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3-D Theatre Royal Shakespeare Company returns for residency at Davidson College

By Bill Giduz

Davidson College News Service

A complete transformation of Duke Family Performance Hall will enfold many audience members in the middle of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming productions at Davidson College.

College technicians will build a new 4,500-square-foot stage on top of the existing Frazier Stage and orchestra section of seats to accommodate Director Dominic Cooke’s choice to present “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles” in the rarely used “promenade” fashion. Some 150 of the 380 audience members at each performance will be on the new stage with the actors, enjoying a proximity that provides an incomparable emotional experience.

Theatre critic Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph, wrote about recent performances of the plays in Stratford, England, “It’s thrilling to watch Shakespeare played up-close and personal like this, with the actors often just a few feet away.”

The RSC will also produce its two performances of Roy Williams’ new play, “Days of Significance,” on the same promenade stage. It is directed by Maria Aberg, who is also the associate director of “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles.”

The three plays will be presented in repertoire Feb. 6-18 during the RSC’s three-week residency at Davidson, and are the only plays in the RSC’s 2006-2007 “Complete Works Festival” to be presented as promenade performances.

Cooke said his choice to stage the Shakespeare works in promenade will provide a rich theatre experience.

“Some scenes are played amongst the audience, and other scenes require the audience to move around the space,” he said. “But finding yourself as an onlooker at Hermione’s trial, or being a guest at the sheep shearing, is uniquely involving, and draws you into the play. Many people who buy seated tickets want to move to the promenade after the interval.”

Bethany Prestigiacomo, Davidson’s director of the residency, recently saw the plays in Stratford as a promenader. Even as a life-long theatre professional, she was startled at the effect.

“It was so magical that it went beyond being a theatrical evening to becoming a memorable life experience,” she said.

As promenaders enter the theatre for The Winter’s Tale, they join actors on stage in a New Year’s Eve party. Actors sweep people up in dance, and waiters serve them. “It’s an open story book, and you’re experiencing it,” said Prestigiacomo.

In Pericles, actors invite the audience to join them at a huge table for a Greek feast, and serve them food. “You can see in people’s faces how delighted they are to be hanging out with the actors,” Prestigiacomo said. “You become like an extra in the play.”

Cynthia Lewis, Dana Professor of English who also saw the plays in England, elaborated on the effect. “I noticed a lot of mutually appreciative glances between promenaders, indicating to each other how much they were enjoying it. There was a real sense of audience bonding.”

The challenge of converting the Duke Family Performance Hall’s proscenium stage into a promenade stage has fallen to Jim Nash, technical director. The undertaking will involve the most extensive work ever in the space, which the RSC christened in 2002 during its first Davidson residency.

Nash and his crew are installing scaffolding over both the current stage and orchestra section of the theatre. The scaffolding, up to 7 feet high at the bottom of the orchestra section, will support a flat 60-by-80foot stage that consists of two layers of 3?4-inch plywood topped by 1?8-inch sheets of steel. The set also includes three access points to the mezzanine level of the theatre, so that actors can perform there and travel between mezzanine and stage. One means of access will be a large curved, sloping ramp joining the two levels. The other two are flat ramps running from an elevated open box at the back of the stage to the corner box seats of the mezzanine.

Nash recently spent three days in Stratford seeing the plays and working with his stage technician counterparts in the RSC. He was equally struck with the effect of the promenade.

“It’s acting in your face, it’s 3-D theatre,” he said. “Our students are going to eat it up. This will probably be the coolest thing we ever do in Duke Family Performance Hall.”

“It’s not like watching actors at a distance on the stage,” Nash continued. “The audience will walk into the middle of a different world. Even people in the traditional seats will have actors walking around them and delivering lines right beside them.”

The production contains “all the elements that scare technicians,” Nash added — guns, gunshots, flames, cigarette smoke, rain, thunder and lightning, a live band, and a lady flying down from the ceiling.

“The technical challenges are huge,” he said, “but this is theatre on a grand scale and we’re delighted to have the opportunity to be involved in it.”

RSC engineers are working on constructing a larger set than the one used in Stratford to fit the specific requirements of the Duke Family Performance Hall. This new set, which includes the open box, bridges and ramp, will ship from the UK Jan. 2 in four 40-foot sea freight containers, arriving in Davidson Jan. 24.

In preparation for the RSC’s arrival, technicians at the Duke Family Performance Hall will be operating on a short construction timetable. The Davidson crew will have just 84 hours to install both the scaffolding and show floor. The RSC team will then arrive to construct the set on top of it.

Lewis explained that Shakespeare wrote “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles” late in his career, following completion of his four tragedies. These two plays have a particular appeal to audiences.

“Whereas the tragedies engage you powerfully intellectually, these plays engage you powerfully on an emotional level,” she said. “Everyone in the Stratford audience was in tears by the conclusion.”

The plays have much in common. They feature tempests, shipwrecks, lost daughters, death-stricken wives and scenes all over the globe. Lewis said. “Both plays were immensely popular in their own day, despite–or because of–the implausible events and unlikely coincidences that make for romantic fantasy.”

The protagonists, Pericles and Leontes, must suffer and be tested before they recover what they have lost and before each play’s discord gives way to restored harmony.

“Dominic Cooke was brilliant to put these plays to this manner of staging,” she said. “They are both so directly affecting, and then to put audience members on stage with the actors makes the experience even more intense.”

The RSC residency at Davidson will also include an extensive schedule of public lectures, educational outreach to local schools, classroom work with Davidson students, and a Feb. 10-12 symposium on Shakespeare’s late plays that features a keynote address by Stephen Greenblatt, author of “Will in the World.” The schedule is available at www.davidson.edu/ Shakespeare.

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