My question to Haj: How do you approach a play like Hamlet with a fresh sensibility while still availing yourself of all the thought and scholarship it has generated throughout the years? [4:38] - See more at: http://nea.cmstesting.co/big-read/2013/giving-new-life-shakespeare#sthas...
Joe Haj: I think central to that is to recognize that what the academy’s job is relative to Shakespeare is very different than what my job is relative to Shakespeare. And I read everything. And then, you sort of have to throw it all away and make the play with the people in the room. You know, the scholarship is useful to a theater maker, exactly to the extent that it ignites imagination and that’s it. Beyond that, then it’s a program note; that’s what libraries are for. That’s what scholarship is for. And our job is to make the play. And, you know there are things great wonderful thinkers who have written brilliantly about Hamlet, and you read it and you go, “That’s brilliant” but it has no purchase. Like you could never get that idea activated in a production of the play, never. We have different jobs. It’s wonderful to be able to go through the piles of scholarship on Hamlet and indeed any of Shakespeare’s plays. There’s no shortage of research that was done. But one has to be careful of making theater around scholarship. You kind of have to make the play based on its emotional and psychological life. And yes, it’s textual life as well. But there’s so many productions that are categorically ruined by some sort of fealty to scholarship.
Jo Reed: Clearly people want to present Shakespeare in a fresh way, in a way that is relevant to the audience. And they play with settings, they play with costume. And we’ve seen instances of that where it is almost deliriously successfully and we’ve seen instances where it’s just delirious. And I sometimes try to figure well why does this work and why does this not.
Joe Haj: We have ideas sometimes about plays and we have an idea about a certain portion of the play. I was like wow, if we have this idea that will work brilliantly, like going in Brazil and the forest will be the jungles of Brazil and how brilliant is that? Well, I would submit that that production was brilliant if it was because that context wasn’t just to make that one idea work, but it ended up being a framework that held the whole play. And I think it’s most successful when the ideas can really hold the whole play and not activate only one strand of the play, one notion. Sometimes you see these sort of high concept Shakespeare where there’s an activating idea which is kind of brilliant but it serves kind of one track, one theme, one piece of the play. And the rest of the play founders trying to find a way to fit into this context. And I think that’s a lot of times the reason those things fail. You know in the end, for all of the ideas, the text is the thing. So if your idea helps to amplify that text and carry that text forward in a meaningful way then you’re on to something. And your better ideas, you better be in some serious cost value relationship question where you just have to sit there and wrestle with ideas and say is this worth the candle? Do I gain more by applying this than I lose by applying this? And if the answer to that question is that you lose more than you gain, then you better be prepared to kill that really good idea.
Jo Reed: Okay, I’m an audience member or I want to be an audience member, I’m thinking about being an audience member, but I feel intimidated by Shakespeare. What advice do you have for somebody coming in?
Joe Haj: I was in a very, very big production of a Shakespeare play years ago by a very, very well-known director in a big city and the play was awful. I mean the production was simply awful. And at this big theater in this big city, they brought in thousands of high school and middle school students to see this play. And I was so outraged by it, because I thought these kids will never come to a Shakespeare play again. Never. And they won’t even know that it’s because our production was really bad. They will think it’s because I don't get Shakespeare. Shakespeare is over my head, or it’s boring -- all of those things which, of course, it’s not. So I don’t know, I think good Shakespeare done well, you know, my daughter is ten, when she sees a good Shakespeare production she understands every bit of it. And in a bad Shakespeare production neither you nor I are smart enough to figure it all out if it’s floating weirdly in space. So I think it’s about the quality of the production. I think any production of Shakespeare made well, a vast majority of the audience, regardless of their own experience with the text or their own experience with Shakespeare or their own experience with formal language or their own experience with the theater, people can come and have very, very meaningful experiences.