This year’s mainstage production, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” promises to be an uproarious, interactive theatre experience unlike any other in Franciscan University of Steubenville’s history.
Two unique elements are what separate this play from the rest. First, it is being held outside under the large tree near the Finnegan Fieldhouse, which allows for a more lighthearted, relaxing audience experience in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Secondly, the audience will be encouraged to participate directly in the play, ensuring unpredictability and providing actors an opportunity to bounce off the audience during their performance.
“Each character is playing the audience as their best friend,” said professor John Walker, who is directing the production. “It makes it more improvisational and fun for the audience as well, because Shakespeare’s audiences were rowdy; they did shout back.”
While the improvisational aspect of the play may seem new to many, it was actually how Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed in the Elizabethan era.
“They (Shakespeare and company) would do 26 plays in 26 days,” Walker said. “There was no time for rehearsal. … (Shakespeare’s) guys would show up around 12 o’clock every day to the globe theater, get their scripts, and by 3 o’clock be doing the play.”
Walker certainly kept this original Shakespearian spirit in the entire production process. Student actors may not be facing the same exact time constraints as their Elizabethan predecessors, but they still only have one individual rehearsal with Walker and one cast dress rehearsal before the play goes live.
“At first, (the actors) were really intimidated,” said Walker. “They would come in and do … a three-hour rehearsal, and we go through their whole script. … Then we would get them almost up to performance level just on their stuff. … The first time they’ll see the play all together will be just about opening night.”
In fact, only two people know how all the pieces of the production fit together: Walker and his stage manager, sophomore Brigita Ivaska.
“Everything depends on the actors,” emphasized Ivaska. “We put so much trust in (them) that if they don’t follow through with their commitment … that’s what’s going to wreck everything, so to say.”
Sophomore Elijah Kim, lead actor, admitted that the preparation process has been interesting thus far and expressed his excitement for the performance.
“The responsibility is entirely on each of us (actors). There’s absolutely no way to know how it’ll be until the day before the show,” Kim said.
Thankfully, with so much pressure put on them, the actors have a couple fail-safes in case they forget their lines. Each actor will have a scroll with their lines under their sleeve, and Ivaska will be there to help as well, but not unconditionally.
“If an actor does forget his lines, he can ask me for a line in a very eloquent manner, and I can either choose to give it to him or not, so I feel like I have a lot of power in this,” said Ivaska with a chuckle.
Eloquence is most certainly not guaranteed in this production, nor are a lot of things sure to happen given its improvisational nature. The only thing assured about it is that, for better or for worse, the play has been put together quickly in a time where the future is constantly in flux.
“We (needed) to frontload this play,” said Walker. “Nobody knows what this semester is going to look like (with COVID-19). … I didn’t want an opportunity like last semester where the play got closed just before it opened.”
“I thought if I do this … method, not only will (the actors) learn original Shakespeare acting techniques, not only will the play have an improvisational nature, which will be fun for the audience, but also we’ll get it up in three weeks,” Walker continued. “So that all seemed to be a no-brainer at that point, then it was just full speed ahead.”
With all of these diverse elements in play, the glue that will hold them together is audience participation. Both Walker and Ivaska were sure to emphasize that point.
“I’m also going to encourage the audience to talk back: to cheer for the people they like, to boo the people they don’t,” said Walker. “If someone does something funny, go ‘Ayyy-yaa that’s great!’ I’m going to encourage them to be an Elizabethan audience that does anything but sit quietly and watch.”
“Don’t be afraid to hoot, holler, yell, boo, laugh, cry; don’t be afraid to really do anything,” Ivaska urged with another chuckle. “The actors are hoping that you participate.”
Audiences can come participate in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at 6 p.m. on Sept. 25, 26, and 27 under the large tree in the grassy field between the J.C. Williams Center and the fieldhouse.