Theater Around The Bay: The Best of the Blog

2013 was a year of change on multiple fronts and our website was no exception. Though Marissa Skudlarek, as our first “official” blogger, began her semi-monthly contributions in 2012, the eight-writer line up that currently composes the blog’s core writing team wasn’t solidified until October of this year, when Claire Rice was brought on to replace Helen Laroche, who, along with Eli Diamond, stepped away as a regular contributor earlier this year. Eli and Helen, along with the current eight and our lengthy list of occasional contributors (most notably Annie Paladino), all get to share in the success of the blog, which steadily and dramatically increased its traffic over this past year. With 45,611 hits in 2013 (compared to 27,998 in 2012, 11,716 in 2011, and 8,435 in 2010), there can be no doubt that the San Francisco Theater Public (as we’ve taken to calling the blog amongst ourselves) is “kind of a thing.” With our current all time total just shy of 100,000 hits, we wanted to use the last blog entry of this year to celebrate the different voices that make our blog unique, while also paying homage to the vast and diverse world of online theater discussion. To everyone who makes our blog a success, including our dedicated readers and Julia Heitner, our Twitter-mistress who brings every installment to the Twitter-sphere, a gigantic thank you for making 2013 the best year so far! Here’s hoping that 2014 is even better!

STUART BOUSEL by William Leschber 

Whether it be Shakespeare, Ancient Greece, Celtic Myth, or the plight of the contemporary 30 something, Stuart Bousel always has something intelligent to say about it, and if you’ve read any of  his blogs over the past year you’ll know he has an ample array of in-depth thoughts about these things and so much more. I’m proud to have known Stuart for a number of years and the plentiful hours of intelligent conversation are invaluable to me, but my favorite 2013 blog entry of his is one that offers both a larger social insight and something very personal as well. The Year of the Snake blog isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and offers the perfect mix of two brands of self awareness: the satisfaction that comes at being proud of one’s achievements, juxtaposed with the self doubt that comes whenever we embark on something new and challenging. These traits are heightened by a particularly uncertain year for myself and so many others who have had an odd go of it in 2013, the Year of the Snake, and maybe that is why this particular blog resonated so strongly. Although this year is possibly the most challenging some of us have had in recent memory, what Stuart articulates so well here is that sometimes we have to pass through the fire to come out stronger from the forge. The process of wriggling into new skin in due time…aye, there’s the rub: “…the truth is, the changes tend to kind of happen while you’re not looking, almost as a side result of trying to change.”

There's Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

There’s Stuart, emerging from his security blanket just like 2013 emerged from the crap year known as 2012.

In other favorites-of-the-year news, I present you the Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. For those in constant transit and who have an easier time taking in a podcast over reading articles online, this is for you. Now my favorite podcast surrounding film would fall to Filmspotting where new and old films are discussed weekly with humor and insight. But if I had to choose the single best episode  I heard this year it would be Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with writer/director Ed Burns. In the words of the host, the Q&A podcast aims to “bring you in-depth insight into the creative process of storytelling”. He interviews screenwriters specifically (often writer/directors) about how they go about their personal process. Not only are the insights into the writer’s process wonderful to hear but the peeks into their role in the film industry are also fascinating. The Ed Burns episode ranges in topic from 90’s indie films, to his writing process, then on to making micro budget films, and his thought on how the industry is changing and what he’s doing to work in the grain of the dawn of steaming entertainment. It’s great. And here it is: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/12/edward-burns-fitzgerald-familiy.html

ASHLEY COWAN by Claire Rice

Ashley Cowan’s posts often feel like sitting on the couch with your best friend and chatting late into the night with a mug of hot coco.  Every post  is heartfelt and full of a kind of determined enthusiasm that is infectious.  Her post abouttheatre traditions/ superstitions was very funny (if I had known that thing about peacock feathers I might have made different choices with my life.) And her post about her grandmother and goodbyes was touching and beautiful.  But my favorite post would have to be Why Being A Theatre Person with a Day Job is the Best…and the Worst.  She beautifully lays out the complex and heart breaking experience of knowing a “the show must go on” mentality is an imminently transferable job skill, but a skill hard to sell to non-theatre perspective employers.

I read Dear Sugar’s advice column for the first time on September 1, 2013, my thirty second birthday.  The piece I read was Write Like Motherfucker  It was surprising, honest and full of so many of the things I had been thinking and feeling.  It was and is full of all the things I needed to hear. “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.  I know it’s hard to write, darling.  But it’s harder not to.”

