The title Who’s Afraid of Titus? has at least three meanings I can see.
1: Performers who fear that audiences won’t come see an unfamiliar play.
2: Professors (Shakespeare theorists) confused by a play that doesn’t fit the usual template.
Sky Gilbert embraces the weirdly different as an affirmation of humanity. As a drama professor and queer activist exploring Shakespeare’s identity: NO he’s not afraid of Titus.
3: Who’s afraid in the usual sense: a violent scary story to make the audience cringe in fear.
Sky is the playwright, the performer, the professor, the activist. Read his Guelph university bio here …where they list him as an expert in Canadian theatre, Creative writing, Drag queens and kings, Gay, lesbian, and transgender politics, Noel Coward, Poetry, Queer theatre, Queer theory.
A 2018 essay title caught my eye. “Shakesqueer in love: Exploring the Bard’s queer themes.”
Sky might be the most prolific writer I’ve ever encountered.
For example (and I don’t pretend that this list is complete):
2019: Shakespeare’s Criminal (opera libretto) my review
2020: Nice Day in the Park (play) my review
2020 Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World (book) my review
2022 Pat and Skee (play) I missed it because it was done in Hamilton and I couldn’t get there.
Who’s Afraid of Titus? (Sky’s adaptation of Titus Andronicus) opens at the end of August in Toronto. I had to ask him about it.
Barczablog: You’ve chosen to present your show at “the uncanny Red Sandcastle Theatre” (your words not mine). I’m a huge fan of Eric Woolfe & the usual type of show we get at this venue. Is it a deliberate choice on your part to present Who’s Afraid of Titus in a space who promote themselves with the slogan “where anything is possible” and present lots of magic, horror / gothic shows?
Sky: It was a happy fate of circumstance that the show ended up here. I had been following Red Sandcastle all through COVID and I know Rosemary, and I have been keeping my eye out for post-Covid performance venues. Finally we are post-Covid (I hope) and I reached out to Red Sandcastle and discovered that Eric Woolfe was running it. I remember Eric from Buddies, I definitely read some of his scripts there, and I think he did something connected with Buddies, but it’s all so long ago — however the takeaway is that I have a lot of respect for Eric and his writing and his aesthetic.
But it really was chance — as we started working on this Titus way back during Covid (when we could work, briefly, one summer, outdoors) but I was so happy not only to work in Eric’s space as he is so smart and so talented (I saw his latest show) but we share similar sensibilities.
Barczablog: Please talk for a moment about genre. Some academics dread the word, others build courses around the concept. (parenthetical question: Are you afraid of the word?)
So could we talk about things like “tragedy”, “horror” and “gothic”? they may be most useful in directing customers to the right channel / product when purchasing content
(I used to say “the right part of the store” but there are no more stores).
Is genre useful or do we spend too much time tripping over it (especially as students)?
Sky: At the present time genre is a marketing technique. I’ve been writing about action movies on my blog recently (I loved BULLET TRAIN) and that is because — as the Mega Entertainment Conglomerates use genre as a marketing tool, smart directors realize that if they follow the rules of a specific genre, and as in the case of Bullet Train — take them a little bit too literally, (i.e., with wit) they can come up with art. In other words, every movie you see now has to be a ‘genre’ movie (Am I into romcom? Well of course yes, if I’m old-fashioned enough to call myself female…. Am I into horror flics — well of course if I’m a teenager and want my girlfriend to grab onto me when when she’s scared etc). When you go to see a movie in a theatre the trailers are all of that genre — in fact if you go to see a movie with black actors they show you other trailers with black characters, only then do you get those ads —- it’s all about how marketing divides us and keeps us entrenched in our own comfy entertainments — and it is essentially racist and sexist and homophobic to boot. Anyway, enough of that rant. What David Leitch does in Bullet Train is use the tropes of the ‘action flick’ to make fun of action flicks and incidentally of wokeism. It’s hilarious — and he can get away with it (the worst thing that happens is the politically correct critics hate him on rotten tomatoes) because he is being true to genre but…not.
It would be wrong of me not to take the opportunity to mention that one of Shakespeare’s major innovations was his irreverence for genre (see the drunken doorkeep in Macbeth) so much so that his plays were sometimes incomprehensible and offensive to early modern audiences (but keep in mind some of them grew up with medieval passion plays that were anarchic in their own way). Shakespeare is constantly mixing genres, his comedies are sometimes very sad and his tragedies very funny. This comes from his readings of Hermogenes and his obsession with the rhetorical technique of mixing styles — unheard of in his time in the earliest examples of Renaissance drama. Everyone else wrote in one style at a time (the tragic style, or the comic style) Shakespeare mixed them all up. This still confuses us, and is very much the situation with Titus — one reason why it’s so important to see the play. Titus is somewhat of a farce tragedy. There’s only so much violence you can see, after all, without wishing it was all a cartoon.
