“Put out the light, and then put out the light”
Emma Rice’s Sudden Departure from Shakespeare’s Globe
What should the role of a board and administration be in determining the artistic direction of a theatre? Must an artistic director adhere to the founding vision of an institution? These are among the thorny and pressing questions raised by the recent news that Emma Rice will leave Shakespeare’s Globe—a decision of the theatre’s CEO and board—scarcely six months after the start of her first season as the institution’s artistic director.
The given reasons for Rice’s departure are artistic. According to a statement issued by the theatre last Tuesday, her first season “has generated productive debate concerning the purpose and theatrical practice of the Globe, in relation to the use of sound and lighting technology within our theatre spaces.” The controversy arose during A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rice’s first production as artistic director that opened in April, in which she used amplified sound and theatrical lighting.
How far can, and should, theatres evolve from the vision of their founders? Is the artistic director obliged to preserve the brand of the institution, or to lead it into the future?
The Globe is a replica of an Elizabethan playhouse built on the south bank of the Thames, close to the site of the original Globe Theatre where Shakespeare and his company worked for fourteen years. The reconstruction was the dream of Sam Wanamaker, the American actor and director who devoted much of his life to the project, and died a few years before the building opened in 1997. The general ethos of the company has been to present plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a style that attempts to mimic Elizabethan stage practice—although the first two artistic directors, Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole, staged some productions in modern dress, to the occasional consternation of traditionalists.
This emphasis on original practice meant that for two decades, directors at the Globe have not used amplification or stage lighting (the theatre has always employed floodlighting to give the impression of daylight during evening performances.) The definition of “original practice” is not entirely self-evident; indeed, the experience of seeing a production at Shakespeare’s Globe, or other historically-based theatres, is far from authentic. Once you consider the performance style (there were no directors in Shakespeare’s theatre, nor was there an equivalent of modern actor training), the front-of-house infrastructure (tickets, online booking, playbills, ice cream at intermission), the behavior of the audience (no bear-baiting or orange sellers), the frequent airplanes passing overhead, not to mention our difficulty in understanding Elizabethan English, the radical shift in pronunciation patterns, and 400 intervening years of performance history that have left their traces on the plays, the whole notion of an authentic experience of Shakespeare quickly dissolves.
To many of us, Rice’s appointment to this institution was a thrilling development. The founder and artistic director of Kneehigh, a theatre company based in rural Cornwall, Rice has become justly famous as a visionary artist and skilled storyteller. Her productions are inventive, lively and colorful, and speak directly to audiences. They combine elements of what Peter Brook calls the “rough” and “holy.” They mix ancient and modern theatre techniques with music and dance, and resonate in a contemporary political and social context. The news of Rice’s arrival at the Globe was profoundly hopeful. The institution, which had essentially become a destination for tourists and schoolchildren, was taking a new direction that was entirely appropriate to the formally inventive spirit of Shakespeare, and his open-hearted, democratic theatre.
I saw Rice’s Midsummer on a warm evening this past June, exactly one week before the Brexit referendum. The theatre was literally packed to the rafters with Londoners and tourists who had come to see Rice’s debut. As those of us who know her work expected, the production joyfully reflected the diversity and vitality of contemporary London, providing a respite from our collective anxiety about the impending vote. It was, it seemed, an ideal beginning to her tenure.
But already a conflict was looming. Before the performance, I ran into a Globe donor in the theatre’s restaurant who told me it was a “scandal” that Rice erected a lighting rig in the archeologically-exact playhouse. Meanwhile some newspaper articles were highly critical of Rice’s new shaping of the Globe’s mission, including her call for gender parity in casting. She was recently attacked in The Times for the “perversity, incongruity, and disrespect” of her approach to Shakespeare and the theatre’s legacy.
The Globe, like post-Brexit Britain, has vaulted backwards into an uncertain future. It’s certainly tempting to read the almost simultaneous events, Rice’s firing and the country’s departure from Europe, as somehow related—a nexus of personal and public narratives that seems, well, Shakespearian.
And then, last week, the crisis. The theatre broke the news of Rice’s termination just hours after unveiling her 2017 season, paradoxically titled “The Summer of Love.” This timing seems bizarre, and many aspects of the situation are puzzling. The dismissal of an artistic director usually comes at a moment of financial exigency, but Midsummer played to sold-out houses and had strong reviews. In fact, the Globe’s CEO Neil Constable acknowledges that “Emma’s mould-breaking work has brought our theatre new and diverse audiences, won huge creative and critical acclaim, and achieved exceptionally strong box office returns.” The rationale Constable argues is artistic—Rice’s work runs counter to the “shared light” aesthetic of the Globe, which unites audience and actors. His statement continues:
The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work. Whilst the realisation of Emma’s vision has been a vital part of our continuing experimentation as a theatre, we have now concluded that a predominant use of contemporary sound and lighting technology will not enable us to optimise further experimentation in our unique theatre spaces and the playing conditions which they offer.
Constable’s statement is paradoxical: Rice’s experimentation inhibited the ongoing experiment of the theatre. I can’t help wondering if there is more to the story than meets the eye. Since the announcement, several commentators have speculated that this cannot simply be a disagreement about lighting. In the past month, Rice herself has spoken of deep-seated misogyny in the British cultural sector. Perhaps this was a factor? Others wonder whether the board had ever seen a Kneehigh production before appointing her; how else could they be so surprised at her artistic choices? Still others have drawn parallels between the institution’s retrenchment and the current political climate. The Globe, like post-Brexit Britain, has vaulted backwards into an uncertain future. It’s certainly tempting to read the almost simultaneous events, Rice’s firing and the country’s departure from Europe, as somehow related—a nexus of personal and public narratives that seems, well, Shakespearian.
This much seems clear: Rice’s swift dismissal from the Globe has made visible some fundamental questions about artists and institutions that I believe a healthy theatre community should discuss frequently. How far can, and should, theatres evolve from the vision of their founders? Is the artistic director obliged to preserve the brand of the institution, or to lead it into the future? Such issues are the stuff of public discourse in other cultures—in Berlin, for example, Chris Dercon’s plans for the Volksbühne are being widely debated—but institutional critique is largely absent from British and American theatre cultures. If Rice’s departure sparks a new level of discussion about the duties and limits of artistic and administrative leadership, perhaps it will not have been entirely in vain.
Art is always in motion. Last year’s experiment becomes this year’s establishment, and next year’s cliché. Shakespeare’s Globe is now at a crossroads, and risks retreating into the preservationist tendencies of the heritage industry, rather than reinventing itself as a dynamic and forward-thinking art center—the promise that Emma Rice’s leadership seemed to offer. Shakespeare was nothing if not an experimental artist, who constantly invented new forms and new ways of playing. His work is defined by liveness, alive-ness; without that spirit, his work will die as a dusty artifact in an archeological museum. Whether or not this is really a fight about stage lighting, light takes on a metaphoric significance in this strange story. Emma Rice’s firing could easily come to symbolize the extinction of light from the Globe—the light of innovation and creative freedom.