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar - You've just made two new best friends.  You're welcome.

Ashley Cowan and Dear Sugar – You’ve just made two new best friends. You’re welcome.

BARBARA JWANOUSKOS by Stuart Bousel 

Barbara Jwanouskos is the kind of theater person who figured out long ago what many of us take much longer to figure out: namely that one can balance theater with the rest of their life (she’s a pretty amazing martial artist in addition to being a playwright, blogger, grad student, and non-profit development expert), and that nothing happens if you sit and wait for it, you have to go after your dreams actively. Smart, generous, good-natured, Barbara’s writing reflects a serious mind and soul you might not immediately pick up on when you first meet her, though her bad-ass-ness is definitely apparent in her punk rock haircuts and straight forward conversation style. Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while also showing us where the issue of pigeon-holing women in theater and films begins: that most double-sided of backyards, the fine arts masters’ program. This blog had the greatest reader impact of all the contributions Barbara has made for us this year, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see more of from her. It’s with incredible eagerness I look forward to her 2014 contributions, knowing she plans to really hit our readers, black belt style, with more ideas like these.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Barbara Jwanouskos is so intense she needs to be photographed in Dutch Angles.

Outside of our humble little blog, I have read a number of interesting theater related articles this year, but this one from HowlRound seems to have stayed with me the longest. Though when I first read this I kind of had a reaction of, “Well, duh, it’s just part of the process- stop whining!”, I also admire that what Morgan is saying is that a life in the arts is pretty always a heartbreaking business, even when you do finally find your niche, your project, your collaborators. And it’s heartbreaking not just because of the lack of opportunities, or the difficulty in making a living, or all the other things we also talk about, but just from the sheer fact that if you’re doing it right you’re ALWAYS putting your heart into it and the nature of the business rarely appreciates or honors that- while, of course, still expecting you to throw your whole heart into it every time! I, and most of the theater people I know, spend a lot of time talking about sustainability in the theater community, funding and payroll, audience demographics and marketability, etc. and sometimes I can’t help but wonder when theater started to quantify and qualify itself the way I expect Wal-Mart too. When did it become about numbers and money and conventional ideas of success as represented through big numbers, and not about coming together with people of vision and making cool stuff because the world really needs that? Morgan’s article is a bittersweet plea to remember we’re all artists here and artists are delicate creatures in many ways, even if it’s probably through their strength that, ultimately, the world will be saved.

WILLIAM LESCHBER by Marissa Skudlarek

It has been a pleasure to read Will Leschber’s “Working Title” column since it debuted in September 2013. Theater can sometimes feel like an insular, inward-looking art; it’s not  a part of the mainstream cultural conversation in the way that movies, music or TV are (though we Theater Pub bloggers are doing our best to change that!) Even worse, theater people sometimes take a perverse pride in their own insularity, looking down on movies and TV as lesser, more commercial art forms. So I love Will’s idea of writing a column that places theater in dialogue with film. He acknowledges the virtues of each art form without belittling either of them and, in so doing, seeks to bring theater into the larger cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his piece “To Dance Defiant” about one-man dramas Underneath the Lintel and All is Lost. The play is language-based and the film is image-based, says Will, but both confront stark, essential truths: “What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded?” Will’s column is about the importance of the art we make, be it on stage or on film — and therefore, is about the importance of our humanity.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

William Leschber, proving saucy minx comes in a wide variety of hats.

In one of my earliest Theater Pub columns, I wrote about how much I liked local critic Lily Janiak’s willingness to publicly critique her own criticism and question her own assumptions. So it was great news this year that Lily was selected as one of HowlRound’s inaugural NewCrit critics, bringing her work to a national audience and allowing her to write longer, more in-depth pieces. Even better, Lily has continued to question her assumptions and acknowledge her biases, approaching criticism in a spirit of open-minded inquiry. I particularly liked her piece “Our Own Best Judges: Young Female Characters Onstage” because, if I may admit my own biases, Lily and I are both extremely interested in the depiction of young women in plays. And then we ask ourselves: are we right to be so concerned, or does it mean that we are (wrongly) holding female characters to a higher standard than we hold male ones? “Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. […] It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria,” Lily writes. The whole piece is well worth reading for its thoughtfulness and honesty. That it happened to discuss three plays that I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the cake.

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

Lily Janiak: Because This Picture Is Just Too Good Not To Include

ALLISON PAGE by Dave Sikula

Let me tell you about Allison Page.

