Several weeks ago, my wife Stephanie and I went to Regent's Park in London to see some Open Air Theatre. Their production of Comedy of Errors was big - like, a cast of 21 people on a huge stage in front of a gigantic billboard welcoming us to Ephesus big. That big.
A week later, we found ourselves in a park in Taunton, seeing Shakespeare's Globe on Tour, also performing Comedy of Errors, and their production was really small. Like, a cast of 8 people on a tiny stage in front of a shabby-looking tent small. That small.
While both productions were well-acted and full of comic moments, the Regent's Park show felt a bit lumbering at times. Its pace was just a bit too slow, and as a result, nearly every joke fell flat. And I honestly think it had something to do with the scale of the production, because where the Regent's Park version struggled, the Globe's pared-down version soared.
Ralph Alan Cohen, founder of the American Shakespeare Center (and my friend on Facebook!), argues that original practices can free actors from the fetters of modern theatrical conventions. In his view, all those fancy lighting cues, concepts, set pieces, and so forth, can actually detract from the storytelling process. Think about it - these plays were written for a particular kind of theatrical experience - one in open-air, with natural light, surrounding a small and sparsely-decorated cadre of performers on a simple scaffold. Perhaps the plays actually work better under these original conditions?
Well, I found that such is the case, at least with these two productions. The Globe's touring version is every bit as vibrant and memorable as Regent's Park's behemoth, but it has something more. It has the life and energy of original practices - the fast pace, the genuine audience interaction, the lightness and freedom of play.
Take-home message: smaller can be better!
And that's the aesthetic that the Grassroots Shakespeare Company was born to embrace. The small, simple, and unpretentious feel of an Elizabethan touring company. Simply a group of actors who come together and offer what they've got, creating something that lives most vividly in the collective imagination of the audience, the actors, and the playwright.