My previous post, “William Shakespeare: Owner,” connected Shakespeare’s monetary and (to some extent) artistic success, as well as his productivity, with his being part owner of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and The Globe (i.e., “controlling the means of production”). But you might have gotten to the end of that post and thought, “Hey, wait a minute! What happened to Peter Brook’s definition of the “empty space” you took as a “starting point” over a month ago? What happened to your instruction that I “forget everything” about the way we think theater ought to be done? Here you are holding up the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as a model—a theater with a large company of actors who own their own space? How is that any different than the way we think theater ought to be done now? (And if you didn’t think that, then you need to turn your Crap Detector up a few notches higher.)
There are a couple quick points that highlight the difference between that model and today’s, although I won’t spend much time outlining them.
- Who owns the means of production matters. In today’s system, producers and theater owners own the means of production, and their primary motivation is profit; in Shakespeare’s case, the artists own the means of production, and their primary motivation is the work itself. Don’t get me wrong: if the Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t turn a profit, Shakespeare wouldn’t eat—they couldn’t ignore revenue. But the work itself was of primary importance, and generating revenue allowed them to continue creating more work. That’s the difference.
- Continuity matters. Shakespeare didn’t write using a blank slate. He knew the space his plays would be performed in, and he knew which actors would be playing the roles. Did this put limits on his imagination? Of course—he was not going to be writing, say, a play for a cast primarily made up of women; he knew he had a couple actors who played female roles, and he needed to work within that limit. At the same time, he benefitted from being able to write plays that would take advantage of and enhance the unique talents of the company members—Hamlet is Hamlet because Richard Burbage was Richard Burbage. And if the Globe didn’t have a balcony, he’d have written Romeo and Juliet differently, and without a trap he’d have figured out some other way to do the Gravedigger Scene in Hamlet.
- Versatility matters. Today’s theater is made up of specialists: playwrights write plays, actors act, designers design, administrators administer. When someone starts thinking about doing a show today, they immediately think in terms of a herd of specialists. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men couldn’t survive if they did that (and frankly, neither can contemporary companies). Shakespeare wrote plays, but he also acted and participated in administrative tasks, and so did everybody else. John Heminge was the primary business manager, and he also acted; Henry Condell acted and oversaw the publication of the First Folio, and also (if memory serves) oversaw the bar attached to the Globe. Everybody had multiple tasks.
That said, however, when you, as an artist, are considering taking another path than is currently common, you must start by thinking smaller. So now is when we double back to Peter Brook:
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”Peter Brook, The Empty Space
There are three elements Brook describes:
- A place
- A performer
- A spectator
In this post, and in more to come, I am going to focus on the second element: the performer. Or rather, the company member.
From here on out, I’m going to proceed as if you, at least in your imagination, are planning on taking control of the means of production, and that means forming a company. But right now, following Peter Brook, it’s just you. Not you and three friends who, after a couple pitchers of beer, suddenly pounded the table and declared, “Let’s do a show!” You. Period.
Could you have a company with just you? Yes, of course. You could have entire seasons devoted to the plays of Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, and all the plays on this list. Just for starters. Mike Wiley has forged an entire career writing and performing solo plays (and films!) about Jackie Robinson, Emmett Till, and many others. (Note the versatility: performing and writing.) So it’s certainly possible, and if that is where you’d like to start, my recommendation would be to research some of these people, starting with Mike Wiley, who’s a really good guy who I know will share his wisdom.
But solo work may not be what you have in mind.
However you must not jump from a company of one person to one with an army of specialists. There are rules for adding company members. And that’s what the next post will be about.
2 thoughts on “forming a company (part 1)”