I met her this year when I played her father. I had no idea who she was. I had friended her on Facebook and, looking at her posts, thought we might get along. We had some similar interests, and despite her terrible taste in other things (I mean, seriously, “Ghost Dad,” “Daria,” and Kristen Wiig?), there was enough overlap that I thought we might become friends.

Then we met and she instantly drove me crazy.

I have every reason to hate her. There are things she does and writes about that just annoy the bejeezus out of me – BUT, that’s what I love about her. Her pieces for this here blog combine the miracle of being confessional and personal without being self-indulgent. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she says (she accuses me of not liking anything, but oh, how wrong she is), but even when she irritates me, it’s in a way that makes me need to defend my own positions – and that’s what the best art does for me. If I had to pick one post of hers that really spoke to me, it was this one on how we need and create nemeses. I find you’ve got to have someone or something to fight against or do better than in order to do your own best work.

But don’t tell her I like anything of hers or she’ll just hold that over me.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Allison Page: because this photo never gets old.

Moving on to something online that I found of interest was this, Frank Rich’s latest profile of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of those people my feelings for whom, words like “reverence” are far too mild. I know that if I were ever somehow to get a chance to meet him, I’d fall over in a dead faint, or at the very least, be utterly tongue-tied to the point where I’d sound like an episode of “The Chris Farley Show:” “You know when you did ‘Sweeney Todd?’ That was great.” But any chance to read about what he’s really like is fascinating.

CLAIRE RICE by Barbara Jwanouskos

What I love most about reading Claire Rice’s Enemy List is how Claire seems to pick up on an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The Shelter and author of the internet famous blog post, “Dear Actor”. Claire’s interview gave a clear insight into Lankford, his background as a theater artist (playwright, actor, director, etc.) and what prompted the writing of the post. More so, her interview demonstrated through Lankford’s response, what it is like today to be a theater artist where so many of us are also using the internet as a means of communication, discourse and criticism about theater in general. For whatever reason, “Dear Actor” seemed to resonate with many people in a way that was surprising, but Claire’s interview presented Lankford at a more more meta level, which was fascinating to consider.

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

Claire Rice: just who exactly is the enemy?

I love tracking HowlRound essays by some of my favorite playwrights – especially when they write about things I’m actually dealing with… like teaching playwriting! “Teaching in the 21st Century” by Anne García-Romero and Alice Tuan was a blessing to me sent from the heavenly gods of playwriting. I constantly flip back to this essay when I need to recalibrate my goals as a new teacher. García-Romero and Tuan’s approach mirrors what they had learned from the great Maria Irene Fornes. I appreciate their innovative approaches to get writers of all kinds jazzed about writing plays and how they deviate from strict adhearance to teaching structure versus other traits that good plays have – like voice and liveness.

DAVE SIKULA by Ashley Cowan

I met Dave Sikula earlier this year while working on BOOK OF LIZ at Custom Made Theatre. A project that inspired a blog or two on Cowan Palace and also provided a chance to get to know the guy who is now behind the column, “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review”. After kindly driving me home after numerous performances and being graced with many Broadway songs on his impressive car sound system, I soon got to know Dave as a incredibly smart, insightful, and experienced theatre enthusiast. I’ve come to enjoy his contributions to the Theater Pub blog for the same reason. One of my personal favorites to read was his last piece, The Ritual Business. Ten years ago when I studied in London, I had the chance to see TWELFTH NIGHT starring Mark Rylance at the Globe and it’s a performance that’s forever stuck by me. I loved reading about Dave’s time in New York and his vivid description as an attentive audience member. I felt like I was there again reliving a magical moment of the theatrical experience of my past while also connecting to his observations and reactions.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Dave Sikula: suggesting you eat this cheesecake instead of reviewing it.

Aside from Dave’s contributions, it’s been an interesting year for the Internet, huh? I fell for every hoax imaginable and had my spirits crushed when I learned that no, there would not be a new season of Full House or an 8th Harry Potter book to look forward to in 2014. With all that going on, one article that weaseled under my skin came from The Onion, believe it or not, and was entitled: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. I found it to be a humorous and honest piece about how many of us (in this artistic community) tend to balance our time. But the thing I truly want to share with you guys is this video, because at the end of the day (or year) sometimes you just need to watch some cute animals do some cute stuff.

