Shipwrecks. Love triangles. Gender-bending disguises. All of these can be found in UNCC’s newest production “Twelfth Night,” a romantic comedy written by Shakespeare. It is directed by UNCC faculty member Dr. Andrew Hartley. Dr. Hartley is the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Studies, an esteemed scholar of Shakespeare and an acclaimed and prolific novelist. Prior to the show’s opening night, I sat down with him to talk about the production, what goes into directing college students and the continued relevance of Shakespeare in today’s world.
You are directing “Twelfth Night” for UNCC this month. How would you pitch or describe the plot to college students who haven’t heard of the production before?
“The plot of the play hinges on mistaken identities and people being cast out into a place where they don’t live. But the core of the story is about love triangles [and] love relationships which are complicated by the fact that the people in them are not who they seem to be, and in one crucial case, one of the women is disguised as a man. I think the focal point of the story, in some way, is about exploring the difference between attraction and connection…One of the things I am running with is the idea that, in some ways, gender can get in the way of forming real, close friendships that can turn into deep personal relationships. Because certainly the Elizabethans (and to a certain extent, we) were raised with the idea that the opposite sex is foreign. Other. And that we have to change the way we behave around people of the opposite sex, especially if they are people that we are romantically interested in. Whereas, within the world of the play, the same-sex relationships are in some ways more honest. So the core relationship between Viola and Orsino is built while Orsino believes her to be a man. To me, that’s interesting.”
Out of Shakespeare’s very extensive body of work, do you have any insight into why the Theatre Department chose “Twelfth Night” specifically?
“Well, a couple of years ago we finished a six-year project which was called 36-in-6 in which we were basically doing something to do with every single play in the canon as we worked towards the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. So we’ve done a lot of Shakespeare here over the last…I’ve been here, what? 14 years I think? And we’ve done a lot of Shakespeare since I’ve been here in one form or another. ‘Twelfth Night’ is not one that we have done as a main stage production (though we’ve done little workshoppy kind of things). Once we got out of the 36-in-6 thing, in which we felt there was a lot of pressure on us to do representative work across the whole body, we were then able to start saying, ‘You know, let’s do plays that we like; plays that feel like they have contemporary relevance and plays that are well-suited to an undergraduate cast.’ Unless you are doing a kind of deconstructive, postmodern production, I don’t see us doing ‘King Lear’ anytime soon. Our strength as a department is working with our students and we don’t have very many 80-year-old students. So ‘Twelfth Night’ is a play that works well with an undergraduate cast. It is one of my favorite of the middle comedies. We had ‘Measure for Measure’ on campus last year with Actors From London Stage, and the last Shakespeare we did was ‘Hamlet.’ So we’ve been clustered around the middle of Shakespeare’s career and I think this is one of the greatest and most successful comedies of that period. It is also a very musical play and one of the things I was really interested in was incorporating a lot of live music and building that into the fabric of the show; so this is a production that is set in a world that looks kind of like New Orleans and is contemporary and jazzy.”
From a directing standpoint, how do you go about approaching a show that is as well known as “Twelfth Night”?
“Well known is certainly in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? I mean I thought that back when we did ‘Hamlet’ and we were using the Q1 text (the earliest printed script), which is very different from the text that most people are familiar with, and I was anticipating all kinds of pushback because none of the famous lines were in the play. What I discovered in the process was that most people don’t actually know ‘Hamlet’ as much as they think they do, and I suspect that’s the same with ‘Twelfth Night.’ It’s one of those plays that some people know well and some people really love but I think, you know, because of the way our education system is structured at the moment, people come to university with surprisingly little hands-on knowledge of Shakespeare. Even when they have studied it in high school, frequently what that means is that they’ve seen a movie or they have read sort of ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ (where they are not actually reading Shakespeare most of the time). There’s not that much deep knowledge, with the exception of a couple of plays like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Macbeth,’ maybe ‘Hamlet’ and maybe ‘Julius Caesar.’ Not a lot else. So, you know, my sense is that people have a sort of vague sense of the place of these plays in culture but most people don’t know them all that well. And I’m not just talking about students, I think generally in the culture as a whole that the idea that large numbers of people are really familiar with Shakespeare hasn’t been true for a long time.”
What about this production and interpretation of “Twelfth Night” makes it unique from other productions?
“So as I said, it has a very jazzy kind of feel…it’s not a real contemporary world. The clothes look mostly modern (but slightly stylized), there are no cell phones and some people carry swords. It’s got a contemporary vibe but has an eclectic, deliberately non-precise kind of location. As I was talking to the designers, I kept saying, ‘I want it to feel sort of like New Orleans and to have a lot of the things we associate with New Orleans, but I don’t want, like, Mardi Gras beads and Bourbon Street stuff. That’s not what I’m looking for.’ I want a general sort of coastal city vibe.
One of the things that I wanted to do from the outset, and I don’t know how well you know the play, but it begins with a shipwreck. But unlike “The Tempest,” it’s a shipwreck we don’t see. I’ve worked on this show professionally a couple of times before and we always sort of put focus on the romantic relationships. But one of the most important relationships in the play is the Viola/Sebastian relationship — the brother and sister relationship. In some ways, the huge payoff moment at the end is the reconciliation of brother and sister. I think modern audiences always struggle with that…it’s a very simple thing. They’ve never seen them on stage together before the end. One of the things that we wanted to do from the start was to stage the shipwreck, so you actually get to see that moment of separation, and because this is a Black Box show, it’s very small and very actor driven. Though it’s lush in terms of sound and music and color and so on, it is still small, and so we wanted to begin with one big production number; to sort of wake people up and say, “Boom, here it is!” and then go small and focus on the relationships.
