By Leah Jones, Features Editor and Lori Dresner, Managing Editor/News Editor
Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS) visited the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Lee Auditorium at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center and brought Shakespeare’s “Richard III” alive for students from all disciplines from October 24 to October 30.
The University of Notre Dame serves as the American base for the five actors who perform plays, but also hosts workshops at the universities that they visit. The five actors, Hannah Barrie, Evelyn Miller, Liz Crowther, Paul O’Mahony, and Alice Haig, all boast impressive credits with companies like the BBC.
Dr. Kurt Schreyer, avid Shakespearean and professor and Associate Chair of the English department, helped to bring AFTLS to UMSL. Schreyer worked for the General Manager of the AFTLS program while he completed his MA at the University of Notre Dame. When he gave one of the actors a ride to a local high school in South Bend, Schreyer said that the kids were ecstatic to perform rather than read Shakespeare. “There was the magic: the actor empowered the students in such a way that each of them was no longer intimidated by Shakespeare but now ‘owned’ a little piece of him and would carry this inspiring memory with them for the rest of their lives,” Schreyer said.
O’Mahony, who studied ancient Greek, Latin, and philosophy at Oxford and had no formal theater experience, also spoke to this mystical participation with Shakespeare. “I quite enjoy how small it makes me feel because it’s…so much bigger than me or anyone alive today…because it’s dealing with these massive internal themes: love, death, destruction, power, ambition, and thinking how all of the people who have ever seen the production before or acted in the production before are all dead now and how I’ll die and that will carry on. And I find it quite comforting that it’s all just so much bigger and so it’s just really it’s great to be up on stage and saying these amazing words, really,” he said.
Schreyer wanted to share this magic with UMSL students. “Once I received tenure at UMSL, I was eager to share these incredible experiences with the students, staff, and faculty here, and thanks to Dean Ronald Yasbin’s initiative in starting the College of Arts and Sciences Visiting Scholars Grant Program, I’m delighted to be able to do so,” he said.
The actors were guest instructors in theater, English, Honors College, gender studies and foreign language courses at UMSL last week. “We try to talk as little as possible and get them [the students] doing,” said O’Mahony. “We often work with business students as well, working on public speaking and using Shakespeare to help with that and then that’s been really nice because it varies the teaching a little bit.”
Alice Haig visited with some students and faculty at a Pizza with the Professors event hosted by the English Department on October 25 in room 331 of the Social Sciences and Business Building. The students were mostly from a Ghost Stories and 19th Century Spiritualism class taught by Dr. Kathleen Butterly Nigro, associate teaching professor of gender studies. Participants were instructed by Haig in various interactive acting techniques and exercises. Students worked with partners in some exercises as well as in one large group, assuming various character roles, and learning how to annunciate words in certain dialects or dramatic tones.
Schreyer said, “My hope is that all of the students involved in the AFTLS residency will find it both challenging and fun.”
In addition to the workshops, the actors also performed at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on October 28 and October 29 at 8 p.m. Schreyer said that though he had seen many productions of Shakespeare, none were quite like the AFTLS performance. “Five actors play all of the roles in the play! A play like “Richard III”…has more than two dozen parts, so the actors do more than ‘double’ their roles—each of them may play three, four, or even six parts! It’s extraordinary. And I had never seen anything like it,” he said.
O’Mahony said that playing that many roles can prove difficult because the actors had to make decisions about how to differentiate between their characters. “[We had to ask] how does each character that we individually play differ from the other characters that we play and finding a certain physicality and a certain kind of way of walking and a certain quality of your voice that is unique to each of the characters is kind of part of the game really, which is really fun,” O’Mahony said.
Though playing that many parts required differentiation, O’Mahony said that he enjoys playing that many roles. “It’s very easy to get quite…over-involved in one character and…the emotional journey that they have going on and…being traumatized by that with them every night that you do the show, but with something like this, you exit as one character who might be going through something terrible, and then moments you are reentering as someone else who is having a great time, and I think that there is something that is quite healthy about that and quite useful about that in terms of the balance in your mood and day and experience,” he said.
In addition to playing up to six of the 28 parts in the play, the actors are also responsible for the roles that a director, stage manager, and other stage crew. Despite what might seem like an overwhelming amount of work, O’Mahony said that the actors were able to relax because “You recognize that it’s just ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what we are trying to do.”
He said, “What distinguishes this AFTLS production of the play is not only that all of the roles will be performed by this small yet specialized troupe, but that four of the five members of the cast are women…[This] should remind audiences of Shakespeare’s own acting company, which similarly inverted the gender.” Schreyer also pointed out that many of Shakespeare’s historical plays have very few female characters. He continued, “Richard III differs greatly in this respect by moving several women into the foreground, including Queen Margaret, the widow of King Henry VI, and Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King Edward. The play itself, therefore, already performs its own “gender inversion,” and the AFTLS casting will capitalize on Shakespeare’s choice rather brilliantly.”
O’Mahony loved playing Elizabeth and said that playing the opposite gender did not pose many struggles for the actors. “I’m not the queen, nor am I a woman. So, the fact that I’m not royalty is as important as the fact that I am not a woman, in a way. And so one of the great things with Shakespeare is how much the gift of language helps you in your performance,” he said.
“It’s also just very [pleasing] to see these different places…the cities but also then the universities and how they operate differently…We performed a show in a barn in the middle of nowhere in…Winedale, Texas,” O’Mahony said. “There was a snake that we had to get rid of during the show.”
“The audience will also find the play timely and illuminating in the present political season,” Schreyer said.
O’Mahony agreed. “I think…the rise of a demagogue and how people…tolerate that and allow that to happen and someone who…uses to language to…twist things to get what they want, for some reason, that seems to strike a chord at the moment with people in America. That is something that has been raised everywhere that we’ve gone,” he said.
O’Mahony also noted that though it is interesting that the Oxford University Press recently credited Cristopher Marlowe as a co-author of Henry VI, it did not affect his performance of the part. “It doesn’t really matter because the play is brilliant. Homer didn’t exist, almost certainly, and the Iliad’s brilliant. It just…reinforces the idea of universal stories and the social aspect and how society own the stories rather than individuals,” he said.
The actors visited the University of Texas at Austin from September 19 to 25, the University of Texas at San Antonio from September 25 to October 2, Wellessley College from October 3 to 9, the University of Notre Dame from October 10 to 16, and Boise State University from October 17 to 23. After UMSL, they will go to Principia College from October 31 to November 6.
For more information on the Actors From the London Stage, visit shakespeare.nd.edu/actors-from-the-london-stage/on-tour/richardiii/.
To read more about Cristopher Marlowe’s accreditation, visit npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/24/499144368/christopher-marlowe-officially-credited-as-co-author-of-3-shakespeare-plays.