Toronto is a great theatre city. All year long, a wonderful variety of performances are on offer here, from commercial, production-values-driven Mirvish musicals to the fantastic range of shows staged essentially for free and driven by little more than love of the art during the summer festivals, the Fringe and SummerWorks. We have a number of excellent, well-established companies with their own theatres, and “uniquely in North America,” in Robert Cushman’s description of Soulpepper, “a year-round rep with several of the country’s best actors on tap, some of them for 15 years straight.”
Toronto is an extraordinarily limited theatre city. Our professional stages draw on a repertory made up almost entirely of twentieth-century and new plays, mostly from the Anglo-American canon. Casts tend to be small, an established set of 50 or so actors dominate the ensembles of our resident companies, and there is very limited turnover; few opportunities exist for younger performers to develop. There is little desire or ambition to challenge audiences. The vast majority of theatre artists here cannot survive on what they make from acting, if they make anything. The wonderful variety of performances in this city is essentially funded by Starbucks and would not exist without young people willing to sacrifice years of their lives and many thousands of dollars in lost income to their art, and our entertainment.
Here is my take, in five messily packaged theses, on what ails Toronto’s theatre culture.
1. Our theatre needs classics
I’ve written about our misshapen canon before, but it’s a point one can’t make often enough: Toronto theatre is shockingly myopic, oblivious of the past, and parochial. The idea that Albert Schultz, who, as Soulpepper’s artistic director, has programmed precisely three plays written before the twentieth century in the last three years, can refer to his company as “Toronto’s classical company” should be laughable, with all due respect for the work Soulpepper is doing and despite my admiration for Schultz’s accomplishments, from the creation of a remarkable community of theatre makers to the truly astonishing achievement of making the Young Centre happen. The truth is that no-one who earns a living as a theatre artist in this city is regularly involved in the staging of anything written before the twentieth century. We might get the odd Shakespeare production, and an adaptation of one of the Greek classics, usually a tragedy, here or there (more often by unpaid actors than not). But by and large, Toronto theatre will not touch older plays with a barge pole — especially if they’re younger than 2000 years and not written by a man from Stratford.
Explanations for this are ready to hand: there is no public funding for non-Canadian work; the classics call for larger casts than most companies can afford; there is no audience for such plays in Toronto; we can’t compete with Stratford and Shaw.
Of those, the first is more or less true (though a Canadian adaptation of a foreign-language classic would probably qualify; and although I wonder if any of our theatres, with the possible exception of the Factory, would seriously lose funding if they started staging some older plays along with their usual contemporary fare). The others raise as many questions as they answer.
It is indeed the case that most great older plays require more than the four or five actors modern drama tends to call for. That in itself may be worth pondering, but never mind. But it’s easy to exaggerate the numbers. A dozen actors is enough to stage the great majority of Renaissance plays, for instance, as long as historically well-established doubling practices are employed. The reconstructed Globe in London did a brilliant Cymbeline over a decade ago with a cast of six.
I would submit that we have absolutely no idea if there is an audience for classical drama in this town. How could anyone know? We certainly don’t have an audience that expects to see old plays. But Torontonians have not collectively turned away from the canon: they have simply not been offered a lot of pre-twentieth-century drama to choose from. Shakespeare apparently tends to do poorly at Soulpepper, supposedly because audiences prefer to go to Stratford. I don’t know who those audiences might be. They certainly don’t include me, nor, I would imagine, do they include the many theatre enthusiasts for whom the long trip and the breathtaking ticket prices are unaffordable or unpalatable. As a matter of fact, I think it would be fair to assume that many Toronto theatregoers know no more about non-English classics than they do about the new plays that make up the bulk of our companies’ repertories, yet that lack of familiarity is rarely used as an argument against staging new works. Instead, we hear vague and insubstantial claims about a lack of “relatability” or “relevance,” as if either of those were possible to determine before a performance is mounted, and as if either were purely a feature of the dramatic text and not essentially dependent on its enactment. Let me put this more simply: it’s perfectly possible for a performance to make a play written last week by a dramatist living in Riverdale both irrelevant and unrelatable, just as it is perfectly possible for a performance to make a play written in Paris three hundred years ago feel timely and moving in contemporary Toronto. But for some reason, the near-consensus around here seems to be that the impact of a play depends primarily on its date of composition. Unless, of course, it was written by that guy from Stratford.
