That tour of “The Tempest” did get in seven of its eight weeks before the pandemic lockdowns shuttered theaters.
Now, however, AFTLS’ winter troupe is about ready for the Jan. 26 opening of “Much Ado About Nothing” at Washington Hall after arriving Jan. 16 in South Bend for a final week’s-plus of rehearsals.
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For the rehearsals that began weeks ago in London, Katherine Newman says, it’s been a different and challenging experience for her and four castmates to work around pandemic concerns, including having to use the less-than-ideal medium of Zoom for some rehearsals.
“What’s really stuck with us is how important our creativity is and that we missed it,” she says Jan. 17 during her lunch break during rehearsals. “… It’s been quite an emotional experience for us coming together (in person). After two years of being apart, it’s reminded me how important community and collaboration is.”
Developed as an educational program in 1975 by Homer Swander at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-founded by actor Sir Patrick Stewart, AFTLS produces one Shakespearean play a semester that it tours to college campuses, where the actors also conduct workshops for theater students.
Its productions use only five actors, so men play women, women play men, and, sometimes, an actor will converse with him or herself as multiple characters in a scene, with changes to things such as hats, scarves, glasses and their voices used to signal shifts in character.
The actors also direct themselves and make their own cuts to the script, and the productions rely on few props and minimal costumes and sets.
“The whole ethos of the company, in terms of the ensemble nature,” Newman says, “really speaks to my sense of joy. … We’ve got these words. How can we make them sing? It’s one of the reasons I became an actor.”
‘A fear of vulnerability’
Written between 1598 and 1599 and one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, “Much Ado About Nothing” concerns the plight of two sets of would-be lovers, Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick.
“At the heart or it, it’s a story about love and friendship,” Newman says, “a fear of vulnerability. … Once you dive into the language and unpicking the story, it’s so universal in the emotion of those relationships. That hasn’t changed for centuries.”
Mistaken identities, misheard conversations and a deception cooked up by the character of Don John — he convinces the other characters that Hero has been unfaithful to Claudio — cause complications for the lovers.
“I think with Hero and Claudio,” Newman says, “it’s that young, naïve, fairy tale. … You think Hero and Claudio will ride off into the sunset. But their relationship is tarnished. The relationship starts with a reality check.”
Beatrice and Benedick, on the other hand, resist the possibility of love, and Shakespeare gives the pair some of the theater’s finest lines of repartee.
“Beatrice and Benedick,” Newman says, “have loved and lost (before). … (They) go into their relationship with their eyes open. Beatrice and Benedick are grounded when you place it next to the young and naïve relationship.”
Father and daughter
Newman, who toured with AFTLS for its fall 2019 production of “Twelfth Night,” plays the father-daughter pair of Leonato and Hero.
“He’s very traditional,” she says about Leonato. “He’s rooted in that old-school kind of patriarchy about the way he conducts himself. But he’s also in a world where there’s a lot of women around, and I think that’s rubbed off on him.”
By contrast, Newman says, Hero’s young and naïve.
“She’s soaking in the world,” she says. “She’s soaking in what she’s getting from Beatrice. She really looks up to Beatrice and her ability to control a room with her wit. But she’s also deeply entrenched in this culture and wants her father’s approval.”
Playing both characters, Newman says, is both a great joy and challenge, particularly in the wedding scene where Claudio leaves her at the altar after he becomes convinced that Hero has lost her virginity the night before to Borachio, one of Don John’s comrades.
“You have Leonato, who is distraught about what has happened,” she says. “You’ve got Hero, who is receiving this information. She’s really battered down. That’s the challenge. You would normally be eye-to-eye with another actor. The challenge is to keep the intensity of the emotions.”
Leonato’s reaction — “Death is the fairest cover for her shame that may be wished for” — is extreme but, Newman says, indicative of “the archaic roles between men and women, women having to bow down to marriage to be a successful person,” in Shakespeare’s time.
“There’s a sense of shame and that you are still my property,” she says about the father’s reaction. “The daughters are this property to propel social standing. She has destroyed him by doing what he considers destroying herself.”
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By the time Don John’s malfeasance is unmasked and Hero and Claudio are reunited, Newman says, Hero has grown up a little.
“There’s a certain, ‘Oh, this is the reality of life,’” she says. “I think she’s shifted. It’s not all Walt Disney fairy tales. This love thing, there’s a bit of grit to it.”
But when it comes to Beatrice, Newman says, Shakespeare does give her “some agency” in the way she and Benedick spar verbally.
“Particularly in the role of Beatrice, he’s saying there can be an equality,” she says. “They really do match each other in terms of their intellectual prowess. They’re each standalone characters. You can relate to them as individuals before you relate to them as a couple.”
• What: Actors From the London Stage presents “Much Ado About Nothing”
• Where: Washington Hall on the campus of the University of Notre Dame
• When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26-28
• Cost: $25-$15; free for ages 17 and younger with regular ticket purchase (limit five)
• COVID protocols: Masks are required.
• For more information: Call 574-631-2800, visit performingarts.nd.edu or shakespeare.nd.edu, or email email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Notre Dame kicks off Actors From the London Stage 2022 Winter Tour