People Who Make NY Special

Why Shakespeare Is More Important Than Ever

Hamilton Clancy, founder and director of the Drilling Company, says the Bard can help us deal with “the worst administration in history.”

Photo by Rob Wilson

Summer is Shakespeare season for New Yorkers. The Public Theater‘s annual Shakespearean showcase is the generally acknowledged headliner, but Bardolators can also catch free productions from the New York Classical Theatre, Hip to Hip Theatre, Smith Street Stage, and Hudson Warehouse, to name a few. One of the busiest summer theater schedules, however, belongs to the Drilling Company. Perhaps best known for its hyper-egalitarian Shakespeare in the Parking Lot series, Drilling is simultaneously staging shows in a vacant lot while also managing a three-week run of Macbeth at the Bryant Park Picnics festival in August and September.

Do New Yorkers really need this much Shakespeare? “Hell, yes!” declares Hamilton Clancy, the company’s founder and artistic director. Clancy, a zealous advocate for live theater of all types, gleefully points out “when you perform, direct, or attend Shakespeare plays, you join the ages. You are a part of the pilgrimage that audiences and actors everywhere have made for nearly half a millennia.”

A performer for all seasons, Clancy is also an in-demand television and film actor whom you’ll see in a major recurring role in the CBS All Access program One Dollar, premiering this month. Between rehearsals and performances, Clancy took a few moments to discuss his new show and how Shakespeare gives him an excuse for being outspoken in his work and his life.

What Should We Do?!: The Drilling Company has emerged from fairly humble origins to putting on an impressive roster of programming. How did the company get started?

Hamilton Clancy: We started in 1999, which means we’ve been generating work over an almost-20-year period. That’s a lot of artists, a lot of shows, a lot of stories, and a lot of change.

When it came to the sort of people willing to watch pop-up Shakespeare on the Lower East Side, there was incredible variety and diversity.

I was initially inspired by the Signature Theatre’s approach of doing the works of a single playwright. We discovered early on that part of our mission would be to create original work that brought diverse audiences to a common experience. I still believe that the greatest challenge in modern theater is learning how to indoctrinate “nontheater” audiences into the fold. Diverse casting has its own purposes and virtues, but, for my money, the real diversity we need is socioeconomically and geographically diverse audiences. We discovered that audience doing Shakespeare in the Parking Lot; when it came to the sort of people willing to watch pop-up Shakespeare on the Lower East Side, there was incredible variety and diversity.

For a long while we presented two short projects and two parking lot shows a year, but when the parking lot was threatened, Bryant Park approached us to come uptown. We’ve since been able to keep the parking lot shows going in addition to managing Bryant Park and our non-Shakespeare programming.

WSWD: You’re producing Shakespeare in two very different environments. How do you adjust to each space?

Clancy: Both locations have singularly special relevance to the city and to our work. The Lower East Side is, historically, one of the greatest melting pots in the history of New York. Shakespeare’s works are among the most profound literary experiences of humanity. So just putting those two together is interesting. Bryant Park is more like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but in America. We’re set in the very center of what is still the greatest cosmopolitan city in the world. When we perform there, we’re right in the midst of the commercial world, but in a small island of escape. We’re right in front of the New York Public Library, one of the greatest repositories of wisdom in the world. And even amid all these treasures, we’re still getting to do Shakespeare’s plays surrounded by a field of green. It’s impossible to duplicate that setting. We also think it’s fitting that the namesake of the park, William Cullen Bryant, one of America’s truly great poets, is a fair match for Shakespeare.

WSWD: How would you describe your upcoming series, One Dollar?

Clancy: One Dollar is the opposite of Billions, figuratively and literally. It’s a sort of thriller, but the people involved aren’t high-stakes hedge fund managers; they’re just ordinary folks, getting by in America. It’s set in the western Pennsylvania town of Braden, a mythical suburb of Pittsburgh. I play a long-serving police officer named Tom Miller, who is notable for his local flavor. In the proud tradition of Shakespearean jesters, I’m the comic relief.

WSWD: In the aftermath of James Gunn’s and Roseanne Barr’s very public career meltdowns because of their social media usage, do you ever feel constrained to not share your personal opinions on social media or in interviews?

Clancy: Not at all! If anyone would listen, we’d be screaming twice as loud. The artists who’ve been attracted to the Drilling Company are, for the most part, very politically engaged. Throughout the Bush II presidency, our work reflected the travesty of what his administration was doing to the country. Who could have imagined we’d look back fondly on those days? But here we are, with the worst administration and president in the country’s history.

WSWD: So your politics helps define the company?

Clancy: Ours do, not just mine. We’ve been very fortunate over the years to have actors, writers, and directors who have responded fiercely to immediate shifts in the cultural moment. We approach Shakespeare in the same way, with an artistic responsibility to bear witness and tell the truth. You know, Shakespeare gives you a kind of security in the text, so that no matter what’s going on in the outside world, he offers you a chance to bring yourself to the work in a very personal way. I think that sharing what we really are is one of the best things we can do with the skills we have.

See the Drilling Company’s Macbeth in Bryant Park on Friday and Saturday between August 24 and September 8. Need some inspo before and after? We’ve got you covered.