Stories written years ago still resonate with modern audiences
Some tales stand the test of time and are as relevant today as they were when they were first written many years ago.
These classics have enduring value as they continue to capture the imagination of people in a more modern age.
Theatre companies such as Drayton Entertainment in Southern Ontario and Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto bring these common titles to audiences with a twist: They have been reimagined for today’s environment.
For instance, while the scripts basically remain the same, productions can update the storyline through the use of costumes and set design, while keeping the message intact.
Weyni Mengesha, Soulpepper’s artistic director, says the reason something is called a classic is because it is timeless.
“The beauty of a classic is that you get to be in conversation with another moment in history and see where we’ve come as a society.”
It’s that dialogue that Mengesha finds exciting.
“We’re always reinvestigating essential questions of our existence. To have a contemporary look at something doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to put them in jeans; it’s just about boiling down to the heart of a story and making sure that emerges and often that’s what makes it fresh.
Mengesha points to Soulpepper’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which runs Sept. 21 to Oct. 13.
“It still has a lot to say to our society and culture. It is incredible writing and every time I read it I uncover a new gem. It is an unapologetically honest deep dive into otherness, class, race. During the auditions, it was amazing to see how many people came up and said, ‘I thought I knew this play, but it is so cutting and fresh and contemporary’.”
Alex Mustakas, artistic director and CEO of Drayton, says that in choosing the shows to highlight during a season he finds some “classic” stories are no longer relevant.
“There’s a difference between popular theatre and populous theatre. There are some things that are popular because they resonate with an audience. ... If you really dig deep, the message is what it’s about,” Mustakas says.
“A show like 12 Angry Men for example is a classic. Am I going to do something different? Not necessarily.”
This year Drayton’s productions include such classics as Annie, Fiddler on the Loose, Beauty and the Beast, Rocky the Musical, Grease, 12 Angry Men, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Sleeping Beauty.
He says the scripts are kept pretty much intact.
“Let’s say it’s a piece from 40 years ago and is relevant today. You can set it in today’s society but not changing the dialogue if it still works,” Mustakas adds.
A classic is something that has been beloved for a long time, says Kate Lynch, a third-year acting instructor in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.
But, in the retelling of some of these older stories, is there a danger in modernizing them?
“Oh, I think quite the contrary,” she says.
“I think anything that you can do to bring that story to your audience so that they understand the central dilemma, the central crisis, that the human beings are facing and relate anything that you do to bring that story into their hearts is just fantastic,” she says.
Lynch brings up the example of gender switching in such beloved classics as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a take on it that she had recently seen. She says it made her find a new relationship with the central dilemma of someone who’s being asked to commit an honour killing.
“It brought it home to me in a new and fresh way so that I loved the play even more,” she says.
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