Shakespeare Organizations during COVID-19: An Interview with Carey Cannon

SAA member Susannah Eig-Gonzalez, a PhD student at University of the Arts, is conducting interviews with Shakespearean actors, directors, educators, and scholars. The purpose of these interviews is to engage in a conversation that addresses the ways in which Shakespeare is being used in this moment as well as how and why we value his work in general. Eig-Gonzalez kindly offered to share her interviews with SAA members. Below is a transcript of Eig-Gonzalez’s conversation with Carey Cannon, Associate Artistic Director at American Players Theatre.

screenshot showing Susannah Eig-Gonzalez and Carey Cannon on a video call
Susannah Eig-Gonzalez, above, with Carey Cannon

Carey Cannon & Supporting Local

By Susannah Eig-Gonzalez

In the following interview, Carey Cannon, the Associate Artistic Director at American Players Theatre, talks ticket sales, a Forest of Arden in Spring Green, WI, and stewardship.

Susannah Eig-Gonzalez: So let’s start with the big question: Does Shakespeare matter during a global pandemic?

Carey Cannon: I work at a classical theater. So inherently I think Shakespeare matters because I’m spending my life producing it. We are like everybody else trying to figure out what’s next. And we just got, now this is not, this is the minutia as opposed to the bigger ideas, but in the minutia, we are, we got this PPP money, so we’re able to hire our actors and our stage managers back to work on place, virtually. So the first thing we did was started working on Shakespeare, and every actor to a person found that diving into dense poetry when our brains are fearful, or anxious or distressed, occupies us in a way that is helpful for our brains. Because it’s our business and we’re going back into it, it also makes us feel productive. But does it matter? In terms of is it making a difference? It is locally, globally. I can’t say that our creation, except that the loss of it affects a society. So trying to find ways that it’s not lost, but I believe, as many other of my colleagues believe that there’s no substitution for particularly for plays like Shakespeare’s plays that are so audience focused. There’s not a play of his that doesn’t include acknowledge, celebrate depend on the spectator. Yeah. And so what does it mean when we don’t have them or if we have them virtually, but they’re not in front of us. We’re trying to answer that question in the next eight weeks that we have this money by doing by reading some Shakespeare together. Jimmy’s writing a play about Shakespeare’s characters during the plague, who will all end up at Mistress Quickly’s. And it’s interesting and funny. And everybody who reads Shakespeare know Shakespeare says, “Well, during the plague Shakespeare wrote Lear.” So it puts us all in this position, like, well, what am I doing? But I guess to go back to your original question. Yeah, I mean, I think it matters because in the face of something that we can’t affect, looking at something as– Like there’s no getting– If you love Shakespeare and spend your time Shakespeare, which you clearly do, there’s no end of learning. Like there’s no box you can check and say, Oh, well done with Hamlet. I understand everything about that. I’m clear on Hamlet. So it’s really, but that’s selfish. So it does matter to the world? It matters to our patrons that we’re putting work out there. And we’re regional, very patron focused. Not after national acknowledgment not moving plays to Broadway, unlike Ashland or even Utah or these other big summer rep festivals, though we’re very focused on the audience we serve. Not that those places aren’t. But certainly Ashland has greater ambitions and has had great success moving things from their base to global stages. Our audience comes from here 40 miles away. So we’re serving them still. And they say it’s important to them.

SE: Yeah, I’d love to hear more about that. If you have a story or something specific that comes to mind. How have they been reaching out to you guys? What has their response been during this time?

CC: On our opening day of ticket sales—Wisconsin hadn’t gotten a stay at home order, but there were other states that had, so clearly we were moving into a place where it was coming—we opened our ticket sales to returning ticket buyers. And on that one day, we sold $2 million worth of tickets. Now, we were shocked. And it was our best first day ever, when all of us knew that our season was going to be affected. There was no way that we were going to be able to produce without this having an effect, right? So right away, we thought, okay, they care about us, and they want to support us. So then it became more and more clear that—although we haven’t announced yet—we’re going to have to push back or at least condense our season. And we watch the news, too. So whether we get a season in at all, it’s certainly in question. The worst the news has gotten, the more frequently our patrons are in touch with us. And they’re on our property. I don’t know if you know anything about our theater, but we’re on 110 acres in the woods. We have 1,000 seat outdoor amphitheater and a 200 seat indoor space, and they are three-quarter thrust, no amplification. We’re in the woods. So because we have all this property, on our Facebook page we were doing just a little: “Hey, we know this is a terrifying time. We’re going to be there. We’re going to make it through this. You’ll make it through this. Come out to the property if you want. Walk around. It’s still here.” And I walked my dog there about every other day, and there are people all over—10 feet apart, but having a picnic and walking up to the stage.

