“It’s not your granddaddy’s Shakespeare.”
That’s how Jennifer Lanier, Original Practice Shakespeare co-artistic director, describes the company’s approach to producing the Bard. With limited rehearsal, onstage prompters and a rowdy audience, OPS is a throwback to how plays were put on in Shakespeare’s lifetime, while also offering modern, gender-fluid casting that not only allows the actor to pick which gender they want to perform in but sometimes gives the audience a say in it too.
“We’re an incredibly contemporary company that does things in a 16th century manner,” said Lanier.
OPS has been around since 2009, but this year, it’s mounting a new challenge: Not only will it perform the Henry trilogy on consecutive nights this coming weekend (without its usual live audience), but it’ll livestream the whole shebang on Facebook and YouTube. Henry IV, Part One will air on Friday, June 4; Henry IV, Part Two on Saturday, June 5; and Henry V on Sunday, June 6.
It might seem like a hard ask for a theater that’s so geared to live, in-person events and the interaction that comes from them to pivot online (it’ll get back to a full summer season of live shows in the parks, starting June 21) but the virtual productions have actually allowed OPS to deepen its relationship with the audience.
“The online performances created something unexpected and gorgeous,” said Lanier. “We got to know people. They watched every show we did. Normally, that’s not possible. I mean, that’s a lot to ask someone to go out to a park every single weekend, day after day, night after night.”
With apologies to Hamlet, the play isn’t the only thing. With OPS, it’s also about the experience. Early on during the pandemic, the ensemble found ways to keep the improvisational spirit of their performances alive, whether through clever positioning of the actors so that they appeared to be in conversation with each other, or the passing of props that got increasingly larger every time they appeared on screen.
“We discovered the magic of illusion,” Lanier said.
They’ve even found a way to translate audience participation online.
“The magic is in the comment section,” said Lanier. “The comment section was the yelling back, the booing and cheering. Sometimes the actors would answer them back [during the performance].”
The Henry plays, which climax on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, enjoy an unexpected resonance during the pandemic. As Lanier points out, “Folks didn’t want to go to war, just like we don’t want people to die from COVID. Nobody signed up for this. And [through Falstaff] Shakespeare finds a comic way to deal with it.”
Lanier has a particular soft spot for Falstaff, everyone’s favorite hustler. “Shakespeare was just on the button with the human condition,” she said. “It’s all about relationships. It’s all about, you know, how do you show that you’re a good person? How do you get by when you’re really not getting all of your financial needs met? I have friends now that have had to do more than they ever thought they would have to do just to try to make a living because of all of the things that shut down.”
OPS has announced a slate of live performances for 2021 – the season in the parks will encompass 29 performances between June 6 and Aug. 29, and include 23 plays – but will continue to incorporate online performances going forward. Regardless of the format, OPS will be sure to keep its trademarked spontaneity.
“That’s what keeps people coming back,” said Lanier. “They don’t know how that story’s going to get told on this night, and so it’s kind of like, ‘Who knows what those crazy people are going to do? What are they going to show me tonight?’”
Original Practice Shakespeare airs the Henry trilogy this weekend. Click here for more info.