On June 3, General Director Antoni Cimolino was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the College Association for Language and Literacy, held at George Brown College in Toronto. The text of his address, reproduced below, was compiled by David Prosser, the Festival’s Director of Communications, from ideas generated in a prior conversation with Mr. Cimolino.
I know we’re here today to talk about issues pertaining to the present and the future, but please bear with me while I look for a moment into the past: into the dark backward and abysm of time, as Prospero puts it in The Tempest.
A hundred years ago this month, the era of airline travel began. On June 22, 1910, twelve passengers and crew departed from Friedrichshafen airfield on the Zeppelin dirigible Deutschland to fly to Düsseldorf. This was the world’s first commercial passenger flight.
The world’s first airline disaster followed six days later, on June 28, when that same airship encountered high winds while flying from Düsseldorf to Dortmund. Attempting an emergency landing, it crashed into a forest. Fortunately, none of the thirty-three people aboard were injured.
A hundred years ago this month also saw the invention of the electric bulletin press, a sort of precursor of the TV news crawl. An operator in the New York Times building typed news bulletins on an electric keyboard, and the words were displayed in a window of the building in letters large enough to be read from the street.
For the first time in history, breaking news could be presented to the public the moment it was received.
Other milestones of 1910 included the first public display of neon lighting, which took place at the Paris Auto Show, and the issuing of the first American patent for traffic lights.
All very interesting, to be sure, but what does this have to do with my topic today? First of all, I simply wanted us to remind ourselves how drastically the world we live in has changed within the possible span of a single human lifetime. In a hundred years, we’ve gone from the Zeppelin to the space shuttle; from the electric bulletin press to the BlackBerry and the Google alert.
Even within the last two decades, the exponential changes brought by electronic communications have revolutionized our lives.
Twenty years ago, when the Internet was still a novelty rather than a necessity of life, it would have taken several hours of poking about in a library to assemble those half-dozen milestones of 1910. Now it takes a couple of minutes of typing and clicking, and you can do it practically anywhere on the planet.
Some of us can remember a time when parents would have to take out a second mortgage to buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so their kids would have access to twenty volumes’ worth of the world’s knowledge. Nowadays, our kids carry about with them in their pockets a kind of twenty-first-century equivalent of the great Library of Alexandria.
We can’t even imagine what the next twenty years will bring, but it’s probably safe to bet that whatever it is will render today’s technologies as defunct as the daguerreotype.
Be prepared for that depressing day when some tousle-headed tot asks you, “Grandpa, what was ‘e-mail’?”
Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed in the last century. Here in Canada we now live in a society that is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than once it was. Toronto can now claim to be the most diverse city in the world.
The world we live in is changing fast – too fast, perhaps, for some people’s comfort.
And it’s reasonable to wonder if perhaps human beings are changing with it.
The wording of the e-mail that invited me to give this address seemed to imply that possibility: “Audiences are different,” it said. “They expect different things, and appreciate live performance in a different way.”
Are we seeing today something more than just a change of circumstance? Are the children of the multi-ethnic digital age in some way qualitatively different from those of us who grew up in a relatively homogeneous culture and were schooled in a literacy other than the computer kind?
The idea of some fundamental shift in human nature as a result of social change and technological advance isn’t new. And that’s the other reason why I began by looking back at the year 1910 – because according to the novelist Virginia Woolf, that was a watershed year for the human race.
It was in an essay she wrote in 1924, entitled “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” that she made this much-quoted observation:
“On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.”
Woolf was writing about a time that in many ways was much like ours. By 1910, the modern age was well under way. Then, as now, the world was being made over at a pace many found bewildering.
For one thing, human beings were literally getting used to new ways of seeing, thanks to everything from the spread of electric lighting to the invention of the X-ray. The rise of film as a new and essentially urban medium of artistic expression introduced to our culture a whole new visual grammar of cuts and fades and pans and dissolves.
