About The Shakespeare Evolution Series

What does a theater company do after reaching its 26-year goal?

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company faced that question this past Spring when, having opened Edward III, it became the first company in America to have performed all 39 plays currently attributed to Shakespeare.  After 26 years of producing Shakespeare’s work the company had finally completed his Canon and now found itself asking the question, “Now what?”

“Well naturally, we knew we’d start working our way back through the Canon again,” says Artistic Director Jeff Watkins, “but we wanted to do it in a special way.”

That desire to re-trace all of the Bard’s work in a unique way gave birth to the company’s upcoming Shakespeare Evolution Series, a multi-year project scheduled to begin in August 2011. By producing all of Shakespeare’s plays in the order scholars believe that he composed them, the company will provide a chance for audiences to trace the development of his dramatic craft. Basing its order on the most recent edition of the Oxford Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the series will kick off with The Two Gentlemen of Verona on August 4. 

The Shakespeare Evolution Series in its current form contains three or four phases based on play genre, rather than simply working its way through Shakespeare’s plays one by one. First up the company will perform all of Shakespeare’s comedies in their order of composition, moving then to the tragedies to trace how the Bard’s tragic style developed, next showing how he combined both styles in his late ‘tragicomic’ romances (including The Tempest) and hopefully, if scheduling and finances allow, eventually ending with an extravaganza of Shakespeare’s history plays. But this ordering system doesn’t mean that audiences will have to cry through the entire second round after laughing through the first. The company hopes to sprinkle plays from different genres alongside each production—for instance, giving audiences a few chances to see the comedy As You Like It, supposedly written the same year as the tragedy Julius Caesar, during the tragedy’s run.

Watkins views this second trip through the Canon as a great learning opportunity for his long-term artistic ensemble as well as the company’s audience. He considers the company “much more informed” as a whole after completing the entire Shakespearean Canon, and predicts that performing the plays in order will inspire ensemble members to do “even more in-depth research on what was happening in during certain years of Shakespeare’s career, especially when we start juxtaposing the tragedies with the comedies.”

The project will also give this year-round acting troupe, including many actors who have worked together for more than 15 years, a chance to build on their already considerable experience with Shakespeare’s work. “It should be a good opportunity for our actors to play new roles as well as roles they’ve played for us in the past,” Watkins says, “and it allows new directors in our ensemble to approach some of these plays for the first time.”

Of course the Artistic Director is quick to point out that the series makes business sense as well. Thanks in part to the company’s interactive ‘original practice’ performance style and the celebratory ambience of their performance space, the New American Shakespeare Tavern®, comedies have always been the company’s most financially successful shows and the biggest draw for new audiences. A series that places comedies alongside tragedies doesn’t just aid audiences in tracing Shakespeare’s writing style—it also allows the company to perform crowd favorites for new audiences concurrent with the heavier titles.

Mainly, however, the Shakespeare Evolution Series provides an adventuresome and unprecedented structure for the company’s next few years of performance. It seems a fitting new goal after becoming the first American company to complete the 39-play Canon. Or, as Watkins puts it: “At this rate we might have worked our way back through the whole Canon again in five years. That has to be another record of some kind, right?”

UPDATE: The Atlanta Shakespeare Company completed its run through the canon a second time on June 1, 2019. The first time through, it took 26 years, this time, it only took 8!

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