Image: Paul Prescott

Shakespeare on the Road: Paul Prescott interview

10,000 miles; 63 days; 14 festivals; 44 productions; 150 interviews. And that was just one summer for Dr Paul Prescott of the University of Warwick English department. He led a team on a project called Shakespeare on the Road back in July and has caused ripples across the world of literary research ever since. The Boar’s deputy editor Sian Elvin caught up with Paul for the Arts section, and discovered the highlights and future of his epic road trip.

So what exactly did you do over the summer?

Last summer I undertook a slightly demented project which involved an enormous amount of travel around North America, particularly the United States. My team and I travelled around 10,000 miles, mostly by car, between 14 different Shakespeare festivals.

What did you want to achieve from it?

We started the project because there is a remarkable and largely untold story about what happens in America every summer. From local parks, to 2,000 seat theatres, to replica Globes, Shakespeare just bursts out all over America in a way that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any other country, or any other history. There are more Shakespeare festivals in California, for example, than there are in the UK. I used to work on one in Florida a few years ago, and that was what first alerted me to what a strange and ubiquitous phenomenon this was. And it was so ubiquitous, it was almost invisible. People took for granted, or it seemed to me, in the States that they could go to their local park on a summer’s evening and watch As You Like It. Pretty much anywhere they are in the States, they’ll be a few hours’ drive away from one and that’s not very far for them. I wanted to get under the skin of this phenomenon and ask a big question about why America has such an enduring love affair with Shakespeare.

And what was it that you picked up from that love affair that you felt was perhaps stronger even than in England, the home of Shakespeare?

I think Americans are as a culture, generally speaking, better at celebration than we are in the UK. There’s a lack of irony about an approach to Shakespeare that celebrates him and the greatness of his works. There’s also a kind of optimistic belief that these works can make a community better, can transform the lives of individuals, and therefore in doing so can make the country a more civilised place to live. I think that notion of transformation and optimism is not uniquely American, but is something that they have more broadly as a culture than we have. It is complex, but straightforwardly, one of the things we learned was that there seems to be a more democratic impulse, and political impulse sometimes, about the work that’s being done around Shakespeare in the US.

Was it everything that you expected to find as you went through your travels, comparing the different states?

I think the festivals had more in common than apart, because they tended to be constituted of people with broadly similar ideals. And yet within that, there are massive variations between going to see Shakespeare in a barn in Texas with farmers and local village people, and going to see Shakespeare in Central Park in New York City. All of that will change the dynamic of the encounter, and in some respects will change the politics of the encounter as well. If you’re seeking to account for a phenomenon, you need to get down to the grass roots, hit the road and just talk to people. A very important part of the project is that it’s an oral history project. If you’re asking why Shakespeare, why America, you need to ask the thousands of people who are making it happen.

How did you prepare for the trip?

The preparation, in a sense, was about ten years long! It dated back to when I used to act in the States and really, I’ve been mulling it over for a long time. Focused preparation has taken place over the last two years, and that has involved reading as much as we could about the relationship between America and Shakespeare, and all sorts of preparatory conversations with our festival partners via Skype or occasionally in person. It further involved vast logistical questions – accommodation, transport and so on – and then in terms of scheduling, we’d arrange interviews, performances and the presentation of a commemorative plaque at each festival. It was a real mixture of cultural background reading; the cultivation of interpersonal ties with practitioners, artists, actors; and the bog-standard, “how are we going to get from Montana to Wisconsin in 36 hours?!” It basically stretched most parts of what’s left of my brain!

How was a typical day on the road?

The itinerary was exhausting, and emotionally draining, but so stimulating that you always managed to get back up in the morning and do another day. You’re travelling through an endlessly renewing and changing landscape that just wards off all fatigue, somehow… And Doctor Theatre, of course, is notorious for somehow turning you round and giving you a new lease of life. There are various guesses as to how much coffee was consumed over the course of the trip, though!

Which production would you say was your favourite and why?

It really is impossible to choose, but off the top of my head I liked a particular production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Stratford, Ontario. It was in a big theatre, a matinee, families were there, and I wasn’t really expecting to be astonished. The performance’s framing device was that we were present at a barbeque following a same-sex marriage in 2014, and to celebrate the wedding of these two guys, their actor friends put on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a wedding gift. Within that “play within a play”, parts were cross-cast, so that Hermia and Lysander, for example, were two young women who wanted to escape Athens because the law forbade same-sex marriage. It was a brilliantly inventive production, and gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. It was a great example of how such a simple idea can change the resonance of all sorts of things, like saying “Jack shall have Jack”, as well as “Jack shall have Jill”. It’s the opposite of heritage Shakespeare; instead of going to see Shakespeare as a cosy exercise in nostalgia, it takes it to a slightly different end of the spectrum.

