Back in November, while working on a production of “Annie” for CAST community theater, Jacksonville State University drama professor Carrie Colton noticed something odd about the stage at the Anniston Performing Arts Center. It really wasn’t suitable for a musical theater show.
But it would be perfect for Shakespeare.
That’s because the performing arts center was built specifically for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which was founded in Anniston in 1972 and moved to Montgomery in 1985.
The wheel is come full circle.
The Bard is coming back.
This coming weekend will see free performances of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Anniston Performing Arts Center, thanks to the Shakespeare Project, produced by the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce Foundation in collaboration with JSU and local arts groups.
The project was spearheaded by Emily Duncan, marketing and tourism director for the Chamber, who raised funds through grants and donations from local businesses. Colton adapted and is directing the play.
The 90-minute abridged version of “Julius Caesar” sets the scheming politics and bloody betrayals in post-apocalyptic Rome, with a gender-bending cast.
Caesar is played by Michael Boynton, a drama professor at JSU. Caesar’s son, Octavius, is played by a woman. Brutus — who literally stabs Caesar in the back — is played by a woman, as is Antony, “the shrewd contriver.” Brutus' wife, Portia, is played by a man.
It’s also a young cast. Many of the actors are themselves only a few years away from sitting in high school English class, struggling to decode Shakespeare.
Which gets to the real reason for the Shakespeare Project. Before the public performances, the actors will perform the play for local high school students starting Wednesday.
“I feel like our community does a very good job at providing children’s theater and musical theater — but no one was doing Shakespeare,” Colton said. “It’s required reading for high schoolers, but they never get to see it. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a little too far away and a little too expensive for the majority of our community.”
When deciding which Shakespeare play to mount, “we went to educators first,” Duncan said. “We asked, ‘How can we help you? What’s the barrier? How can we make Shakespeare more accessible?’”
The teachers chose “Julius Caesar.”
“It’s not anywhere near my Top 10 Shakespeare plays,” Colton said. “There’s a gazillion characters. The dramatic action is strangely halted after Caesar’s death. Then it gets weirdly political with all these side plots that don’t really go anywhere. But it’s required 10th grade reading, and the teachers all said it’s the hardest one to teach.”
To that end, the Shakespeare Project brought in the American Shakespeare Center to lead a three-day workshop for teachers. “An anonymous donor paid for it, and 26 teachers came,” Duncan said. “They said it gave them inventive ways to teach Shakespeare, so they’re not just sitting at a desk reading it in a monotone voice.”
Last week, the Anniston Star sat down with Colton, Duncan and four of the actors in “Julius Caesar” and talked about how, once you understand Shakespeare, pleasure and action make the hours seem short.
The actors are:
• Karl Hawkins (Cassius, leader of the plot to kill Caesar): A native of St. Louis, Mo., Hawkins graduated last year with a BFA from Southeast Missouri State University. He just got done playing Balthasar in “Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
• Eunice Akinola (Antony, friend of Caesar, betrayer of Brutus): A first-generation Nigerian-American, Akinola grew up in Balch Springs, Texas. She graduated last year with a BFA from Ithaca College in New York. Her previous roles include Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
• Stephanie Escorza (Octavius, Caesar’s son): Originally from Georgia, Escorza received a BFA from Florida State University. This is her first stage production since graduation.
• Stuart Henderson (Lepidus, the third member of Antony and Octavius’ coalition): Henderson graduated in May from Jacksonville High School, and will leave for U.S. Army basic training at the end of August. He later plans to attend JSU.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Carrie: Everyone talks about how “art is for everyone,” but right now it’s not. If you are not part of the elite, you simply cannot afford to participate anymore. Even just to watch is so expensive.
Karl: I didn’t start acting till I was 15, and I had no idea what to do. Going to school, you see all these kids who started performing when they were 2, and I thought, “How do I even start?” I always feel like I’m playing catch-up.
Eunice: I went to a high school in Texas that praised football. There was a high school called Booker T. Washington that the gifted and talented people went to for dancing, singing, acting and so forth. I remember actually lying to my dad about auditioning for the program, because my parents didn’t want me to go to school for theater. And then going to Ithaca College, hearing these beautiful voices, people who had been doing theater for so long, I was like, “I don’t belong. I don’t know why I’m here.” But I’m here.
Stuart: I played football until 10th grade, and then I found theater and stopped playing football. It was kind of an accident. Being in little Jacksonville, Alabama, they need guys in theater. So when the spring musical came up, they needed guys for “Singin’ in the Rain.” I was thrown on the stage as Mr. Simpson.
