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The World's a Stage

July 25, 2003

Arthur Nead
Michael DeMocker

For the past 10 years, the Tulane Shakespeare Festival has provided quality productions to the New Orleans community while also providing educational support to the teaching of Shakespeare.

tulsp03_shk1_1It's an unusually cold morning on the Tulane University campus, and yellow school buses line up next to Dixon Hall, which houses Tulane's music department and one of the university's largest auditoriums. This morning, some 750 students from around New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana will see William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet performed by actors of the company of the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.

"Metairie Park Country Day School is on the way, Nicole," barks festival production manager Brad Robbert into his walkie-talkie, and checks off the school on his clipboard. This morning, Robbert is doubling as a traffic director, meeting the buses at curbside as they roll up to Dixon Hall. Robbert's partner in this effort is Nicole Chauvin, the festival's properties designer and education programs assistant. "We get the buses over here, find out which school they're bringing students from and tell them to pull on down to keep the traffic flowing," says Robbert.

The buses drive a little farther along the side of the building, then stop as students pour out. Approx-imately 120 students from Lusher School arrive and gather on the broad front steps of Dixon Hall. "Go to the restroom now, not during the play," instructs their teacher. "And obey the rules."

In 2003, the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane enters its 10th season of productions. In the decade since it was founded, the festival has become a mainstay of the New Orleans and Louisiana theater scene, but more than that, it has assumed a role of importance for area schools as an invaluable educational resource.

"The mission of the festival is two-fold," says Aimée Michel (G '90), the festival's artistic director. Michel is a Baton Rouge native who earned her master's degree in theater from Tulane, and who directed in New York before returning to Louisiana to head up the festival. "Our first goal is to provide the best quality professional productions of Shakespeare that we can to the New Orleans community and, in the long term, to the state of Louisiana. The second goal is to provide edu-cational support to the teachers who teach Shakespeare through our educational programs."

Both of these missions are very also very personal ones for Michel, who is passionate about seeing professional theater expand in Louisiana. For Michel, the problem hasn't been a lack of acceptance of live theater, it's been a problem of access. "When I was growing up in Baton Rouge, there was no live professional theater in the whole state of Louisiana," she says, "so as a young theater artist, I had nowhere to train." The closest professional theater company at the time was the Alley in Houston, according to Michel. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival had also just opened up, but both of those are easily a drive of from five to seven hours from most points in Louisiana.

"So as a student, all I saw was community and high school theater, which is okay as an introduction," says Michel. "But if you're going to train in the field, you need to work at a professional level." Michel also looks back unhappily at the introduction to Shakespeare that she received in school--sitting at a desk and reading it. "I don't want young people in Louisiana to be introduced to Shakespeare the way I was--in a way that was uninteresting and uninspiring," she says. "It took me years and years to get back to Shakespeare be-cause of the way I was introduced to it--so all of the programs come out of that. They are very personal goals."

Shepherded by their teachers and parent volunteer chaperones, the students move into the Dixon Hall auditorium and file into their seats. A well-mannered but heightened buzz of interest echoes in the auditorium as the students take in their unfamiliar surroundings. While the Lusher students make their way in, the walkie-talkies crackle again with the news that 350 students from Sacred Heart Academy are arriving.

The play, which is repeated over several days in January before several thousand middle and high school students from New Orleans and from various towns throughout southeast Louisiana, is a mid-winter's re-mount of one of the plays presented at the festival's main season during the summer. "The crew had a call time of 8:30 this morning, so we started getting everything set up for the performance," says Robbert. "The actors were called for 9 a.m. The first thing everybody does is sign in and let us know they're here. Then they have a cup of coffee real quick from the jumbo coffeepot. Actors, as you probably know, are not used to the earlier side of life."

The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane has roots in a long tradition of productions by the university's drama faculty and students. "For many years, the theater department had a summer operation called Tulane Center Stage, a summer theater company," says Ron Gural, associate professor of theater and dance at Tulane. "It was there when I came to Tulane in 1977--I didn't start it, by any means. I worked in it as an actor, then as a director, then ultimately I became the artistic director."

