02 August 2010

Interview with Erin Hurley, Education Director of the PA Shakespeare Festival

This is the nineteenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

NOTE: This is the last week of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's 2010 summer season. See if you can make it down there to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, Romeo & Juliet, Robin Hood, or Shakespeare for Kids before the end of the week!!!

Interview with Erin Clare Hurley
at DeSales University/the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
29 July 2010

IA: So why don’t we start out by going through each of your current projects, some of the other projects that you’ve done, and then towards the end we’ll broaden out and sort of look around the world of theatre. So, I just got to see Shakespeare for Kids, which is great; I’m so glad I got to see it today, and I really liked it. It was a lot of fun, but I also appreciate how it was a massive amount of education put into a really really fun and palatable presentation for really young kids.

ECH: The thought is that the kids won’t notice that! We kept them laughing and having enough fun that it’s interesting that after so much silliness they’re actually ready to listen and to hear a good chunk of Shakespeare’s text. This is our second year doing Shakespeare for Kids, and it’s a project I’m really fond of and hope there’s a future for. Going through all of his plays and there’s so many interesting characters that have such possibilities to inspire the imaginations of children. I want to get the first crack at them! I want to have the first crack at introducing kids to Shakespeare before they get to school and hear grumblings of, Oh, this might be boring—or perhaps a teacher might not like Shakespeare, and then that influence is there. Language, especially, is something that they find to be engaging and powerful.

IA: Now, does the Festival have the goal of doing at least one Shakespeare play every year so that through a cycle of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years you’ll get through the whole canon; is that the goal?

ECH: Well, I don’t know if we’ll ever have Shakespeare for Kids Titus Andronicus or Shakespeare for Kids Cymbeline! I think I’m going to try to stick to the core canon, the top ten.

IA: So if the Festival is doing a top ten, you’ll do the same play; if they’re doing a more obscure play, you’ll pick one of the more popular ones?

ECH: Yes. And my thought this year was, rather than doing The Merry Wives of Windsor for Shakespeare for Kids, picking Romeo and Juliet, because, well, everyone’s required to read that in school, so it serves as a prep for that, and also that then—you could bring a six-year-old to Merry Wives and they’d have a great time, because it is easily digestible, it’s fun, it’s comedy; but our thought is, on the older edge of the spectrum for Shakespeare for Kids, let’s say eight- to ten-year-olds, if they were to see Shakespeare for Kids first and get introduced to the characters and the language, and if they were ready, the family could come back and see the mainstage show the same season. So it could serve as a primer. But it also stands on its own as elementary-aged entertainment.

IA: Now, I love the way that you took a significant chunk of the original text, and then you had “translations,” you had paraphrases. Did you write everything in there that’s not Shakespeare?

ECH: Yes.

IA: So you have kind of a “No Fear Shakespeare” version going on on the side; that was great. Did you know right from the beginning that that was something you were going to do?

ECH: Yes. I learned it last year in doing Midsummer Night’s Dream. I didn’t want the kids to say, “Oh, we’re in the Shakespeare part” and tune out, but to say, “Oh, we’re in the Shakespeare part and I’m still engaged.” And, if you’ll notice, I only did like the first few lines, and then I just let the scene go. So the translation happened just for the first three or four Shakespeare lines, or rather, for your readers, we did the “proper” Shakespeare—“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” she might say, and then another actor might say, “Translation: Why does your name have to be Romeo?” So after we got that done a couple of times, I just let the scene fly.

IA: Right, and I think that you did a good job picking out lines that don’t need as much translation, and the actors just said them in very normal voices, too, so they didn’t go into this, sort of, “Change my tone, now we’re into this Shakespeare language, so you need to disconnect!”

ECH: I also tried to pick which lines are going to tell the scene or tell the plot of the story that are easier to understand, so the children have confidence: “Oh! I understand this! I saw Shakespeare for Kids this morning; I saw Romeo & Juliet!” Then they can have pride that they enjoyed something that requires more of them. It’s an entertainment that requires you to step up and not just sit back.

IA: You also didn’t shy away from some of the interpretive difficulties, which was great. You put in some sort of complicated things: Prologue. You dealt with why in the world is there a prologue? And what is the point of this whole play anyway? And you just put that right up front there, dealt with it not in a facile manner, but in a way that they could comprehend, and went on. But you didn’t just go on; you worked it in as well: throughout, you had this message that violence doesn’t work and love is the answer. And then things like the nurse betraying Juliet’s confidence: I mean, that’s a very difficult moment, and yet you left it in. That’s good. I think kids can deal with that.

