A five-member touring theater ensemble bearing credits from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and other prestigious England institutions is visiting Brigham Young University this week to perform William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Actors From the London Stage is one of the oldest touring Shakespeare companies in the world, according to Baylin Artists Management, founded in 1975 by famed English actor Patrick Stewart and Shakespeare professor Homer “Murph” Swander.
The ensemble, which consists of five actors selected each spring and fall, visits 16-18 universities each year. The company is known for performing Shakespeare’s works without a director and using only one suitcase of props and costumes.
One of this spring’s ensemble members, Chris Donnelly, who has previously done three tours with Actors From the London Stage, said using minimal props, costumes and set puts the focus of the group’s performances on the words and the storytelling.
Donnelly said the actors must be experienced and well versed in Shakespeare’s works in order to put together a production in the allotted rehearsal time without formal direction.
“You have to have that sort of level of experience with Shakespeare or else it would be a nightmare because there’s no director, and the five of you have to make the play together,” Donnelly said. “There’s so much you’ve got to do in such a short space of time.”
Having only five cast members also presents a challenge, as each actor is forced to take on several roles. As a result, the cast members don’t have any time offstage during their performances, as they would in productions with more actors.
“It is full on, full attention all the time,” Donnelly described. “There’s a great beauty in seeing the full cast production if it’s very good, but there’s a great beauty in seeing five actors doing everything, really trying to tell the story and come up with inventive ways of moving from scene to scene and telling the story with basic chairs and props and that’s it. The rest is left to the imagination of the audience.”
Part of the trial and the joy of the process is determining how to portray and help the audience distinguish between all the different characters, according to Donnelly.
“A walking stick, a hat, a cravat, a feather in a hat tells you that’s that person, and you change body language to be another character, change your tone of voice,” Donnelly said. “Fixing those transitions are the thing you worry about most in early rehearsals and the things actually you get most pleasure out of and the audience certainly gets most pleasure out of when they see it manifest down the line.”
Rehearsing for “The Taming of the Shrew” has been particularly difficult, Donnelly said, because the characters disguise themselves and swap identities throughout the story. He said the cast has spent a lot of time on making these transitions obvious, for example by exchanging hats onstage.
“The pictures of what the audience see from character to character are absolutely vital or else the audience will get totally lost,” Donnelly said. “It’s in the text, but to make that really clear to an audience is our absolute raison d’être.”
In addition to performing Shakespeare plays, the actors also conduct workshops with students during their university residencies, which are not limited to just those seeking acting degrees.
“That’s the extraordinary thing with those workshops, they can be on anything,” Donnelly said. “Some of the guys on this tour so far have done one to a load of real estate students to give them confidence in speaking. ... I did one for a load of sports students.”
Donnelly, who will be working with junior and senior advanced acting students at BYU, said he hopes these workshops give the students a wider appreciation for Shakespeare’s writing and help them understand why his works are still being studied and performed 400 years later.
“It’s the human emotions that we all go through now; he’s had a look at it all and made a comment on it all in a very human and beautifully simple sometimes and beautifully intellectual other times and poetic way,” Donnelly said. “It’s just about capturing them in today to link them to then, and then they have a good time.”
The actor said he also hopes the ensemble’s interpretation of “The Taming of the Shrew,” which has been argued in the past as a misogynistic play, will show audiences a new perspective that Shakespeare wrote it rather as play about misogyny.
“When you look at the historical context, there was the first female monarch on the throne. ... She was probably one of the most successful monarchs England’s ever had, and Shakespeare used to work on royal commissions. It would be theatrical suicide to write a play like this for her to see in her lifetime if it wasn’t saying something else,” Donnelly said. “We think as Shakespeare says himself in ‘Hamlet,’ he was showing the mirror up to nature and saying, ‘Have a look at this.’ ”