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


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

Photo by Candace diCarlo


It’s 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! Let’s put on Shakespeare!”

“That’s just about how it happened,” said Nigel Caplan, a master’s student in the Graduate School of Education who, along with Akiva Fox (C’02), 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 that’s 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 it’s a good template for anyone who wants to learn, Caplan added. “If you can’t do the classics well, then you can’t do contemporary theater well, either. You have to know what it is you’re 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 Shakespeare’s theater,” Caplan said. “Everything you need to do Shakespeare well is in it. You don’t need clever interpretations; you don’t need to set it in the Balkans during the Bosnian war.”

The company’s informal approach is much like Shakespeare’s own. “People forget that Shakespeare’s company was a touring company. They would come to a farm town and set up a stage in the square. If they didn’t 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. “Shakespeare’s 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 house’s resident troupe.

The company’s 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.

Originally published on March 22, 2001