At the time, the theater and speech department (currently known as Department of Theatre and Dance) was housed in a small, prefabricated building located on the academic quadrangle where the Boggs Center now stands. "It was a little cafeteria-style building left over from World War II, I understand. It had a neat little theater called the Arena Theater, which had maybe 200 seats," says Gural. "We did everything there--contemporary and classic plays, everything from Phaedra to Pinter plays and new plays. "When Center Stage first started we were the only game in town," says Gural. "There was Summer Lyric, but they were doing a totally different kind of thing, Broadway musicals and other musicals--big shows."


Aimeé Michel, Tulane Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director

But other theater groups, such as Southern Repertory Theater, appeared on the local scene over the years, and Center Stage faced increasing competition for audiences in the city during the summer season. "It became more and more difficult to find that hot contemporary title that would bring in an audience and sell out the theater," Gural recalls. A faculty committee was created in 1992 to assess Center Stage's future.

On the committee were Gural; Bruce "Buzz" Podewell, associate professor of theater and dance; Paul Schierhorn, associate professor of theater and dance; and Jeanne Button, the department's costume designer at the time and now an emeritus professor of theater. The consensus of the group was to point the program in a different direction. They looked back, toward Shakespeare.

"There wasn't a Shakespeare festival in Louisiana at the time," says Gural. "But we also had an artistic interest in Shakespeare. So it wasn't just a financial decision--we all love Shakespeare and wanted to do Shakespeare as much as we could." Once the decision was made to try Shakespeare, the nascent festival put on its first season the very next summer, in 1993, staging two productions--Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear. Gural played the part of King Lear. Since that first season, he has played parts in most of the festival's productions.

At 9 a.m. the actors start fight call--rehearsing the sword fights, so integral a part of many Shakes-pearean dramas. "They run through every fight," says Robbert, "even Juliet stabbing herself. She'll run through it and make sure every nuance is 'in her body,' that she's ready for it." The actors involved in fights retrieve their swords and daggers from a carefully organized prop table in the wings backstage.

"There are two prop tables in the backstage area," Robbert says, "One here and one on the other side. Everything is diagrammed and laid out. Because many of the actors are doing two or three characters, they're doing quick changes. They have to fly through here and grab the handkerchief, or grab the coins, on the way on-stage. So everything's got to be exactly set in the same place for every performance."

The actors go through the motions of each fight sequence under the watchful eye of actor and fight choreographer Tony Molina Jr., who plays the parts of Mercutio, Lord Montague and Friar John. The swords and daggers are designed for theatrical use and have dull edges and points, but they can be hazardous if handled carelessly. Realism in the fight sequences is a primary goal, but it takes careful work to achieve that and do it safely. To minimize risks, the first practices of each routine are done in slow motion, and they are as carefully choreographed as dance routines. "I thought about it and wrote down notes," says Molina. "It took me about three days, thinking intently about each move."

Once Molina outlined the fights in detail, the fight rehearsals began in earnest. "We rehearse about two to three hours every day for two weeks," Molina says. "We don't speed anything up for the first week-- everything is 25 to 50 percent.Once I feel that everyone has enough confidence and all the targets are precise enough for safety, then we 'kick it up a notch' to 75 percent and finally to 100. People always want to go 100 percent after just a little bit of practice. That's when things get dangerous. Safety is the first priority."

The new festival's organizers asked Michel, who earned her master's degree in directing from the theater and dance department in 1990, to direct its first 1993 production, Much Ado About Nothing. "They all knew me very well, because they had been my graduate professors," says Michel. "I was running a directing program in New York, and they knew I was doing freelance work. I had never directed Shakespeare before, but they had faith in me. It sounded intriguing and it fit with what I've always wanted to do." The next summer Michel didn't direct at Tulane, but in 1995, the festival's founders called Michel again and convinced her to take up the full-time position of artistic director for the festival.

Besides serving as director of the festival, Michel is also a visiting professor of the theater and dance department and teaches classes on basic acting, advanced acting and, sometimes, Shakespeare. Rounding out the festival's permanent staff are Brad Robbert, production manager, and Clare Moncrief, managing director and principal grants writer. Moncrief is also an actor in the company--she plays the part of Juliet's nurse in Romeo and Juliet--and she is an adjunct professor of theater and dance at Tulane. Shortly after becoming artistic director seven years ago, Michel began to focus on creating a company of actors who were skilled in using certain vocal tools with which they could bring the text fully and viscerally alive.