Meanwhile, painters and sculptors too were devising new ways of seeing. Renouncing the kind of literal reproduction now so easily achieved by the photograph, they sought instead to convey what things really were, what they felt like, what they meant to us.
In identifying 1910 as the year of the great change, Woolf specifically had in mind the opening of England’s first exhibition of Post- Impressionist art, in which such representational techniques as proportion and perspective were abandoned in search for a more essential and emotional truth.
Critics and public alike were outraged, claiming the exhibition was either a hoax or the result of moral degeneracy, mental derangement, or both. Thanks to Wikipedia, I can tell you that the critical terms bandied about included “anarchy,” “evil,” “horror,” “infection,” “madness,” “pornography,” “putrescence” and “sickness of the soul.”
The most prominent of the moral degenerates featured in this exhibition, by the way, were Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Woolf herself was part of an equivalent movement in literature. Traditional notions of character development and third-person past- tense narrative, for instance, gave way to multiple viewpoints, stream of consciousness and the orchestration of image and theme rather than naturalistic detail.
A world being dramatically reshaped by technology and a new social order, a sense that human nature is changing as a consequence, the rise of new and controversial movements in art that reflect that change. That was what Virginia Woolf saw in 1910; is it also what we are seeing today?
Has the age of Twitter and YouTube, the age of the ethnic and cultural mosaic, brought about some fundamental change not only in how we do things but who we are? And what does this mean for the future of literacy, education and art?
What are the implications for a classical theatre company like the one I work for: an institution dedicated to an art that began with the ancient Greeks and reached its pinnacle with the works of an English playwright born nearly four and a half centuries ago?
Is classical theatre on the cusp of a brave new world, or is it doomed to become a dinosaur? Just how afraid of Virginia Woolf should we be?
The short answer is, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else. We can look only into the backward abysm of time, not the forward one. But let me offer some observations about one or two changes that do seem to be happening, among young people particularly, and some speculation about what they might mean for us.
First and most obviously, young people today take for granted a kind of interconnectedness that is unprecedented in human history. Thanks to Twitter, what we used to call word of mouth is now global and practically instantaneous. This has huge implications for those of us who work in the performing arts.
At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, we begin preview performances as early as April. Our official openings – when we invite the theatre critics – are in the first or second week of June.
Time was, we’d have the opportunity to fine-tune our productions in front of audiences well before any reviews would appear. Now, though, the ironic phrase “everyone’s a critic” has become literally true.
Kids come out at the intermission during a first preview and immediately tweet their impressions to their friends. So the first reviews are appearing – and potentially spreading around the world – even before the first performance is over.
When the tweets are positive, this is great. What the effect will be when the tweeters don’t like something remains to be seen. In any case, this is a new reality to which we have to adjust. As the power of the professional theatre critic wanes, the voice of the people is taking its place.
This is arguably part of a broader process of the democratization of knowledge. In the old days, that twenty-volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica exuded a sense of top-down authority. Compiled and edited by experts, it was delivered to a waiting populace that would revere it as some kind of immutable Truth. Once on your shelves, it didn’t change, unless you went out and bought an updated edition. It was a secular equivalent of Holy Scripture.
Wikipedia, by contrast, gets its authority from the bottom up. Its authority derives not from the academic credentials of an editorial board but from the ease with which its assertions can be challenged by its users. Users trust Wikipedia because it’s so open to the public. If something’s wrong in Wikipedia, the thinking goes, someone will put it right. Which isn’t, of course, necessarily so – but then even Britannica sometimes got it wrong.
The important thing, though, is that the very existence of something like Wikipedia makes us regard knowledge not as something handed down from on high but as something we create as a community: something organic and fluid. This too seems to represent a significant change in our thinking.
Is this good or bad? My children have an enormous advantage that I didn’t enjoy at their age: they have access to a vast breadth of information. This must surely be good – provided, of course, they learn some means of discriminating between information which is sound and that which is shoddy.
