Fifty miles north of New York City, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival playfully subverted audiences’ expectations with a radical rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[Images of Hudson Valley Shakespeare by T. Charles Erickson. Other images by Emily Finch]

The scene was reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Families, couples, friends sprawled on the lawn of the historical Boscobel estate, accompanied by wicker baskets, wine glasses and cheese boards.

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This loyal crowd of patrons arrived early to enjoy the view of the river before an evening of theatre at the respected Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Excitement about the sold out performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream buzzed as everyone packed up their blankets and headed towards their seats under the tent’s canopy.

And yet, despite such a positive beginning, many audience members became disenchanted by the production. Disenchanted enough, in fact, to bale out in the middle of it. About 20 percent of the seats were empty at the actors’ final bow.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream usually promises a fun, crowd-pleasing evening – what made the audience walk out? Well, very little about this production felt normal. Where so many Shakespeare productions attempt to rationalise everything – to answer every possible question an audience member might have – this production consistently resisted the urge to simplify and clarify, and instead said, “Why not?”

Why not have Bottom and Puck be played by the same actor?
Why not let Demetrius speak Spanglish?
Why not use five actors for all 20 parts?
According to actor Mark Bedard, these choices came out of rehearsals where director Eric Tucker constantly challenged his players, saying: “We could do the scene that way, the expected way. Or we could find a different way, a harder way.”

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The lack of scenery, props or elaborate costumes placed the responsibility for the success (or failure) of the play squarely on the actors – the aforementioned Mark Bedard, along with Sean McNall, Joey Parsons, Jason O’Connell and Nance Williamson.

As HVSF artistic director Davis McCallum put it, limiting the cast to five actors forced “radical creativity” on behalf of the performers and director to overcome the obstacles, the least of which being the numerous scenes with six or more characters.

The end result was a fresh and raucously hilarious interpretation of this most frequently performed of comedies. Those looking for an evening of conventional theatre were sorely disappointed. The rest of us were beside ourselves with mirth.

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“This isn’t Shakespeare that’s over people’s head,” McNall says. “It’s Shakespeare between their legs.”
Of course, the actors cannot help but notice the depleted audience as the evening unfolds.
“Sometimes, it is a little hard,” Parsons concedes, “to walk on in the second act and see an entire row gone.”

For Williamson, the polarity of reactions validates the unconventional choices. “It’s exciting when you don’t have just a wave of love every single night,” she says. “That’s theatre. The job is not to please everybody.”

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As hard as it is for the players to witness their patrons walking out, it must be said that the majority of the audience remain completely enthralled by the performance.

“We’ll have audiences that are really quiet, and obviously not happy,” says Bedard, “and then we’ll have audiences where it’s like a rock concert.”
Apart from the interpretive casting decisions, the open-air location lends a special life to the productions.

“Boscobel has this beautiful backdrop that makes the play have a lifted grace that it sometimes doesn’t have inside,” explains Williamson.
“The plays can never get stale out here,” adds O’Connell. “Every performance is wildly different just based upon the variables of the time of summer or what’s going on in the air.”

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For McCallum’s first full season as artistic director, he chose plays that would connect the audience with the production through the power of storytelling. “A group of people are gathering,” he says, “in this really unique spot, under this canopy, to be told a story.”

For the past 29 years, HVSF has been sharing stories with roughly 40,000 patrons each summer, along with thousands more through continuous educational outreach. For a summer festival with only five year-round staff members, those numbers prove this company is doing something right, something beyond being an idealistic picnic destination.

“For the sake of our artistic health, we want to do a wide range of things,” says McCallum. “Not just summer Shakespeare comedies.”

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Preparing for the Festival’s 30th anniversary next summer, McCallum plans to continue subverting expectations, delivering entertaining art that challenges as well, putting the little town of Garrison on the theatrical map.

“Our vision for the theatre is that it can be a real destination for audience members,” he says. “Not just from New York City, but from further afield.”

The five-person production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream played at New York City’s Pearl Theatre until 31 October.

Go here for more on Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Thankfully, the Shakespeare-invoking Broadway extravaganza Something Rotten! fails to live up to its name

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Whenever pop culture tries to adapt Shakespeare – whether it is a Hollywood film or interpretive novel – anxiety for my beloved Bard and excitement for endless possibilities war within my chest.

Naturally, when I first heard of the Broadway musical Something Rotten! those familiar emotions cropped up. After some research into the premise – Elizabethan playwrights Nick and Nigel Bottom war with Shakespeare to create the biggest stage success and subsequently create the first Broadway style musical – my excitement swelled.

