The Philadelphia Inquirer speaks with Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole about Love's Labour's Lost

October 27, 2009

Hitting the road with the Bard

By Howard Shapiro

Inquirer Theater Critic

Tue, Oct. 27, 2009

So these four major dudes, obviously worried about their grades, pledge to focus on studying by giving up womanizing. And who should breeze into town? Hot babes - four of them, exactly.

The rest, you can imagine.

That, in a freshly cracked nutshell, is the plot of Love's Labour's Lost, one of William Shakespeare's early comedies, written not long before the 16th century turned into the 17th. It's simple, enduring, and uncomfortably germane - for every resolution you make and then break, Love's Labour's Lost is your show.

That may be one reason it's among the Shakespeare canon that's toured for four centuries. Tonight, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre of London begins a run through Saturday in the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania - where even now, someone is probably swearing off something in order to study, and we'll see how long that lasts.

The Globe company, with a cast of 17, plus 18 others who work offstage to put on the show, has just come from performing the play in Ann Arbor, Mich. Sunday, they'll pack up and move across the country for performances in Berkeley, Calif.

These artists are modern practitioners of a tradition born in the first days of English-language theater: the touring troupe, particularly the troupe that brings Shakespeare to capitals as well as the hinterlands.

Not that we need anyone to to do that; nowadays, we do it ourselves, thanks. But the noted troupe, devoted to the Bard and headquartered in the rebuilt London theater where he was, you would say today, playwright-in-residence - well, that's different.

"The thing to remember is that theater culture was about touring long before it was about theaters," says the Globe's artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, who staged the current production of Love's Labour's Lost and is in Philadelphia with the rest of the cast and crew.

Dromgoogle comes from a theater family, and a lifelong association with the Bard led to his book Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life (Pegasus Books, 2007).

"Shakespeare stains every surface of English life," Dromgoole writes, and explains: "He is woven into our history, our private selves, even our landscape. Since our primary tool for understanding and expressing all these is our language, and since he dominates that language so completely, it is foolish to underestimate his influence."

Or the influence he continues to have on the stage. Dromgoole, who became artistic director of the Globe four years ago, says touring Shakespeare can be revealing. "We had a great opening here," he said from Ann Arbor, where the Globe performed last week at the University of Michigan, "and also a very good contrast."

"The first night was a regular theater crowd and the second, all students. We got a terrific response - and it played differently to both. The big physical humor went by very well with the usual theater crowd and the student audience loved all the verbal humor."

So it goes, still - Shakespeare can grab different people different ways. "Shakespeare does demand spontaneity and freshness," Dromgoole says. "His plays were an event more than they were a sterile work of art. You have to make sure that you respond to a particular audience in a particular town and in a theater with its own particular architecture - and that the production is sort of free to dance a bit, that it's not locked down, and that the actors are secure in that."

In the mid-1500s, the standard-size touring company was four men and a boy, and they played in no such place as a theater - on platforms in public places, such as town squares and fairgrounds; in courtyards at inns, or in the private dining rooms of great manors. In a long-running British project, scholars are sifting through village records to document performances during that time.

"In every one of these towns, they're finding records that this touring company was coming to town and asked permission to play in a courtyard, or this marketplace, or to be able to perform in this household," says Cary Mazer, a Penn associate professor of theater arts and English whose classes include theater history. "There are even records of towns paying them off to go away."

Mazer, who is giving a short talk at 6:45 tonight, just before the first performance of Love's Labour's Lost, says these touring companies became the producers of London's first plays in theaters, in the last part of the 1500s.

The first London playhouse - called simply "the Theatre" - was built in the Shoreditch area in 1576, then dismantled and rebuilt across the Thames, where it opened in 1599 as the Globe, the debut stage for some of Shakespeare's greatest works.

Tours continued to be the way people in the provinces saw plays. Later, "the first theater in the colonies was by touring companies from England," Mazer says.

According to Charles H. Shattuck, author of Shakespeare on the American Stage, the earliest recorded instance of a professional Shakespeare performance in America was by a well-known touring company, the Hallam, in 1752 - The Merchant of Venice, in Williamsburg, Va. The competing Douglass Company performed several Shakespeare plays in 1758, and the following year it presented the first American performance of Hamlet, in Philadelphia.

Later, stars made their names traveling from town to town to play Shakespeare's major roles, while the locals - called the "stock" company - would portray all the rest. This was how the Walnut Street Theatre, at 200 years old the nation's longest running, operated for decades.

So the cast that takes the stage at the Annenberg tonight is linked to an ongoing line of touring performers - an especially long chain in Philadelphia. At home Globe actors still perform the original way, in a roofless theater in natural light during matinees and with both performers and audience lit at night.

As a result, the audience here also will be lit. "We have to keep the Globe spirit," Dromgoole explains. "It immediately makes the theater more democratic.

"You're inviting the audience to collaborate in imagining a play based on what the actors do. It's a much more shared endeavor, rather than a dictated activity."