This line of thinking makes a total hash of the very idea of what a classic is. It confuses classics with museum pieces — something it has in common with those who advocate a special level of reverence in dealing with such works. But they’re not. As I (channelling Brecht and Jonathan Miller) suggested in a recent post, plays become “classics” because of their ability to remain current — to continue to feel like “emergent” works, to continue to speak to audiences generation after generation (even if what the play is taken to say may shift radically from century to century). More about that in a bit.
Finally, Stratford and Shaw. That strikes me as the oddest argument of them all. Both places are hours away from Toronto, difficult and expensive to access by public transport, mostly favour extremely conservative approaches, and don’t run year-round. There may not currently be a culture of going to see older plays in Toronto, and combining trips to such shows with roadtrips and minibreaks may now be de rigueur, but that’s because Toronto companies have allowed this culture to develop. To act as if it’s cast in stone — a natural fact rather than a very strange situation artificially created by theatre makers — seems very bizarre to me. Compare London (my favourite unfair comparison): Stratford-upon-Avon is no further from London than our Stratford is from Toronto, and yet the Royal Shakespeare Company takes its shows to the capital every year; and of course no-one would seriously assert that other companies couldn’t stage Shakespeare in London because the RSC is so close. What one might say is that the RSC has a strong claim on a particular way of doing Shakespeare (though that’s no longer as much the case as it used to be), so other troupes have to offer audiences different kinds of Shakespeare. And the analogous argument certainly would make sense here: do Shakespeare in Toronto in a way that’s very different from the way it’s done at Stratford — in a way, perhaps, that’s more in touch with what’s happening in the UK and on the European continent. And show audiences why that’s worthwhile and exciting. (And cheaper.)
Little of this directly answers the question of why the classics should play a more prominent role in our theatrical repertory, of course. For that, I refer you partly to my earlier post on the subject; partly to Robert Cushman’s exaggerated but not totally unfair observation that “any theatre that devotes itself to doing mostly new plays is going to end up doing 90 per cent junk;” and partly to the repertories of pretty much any other major theatre city in the Western world. I can’t readily think of another place that stages as much theatre with as little pre-twentieth-century content in the mix as Toronto does.
2. Our theatre is predictable
There seems to be a pervasive fear of the unfamiliar in many of our theatres. Plays are staged either because they were already successful elsewhere, very recently, or because they were written here, very recently or by someone well-known. They are staged with casts of actors thoroughly familiar to directors, critics, and audiences. And they are staged from perspectives easily assimilated by audiences and critics alike, and therefore mostly in strictly psychologically realist fashion. There are occasional departures from these norms, but they are rare and more likely to be slammed as wilful or pretentious in reviews than to be celebrated as revelatory or groundbreaking. I don’t think there’s a clearer illustration of just how different things are here than critical reactions to “modern dress” productions of old plays: in Europe, that’s pretty much standard, certainly not worth harping on about; here, on the rare occasion that a production dares to be as radical as to put a contemporary jacket on Hamlet, it’s always an occasion for much discussion in reviews. In the absence of critics willing to praise productions that take risks instead of achieving the same tired old goals over and over again, and given short runs without much time to build word of mouth independent of curmudgeonly reviewers, timidity and predictability are sound strategies, I suppose — but they are business strategies, not aesthetic choices.
Let me be clear: I have nothing — nothing whatsoever — against new plays. It’s obviously the single great strength of our theatre scene that it has such a healthy tradition of developing new work. I also have nothing against established actors. And I don’t mind a well done psychologically realist performance in the least: I like to believe the lies an actor tells me as much as the next person. But monocultures aren’t good for the soil. A healthy theatre scene, like any artistic environment, requires variety — it needs to be diverse, and energetic enough to reinvent parts of itself from time to time, and it needs to make room for both new voices and old ones. And it has to allow for productive failure, for interesting if flawed experiments; it has to value innovation and departure from traditions for their own sake; and it has to appreciate daring as much as accomplishment.