"Shakespeare's company of 13 actors performed his plays with almost no set--just the language," she says. "Our goal was to do the same, to speak that beautiful, moving, poetic language in such a way that we could do it on a bare stage and create his worlds. I think we have finally achieved this with our recent production of Romeo and Juliet." Using training tools she learned from Shakespeare & Co., a big festival in Massachusetts, and bringing in vocal coaches from time to time, Michel established a developmental regimen for the company.

tulsp03_shk3_1"In terms of acting, the biggest influence on the festival has been Aimée's work with Shakespeare & Co.," says Gural. "They spend a lot of time with the text, in terms not only of understanding what you are saying, but going as deep as you can in terms of imagery and the rhetoric, and trying to find the best way to embody that as an actor. There are a number of exercises they have developed to get the actor in touch with the text. "It's easier to say what we don't do than what we do," Gural adds.

"I don't know if it exists much any more, but there used to be a conception of Shakespeare as being highbrow, high-flown, very rhetorical, and so on. One of the missions of the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane is to communicate to the audiences, especially the young-er audiences, that Shakespeare is just as alive today in the language, the ideas, the characters, as he was 500 years ago. This is why Shakespeare is still around."

Under Michel's direction, the festival has instituted a number of unusual educational programs. These programs, collectively termed "Shakespeare Alive," alternate throughout the year. "When I took over as artistic director in the fall of 1996, I told the festival board that I want to be out in the schools," says Michel. "My feeling was, if you want to build a theater, you have to get the kids interested in it when they're still kids, or they develop a bias against it. The way to develop audiences is to get kids excited. So that was one of the reasons to start the school program."

In January 1997, the festival staged its first Shakespeare for Schools production. "The response was immediate and phenomenal--the bookings starting coming in right away," says Michel. "That first year, we had about 4,000 students from 70 schools in six parishes." Michel is convinced that the program is starting to have a real impact on the level of interest in theater throughout the region. "That first year during the talk-back session," she says, "I asked students to raise their hands if they had ever seen live professional theater, and in an audience of about 600 students, about 10 raised their hands. Now, when we ask them, most raise their hands, and that's exciting. Either they've seen it at our theater over the years or other groups have sprung up and there's a lot more theater going on now."

One striking example of how the program has influenced its audience is the case of Michael Salinas, who plays the role of Romeo in the 2003 Romeo and Juliet for Schools production. "Michael was in the audience of the very first Shakespeare for Schools production in 1997, and had never seen live theater before," says Michel. "He was a sophomore at Lynn Oaks School in St. Bernard Parish, and his class was brought to see Macbeth." At that moment, recounts Michel, Salinas decided he wanted to be an actor. Two years later he enrolled in the festival's apprentice program, which at the time was offered for high school students. As part of the program he worked backstage on Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra as a crew member moving props off and on the stage.

Now, Salinas is majoring in theater at Loyola University in New Orleans and has played a number of parts in Shakespeare Festival at Tulane productions, culminating in the role of Romeo for the school performances.

Dance call follows for the Romeo and Juliet cast, with a quick run-through of a Renaissance pavan for the masked ball. "Once again, it's to make sure it's all in their bodies," says Robbert. "Even if though they did it just 24 hours before, they're making sure it's fresh." Andrea Frankle, who plays Juliet, takes the opportunity to limber up her vocal cords, running through a series of exercises that takes her voice from the highest to the lowest registers, in timbres ranging from soothing to terrible. Wrapping up their warm-ups, the actors migrate backstage.

Congre- gating in the narrow hall that runs past the dressing rooms, they relax for the last few minutes be-fore the performance, putting finishing touches on hair, makeup or costume. Also backstage is actor and festival managing director Clare Moncrief, who explains the talk-back, an educational feature that immediately follows all the performances staged for schools. "We have a talk-back session with those students who can remain," says Moncrief. "It runs about 10 or 15 minutes. The students ask questions of the actors--anything they want to ask.

That's one of the most fun and interesting things we do. We take our curtain calls, then we just go sit down on the stage, and the students are saying, 'What's going on?'" One of the most frequently asked questions, she says, is, "How long does it take to memorize our lines?"