During the production, tears of laughter streamed down my face, and by the end, I knew my former fears were unfounded.

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Rotten combines the best of Shakespearean and Broadway theatre into a story of ambition, romance, sibling love and creative intrigue.

While the treatment of Shakespeare is somewhat irreverent at times, audiences cannot help but love Christian Borle’s Tony-winning version of the Bard. With a culture obsessed with deifying Shakespeare, seeing a version that drinks, swears, lies, and cheats was refreshingly human.

Staunch Stratfordians might take offence at a Will that steals ideas and lines from fellow playwrights. But the production contains so many anachronisms it can hardly be mistaken for trying to present a historically accurate depiction of 16th century London – let alone one of literature’s most mysterious authors.

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Shakespeare homages apart, the musical numbers in Rotten allude to more Broadway hits than I could recognise – from Annie to The Lion King to Les Miserables.

Yet for all the references to both Shakespeare plays and Broadway musicals, Rotten remained thoroughly accessible and amusing to those unfamiliar with one, or both, of those worlds.

From the script to the music to the choreography, the production consistently surprised and delighted. More than once the actors were left awkwardly paused on stage while the audience erupted into applause at the end of a musical number.

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In the end, Something Rotten! offers three hours of irreverent top-notch musical and Shakespearean entertainment.

Something Rotten! is playing at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in New York City.

Go here for more information and to book tickets.

Colorado Shakes presents a “ragtag” but powerful production of Shakespeare’s war epic Henry V

[Images by Jennifer Koskinen]

First impressions are important, and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s recent production of Henry V made quite the first impression.

As the audience settled, the curtain was up, letting them examine stage design. A ghost light stood front and center on the stage, illuminating a set that was reminiscent of an antique store. Arranged haphazardly on wooden scaffolding were chandeliers, chairs, crates, as well as more eclectic items – a baby carriage, a piano, a mannequin, and more.

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An odd choice for depicting battle scenes and royal courts. The transformation began with the invocation to a “muse of fire”. As the Chorus (Sam Gregory) spoke, actors emerged and snapped to action, putting on costumes and arranging the paraphernalia into the English court.

The lights stayed on for the entire production, allowing us to watch scene changes and the occasional costume change (including make-up application). While at times it distracted from the scene on stage – Bardolph applying his nose make-up caught my eye especially – the raw style complemented the lines of the Chorus, and paid homage to Shakespeare’s original staging conditions in a novel way.

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Overall, it worked really well. The actors’ performance matched the set design in every way. Benjamin Bonenfant managed to reconcile the contradictory aspects of King Harry – his furious war tactics were as believable as his awkward love antics.

As a play, Henry V demands a huge range from the cast – bickering troops, hilarious portrayals of the French, an endearing yet awkward love scene, genuine moments of sadness, and gruesome depictions of war.

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This production gave the same authenticity to them all. In her introduction to the play, director Carolyn Howarth says, “All we can do, my ragtag team and I, is tell his story.” And they did.

Colorado Shakespeare is an annual summer festival hosted on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Go here for more information.

Issue 07 of Shakespeare Magazine is out now, celebrating 425 years of Great Shakespeare Actors

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Kenneth Branagh is cover star of Shakespeare Magazine 07, in keeping with the issue’s theme of Great Shakespeare Actors.

The venerable Stanley Wells discusses his new book on the subject, handily titled Great Shakespeare Actors, while Antony Sher reveals what it’s like to play Falstaff – the subject of his own new book Year of the Fat Knight.

We also go behind the scenes of the excellent My Shakespeare TV series, while British actress Zoe Waites chats about heading to the USA to play As You Like It’s Rosalind with Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Other highlights include Shakespeare in Turkey, Shakespeare Opera, and the real story of Shakespeare and the Essex Plot.

All this, and the Russian fans who made their own edition of David Tennant’s Richard II

Go here to read Shakespeare Magazine 07 right now.

And don’t forget, you can read all seven issues of Shakespeare Magazine here.

As always, Shakespeare Magazine is completely FREE.

Lois Leveen, author of the novel Juliet’s Nurse, talks about the power of the plague in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

“As Mercutio is dying he says not once, not twice, but three times, ‘A plague on both your houses!’ And that made me think about plague, which first came to Italy in 1348 and killed about 40 percent of the population.

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“When I started the novel I never thought that we would be struggling with something like what’s happening with Ebola now. But certainly there is so much fear about contagion and disease. We understand contagion and infection much better, but in an era where understanding about why some people got sick and others didn’t, why some people died and others got better…

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©Globe/Opus Arte

 

“Trying to imagine, not what it was like live through that – because the book is set ten years after that wave – but people are really dealing with what it means to be dealing with that aftermath. Cultural or social post-traumatic stress disorder that everybody in society is dealing with.