At the same time, the way information presents itself online doesn’t lend itself to sustained study: the temptation to follow link upon link is hard to resist. As a result, my kids seem to absorb their information in four-minute chunks.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it does give rise to questions about attention span that must be of concern to a classical theatre that specializes in three-hour performances that consist primarily of people talking.
Everyone’s a critic, everyone’s an encyclopaedist, everyone’s a diarist. One of the curious aspects of the digital age is that it has brought about a resurgence of that very old-fashioned practice of writing, rather than speaking, one’s mind.
The heroine of a nineteenth-century epistolary novel could not have spent more time with pen in hand than does her modern equivalent at her keyboard, updating her blog. The technology is different, but the medium – the written word – is the same.
And the keeping of a daily journal is no longer a private activity but a public one; for today everyone’s an online publisher as well. With Facebook and YouTube and the rest, people can now put themselves on public display to an extent they never could before.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily says of her diary, “It is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.” Back in 1895, when Wilde wrote his play, that was a joke. Nowadays, the personal has become so relentlessly public that the notion of keeping some part of your life precious and private is beginning to seem unimaginably quaint.
Still, writing has become an integral part of young people’s lives in a way that I don’t think it was for my generation. And for those of us concerned about literacy, that can’t be altogether a bad thing.
Incidentally, one of the most obvious and most derided features of the modern age has been the rise of the shorthand used by teenagers to speed up the texting process.
Laden with acronyms and emoticons, this mode of communication has so far entered the mainstream of discourse as to spawn a Penguin paperback called Twitterature, in which a couple of nineteen-year-olds have reinvented some eighty of the world’s best-known novels, poems and plays, from Homer to Hamlet to Harry Potter, as a series of 140- character tweets from the protagonist.
If we’re looking for evidence of the collapse of Western civilization, some may well be tempted to find it here. I suspect, though, that Homer and Hamlet, at least, will find a way to survive.
In any case, I’m not entirely convinced that this latest form of unspoken teenage argot is any more pernicious than the slang that permeates West Side Story – or, for that matter, Romeo and Juliet.
When teenagers invent expressions like OMG, LOL and WTF, their aim is partly to save themselves some keystrokes and partly to make their discourse harder for parental eyes to decipher. But there’s also an element of pure play: of trying out new things with the language to see what else it can do. And play is a fundamental element of creativity.
In fact, it seems that what’s being threatened by the digital age is not the written word but the spoken one.
We recently hired a social media coordinator at the Festival – someone young enough to be able to help us navigate these unfamiliar waters – and he reports that when he engages online with our Facebook fans and Twitter followers, he finds them eager to take part in lengthy and often highly articulate exchanges. In many cases, though, if he contacts those same people by telephone, they immediately clam up. They seem uncomfortable communicating vocally, without the mediation of text.
If this is true, if spoken literacy is in decline, then obviously this is something for those of us who work in the theatre to be concerned about.
Perhaps our mission is more urgent now than ever. It may be up to us re-accustom the ear of youth to the sound of language, to introduce them to the idea that words and sentences are something you can feel and almost taste as you form them with lungs and larynx and lips and tongue. For I don’t think you can truly love language unless you love how it feels in your mouth and how it sounds in your ears.
Let’s assume that we have a key role to play in helping young people and other new audiences to discover the full potency of language as the embodiment of thought and the expression of feeling, as a medium for creativity and, above all, as a source of pleasure and joy.
To do that, our first step must be to catch the attention of those potential audiences and get them to engage with us. And nowadays, of course, that means wading into the world of social networking.
So we have an organizational Facebook page, with around 14,000 fans, and a Twitter homepage with searchable content. Our social media co-ordinator updates these several times a day, providing new content and monitoring and responding to comments.
Through Facebook, we offer special ticket deals and contests. For example, for the Easter weekend, we hid twenty Easter eggs around the Festival grounds, each with a pair of tickets inside. We posted photos of the eggs on our wall and invited people to go hunt for them.