I can’t describe what’s good about such a theatrical culture any more adeptly than Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director of the Washington, DC, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, did recently. Reflecting on the wonderful work he saw during a trip to Eastern Europe, he writes,
At first I was tempted to dismiss the work I saw in Poland — and later in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Russia — by saying to myself that their tradition is more Brechtian while ours is Aristotelian, they have a director-driven culture while ours is playwright-driven, they get more government funding so they can rehearse longer and aren’t so dependent on the box office, they sustain whole companies of artists while we have more of a freelance culture.
But the more work I saw, the more it became impossible not to be envious of a few things: first, that the variety of different kinds of work on their stages seemed wider; second, that it all felt like new theatre whether the script was new or old; third, that every play felt like an exuberant civic event because of the way the actors owned the material and seemed to be sharing it as an ensemble with the audience; and finally, that the audiences were noticeably younger than American audiences.
The bolded part really struck me, predictably — and mostly because it seemed like such an unremarkable thing to discover. Why should an old play feel old on stage, after all? It’s still a live event, unfolding in front of you in the moment. In and of itself, any performance should feel neither old nor new, but present. If it doesn’t, that’s the performance’s problem, not the play’s.
Shalwitz follows this up with another anecdote:
I had lunch with Dominique Serrand, the great French-American director. I asked Dominique if he could characterize the difference between European and American directors, and he said something startling. “In Europe, the first job of the director is to re-invent the art form of theatre for every production. In the US, this job isn’t even on the list of what most directors hope to achieve.” And this crystallized what I had experienced in Europe: the feeling that there was a competition among different directors and companies to out-innovate one another, and this was their main way of attracting new audiences.
I will say that there is nothing startling in Serrand’s statement to me (but I did grow up in Europe). I find it perfectly commonsensical. If a director doesn’t do something deeply interesting, ideally something radically different with the play he or she is working on, then what do we need directors for?
Theatre that’s timid or predictable will always lose to its cinematic rival — it’ll lose to TV and the PS3, too. The theatre should be an exciting place, even an edgy, slightly dangerous, unsettling place where unanticipated things happen right in front of your eyes, being done by, with, and to bodies that share the same space as you, bodies you can hear and smell. But in order to do all or any of that, the theatre does not require a constant supply of new material. The stage is a wondrous recycling machine: it can make a new thing out of the same old play over and over and over again. In fact, that is part of its potential to surprise and shock: that you can see four different versions of Henry V in a month, as I will this summer, and have four totally different experiences (ranging, in my case, from being entertained to being moved to being bored). But there is something more radically surprising about an innovative staging of an old play than about any staging of a never-before-seen play, because the former comes prepackaged with expectations that can be disrupted.
3. There is never enough time
You can’t be innovative, or radical, or especially deep, or especially thoughtful in a three-week rehearsal process. It’s just not enough time. You can’t take big risks in casting if you only have three weeks to work with a group of actors. You can’t spend the time it takes to truly reconceive a speech, a scene, an act, a whole production if you only have three weeks. In any situation where efficiency is of the essence, experiments will play second fiddle at best. Safety and predictability almost always win — in fact, it’s a miracle we get as many interesting performances as we do in this city given those conditions.
By the same token, shows that only run for a few weeks, if that, can’t be too unsettling; they can’t diverge from an audience’s expectations too radically, or they lose their audience altogether. With runs that short, such shows have no time to build momentum, to establish themselves as something strange but interesting, odd but worth seeing, unusual but intriguing. By the time most people hear about productions like that, they’re already over. And the same, except much, much more so, is true of shows put on by companies beyond the major not-for-profit theatres: running for five or six nights, for two weekends if they’re lucky, the vast majority of performances in Toronto never get seen by most of the people who might have been interested if only they’d found out in time.
In sum, there’s no time to nurture productions during rehearsal, and there’s no time for them to grow once they’re on stage. For directors and producers, this means that they will favour working with people they know and can depend on; for actors, it means that they’re more likely to play along with whatever they’re asked to do, that they will often present themselves as dependable rather than exciting (if possibly volatile). And the financial consequences of this setup also affect everyone involved: short runs can only generate certain amounts of income, so they’re necessarily put limitations on a production’s ambition and a company’s potential for economic success. But they affect actors (and directors) even more directly: with strictly circumscribed engagements, both rush from show to show (if they’re lucky) or work under the constant pressure of the looming end of the run and their contract.
