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NPR Arts & Life

Shakespeare Companies Suffer Backlash After 'Julius Caesar' Controversy

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The controversy over a production of "Julius Caesar" depicting Caesar as Donald Trump is spreading. In the play, Caesar is assassinated. The production in question was by New York's Public Theater, part of its Shakespeare in the Park program. And the protests have now spread to theater companies in other cities around the country apparently just because they have Shakespeare in their name. In Texas, staff at Shakespeare Dallas have received death threats. From member station KERA, Hady Mawajdeh has the story.

HADY MAWAJDEH, BYLINE: Here's a clip from Fox News last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A play appearing to depict the murder of the president has made its official debut. The New York Public Theater has lost some of its sponsors over "Julius Caesar."

MAWAJDEH: That got some folks in the Texas area riled up. Raphael Parry is the artistic director of Shakespeare Dallas.

RAPHAEL PARRY: We started receiving emails - like, a drove of them started flowing into our mailbox. And at first they were, you know, I hate you; I hate what you're doing in your production. So we were a bit confused because we hadn't even had a public performance yet.

MAWAJDEH: Parry's company was set to perform "The Merry Wives Of Windsor" the next day. That's a Shakespeare comedy. Anyways, shortly after the first few emails, more people began contacting Parry and his staff. And the emails got nasty. Here's an excerpt of one read by an actor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Reading) You truly are a bunch of freaks and bottom suckers. We should send all you freaks to ISIS. They would eliminate your stint on this earth with real knives.

MAWAJDEH: Some of the emails are more graphic than that, and honestly, some of them are just silly. But this still stunned the staff at Shakespeare Dallas. Here's the company's program and media manager, Jessica Helton.

JESSICA HELTON: It was just totally violent and disturbing and shocking because they didn't even have the right company.

MAWAJDEH: Shakespeare Dallas isn't the only company dealing with the fallout from the New York Public Theater's production. Parry's been contacted by companies across the country. Here's his best guess why, at least for Texas.

PARRY: If you type in Shakespeare in the Park in Google, we pop up. Geographically, in probably a three- or four-state area, Shakespeare Dallas pops up as Shakespeare in the Park.

MAWAJDEH: It hasn't had a negative effect on attendance. In fact, the company says it might have had a positive effect. Last night's preview of "Quixote," which is a modern interpretation of Cervantes' "Don Quixote" - not Shakespeare - had more than 300 attendees.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "QUIXOTE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing, as Don Quixote) I am the sole custodian of a vanished time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sancho Panza) But where are you going?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Don Quixote) To find myself a - Sancho Panza. Will you come?

MAWAJDEH: Jared Cobb was in the audience with this family. He says you have to be conscious of the dangers when threats are made. But he felt safe enough to come out and support local theater. Besides, Texas is an open-carry state, and his father told me that he had his gun nearby.

JARED COBB: The probability that somebody's going to come into an open park full of Texans and try something - anything - is very unlikely. And if they would do something like that, it'd be very ill-advised (laughter).

MAWAJDEH: Most of the people I spoke with said they hadn't even heard about the hullabaloo. But Robert Cantu seemed to sum up their thoughts.

ROBERT CANTU: It's a non-controversy in that it is so ludicrous that they would confuse it. Anyway, I guess you can't fix stupid.

MAWAJDEH: You probably can't. But you can try to make sure that your messages get sent to the right people. From NPR News, I'm Hady Mawajdeh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.