The 10 Weirdest Places Shakespeare Plays Have Been Performed
All the world truly is a stage, including airplanes and parking lots and grocery stores
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
I n As You Like It — the play with the most lines for a woman character out of all Shakespeare’s plays, incidentally — Jacques delivers the lines “All the world’s a stage.” He means it metaphorically, but when it comes to Shakespeare, we’ve done our best to make it true. All the continent is a stage: Never forget that Eugene Shiefflien cursed us with the starling, a bullying invasive species that likes to live inside your house, with his plan to bring every bird ever mentioned in Shakespeare to North America. All the solar system is a stage: All 27 known moons of Uranus are named after Shakespeare characters. And we love to perform Shakespeare plays in the unlikeliest places, which means that airplanes, subways, supermarkets, hospitals, and cemeteries become stages too.
Here are 10 performance locations that completely misunderstand Jacques by taking him extremely literally.
“What’s in a name?” Quite a bit for Easy Jet, the budget airline that campaigned to dub April 23rd National William Shakespeare Day. How did they do it? For starters: a large image of William Shakespeare painted on the fuselage of the plane, a petition to get 100,000 signers to ask Parliament to consider the holiday, staged performances of Shakespeare in the waiting areas of airports. But then, they took to the sky — as lovers do, on borrowed cupid wings and jet fuel to “soar with them above a common bound.” As the penultimate wing of the campaign, the airline invited Reduced Shakespeare Company theater troupe to perform Romeo and Juliet onboard a flight to Verona.
I’m pretty sure Shakespeare wrote: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player [being held momentarily in the station by the train’s dispatcher].” Those who live in New York live most of our lives underground in delayed subways all over the city. The subway is a capacious space with multiple uses: transportation, hotel room, toilet, and yes, a stage for buskers and “showtime” dancers. But Paul Marino and Fred Jones, according to The New York Times, have more explicitly made the subway their stage for bilingual performances of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and others. No telling what the L train shutdown will do to their careers.
Pretty much any Shakespearian tragedy or even history would be so cozy in a cemetery. (Hamlet even has a scene in one.) But what about a comedy? As part of the Shakespeare in the Cemetery series this summer, the Mechanical Theater company (which specializes in performing theater in historic monuments and museums around the city) performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Which I guess does something to sum up the plot of Shakespearean theatre — everyone gets married, but don’t forget everyone dies, too.
In southeast London, Supermarket Shakespeare performs scenes from Shakespeare and other plays. They are “disrupting the spectacle of consumerism with their own spectacle,” as reported by Lyn Gardner for the Guardian. Six actors at a time wander through the grocery story aisles performing 20-minute scenes. Spectators get to follow up to three actors in the hour, watching as sometimes their scenes might intersect with one another. Gardner says there’s little actual Shakespeare, but lots of real life colliding with real theatre.
We credit Shakespeare with a lot of things, but can we credit him with the invention of modern psychoanalysis? Some argue that the plays provide audiences with a shared experience to help us better understand our actions and our fates. As reported by The Huffington Post, the late psychotherapist Murray Cox studied a series of performances of Shakespeare’s plays at the Broadmoor (the maximum security hospital for patients with severe mental illness who have been convicted of serious crimes). The plays include depictions of severe emotions and their consequences — love, lust for power, envy, greed, murder, treason, betrayal, and so on. The plays were performed by professional theater companies. Many in the audience were convicted of the same crimes being performed. After the performance, according to HuffPost, there was a “therapeutic trialogue” between the actors, patients, and clinicians.
While the toast “Good company, good wine, good welcome can make good people” doesn’t ring true by the end of Henry VIII, we can still give it a try, no? In Washington D.C., there’s Shakespeare in the Pub. Guess where it’s performed? Bars around the city. And in New York, there’s Drunk Shakespeare, performed on a more traditional stage. Audience members take a shot as they enter and the players are challenged to drinking games that complicate their ability to deliver their lines.
Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) is a non-profit that has been putting on productions of Shakespeare in prisons “to offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles.” According to the National Institute of Social Justice stats reported on the SBB website, the national recidivism rate is 76.6%. The rate for Shakespeare Behind Bars participants is 6%. I’m no statistician, but I’m going to call that statistically significant. Maybe we direct more funding to the arts and away from the prison-industrial complex? Just a thought. You can donate to SBB here.
We’ve paved paradise and put up a production of Julius Caesar. Every summer the Drilling Company puts on bare-bones interpretations of Shakespeare plays in a parking lot in New York City for their Shakespeare in the Parking Lot series. The key is that these parking lots are still in use, with performances taking place alongside cars trying to pull in and back out of their spaces. The founding director, Hamilton Clancy, says they chose the parking lot for a stage because it’s “a tremendously accessible gathering place in the heart of the city” and the space gives the traditional performance “an urban wrinkle.”
Asses, sure, but I don’t remember any Shakespeare with pythons in the backdrop. In “Wild Shakespeare” in Australia, the Wild Voices Music Theater Group performed scenes from Shakespeare “in nooks and crannies” all over the National Zoo to inspire conversation about the relationship between human nature, animals, and the environment.
Last, but not least, but also maybe the littlest stage for Shakespeare. Tiny Ninja Theater performed Macbeth at the New York International Fringe Festival on a “briefcase-sized stage” for an audience of ten, with standing room available for five additional audience members. Mr Smile starred in the role of Macbeth, and Mrs Smile as Lady Macbeth. The directed admitted that working with these inexperienced actors did present some challenges: “Tensions and personality conflicts are bound to arise when a large group of tiny plastic ninjas work this closely on a project that means so much to all of them. But, in the end, we are all stronger for it. I would like to extend a very special thanks to Ninja, who stepped into the role of Donalbain at the last moment, after the original actor was injured in a freak Exacto knife accident.”