I’m not sure what can be done about any of this, except, well: money.
4. Our theatre is a deeply immoral institution
A few weeks ago, during the dustup over David Ferry’s open letter to Toronto’s young theatre artists, I got very angry when Ferry, in the comment thread on the Praxis Theatre blog, wrote about “the increasing, and state encouraged, amateurization of the arts.” But then I cooled down, and realized what (I hope) he meant: not that theatre is increasingly made by dilettantes, but that the arts more and more depend on people willing to pursue their endeavours for free — quite possibly at a professional level (whatever that means), but out of love for what they do, not as paid practitioners. That’s certainly true in Toronto, and with a vengeance. Perhaps because of all the things I talked about just a second ago, the most interesting, the most challenging and fresh shows I’ve seen here were put on by companies working for free — sharing the profits, sure, but basically working for pocket money. If you have nothing to lose, taking risks becomes a good deal easier.
But that’s no way to sustain a healthy theatre scene. Virtually all the significant financial resources in the city are in the hands of a very small number of companies and, to a much lesser extent, in the hands of the small number of actors privileged enough to work with those companies (an elite artificially kept small by the restrictive conditions I discussed above). At the same time, most of the energy to innovate, to try new things, to produce exciting work (rather than the kind that might persuade patrons who’ve been season subscribers since the 80s not to drop their subscription), is invested elsewhere, in massively underfunded endeavours with little to no visibility, no power to sustain performances for long enough to attract significant audiences, and thus to affect the way things are done on a broader scale.
Artistically speaking, there is no doubt that with proper funding, many of these efforts would be far more successful than they are now — would move beyond exciting potential or intriguing failures to fully realized, accomplished but surprising and fresh performances. So there’s an artistic cost to the extremely uneven distribution of financial resources in our system.
But much more importantly, there’s a devastating personal cost. The large majority of theatre makers in this city are professionals only in ethos, ability, and self-definition, but not in the more common sense that they make their living primarily by making theatre. It’s a system that only works because it’s constantly fed by new graduates of drama programs that replace the 30-somethings who give up on acting altogether.
The remarkable richness of Toronto’s theatre scene (and it is remarkably rich, if not very deep or varied) is sustained only at the cost of keeping the majority of its artists in poverty. I don’t think that’s a situation one can morally justify.
But beyond this moral dimension, the amateurization (or pro-bono professionalization?) of our theatre world has a very significant artistic price tag as well. Here’s the playwright Erin Shields describing the differences between Toronto and London:
When I was in London, I was in the proverbial “drama school bubble”. We saw shows but weren’t particularly connected to the scene. However, from talking to my friends who are working in London, it seems to me that we have a greater emphasis on play creation in Canada. Play creation is an essential aspect of the Canadian theatre scene; from the playwrights units to the self-start companies working with different styles of theatre to festivals like Summerworks and the country-wide fringe festivals, there is a lot of desire to create, perform and present new work. While there are certainly small companies devising their own work in London, and playwrights fostered in theatres such as the Royal Court, there doesn’t seem to be quite as large a community surrounding new play development in London. And, of course, I find English theatre to be mostly text based. Lots of talking. I don’t know as much about European theatre, but I would say that there is much more of a physical, image-based tradition on the continent.
Also, the “independent theatre creator” as a creature doesn’t seem to exist as much in London. One is an actor or a director or a playwright. There’s not as much swapping of hats, or melding hats, or wearing other peoples’ hats, or making of one’s own hats, as seems to be the fashion here.
