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Labor of love

--- 'As You Like It' is a semester-long production

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published April 18, 2007, 11:50 a.m.)

Photographs by Terry Mayer

We are lucky to live in an area that offers many live theatrical performances to experience throughout the year.

But only one is rehearsed, analyzed and perfected as thoroughly as the annual semester-long classic plays offered by UW-Whitewater Theatre/Dance Department students each spring.

"As You Like It," written by Shakespeare around 1600, runs May 1-5 with a stand-up cast and crew of students who have been living and breathing every detail since January.

Students have worked nearly the equivalent of a full-time job each week on just this project, ensuring their understanding of the text and their ability to transfer that to audiences. Classes are twice a week, but also tacked in are scores of hours outside of class on rehearsals, costumes, set design and all else involved with a production of this magnitude.

For several seniors this is the capstone of their dramatic degree, increasing its importance even more.

Oftentimes it is so all-consuming that even outside of scheduled class or rehearsal times, details invade their train of thought due to the intense nature of this course.

"I have a large part," said Allison Niles, senior, who plays Rosalind. "I will be sitting in class or at work and something will come to me and I'll want to go look at the text or work on a specific scene."

"The comedic bits are a lot of fun but with every rehearsal the work gets more intense," said Joe Foti, senior, who plays Touchstone. "It's just as much work (now) as it was for me the first day of rehearsal."

For obvious Shakespearean reasons, text and vocabulary has been a great challenge for the ensemble. Nearly everybody finds some difficulty in understanding Shakespeare. The challenge is increased tenfold for the actors and actresses whose job it is to ensure audiences' comprehension.

"There are a lot of reasons why people are Shakespeare-phobic, not the least of which are bad high school English teachers who approach the plays as "literature," said Jim Butchart, director and class instructor.

"Shakespeare was made to be seen and, even more importantly, heard. Too many people have experienced bad Shakespeare and dismiss it as stilted, phony, old-fashioned and difficult to understand.

"Unfortunately many productions are all these things but that is due to the productions, not the plays themselves. When Shakespeare is played well, people are seeing entertainment in its best and most satisfying form. It makes you laugh, cry, thrill, think and understand the human condition in a different way."

The format and time spent for this class has made it possible for the ensemble to overcome this Shakespearean hurdle and pass it on to audiences.

"We do a close literal paraphrase of our lines where we turn the entire speech-word for word-into our own words," Niles said.

"The meaning is much clearer when we say the same thing just the way we would say it today. That helps us infuse the speech with intonations and rhythms that convey meaning."

Players spent the time looking up each word they question, sometimes changing their understanding drastically.

"At first glance, I thought 'justly' meant 'in the same manner,' due to the context of the line," said Sara Griffin, senior, who plays Celia. "But after researching I found the term means 'truthfully.' That one word changed the whole idea I had about the meaning of the line, which is very important because if the actor doesn't understand what he or she is saying, how can the audience expected to understand?

"Shakespeare is not scary. It's just talking," she continues. "Yes, it's poetry and he uses flowery language to create imagery, but the purpose of that is to make things clear to the audience. An actor's job is to look up every word used even if the actor thinks they know what the meaning is, and all of the possible meanings that word carries."

The analytical approach has paid off, now making Shakespeare a lifetime favorite for many of those involved in this intense project.

"It's the most fun I've ever had working on a show," Niles says. "It is exactly as hard as I expected it to be, but so worth it."

As a senior project, the multi-dimensional aspects of the course have made it the perfect finale for their college experiences.

"The work involved in this show allows me to show off everything I have learned while in school," Foti said. "Hopefully knowing the show will give me an opportunity to understudy or work as a character in it again sometime in the future."

"This project has allowed me to bring together all that I have learned while being at Whitewater," said Julie Meeusen, senior, stage manager. "I am able to kind of showcase my stage managing abilities to the faculty and even to the audience."

"Having (this as my) senior project, I really wanted to do something spectacular for this show," said Stephanie Mours, 22, set designer. "This show really shows who I am as a designer and how far I have come in developing my design skills."

With such intense commitment and hours of hard work-and the quality of such a classic play-the cast and crew is hoping for a tremendous turnout in audiences.

"Shakespeare is something to experience because it is always interesting," Mours says. "The relationships that he develops between his characters always tell a fascinating story. It is a comedy, a fun show to watch and the characters really tell a pretty humorous story from start to finish."

"Shakespeare is something that I hope to be doing for the rest of my life-I love it," Griffin adds. "(He) is the most brilliant writer that ever lived. There are so many layers to his speeches and so much comedy-graphic and intellectual-that everyone can find something to make them laugh."

"I really hope that people come and see this show," said Foti. "It is tremendously funny, and there are plenty of things to laugh at even if you have a hard time with the vocabulary."

"I think that audiences will be able to make a real connection with some of the characters portrayed on stage," Meeusen said. "The show is funny and full of love and fantasy but at the same time with some very real moments."

"This is easy to understand, comedic Shakespeare that's great for beginners and Shakespeare gurus," Griffin adds.

This seminar class is offered almost every spring semester, Butchart says.

Past classic plays have been "Romeo and Juliet," "Tartuffe," "Antigone," "Measure for Measure,"

"Major Barbara," "Our Country's Good" and "Twelfth Night."

While the intensity makes students give their all to the class, it has the same effect of the instructor.

"Because of the large cast of 'As You Like It,' we have a diverse group from freshmen to seniors and lots of levels of experience," Butchart said.

"(One) surprise for many students is how contemporary Shakespeare is in his subject matter. 'As you Like it' deals with the same issues of

gender, love, marriage, homosexuality and political power that are in the news today."

The largest lesson in a class of this nature is skill, Butchart said.

"Playing Shakespeare is a learned skill much like

playing a musical instrument. Learning the basics of reading the score, understanding the language, analyzing the plot, understanding the historical context give students the confidence to continue

performing both classic and contemporary

theater."

"As You Like It" runs May 1-5, 7:30 p.m., in the Barnett Theatre on the UW-Whitewater campus. For tickets or more information, call 472-222 or visit www.uww.edu.

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