A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Rubicon’s Education & Outreach Program’s Production Of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

BY CARY GINELL

The Rubicon Theatre Company’s Education and Outreach program enables youngsters as early as five years old to become acclimated to the theatrical experience through a variety of programs. 

The Fearless Shakespeare program is a three-week intensive that allows students ages 16-23 to work with industry experts as they immerse themselves in script analysis, scansion, verse work, and character development. Students form a tight company of actors to bring one of the Bard’s greatest masterpieces to the Rubicon stage for a weekend of public performances on July 29, 30 and 31. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Outreach & Education program, under the direction of Brian McDonald, with Fearless Shakespeare now in its eighth year. We spoke to Brian, director Joseph Fuqua, and Shakespeare dramaturg Jonathan Drahos about the program and the production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

VCOS: Tell me about the Youth Theater Program, when it started, and what its goals are.

BRIAN: In 2002, we started a summer musical theater program for kids that was in a professional setting, so we started with a show called Once On This Island. We got sixteen kids, many of whom couldn’t sing. We called up people and said, “Hey, what’s your kid doing this summer? Want to come down and do this little musical theater camp?” From there, it continued to grow and now we have four performance programs that happen. There’s the Stinky Feet Theatre Workshop, which is for five-to-seven and eight-to-twelve-year olds. It’s a two-week workshop where the kids put on a musical. Then we have the Theatre Camp, which is for our middle school students, who also put on a musical. That one is a three-week program. Then we have the Fearless Shakespeare Intensive, which is for high school and college-age students. John and Joseph do that each year. And finally, there’s the Musical Theatre Intensive, which is a four or five-week program, depending on the summer, and the musical we’re doing this year is In the Heights. They students all work 9-5 or 10-5 days, Monday through Saturday. We like to immerse the kids in the process and we stick to our professional guidelines, like the Equity rules of when breaks are, signing in, etc. So the structure is very similar. The reality is that the kids go through the same kind of schedule that the professionals do. We wanted to give them a real opportunity to elevate the productions and keep the quality as high as we could. Given the fact that we have the support of a professional theater, with a staff, and access to fantastic artists, equipment, and space, that allows us to set ourselves apart from other programs. 

VCOS: How do you enhance students’ training that they already get from their school theater programs?

BRIAN: There’s a big difference between working two or three hours a day for six months to really being there in that intense environment for five weeks. Also, the teaching artists, as I refer to them, are people who are currently working professionals, so getting that first-hand knowledge and experience is a real value. We want to create an atmosphere that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. It’s different for each age group, but that’s what we strive to do. This gives them an element of accomplishment and excitement plus the relationships they build and a real sense of what it means to be a performer in the theater.

VCOS: How do they adjust to this accelerated rate? They are used to doing one show in a semester.

BRIAN: It’s interesting. There are students from our Stinky Feet program who have gone on to PCPA, the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, or some other college, and some are even on Broadway. Daniel Stewart was one of our kids and he was in Spring Awakening on Broadway and Juliette Goglia is doing television and film. Now that we are in our fifteenth year, we are able to see that development. By the time they get into the Shakespeare and musical theater programs, they are coming to rehearsals really prepared, knowing exactly what is expected of them. The other students who are new look to them as examples of where they want to go. We had a read-through for In the Heights the other day; it was a sing-through and the first day of rehearsal, which can be disasters, but these kids came in and they were very prepared. It was the smoothest read-through that I think I’ve ever been in, professional or otherwise. 

JOSEPH: Through the years, we have crossed paths, where people from Brian’s program would try the Shakespeare the next year. We also have siblings that come and rise up through the ranks. We had one boy who did three years in our program and then his brother got in it. Ones who were in it prepare their siblings and friends for what we do. We’re not mean, but we challenge them and can be rough on them. If you don’t know your lines, we tell them. We’re not abusive about it, but we really expect them to know them, and then they get it. If you view theater as a team sport, they’re letting their team members down if they don’t know their lines. 

VCOS: Is that the major challenge of this program? How to effectively learn lines in a relatively short amount of time?

JOSEPH: If you love what you’re doing, and if you’re a professional actor, that’s the only part of it that feels like work. But also, there’s Shakespeare’s language. When you get it, it’s like a Helen Keller moment, when you finally see what the language is. It has an image, it has a part of your humanity, it has the beauty of the sounds of it, and the connected tissue. So they work at it and without exception, they always get it. We stay true to the language. I go at it and sort of dismantle it but cutting the stuff that is impenetrable. We are, after all, doing Shakespeare for an audience that might not be huge Shakespeare fans, but the stories are great, so we try to keep the language and get right to the stories. My colleague, Jonathan Drahos, has a doctorate in Shakespeare, and he might say, “Wait. I think we need that,” and I’d say, “Of course,” and we would then find another place to trim, because if I try to get it down to two hours with intermission, when you add something, you have to take out something.