I and other members of the Festival staff use Twitter to update our followers on what’s going on at the Festival. We post Festival videos on YouTube: production clips, webcasts, interviews, ads and so on.
We’re exploring possible YouTube contests around specially created content or mash-ups. For example, in 2011 we plan to have Ontario students submit a scene from a Shakespeare play. Those scenes will be judged, and the top three finalists will be brought to Stratford to perform their scene.
We know we have go beyond the traditional model of communication – in which carefully crafted information is delivered to a passively waiting populace – and embrace the interactive, fluid, dynamic and democratic possibilities afforded by today’s social media.
In this more recent model, the aim is to not only to reach out to people and try to interest them in our Festival but also to connect to each other individuals who have or might develop a common interest in us.
People today are accustomed to getting their information from their peers, responding to it, correcting it, adding to it, passing it on. Our communications strategies have to take account of that fact and find ways to use it to our advantage.
The old broadcast model of communication, with Stratford at the centre sending out concentric ripples of information, is being supplanted – or at least supplemented – by the network model, in which information jumps from user to user. Though our control over that information is limited, we benefit from the fact that a network has the power to grow itself, and thus has a potentially global reach.
All of this is fairly standard: we’re doing what most organizations do nowadays. But aside from how we promote what we do, does the nature of what we do have to change as well? Does the kind of art we practise have to change, as the arts of painting and sculpture changed in 1910?
Some interesting experiments are already being done with a view to creating a new kind of theatrical art for the Twitter age.
In a production that just made its North American debut at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques, a Dutch theatre company presented a mash- up of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, condensed into one six-hour performance with no intermissions. Audiences were free to move around, eat and drink and even use on-stage computers to check their e-mail while the performance was in progress.
Even more radically, this past April the Royal Shakespeare Company launched the world’s first professional Twitter-based performance of a Shakespeare play – or at least a Shakespeare story.
Entitled Such Tweet Sorrow, the production used Twitter to present a kind of online version of Romeo and Juliet. Over a period of five weeks, six actors tweeted each other and their followers in real time, so that audiences could follow and interact with the characters individually on their Twitter feeds or see the whole play unfold on a central website. The production also included the characters’ responses to real events, such as the British general election.
The Dutch production has won great acclaim; the merits of the RSC’s experiment, from a purely artistic point of view, are perhaps more debatable. Indeed, it’s hard to know at this point how you would judge the artistic success of so novel a creation.
But is this sort of thing the future of theatre? Well, again, we don’t know. To quote from the film Shakespeare in Love, it’s a mystery.
Certainly there’s one thing about both those ventures that we should wholeheartedly applaud: the fact that they make Shakespeare plays the starting point for innovation. They bring Shakespeare into the centre of modern popular cultural discourse – which is precisely where he belongs.
After all, Shakespeare was an innovator and a populist in his time. An “upstart crow” is how he was described by a snooty rival who’d had a university education and whose plays are known today to nobody outside academia.
Between about 1550 and 1600, an enormous cultural change took place in England. By and large, before 1550 poetry was something that was read and appreciated in private. Only so many people could own books and had the time to read them. Poetry wasn’t something ordinary people went to hear in public places. But then an explosion began.
Poetry became democratized. For a relatively small amount of money, you could go to an Elizabethan playhouse and hear searingly powerful, achingly beautiful language used to tell lurid tales of murder and madness and passion and revenge.
Plays were popular entertainment, the comic books of their time. They weren’t considered literature. They were commercial products – but in Shakespeare’s case they also happened to be great art.
Today, we tend to be very conscious of the “great art” part of that equation and neglectful of the popular entertainment part. Yet having Shakespeare continue to be a part of popular culture has to be one of our most vital aims. For the great enemy of Shakespeare, and of all serious art, is not the 140-character tweet: it’s reverence.