Barczablog: I bring up genre for “who’s afraid of Titus” in case you might want to mention your approach, where you’re situating your adaptation re: genre. Will you cue us (spooky music, etc) or do you prefer to surprise your audience?
Sky: My concept of Titus is that it was written as an attack on didacticism, and as a manual on how NOT to read Ovid (this isn’t my idea, I read this interpretation somewhere, but since this is not an academic essay, I don’t have to tell you where!) . The characters in the play try to live their lives like characters in Ovid poems, which means they end up cooking people into pies, and raping them, and chopping off their hands and tongues.
Shakespeare’s message here is that theatre should not have a message (paradoxically) and that those who go to art to learn how to live are going to ruin their lives. I do not hint at my approach in the play, instead I try and hit the audience over the head with it. There is a narrator who constantly asks the audience to think about theatre as ‘harm.’ The audience is asked to think about how they perceive theatre, and how they have learned to process pain through their practices in the digital world (i.e social media and YouTube). Do we learn how to suffer from seeing microphones shoved into COVID-19 patients on TV? But I will say that Titus, and my production of it, are so alien to the present aesthetic and moral zeitgeist (these days we think we should only watch movies and plays that ‘improve’ us) that I have had to be somewhat explanatory about what I am doing in the play itself, because it’s just, well, new….(even though it’s as old as Shakespeare)
Barczablog: When I used to teach film music courses, we talked a lot about genre, something I spoke of as chicken & egg, because signifiers such as music are both drivers of genre and respond to it:
-producers/directors hire composer to make it recognizably “horror” or sci-fi.
-it’s how we recognize a genre (eg spooky music for horror, sci-fi music for sci-fi)
Do you come at this wanting to meet our horror expectations, or to surprise us? Will this be possibly scarier as a result?
Sky: I talked about genre a lot above so let me just say that the production will be both horrifying and funny. At least I think it will be. My work is almost always funny, I rarely have to work at that (if the actors are funny) but, when it comes to horrifying, the problem with me of course is that things that I find quite normal horrify other people. For instance promiscuous sex horrifies some people, sex without romance or ‘love’ (although I think all consensual sex is love) horrifies some people.
So I never know what horrifies them. I want the violence to be real, which means that I try and not put it in front of your face but instead incite your imagination. We’ll see if that works. On the one hand the play will not be like that one in London awhile ago (sorry can’t remember who did it) where they had buckets of blood spilling on the audience — they went high camp with this stuff. Not here. My adaptation centres on the rape of Lavinia (the play was sometimes called that, in its day, I think) and that I take very seriously and have a very radical take on it. Shakespeare took rape very seriously. Though occasionally male characters joke about it in his plays, you only have to read Lucrece to know how seriously Shakespeare took rape as a crime against women, and how important he felt it was to give a voice to women’s suffering. Lavinia is paradoxically silent through half of the play — but that is a Shakespearean paradox.
Barczablog: A play like Hamlet comes with baggage, namely zillions of interpreters & versions, crowding in on your desire to interpret. Does Titus offer you more freedom, given how much more space you have to play with the story, to make your own adaptation?
Sky: First of all Shakespeare has been rewritten since time immemorial. That’s what we do with Shakespeare. There are three versions of Hamlet around, and directors and editors mix and match (one of our favourite lines — ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ — is from a bastard version of Hamlet — the first — bad— quarto — and co-incidentally my version of Titus resembles this first bad quarto of Hamlet — which people do perform occasionally — it’s ‘only the facts ma’am’ it cuts to the action, and the plot comes at you at a hurtling speed). One of the reasons we must adapt Shakespeare is because we are no longer rhetoricians, whereas every student in grammar school in England was a rhetorician, had access to Latin, and believed that language shaped reality. We reject the notion of language as powerful — although ‘stop the steal’ is a little poem with lots of power! — and we ignore the new rhetoric, which is digital media, mainly visual, not verbal, which however controls our lives to a frightening degree. But we don’t listen to words anymore — we don’t read poetry — and most importantly we don’t think that poetry can create another reality to rival ours, which is what Shakespeare believed, and what rhetoric taught him. But the genius of Shakespeare is that his plays are not didactic and cannot be boiled down to any moral idea. The anti-didactic ‘theme’ of Titus is actually just a ruse— the play, like all Shakespeare’s plays is about nothing at all but human beings, and human emotion, passion, love, hate, you know, all that stuff. Harold Bloom (God, I hate him!) said only one good thing really, that Shakespeare taught us how to feel. But Shakespeare also teaches us how to think, by not giving us answers to the questions he raises, and after all ,metaphor itself is a form of thought.