SE: It’s like the Forest of Arden.

CC: Yeah, people feel that way when they go there. So if the place itself that we consider ourselves stewards of means that much to them that even without the art on the hill, they’re going, and it feeds them in a way. They’re going up on the stage. I walked my dog up there, and there was this older couple reading Shakespeare on our stage. That’s when the picture starts to get broader, but it’s really patron focused or “our audience” focused, and we have a core company of actors that live here in this town, and the town is tiny. It’s 1,600 people, and when our theater is full, we have more people on our property than live in this town. It feels very—it feels necessary. It matters to them, so we’re learning.

SE: It sounds like you guys, not necessarily through the art creation, but through your physical existence are giving lifeblood to your community.

CC: It feels that way. We did a stakeholders Zoom meeting, and then we did a business leaders Zoom meeting. And all the business owners in town and ourselves and the other tourist—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin is here, as well—It’s a strange, odd little creative community. Some of this is so much easier when you’re in a small place because it’s a very supportive community.

SE: It sounds amazing.Besides opening up the physical space of the property, how is APT responding to the crisis?

CC: We’re doing these play readings, PBS is going to stream them. Our local Madison PBS station is going to record them, tweak the video, and then have that available on their streaming platform, and the folks at PBS said, you know, if we’re going to do five of these, at least two of them should be Shakespeare, and then we’ll probably do some Shaw of Chekov. So deciding which Shakespeare plays work, I’ve been watching everything that’s online.

SE: I would love to hear about that experience. What have you seen that you admire? And what have you seen that doesn’t work as well?

CC: I saw a Two Gents. I saw A Midsummer.There’s a company called Back RoomShakespeare. They don’t rehearse. They don’t have a director, and they do it in a bar, or they rehearse once and they do it in a bar. And the guy Samuel Taylor, he wrote this wrote book about their practices. And so they did aMidsummer that embraced everything about technology. It was on TikTok. It was on FaceTime, it was on—I’m gonna embarrass myself because I’m 53, and I don’t know any of this…

SE: The fact that you started with TikTok shows that you’re very cool.

CC: I know some young people. But they went with it. So the guy Nick Harizan, who’s a lovely actor did Puck, and he did all these filters.(I may be misremembering which character did this.) But they embraced the things that technology brings. And that was really fun and really focused on their audience that likes to see Shakespeare in a bar. Yeah. There was a scruffy, fun take to it that really suits their brand and their audience. And although I had a really good time, and I know a lot of those actors, it was super fun. It’s just not our way at it. We’re WONKS about it. We have a voice and text coach, and we think and think and think and count commas. It’s not like we’re trochee-crazed. But the words are the most important part for us. Not that they don’t care about words; I don’t want to cast aspersions on the way other people practice, but we actually believe that there’s something about what two words do when they’re next to each other. Sylvia has a line in Two Gents, which I’m thinking of because I just saw this Two Gents, where she says “From a heart as full of sorrow as the sea of sands,” and that he puts all those S’s in there makes you feel something when you hear it. And that’s the most important part to us. Okay, we can do that in the box, and put those words together with a deep and personal understanding of what those words mean to us. And by being as personal as that to me—if I were still acting—we think that that opens up to the audience. And our audience skews older, and they don’t TikTok, so that wouldn’t appeal to them. Some of these actors have been here for 30 years, and our audience is deeply connected to those human beings. So that’s what we’re gonna do. And we have a coach who’s working with us, and we’re probably reading plays that these actors have done those roles in front of this audience, so I think that that’s gonna resonate. This is all theoretical, because we just started.

SE: Sure, but I think there’s something maybe about that familiarity that might be comforting right now.

CC: Why is it important right now? If it’s a source of comfort? There are precious few.

SE: Absolutely. Do you have plays that are already sort of rising above others and in terms of selection, like ones that you guys are being drawn to?

