How do you perform comedy for an audience with no sense of irony?
In Jerry Seinfeld’s case, you don’t – because you’ve stopped performing on college campuses.
America’s quick-witted satirist created a furor last month when he said “no more.”
It’s that “creepy PC thing,” Seinfeld has said in interviews. How can a jokester tell jokes if he can’t offend anyone?
Seinfeld’s U-turn may signal a cultural watershed. If modern, mainstream humor encounters judgmental walls – or the opposite, yawning boredom – what do you do?
In an effort to attract younger audiences of what everyone likes to call “millennials,” all kinds of organizations are experimenting with marketing and performance styles.
Esteemed Shakespeare festivals from Oregon to Utah to Canada’s Stratford are rethinking how to attract, entertain and keep millennials engaged in first-rate live theater.
Now in its 54th year, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is in the top tier of professional companies that offer spectacular productions of Shakespeare plays, contemporary works and, increasingly, musicals.
In 2015, USF is presenting “Henry IV, Part 2,” “King Lear” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” In addition, the company offers Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus,” a spellbinding dramatization of the Mozart-Salieri conflict; a frothy, high-spirited rendition of “Charley’s Aunt;” and a sumptuous interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” It’s a winning combination of styles and periods – classic and modern, tragedy and comedy. If you plan well, you can see the complete season in three days.
All six repertory productions opened in late June in stunning, tumbling tandem. With a multi-million-dollar budget and a year of preparation, all six performances have a jaw-dropping beauty, raw in the case of “King Lear,” lush in the case of “South Pacific.”
The Shakespearean plays run on the festival’s outdoor Adams Theatre stage, an imagined twin to London’s Globe Theatre. It’s the final year, because a new, $31.8 million complex will open in 2016. Much nostalgia will accompany the final performances later in the Wooden-O’s last season.
This summer’s Lear (played by the brilliant Tony Amendola) is set in a bleak, blue-black, abstract landscape. Act I’s sudden unraveling of the kingdom unfurls in angry diatribes and calculated cunning. After intermission, the production crescendos toward a horrendous storm when Lear’s madness sets in. Nobody does thunder and crackling hail better than the USF tech crew.
With equal intensity, “Amadeus” tells the demise of a good-man-turned-bad in a fictional rendering of Mozart’s untimely death. Shaffer’s 1979 play and 1984 movie about corrosive jealousy center on court composer Antonio Salieri (played with shifting intentions by the magnificent David Ivers).
As a musician, Salieri may be mediocre, but he has first-rate ears. He grasps the magnitude of Mozart’s genius while recoiling at his crudity (portrayed with youthful confidence by Tasso Feldman). With mouthfuls of praise and false smiles, Salieri plots Mozart’s downfall. When Salieri addresses the audience about average people, mediocrities like himself, the dilemma of being human strikes home.
At the morning discussion that followed the evening performance, Director J. R. Sullivan answered questions about “Amadeus.” In response to many audience comments which suggested self-examination, he said, “If we are not the central character in any play, the production doesn’t have traction.”
The plays at USF have a half-century track record of traction. The goal always has been to present artistic, relevant and meaningful productions.
So what about attracting younger audiences? For theater companies everywhere, it’s a Seinfeld dilemma in reverse.
Throughout the fall, USF has a touring group that presents a Shakespearean comedy in 40 schools. Last year, Durango’s Misha Fristensky was in the educational company.
Audience development? Any catering to millennials? Yes.
“I agreed to the modernization,” director Fred Adams said of the USF interpretation of “Taming of the Shrew.” The production combines lavish period costumes and a gorgeous Italian villa with a shift in acting style. Shrew has an abundance of contemporary gestures, a kind of youthful code designed to communicate with a young audience.
“My ulterior motive was to help young people connect with Shakespeare,” said Adams, who, as a co-founder of USF back in 1962, has earned his stripes as a director of comedies.
Expect to see fist bumps, secret signals, thumbs-up and quotation marks, to name a few. The good news is, Adams got what he wished for. Young people laughed at the gestures, if not at Shakespearean wit or word-play.
It’s not a small thing – and it’s catching on. Utah isn’t alone in this stylistic shift. Durango’s own Merely Players mixes performance and costume styles to contemporize classics.
As a New York critic noted last summer at Oregon Shakes, “When millennial style goes mainstream, we’re already past a cultural shift.”
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.