THE BLOG

Is 'Shakespeare' Bad Branding?

11/05/2012 11:33 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sanjay at Froghammer must be so proud. You remember Froghammer, the firm brought in by the New Burbage Festival to shake up its advertising and audiences, to cast off their stodgy image? So bold, so vibrant, so current. Oh yes, and (spoiler alert) as it turned out, a fraud.

It's hard not to recall this fictional scenario, from the ever-brilliant Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, as the venerable Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada drops the middle word from its name...again, having jettisoned it in the 1970s and restored it in 2007. In the words of Stratford's new artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who assumed his new post officially today, the name "is simple and direct, it resonates with people and it carries our legacy of quality and success." It also eradicates the name of Shakespeare in the general promotion of the festival. How that plays out on its stages, and its materials, will be seen in the seasons to come.

Stratford is hardly the first theatre to diminish The Bard's name. Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival began to transition as its Lafayette Street home became prominent and rose to co-billing in the portmanteau Joseph Papp's The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, which later gave way simply to The Public Theater (which still produces Shakespeare in the Park, a catch-all that has included Comden & Green and Bernstein, Sondheim, and Ragni, Rado & McDermott in more recent summers).

Even the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, as it drew its last breaths in the late 1980s, rebranded as the American Festival Theatre, as generic a company identity as one could ask for but hey, doesn't everybody love a festival? It left in its wake an assortment of Shakespearean-named businesses around it, which survived for years, despite the closure of the town's major claim to the name.

Professionally, for these companies, the rebranding is rooted in solid marketing theory. In the case of the two going concerns, they have grown beyond being solely Shakespearean companies, though it's worth noting that the Shaw Festival has not yet renounced old G.B., even as it has expanded its own repertoire as well. If Shakespeare is less prominent on the stage, perhaps it is best to not fly him as the company banner, especially since conventional wisdom holds that many people find the works of the playwright to be difficult and off-putting, a perception aided by years of dull literature teachers in secondary schools. If your name is a misrepresentation or worse a deterrent, business sense dictates that you remove the obstruction. When I was executive director of The O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, I quickly moved to rework the company's logo after multiple people told me stories about its caricature of Eugene being frequently mistaken for Hitler.

While these demotions of old Will are extremely prominent, he's not about to disappear from the North American consciousness. His works are omnipresent thanks to their eternal brilliance, as well as the added bonus of their being in the public domain, free from royalties or restrictive heirs. Every summer, "Shakespeare in the Park"s blossom as far as the eye can see, not only in New York's Central Park, especially his most arboreal works like A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Shakespeare festivals large and small dot the country. And of course we need only look to England where his works, and tributes to it, are a perpetual Shakespearean festival of which they are justly proud.

But there's no missing the fact that the companies perhaps most credited with popularizing and sustaining Shakespeare in North America in the latter half of the 20th century have shrugged off their inspiration and their mascot, in the interest of sustaining themselves as centers of theatrical creativity. It's hard to argue with that latter goal. After all, when theatre is restricted, or beholden to a limited, outdated artistic palette, it atrophies and dies.

But for all the business sense it makes, I can't help feeling a pang of loss as Shakespeare's name gets excised. Once a befuddled high schooler, who came to love Shakespeare as I saw ever-better productions following a dire Julius Caesar in 9th or 10th grade, it seems a small but significant chip away at Bill's rep in The New World. For the theatres, it's crucial re-branding. For The Shakespeare Brand, it's a crucial loss.

Another round to Sanjay. Fortunately, after 400 years, I think Shakespeare's still ahead. For now.