MARISSA SKUDLAREK by Allison Page

Marissa Skudlarek and I communicate differently, but we think about a lot of the same things. If I’m a grilled cheese sandwich, she’s duck confit. She has the ability to say things that I know I’m also feeling, but haven’t brought myself to express properly without the use of a lot of F-bombs and references to Murder, She Wrote. Generally speaking, I like to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but the second really drove it home for me.) The internet, and the world, can be a dark and dismal place. Some days it feels like there’s nothing to be happy about; nothing that’s going right. In a world that seeks to find the worst in everything, Marissa seeks out the subtle nuances of her theatrical experiences, and of the world around her. It’s refreshing and thoughtful, and a big reason I love reading her posts. Not everyone is doing it right wrong. I like to think Marissa is striving to do it right; for women in general and for herself.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she'll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Marissa Skudlarek: you bet your sweet ass she’ll make that dinosaur chair look classy.

Outside of the Theater Pub Blog, there are always a lot of conversations stirring up interest. Every writer, every playwright – hell, every person has a different way they like to work. This last year I’ve been focusing more on writing and I’m always trying to find new ways to keep myself excited about the writing process. That can be hard to do, seeing as you still need to sit down and fuckin’ write at some point. That part is unavoidable. Though this article is actually from the end of 2012, I didn’t read it until this year, so I’m counting it! It’s an interesting collection of the daily routines and writing habits of famous writers. Hemingway wrote standing up? Well, that’s weird.

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It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Ritual Business

Dave Sikula writes us from New York, on Shakespeare, Broadway, and ritual.

Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to, and when it finally came, not only were your high expectations met, and wildly exceeded? Well, I had one of those afternoons.

I write this sitting in my hotel room in sunny New York (no kidding on that, either; in spite of the snow yesterday and the current temperature of 34 degrees, it’s supposed to get into the high 60s – if not 70s – this Sunday), having just returned from seeing Mark Rylance and the rest of the Globe company perform “Twelfe Night” (sic). The misspelling is part of the conceit of doing the show strictly in period. That is to say, authentically period costumes (no materials or conveniences that weren’t available in the 17th century – including [or not including, to be more accurate] zippers or Velcro; it’s all hand-stitched materials held together with buttons, straps, or ties); authentic period musical instruments (according to the program notes, these are the first shows in Broadway history to use authentic period instruments); no “artificial” stage lighting (they do use a general stage wash of lights, but there are no apparent cues from the time the audience arrives until they leave*, and real beeswax candles – which kept dripping onto the stage during the performance; I thought it was amazing nothing hit the actors); audience members in on-stage boxes; and men (or boys) playing all the roles.

I had heard that the pre-show was worth watching, and indeed it is. The actors (or most of them) are all over the stage before the show, being helped into their costumes (which seems no mean feat, given their complicated nature), talking to people in the front or in the boxes, warming up (Rylance was doing something that involved shaking his hands and moving his arms around – all while his dresser was adjusting his gown and undergarments [he plays Olivia in “Twelfe Night” and the title role in “Richard III”]), and generally being themselves. (In the evening performance, Angus Wright, who doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Earl of Buckingham, was talking to a couple in front of me about the inscription on his garter.) As far as I could tell, there was no pretense at them acting in character as 17th century actors (thank the gods), but were just being themselves, squeezing themselves into these clothes.

A few minutes before curtain – precisely at 2:00**, I was delighted to note – some costumed stagehands came out, and the candelabra chandeliers were lowered. The stagehands went to an upstage candelabrum at lit tapers which were used to light the other candelabra, which were flown back up once everything had been ignited.

I was sure how the performance would actually start. I imagined they might pound the stage to get our attention (which was concentrated on the stage, anyway). Even though that’s a French thing, I thought it might feel “period.” I even wondered if they’d “fire” a cannon, as they did in ye olde days of Ye Globe. But no, the houselights dimmed and they just started***. (Side note #1: In all of the three shows I’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been either one “shut off your cell phone” announcement [though there is a great running gag about it in the marvelously entertaining “Murder for Two”] – and I’ve only heard one ringing vaguely. Have audiences finally been trained?****)

In the middle of experiencing the whole thing, I was struck with how ritualistic it all was. This goes along with my column from last time. Not only have all these people agreed to meet in the same place at the same time, but in this case, the ritual was really driven home. We all had jobs to do this afternoon. The audience was there to listen and react – and, in some cases, to participate. The dressers were there to help the illusion. The stagehands were there to light the candles. The actors were there to tell the story.