Barczablog: Shakespeare’s theatre contains some moments of unparalleled violence, thinking of King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet (there are more of course). Do you believe that modern staging–more representational /real than in Shakespeare’s time—aids or defeats horror? And how might that inform your approach? (Would being less representational and relying more on an oral approach force us to use our imaginations)..?
Sky: I’ve sort of addressed this already. I would say that trying to bring on a bloody severed head or hand is just not going to work these days, not with Star Wars and with SAW 1.2.3 etc. So you just can’t do that. All horror is psychological anyway, really. Check out the shower scene in Psycho (no nudity, no actual violence) or the movie Midsommar. Let’s face it we don’t want to be moved in any way anymore, everything we watch on Netflix and at Mirvish Productions is designed to comfort us and make us feel more secure in who we are and the choices that we have made, and confirm that we are good people. People go to horror movies these days to laugh, to see ‘camp’ entertainment (but it isn’t truly camp, true camp is very serious and sad deep down) to make fun of how bad the movie is and anyhow it doesn’t really scare them. No one wants to be really scared or horrified anymore. We want comfort food and comfort entertainment and we are getting dangerously fat on all that. I’ve always been interested in work that challenges, unsettles and even horrifies.
Barczablog: Your promotional press speaks of “poeticised violence”. Please unpack that, explaining what you mean, how that applies to Titus. Do you mean this for any version of the play or yours in particular?
Sky: I mean that, as I have said right above, coincidentally (great minds think alike!) the only true horror and violence in art is poetic. It plays on our imagination and stimulates it. I remember when I was doing my play The Dressing Gown (long ago) and one woman who saw it said “Oh that scene where the one man brutally beat the boy and then had sex with him was so horrifying.” I told her that no beating took place. A whip was revealed and so were bare buttocks. That’s it. She filled in the rest with her imagination and it was a nightmare for her. I will say I have a pretty active imagination, which is why I don’t take hard drugs. A friend of mine (it was Christopher Newton) once said “I don’t take hard drugs. Someone said to me that people love taking chemicals because it turns people on the subway into monsters. Well the people on the subway already look like monsters to me, I don’t need drugs!”
Barczablog: Is this your first time doing / adapting Titus Andronicus?
Sky: It is my first time directing Shakespeare with professional actors, and even though this is a workshop presentation it’s incredibly scary.
If it doesn’t go well – I.e. if I think it’s ultimately no good — I won’t ever do it again. But I want to give it a try because of all my recent research into Shakespeare.
Barczablog: What’s the connection between Titus & your book? Is it because you’re investigating the Bard’s identity…?
Sky: I think I mentioned that I have a new book about Shakespeare coming out (not right away but eventually) with Guernica called Shakespeare Lied. I wanted to make sure that I mentioned that here. But I would say that after the reading I’ve done and the work I’ve done — one important revelation I’ve had, is that it makes no sense to ignore Shakespeare’s ‘difficult’ (inconvenient, incomprehensible works) — or claim they are written by someone else when he clearly had a hand in them. I am fascinated by Loves Labours Lost and Venus and Adonis, for instance, they are both works which are often ignored because there is something difficult and unpalatable about them. The same can be said about Titus. But if we can get our minds around Shakespeare’s most ‘quirky’ work, work that is distinctly his, we will understand better who he is and what he is about. I love Midsummer Nights Dream and Hamlet but they are more accessible, and that’s not where you learn the most about Shakespeare. Both Titus and Love’s Labours Lost are excessively and somewhat frighteningly about rhetoric (Hamlet and Midsummer Nights Dream are too — but there is a lot of other stuff going on to distract us, Shakespeare always wrote ABOUT rhetoric but in many different ways). So if we can tackle Titus and LLL we might ‘get Shakespeare.’
Brian Smegal — who plays Titus in my production— has gotten me interested in Timon of Athens (he’s such a bastard for doing that!) And I am fascinated by Timon — because it is so strange, but therefore so ‘Shakespearean.’
Barczablog: How does presenting Titus “as a queer play” work? Do you alter genders or behaviour of any characters, recalling the absence of female actors on Shakespeare’s stage.
Sky: There is a woman who plays a man and a man who plays a woman. And there are two biological women on stage having sex together at one point. I think that’s all pretty gay. (But ideas about what is gay have certainly changed over the years, this play is not about getting married and adopting twins, so maybe so people might think it’s not gay at all!) I also think it’s gay, because there is lots of sex in the play and at times I hope the play will be camp, both funny and sad at the same time.
Barczablog: Would you / could you argue that your version (ignoring the questions of length in your adaptation) is in some respect authentic, for that reason (that there were no women on Shakespeare’s stage): OR am I being too reductive?