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“And trying to think about what it would be like to have to go on in the wake of that when you don’t really have a scientific understanding of what happened, and trying to make sense of the world.”

Read the full interview with Lois Leveen in Shakespeare Magazine 05.

Andrea Chapin introduces us to a young, charismatic and nakedly ambitious William Shakespeare in her elegantly-written historical novel The Tutor


Andrea Chapin (c) Ric Kallaher
The Tutor
is your debut novel. What were you doing before this?

“When I started The Tutor I had been, for almost 15 years, a book doctor. That is someone who works on other people’s books before they are published, often with an agent or sometimes with an editor. It’s now over 250 novels and memoirs that I have worked on. It’s fairly anonymous, maybe an acknowledgement or line saying thank you, but usually not even that. Because no one wants to publicise that they had someone work on their book before the actual editor worked on it.

“I had been doing that non-stop for quite a while, but I had always wanted to write my own novel and it hadn’t worked out yet. I think I had, in my own journey, reached a point where I was really wondering, ‘Am I going to write my novel or not?’”

Was there a catalyst that brought the novel about?

“My brother-in-law said at Thanksgiving, ‘Everyone in the theatre world is reading this amazing book, James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599!’ I thought it sounded like something I would really like to read. Looking at one year of Shakespeare’s life from many different angles – from the political, from the religious, from the economical. But that was all.

“Then, a couple days before Christmas, I was buying presents, last-minute books to put under the tree. And there, sitting in paperback, was this book my brother-in-law had mentioned to me. So, I bought it, wrapped it up, and put it under the tree for myself.

“It was a larger gift than I had anticipated. When I started reading it, I was completely fascinated, and I was especially fascinated by the prospect of the lost years. What was Shakespeare doing during chunks of his life? I thought to myself, ‘This is the job of a fiction writer – to imagine what Shakespeare was doing!’

“Part of that curiosity goes back to that I have worked with a lot of authors and I have seen their names before then they showed up on the New York Times Bestseller List. I also taught fiction workshops at NYU, and worked with a lot of authors who were just beginning, who were just launching.

“I began mulling over this idea of the lost years and what Shakespeare was doing before his name ever appeared in print. I kept thinking, ‘Even though Shakespeare feels like like a god, a huge force in our world, he was a person’.”

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Why did you decide to tell the story from Katharine’s point of view?

“I decided I couldn’t write it from a male point of view, and thought, ‘What if I created someone like me? Someone who has worked very collaboratively with authors, helping them create plot lines, really helped them develop their books. What if a character like that worked with Shakespeare? And that is how the whole thing launched. I started fooling around with it, toying with it. And interestingly, I have to say that when I started writing Katharine there was something very magical, almost chemical, about it. The Tutor came from a more honest place in my own voice than anything else I had previously written.”

In your story Shakespeare is complex and oftentimes a bit unlikeable. Where did that version of the Bard come from?

“I wanted to veer away from the warm and fuzzy Shakespeare. Not that there has been one, but in Shakespeare in Love – which I love – he is just so adorable. I had my own ideas about developing a character that ended up being fairly ruthless and narcissistic, but still very compelling. Sometimes those people can be not the nicest, but still be extremely intriguing and dazzling because of their brilliance.

“While I was doing research, I read a lot about Picasso and Françoise Gilot, one of his partners. She wrote an amazing autobiography about what it was like to be Picasso’s muse. She really is the only one of his muses who escaped with her life, in a way. She had to leave him – he was sleeping with someone else but he also couldn’t let go of her.”

“I was taken by that aspect of the muse and the artist. And also, when you do read what there is about Shakespeare, it assumed that he didn’t really go home much. Early on he had three children, and by 24 or 25 was probably in an acting company. By 27 or 28 his name appears in London and then he is really in London. He does not return to Stratford as his home until a couple years before he dies.

“What also struck me was the type of ambition that he needed was so huge. I am not saying that every ambitious person is a narcissist, but I played around with the idea that this person had to want it so badly that he would use people, and not be the greatest dad or husband, because he wanted to get where he wanted to go. And he did!

“Not only to write the sort of poem that he wrote with Venus and Adonis, and get a patron like the Earl of Southampton – that is amazing. But also to decide not to be just a poet, not to be just a player, not to be just a playwright, but actually to be a businessman too and be a part of the company. That shows incredible ambition.”

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Where do you think that ambition could have come from?