Karl: I’ve always loved Shakespeare. Just having to read it in class, I was the only person who got excited about it and naturally understood it. All the teachers were like, “What’s wrong with you?” I didn’t do my first Shakespeare show until my senior year in college. I had never even been to a performance of Shakespeare until the summer before. I had only seen YouTube videos. It was a life-changing thing.
Eunice: I had to read “Romeo and Juliet” my freshman year in high school. I hated it so much.
Karl: You would have hated me!
Eunice: Honestly, I probably would have been jealous of you, because I was trying to make myself like it. I thought, “I like theater, this is going to be great! I’m going to ace this essay!” I couldn’t get it. It was so hard. I succumbed to watching the Leonardo DiCaprio movie to try to pass my test. Then, I went abroad my junior year of college. We were at the Globe Theatre and watched “As You Like It.” I remember just bawling. I saw this woman playing Rosalind, and she was just so powerful, and I was like, “This is a woman who is so grounded in herself, and she knows what she’s doing, and this is awesome!” I understand why I hated it in high school. I couldn’t just read it off the page. I had to see it.
Stephanie: I tried reading “Romeo and Juliet” when I was 8 or 9, which was laughable. But I’d heard it was the most romantic love story of all time. I had discovered “Harry Potter” by then, so I loved reading — but this was not English. Then in high school, they made us read “Julius Caesar” and “Hamlet.” They showed us two different movie productions of “Hamlet,” one with Mel Gibson and another with Kenneth Branagh. And I was just amazed at how differently you could stretch those words. And the language suddenly made sense. And the imagery suddenly made sense. It was beautiful, and I suddenly realized, “My God, this is the smartest man ever, to write this way.”
Stuart: “Romeo and Juliet” in ninth grade — hated every second of it. “Julius Caesar” in 10th grade — didn’t understand anything. When I really started understanding Shakespeare was senior year when we read “Hamlet.” Now, being in this play, I wish I had listened. Word to the kids: Listen to your English teacher.
Carrie: Shakespeare has stood the test of time for a reason. Some of those reasons are luck and the fact that we were colonized by Britain, but part of it truly is that there’s something about these one-liners that Shakespeare has — “Cowards die many times before their deaths” — that are as true now as they were then.
Emily: We also wanted every student in the audience to have somebody onstage to look at and say, “That could be me.” We wanted to remove all barriers we could. There are no togas. We didn’t want the audience to sit there and say, “What is that person wearing?” We want them to focus on what they’re doing, on what they’re saying and how they say it.
Carrie: I didn’t want to worry about gender, about race, about age. I just wanted to cast 13 good actors and let them work with the work. It’s been a wonderful experiment. Eunice is unlike any Antony you’ve ever seen. Antony is normally played as this strong, powerful, macho dude. I remember watching Eunice’s audition — when she said, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” — and thinking, “I’ve never seen an Antony like that.” Shakespeare’s been dead for 400 years, and I’ve never heard it like that.
Eunice: Something that’s beautiful about Shakespeare is a lot of the things he says are timeless. You can set it in 2018, or the year 3000.
Carrie: When you start putting Shakespeare in time periods, you can only cast old, white men. I set “Julius Caesar” in ambiguity because Rome is in a state of dysfunction. This dictator rises out of some kind of chaotic revolution. Honestly, how far are we from an apocalypse? I’m not just talking political. There could be some kind of biohazard, an asteroid could hit the Earth tomorrow, zombies! How would our society function coming out of that? How would we rebuild, knowing what we know now? I feel like this play talks about all that. What is so creepy and wonderful about this play is that Brutus and Cassius, in trying to prevent something, literally make it happen. By trying to prevent a dictatorship, they are the reason it truly happens.
Stephanie: The biggest misconception about Shakespeare is that it’s boring.
Stuart: That you can’t understand it.
Eunice: The time period, too.
Stephanie: When you’re reading it, it’s not English.
Eunice: What is “thou”? What is “thine”?
Karl: You have to work. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss one word and that changes the entire journey.
Stephanie: I think with this show, we’ve done 90 percent of the work on the stage, so that audience members can just watch and let it wash over them, and have that lightbulb moment of, “Oh my gosh, this is what I’ve been reading?”
Carrie: What’s important about Shakespeare, and why we study it in school, is elevated language in general. It’s such a shame that we cannot use our words to debate, to express ourselves. We don’t have the vocabulary to talk to each other anymore. So we just yell and call names. I think reading elevated language, being able to hear elevated language, to use elevated language, is essential for humanity to be able to be civil and still talk to each other.
Karl: Have you ever been in a fight with your friends and you don’t know how to talk to them and you don’t know what to do? Or, you know how you’re always jealous of that one person who has everything? That’s “Julius Caesar” in a nutshell. It’s all of these different emotions that we feel as human beings, but it just happens to be on a stage.
Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.