“a work of art of recognized and established value”
I have been thinking about this word a lot over the last several months. About the power of this word, who uses it, and how it has influenced my life as an artist.
I have been thinking about who has recognized or established the value of what have commonly been referred to as “classics”, and about people who have been excluded from the conversation.
From the time I went to the National Theatre School as a 17-year old, the “Classics” were a canonical notion of historical excellence that were not in question. And not to be questioned. Euripides. Shakespeare. Chekhov. Ibsen. Williams.
When I use the word “Classic” (and boy oh boy have I used this word a lot) I am not making a personal judgement on the value or artistic interest of a play. My opinion of it is, by definition, irrelevant. I am merely repeating (and reinforcing) a notion of a permanent pantheon that existed before my time and will, apparently, long outlive me.
So when an organization dedicates itself to “Classics” (the company I lead does, in part), there is, inherently, a built-in assumption that the playbill is beyond any objective evaluation. The productions themselves can be, of course, but choosing to produce the Cherry Orchard or Electra or The Glass Menagerie is often not criticized in public, because “we are talking about the classics”. I have many colleagues who will challenge this notion effectively in certain situations, but by and large the word “classic” continues to be a shorthand for excellence.
Recently I have been listening to equity-seeking artists describe their complex and varied relationships with “classic” work. There are many points of view, but what speaks loudest to me is a challenge to this monolithic notion of a canon that almost entirely excludes the majority of world culture in favour of a narrow, white notion of “excellence”. And that, I think, is an unassailable position to take.
My colleague Leanna Brodie once wrote this when describing one of her plays:
“…every time you draw a circle, some things are inside the circle, and some things aren’t.”
This simple idea has always floored me. It speaks to so many things, including, I think, the designation of “classic” to a play. Increasingly, I think it gets us nowhere- not the people inside the circle, and certainly not the people on the outside of the circle.
So I am making a personal and simple commitment, starting today. I’m not going to use the word anymore. Not in grant applications. Not in press releases. Not in rehearsals.
This may seem like a small gesture, but I am not sure it isn’t, potentially, important.
By stripping certain works of their privileged status, we are forced to consider their value and relevance as if they were new. What do they say, to us, today? I can hear many colleagues reading this in frustration and saying “But I do that already” but… I’m not convinced that is always true. It hasn’t been for me. Not in the rigorous way I am suggesting.
In applying this commitment to my own personal practice, will it change decisions and choices that I make as an artistic director? I think it will. By articulating our vision without resorting to the word “classic”, we are forced to think deeply about the legacy of these works quite separately from their privileged position.
Will I produce and direct Shakespeare again? I strongly believe I will. Will maintaining this commitment throughout my life as an artist change what kind of production of Shakespeare (or even which Shakespeare) I produce? I think it must.