Important though the educational programs are, the summer season is the festival's principal artistic focus. During that season, which stretches from June to mid-August, the festival produces two full-scale Shakespeare plays, presented in Tulane's Lupin Theater. For the past several years the festival has also sought to bring a contemporary flavor to its lineup by putting on one new play by a Louisiana playwright. As the season's opening approaches, the actors begin to prepare intensively for their roles.

tulsp03_shk4_1The rehearsal time for each production is usually a three-to-four-week period, using most of the day, according to Gural. The season is rigorous for the actors, crew and staff, with each play showing as often as 15 times during the season. Once the main stage summer season has wrapped up in August and the school year starts up in the fall, the festival rolls out Shakespeare on the Road, its touring educational program. The object of the program is to bring the flavor of Shakespearean theater to schools or communities around Louisiana that might otherwise not be able to experience it.

Shakespeare On the Road consists of teams of actors who travel by van, taking with them a minimum of props and a boom box to their destination--a school auditorium, town hall or school yard--and perform a program entitled Shakespeare and the Language that Shaped the World, scripted by Kevin Coleman. The performance features bits from Shakespeare's plays, including a display of swordsmanship, all interwoven with entertaining historical commentary. A second major part of the festival's educational program takes place in mid-January, when the festival stages a remount of a recent summer production for several thousand students from middle and high schools.

This year, of course, the festival featured Romeo and Juliet. The January production is also presented to the general public for several evening performances, raising much-needed operating funds for the festival through ticket sales. Some of the festival's other educational programs run concurrently with the main summer season. One of these is the BellSouth Institute on Teaching Shakespeare, a program that aims to train teachers in how to teach Shakespeare effectively. Another is a seven-week intern-training program for college students and graduating high school students majoring in theater.

The students pay a fee to attend the program and, as the culmination of their summer training, stage their own production of a Shakespeare play. Michel, a Tulane graduate and the granddaughter of a Tulane graduate, takes pride in the fact that Tulane makes the effort to reach out to the community around it. "An organization like the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane becomes one of the emissaries of the university," she says.

"When we first started doing the performances for schools, both busing them in and going out on the road to them, I felt that there were students who may have never thought that they had a right to walk on Tulane's campus. Yet here they are, invited, welcome, wanted. You can see they are thinking, 'Wow, we're on a college campus, this is cool!'"

School buses continue to arrive and disgorge loads of students at Dixon Hall. Robbert energetically continues to orchestrate moving the groups into the auditorium to allow the play to start on time. "Backstage, backstage," Robbert intones to his walkie-talkie. "We are five minutes, with a possible two-minute hold, but no further." "The show comes in at just under two hours," Robbert explains. "If the actors keep it tight, it's one hour, 58 minutes. If we don't start right at 10, a chain reaction of delays starts to occur.

The buses for the students who don't stay for the talk-back, which is about half of them, are scheduled to come at 12 p.m., or 12:05 p.m. If they're not right out here, the bus drivers just sit there, blocking traffic." At just past 10, the barely contained patience of the youthful audience was rewarded as the actors rushed down the aisles from the rear of the darkening auditorium to assemble onstage as the chorus, and start up the show.

The festival's many programs, notes Michel, not only help to make live theater exciting for students, but they also function as recruitment tools, making the campus accessible, open and interesting. And this dovetails with the next stage of development that Michel plans for the festival. As the organization moves into its 10th year of operation, the director has her sights on taking the festival statewide. "The next big thing we are going to launch is a statewide tour," says Michel.

The Romeo and Juliette production, with its minimal, unchanging stage setting and small number of props, was designed with touring in mind. The colored cloth hangings roll up compactly, and the costumes and props all fit into a 24-foot truck and the actors all fit in a 14-seat van. One the first stops for the tour may well be Baton Rouge, according to Michel. "President [Scott] Cowen has been establishing contacts statewide to try to encourage more Louisiana students to attend Tulane.

This fits with that because we will be taking Tulane's name out there. Hopefully, some of the students who come to see our shows will say, 'You know, I hadn't thought about Tulane. I wonder what it's like?' This is also an artistically interesting mission for me, going back to the days when I wished there were a live professional acting company in Louisiana for me to train with. Hopefully, there are other students out there across Louisiana who have never seen live theater and we can bring it to them--it's going to be big."

Arthur Nead is a member of the Tulane publications staff and editor of Tulanian's "Alumline" section. He can be reached at


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