Using Romeo and Juliet as the basis for an experimental venture in applying new technology to an old idea, the results of which might turn out to be artistically worthless – this isn’t the worst thing you can do to that play.
The worst thing you can do to any work written for the theatre is to lay it reverently on a shelf to be admired, out of reach of grubby and sacrilegious hands that might want to play around with it. That’s what plays are for: playing with.
Playing demands intellectual, emotional and physical energy. It’s how we discover things. It’s how innovation comes about, in the arts and in the sciences.
So even if the all-Twitter version of Romeo and Juliet turns out not to have been good art, it’s still good for the art that such experiments take place. If they did not, we’d never discover anything new.
To be honest, I don’t think the essential nature of the theatre-going experience at Stratford is going to change radically any time soon, though it will no doubt change subtly over the next couple of decades, as it has changed subtly over the last six.
In part, this is because art always reflects something of its time, even when it’s studiously trying not to.
The film of The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford, is set in the 1920s. But you can’t escape its 1974 feel. Someone transported in time from the twenties would look at it and say, “What’s with the peach suits?” You can spend millions trying to recreate every detail of ancient Egypt in a movie like the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra, and when you look at it decades later you’ll say, “Wow, how very 1960s.”
It’s the same at Stratford. Our productions of Shakespeare plays today, even ones set in the Elizabethan period, are noticeably different from ones that were mounted in the 1950s.
One obvious change in recent years is the diversity of our acting company. The Canadian population has changed, and we want our audiences to see themselves reflected in the work on stage.
Today, we actively seek out actors from different ethnic backgrounds, and we fully embrace the idea of non-traditional casting. Shakespeare plays are about the least naturalistic form of drama there is, so why shouldn’t Lady Macbeth be black?
Our current Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, is also committed to exploring the full potential of modern stagecraft to meet the expectations of a generation that has grown up accustomed to a certain kind of visual spectacle in its entertainment.
Des’s surrealist-inspired production of As You Like It this year is full of stunningly beautiful visual images, including a fifteen-foot Magritte apple that descends from the ceiling. And in his production of The Tempest, he’s pulling out every stop to make the magic called for in the play truly astonishing.
So we’re making a conscious effort to provide audiences with an experience in the theatre that is as exciting visually as it is verbally. But this isn’t a departure for us: we’ve offered spectacle before.
What may undergo a sea-change, whether we want it to or not, is the dynamic between the audience and what’s happening on the stage.
At Stratford, we might not go as far as inviting patrons up on stage to check their e-mail, as the Dutch company did, but we have been contemplating an idea with the irresistible name of “Tweet seats”: a couple of designated rows at the back of the auditorium where young people with mobile devices (their ringers turned off, of course) could be invited to tweet their thoughts about the performance as it was occurring.
Would Shakespeare roll in his grave? Well, hardly, when you consider that Shakespeare wrote his plays for an audience most of whom were standing up, milling about, eating, jostling each other and quite possibly fighting and fornicating. Our idea of theatre as something that takes place in a hushed, darkened auditorium where every cough is – or should be – the occasion for a frosty stare from your neighbour is a very nineteenth-century one.
In an age of constant connectedness, when young people live in a kind of unbroken continuum of contact with their peers, and take a highly democratized view of authority, perhaps we will see theatre revert to more of the dynamic interactive experience that Shakespeare wrote for. Perhaps the theatre will become the ultimate social medium. And perhaps that won’t be a bad thing.
The challenge for theatre artists, and for educators, is going to be in finding a balance that works: in distinguishing between bathwater and baby. Because there is a bottom line here, and I want to conclude by making a plea for it.
Deep down, the plays of Shakespeare, the plays of the ancient Greeks, the great classics of world drama and world literature – these things work on their own terms. Some effort is required in getting to grips with them – more than in getting to grips with, say, Avatar but still much less than many people suppose – but the rewards for that effort are immeasurable.
