Shakespeare Backlash and Brawl

Shakespeare-ExhibitsPage_0My Wall Street Journal piece on Washington’s Silent Shakespeare Oxymoron outraged Synetic Theater and its devoted fans.  Synetic posted a long response on Tumbler and hit the alarms. The Washingtonian did an informative article this evening on the controversy – “Wall Street Journal to Synetic Theater: Do Shakespeare With Words!”  Their reporter emailed me at 5:17 p.m.; at 7:17 p.m., I sent him a detailed response to Synetic’s grievances – but his piece went online before 6 pm.  (Mystified why I am described as  “a libertarian policy analyst by day” – not sure if the reporter relied on 1990s sources rather than the WSJ tagline). The Washington City Paper joined in with a blog entry touting the Washingtonian piece. I’m be curious to see who else joins the fray.

Here is a slightly-edited version of the response I sent the Washingtonian, followed by Synetic’s complaints about the article:

Synetic says that my article “uses made-up examples from Richard II, the Henrys and Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Quoting Shakespeare is not using a “made-up example.” It is simply relying on the Bard’s robust English to vividly capture the power of spoken words.   It is irrelevant whether Synetic performed those particular plays.

Synetic states that “Synetic’s wordless Shakespeare has never been recommended as improving upon or replacing his plays produced in the traditional way.” My WSJ article articles quotes director Tsikurishvili declaring that by doing wordless Shakespeare, “I take it to the next level.” I don’t know the pantomime gesture for a smoking gun.

Commenting on  Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Synetic comments that “None of those elements are absent from Synetic productions as audiences at Synetic are just as familiar with Shakespeare’s characters and story lines…” Romeo and Juliet is better known to more Americans than any other play.  It is laughable to suggest that Americans are “just as familiar” with the plot and characters of The Tempest (Synetic, 2013), Much Ado About Nothing (Synetic, 2015), or Anthony and Cleopatra (Synetic, 2010).

Synetic is very patronizing to deaf people when it states that “Wordless Shakespeare” benefits “the deaf and hard of hearing community.” Sign language interpreters have provided deaf access to Shakespeare since 1894. The best pantomime artist in the world cannot convey 10% of the substance that a good sign interpreter delivers.  The Wall Street Journal ran a touching piece last August 12 by Joanne Kaufman headlined, “Helping Make the Beauty and Poetry of Shakespeare’s Plays Accessible for the Hearing Impaired.” For crucial passages, interpreters will sign out the words letter by letter to assure audience members grasp the meaning.  One attendee at an ASL-Shakespeare interpretation gushed that “moments like these are life-changing.”  Simple gestures would not have changed that woman’s life.

Synetic boasts that its performances allow ESL students and  people with learning disabilities to “enjoy wordless productions on equal footing with the rest of the audience.”  This equality is achieved by removing the vast majority of the intellectual content of the plays.  Wordless Shakespeare expunges the ideas that can inspire and awaken people to new realms in their lives.   To expunge the words to put everyone on an “equal footing” denies theater goers of a wonderful bounty of thoughts, metaphors, and wit.

It’s not my fault that “the Emperor has no nouns and verbs.”

 shakespeare swordfight 513bj36VJwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Synetic’s response:

A response to “The Wall Street Journal” and James Bovard from Synetic Theater:

To begin, it is unclear to us from The Wall Street Journal’s latest opinion piece whether or not the writer James Bovard has seen a Synetic production, or whether his opinion has been formed from YouTube videos and editorial content from other publications.

In addition, Mr. Bovard uses made-up examples from Richard II, the Henrys and Love’s Labour’s Lost, none of which have been translated into wordless format by Synetic yet. Our full wordless Shakespeare repertoire is easily located on our website or Wikipedia page.

Putting this lack of experience with the productions he is writing about aside, there are many points made in Mr. Bovard’s piece that deserve a response.

First and foremost, this article opens by citing wordless Shakespeare as “the latest Shakespeare fashion…”, though Synetic has produced 11 wordless adaptations of Shakespeare plays over the last 14 years. The conceit is not new, but the interdisciplinary performance techniques and theatrical devices do continue to evolve with each production as part of Synetic’s mission to expand the boundaries of theatre and the theatrical literacy of its audiences.

