Hartwick College's Student Newspaper

The View From Oyaron Hill

Photo Credit: American Shakespeare Center 

Tim Sailer as Jack, Zoe Speas as Gwendolen, and Josh Innerst as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Michael Bailey.

“One Mustn't Eat a Muffin in Aggravation”


Joanne Georges  

On Sunday September 27, The American Shakespeare Center regaled Slade Theatre with the comedy production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. While it might seem out of the ordinary for a non-Shakespearean play to be performed by the troupe, it is quite common for those in the study of Shakespeare to seek out the work of his contemporaries.

The reason for this becomes apparent in the most popular slogan of the company, “We do It With the Lights On,” meaning they perform under similar conditions as Shakespeare’s plays were performed. With universal lighting, cross-gendered casting, double/triple casting, intermission performances, and audience involvement, the American Shakespeare Center cast and crew keeps their audience entertained from start to finish.

Through the organization and planning of Hartwick’s Theatre Department, the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) provides acting and informational workshops on each of their visits to campus. Before stage lights go up (and stay on), the troupe takes time out of their practice and set up to spread the word of Shakespearean acting and work. As Thomas J. Coppola, Touring Troupe Manager, mentions the workshops “open up a whole new level of exploring the genius that was Shakespeare and helping make him accessible to everyone. Shakespeare didn’t write novels, he was a playwright. The fact that at some point in history it was decided that he should be studied in a classroom along the same lines of Chaucer and Dickinson is so weird to me.” Coppola went on to explain that ASC works to make Shakespeare accessible and to do so is through teaching.

Additionally, the ASC doesn’t try to change Shakespeare through “gaudy translation or interpretation as other companies do,” but rather through “seeing things like embedded stage directions, or audience contact, or diving into scansion and seeing what the rhythm of his words can tell us,” focusing on the lines written for the actors, and “not in the stage directions or in the footnotes; [but] in the text that the actors speak,” says Coppola. Such a focus and care on the study of these texts is what creates willingness in the ASC actors and crew to teach and support the workshops. Sharing the same passion as Coppola, actress, musician, and assistant stage manager Aleca Piper says, “Workshops come from the heart of the vision of the ASC. We want to share with people how we see and believe in theatre. Workshops allow us to connect with students on a deeper level than just performing for them. We get to let them into our world, make them honorary members of the ASC for a day.”  

While the workshops and performing drive a large majority of the passion that runs national wide tours, sometimes the fun comes from just being on the road. When asked about tour life this year, actor Ross Neal, a merriman in The Importance of Being Earnest, said, “I haven’t had any previous tour experiences, but thus far I’ve been enjoying it. It’s odd being in new places constantly, but at the same time a chance to explore new states and run around new towns has been amazing. I love running, and getting the chance to see new vistas is an incredible opportunity. I miss my own personal bed, but other than that it’s fine moving between hotels. We all have our own ways of dealing with the various stress inducers on the road, and we have to make sure to find ways to relieve it.”

Even if there isn’t privacy or personal beds it seems like everyone this year is coping as best as they can, and with the support of each other. Piper explains further the good and bad of tour life: “Of course it’s difficult living out of hotels, because there isn’t much of a ‘home’ environment. It’s hard for those of us that like to maintain a certain diet, or lifestyle. Not being able to cook for myself has been a huge adjustment, and honestly I’m still getting used to it. We’ve gone from having our own rooms to always having a roommate, so there’s a lack of personal privacy that goes on at times. But that’s the beauty of tour, because even though traveling and always unpacking and repacking is difficult on the mind and body, it’s worth it to be able to share theatre with so many different people. It’s worth it because I get to be a shape shifter every day in a new space, I get to learn how to tell a story no matter what the circumstance, and it’s a wonderful tool I’m acquiring.”

While it may be a new game of cope and conquer for Piper and Neal, Thomas Coppola is a veteran in the tour life. Though it is his first year touring with ASC, it is his sixth national tour all together. For Coppola travel is often the norm: “I for one love traveling, as I mentioned it’s my sixth national tour. I have essentially lived out of my suitcase for the last four years.  It’s great going to different parts of the country, seeing the sights, but also just working with students and theater personnel across the country and meeting new people.” He explained that travel and hotel living could be daunting for some, but the want of the career is what makes it all worth it. 

So the American Shakespeare Center seems to have it all: the drive, the passion, and the extraordinary talent, and still everyone seems exceptionally humble. This humility could stem from the ASC running on donations. “Because we are not-for-profit we’re able to keep our costs low, which means more colleges, student centers, and organizations are able to bring this in. This means that donations are a big help and help keep our costs low. A lot of venues we even have specific grants written in order to bring the ASC in,” details Coppola on the benefits of donations.

After Sunday’s performance there shouldn’t be any doubt that the American Shakespeare Center not only brings Shakespeare alive, but brings him in our laps or into the seats right next us. The audience interaction may make some uncomfortable —it is one thing to know there’s a whore in the story line, but being pointed as the example of one is a little jarring— however, the actors never pick based on anything but proximity and have been trained and practiced in choosing the perfect opportunities to engage with the audience.

For example, The Importance of Being Earnest calls for multiple opportunities for the actors to engage, as when character Cecily Cardew professes the creation of an imaginary proposal and hands over her self-made love letter to the audience while sitting by their feet like the best friends giggling through a crush’s notes. Additionally, the comedy of the night never lacked or lagged and had everyone in stitches, some of the actors would have to pause for applause or turn away from their cast member to suppress a smile or laugh. Through little intricacies like such, all of ASC’s hard work and brave stage set up creates an amazing performance for so many around the nation. 

Check out more of the Dangerous Dream Tour on the americanshakespearecenter.com.