The audience base in Britain, too, is something of a marvel. People see theatre. All the time. And if not all the time, then at least every once in a while. Everyone. Like what ?&*#%(*&_#&%_)!)&#
There’s much to digest in this, and most of it is spot-on. To me, her second major point is the most revealing. For as long as I’ve lived in Canada, I’ve been puzzled and sometimes annoyed by the concept of the “theatre artist.” In my experience, being a great dramatist has little to do with being a great actor, and vice versa. Being a perceptive and/or intriguing director is not predicated on being able to act, and vice versa. Knowing how to fund-raise, to budget, to organize a schedule are different skills than a director’s, an actor’s, or a writer’s — so why should any of the latter be any good at producing? Granted, the division of labour now so common in the professional theatre world, especially on the European continent, is part of a historical development, and somewhat arbitrary (as well as quite recent — Olivier, after all, was still a theatre manager and director as well as an actor). But I still am put off by the number of theatre makers here who will write their own material, direct themselves in their own shows, or produce plays that they have written themselves (that last constellation is probably the least problematic to my mind). Theatre is, and should be, a massively collaborative art form, and the more that collaboration only happens in one “artist’s” head, the less interesting it becomes for me. Beyond my own personal hangups, though, I think there’s also an undeniable danger that the more uncollaborative, the more monologic such work becomes, the more likely it is to be self-centred, merely autobiographical, and awfully self-indulgent. None of this is necessarily the case, obviously. But I do think that in general terms, that’s the way things tend to go when too many hats rest on too few heads.
Of course this situation is partly financially determined — and partly driven by a lack of access. If the few companies that offer a living wage in the city will not hire significant numbers of young actors, what else should those unemployed professionals do but what they’re everywhere told to do: their own thing? Now, I don’t know why “their own thing” can’t be a gloriously exciting production of Kleist’s Prince of Homburg or Buechner’s Leonce and Lena, or Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy or Marlowe’s Edward II, or one of the crazy and strange plays Victor Hugo and Dumas père and fils wrote in the 1830s-50s. Or some other out-of-copyright play. I’d much rather see what a group of 20-somethings would do with those old texts than see them tackle yet another performance of a play written by someone who isn’t really a playwright, or someone who has more words than experience or imagination or sense of character, or someone who needs to share deeply felt but entirely individual views or memories. I realize that’s probably a mean thing to say, but so be it. Writing’s hard, and not a talent in any greater supply than the ability to act, the capacity to direct, or an aptitude for producing. And given our current theatre scene, doing interesting things with old plays would be a pretty distinctive choice. It might be worth noting that that is how Soulpepper started — though this history only makes it all the more saddening to me to see where the company has gone since.
Doing older plays would almost necessarily mean letting more actors be actors and nothing else — which may or may not be a good thing (I’d say it is, but suspect many will disagree). Cast sizes matter, and a variety of cast sizes makes for a much richer theatrical culture. There’s only so much a director can do dynamically or visually with two or three performers, and the same is true of playwrights. For an old-fashioned crank like myself, reading through this year’s SummerWorks program was a dispiriting experience in this regard: 41 shows, of which only three featured more than four actors. That’s a very limited sort of theatre, no matter how good the performances, no matter how brilliant the writing, no matter how sharp the direction and the design.
5. Money isn’t doing what money should be doing
There is another aspect to Ferry’s remark that puzzled me at first, and that I think I understand now: that this amateurization of artists is “state encouraged.” I agree, though I’m not sure if I agree for the right reasons. What little public funding is available in Toronto (and I’ve discussed just how little that is elsewhere) is being distributed in an incredibly ineffective fashion. In brief, too many small amounts of money are being supplied to too many companies.
I know that’s an incendiary statement. And perhaps I’m way off in my reading of the figures — I’d certainly welcome corrections. But here’s the thing. In the current funding cycle, which I’m going to assume is more or less representative (it certainly doesn’t look extraordinary as far as I can tell from spot checks), the three main funding bodies for the arts — Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council — spent about $10.8 million on 125 Toronto theatre companies and projects. That’s an average of $86,153 per company, which may not sound terrible. However, the median amount of funding (sorry for the numbers talk, but I can’t avoid it here) was only $11,500, which is to say half the successful applicants received less than $12,000 each in support. Of the remaining 62 companies, 23 were awarded over $100,000 — probably about the minimum subsidy required to support a permanent staff of some sort and stage a single production with a paid crew, cast, and creative team. The smaller a show’s cast is and the more tasks a single person is responsible for, the smaller the necessary budget, of course, which explains the sheer number of one-person shows and two-handers in our repertory — they’re the easiest production to pull off while surviving on the job. But again, that’s a development driven by economic consideration, not by artistic or aesthetic ones.
