Students show Shakespeare is meant for the stage, not the page


Thats Caplan on top, Fox on the bottom and the Bard in between at the Furness Shakespeare Library.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Its almost like something out of one of those old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies.

A couple of students meet for lunch, talk for a while, and then one of them says, Hey! Lets put on Shakespeare!

Thats just about how it happened, said Nigel Caplan, a masters student in the Graduate School of Education who, along with Akiva Fox (C02), started the Underground Shakespeare Company in January after a lunchtime chat led the two to conclude that the campus was ready for low-budget, high-fun Shakespeare plays.

Fox, who hails from Boston, had already acted in several campus productions, but, he said, I did mostly musicals. I missed doing very good plays.

Caplan had read and enjoyed Shakespeare for years, going back to his youth in Leeds, England. And he was interested in directing. It was a perfect fit.

We saw that nobody was doing Shakespeare on campus, and thats a shame, Fox said. And we thought we could put on plays in a simpler, more fun fashion.

And so in less than three months, the pair picked a play, assembled a cast and pulled off a successful production of Twelfth Night in the rooftop lounge of Harnwell College House Feb. 22 to 24.

Shakespeare is a good template for anyone who wants to do a good play well, Fox said. And its a good template for anyone who wants to learn, Caplan added. If you cant do the classics well, then you cant do contemporary theater well, either. You have to know what it is youre rebelling against.

In staging the classics, the Underground Shakespeare Company has opted for a radical approach literally. Sets are minimal, costumes simple and the text they use is from the First Folio.

The First Folio is the most accurate record we have of performances in Shakespeares theater, Caplan said. Everything you need to do Shakespeare well is in it. You dont need clever interpretations; you dont need to set it in the Balkans during the Bosnian war.

The companys informal approach is much like Shakespeares own. People forget that Shakespeares company was a touring company. They would come to a farm town and set up a stage in the square. If they didnt have some prop, they would perform anyway.

The goal is to put back into Shakespeare the life that was drained out of it in those high-school literature courses. Shakespeares meant for the stage, not for the page, Caplan said.

According to Fox, the approach worked. On Saturday night, there were 150 people in the audience in various locations, seated on couches or even on the floor. They were laughing in the places we wanted them to and reacting as we hoped they would react. It was gratifying.

And it was a bargain. Fox said that the company spent $200 to stage Twelfth Night and more than made it back in ticket sales at $2 each. The Harnwell House staff, which provided support and seed money, was so pleased with the production that they made the company the houses resident troupe.

The companys 19 members range in experience from neophytes One of our lead actors had never acted at all, Caplan said to seasoned veterans of the Penn theater scene. And the response to Twelfth Night has convinced them that there is indeed a demand for Shakespeare presented simply. The company plans to stage two productions this fall.

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Originally published on March 22, 2001