If all the world’s a stage, so shall audiences be invited to be players in an upcoming production.
Keene State College Department of Theatre and Dance presents William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” for three performances this evening through this Saturday, Nov. 16 in the Redfern Arts Center’s Main Theatre.
The comic play follows its heroine, Rosalind, as she flees persecution in her uncle’s court and finds love (with Orlando) in the Forest of Arden. The play was first performed at the Globe Theatre in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlin’s Men.
It was a tumultuous year for England: The country sent its army to suppress an Irish rebellion, fought off the Spanish armada, dealt with the plague that had hit London and awaited a succession crisis as the childless Queen Elizabeth neared death.
“(The play) marked significant change for Shakespeare in his writing style,” said director and Keene State theatre assistant professor, Jeannie-Marie Brown. “It touched on cultural loss of magic and ritual and a fading chivalrous culture. It departed from the customary drama of the period — it brought a jolt of realism to Elizabethan audiences.”
Shakespeare used the play to provide social commentary, she added, in a way that escaped censorship and entertained audiences. Last year, the department explored pieces with dark themes — by contrast, “As You Like It” is an uplifting exploration of love.
“We thought it was important for us as a culture,” said Brown. “It drove the choices of pieces (to perform).”
Brown placed this production of the Shakespeare piece in the year 1974.
“A lot happened that year in terms of women’s rights and political division,” she said. “The thought is that it would connect with a contemporary audience. There’s a lot of themes we’re revisiting but in a light and fun way.”
The play is one of four mainstage productions the department produces each year — two in the fall and two in spring. The nearly 20 in the cast are a mix of first-year students and upperclassmen as well as theater and dance majors and nonmajors.
There is Renaissance era-inspired movement in the show. While theater and dance are one department, Brown explained the curriculum is structured so all dance students take an acting class and vice versa. Six songs that were part of Shakespeare’s original production (here with new music and orchestration) will be performed during the show by a group of featured singers.
While the play is culturally relevant, Brown expressed it also harkens back to a time when people had a sense of play and imagination, including in the 1970s.
“They weren’t technologically connected and knew what it was like to speak with other people,” she said. “We explored that.”
At the same time, it provided the cast access to Shakespeare’s rich text.
“The current mode of communication distills language more and more,” said Brown.
Another goal of the production is that it be an interactive theater experience. Audience members are encouraged to come dressed in their favorite 1974-inspired outfits (along with the cast costumes), and those who arrive early can create a poem or a drawing to reflect their thoughts on love. The cast will incorporate these reflections into the world of the play.
“In the piece, Orlando goes into the woods and carves poetry on trees,” said Brown. “The thought was wouldn’t it be fun if the audience were able to participate in the set design?”
Audience members are also encouraged to yell out at the actors on-stage as they did in Shakespeare’s time — the cast has been prepared for such outbursts, said Brown.
“While we embrace a pinch of spectacle and silliness and add a little hope and a bunch of what-ifs,” said Brown, “this play is about love and how we treat one another.”
In early December, students specializing in dance within the department will perform what is the culmination of their work in the course Research in Choreography at the annual Choreography Showcase Thursday, Dec. 5, and Friday, Dec. 6, at Keene State College’s Mabel Brown Room in the LP Young Student Center.
Cynthia McLaughlin, course lecturer, explained the course as a class in technique with beginning choreography principles built in. Students spend the semester creating and producing a dance work based on a specific story they find themselves.
“It could be about an artist they are studying or a historical moment — something beyond a general sociological idea,” she said. “It needs to be about something they can see outside themselves.”
She refers to this moment as the “point of departure.”
While McLaughlin has seen more than 20 students be part of the showcase, this year there are five participating — two of them have taken her course for the second time. Each piece is between five and eight minutes long. The subject matter featured varies greatly: one student has created a duet based on the myth of Narcissus focused on self-indulgence and excess.
Other modern pieces that will be showcased are based ideas such as cubism; significant women in history; identity and human connection; and political agenda and collaboration. Once students create their works as part of the course, they are responsible for doing everything that’s needed to bring it to audiences. They conduct auditions and rehearsals as well as decide on production components — costuming, lighting, framing the performance and more.
“It’s such an opportunity for them to learn about themselves as leaders,” she said.
They also learn the group dynamic as they are required to direct their peers (students are often cast in each other’s works) as well as provide them with feedback at each other’s rehearsals.
“They push each other by figuring out ways to dig in deeper,” said McLaughlin. “They share trials and tribulations throughout the semester.”
Performances of The Keene State College Theatre and Dance Department’s “As You Like It” will be this evening, Nov. 14, through Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the Redfern Arts Center’s Main Theatre at Keene State College. Tickets are $6-$12 and can be ordered by calling 358-2168 or online at keene.edu/arts/redfern.
The Keene State Theatre and Dance department’s 2019 Choreography Showcase will be Friday, Dec. 5, and Saturday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the LP Young Center’s Mabel Brown Room at Keene State College. Admission is $3; free for students.