“New takes” on Shakespeare have been all the rage for decades. In DC, we’ve had productions of Much Ado About Nothing set in a television newsroom, Twelfth Night at a 1960s airport departure gate, and Love’s Labor’s Lost in a gilded mansion in the roaring 20s.
But for Karen Ann Daniels, artistic director of the Folger Theatre, simply moving Shakespeare from one setting to another is not enough to address the major challenge for classical theaters: bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century, an era that expects and demands that theater expands beyond the white male viewpoint of Shakespeare’s age.
In a project designed to make space for female voices, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and others who have not traditionally had a space in the classical theater canon, Daniels is spearheading a new program at Folger called The Reading Room, a festival featuring staged readings of new plays “inspired by, in response to, and in conversation with Shakespeare.”
“It started with me talking to people who engage with Shakespeare in ways we don’t typically see,” Daniels told me during a recent phone conversation. “And I realized that this was an opportunity to think about who is in charge of how Shakespeare gets to exist in our culture.”
In planning Folger’s upcoming season, Daniels says, she observed a commonality in conversations people were having about Shakespeare: “I realized that I wanted to create an opportunity to support new work. Here we are in DC in the seat of democracy and there are a lot of players trying to get a seat at the table, so it made sense to invite folks to the table.”
So she created a festival that had seats for everyone.
The first play that Daniels chose for The Reading Room was Julius X, a play by Al Letson that melds the lives of Julius Caesar and slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. Letson wrote the play years ago but was eager to revisit it in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations about Black identity that have played out across the nation in the last few years.
“It was something Al really wanted to explore and revisit and I was like, let’s make room for this. How can I be in service of the art making?”
Next, Daniels turned to a play by Lauren Gunderson that she had read while working at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Room in the Castle focuses on Ophelia and Gertrude, two female characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and explores how their destinies would have been different if they had not existed within the confines of a patriarchy. The overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 led Daniels to think about the voices in society that don’t get to be heard. “Here we are with Roe overturned and I found this great play that was asking who gets to decide your fate as a woman?” Daniels recalls. “I reached out and asked if Folger could be a catalyst to move this commission forward.”
Another issue on Daniels’ mind this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Published in 1623, the First Folio is the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays and it is widely recognized as ensuring the longevity of his work. (The Folger Shakespeare Library houses the largest collection of First Folios in the world.) In thinking about how to celebrate the anniversary, Daniels realized that there was not a play out there that would tell the story she wanted to tell. “I wanted to tell a story that felt relatable not from a high place of we should just revere the Folio,” she said. “Of course, we should revere it, but we should also be asking what we have in common with it.”
So she wrote her own play.
Daniels partnered with Malik Work, a theater artist with whom she had worked at New York’s Public Theatre, on a devised theater piece called Our Verse in Time to Come. She describes the work, which centers on twins Vi and Will sifting through the estate of their father who is ill with dementia, as bridging the past with the present and “creating an opportunity for people to come at the Folio from their own place.” Daniels hopes to take the play on tour later this year.
The final play in The Reading Room is a bilingual reimagining of Hamlet set in modern-day New York City with a Spanish-infused text. Written by Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon, this Hamlet features a Black and Latinx prince. “The play questions who language belongs to and what happens when identities are intersectional,” Daniels says. “In this version, Hamlet is questioning if he is Black enough or Latinx enough and using language to get at the heart of this conversation.”
Daniels knows that this content differs from the traditional work audiences are used to seeing at Folger. But she sees it as an opportunity to carry on a conversation about identity and storytelling in tandem with the audience. “This is a journey we can go on together and I am here to hear feedback,” she observes.
The readings will be accompanied by post-show conversations with the artists, an opportunity for audiences and creators to share knowledge and experience. And Daniels feels that the Folger Theatre, embedded in the larger cultural institution of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is the perfect place for that.
The Reading Room Plays
By William Shakespeare
Bilingual adaptation by Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon
Translation by Christin Eve Cato
Directed by Tatiana Pandiani
Thursday, January 19, 2023, at 7:30 pm
Our Verse in Time to Come
Commissioned by Folger Shakespeare Library to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of the printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio
By Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels, in collaboration with Devin E. Haqq
Directed by Devin E. Haqq
Friday, January 20, 2023, at 7:30 pm
By Al Letson
Directed by Nicole Brewer
Saturday, January 21, 2023, at 2 pm
A Room in the Castle
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Eddie DeHais
Saturday, January 21, 2023, at 7:30 pm
All four readings are followed by a conversation with the playwrights, directors, and scholars at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation.
The Reading Room Programs
Anti-Racism and Shakespeare
Saturday, January 21 at 11 am
Nicole Brewer, Kaja Dunn, and Dr. John Proctor III
Lauren Gunderson and Al Letson
Saturday, January 21 at 5:30 pm
(This event will have an ASL interpreter.)
For further information, check the Folger website at folger.edu/events/the-reading-room.
The Reading Room Tickets
The Reading Room series takes place at The Lutheran Church of the Reformation at 212 East Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC.
A pass to see all four readings: $25.
Additional conversations and special events: $15.
An All-Access Pass, which includes admission to all four readings and all special events: $50.
Students: admitted free one-half hour before readings, with a valid ID.
Tickets are available for purchase from the Folger Box Office: folger.edu/theatre or
COVID Safety: Folger Theatre’s The Reading Room series will require all attendees to wear a well-fitting mask inside the venue to ensure a safe atmosphere for patrons and artists alike. For more information, visit folger.edu/covid-19-safety-protocols.
Lauren Gunderson and Al Letson(news story, December 14, 2022)
For Folger’s Karen Ann Daniels, the Bard’s big O stands for opportunity (interview by Ramona Harper, October 12, 2021)