A Play for Today

How do you bring the Bard to modern audiences? Las Vegas Shakespeare Company’s artistic director has the answer.

About 25 years ago, screenwriting teacher Dan Decker was watching a film version of Hamlet when he heard a little voice inside his head. The voice asked him a question he usually asked his students: What’s this scene doing here?

Intrigued by the notion that the lessons on simple story structure that he taught in class could be applied to one of the great works of Shakespeare, Decker restructured the original 34-character Hamlet into an eight-character version with a modernized scene organization. He then assembled a small group of actors and a modest audience for a read-through and was amazed at the positive response. “People asked, ‘How did you change the words so I can understand them?’” Since Decker hadn’t changed a single word, he realized that the key to understanding Shakespeare was in the story’s flow and not in the language, as most people would assume.

This concept of “applying modern storytelling techniques to classic texts” became the foundation for the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company, says Decker, the company’s artistic director. “Back in Shakespeare’s day, people could hear the difference between a seven-or eight-syllable line of verse,” he says. “We can’t do that today, but what we can do today is process story at an astonishing rate.” He believes that audiences understand basic story elements such as conflict and resolution and can easily decipher the meaning of a play due to the “400 years of story history that they have behind them,” and exposure to television and movies.

To meet the needs of modern story consumers, he refined his Hamlet experiment into a formula for restructuring plays that the company uses on each work. Decker eliminates the lengthy expositions that open the plays with details of past events. Instead, Las Vegas Shakespeare Company productions begin in the middle of the action, similar to what audiences see in movies, to keep the story streamlined and fast. Another component to the formula is, “Don’t talk about things you don’t see.” Typically throughout Shakespeare’s originals, characters enter and explain, in lengthy prose, events that took place offstage. This can be confusing to our visual-based society, so the actors perform every event essential to the storyline onstage. If the script mentions events that aren’t relevant to furthering the plot, Decker deletes them. His formula evidently works. This year, the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company celebrates its 25th anniversary and is looking to surpass last year’s Shakespeare in the Park attendance record of more than 15,000 with a production of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In its original form, Midsummer is already quite progressive. “You have these four subplots intertwined and you cut back and forth between them, which is an extremely modern technique,” Decker says.

Las Vegas Shakespeare Company also took some artistic liberties when creating the costumes which Decker describes as, “kind of a punk renaissance look” and music which combines Elizabethan-style and modern-day rock ’n’ roll. “Everybody who puts on a Shakespeare play contextualizes it to their century and their continent,” Decker says. “We just do that. We’re contextualizing the plays to 2011 Las Vegas, America.”

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