Where for art thou, principles?

Shakespeare Theater, Quaker partnership crosses troubling line

By Chris Jones
Tribune arts reporter

March 14, 2004

Last week, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater announced a new summer sponsorship arrangement with Quaker, a unit of PepsiCo Beverages & Foods. The deal includes the placing of Quaker food products in a Chicago Shakespeare production on Navy Pier.

At first blush this looked like a gag. Are we to be seeing King John munching on Rice-A-Roni, the Elizabethan treat? Will the unmistakable sound of fresh Captain Crunch accompany future Hamlets, even as the sullen Dane laments the world as "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable"? In "King Lear," Edgar makes reference to having recently chowed down on mice, rats and small deer. In Barbara Gaines' next revival, perchance that poor man will munch instead on one of Quaker's chewy granola bars.

But this is no joke. Rather, it's a very serious, troubling and thoroughly wrong-headed development that crosses what should be a church-and-state separation between marketing and children's art.

For the past three years, summers at the pier have featured Gary Griffin's highly contemporary (and thoroughly terrific) short version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Since its inception, the Griffin "Midsummer" has indeed included branded food items, partly as a joke but mainly as a way of relating the characters of this classic comedy to the tastes of the targeted young audience on a Saturday morning. In the past, those brands have been selected by the director to serve the show's creative point.

Products on the stage

This summer, those food products on the stage will all happen to be made by Quaker, which has paid handsomely for the privilege. "Theater without Shakespeare is like breakfast without Quaker Oats," said PepsiCo Beverages & Foods Chairman and CEO Gary Rodkin in a prepared statement. "Both are timeless classics and provide innumerable benefits to the heart and soul."

Rodkin has a duty to his shareholders to make such savvy and profitable linkages where and whenever he can. But for Chicago Shakespeare, it's a creative sellout. And there's more.

When the actors come out afterward to meet the youngsters who've seen the show -- in past summers they have signed autographs, talked about Shakespeare, let kids touch their costumes and the like -- they will be carrying along Quaker, Tropicana and PepsiCo products to pass out to the star-struck little theater-goers and their parents.

In the corporate mind, that encounter will stimulate future demand for Quaker Crisp-Ums and the like, just as in the parental mind, that encounter will stimulate future demand for great literature and the arts.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts is both a fact of life and a good thing. Without such generous support from local corporations such as Quaker, many Chicago theaters would not be able to exist in their current form. It feels like the new Millennium Park will have almost as many corporate sponsors as blades of grass. Still, the entire community benefits from such relationships.

But signs in the lobby or presenting credits in the program are one thing -- letting marketing schemes inform creative decisions and the sacred relationship between a serious performing artist and an impressionable young audience member is entirely another. And it's especially egregious when family programming is concerned.

In short, parents have a right to expect that their family's attendance at a Shakespeare production at one of America's most respected non-profit classical theaters won't involve their kids being directly pitched products, however subtle and tasteful the process.

Movies, children's shows

In an era when Hollywood movies routinely hawk carefully placed cans of soda, rock show children's attractions such as "Blues Clues Live!" deftly merge entertainment and merchandising as they build a media conglomerate's brands, and school field trips might just end up at that wonderfully educational destination otherwise known as Sportmart, parents have precious few marketing-free zones where they can escape with their kids.

As a result, they look to high-profile and respected institutions such as Chicago Shakespeare. Parents think they can trust them with the education and entertainment of their children with no ulterior motives. That's why such groups get and deserve tax-payer support. And to its enormous credit, Chicago Shakespeare has been a roaring success on Navy Pier, adding greatly to the quality of family life in Chicago. This has been achieved in part by a laudably entrepreneurial attitude. But this latest deal has crossed a line that should not be crossed.

Theater's idea

Criss Henderson, the executive director of Chicago Shakespeare, regards all this as much ado about nothing. In an interview this week, he said that the product-placement idea was something that Chicago Shakespeare (not Quaker) "brought to the table" as a way to enhance "a very generous sponsorship" that will bring 4,000 people in contact with Shakespeare. "These are the only ways these projects ever will find their way to the stage," he said. "At Chicago Shakespeare," Henderson said, "we take serious consideration of the needs of our corporate partners."

Henderson also pointed out that the products used in "Midsummer" will be "healthy and nutritious." "It feels a bit absurd," he went on, "to suggest that Shakespeare ever could be diminished by a prop."

The Bard will, indeed, survive Gatorade. And there's no evidence that Quaker or its corporate parent have tried or will try to influence the direction or style of the show in which their product is placed. But if Rodkin sticks his oat bars in something controversial -- or even if Puck were to wrinkle his nose one too many times, Rodkin's board would have a right to make a stink. And the creative staff of Chicago Shakespeare won't be able to quite forget that when they're working on the show.

Just as decent newspapers wall-off editorial content from advertising, so there needs to be a firewall between the arts and their corporate benefactors. Both are right to carefully choose their partners. Both can benefit from each other. But their aims are not the same.

Quaker wants and needs to sell its products. Like all arts organizations, Chicago Shakespeare has to impart deep truths about life without compromise.

Consider the schools-oriented production of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" at the Steppenwolf Theatre this month. Its message? Maturity means discovering the best of times are the worst of times and that goodness and evil coexist.

That's not exactly a marketer's dream environment, but it is a point worth learning for a young person. Even if a free granola bar is not included.

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