There’s a reason why summertime outdoor theater often means Shakespeare; under the warm sun is where Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors and Midsummer Night’s Dream were performed first.
And so, the tradition continues, throughout the summer, but during the upcoming weekends especially; you can catch Shakespeare in the park, under the sun or stars, in Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth, Dover or Peterborough, to name a few locations. If you attend the right shows, you might even see an original practice, or better still, a youth production soon to be performed in the birthplace of the world’s most famous playwright.
Original and interactive in Manchester
Theatre Under the Stars has already produced quite a bit of summer stock, in Manchester but also all around the state.
Presented in partnership with the Manchester Community Players, the company’s next local play is Comedy of Errors, which happens Wednesday, July 30, at 6:30 p.m., outside the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire building. Donna Devlin-Young says it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest works.
“It’s the most like a sitcom,” said Devlin-Young, founding-producing artistic director who plays Adriana. “It’s almost like a wacky episode of Three’s Company. There are two sets of identical twins who don’t know the other exists.”
The troupe — which also performs in Bethlehem, Plymouth and Waterville Valley through mid-August — is comprised of experienced Shakespearean actors who’ve worked in various theaters around the country. (Plus, all were involved in last year’s series.) Following Manchester shows include Interactive Dracula on Wednesday, Aug. 6, at 6:30 p.m., and an original practice production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Wednesday, Aug. 13, also at 6:30 p.m. These two shows are brought back to southern New Hampshire due to popular demand.
“Interactive Dracula is a show I wrote, a spoof of classic horror movies,” Devlin-Young said. “It’s been one of the most requested shows. The interactive shows are always super popular.”
The spoof, she said, is written in segments; every once in a while, the plot will stop, and the audience must vote on what happens next. It was performed about four years ago, too.
Their original practice rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been produced recently as well; the company took it on tour across the seacoast in January. It’s also interactive, and it was also popular. (Though in all of their performances, you’re encouraged to “boo” and “huzza” in reaction to the theater, just as was so during Shakespeare’s time.)
Original practice means the play will be performed in the way scholars believe Shakespeare and his contemporaries originally produced; paper was expensive, and the printing press hadn’t been invented.
“Actors only got their handwritten parts and the first five syllables of their cue line. They wouldn’t know the entire show,” Devlin-Young said. “There are only about seven companies in America who do any kind of original practice at all. … And it’s really fun for the audience.”
Here’s why: just before A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts, audience members will decide which actors play which roles.
“Our actors know two different role tracks. The audience chooses onstage that night what role track the actors will play,” she said.
Of course, this method, often called the “actor’s nightmare,” is more difficult for performers. Actors won’t know their blocking, and because of this uncertainty, they also don’t know who they’re playing off, either.
“The production is stripped down. There’s a freshness that comes from original practice. There’s a prompter onstage, and if the actors go off their lines, they get honked and shouted at,” Devlin-Young said. “It’s raw and rough around the edges, production-wise, but it’s fun to watch the actors think on their feet.”
Nashua’s summer tradition
The Nashua Theatre Guild hadn’t performed Much Ado About Nothing in 10 years when director Katelynne Devorak decided to take it on this summer. The play follows a heroine, Rosalind, as she flees persecution in her uncle’s court. Accompanied by her cousin, Celia, and the court jester, Touchstone, she travels into the forest of Arden to find safety (and, eventually, love).
For everyone’s safety, the character of Rosalind dresses as a man.
“Shakespeare is always held up as a lofty ideal of what theater is, but really, it’s written to be raunchy and crowd-pleasing shenanigans for two hours,” Devorak said in a phone interview. It’s one of Shakespeare’s “gender-benders,” but woven within is a love story, too.
“There’s lots of mistaken identity, lots of really clever word play,” Devorak said.
Devorak returns to the summer theater after years of acting in the Guild’s summer Shakespeare. The theater group has been practicing outside to ready for the sound competition outdoors — the traffic, the birds, the motorcycles, the planes, the whipping wind — and also the potential heat. Performances occur this weekend and next at Greeley Park, 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, rain or shine.
This year’s cast features 17 actors, some of whom have been performing summer Shakespeare for 20 years now.
Kids perform locally, internationally
Last summer, Project Shakespeare, a kids’ theater troupe in the Monadnock region, was invited by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England to perform Hamlet at The Dell in Stratford-Upon-Avon — i.e., the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
PS sent in the application on whim — the young boy who plays Hamlet was born in England and saw RSC was looking for guests during a recent visit. The youth company was surprised and honored by the invite; the problem was, they were given just eight weeks’ warning and didn’t have the funds.
“I don’t know if they even realized we were in the United States, as most [visiting] companies are U.K.-based,” said Angela Vroom, Project Shakespeare associate director, in a phone interview. “They usually invite both student and professional companies, but as far as I know, we’re the only American company invited to perform. It’s a huge opportunity, a really exciting thing for us.”
Project Shakespeare has been in Jaffrey since 2007. It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides a process-oriented, immersive experience into the world of Shakespeare plays, primarily for area middle and high school students.
RSC was kind enough to extend the invitation until this summer. The extra time allowed the youth-based company to raise the required funds to transport actors, a few chaperones, sets, props and costumes overseas, and also a bit more rehearsal time to make Hamlet absolutely perfect.
The students leave Aug. 6, and will spend a week in England. They’ll perform twice and spend the rest of the time seeing theater and taking classes at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
“It’s such an incredible opportunity for them, to be able to see so much theater and study with classically trained Shakespearean actors — it’s a huge validation for the work they’ve done,” Vroom said.
“What we focus on, as educators, is finding, with the stories, the themes that are relevant and resonant to every person’s life. A story like Hamlet is about revenge and murder, and everyone winds up dead; hopefully, nobody experiences that in their real life, but everyone can relate to the difficulty in losing
someone they love, relationships with parents, and grappling with the big questions of life, like ‘What am I supposed to do? How can I show my love? How do I live when everything around me seems really scary?’
As seen in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Hippo.