Re-Creating Shakespeare

December 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: When the actors of the Globe Theatre Company came to Pittsburgh recently, they brought a sense of interactivity, 1600 style.

Preparing for a performance of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” actors dressed on stage– here, as in Elizabethan times, males played all the roles, and they exchanged banter with members of the audience.

MARK RYLANCE, actor: You’re going to be very close to the action.

JEFFREY BROWN: This five-city U.S. tour is part of a grand, now ten-year-old effort to re-imagine Shakespearean theater. At the heart of the experiment is the recreation of the historic Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames River in London.

The original Globe was built in 1599 by, and for, the Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare’s company of players. It was located here across the river from official London, in an area of brothels, bear-baiting and other bawdy entertainments. The rebirth was the brainchild of American actor Sam Wanamaker, who insisted on a design and materials as close as possible to the original.

In this open-air theater, the show goes on rain or shine, scenery is minimal, and some audience members, called groundlings, stand throughout the performance, some close enough to reach out and touch the actors.

The man charged with making the Globe a living, breathing theater was Mark Rylance who became the Globe’s artistic director in 1995 after founder Sam Wanamaker died.

MARK RYLANCE: I carry an electric torch in my back pocket. And with this I located the wreck.

JEFFREY BROWN: The English-born, American-raised Rylance was already a renowned Shakespearian actor. And even while running the company, he’s continued to take on numerous roles, male and female. In “Measure for Measure,” he played the duke of Vienna.

MARK RYLANCE: Haste still pays haste and leisure answers leisure. Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rylance is also eager to pass on what he’s learned. During the Pittsburgh run, he held a master class for students at Carnegie Mellon.

MARK RYLANCE: The purpose of being muscular is not so that you can’t move at all. The purpose is to have muscles that are flexible and are strong.

ACTOR: She speaks. Yet she says nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite early skepticism, the Globe experiment has been a success with both critics and the public. Two and a half million people have shown up since Rylance arrived. He recently announced he would step down from his post at the Globe at year’s end.

Onstage at Pittsburgh’s O’Reilly Theater, he talked with us about his unique, decade-long experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: It occurred to me, in thinking about you and about the Globe Theatre that it’s an unusual situation in that in this case it’s the theater that’s the star, is that right?

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how did you deal with that?

MARK RYLANCE: Well, like you do with any star. You pay attention to him. (Laughs) But you’re absolutely right. I mean, even if, you know, Olivier or Marlon Brando were to come back and act on the stage, more people would be there because of the theater than because of any actor we had on the stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did it take some relearning for you as an actor with how to deal with this very different kind of theatrical space?

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah, primarily — primarily with sound. Our culture’s very visually oriented now, and we’ve lost a lot of appreciation of speech. We had to really rediscover — begin to rediscover a love of eloquence and a love of good speech.

And because we don’t have any electric lighting system, which now in modern theaters and certainly film, you know, focuses the audience’s attention on characters and on where the director wants you to pay attention, we had to learn also how to give and take focus as actors to each other, both with our stillness and our movement and our silence and our sound.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about relearning how to interact with the audience, because they’re in the same light as you are, right?

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah. We had to learn to be able to look an audience member in the face, speak with them, not to them or for them. What’s nice about the theater is that if it rains or if an airplane flies over or a pigeon comes and lands on the stage, it’s very present, and everyone knows it’s only happening at that moment, and everyone is part of the same world. So I more and more came to think of the audience as fellow actors.

JEFFREY BROWN: As fellow actors, part of the play?

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah, often I would make them part of a play. So if I’m playing Henry V in, you know, before the Battle of Agincourt when I have to come out and speak to a lot of soldiers and say to them that I think we’re going to die, but I think that this is what is required at the moment from fate, it’s better, rather than play that to a few, you know, extras up on stage with my back to the audience, much better just to speak with the audience as if they are the soldiers and say, “Will you come with me or will you not?” So they get it direct, live and direct.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about those times where they got so involved? I guess you had the experience where they threw things at the stage, at the actors.

MARK RYLANCE: They did. I partly encouraged that, I think. It’s partly my fault. I feel there’s too much reverence for Shakespeare. So I did say to the audience, I want them to do whatever they want to do, and if they want to throw things, they can.

JEFFREY BROWN: If they didn’t like a character, then they could express it.

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah. They threw purple sprout, which is a kind of green vegetable at the French in Henry V. And the actors got very upset with it. But then they — then one of the actors said, “You know, what do you expect from the British?” — the guy playing the king of France. And then the actors treated it —

JEFFREY BROWN: It became a part of the play.

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah. It was very good.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the beginning, I think most people were expecting that the Globe would be a kind of theme park, sort of a Disney, Elizabethan stage.


JEFFREY BROWN: But what convinced you, or when did you know that it could be more than that?

MARK RYLANCE: I don’t know — I don’t know if I was certain. It always seemed to me logical that a theater artist as great as Shakespeare was probably going to have a pretty great theater. And if you could find out honestly and faithfully what it was like, you were probably going to be on the winning side. I think it’s challenging all kinds of things, that architecture.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it is challenging the way we do theater today?

MARK RYLANCE: Yeah. I think we’ve had a hundred years of very, very intellectual appreciation of Shakespeare and that’s been fantastic, but the notes and the intellectual appreciation in universities of Shakespeare, and the kind of taking — putting the arm around him and making him a literary genius, which of course he is. But that wasn’t his intention.

His intention was to write stuff to be heard and played, and what the increased intellectual understanding– and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that side of it a lot– that has thrown into shadow the visceral, sensual, physical appreciation of the plays, I think.

And I think the Globe has really — will revive a lot more of those skills amongst the actors, the use of music, dance, jokes, humor, and this kind of wonderfully irreverent, generous wit that’s such a character of Shakespeare’s writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it an interesting experience for you to play a woman?

MARK RYLANCE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.


MARK RYLANCE: Well, it’s very challenging. And, you know, you’re going to play a woman in front of a lot of women. So it’s like playing a banker in front of a lot of bankers or a murderer in a prison in front of a lot of murderers, you —

JEFFREY BROWN: People who really know what that is.

MARK RYLANCE: (Laughs) People who know what it is to be a woman, yeah. It was quite pleasant, in a way, because I got to legitimately look at women a lot and watch them. And it was quite fun to confine my body and use my body as much as I could in a different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re leaving after ten years of getting this thing going, bringing it into being. Are you satisfied with what’s been created?

MARK RYLANCE: I’m very satisfied. And, I mean, just feel so privileged to — and so lucky to have been alive and be an actor at that time and in that place.

You know, you think of all the actors who’ve not had that opportunity– Gielgud, Olivier, Keyne, Irving. None of them had a Globe Theatre. It’s an incredible thing that Sam Wanamaker and his friends handed to my generation. It was one of those great things of an older generation doing all the work and handing it to the next generation and saying, “Here, you have this, you play with this.”

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Mark Rylance, thanks for talking with us.

MARK RYLANCE: Thanks, Jeff.

GWEN IFILL: The Globe Theatre Company will end its U.S. tour this week with performances of “Measure for Measure” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.