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What theater can teach us about innovation, or: Seven Henry V

71FMVSPZXSL 61DO8cauF5L._SY679_ 51iHZ17DtkL._AA160_ Over the past few years I have seen seven "Henry V", which is not the same thing as watching "Henry V" seven times. Really, it is not. I am talking about the coming-of-age-as-a-leader play by William Shakespeare, which I saw in seven different forms:

  1. The 2013 production at Folger Theater in DC,
  2. The DVD of the movie adaptation by Sir Laurence Olivier, 
  3. The Amazon Instant Video of the movie with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, as part of the BBC's Hollow Crown series,
  4. The bare-bones production of the play at Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires,
  5. The DruidShakespeare production of the tetralogy as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City,
  6. The DVD of the Shakespeare's Globe production with Jamie Parker in the title role,
  7.  The 2015 production at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

Why did I do that? I went to see the Folger Theater production because of the hype surrounding the actor in the title role, and that actor came down with the flu before I saw the play, and in the performance I attended the cover read the entire text of the his role from the script hidden under his mantle after the intermission. I kid you not. We spectators spent an awfully long time staring at someone who didn't know his lines, and no one at Folger ever apologized for it. I've actually sworn never to set foot in that theater again. This was not an auspicious beginning to my fascination with "Henry V". 

This play will be familiar with leadership professors around the world because it depicts a young king thrown into the arena of power after dissolute early days and the death of his father, the previous king. As such it remains very relevant today to young students everywhere with aspirations of leadership. (Henry IV Part 1 shows the future king with his "mentor" and bad influence Falstaff, in a life dominated by parties and larcenies. In Henry IV Part 2 the newly anointed king repudiates Falstaff and breaks his heart in the process. In Henry V the young king comes into his own. The tetralogy should be studied in business schools anywhere if business schools had enough foresight to peer into the future. And for those who are reading this post with the proper amount of coffee and wonder how the three plays of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V make a tetralogy, it is because they are preceded by Richard II, where we see how the future Henry IV usurps power. He has some grounds for it, yet he still usurps it. The lack of legitimacy of his power hangs over the next plays.)

After the DC mishap I didn't see "Henry V" again until I became interested in it because of a side project, and watched "The Hollow Crown", which is a TV dramatization of the plays in the tetralogy. Tom Hiddleston is an amazing Henry V who strikes exactly the right note at every moment. Yet, the movie is not a videotaped version of the play, so it gives an excellent idea of what the play is about without giving viewers an idea of what a production of that play would be like. The same criticism could be wielded at the Laurence Olivier movie version of the play, which gives us a glimpse at the beginning of what a production of the play would have looked like during Shakespeare's times before turning into a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier sailing to France. 

The next "real" stage production of Henry V I saw after DC was in the Berkshires. A handful of actors covered all the roles in a bare-bones stage with minimal staging where a chair or an extra here and there suggested a church or an army. The seats were memorably uncomfortable, but the production was mesmerizing. This is when I began to flesh out my theory about what theater can teach us about innovation. 

Today plenty of would-be experts, from TED talks speakers to business school professors, pretend to tell us how we can become more innovative. Innovation has become a buzzword, who wouldn't want to use his own innate skills to think outside the box and help his company shine? What strikes me is that no one has attempted to draw a walkable path for people who seek to become more innovative and don't know where to start. The advice in professional development books often sounds trite and rushed, as if the authors had rushed to make their publisher's deadline that now allows them to collect non-negligible royalties from the general population's desire to bring true, original value to the workforce. But there is an obvious counterpart to business gurus' platitudes that would allow general audiences to get a glimpse of what thinking outside the box actually looks like: watching several productions of a given play. This is easier to do when you live near New York City, but you can also watch many excellent productions online (especially from London's National Theater or Shakespeare's Globe) and contrast them with local productions of landmark plays not only by William Shakespeare but also - in the US - Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill.

Theater today offers a unique opportunity to contrast the choices made by the creative staff for various productions. In these days where people vituperate online against others who don't share their opinion, theater provides a unique avenue to consider and tolerate different takes on a common object, such as a Shakespeare play. It is also much safer to express disagreements about a play by Shakespeare than about certain politicians, lest we offend those politicians' supporters. Watching different productions of the same play can thus help widen people's understanding of what is possible and what an author is trying to say. This shows outside-the-box thinking and points toward off-the-beaten-path interpretations that pack a greater punch than the productions the audience has grown used for. 

It also documents less-than-fortunate ideas that have failed to deliver on their initial punch, although they remain to the credit of the talented creative staff. For instance, I felt that the DruidShakespeare condensed tetralogy, shown in one afternoon when I saw it in New York City, failed to build connections with the audience, so that we spectators did not care much about either Henry IV or Henry V, although the gender-neutral casting (read: women were cast as both Henries) would have provided a valuable opportunity to discuss the different standards of leadership across genders today. But you must connect with your audience members before you can make them think, and I don't think the DruidShakespeare performance achieved the first goal.

The PSF production had talented actors, including Zack Robidas in the title role and his real-life wife Marnie Schulenburg as his love interest Katherine of France, but the sets looked like something put together by a (very talented) set designer struggling with (very minimal) budget. To give you a hint, the set took its inspiration from the Globe's "wooden O" in the prologue, but in contrast with the Sir Laurence Olivier DVD, which shows at its beginning what a Shakespeare production would have looked like, there was nothing to beautify the wooden set later on. It didn't even look particularly cheap, but it did end up looking cheap when it became clear that would be the only set used throughout the performance. And it didn't look like the set designer was a spendthrift, but rather struggled with very tight budget constraints. In that context, the person made heroic efforts to present a remarkable, spellbinding performance, and the production was very well directed. Yet, it won't be a production I remember long.

My favorite production ended up being that of Shakespeare's Globe with Jamie Parker in the title role, although it is very uneven - and, since I watched it on DVD, doesn't begin to tell you what it feels like to attend a performance with those actors and see them create their roles night after night. But because it highlights differences in interpretations, both from the director and from the actors, seeing multiple productions of a well-known play highlights innovation and creativity in ways that the most inspiring business book can't. In fact I believe that in order to foster innovation we should have theater festivals with one play as the theme, where different creative teams come up with different takes on the play. This would be far more conducive to innovation in the workforce than having self-styled business gurus peddle their latest writings. Owing one's creativity at work to a particularly thought-provoking take on Shakespeare - what can be better than that? 

I'll leave you with Jamie Parker giving the famous Crispin's Day speech. Enjoy!

But really if you watch only one thing, make it BBC's The Hollow Crown. Here is the trailer.


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