CC: Yeah, I think we’re going to do Julius Caesar because it was in our season, and our actors have been working on it. The other Shakespeare I think we might do is As You Like It because of the woods, and it’s so—that Duke senior speech about these co-mates and brothers in exile, it feels like—and also just purely practically there are a lot of two-handed scenes or three-handed scenes, and that’s an easier get then the “gullingscene.” We’re like how do you do that? I think we’ll probably do, and this is purely practical, non-royalty plays for most of them because as we’re discussing, both with the unions with SAG-AFTRA and Equity, who gets their hand in what, with the streaming stuff is all new. So PBS has encouraged us not to start negotiating with rights, as well. We’ll want to do Shaw because our audience loves Shaw, maybe we’ll play some one acts. We’re in Wisconsin, in rural Wisconsin, which is a homogenous place. So increasing the diversity of our company has also allowed us to open up our dramaturgy to include other voices that are classics. And so we really want to make sure that one of these titles encourages our audience to know that we’re still working on this. We’re still in that direction. We’re still opening up our dramaturgy to include other titles. So we had McCraney’s Brothers Sizein the season. So maybe we’ll do that. I don’t know. Some of our folks know him well, and so we might be able to negotiate something, but that’s wishful, entirely magical thinking.

SE: I have one other question. This started as a question that was a fun way to end these interviews, and it’s become my favorite question because I think it’s my comfort. I think this question is me looking for comfort is what I figured out. Is there any line passage character situation, entire play from Shakespeare, that this time that we’re in brings to mind?

CC: I was just thinking this morning actually, and I don’t know the whole line. I was walking around my house. We’re all in our homes, right? So “bounded in a nutshell” kept coming into my head. And that the other half of that, which is “And consider myself the that duh-duh-duh,” which is bounded in a nutshell, and the reverse of that is expansiveness. The echoes of that were going through my head this morning. The idea that our external circumstances don’t need to—they do for Hamlet, they are for Hamlet, he is squeezed like this. But he’s saying, if this other thing wasn’t true, I couldbe content, I could be content. That. Our circumstances don’t have to compress us, and there are lots of lines and characters in Shakespeare that they expand beyond circumstance. So a lot of the heroines and certainly those Hals and Hamlets and thinkers and strivers. So yeah I don’t know why that one because it’s a moment in the play where he’s struggling so much and it gave me so much comfort that I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t think I’m remembering that line right?” But it does feel theatrical and whether it’s the Henry V you know opening when they talking about imagination, and you can be in a space and with your imagination make it a different thing. Those are the things for me. What about you? What are the ones that keep echoing for you?

SE: Well it’s maybe a little unfair because I’ve heard so many beautiful answers to that question. So now other people’s things are coming to my mind. But originally before I started these interviews, it was Mackers, it was “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace.” I don’t think that’s really where I am anymore because actually, these interviews have been so incredible, um, and hearing all the different perspectives—and not everyone is no one’s entirely positive or negative, but you know, there are people who tend certain ways like some people who are really anxious right now and some people who are like this is an opportunity, and I love that you brought up the Henry V opening because conversation I had with someone else was about, I think it was with Bill Kane, but I can’t remember right now, and he was talking about, you know, I don’t believe Shakespeare thought that we were going to sit down and believe that this boy actor in front of us was Rosalind. You know, he was asking us to use our imaginations to some extent because that is the onus of the audience. That’s our responsibility. And I love that because I think a lot of people are saying, “Oh, I can’t do a Zoom thing. No one will ever believe that.” And it’s like, that’s our whole job is is to have that connection where we are agreeing, we are making a contract to go on this journey together. I think you should do Henry V now. No! That would be hard on Zoom.

CC: It would be interesting. We’re like, how do you kill Caesar on Zoom? I don’t know but we have a very smart director!

SE: Exactly! I love that.

CC: It was delightful to fit to chat with you. I’m excited for every time I meet a young smart woman who loves doing this work. I am so thrilled because the idea of this work is that we steward it—my theme of the day apparently! You carry it for as long as you carry it, and then if nobody else wants to carry it, it doesn’t matter anymore. But as long as young people are interested and excited by them, by those words, then I mean, Shakespeare has been fine for 400 years, right?

*The interview with Carey Cannon took place on April 23, 2020.