November 11, 2009

Shakespeare's As You Like It gets a technological makeover!

As you may have already heard, Regent Theatre is taking our upcoming production of Shakespeare's As You Like It into today's technology-saturated world. In fact, in our production, the audience members can follow along on their cell phone or laptop computer to get extra insight into what is happening during this popular Shakespearian romantic comedy. Check out these sites for more info or to follow along!

Here are Director Scott Hayes' Notes on the concept of the production and where it came from--Enjoy, and see you at the theatre!

"I love almost all things Shakespeare. I’ve been blessed to have been intimately attached to the productions of 25 of the 37 plays attributed to the Bard. I never tire of the immediate and vibrant effect Shakespeare’s words have on our contemporary audience when the words seem newly-coined by actors who embrace the process.

At the same time, I’m not particularly pleased when directors create “concept” productions with little regard to the playwright’s original intent. To thwart such work, we teach directing students the importance of analysis. From a director’s point of view, practical analysis is basically the process through which the director will uncover the meaning of the play while keeping in mind the original facts behind the creation of the play. Only after a director analyzes a play should he or she decide whether interpretation is necessary – and only if the audience watching the contemporary production is in some way fundamentally different from the original.

Our audience has much in common with the Elizabethans , yet in the last three decades we have moved farther apart than in the previous 350 years. New media have opened up massive avenues for information, allowing unfiltered access to the best and the worst of culture and scholarship. Our access devices continue to proliferate and each of us are in some way tied – perhaps kicking and screaming - to the infrastructure of the virtual world. Truth be told, our mature audience has more in common with the Elizabethans than our student population. Today’s undergraduate student doesn’t know a world without the personal computer, and the high school student has always known the Internet and cell phone. “Information access” has become the most influential paradigm of our culture. I believe the ready and unrestrained access to information fundamentally separates us from our sixteenth century ancestors.

I accepted the responsibility of directing As You Like It just before last Easter. A day or so later, I was listening to a radio station describing a large church that had decided to change cell phone policies. Instead of silencing the phones, the church incorporated the use of text messaging during the message. The church would send messages regarding verse references, web links, and related content at specified times. I immediately thought of the effect of this approach for the theatre – particularly when producing a play that may use an advanced vocabulary, be of an unusual genre, or may take place in an unfamiliar time or location. A theatre production, using text messages, could send “footnotes” directly to the viewer in real time. We saw the appeal for our younger audience, but were concerned for the audience who might not want or need the text message “footnote” – wouldn’t they be bothered by the intrusion?

A student director and I came up with the idea of separating our audience into the “wired” section – the balcony – and the “unwired” section – the orchestra - and that’s when the “interpretation” of As You Like It came to me. In essence, we would be recreating the world of the Elizabethan audience that was split into two classes. The “informed” Elizabethan audience for As You Like It would sit in the galleys (balconies) and understand all of the Biblical, Greek, and Roman references, identify the allusions to celebrities and nobility, laugh at the disguised insults meant for the French – yet the “uninformed” audience standing in the “pit” (the orchestra) could enjoy the story of the play without any of this information. We decided to take the concept of wired/unwired/informed/uniformed into the production design, borrowing concepts from the Elizabethan theatre and incorporating contemporary elements. Like the Globe, Swan, or Rose theatres, we use a two-level stage with few scenic elements delineating changes of location, and we set the play in the contemporary world, as Shakespeare did. We haven’t changed Elizabethan verse, language, or structure, but we incorporate today’s music, video, Twitter, and other 21st century communication tools. All plot elements remain unchanged, yet fit perfectly in our contemporary setting – commercial wrestling, political regimes being overthrown, etc. In addition, there are a series of hidden comments within the production design that may be lost to anyone over the age of 25. It is exciting to think a seasoned theatre-goer may have to ask a younger audience member to help explain these elements – for example, the melody’s significance when Amiens serenades Jacques!

Our interpretation and use of technology has been embraced by both the academic and professional theatre community. Our production concept has been selected for presentation at Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC), the largest academic theatre gathering in the United States. Two months ago, well into our production implementation, I was interested to hear of similar elements being incorporated at Virginia Stage Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet. For the record – neither production knew of the plans of the other, and the use of technology is quite different. Romeo and Juliet used more 21st century storytelling elements (webcams, Facebook updates, etc.) and we use our 21st century elements primarily to interact with our audience, and I hope some members of our audience were able to see both productions.

My prayer with this production is no different from any other director. I pray our interpretation allows you to experience Shakespeare as if for the first time, enhancing without distracting from your experience. For some of our audience, this may in fact be the first time you’ve attended a play by William Shakespeare – and it is a deep honor and privilege to share what I love with you. May this be the beginning of a life-long relationship!"

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