London once more makes for instructive (if, yes, yes, unfair) comparison. Leaving out the National Theatre, which with its £18 million subsidy skews all the figures, England’s Arts Council supports 87 London-based theatre companies to the tune of £26 million — an average of £299,800 (with a median support level of £166,000). 63 companies receive more than £100,000, 16 more than £500,000. This, too, explains the difference between theatre culture in the UK and in Canada that Erin Shields describes. There are just far more companies in London that have the budgets to sustain productions with sizeable casts, written by authors who are mainly playwrights (or dead), directed by directors, produced by producers. And there are almost no companies that subsist on a few thousand pounds of government funding: if you get any at all, you get enough to actually make a difference (only one successful applicant received less than £40,000).
I think we have to find a way of allocating our government funding differently. For one thing, the fact that there are more theatre companies receiving public subsidies in Toronto than in London is a little bit absurd. London is more than three times our size, and has a far more active audience of theatregoers. For another, it makes little sense to me to support dozens of companies and projects with so little money that the funds might cover space rental and modest publicity costs, but hardly any actors’ or artistic team members’ fees. That is indeed state-sponsored amateurism. Such a funding model may foster a lot of theatrical activity, but it virtually guarantees that much of that activity will be unpaid and dispersed far too widely — it’s practically designed to make it harder for individual performances to be noticed. The very large pool this approach creates is so shallow that it’s almost impossible for any one project to make a splash (forgive the metaphor).
Without a significant increase in funding levels — not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever — the only remedy I can see would involve raising the funding floor significantly: eliminate all project grants of less than, say, $20,000; certainly eliminate all operating grants of less than $20,000. Bundle the available money so that a smaller number of companies can work with more meaningful budgets, can therefore think more freely about what kinds of plays to stage, what kinds of casts to work with, and what sorts of timeframes to plan for rehearsals and performances. Create, in other words, conditions where more companies can hire a larger number of actors and other artists, pay them for their work, and put on shows that may actually be visible enough and run for long enough not to disappear before they’ve even registered on the public’s radar — even if this comes at the cost of having a smaller number of total productions on Toronto stages.
Here’s another idea: make block grants available to all companies that have their own theatre spaces in order to allow them to provide their space free of charge to independent producers. With rental rates ranging between $1300 and $4500 at the moment, and some fairly significant gaps in theatre’s schedules, the overall cost of such a program would probably hover somewhere between $200-$300,000. In return, give every successful applicant control of the space for a month — to be divided up, at the production’s discretion, between rehearsal, tech, previews, and performances. And put the theatres under the obligation to advertise these shows on their websites and, if feasible, in their season programs. This would provide a guaranteed (if small-ish) revenue stream of “rental” income for the theatres and would make centrally located, visible, and well-connected performance venues available for independent companies who will (hopefully) forge relationships with the established residential outfits to boot. And it would take one major fundraising pressure out of the equation, replacing the need to hunt for cash with the need to persuade a theatre that your production should be one of a number to be given access to a publicly funded venue. Or does that just mean trading one headache for another?
And another thought: aggressively offer funding incentives to companies that integrate what the OAC calls “new generation artists (ages 18 to 30)” into their professional, paid performances (initiatives such as the Soulpepper Academy should receive the praise and support they deserve, even if some critics seem to hate them). Encourage theatre organizations to take risks. Define measures for past impact independent of reviews and audience figures, or at least recognize that neither of these is a reliable data point for single productions. Make it clear that public funding should enable work that still needs to build an audience, or find new audiences, and that work that’s already commercially viable should not receive additional rewards. In other words, create a funding climate in which a spirit of adventure, of exploration, and of innovation is encouraged, in which artists can survive economically, and in which the widest possible variety of performance types and genres can be offered with the greatest degree of visibility and accessibility (which means restraint as well as support). And — I can dream, no? — realize that no national theatre culture can afford to ignore its roots in other national traditions, least of all a culture as diverse as ours.
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- The Plough and the Stars (O’Casey; dir. Sean Holmes) Abbey Theatre Dublin, at Canadian Stage, Toronto, Sept 2016
- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
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