Infrastructure and Shakespeare

January 8th, 2009

from: Neal Shapiro, President & CEO, WNET.ORG

I spent the morning with two incredible people who make what can sometimes seem to be inaccessible topics into riveting and informative television.

The people: Ray Suarez and Sir Ian McKellen
The topics: Infrastructure and Shakespeare

Greetings from the Winter TCA Press Tour in Los Angeles, where media writers from around the country converge to hear about new programs and initiatives from all the networks. PBS went first this year.

WNET kicked it off with a discussion about Blueprint America, our system-wide initiative launched with the Rockefeller Foundation that explores how America needs to deal with the one the biggest challenges of the 21at century: its crumbling infrastructure. For months, we’ve worked with many of the most important programs on public television and radio to report on this topic, and we think it is no accident that it has found its way to the top of president-elect Obama’s to-do list.

I presented with our Vice President of Content, Stephen Segaller, and talked about how the programs came together, but the real star of the session was Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent for The NewsHour. Ray has already done several Blueprint America stories for us, and he has a history with the topic of infrastructure, having covered it back in his days as rising star reporter at WMAQ-TV in Chicago. Infrastructure sounds like a clinical or technological issue, but as Ray explains it, infrastructure is really about the everyday things we do in life…getting to work, communicating, moving food and supplies.

We also told the critics about our next two documentaries…the first begins shooting this week and will air in late May. Stay tuned.

Next up, we met a night–er knight–in the morning. Sir Ian McKellan was waiting backstage before he went onstage to talk about the Great Performances production of King Lear, in which he plays the title role. He is charming, witty, disarming and curious about television. We talked about PBS and the kind of arts coverage we are doing.

Neal Shapiro and Sir Ian McKellen

In front of the critics, he was mesmerizing as he talked about finding his way through Lear, and how he brings some of the experiences in his own life to bear in under-standing the role. When one of the critics asked him if playing Lear was the most challenging role of his long and distinguished career, he said “Yes, I think it was.”

Eventually the topic of the nude scene was brought up. In the play, it is clear that Shakespeare means for Lear to be disrobing. But onstage, how far should he go? When he toured with the show, in most performances Sir Ian left nothing to the imagination. But in some places, such as Singapore, local law and customs forbade total nudity, so he did not.

The critics were curious about the television version: would he or wouldn’t he? The director chose to suggest total nudity but not show it completely…which Sir Ian said he thought was fine. He acknowledged that sometimes when an actor totally disrobes, it distracts from the dialogue. In fact, he told us, when he disrobed onstage he was distracted too…he concentrated on holding his stomach in!