Synetic’s wordless Shakespeare has never been recommended as improving upon or replacing his plays produced in the traditional way, focusing on and emphasizing the richness of the prose and poetry as it appears in English (however many a mewling schoolboy would contest that Shakespeare’s language is not English). At Synetic, his words are translated into physical language and visual poetry, just as they have been translated into countless other languages and art forms throughout history. These interpretations simply underscore the success and timelessness of The Bard’s plays. Synetic follows Shakespeare’s example of adapting classical tales in the parlance of his time for his audiences, appealing to both the groundlings and the gentry.

Mr. Bovard goes on to use Synetic as a grand example of waste by highlighting our receipt of grants. In fact the majority of our support actually comes from our audiences through ticket sales and individual donations – individuals choosing Synetic based on the consistent quality of our work. Though Mr. Bovard thumbs his nose at D.C. cultural community as a whole, Synetic’s work is an example of a rich and diverse cultural community. Our work has also garnered numerous awards and worldwide critical acclaim.

Mr. Bovard misinterprets a Washington Post quote from a favorable review of the Synetic classic and the original wordless Shakespeare Hamlet …the rest is silence. The quote in question is “You don’t understand this Hamlet – you feel it in your gut.” Mr. Bovard seems to think this means audiences don’t understand Synetic’s interpretation of Hamlet, when any reasonable reading of that quote would take it to mean that the understanding of Synetic’s Hamlet goes beyond the words and creates a visceral reaction in the core.

Perhaps the most contradictory paragraph involves Mr. Bovard’s comparison to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. He states, “…that presentation succeeds thanks to magnificent music and viewers’ familiarity with the characters and storyline.” None of those elements are absent from Synetic productions as audiences at Synetic are just as familiar with Shakespeare’s characters and story lines, and our Resident Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze provides beautiful, original soundtracks for our productions.

Physical theatre as an art form is by no means new – it has a long history dating back as far as performance and art itself and Synetic is one of many contemporary physical theatres in existence today.

Wordless Shakespeare also benefits a number of underserved audiences including ESOL students, non-native English speakers, the deaf and hard of hearing community, younger students, students with learning disabilities, and audiences in foreign countries. All of these audience members are able to enjoy wordless productions on equal footing with the rest of the audience, allowing Shakespeare’s story and characters to transcend all manner of language barriers. Synetic simply does what Hamlet demanded of his players; we fit the action to the word, and the word to the action.

In the end, the best art has always been provocative! We are confident enough to let our work “speak” for itself and invite Mr. Bovard to visit our theater in the next month to see our highly lauded interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While text-filled productions of Shakespeare’s plays abound, our wordless Shakespeare is something you won’t see anywhere else.


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13 Responses to Shakespeare Backlash and Brawl

  1. Aaron Goldman July 15, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    130 Helen Hayes Award nominations and 27 Awards, the founders of The Tony Awards’ New York Theater wing recognizing them as one of the top 10 most innovative theaters in America, co-founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili named two of DC’s Washingtonians of the year (2013), naming them one of the top 13 physical theater companies in the world, The Kennedy Center contracting them to perform for 5 years… Actions speak louder than words, pal. You only look foolish trying to use these kinds of people for your own unrelated and irrelevant agenda. They fought (and, as you can see, won) this very old and boring argument 15 years ago.

  2. Michael Yawney July 15, 2015 at 8:02 am #

    So Brovard criticizes specific stagings in non-existant productions (e.g. Richard II striking his head like a Keystone cop) then says their non-existence does not matter. If it does not matter , than may I note that when Mr. Brovard will write advocating feeding live newborn babies to sharks, he will prove to be morally bankrupt? If one is making up the examples one is criticizing it is pretty easy to prove a point.

    Mr. Brovard is ultimately criticizing his own imagined stagings and if the best he can come up with is Richard striking his head, I do not think he has the skill to pull off this kind of production. Why is he is going after this company rather than the many ballet companies that produce Shakespeare-based dance dramas, the many companies that have produced The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), Bernstein for West Side Story, Balanchine for Midsummer, Britten for Midsummer, etc.?