Sky: There is no such thing as an ‘authentic’ Shakespeare production. First of all the plays were produced outdoors at The Globe with no lighting (at the Blackfriars there were candles) and there was very little in the way of costumes and sets. Most importantly all the women’s roles were played by boys age 10-17. This tells us that the plays were about the words. People listened to words and stories back then as there was an oral tradition. And that is not the least of it. At any rate we know very little (to quote my theatre history teacher at grad school at U of T) about theatre production in Shakespeare’s time, but we know it was severely representational — and not realistic — in the sense of method acting, so it would probably seem very strange to us today. But anyone who claims to be doing an accurate production is lying — we simply do not have enough information about what it was like to live and think and love in early modern times to offer authentic Shakespeare today.
Barczablog: Is the core of the story HORROR? (apt for Red Sandcastle theatre)?
Sky: I would say it’s pretty apt for Red Sandcastle folk. (Nothing can quite measure up to Eric Woolfe’s portrayal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis with stuffed animals, but I am doing my best!)
Barczablog: Did you involve Eric Woolfe in any of your preparation / adaptation?
Sky: No but we have talked a lot and he is a great inspiration to me and I know his work. It’s a pleasure to have the privilege to work in such an atmosphere of support and frankly intelligence and wit.
Barczablog: Suspense aids our engagement and catharsis. Please talk about violence (whether contemplated or genuine) and the role it plays in gaining our engagement with a story and its role in possible catharsis (fear, relief etc).
Sky: I have talked about this a lot above, but basically I would have to say that I really don’t know what is horrible. What’s horrible to me is the nuclear family. What’s horrible to me is human hypocrisy. It terrifies me. So I never know what’s going to horrify anyone else.
Barczablog: In your promotion of the play, you ask two fascinating questions namely
“Does art harm us? Should it?” So, as a professor perhaps disillusioned by plagiarism, illiteracy and smartphones in class, do you ever observe (and even identify with) the sadism implicit in some texts as a response to the vulnerability of the performer, exposed on stage? As a lecturer do you have comparable sensations of vulnerability fueling your desire to avenge yourself upon a classroom or an audience?
Sky: Hm. The best I can say is that I think that if we are never ‘harmed’ as children, we grow up as very warped neurotic people. Of course I don’t think anyone should be abused, and I don’t want children to suffer. But we live in such a ‘sheltered’ ‘correct’ ‘sensitive’ society nowadays, that is all about hurt feelings. Whatever happened to ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me’? I know of this personally because I led a very sheltered childhood, and was much loved by a mother who made me feel that I was too fragile for this world (this is not true, by the way. I loved my mother dearly and my play Pat and Skee is about her) But really, though we want to protect our children from illness and death and accidents, they must and should have ‘bad experiences.’ I don’t know how to tell you this but sometimes life seems like one bloody thing after another, and we need to be resilient , not protected always, and art can be a part of creating that resilience.
Barczablog: Do you want to thank / acknowledge any influences, assistance on the project?
Sky: I’m kinda doing it on my own but the actors have to some degree been accomplices, especially Brian Smegal. Also the Shakespeare Oxford fellowship — Mark Anderson, Alexander Waugh, Roger Stritmatter and Lynn Kositsky.
Eldritch Theatre presents a Titus-on-the-Run Productions Workshop Presentation,
WHO’S AFRAID OF TITUS?
Who was Shakespeare? Does it matter?
Well Sky Gilbert thinks he was an aesthete — a poet whose plays are about poetry and its effect on us.
In tackling Titus Andronicus, perhaps Shakespeare’s most baffling play — Gilbert is drawing on his research for his new book Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World (released in 2020 by Guernica Editions). Gilbert has now adapted Titus Andronicus for a post-Covid era, asking the question on all our minds Who’s Afraid of Titus Andronicus?. Gilbert reduces Titus Andronicus to one hour and 18 concise scenes; the language is there, the story is there — and yes, there is a reason for doing this play now. Gilbert presents Titus as a queer play about poeticised violence, and asks (but does not answer) the question. Does art harm us? Should it?
Titus features a stellar cast including Brian Smegal (Stratford Festival) as Titus, Ellen-Ray Hennessy (Canada’s Queen of Voice and Animation) as Tamora, Sandy Crawley (movies galore; Green Party candidate) as Marcus, Veronika Hurnik (paula and karl, DNA Theatre/Six Stages) as the Narrator, and Augusta Monet as Lavinia. The production also features Ray Jacildo, George Alevizos, Max Ackerman and John Humeniuk.
WHO’S AFRAID OF TITUS?
Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Adapted & Directed by Sky Gilbert
August 31 to September 3rd, 2022
at the uncanny Red Sandcastle Theatre
922 Queen St East, Toronto
$15 Arts Worker/$25 Advance/$35 Door
6:30PM Doors/7:00 Evening Showtime
2:30PM Doors/3:00 Saturday Matinee
approximately 1 hour, no intermission
Click for tickets & information