Yale founded its Repertory Theatre in 1966, exactly 350 years after William Shakespeare’s death. As a new exhibit shows, the relatively young Rep has embraced and reimagined the Bard’s works since its inception.
“Shakespeare at Yale Rep,” a collection of 28 photographs and posters from the theater’s past productions of Shakespeare’s works, opened at the Whitney Humanities Center on Monday as part of this spring’s Shakespeare at Yale initiative. The exhibition, which draws on prints from the School of Drama’s archives, tracks the role of the Shakespearean canon at the Rep from the theater’s early years to the present, said Rachel Smith DRA ’08, the Rep’s associate director of marketing.
The show focuses on the historically expansive range of Rep interpretations of Shakespeare and includes shots of notable actors and actresses who were involved in Shakespearean productions during their student days at the School of Drama, Smith said.
The exhibit runs chronologically down a central hallway and into the Whitney’s gallery, beginning with an image from 1971’s “Macbeth,” directed by Robert Brustein, Drama School dean from 1966 to 1979 and the founder of the Rep as well as the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
Smith said the show features nationally recognized productions from the Rep’s past, including photographs from the Rep’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1975, directed by Alvin Epstein, associate director of the Rep under Brustein, which starred Meryl Streep DRA ’74.
“[Epstein’s] show has been well-noted in American history as a landmark production of the play,” Smith said.
New interpretations of Shakespeare’s works have been a hallmark of the theater’s engagement with the playwright, Drama School dean James Bundy DRA ’95 said in an email.
Epstein’s 1975 production, for instance, incorporated music from Henry Purcell’s semi-opera “The Faerie Queene.” The production was restaged multiple times after its Rep debut to what Bundy described as “tremendous popular acclaim.”
“Contrary to what many people think, the Western tradition of Shakespearean production is one of experimentation, not of codification,” Bundy said.
Audiences at the Rep have been exposed to variations on the Bard’s original text ranging from the inclusion of music to single-gender casting rare in the modern theater scene. The first Rep show after Bundy took over as artistic director in 2002, for example, mashed up the plot of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” with Euripides’ “Medea” and “Cinderella.”
Because the photographs on display span decades and often feature multiple productions of the same Shakespeare text, Smith said the exhibit’s curators decided to place photographs of the same show from different time periods close to each other, to highlight stylistic differences linked to the culture of the times in which they were produced.
Associate Director of the Whitney Humanities Center Mark Bauer said the show’s layout enables viewers to identify trends in staging decisions across the years.
“What is most interesting and striking about the exhibit is the sense of style marching through the decades you get as you go through the gallery,” Bauer said. “Styles sometimes come back, talk to each to other across the decades.”
The exhibit shows the ways in which Shakespeare has challenged artists and audiences to identify with centuries-old subjects and engage with modes of production that render the works relevant in contemporary culture, Bundy said.
Bundy added that he believes the Bard’s works will be part of each wave of theater to come in the years ahead, and that the School of Drama and the Rep will continue to pay serious attention to the dramatist, based on the interests of the faculty, students and guest artists at the Rep.
Under the umbrella of this semester’s Shakespeare at Yale initiative, the exhibit brings together the resources of the Rep and the Whitney, said Shakespeare at Yale coordinator Kathryn Krier DRA ’07. She added that the show will introduce those familiar with the work of the Rep to the Whitney and vice versa.
“[The show gets] audiences moving back and forth between the Rep and the Whitney,” Bauer said.
Smith said she was surprised when looking through some of the exhibit’s photographs.
“What’s interesting [about] photographs from so long ago is that they can be good quality but fairly small,” she said. “So for instance, one photograph is like a little Mona Lisa — look closer, and it’s such a surprise because you go, ‘Oh my God, that’s Meryl Streep!’”
Correction: Jan. 24
A previous version of this article said that the exhibit on past Yale Rep Shakespeare productions includes 28 photographs. In fact, the exhibit has 28 pieces, including both photos and reproductions of posters from the productions. The photograph that ran with the article was mistakenly credited to Shakespeare at Yale. In fact, it was taken by Joan Marcus.