SMU actors tackle Shakespeare
Saint Mary’s University (SMU) theatre students are working to perform one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, while also striving to decipher a language vastly different from their own.
The production of “Much Ado About Nothing” is set to run March 30 through April 2 in the Black Box Theatre of the Valencia Arts Center, located at 1164 W. Howard St. I’m Winona. The rehearsal process is in full-swing and students are finding that bringing Shakespeare’s work to life can be quite difficult.
Colleen Thul, a senior acting/directing major at SMU, is currently processing her take on the lead role of Beatrice, arguable one of Shakespeare’s best female characters. It is her first time acting in one of his plays and she finds “it’s almost like learning a different language and it’s a very different approach than a contemporary piece of theater.”
The research that goes behind the role is intensive, “approaching each scene individually and really breaking down the meaning. It’s almost just having the memorize two different scripts, the Shakespeare version and the paraphrased version, because if you don’t know every word you’re saying it’s not going to come across right,” Thul says.
John Kerr, a literature professor who has taught courses on Shakespeare at SMU for 15 years explains, “he’s really rich most of the time in a way that has the kind of puzzle-like appeal.” Kerr says those reading or watching Shakespeare should not expect to find just one meaning. “It’s going to be a set of interactions between reader and text and content and author and historical circumstances,” he says.
This puzzle-like aspect can make reading or attending a Shakespeare production feel daunting, especially to those who have little experience with his works.
Walter Elder, SMU assistant professor of theater and dance, and director of this production explains, “I still have a dictionary beside me the first time I read any of these plays. Even thought I’ve done 20 of them, and that’s pretty normal, it’s okay.”
He notes that the play proves difficult because it i she made up of “17th century grammatical structure … words that we don’t use anymore or use in the same way.”
However, an understanding of the language is crucial, “if you don’t have that, you won’t have a good Shakespeare play, no matter what.” This responsibility falls on the actors. “If the actors can do that, the audience will,” says Elder.
Kerr says he feels it is important that students first understand that “they don’t need to worry about getting the right answer… he builds a lot of ambiguity and kind of binary and oppositional tendencies into the text in such a way that trying to get the right answer is very difficult.”
Shakespeare has been a popular teaching tool in both literature and theater, and for good reason.
“I think that Shakespeare is a chance to work out everything that you know at a high level, ” says Elder. “The language is great, it is without a doubt beautifully written… it’s also dense imagistically. That gives you a chance to really do everything you know how to do with voice and speech and connection to language in your character’s dialogue. It places really great demands on you on that way.”
Shakespeare’s language and the circumstances he sets up for his characters provide a lot to work with, and Elder says it is important that students take advantage of it. “There’s almost nothing that’s ordinary or mundane or maybe nothing that’s just easy about it either. So it really poses this big challenge that’s set to students and I think that you get better working on Shakespeare because of that. You get better as an actor.”