Those are a few of the questions that gets explored in the new webseries Blank Verse. Set in the modern-day Will Shakespeare (portrayed by Xander Williams) begins his first year in the creative writing program of Bankside University and encounters many of his contemporaries.
I met with series creator and executive producer Amanda Konkin to talk about where the idea came from and how she and her creative team went about exploring the now contemporary bard.
Greg: So simply put: What is Blank Verse?
Amanada: Blank Verse is a webseries about William Shakespeare and the great writers of his time re-imagined as modern-day university students. It features Ben Johnson, Thomas Kyd, Chris Marlowe, a lot of the famous people that surrounded Shakespeare during his lifetime. We’ve re-imaged their roles in relation to Shakespeare. We have Philp Henslowe who takes care of the building as a janitor in the world that we’ve created, but obviously Henslowe plays a much bigger role in Shakespeare’s actual life, so we’re fore-shadowing where he might go. And of course Queen Elizabeth, one of the biggest people in Shakespeare’s day, the Elizabethan Era, is actually the head of the creative writing department in our world. So in this microcosm that we’ve put our characters into, she’s still playing that large role and having power over them. Then we have Professor Essex and Quentin Smith and the historical drama around that we’ve tried to integrate. A lot of things are coming from the historical backdrop of Shakespeare’s life and the people in it. We’re trying to extrapolate as much as we can and find ways that they would work in a modern context and how things would have affected him during his actual lifetime, how we can re-imagine those here and how they would impact him as a writer today.
So how do you approach adapting a character like William Shakespeare into a modern context?
You recognize that you are creating something new, inspired by this… I would almost say mythologized figure now. The greatest thing, I think, that we get to play with is the fact that nobody really knows who he was. That’s one of the most contested things still today. There are new publications still coming out that are uncovering new things about his life and it completely changes how we look at this character, this person, and how he was writing. I really love that. The ability to not know in a defined way and [basically] sit down in an interview and say ‘How would you like to be represented? What do you think are the most important parts of your life?’ Instead we get to see him for the impact that he had on our world today. We find a general amalgamation of all of the thing we think he did and can take from that what we want from that and try to honor who we think he was as best as we can.
I come from a theatre background, a lot of the people working on the show come from a theatre background, so obviously there’s a certain amount of reference for Shakespeare as a person and for his work […] but I think one of the greatest things that we’re hoping to explore is that was also just a guy and how does history manipulate culture and influence culture today. Why is it that we know Shakespeare but we don’t know. Robert Greene or George Peele or Thomas Kyd as much while they were writing in the same context and their works are arguably just as substantial and informative as the works that Shakespeare did. Its just so interesting and that’s what we’re playing with.
You’ve brought together a number of creators together to collaborate together on this and bring it to life, both writers and directors.
Where did that stem from?
The one thing I love most about this project is the people. I entered theatre because of the people that I was working with. So when we started this, I had told the idea to a friend and gone away for a week and when I came back he had talked to all of our other friends and they were all on board and I was like, ‘Well, I guess we’re making this project now!’
I like to emulate a television model. It’s the world I know the best in the terms of content creation and the one that I’m most passionate about. I really like the idea of having consistent characters and a core creative team with a central creator […] but you can bring in different directors and different writers to help find the voice of these characters. I think it allows for an interesting story to develop. We have also set the show up where each arc can really be an arc unto themselves. So the characters with each writer have the chance to grow within the that microcosm within our microcosm, if you will.
I find it kind of interesting that you have a project where you are taking classic literary writers and bringing them into a modern world and that the creative team is coming from a classic theatre background, but putting this out as a new media project.
It is one of our greatest advantages and also greatest challenges. We have a few film people on board but most of us navigating the world of digital media for the first time. I have a degree in theatre and digital media and I always thought that there was a great intersection between those two things, but a lot of people don’t think about that. I think there is a lot of crossovers, especially in the immediacy of storytelling. I think one of the things about theatre is that it is a very particular audience and a very particular feel and there are very particular stories that you could tell on a stage that you can’t tell on a film. I like that its very much about audience connection. I found a lot of similarities in digital media. There’s that direct audience contact and the ability to tell stories to the people that you want to tell them to. And there’s, I think, less of a filter when it comes to storytelling. When telling a great story, the medium might change, but when you recognize what the advantages of that medium are and you recognize the strengths of the story that you want to tell you can find a way to merge them really beautifully and that’s a thing that I’m really excited about with this project is the ability to work with my two favorite mediums and see how we can create the best story possible.
Now all of the writers you’ve used as characters are men originally, but in Blank Verse some of those figures have been gender-swapped. What prompted that and how did you decide who of the characters would be switched?[Yes], obviously Chris Marlowe and Ben Johnson were men, but when were casting the project we looked at the core of the characters and who we thought they were and the moment we took away the gender we found the right actors for the role and we realized that was more important in telling this story. It was about the essence of the characters and who we thought they were, not if they were men or if they were women. So once we actually figured that out everything else fell into place. We were having a lot of problem with our Ben Johnson. We do really see Ben Johnson as our window into Shakespeare’s world and the straight man of the series, if you will. You get to see Shakespeare through Ben’s eyes a lot of the time. We had a really hard time trying to figure out who could fit the essence of this role. Ben Johnson’s role is only going to get intensely more interesting as you go forward if you know who Ben Johnson was and what kind of shenanigans he got up to. So we’re excited to see how that grows. So as soon as we thought of Emma [Middleton] we found that everything just fit into place and all these other characters started to round out the world. It was really excited and I think it also adds a nice dynamic to the show. It’s interesting that, why were they all men writing and we don’t have all these women from that day and age there’s no reason for that in a contemporary world for that to still be a thing.
So the first season is winding up, will we be looking forward to a second season?
A: Oh yes! I think in television narratives and I think in five season structures. Also I think when you put someone in a university setting there is a ‘year’ structure there, you can be in university for four to five years. Also Shakespeare lived a long time. We’re condensing a lot of the action but we are trying to fit it in this chronological structure. This first season only goes from Two Gentlemen of Verona to Romeo and Juliet, so in terms of the breadth of plays that he wrote we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. We’re really excited to see the potential of this and we believe there is some longevity in the series. Everyone who is involved with it really wants to see it continue. That was always our goal, to create something that we were passionate about, but then get everyone else really excited about it and want to see more.