  3. Cindy Karlson July 15, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    He doesn’t go after these other things because, at the end of the day, this is just your standard libertardian straw-man hackery and is really not specifically about Synetic Theater at all: The point is that they get grants, and so he’s using them as an example of the government funding concepts and ideas he doesn’t like, presenting false choices and, as you say, made up examples to cheaply prove what he thinks is a point–when, really, all he’s proving is that he’s never actually seen one of these shows and, as such (and especially not even being any sort of theater/arts professional), he shouldn’t pontificate on them. Just an internet troll i

  4. Lawrence Ludlow July 15, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    As you said, Jim, the emperor has no clothes. Most people who attend live performances like to view themselves as cutting edge intellectuals and aficionados of sophisticated entertainment. Your article, however, points out the elephant in the room, namely, that Shakespeare is perhaps the foremost linguist in terms of playwriting certainly in the English language. To have pointed out that Synetic has deleted the most and indeed only defining characteristic of his work and that it’s audience has lapped it up is to point out what the little boy did to the Emperor. You must remember that this town is full of CIA, FBI, NSA, and Pentagon-istas and other hangers-on of the military industrial congressional complex. These people are all accustomed to seeing documents that have huge blackouts of text and other signs of expurgation. They have completely forgotten what it is to enjoy communication that normal people engage in on a daily basis. When you point out that the performance resembles their content free expurgated files, you remind them that they are living in a despised and absurd cultural bubble.

    Washington is a place that has been ignoring the words in the Constitution for quite some time. It is not a coincidence that they have found a way to enjoy performances of Shakespeare without any words at all.

  5. George Kerley July 15, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    Added to which, they must be truly “despised”, given the facts outlined in Aaron’s post.

  6. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 15, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    That’s right! Go see it before you criticize it! Every good Liberal knows you’re not allowed to criticize or comment on things with any credibility unless you have PERSONALLY experienced the issue in question.

    Unless, of course, you’re a Liberal criticizing, say, gun ownership or cigars. It’s different for the Philosopher Kings.

    Synetic has an interesting concept. So was The Gong Show. I can’t imagine spending time watching either, but if that’s to the taste of others, and they need to use that taste to feel superior to others who have different tastes, great. More power to their sad little egos. Whatever psychological crutch gets you through the day and lets you tell the emperor how nice his wardrobe is.

  7. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 15, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    The same way you know milk is spoiled without taking a big mouthful. You don’t have to personally experience something to know it’s rotten. Well, some of us don’t. I understand that there are other views on the matter.

    And please note – Liberal =/= liberal, any more than Libertarians are necessarily libertarian. One’s a proper noun describing a social/economic/political viewpoint, and thereby gets a capital. The other’s just a dictionary definition. For those of us who love language, precision is important.

    Again, though, I recognize that others just like a steaming cup of “not quite yogurt and never gonna be” and are satisfied with that as a a thought “process.” 😉

    • Jon Broflovsky July 15, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

      And this clown hasn’t even bothered to sniff the bottle. Added to which, if all you’ve got are grammar corrections… well, that’s says a lot too. And speaking of grammar, given your own, it would seem you could stand to “love language” and “precision” a little more 😉

  8. Jon Broflovsky July 15, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    Also, kind of funny the way you smug off about precision in language and then type “…with that as a a thought ‘process.'” Didn’t know there was such a thing as, what is that, a double article in a sentence? Oh well, guess you’re just too “precise” for me… 😉

    • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 15, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

      Nah, that’s just a typo. They happen. Precision in language does not always equate to precision in typing. But I suppose if that’s the best you can do for an “argument” in favor of the lack of sniffage necessary to comment on a crap concept, okay. As our Humble Host knows, I’m willing to throw some snark on the minor league debaters here as well as the Serious Proponents. And yes, I have a propensity for PoohSpeak. It mostly depends on how long your humorless drivel gives me a warm fuzzy and a straight man to keep He Who Owns The Blog laughing.


      Excite me with some more drivel, ’cause I ain’t expecting substance. 😀

  9. Jon Broflovsky July 15, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

    I suppose that’s the best you can do… Couldn’t have put it better myself! 🙂

  10. Anglophile Gal July 16, 2015 at 7:35 am #

    I saw it, and it cannot compare to the Globe.

  11. Anglophile Guy July 16, 2015 at 7:53 am #

    I saw it, and it isn’t trying to.