by Christian Wills, Arts Journalist-in-Residence
The topic around race and culture among Shakespeare productions is an ongoing conversation with those in the theatre. Audience members can gleam onto an actor’s struggle between their true selves and what’s being represented on stage. For Del Shakes, the discovery of what a culturally-specific production is and how impactful they are was shown in their latest panel.
Event, Host and Panelists
On November 23rd, Delaware Shakespeare hosted an online panel called “Culturally-Specific Shakespeare Productions.” This event was moderated by Del Shakes Associate Artist Bi Jean Ngo. The four panelists, distinguished theatre professionals each representing BIPOC artists of different backgrounds, were Debra Ann Byrd, Tanaquil Márquez, Gina Pisasale, and Madeline Sayet. The goal of the event was to continue the conversation of culture and its usage within theatre productions and convey the purpose of having culture among Shakespearean productions.
Defining “Culturally-Specific Productions”
Culture – the meaning of which can differ from person to person. The panelists were able to define their version of culture based on their life experiences, while focusing the definition around theatre and performing arts. These definitions exemplified how they approached culturally-specific productions, and in turn, defined these kinds of productions for themselves.
Márquez had stated that a culturally-specific production could enable “the theme of cultural diversity…and build a bridge with Shakespearean language;” commenting on how universal Shakespeare plays are and how they can unify others within their scripts. Sayet had defined the term as “an invitation to prioritize,” incorporating both culture and racial groups or identities at the center of the performance. In accord with each other, the panelists and moderator agreed that these kinds of productions are race-specific, and at its base, a necessity in the world of theatre.
The discussion of culturally-themed productions led to the creation of culture and how one may go about influencing specific identities into a stage play. There were talks of identifying and dismantling frameworks within a given system, celebrating past works that incorporated culture willingly, and paying close attention to detail to specific races within any given production. Byrd described the technique as “honoring the text…and marinating the culture.” Shakespeare and his plays have given root to many different interpretations over the years, allowing others outside of the European perspective to truthfully play as themselves in a role meant for others. This form of “reclaiming Shakespeare” can allow for audience members to see culture and language thrive together on any stage.
Byrd also stated that one should “think not of art…but culture” as the centerpiece when considering other races within a production. Actors, producers, and production crew members must consider all elements of a play as an authentic attribute when considering culture. A production designer must think about adding in the cultural stylings of any given identity as a means to show diversity, not as a way to show off “art” under a performing medium. Incorporating all the elements of culture, no matter what that culture is, can help start a conversation with a multitude of individuals, simply through its use and depiction on stage.
Collaboration and Representation
The panelists then explored bigger topics of discussion around cultural productions within the scope of the American eye; touching on the root of the nation’s history of racism and denial of intersecting collaboration amongst other races. When approaching this topic, Byrd mentioned that actors, producers, and those incorporated into the overall production should be “people…of one mind.” We as all people should be able to step into the shoes of others and fill in the role of any character we choose, regardless of their background or ethnicity. Theatre artists should be able to explore the proverbial background of the seemingly massive theatre world and, as Byrd described, “play in the sandbox.”
On the other hand, Márquez raised a powerful question that revolved around the shared collaboration and representation of actors in American theatre and storytelling: “Why would I imagine myself in a world where I didn’t exist?” As actors, it can be difficult playing a role where your background, skin tone, or origin doesn’t represent the character you’re portraying. As an audience member, you can be sucked out of the imagination the world is trying to convince you into. Within American history, we’ve seen artists become shafted into a role numerous times where they don’t feel as they truly represent the character they’ve adopted on stage. Other times, they may be represented incorrectly, if at all.
Pisasale summed up the conversation beautifully by stating that “all history is curated” and that “representation is a matter of political power.” Those that are in charge largely have the say in how others are shown in everyday media. It’s important to recognize when collaboration and representation is needed in any given production.
As a writer and self-proclaimed poet, the topics of culture and race have managed to seat themselves alongside myself at the dinner table of life. Culture is embedded within all that we do and can be found throughout the nuances of everyday life. At times, it can be hard to write about or perceive another person’s shared collection of values that aren’t similar to your own. The mind has a way of boggling down your worldview as everyone’s reality, when that simply isn’t the case for all people. Understanding and finding common ground in another person’s culture is the first step to stretching your knowledge of the world and challenging your thoughts of others. Del Shakes has proceeded to not only start their own conversation, but continue that mindset of increase and expansion through their panels on “Race in Shakespeare Productions.” Inspiring the minds of old and new, novice or ace, man or woman, privileged or disabled – all can see the magnificent beauty of race and culture from the segments they’ve self-produced. There’s no doubt that the panels, alongside their cast of actors and amazing Shakespearean productions, help to create a culturally-enriching experience.