But there was something almost ceremonial about it. Konstantin Treplyev in “The Sea Gull” disparages the theatre his mother performs in by saying “these High Priests of Sacred Art represent the way people are supposed to eat, drink, love, walk; wear their jackets.” But in this case, it really did feel like we were a congregation watching priests don their vestments, light the candles, and deliver a prepared text that would entertain us and illuminate what it means to be human in the 1600s. (That the message is still relevant in the 2000s is both a tribute to Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology and that that psychology hasn’t really changed much in 400 years.) All in all, the afternoon was electrifying; funny, melancholy, and human.

I have to leave in a few minutes for “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third” (I don’t want to miss the next robing ceremonies), and am looking forward to it greatly. I’ll have more thoughts about all of it when I return in a few hours.

Just back – well, just back after a late night supper – and it “Richard” was just as good as “Twelfe Night.”

The thing I meant to mention earlier (and forgot) was the presentational nature of the day. That, as part of the story-telling ritual – and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – there was no doubt that the plays were being presented for the benefit, and participation, of the audience. Rylance’s Richard was an interesting approach to the character. Giggly, almost seeming stupid (though ruthlessly intelligent underneath), and really seeking the approval of the audience in everything. For example, there were a lot of entrances and exits through the audience, up and down stairs at the downstage corners of the playing area, and Richard/Rylance came down the stairs, and without breaking stride, shook the hand of the guy next to me (it went unnoticed by virtually everyone, I’m sure) in a classic politician’s move. The actors in both plays interacted with the audience members in the onstage boxes, and in the scene (Act III, scene vii) where Richard appears with two clergymen in order to seem pious to the crowd, his henchmen made sure – through gestures and expressions that were simultaneously cheerleaderish and threatening – that all the audience shouted, “Long live Richard! England’s worthy king!” Something remarkable about Rylance is that he has the amazing knack of seeming to pull blank verse out of the air. That is to say, to seem to discover the speech even as he’s saying it; adding pauses and non-verbal interjections that make it all seem spontaneous. It really is a pair of marvelous performances; fully rounded and invested, completely different, but wholly original.

At the end of “Richard,” I joined in the standing ovation, not so much to honor the emotional values of the play – even though it was probably the clearest and most entertaining “Richard III” that I’ve seen and certainly the funniest overall “Twelfth Night,” it was not the best Shakespeare (though it’s way, way up there) – but to honor the effort and accomplishment; the thought and care that’s gone into the whole thing. It’s a huge undertaking and I felt it deserved the kudos. (Side note #2: Just for the record, as much as I loved both “Murder for Two” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier in the week, I didn’t stand for either of those. In the latter, I was conspicuous by my remaining seated.) (Side note #3: As much as I enjoyed the “Twelfth Night,” I was constantly reminded of Benjamin Stewart, one of the best actors I ever worked with and who passed away earlier this year. His Lord Capulet is the gold standard, and his Toby Belch was phenomenal. I never saw him give less than a stellar performance.)

To return to my theme, though, I was more aware of the ritualistic aspects of the performance tonight – if only because a) I had just written the first part of this post, and b) I was looking for it. It was a bit of a paradigm shift for me; to really be aware of what we all agree to do when we participate in a play (in whatever role; audience, actor, writer, director, designer, technician). We all have assigned roles and parts to play in the process, and from here on in, I’m going to be much more aware of the part I’m fulfilling in the ritual.

(*There were at least a couple of light cues in “Richard;” it was noticeable in the evening scenes before the Battle of Bosworth Field when it grew dark, reflecting both the time of day and Richard’s mood.)

(**The evening performance also started precisely on time; at 8:00.)

(***There was a trumpet blare in “Richard” that started things off.)

(****I had my cell phone out during Intermission, and just before the second act started, an usher came by and told me to shut it off, so I guess they’ve gotten much better at policing these things.)

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Macbeth is a Middle-Aged White Guy

Marissa Skudlarek is not afraid to say “Macbeth” as many times as she’s worried she might have to see it.

“Do we really need another Macbeth right now?” Jason Zinoman wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. “A new revival, this one starring Ethan Hawke, opened on Nov. 21, four months after the previous Broadway production, starring Alan Cumming, closed. If you fail to see Mr. Hawke reveal what life, which as we know is full of sound and fury, signifies, not to worry: Kenneth Branagh will fill you in next spring, when he brings his production of Macbeth to New York.”

