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Arts & Culture

Making Shakespeare Relevant To 21st Century Audiences

Carol Rosegg
Westport Country Playhouse
Westport Country Playhouse's production of "Romeo and Juliet" runs through November 19.

This Sunday, The Westport Country Playhouse will bring together a panel of directors well-known for their productions of the plays of Shakespeare. The discussion will focus on how to bring the bard's words to life in the 21st century.

Despite writing his last play, “The Noble Kinsmen” more the 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s plays are as popular as ever. According to the publication American Theater, he is the most produced playwright in the U.S., with a whopping 108 productions scheduled for the 2017-2018 season, including the Westport Country Playhouse's ongoing production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Part of the continuing popularity of Shakespeare is his seemingly universal and timeless themes. Still, directors face a risk that the plays can come off to a modern audience as tedious and out of touch. The first big stumbling block for directors and actors is the florid language of Shakespeare.

“It can turn an audience off if the actors are not fully committed to making it sound as if they are inventing it,” said Tony Award-winning director Mark Lamos, artistic director of The Westport Country Playhouse. “When the actor's technique comes in contact with this language, and makes it new, it's exhilarating for an audience to listen to. When that doesn't happen, it is a bit more challenging.”

Lamos says directors need to give the actors ample time during the rehearsal process to work on the flow of dialogue, and to understand the nuances and meanings hidden within Shakespeare’s prose.

There are other challenges as well.

“The other thing about Shakespeare that a lot of people don't realize is that there is no subtext in Shakespeare,” Lamos said. “Subtext is what happens in modern life - we say one thing thing but we are feeling another. In Shakespeare that is not the case, and it can be very often challenging for an actor to realize that what he or she is saying is exactly what she means at that moment.”

One of the bonuses of staging Shakespeare, according to Lamos, is that a director can take a lot of artistic liberties with a 450-year-old play. Among his favorite devices is staging Shakespeare in modern dress.

“The more exciting part has always been, when I do them, is that you are seeking very, very strong parallels to the modern moment,” he said.

Take for instance last summer's controversial production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which Shakespeare's title character bore an uncanny resemblance to President Donald Trump.

Lamos, along with directors from the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, New York's Shakespeare in the Park, and Yale University’s School of Drama will gather at the Westport Country Playhouse Sunday at 5:45pm for the panel discussion “Bringing the Bard to Life: Directing Shakespeare in the 21st Century."

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