all over again to see their 2017 season.

    1. Despite my constructive criticism about their "original practice" claims, I think Grassroots Shakespeare is one of the most exciting theatre companies in Utah. "Enthused" is a great word for them!