Those who know my work well know how I feel about actors.
The short version: Actors are the core of my work. I live for actors. I love actors.
Actors, as a group, are hard working, collaborative, innovative, patient, kind, empathetic, generous, creative, and practical. There is no one else I would rather work with. One of the hardest things about the pandemic for me is how much I have missed being in shared space with actors.
You can imagine my response to the response to the American Shakespeare Center’s recent announcement of their new leadership direction. They will be switching from an Artistic Director model to an Actor-Manager model.
John Harrell, Zoe Speas, Brandon Carter, and Chris Johnston will run the artistic direction for the ASC. I don’t know Zoe and Brandon particularly well, but I’ve known Chris and John for a long time. Their work is consistently of extremely high caliber. They both have deep knowledge of the plays and the space. This team will generate a season of renewal and rebirth for the ASC—an actors’ renaissance, if you will.
I should note here that none of my comments are a reflection on the outgoing artistic director; I only met him once, briefly, and am in no position to comment on how he ran the theater. I’m interested in the new possibilities.
The American Shakespeare Center’s actors are integral to the scholarship of the Shakespeare world. The theater is a laboratory for trying out theories of theater history. What if we leave the lights on the audience? What if we have a season with no directors or designers? What if we work from part-scripts? The actors are as much a part of that investigation as any scholar. Many of them take classes with the MFA program that the theater co-sponsors with Mary Baldwin University. Some earn terminal degrees. When I was in the program, I loved having actors as my classmates, because they brough their embodied experience to the academic work. Actors who have been with the company for several years have performed in many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as those of his contemporaries.
The responses I’ve seen in public comments by people who should know better demonstrate an utter lack of faith in actors. One person (an English professor and self-proclaimed theater fan) went so far as to say, “Does anyone else feel that actors taking over the theater is a little like inmates taking over the asylum?” This metaphor has so much wrong with it, I can’t even begin to unpack it.
You might wonder, “Well, who cares what idiots on the internet say?” But I’ve had several actors I know—brilliant people who have been gracious in sharing their gifts in my productions—contact me to say, “Is that what people think? That actors are worthless morons who can’t do anything, who can’t organize things, who don’t know the broader context of the work? Do people who come to watch my work really respect me so little? Do they want me to just entertain them and look pretty and shut up?” These words hurt. Would you want to put yourself onstage in front of a few hundred people who think you aren’t worthy of respect?
I remember actors sharing similar baffled anger with me in response to the absolute meltdown folks had in response to Michelle Terry taking over at the Globe. People couldn’t wrap their minds around having an actor (and, let’s be clear, a woman) as the Artistic Director. “What if she just schedules vanity projects for herself?” was one refrain. But nobody asks, when a director is the AD, whether they’ll just pick projects from their own directing wish list. The underlying question in so many actors’ responses to these comments is, “Is that what people really think of us?” I hope not, because it’s absolutely, categorically, untrue and unfair.
Another comment said, “What will be missing at ASC, at least until new artistic direction is established, is a curatorial voice, a command of the canon.” I challenge any director to match John Harrell’s “command of the canon.” Not to mention, the ASC’s world-class education department has served as de facto dramaturgs for the theater for ages. They have six masters degrees between them. They also have Anne Morgan, their rock star literary manager, and Dr. Ralph Cohen, co-founder and director of mission, who, between them, are more than capable of filling in any gaps in “command of the canon.”
The theater community, at all levels, has spent the last year embroiled in a nation-wide conversation about how we need to do things differently when we reopen. The old models and ways of doing things aren’t working anymore. Literally every day, some famous theater person puts out a podcast or op-ed talking about how the old structures are broken, and we need a new model. But when a theater says, “Okay, let’s try a new model,” everyone loses their minds because the only model they believe in is the one we’ve had for a hundred years.
The old model is patriarchal. It’s this Gordon Craig nonsense that we need an auteur (preferably a white man) at the helm, and that actors should be “uber-marionettes” executing his vision (yes, he literally said that. Go on, ask me how many productions he successfully actually directed.).
(some other time, remind me to Drunk (Theater) History for you about Gordon and Edy Craig.)
This model is only new in the sense that it’s new to us—Shakespeare’s own company was managed by actors. It’s less hierarchical; there are more nodes of communication, fewer single points of failure, more voices in the room. It will only work if the core creative team are truly excellent people. You know who I would trust with that job? People who are hard working, collaborative, innovative, patient, kind, empathetic, generous, creative, and practical.
In a word, actors.