By Gianmaria Franchini
English poet and Shakespearean critic Samuel Coleridge disapproved of some 19th-century productions of The Tempest. Critical of overemphasis on theatrical trickery, he wrote, “Illusion may be assisted by the effect on the senses of the complicated machinery and decorations of modern times, yet this sort of assistance is dangerous. For the principal and only genuine excitement ought to come from within — from the moved and sympathetic imagination.”
Perhaps heeding Coleridge’s words very seriously, Shakespeare To Go shuns dramatic sleight of hand, and makes due with a tapered blue cloth for a set and unusually bare white costumes. The company leaves almost everything else to the imagination of its audience.
As renowned Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s little sibling, and what Administrator and Educational Coordinator Sara Wilbourne calls its “flagship educational program,” Shakespeare To Go performs 50- minute versions of Shakespeare’s plays for local elementary, middle and high schools. The crew and staff are made up entirely of UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts students and faculty. This is their 16th year.
Through a commendable combination of art and education, the program aims to expose youth to Shakespearean drama while complementing their English educations. Along with their tri-weekly performances, some of the cast carry out workshops and curriculum guides to schools.
“We’re always looking for ‘title 1’ schools — these are usually the most under-served schools,” Wilbourne said. “They have a lot of students that are English language learners. So it’s our mission to develop a future audience and to help teachers with their English curriculum.”
It isn’t that the “complicated machinery and decorations of modern times” aren’t available to the cast and crew; they just have to pull their bag of tricks from the trunk of a van. In traveling-bard fashion, Shakespeare To Go members carry their show with them, sometimes to locations several hours away. At times, cast members need to wake before dawn so they can reach their venue, perform, and make it back to campus for classes. According to fourth-year Patrick Riley, whose visceral performance of Caliban is captivating, a certain camaraderie forms. “It’s difficult, and takes dedication for sure. We work through it; we switch off bringing each other breakfast,” he said with a fond chuckle.
Bare-bones approach to theater aside, The Tempest relies heavily on creating a contained space, brim-full of illusions. It is hyper-aware of itself as a play, with Prospero as its omnipotent director, manipulating sounds, dreams, images and people for the sake of drama. From the Shakespeare To Go version of the opening scene, where a writhing mass of bodies collect themselves to form the deck and mast of a ship, the audience members learn they should see more than meets their eyes.
Second-year director and theater arts faculty member Mike Ryan is certainly aware of this need, and his removed approach, combining the need for a mobile performance with a wish to avoid over-production, works very well. The folds and flutters of the blue cloth set suggest forms as it is fluidly manipulated, and the cast sings haunting songs that suspend in the air like captivating charms.
“I tried to keep [the play] as minimal as I could â€¦ to focus on imagination rather than spectacle,” Ryan said. “There is something freeing, liberating in giving up that control.”
The Tempest is considered Shakespeare’s last play, his final vision before formally relinquishing command over his audience, and so there is some symmetry here. When the puppet-master gives up control, The Tempest seems to come to life on its own terms. And the spectators, according to Riley, are very responsive.
“They’ve been really great, from high school students to fifth graders to second graders,” he said. “They’re totally silent, which is good because it means they’re listening, paying attention.”
Their “moved and sympathetic” imaginations are working a mile a minute.
Shakespeare To Go performs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Bay Area Schools. On June 8 and 9 they will perform on campus. Visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org for