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Shakespeare Shake-Up

by Gary Lowder

To some thespians, the works of Shakespeare are like holy books: not to be touched or changed in any way. To do otherwise would be sacrilegious. However, Blackburn College’s theatre professor Carolyn Conover does not subscribe to this philosophy.

The Blackburn College Department of Music and Theatre’s rendition of Shakespeare’s classic play “Twelfth Night” differs from the original in several ways, setting being the most notable. Encyclopedia Britannica scholars believe that “Twelfth Night” was written in 1601 and published in the 1620s. This is also the era that the play takes place in. As you might expect, traditional versions of the play are set in Europe and feature plenty of sword fights, long-winded monologues and dukes, lords and ladies. However, the Blackburn performance will take place in Prohibition-era America (1920-1930s) and feature clothing, music and combat from this much more modern time.

Describing the challenges of adapting the play, Conover said, “How do I maintain the Shakespearean moments that people expect from this play, but still bring it into a more contemporary world? How loyal do I want to be the the text? These are the questions I had to ask myself. Some bardologists (Shakespeare scholars) oftentimes treat the play as a sacred text and don’t deviate from it at all. I don’t do this. I approach the text as a tool for an actor. These plays were meant to be performed, yes they are beautiful literature, but the performance is really what matters to me,” she said.

Conover also ran into the issue of not having enough actors to perform every role. Most of Shakespeare’s works feature a cast of 20 actors or more, with several main characters and a plethora of minor characters present for plot development or comic relief. Conover had a creative solution for this problem. In some cases, she had to give the essential dialogue of uncasted characters to characters being played by actors, effectively making the uncasted characters unnecessary. In other cases, Conover combined two characters into one. “Some characters were merged… We actually made one character a ventriloquist,” said Conover. “That allowed me to have one actor play two parts. It’s essentially two different voices and characters physicalized by one actor.”

The premiere of the Department of Music and Theater’s rendition of “Twelfth Night” is scheduled for Nov. 2 through Nov. 5. It will be free for Blackburn students.

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