“Well, we sure won’t be around for the 500th birthday,” I told the editors here at the St. Paul Pioneer Press when I suggested that the paper sponsor a Shakespeare film festival contest. That was back last year when I realized that April 23 would mark the 450th anniversary of the Swan of Avon’s birth.
I just knew there would be all sorts of events around the world in honor of the most famous playwright in the English language. We needed to get in on some of that Shakespeare love. And, I also realized April is also National Poetry Month. What better way to honor our greatest American poet? This would be a chance to redeem ourselves for the last time we held a contest during National Poetry Month, a poetry competition that led to a plagiarism scandal and perhaps the only newspaper correction written in a limerick format. Shakespeare, dear Shakespeare, would wash away the shame of that, I hoped.
The Pioneer Press uses a microblogging video platform that has a 45-second limit, so I thought that should be a good limit for our film festival entries. 450 years of Shakespeare. 45 seconds of Shakespearean video. Catchy, no? And I hoped that sort of time constraint would make the contest accessible to the masses, audience and filmmakers alike, much like the wildly successful 10 Second Film Festival at the Soap Factory.
A dose of Shakespeare that lasts less than a minute? Who doesn’t have time for that? All that stuff we heard in high school English about Shakespeare still being alive for a modern audience? Let’s see how those universal themes stack up against cat videos. We made a proof of concept video and awaited for the entries to upload in.
This contest charitably might be lumped into the category of trying to make Shakespeare more accessible, in the same vein as condensed, “only the clichés and good bits” productions or Shakespeare/Star Wars mashups. Less charitably, we’re just dumbing him down. But I think we’re aiming at a sweet spot, a 45-second dose of the bard, long enough to recite a sonnet and get a glimpse of the greatness, but short enough that the pro, semi-pro or complete amateur could consider taking it on as a quick project.
In other words, more depth than a Tweet or a 10-second film festival offering; less daunting than having to put on a Fringe Festival production.
For the audience, I’m hoping that the results will be more accessible too, a spoonful of Shakespeare, shorter than your typical cat video, where you don’t have to shell out for a ticket or change out of your sweat pants to swallow. Instead, here is a sonnet or a soliloquy dramatized by not by some actor with a title and an English accent, but by some regular schmoe like you.
Now, alas, we’re hearing that the theater community might be a little burnt out on Shakespeare, weary of the balcony and black tights and prop skull and the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow of endless Shakespeare birthday hoopla. But screw your courage to the sticking place. Stiffen the sinews. Summon up the blood. Don the codpiece. Once more unto the breach.
And remember the words of another great American poet, Cole Porter: If you can’t be a ham and do Hamlet, they will not give a damn or a damlet. In another few weeks, the Elizabethan sound and fury will be over, and we can let Shakespeare rest in peace, or at least until the next birthday.
I think one of our early entries by some school kids captures this by summarizing what they think makes Shakespeare great: battles, queens, lovers, plus “Poison! Sword! Next!”
Information about the St. Paul Pioneer Press Shakespeare 45-Second Film Festival Contest is at TwinCities.com/Shakespeare.