THE PLACE OF HEIGHTENED TEXT IN TODAY’S WORLD
Heightened text is present in a lot of the world’s best-known stories, from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to…who was the guy who wrote something that was kind of like Shakespeare, but with more blood?*
Source: Greenstage.org, Feb 2016
Heightened text is pretty omnipresent whenever we talk about the capital-c Canon or Precious Very Good Important Theatre. But as an individual living in the 21st century, as someone who is far from a theatre connoisseur, I question it’s overuse (or honestly, use) in the industry. Especially when we as a community come together to gripe about how theatre isn’t accessible enough to the masses: that is not just the fault of the big bad money-grubbing capitalist who owns the building.
While you could read endless thinkpieces on why theatre is expensive or exclusionary**, most end up blaming the decision-makers who think “money first, art later.” This relieves the artists actually in the room making the art from any responsibility in who their audience will be.
When it comes to heightened text, it’s often used because people think:
“It’s preserving how it was originally performed.” A library can do that, and honestly do it better. Why are you making a show?
WHY WE SHOULDN’T USE HEIGHTENED TEXT: CHANGE YOUR DEFAULT
There is certainly a time and a place for heightened text—a library during quiet hour, perhaps. I’m not saying we should go around burning manuscripts…But I disagree that we, the theatre community, should be holding the words of Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks precious. Consider the main ingredient of any theatrical experience: the audience. If there’s not an audience, you’re either in rehearsal or “patting yourself on the back”, in not so many words.
But, back to the original point: to consider the audience of today. The 21st century denizens of this planet. No matter what else may be different between my life and yours, we are all creating theatre that will be viewed by an audience of 21st century humans (and possibly animals, depending on your brand.)
21st century humans do not speak in heightened text: FACT.
The majority of humans on Earth are not Shakespeare or Classical scholars: FACT.
Unless you are performing for an audience composed of those scholars, odds are your audience will not be able to adeptly handle heighten text coming at them fast in the moment: Logically, shouldn’t this be true?
I’m not saying that flowery heightened text doesn’t have a place. And I most certainly do not believe that heightened text should only be shown to some elite, “knowledgeable” group. What I am proposing is that, in the modern day, the default should be “Why ARE you keeping the heightened text?” The default should not be “Why are you doing an adaptation or rewrite?”
All I’m saying is this: if you’re trying to make your show universal to an audience whom you know will most likely not understand heightened text, then how does keeping that difficult language best serve the production? Why does the word universal mean “exactly as it has always been?” Universal TO WHOMST is a better question to ask–and making your show “universal” for the audience that will actually be seeing the show should not be a revolutionary idea.
What’s the alternative? Are you trying to be universal to Londoners of the Elizabethan age? Are you trying to hold the house until the druids arrive? Are you concerned that the time-traveling demographic will feel a bit lost?
Worry about the people that will be filling your seats. I can assure you that the dust of Shakespeare’s bones won’t come after you for copyright infringement–if you are feeling bound by holding a script in the public domain sacred, then it’s on you.