“Well, his father. We don’t know if John Shakespeare could read or write, but he held about 15 positions in Stratford, ending up being the equivalent of the mayor of Stratford. That is an ambitious man. Shakespeare saw that. John Shakespeare also applied for a coat of arms, and married up – Mary Arden owned the property his parents worked on. To send your child to grammar school you had to have a certain political standing, and John Shakespeare made sure he had that. Shakespeare had, as a role model, an extremely ambitious man.

“So Shakespeare is someone who saw this ambition and then something happened. Was the father a catholic? Was he a drunk? Was he ill? We don’t know. But something happened and his father stumbled, right at the time when Shakespeare would have gone on to Oxford. Someone with Shakespeare’s skills would have the opportunity, but right at that time his father’s fortunes failed and Shakespeare had to go off to make money, changing everything.”

Can you give us a glimpse of your process and research?

“In the beginning of all of this, an agent that I doctor for asked if I had read any good books, and, since I had just written the first couple chapters of my book, I mentioned that James Shapiro’s book had kind of changed my life. And she laughed, and said that he was one of her clients. Things progressed, she put us together, and Professor Shapiro was extremely generous in information. I could email him and he opened doors in terms of where I needed to go for research. That was terrific.

“Before I opened Shapiro’s book, I had always enjoyed Shakespeare but I hadn’t been obsessed with Shakespeare. It was when I started digging into the research, and all of his plays, and each sonnet, and then the poems, that I became truly obsessed.

“I felt like I had to familiarise myself with what was going on in literature during that time. I delved into Philip Sidney, and other contemporaries. I went back to Ovid, and often had three different books in front of me with different annotations – the translation that Shakespeare would have used and two more recent translations. Then, once I went to Ovid, I could see where so much of the poets of the time, certainly Shakespeare, got the seeds that became their works.

“In my journey, I joke that I have given myself at least a master’s, maybe a PhD, in Elizabethan literature and history on my own. I really thought it was important to see what his influences were as much as I could. That’s why I brought them in and had so much fun doing it.”

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What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

“I would love for my readers to learn about Shakespeare and his life as they, hopefully, enjoy the story. I had a lot of fun playing around with Venus and Adonis because it is such a wonderful and really sexy poem. I would love for readers to become curious about those other works of his.

“Reviews have said that the situation of Kate and the other characters is one we’ve all found ourselves in, like when our friends say, ‘What are you doing with him?’ and someone says, ‘You just don’t understand!’ And that makes me so happy because, overall, I wanted to achieve a story that people could relate to now. I wanted to make these characters not feel ancient or archaic – not just Will and Kate, but the larger context of family and her relations.
I wanted them to feel like contemporary folks.”

The Tutor is published in the UK by Penguin on 26 March, priced £7.99

Shakespeare for the People as all 154 of the Sonnets are performed in celebration of the Bard’s birthday at New York’s Central Park Sonnet Slam

Melinda Hall photographed by Pete Casanave at 2014's Sonnet Slam

Melinda Hall photographed by Pete Casanave at 2014′s Sonnet Slam

 

Starting at 1pm on Friday 24 April, no less than 154 Shakespeare enthusiasts – including students, scholars and performers – will take the stage one at a time, each reading one of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Welcome to the Sonnet Slam.

It began five years ago, founded by actor-director Melinda Hall. “I really wanted to create a place in New York City where Shakespeare was able to heard,” she says, “and performed by just about anyone.”

Now firmly established as an annual event, these free public readings in the Central Park Naumburg Bandshell are able to snag the attention of accidental, as well as intentional, audience members.

And, according to Melinda, the performers are just as varied as the audience. “We have doctors and lawyers and diplomats,” she says, “and shop workers and all sorts of people that read the sonnets.”

The event does attract some theatre professionals though. Readers this year will include Emmy Award Winning actor Richard Thomas, as well as actor and playwright Patrick Page, and actor Peter Francis James (who also teaches drama at Yale University.

This year there is an Indiegogo campaign accompanying the event which Melinda hopes will help to ensure the Sonnet Slam’s future.

“My vision is that we will raise enough money to hire some grant writers,” she says, “to assist in getting city, state, and arts funding, so the Sonnet Slam can be a perpetual event.”

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For more details on the Sonnet Slam visit the Facebook page.

Go here for details of the Sonnet Slam Indiegogo campaign.

And as an extra treat, here’s a video of Ben Crystal reading Sonnet 29 in OP (Original Pronunciation) last year’s Sonnet Slam.

