Bringing the Bard to Tumblr

by Angie Fiedler Sutton
in Feature

Social Shakespeare uses new media to develop a love of a classic playwrightSocial Shakespeare uses new media to develop a love of a classic playwright

There's a new face in the Shakespeare fandom, and if this crosses your dash, you better like and reblog so it can get plenty of notes.

If any of that makes any sense, it's a good bet that you're on the social media platform Tumblr. With over 250 million blogs covering almost every topic under the sun, is it any wonder that theatre people have found the site and used it to be creative? Add in the passion that theatre people have for the arts, and there are blogs for every subset of the field, from technical theatre to specific works to playwrights.

Enter Social Shakespeare. Created in February 2014 by Tumblr user est-lm, also known as Laura, the Tumblr blog takes new media and uses it to explore, invigorate, and encourage love of both the theatre overall and Shakespeare specifically. The goal is to do a reading of one of Shakespeare's plays every month via Skype, with a discussion of the play afterward. Meant to be a one-time thing, Laura had done stage plays in college and was missing it. She posted the idea on her book-based Tumblr of doing a read-through of a Shakespeare play, and the post got over 100 notes in three hours. As responses of interest flooded in with close to 300 people wanting to participate, she realized it was going to be bigger than she imagined, and so she created the blog dedicated to the project. She then asked Tiara Kobald (Tumblr user thevanishingtwon) to help her organize the readings, and Kobald now primarily handles compiling the cast lists for each read-through.

The first play was Twelfth Night, done May of 2014. Since then, they've done nine of Shakespeare's work, with five of the productions being available to hear and chat logs to read online, and now have over 1,200 followers of the blog. Charlotte Langston (Tumblr user NoBizShowBiz) joined them in July initially as a call leader, but then stepped up to help run the blog and promote what play they are doing next.

"Tumblr compartmentalizes its fandoms," Langston says as to why the project works best on this social media platform versus any of the others out there. "You've got your Doctor Who fandom, you've got your Shakespeare fandom, you've got your Marvel Cinematic Universe. On Tumblr, you feel like you've got a family, a community of people, and we're all excited about the same things." Having it be on social media also helps make the text more accessible, which is one of Langston's big reasons for helping the project. "One of the wonderful things about Social Shakespeare and the Shakespeare community is that it's extraordinarily accepting. It's all about education and everybody is with each other, and for those who are afraid that this is their first time reading because they've heard these roles before and so they want to kind of branch out—everybody's really patient. Nobody judges." Langston mentions that their readings have had everyone from actors who have performed on the West End to those who are using the play readings as a way to learn English, with participants coming from all across the world. Tumblr user PurpleMuskrat wrote, "Social Shakespeare has a wonderful low-key friendly vibe that's just right for me. I can flub lines, attempt silly voices, accidentally cause unearthly echoes, or be really awful at pronouncing names, and I know it's all okay. It's people coming together to celebrate great pieces of drama—and make fun of great pieces of drama. That's all I could ask for, really."

While the trio doesn't have specific demographic information, they do know that their participants—like Tumblr overall—tend to skew younger, with most of the participants in the millennial and Y generation. It levels out once you hit the mid-30s, with 'sprinkles' of people older than that, according to Langston. As for youngest: "I know we've had 14," Langston says. "One of the luxuries of the Shakespeare community is you can expect people to care enough about it to care about the integrity of everybody. But for the most part, parents are okay with anything that Shakespeare says, you know?" she continues with a laugh. "You're going to get involved in Shakespeare: you mean you care about learning? Absolutely!"


The tail end of a Social Shakespeare group chat in SkypePossibilities in Simplicity

Casting the Social Shakespeare read-throughs, as with any casting, has its challenges. Unlike the high school/community theatre stereotype of too many women, Langston thinks they have more men than women sign up for readings. However, "we don't even know what gender you are," she says. "We assign you the roles you asked for," and knows for a fact of one actor who played characters both male and female. It also means they can break typecasting. Tumblr user sphinxyvic wrote, "Being the physical type that I am, I usually get cast either as servants or comic parts. Because Social Shakespeare is audio only, I get the chance to play lead female roles that I'd never get cast as IRL [in real life]. Also, getting to play male parts without worrying about my very feminine physicality is very freeing."

The trio uses Google Forms to poll participants on what role they want and when they are available for the read-through. What started as just one reading for one play has turned into multiple readings (Much Ado About Nothing had a total of seven read-throughs) as they try and satisfy everyone's requests as much as possible. The group’s guidelines state that you don't need to have the voice of a professional Shakespearean actor—the only preparation is reading through the play ahead of time and thinking about your character(s). They don't have a set number of participants, but they average between 60 to 140 actors a month, according to Langston.

When it comes time to do the read-throughs, they know that with it being Shakespeare, it needs to be tightly coordinated. They send out a link to all the participants to the Folger edition ahead of time so that everyone is literally on the same page, as well as a general guide for using Skype during the call. They also don't make any cuts to the text, warning the participants that the call will take several hours. The casting includes understudies in case people don't show, and the team corral people to lead the calls and record them. While the idea of recording the production was always a possibility, it was Langston who went ahead and made it happen. She now sends out an e-mail to the call leaders that also includes recommended software for recording Skype calls depending on the operating system. The call leader is in charge of uploading the recording and the chat log to a shared folder online, which Langston then adds the link to the Social Shakespeare Tumblr main page and posts the recording on a blog post. This process is repeated until all readings are done, and then the blog posts a survey to vote on what play the project does next.


Sonnets and Skype

Since it's all voluntary, right now the only goals of the project is the next play, which currently is Love's Labour's Lost, scheduled for September, followed by Macbeth in October, and Taming of the Shrew in November. Langston would like to eventually incorporate YouTube into the project, uploading the recordings as well as additional videos that are related to the play. She also would like the blog to do something special for next April, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

And as is typical with fandoms, the blog has had a couple of spin-offs, of sorts. The Tumblr Social Performance does the same concept—but with works outside of Shakespeare's canon. Meanwhile, the Tumblr Prompt Me Shakespeare is dedicated to promoting fanworks—whether it's art, fan fiction, or other creativity—of the Bard's work, typically connected to the same play that Social Shakespeare is doing.

Langston fully believes that the social media aspect gives the project the best of both worlds, combining what is great about live theatre with what makes social media relevant. "Live theatre is magical because you can only see it if you're there," she says. "By doing it audio only and doing it over Skype and Tumblr, you get that little bit of magic: every single call is different, and we can have that magic of the theatre at our fingertips. I can do it from my cell phone and be part of a live experience."

Tumblr user 10andthetardis wrote, "Remember, Shakespeare was writing for the stage. His gorgeous words were always meant to be spoken, but not merely spoken, to be performed—to fill your ears and find your heart."

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," Shakespeare may have written, but the ladies behind Social Shakespeare hope that by bringing it into social media, he'll be reblogged to a whole new audience.