VCOS: Tell me specifically about what you’re doing with Twelfth Night.

JONATHAN: I think this is specific to what Brian’s point was, about what the kids get and don’t get in their school. Very rarely, even in a professional world, do you have, in a Shakespeare production, a director and a professional dramaturg or verse coach who is an expert with the language. That’s what I’ve been studying for the past thirty-five years. So I come with the perspective of the literary/historical context of the play, describing to the students what world we’re living in and trying to negotiate that world that Shakespeare wrote the play in, and then meld that with Joseph’s vision in terms of his concept of the play, which is always updated to be relevant to our society. His directing style is more like an adaptation of the play. Sometimes he even changes scenes around. My job is to really keep the students rooted in the verse/structure of the language and to try and make that language as clear as possible to an audience. So we end up focusing a lot on rhetorical techniques and devices that were very popular with Shakespeare, like antitheses and chiasmus, techniques in rhetoric that Shakespeare studied. The way he put his language together is almost like a rhetorical scramble, and our job is to unscramble it and to control it in a way that is clear to an audience. It’s a hard core focus on standard American speech. Clarity of language means clarity of speech and articulation, so there’s a lot of voice work and a lot of articulation work in what we do. So the students are getting hit with directing techniques, playing the situation, and being in sort of a Stanislawski-based realistic world, while at the same time, getting a literary/historical context with the language and techniques on how to make that language as clear as possible within this world.

VCOS: Can you talk about the Alexander and Stanislawski methods and what those represent?

JONATHAN: The Alexander technique was developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander about a hundred years ago. It’s really a simple form of movement. Alexander was an actor who was always losing his voice, and he realized that it was mostly because of voice tension where his voice would close down because of imbalances in the body. So the Alexander technique is simply trying to bring the body into a natural, neutral alignment so it can move freely. And then the actor can make choices in movement from a neutral place so the voice remains free and open and clear. 

JOSEPH: There’s a little Alexander that I do with them. It’s all about the voice in alignment. If you are a vessel that is lifted and ready and able to be filled with air, you can transgress tension to have the fullest voice and biggest tool kit you can have.

VCOS: Is this technique used by musicians as well?

JONATHAN: I don’t know. I can’t speak to that, but I’ll tell you that the Stanislawski technique really changed everything because he modernized the way actors approach text. When you’re dealing with Shakespeare, you can’t just approach it through a Stanislawski-based technique of living as truthfully as possible under imaginary circumstances, because you have this language that is paramount. I always describe it like this – in Stanislawski, there’s a fishing line between Actor “A,” Actor “B,” and the audience, like a triangle. With Shakespeare, it’s a PVC pipe connecting the actors to the audience, so there’s always an awareness of the audience in terms of are they getting the language that we are speaking to each other. So our job is to challenge the actor. “What are you saying? Why are you saying it? Do you know what it means?” 

VCOS: They have to know that if they are going to effectively communicate it.

JONATHAN: Exactly. If the audience gets 65% of it, I’m done. That’s amazing. Most Shakespeare that you see, you get maybe 35-40% of the language. We try to get 65-70% across to the audience, and that’s a huge difference. That’s what brings people back to see Shakespeare, while the 35-40% people end up saying, “I really don’t get Shakespeare.” 

VCOS: Was this the language used during Shakespeare’s time or is this language that he specifically created for his plays?

JONATHAN: It’s all written in English. Ninety-eight percent of the words Shakespeare used we still use today. Only two to three percent of his words are archaic and have fallen out of our language. If you read diaries, if you read correspondence from that time, they’re nothing like what Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare wrote in a heightened, rhetorical, poetic style and he’s complex on purpose. He was complex for people who were sitting in his audience during his day. They had the same complaints. So if you read diaries, they read like you and I would write now, only a little more elevated with some words you might not understand, but generally speaking, no problem, anybody could read them. But Shakespeare elevated language into eloquence, and eloquence can be quite complex. 

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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays from July 29-31 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. Next week, Brian, Joseph, and Jonathan discuss the musical production of In the Heights, which will be staged from August 5-15. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar. 

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