Our US Staff Writer breaks the gender wall and takes to the stage as Grumio in her college’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s most boisterous comedy

After putting on my jacket and straightening my hat, I turned to my sister with an air of expectancy. “You look like an asshole,” she said, laughing.
I smiled. That was exactly the look I was going for.
I was wearing leather pants, black kicks (that’s what the kids call those shoes, right?), a T-shirt two sizes too large, and a hoodie to match. The ensemble was topped off with a grey beanie on my head, and a bruise around my eye. The final touch was an oversized gold watch on my wrist. The wardrobe was inspired in part by Justin Bieber and Kanye West, so not my normal style.
Over the next three hours, I got into fights (losing most of them), made crude jokes, drove go-karts and fought with lightsabres, all in the name of William Shakespeare. I was playing Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

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This adventure began three months ago when I decided to audition. The fact that it’d been seven years since my last acting experience didn’t deter me. Nor did the fact that this play features hardly any female roles. Knowing that Messiah College, my small liberal arts school would have an abundance of girls competing to play Katherina and Bianca, I decided that in true Shakespearean fashion I’d try to “suit me all points like a man”.
Looking at the array of men’s parts, I considered my petite frame and artsy demeanor, and settled on auditioning for Petruchio’s hot-headed companion Grumio. To my disappointment, I was only called back for the female roles, but when the director, Tom Ryan, was short of someone to read Grumio, I was on stage before he could finish asking for volunteers. One anxious week later, the cast list was up and I was on my way to checking one more item off my bucket list.

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With the anxiety of auditions removed, though, I found myself beginning to worry about the fate of this beloved text. The first read-through, which took six hours, did little to boost my confidence in the capabilities of this cast (myself included) to tackle one of the Bard’s most nuanced comedies.
Much to my chagrin, my college had not performed Shakespeare in four years, so for most of us this was the first Shakespeare play we had been involved in. But I was not exactly enthralled by the director’s vision – a modern-day Shrew where the Minola family owned a pizza shop in Little Italy, NYC, while Lucentio travelled from Texas and Petruchio came from New Jersey. However, what unfolded over the month-and-a-half of rehearsals astounded me.
Tom set the tone from the beginning. “These characters are stereotypical,” he said at the first rehearsal, “but their relationships with each other are complicated.” My anxiety subsided a little.

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I won’t say we did something with Shakespeare that was unheard of, or unique – I’ve seen too many productions to think that – but it was impressive.
Part of Shakespeare’s genius, perhaps the main part, is that he does not tell the story of one, two or even three characters. Every person in his cast has the potential to be the main character of the action. Not only did Ryan know this, but so did each of my fellow cast members.
Over and over, Ryan encouraged us to decide on who our character was, figure out the stereotype, discover ways to go bigger. Gremio (Bob Colbert) became a washed-up mobster who had seen better days. Biondello (Cheyenne Shupp) turned into an over-zealous and hilariously naive stable hand. Vincentio (Tim Spirk) was a Texan oil baron. Even the Pedant (Austin Blair) became his own character – in this production, a drunkard who spent most of his time passed out on stage.

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Beyond the hours of rehearsal at night, Ryan encouraged all the actors to study the text on their own time. Since poring over Shakespeare encapsulates most of my free time, it was far from a tedious assignment. For other cast members, who didn’t share this passion, it was more of a chore.
Nevertheless, they tackled the challenge with relish and it enlivened their performances. Actors previously unaware of the power of Shakespeare’s words and rhythm were finding it on their own.
“It was really exciting to make discoveries as we did that homework,” says Michael Hardenberg (Tranio). “The metre gives you everything you need, even the character at times.”
Tobias Nordlund played Petruchio and struggled with the text before it came good in the end. “My experience with this show and with Shakespeare,” he says, “completely took me by surprise.”

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When opening night arrived, we were abuzz with nervous energy. Hell Week of rehearsals lived up to its name, but the production far exceeded our expectations.
The audience roared when Kate (Rachel Ballasy) duct taped the hands of Bianca (Chrisanna Rock), trapping her on a speeding-up treadmill during the interrogation scene. In the wedding scene, I successfully manoeuvred a golf cart on and off the stage to gasps of surprise. And at the end of the road trip scene, when a member of the college faculty came out of the port-a-potty with toilet paper trailing from his feet, the audience erupted with laughter.

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Playing Grumio let me fall in love with Shakespeare and theatre in new ways. Above all, it cemented my belief that anyone, truly anyone, can do Shakespeare – and do it phenomenally – and that is the reason he is still being performed today. Not necessarily because his ideas were that great or his poetry so complex. But because he created characters that can be understood by all people, as long as the proper amount of work and energy is invested into the production.

This feature originally appeared in Issue 6 of Shakespeare Magazine. Go here to see the original version.