Could you tell us about a particular behind the scenes moment that stood out for you?

We arrived at this barn in Texas, where every year, 15 students at the University of Texas go out in the middle of nowhere, and after four weeks of isolation and rehearsal put on three Shakespeare plays in repertory in this barn. We received a warm and wonderful Texan welcome and within a few minutes we were eating barbeque with some kids who were in the company, and they were saying that they wanted to perform a bit of The Merry Wives of Windsor, but they couldn’t do it over there – pointing to a tree – because there had been a snake there that morning. They then told me about their performance of Macbeth the previous year. During Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene the director noticed there was a coral snake underneath the seats in this enclosed barn, packed with people. He said, “ladies and gentlemen, there is a very dangerous snake under the seats, would the first couple of rows move slowly away for me please?” Because it was Macbeth, there was a medieval aesthetic so there were weapons all around the stage, and the artistic director picked up a halberd and chopped the snake’s head off. And then someone else stamped on its head. The wretched creature was removed from the barn, and the show continued. It was a very memorable moment because a. I’m terrified of snakes, b. it was a reminder of the interaction between environment and performance, and c. people talk about theatre being dangerous – but in Texas it’s genuinely dangerous. I don’t think part of the director’s job description was being able to kill a deadly snake!

And what are you doing with the results of your research?

We have just opened an exhibition of photography in Harvard House in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which is free and open for the next two months. People can look at some of the photos we took on the trip, which give a very instant sense of some of the things we were interested in capturing. There’s an audio track playing throughout the exhibition which stitches together some of the voices we recorded on the road, so we’re also aiming to make a radio documentary. We’re creating a physical archive in Stratford-Upon-Avon of production materials relating to all of the 14 festivals, so if anyone in ten, or even 100 years wants to know how Shakespeare was being produced in the US in 2014, they can go and consult this time capsule. I’m co-writing a book with Paul Edmondson, who came on the trip and is from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and we’re going to write something that hopefully will appeal to the mythical interest of the general reader. I’m also writing a different book about festivals across the world, and some of this stuff will come up in it. An outcome I’m really excited about is next summer I’ll be helping with a production of The Taming of the Shrew in one of the parks we visited in Montana.

Has the experience changed your outlook on the arts, Shakespeare, or indeed, your own personal research?

It’s reenergised me, actually. It’s renewed my sense of the capacity of the arts to change people’s lives. I don’t think I ever doubted it, but I think for very good reasons people are sceptical about that sometimes. A large part of me does not want to buy into the idea that the arts can save the world – or to put it differently, that the arts make you a better person – because that implies that the people who currently have access to the arts are better people. So I revolt against that politically, but nevertheless if you flip it over, it would be a strange thing to say that the arts don’t make a difference, given that we work at a university. We all know how much difference it makes to love the arts in our own lives, and how many chances it gives you for self-expression and thought; just as equipment for living. It’s helped me to see that someone like Shakespeare, whom so many people associate with conservatism of some description, can be used to make society more equal, to create chances for African-American and Hispanic actors, or actors with disabilities. We saw all of this in much more evidence than you would in say, Stratford-Upon-Avon, or the Globe.

A lot of companies do touring shows around schools, and if you get school kids into a theatre, and King Lear happens to be Queen Lear, or if the Earl of Gloucester is black, that doesn’t bother them. That’s what is really powerful about the work a lot of these companies do; they’re not even fighting prejudice at that point because the kids aren’t prejudiced. It’s the older audiences who really need the education; they’re the ones who are resistant to the idea of non-traditional casting. It’s convention, and conventions are made by human beings, so therefore can be changed. It seems very clear that for the sake of the planet, the white male middle-class mentality has to be challenged as often as possible, and not just in a way that’s experimental or a one-off to be avant-garde, but so that it becomes normal to see a cast that is consistently 50 percent women, or 40 percent non-white. The project has made me feel like what I’ve been doing is worthwhile, and actually, that we can learn a lot in the UK from what they’re doing in the US.

Finally, any plans to go back on the road in the future?

Yes! I want to do Shakespeare on the Road 2 (and this time it’s personal), and that will be in Europe. While I’ve got these relationships with American festivals, I want to do something similar across Europe in 2016, which is the next big anniversary year for Shakespeare [he died in 1616]. There are by no means as many Shakespeare festivals across Europe as there are in America, but we think we’ve identified 16… We did 14 festivals in 2014 in America, so we’re going to do 16 festivals in 2016 in Europe. That’s very exciting because it will allow, for the first time, a proper international comparison.

You can find out more about Paul’s epic road trip over at shakespeareontheroad.com.

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