Jackson Academy’s first-ever Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre opens this Friday night, as the JA Theatre Department presents its spring play, Twelfth Night! Professional theatre companies throughout the globe regularly perform Shakespeare in outdoor settings, continuing a theatrical tradition that began in Athens, Greece – the birthplace of Theatre. What have JA students gained by participating in this show, and what can audiences expect from this unique experience? We asked the Director of Theatre Arts, Kerri Sanders, and several graduating seniors from the cast for answers.
Ms. Sanders, what prompted the decision to do Shakespeare outside? “Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre has been a dream of mine since I came to JA. The amphitheatre’s space harkens back to traditional Greek theatre spaces and is perfect for a fun outdoor experience for both audience and actor. After our performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2019, the students expressed a love for reimagining the classics, so I knew I wanted to mount another Shakespearean comedy soon. With COVID concerns mounting this year, we also knew some logistics needed to be addressed for the spring play. The play is usually presented in our Blackbox Theater, a flexible space that seats about 100. With capacity limits for indoor events still at 25 percent, it just wasn’t feasible to present in our smaller space. The stars just seemed to align this year for the dream of Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre to come to life!”
What do students experience when performing in the amphitheatre that is different from acting on the PAC stage?
“Mr. Kenyon and I love to provide the students with various acting spaces to work in with the spring play. When we present on the PAC stage, our audience can only be on one side. It’s an excellent experience for the kids, but teaching them how to perform in a space with an audience viewing from multiple angles is a wonderful challenge! Outdoor Theatre presents its own challenges: running lights and sound outdoors, remembering to apply sunscreen, and changing plans due to weather. The students have been given an excellent opportunity to rise to these challenges, and – not surprisingly – they have risen and soared!”
What can viewers expect from a theater in the round experience that will be different from sitting in the auditorium?
“The type of stage you will see in Twelfth Night is called a ‘thrust.’ Most ancient Greek theaters were constructed this way: with the audience on three sides. We love this design because it allows the audience to view the performance from almost all angles. What I love about our thrust setup is the audience is really a part of the action, and each audience member’s perspective is a bit different. … Audience members in each location are getting a unique insight into the actors’ performances!”
How have you seen students grow through preparing to perform Shakespeare outdoors?
“Outdoor Theatre is unique. It presents challenges that performing indoors just doesn’t. There are physical challenges like the stamina it takes to run several yards to your place and deliver your lines properly – sometimes in heels! There are unique acting challenges like staying in character and researching ad-libs (which must be spoken in Shakespearean language) to use as you enter and exit. Of course, we’ve also asked these actors to learn to perform to an audience that’s nearly all around you. There’s nowhere to hide. Nowhere to break character. It’s not as easy as it sounds! I have seen the students not only grow through this experience, but thrive. They have reveled in the opportunity to get acquainted with this new performance space and style.”
Students agreed that performing outside presents new challenges and opportunities for growth. Senior Caitlin Johnson said, “One of the most interesting challenges of doing a production in the amphitheatre is learning to control your volume. In a regular theater, your voice has something to bound off so that the audience can hear you. Even if you do not have a mic, but when you are outdoors, you compete with the sounds that happen in nature. Like the birds chirping, a plane flying over, or a car passing by.” And of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about. The Bard’s works are quite challenging to perform! “There is such a huge learning experience,” Emma Collums, who will also graduate in May, said. “Shakespeare is called the greatest playwright of all time, so as a young performer, it’s important to be able to learn more about him, his language, and his plays. Not only is it so much fun to get to play an iconic character and perform a script that so many people know, but it’s also really helpful when it comes to reading Shakespeare in my AP English classes too!” For the seniors, their last experience with JA Theatre has been extremely positive. “A highlight of the production practice has been hanging out and making memories with the rest of the theatre department before I leave for college,” Rett Stanley said.
“Outdoor Shakespeare performances are very popular around the country. It’s a tradition that is well-loved in some of the most prominent theatre communities,” said Sanders. “I hope that the JA community enjoys this year’s Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre enough to make our’s a tradition as well. I think outdoor Theatre is an incredible experience for both audience and actor. It’s a feast for the senses. Your eyes enjoy the stunning costumes, scenic elements, and lighting; your ears attune to the beautiful language and music; you can smell the fresh flowers and feel the cool breeze; and thanks to Chunky Dunks Sweets Truck, you can have a tasty treat! You can truly be immersed in a centuries-old story filled with love, laughter, and, of course, mistaken identity. What’s not to love?”
Join the Theatre Department for JA’s first-ever Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre on April 16-18 for their production of Twelfth Night, a fast-paced romantic comedy with several interwoven plots of romance, mistaken identities, and practical jokes. Purchase tickets at https://www.ticketsource.us/jacksonacademy.