And that’s not counting Patrick Stewart’s Broadway Macbeth from 2008, or Kelsey Grammer’s from 2000, or the Macbeth film that’s currently in production starring Michael Fassbender. Or the ultra-hip, Macbeth-riffing theater piece Sleep No More. Closer to home, there were two Macbeth productions in the Presidio in September of this year (SF Shakespeare Festival and We Players). While actual statistics are hard to come by, it wouldn’t surprise me if Macbeth were Shakespeare’s most frequently-produced tragedy in the 21st century. And I’m pretty sure that it’s the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most frequently (even though it’s not actually one of my favorites).

So what accounts for the play’s massive popularity? Some people will point out that it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and therefore suited to a short-attention-span modern audience. Others will argue that any play that features witches, apparitions, madness, and a big swordfight in the last scene is bound to be popular. (But Hamlet has all of those things except witches, and it isn’t produced nearly so often.) Others will propose that Macbeth’s “timeless themes” – ambition, corruption, guilt – explain its continued renown. But are its themes really more timeless, more worth hearing, than those of Shakespeare’s other great plays?

Instead, I want to propose a clean, practical explanation. Zinoman writes that “simple old-fashioned star power” lies behind many recent Shakespeare revivals: “The great Shakespeare roles still have the most cultural cachet for actors, who get taken more seriously and, in many cases, are energized by performing the parts they read or tackled in school.”

And what are the “great Shakespeare roles”? Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare’s tragedies are “greater” than his comedies and that, of his dozen or so tragedies, four stand out above the rest: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. So let’s examine the heroes of those four tragedies, and what characteristics an actor must have to portray them.

Hamlet’s age is a matter of some debate, but he’s clearly a young man, a student at the University of Wittenberg. He must appear young enough, untried enough, for it not to seem weird that the Danes have allowed Claudius to take the throne, rather than crowning Hamlet. People often talk about the difficulty of finding the right actor for the role: by the time you have the technique to tackle such a massive part, you look too old to do it. While it is rare for a man who’s literally college-aged to play Hamlet these days, it’s still a young man’s game. My sense is that once you get to be about 35, you’re too old to play Hamlet.

Meanwhile, King Lear is an old man: a white-haired king, giving up his throne and going senile. The text specifies that Lear is over eighty (“four score and upward”) but again, it can be difficult to imagine a real eighty-year-old with the stamina to tackle this massive role, not to mention the strength to carry Cordelia’s corpse onstage in the last scene. A too-youthful Lear, though, is equally ridiculous. Let’s say that, generally speaking, the role should be played by a man who’s at least 65.

Then we come to Othello. He’s middle-aged: a powerful general who has seen much adventure and is considerably older than his young bride Desdemona, but is still in the vigorous prime of life. And – oh, yeah – he’s black. Thankfully, our theater no longer finds it acceptable for actors of other races to put on blackface to play Othello; but what this means is that only a subset of actors can put this role on their wish list.

So what do you do if you want to play a great Shakespearean tragic hero, but you’re not old, not young, and not black? You play Macbeth. And who has the most power in the Anglo-American theater? What stars tend to be the biggest box-office draws? Middle-aged white men.

Michael Fassbender is 36; Ethan Hawke is 43; Alan Cumming is 48; Kenneth Branagh is 53. Of the four “great” Shakespearean heroes, Macbeth is the only one they can play, the only one that’s open to them at this stage in their lives. The window for playing Hamlet or Lear is narrow; Macbeth could be any age from 35 to 65. Certainly, there are other excellent Shakespearean roles for men in this age range – Richard III, say, or Brutus – but those plays don’t quite have the cultural cachet, or box-office appeal, of the Hamlet-Lear-Othello-Macbeth quartet.

And why are those considered Shakespeare’s four greatest plays, anyway? Why do we privilege tragedy over comedy? Could it be (at least in part) because tragedy is a more “masculine” genre, but Shakespeare’s greatest comedies tend to be female-dominated? Rosalind and Beatrice and Viola are amazing roles – yet we somehow consider it a far more daunting, courageous task for a young actor to play Hamlet than for a young actress to play Rosalind. People ooh and aah over Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night that’s currently on Broadway; people never gush about female Olivias in the same way.

Our theater continues to privilege middle-aged white men over women and minorities; tragedy over comedy; Shakespeare over all other dramatists; familiarity over risk. That is the reason that Macbeth continues to haunt our stages. That is the play’s real curse.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s still a little irritated that she didn’t get cast as Witch #2 in her high-school production of Macbeth. For more about Marissa, check out marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.