With the 400th anniversary of the death of history’s greatest playwright, so begin the articles from every cultural nook and cranny holding themselves up to the light of his Elizabethan-made-ageless genius for comparison and tenuous relevancy.
As the pre-eminent master of the all absorbing tale and immersive storytelling, the communications industry has much to learn from Shakespeare. Despite the cross-dressing anachronisms and the what-say-he language, Shakespeare’s relevancy remains anchored in the conserving of his folios as time capsules of culturally populist storytelling. Times change. The world moves on and the cross dressing has reversed. The consumption of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has likewise changed with the times, as has the audience that consumes it. Alas, this high-culture hijacking misses and abuses Shakespeare’s key originality and skill: knowing his audience and how to push their buttons with experience-led storytelling. Shakespeare and company built their legacy in an Elizabethan Southwark full of the great unwashed who didn’t know much. Among the drinking, gambling, and whorehouses, the torn-down timbers of an earlier theatre in Shoreditch were re-erected as the independent Globe; inadvertently spawning patient zero of London’s gentrification pandemic. We can only make our stories memorable if we help our audiences experience them.
The Globe was entertainment for the masses. Understanding that successful storytelling connects and involves the audience in the narrative, Shakespeare wrote plays to be performed with every interactive and immersive trick he could use. Falstaff’s acerbic asides and Puck’s canoodling commentary invited the audience to be as much a part of the production as the actors. And they loved it. Shakespeare saw beyond the stage to transform performance into experience by making each story unfold in the hearts and minds of the audience. The actors onstage being merely the conduit to connect his (often subversive) commentary with the masses through the medium of shared experience. He was the original immersive storyteller.
Back to our industry where some proponents express much distaste at the notion of us advertisers calling themselves storytellers. In essence, I would agree. Taking The Bard’s lead we should not limit ourselves to being mere storytellers. Like him, we can only make our stories memorable if we help our audiences experience them.
As people search for authentic, tangible, involving experiences, we’d do well to remember “all the world’s a stage. And all the men and women are merely players”. We – like Shakespeare – must allow them to be part of the story. To play their part in its making. To connect with its meaning. That’s immersive storytelling. That’s entertainment. That’s a memorable experience.
Happy birthday, William.