I don’t really believe human nature changes that much, if at all, from century to century, from social revolution to social revolution, from art movement to art movement. I think we’re pretty constant.
If we weren’t, then surely the plays of Shakespeare – let alone the plays and legends of the ancient Greeks, who inhabited a world about as different from ours in terms of communications technology as can be imagined – would be wholly incomprehensible to us, instead of awing us as they do with their clarity, their truth and their timeless wisdom.
The late Richard Monette, Artistic Director of our Festival for fourteen remarkable years, once said to me that when you go into a museum, you feel rich.
You can look at a picture of the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a book, but to see the real thing, to share a space with the object itself, is quite different. For that space of time, you are in the presence of actual beauty, not its counterfeit.
To connect with something beautiful and real, to feel that it is part of us, this gives us a sense of privilege, of enormous abundance.
The same is true of being present at – of participating in, for that is what you are doing – a live performance. You feel the moment being created.
Whether you’re witnessing Christopher Plummer playing Prospero in The Tempest or tapping your toes to a fiddler at a barn dance, there is something magical about the live experience that cannot be achieved by even the most spectacular of movies.
That moment is yours and yours alone; even though it is open to everyone, it can never be experienced in exactly the same way by anyone else. It is both communal and intimate at the same time.
I cannot believe that this will ever lose its appeal for us; if it did, we would no longer be human.
No, Virginia, human nature did not change in 1910 and it isn’t changing now. Once everyone gets over the shock of the new, we simply absorb it. Today, we can look at a Post-Impressionist painting with complete equanimity – and being able to enjoy a Picasso doesn’t mean we no longer enjoy a Rembrandt. Our capacity for appreciating art eventually increases to absorb the new; it doesn’t necessarily jettison what went before.
Likewise, an appetite for the lesser good doesn’t necessarily dull the appetite for the greater. The fact that we might have a hankering to see Avatar doesn’t mean we’re no longer capable of being blown away by As You Like It.
I think human nature will always respond to stories of love and death, of heartbreak and loss, of revenge and reconciliation. We will always get caught up in the wonder of a tale acted out in the moment by real live human beings. We will always respond to the music of the human voice; we will always feel the thrill of hearing glorious poetry spoken as if it were being made up on the spur of the moment.
We just need to give people a little help, since there are so many competing claims on their attention.
At Stratford, we’re using all the modern tools at our disposal to get young people inside our doors. If young minds have become accustomed to 140-character tweets and 10-minute YouTube videos, then we will use those tools to gain their attention.
But we must not confuse the medium with the message. We can use Twitter to serve our ends but we cannot try to be Twitter. We have to offer something far beyond the tweet.
The tools we use to fulfil our mission will change. What will not and must not change is the nature of the mission itself.
As theatre artists in the twenty-first century, we must do what we have always sought to do since the days of the ancient Greeks: grab your attention in those crucial first ten minutes when everyone’s fighting for the armrest, and hold it long enough to transport you into a whole new world of awareness.
To do this, we must trust in the worth of what we do, and in the ability of audiences to respond to it.
Yes, we must experiment, sometimes radically, and be prepared for the experiments to fail, but we must never deliberately “dumb down” what we do because we think it will be too difficult for the iPod generation. Such thinking would do a disservice to our art and it would do a disservice to our youth.
In this, artists need your help as educators. So please, don’t shy away from Shakespeare. Encourage every student you come in contact with to see one of his plays. Do all you can to spread the idea that live performance can make you feel rich.
The appetite for play – and hence for plays – is not dead in the youth of today; it is very much alive, even in their use of language. Let’s work together to draw them toward the magical experiences that await them in the theatres of the world.
Let’s teach them that there are other ways of playing, other ways of discovering, besides the ones they’re immersed in every day, and how richly rewarding it can be to interact not with a touch-screen but with the minds, hearts and souls of other human beings through the living medium of the spoken word.