Beethoven’s 5th, Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town…
So opens Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits in the Park! The show juxtaposed great scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most popular productions.
I’m using the term “mix tape” to apply to the super rad Shakespeare DJ used in the promotional materials and as a way to touch on the ways the production engages with variety to create overall impact.
Track 1: Mix of Audience
After a short hustle down the lakeshore, the crowd in Loyola park was staggering. Families, people of all ages, lots of cute dogs. Upon walking up, everyone is handed a program and a Shakespeare face fan.
The Shakespeare fans then became a way for the audience to talk back and respond to informal polls. They first asked who was from Rogers Park, raise your fan and then who was here in Loyola Park for the first time. There was some overlap, but a striking number of people had come out to the park for the first time to see this performance. The arts were able to draw people out to connect together as neighbors or fellow Chicagoans all united in the same space– through Blackhawks jokes and all.
What happened next was the most interesting to me. They asked “who’s first time seeing Shakespeare is tonight?” A little less than half of the audience raised their fans. There were a lot of children and families there, but also several adults new to the bard. What about this performance drew them out to experience something new? The approachable marketing with Shakespeare scratching discs at the dj booth? Reputation? Free ticket price? It is hard to say. But what a great sampler platter to get a taste of Shakespeare and a triumph for community engagement.
Track 2: Mix of Cast
People are the focus of the production. The dynamic cast forms a band of characters that seamlessly jump between playing different Shakespearean icons with ease. The diversity of cast members across different ages and races seemed well thought out and gave resonance to a diverse audience.
They reach out to the audience, actually touching them, making contact. A “fed-ex deliverer” climbs his way through the audience dropping off his last package for the day. He gives the box to a kid in the crowd and it has a Chicago Shakespeare Theater t-shirt inside, a memento of the performance to keep (at least until he grows out of it).
One moment particularly untied the audience was in As You Like It as Phebe runs from Silvius. The audience cheered as she leaps through the crowd. “Run Phebe Run!” one audience member cries out. We have been drawn in; cheering for our favorite characters. Like a studio audience watching a sitcom filmed live, we laugh, we cry, we ooh and ahh in between bites of our cheese platters. It was great to watch Shakespeare which can sometimes be seen as antiquated or stuffy, appealing on such a large scale to such a mixed crowd.
Track 3: Mix of Media
A major factor tying the production together was the role of music. We were laying down the mix with DJ Shakespeare with a wide range of styles of music.
On top of that, some performances are ASL interpreted! Expanding the audience members that can be reached, sign language further delivers Shakespeare in ways that are often not seen. From a dance perspective, sign language converts language to gesture; a type of translation and artistic interpretation.
Playing with “mixed media” I adapted my Shakespeare mask into a collage. Different elements from different faces brought together in one piece seemed to reflect the experience of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits. Collaboration and a variety of strengths from different individuals makes Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits special. I have Shakespeare some beautiful manga eyelashes, Bradley Cooper’s perfect coif, Kanye’s bling. In someways, his modern update makes him look fresh (major bling, no more bald spot, on point make-up), but in some way silly, even grotesque with his new technicolor transformation.
Is collage the only way to hold our attention in modern society?
30 minute sitcoms are certainly more popular than Wagnerian operas. Our attention span for art is adapted in the world we live in. Something about having snippets of different storylines appeals to us and one rarely sees a Shakespeare production in which the full text is kept intact. We love abridging, cutting and piecing together.
Upon further reflection in my collage, I also thought about popular conspiracy theories that Shakespeare plays are actually written by various other people and not one master “Shakespeare.” (Read more about these theories here). Especially when seeing a variety of vastly different “clips” from shows, it was crazy to think one person wrote all of these masterworks by hand hundreds of years ago. Maybe we do like the idea of having a unified figure to celebrate. Having “a Shakeapeare” makes it possible to have exclusive outdoor performances of his work in parks in the summer and elevates his work to being essential to the canon. You don’t often see “Tennessee Williams in the Parks” festivals… Both in part and in full, Shakespeare grabs us still today, perhaps due in part to such groups as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Track 4: Mix of Parks
With the same show traveling around the city, this piece truly connects around a common art experience. The breadth of this performance is the most impressive ways it engages community in Chicago.
There are still many shows left! (I might even go again). Mix it up, unite with the city, and enjoy the show!