backstage (2006-28)

Whereunto All the Filth Doth Runne

Shakespeare on the Square revisits its Elizabethan roots

by Kevin Crowe

Those people who stood in the pit of the Globe Theatre in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, those who’d pay a quid just to stand in the dirt of the open-air theater, were unaffectionately called groundlings. They were the poor, illiterate masses who’d heckle an actor just as often as they’d applaud. Not much has changed during the hot, muggy Knoxville summers, when Shakespeare on the Square is in full swing.

“The set we have created here is a vague reconstruction of the Globe,” says Tom Parkhill, founding director of the Tennessee Stage Company. He helped mastermind these free summer Shakespeare series, which have become an institution over the last 16 years. “The way we stage our plays is, more or less, the simplicity of style that would’ve been used at that time, as far as we know,” Parkhill continues. “We are in some ways—a little bit consciously, a little by happenstance—recreating the Elizabethan Shakespeare experience.”

“At first we weren’t sure how playing on Market Square was going to work, because there are so many bars and pubs and restaurants that have outdoor patios that are open until 11 o’clock at night,” says Jenny Ballard, the company’s artistic director, “so we were going to be competing with ambient noise all around.”

That boozy Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson hated the groundlings and their tendency to burst into raucous applause after a good, bloody sword fight. He called it “the foamy praise that drops from common jaws.” And, in 1603, satirist Henry Cross wrote that the average playgoers were “the leaudest persons in the land, the very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, thieves cutpurses, shifters; briefly an uncleane generation, and spaune of vipers...for a play is like a sinke in town; whereunto all the filth doth runne: or a byle in the body, that draweth all the humours into it.”

But we don’t study Henry Cross anymore. There aren’t Ben Jonson festivals all over the country. There’s a reason we still love Shakespeare. Deep down audiences still relate to the chaotic, rowdy works of the Bard. We can’t get enough blood, death and humanity. We want to jeer the villain and praise the virtuous, all while stumbling around, eating dinner or enjoying a beer. Here on the Square, the audience doesn’t always have to be attentive.

That’s one of the things that has made Shakespeare on the Square so interesting, because the actors don’t have our attention when the play opens. There aren’t any dimming lights, no salient visual cues. This kind of Shakespeare is organic, happening in real time, slightly more performance art than straight theater. Sometimes the play’s in the background, as an afterthought. Sometimes, we’re drawn in, like bile in the body, drawing all ill humors into sweet, foamy praise.

“Part of the reason we do it on the Square and part of the reason we do it free is because it’s an uncontrolled situation,” Parkhill says. “You can’t say, ‘Here is the audience’ and ‘Here is the outside of the theater.’ Everything here is an audience. The show and the audience are impacted by what’s around them. Our limited knowledge of Elizabethan productions suggests that [Shakespeare] played to a rowdy crowd. There was a lot of social interaction.”

For about a decade, Parkhill and his troupe performed at the Tennessee Amphitheater at World’s Fair Park. Then they moved into the Black Box Theatre, and crowds began to dwindle.

“One thing that Knoxville really needs is an outdoor Shakespeare festival,” Ballard says. When the company first moved to Market Square in 2002, they found themselves in the middle of a construction site. They affectionately dubbed the series “Shakespeare on the Rocks.”

“Even though we were playing in the middle of construction,” Ballard goes on, “we were still drawing 250 people each night.”

This year, the bloody Henry V and the sexually-charged Taming of the Shrew will be performed. “I jokingly refer to these early years on the Square as ‘Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits,’” Parkhill says. “We did As You Like It . We did Midsummer Night’s Dream , Macbeth , Twelfth Night . We’re cherry-picking what historically are viewed as the popular plays.”

For Henry V , Leigh Monet has stepped up to take on the role of Henry, delivering the St. Crispin’s Day speech that Kenneth Branagh perfected in 1989. Monet first proved that she was a powerful Shakespearian last year as Lady Macbeth.

“There’s not a better place to put people in elaborate costumes,” Ballard says. “I think I have a soft spot for Elizabethan Shakespeare.”

For Taming of the Shrew , Ballard and her cast remind us of just what a hysterically funny play this is. “People worry about the male-female relationships of it, forgetting that that didn’t matter to Shakespeare,” Parkhill says. “Time has shifted and we have different ways of looking at it now, but when you peel that away, it’s just a crazy-funny play.”

“Shakespeare’s plays cover all the bases of human nature,” Ballard adds, “and they do it poetically and beautifully…. You can adapt them to get a slightly different message across. They’re timeless, absolutely timeless.”

And, as long as the material allows for experimentation and reinterpretation, there will always be an audience. It may not always be full of your typical theatergoers, but they’ll be there. Perhaps John Marston said it best in the early 17th century, when he described the Elizabethan theatergoer as “pasted to the balmy jacket of the beer-brewer.”

What: Tennessee Stage Co., Shakespeare on the Square