I was looking at the cast….and I suspect this is the most diverse Shakespeare show we’ve ever done. I may be wrong. What interests me as an educator, as well as a director, is approaching something like Shakespeare, which people tend to think of as sort of vaguely respectable and sort of up on some pedestal somewhere, kind of irrelevant and out-of-reach, and what I want our cast to get out of this process (and what I want the audience to ultimately get out of it) is a sense of ownership; that we are separated by 400 years or more from this stuff and it doesn’t belong to anybody any more than it belongs to anybody else.”
Speaking of Shakespeare living and writing 400 years ago, why do you think we continue to find so much value in his work? Why is it still so widely read and performed, at least in the theatre community?
“I think there are two reasons. Partly, it is about the period in which he was writing, with the emergence of early modern theater from the 1570s to the 1620s. By the end of the 1620s, we are starting to see a separation of the different kinds of theaters. There are some theaters that are playing to the general public and some that are much more expensive, but in Shakespeare’s day, that’s not the case. He’s writing for a total cross-section of the population. At any given time in this time period, there are about seven functioning theaters in London. Each of those theaters holds about 3000 people. Population of London is only about 120,000, and those playhouses are functioning as commercial ventures every day except Sunday. So you do the math and a huge percentage of the population are going to the theater on a regular basis. Some of those people are day, itinerant laborers making as little as you can possibly make without being homeless and some of them are aristocracy. The theater is an actual cross-section of the population and that is not something you have very often, before or since. I don’t know that there is a modern equivalent. Maybe some sporting events? But those are not cultural events in the same way. One thing you know for certain, is that the people who are going to see ‘Hamilton’ are probably not the same people who are going to the Panthers game, and they certainly aren’t the same people who are going to the Monster Truck rally down the street. We have, particularly since the 19th century, an increasing separation between high and low culture in all aspects, whether that is books or TV or movies or whatever. In Shakespeare’s day, that wasn’t the case. So part of what makes him continue to work is that the plays were always designed to function on multiple levels. That’s point one.
Point two is that Shakespeare, unlike most other writers, is himself invisible in the work. Whenever somebody says to me, ‘What does Shakespeare believe about x?’ You can’t say. You can say what certain characters say. Part of what makes Shakespeare himself is that he is always able to take every character intensely seriously, regardless of their moral status or their function in the story, and give them a plausible set of ideas. What Shakespeare agrees with is very, very difficult to say. That’s not the case with some of his contemporaries. Most of the time we want plays to feel like novels; we want that kind of authorial voice that tells us how we are supposed to read everybody in the play and what we are supposed to deduce. You don’t get that with Shakespeare. This means that every production of the play has the capacity to go in so many different directions.
For example, a play like ‘Henry V.’ Most of the time when it is staged today, it is like a sort of monument to anti-heroism and anti-war. 100 years ago, it was the opposite. It was the supreme patriotic, nationalist play. And it’s not that the play’s changed, but we have changed…The reason we keep coming back to Shakespeare is because Shakespeare is a mirror and we keep seeing ourselves, and the things that interest us now are not the same as the things that interested us 20 years ago or 50 years ago. In class now we spend a lot of time talking about gender politics and sexual identity. Did anyone talk about that in Shakespeare classes 40 years ago? The plays are amorphous and rich and complex, but they don’t insist on a single perspective.”
How do you approach the job of directing college students specifically as opposed to directing some other kind of production?
“The difference with working with professionals is that they have a different set of skill sets that they already know how to use. When you’re dealing with college actors, the rehearsal process is also a teaching process. In many cases, I’m working with actors who have never done Shakespeare before (which would almost never happen in a professional theater). Most of the time when directors are working with professionals, a lot of the key job is putting the right person in the right role and then getting out of the way. Student actors expect a lot more. Our rehearsal space is sometimes a transitional space. Different actors are going to be in different places and some are going to be much further along than others, but some will often want the director to do the work for them and tell them how to interpret, which is ultimately not the director’s job. You have to push them in certain directions and then say, “That’s on you.” So what I’m doing as a director and what Chris Berry, the acting and voice coach, is doing is trying to prepare them to do the work themselves and help them build the right skill set, to ask the right questions and to get them to analyze their lines. We’ll spend a little more time doing table work than professionals tend to where we sit around and talk about scenes. The shape of the process is sort of similar to professionals, but the emphasis is just different.”
“Twelfth Night” is playing in the Black Box Theater in Robinson Hall from Oct. 25-Oct. 28 and Oct. 31-Nov. 4. Tickets are $8 for students, $10 for seniors and active military and veterans, $12 for UNCC faculty, staff and alumni and $18 for general admission. They can be purchased online at: http://unccboxoffice.universitytickets.com/user_pages/event_listings.asp.
Correction: The article originally stated that the theaters in Shakespeare’s day held 300 people; this number is actually 3000.