ECH: And I was also really excited about the Queen Mab speech. I thought about the play and I thought, What do I like about this play? And what are the elements I want to keep? Well, you want the love story, that’ll be easy; kids love that. And with the success of some of the Puck speeches from Midsummer Night’s Dream, I thought, Oh, I can easily do Queen Mab, and just leave the text. There was no translation during that section. I have an imaginative enough actor in Andrew Kane that if you give him a sock puppet, Mercutio will very clearly pronounce the text and bring it to life in uncanny ways. I have more insight into that speech through watching it through the eyes of a sock puppet than I have with almost any other actor!!

IA: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good way to do it.

ECH: Then the actor says, “ She rides around in a car made of nuts and bugs?” “Yup!”

IA: Yeah, that’s great! It’s an alienation that’s a good kind: alienating the fairies again in a way that I think is necessary.

ECH: To reinvestigate it.

IA: And there are lot of other things, for our readers who didn’t see it: there’s music, sing-along song (that’s great because then the kids are sort of singing the plot over, twice, and a refrain that might stick in their heads), and then you’ve got a robot in there to spice things up a bit.

ECH: The staff was a little concerned when we were going into production for our season brochure, and they asked me to write a tagline of copy for Shakespeare for Kids. They said, “I know you’re probably not going to write this for another couple of months, but what could we say to sum it up?” And then I included that it’s Romeo and Juliet and their robot. They said, “Really, Erin? You’re really going to have a robot? How’s that going to work?” “I don’t know, but there’s going to be a robot!” Because, like in all good drama, you need to have a problem, or a conflict, so there is an inciting incident that causes the play to happen: what’s different today than every other day for Shakespeare for Kids, for Team Shakespeare? Well, today’s the day that Showbot stops working.

IA: And so that’s actually—the problem or the conflict is going on in the narrative frame, in which the actors are playing themselves, and so you’ve totally broken the fourth wall, you’ve totally brought the kids into the creation of a drama as well.

ECH: Yes. I want the kids to feel like they are part of Team Shakespeare and, “O no! Are we going to be able to complete our Super-Secret Shakespearean Assignment of telling Romeo & Juliet when the robot’s broken?” And they can do it just fine! And the end up doing it just fine on their own!

IA: Yup. The robot didn’t contribute a whole lot when he was there—she—it—

ECH: Showbot! But he did say that “we have to proceed with Act Five completion before pizza ingestation.” We can’t just leave Juliet pretend-dead.

IA: Very good. Did you write the songs, as well?

ECH: I wrote the lyrics, and Andrew Kane wrote the music.

IA: So that’s one of your huge projects that you have going on right now, and that’s a great project to go forward with, to influence a whole generation of kids.

ECH: That’s my thought; that they see this and want to come to the theatre, and want to participate in the Shakespeare Festival as teens and adults.

IA: I saw one group today, a camp or some group; do you have a lot of groups that come? Do you have schools that even take summer trips?

ECH: Yes. Yesterday we had about 250 kids here. It felt like a Miley Cyrus concert or something! They were jumping on the seats, it was just great! The Shakespearean Hokey-Pokey went over really well with a big group.

Note: that’s “Thou puttest thy right hand in, thou takest thy right hand out, thou puttest thy right hand in, and thou Shakespeare it all about,” proceeding until, “Thou puttest thy elf-locks in” with a timely explanation of “elf-locks.”

IA: That went over well today, too; there was a volunteer dancing as well.

ECH: I told the actors that they have to stop the show if everyone doesn’t get up; that they must insist that everybody that’s able stand up and do the Hokey-Pokey.

IA: OK. Great. And so then you also have Robin Hood running in a different theatre at the same time, and that’s had a longer run so far. Would you like to talk about that, describe that?

ECH: Robin Hood’s another family play. It’s also 50 minutes long with a cast of thirteen inspiring actors, that tells the true folklore story of Robin Hood, but it’s a new adaptation. It’s the world premiere of this adaptation by playwright Brandon McLauren, and it’s fresh and funny. Maid Marian goes off into the forest, not unlike As You Like It, to disguise herself as a boy and has some adventures and finds love along the way. And then we have the problem of, “Oh, no, I’ve dressed up like a boy, and now I’m in love with a boy!” Finding herself. That play is also complex, in terms of, are they thieves? OK, so our hero is a thief? And how do we explain to the kids—and the playwright handles it quite well in saying that, well, sometimes we need to look at the laws made by kings and think, Are they truly right and wrong? And then sometimes we have to answer to a Higher Truth. The Universal Right and Wrong, rather than law. We try to also make sure they know it’s important to be law-abiding citizens!

IA: That’s great! That’s a pretty deep message for—what kind of an age range is that targeting?

ECH: They start at three. And then it’s fun, too, that I see older children that have been coming for years but still and entertained and still want to come with their family, so we say “tween”; teenagers, fourteen- and fifteen-year-old children that have been coming and want to continue coming to the theatre.

IA: Great. And at that point, they’re definitely ready to make the transition to go to mainstage as well.

ECH: Yes. But I try to keep enough in the children’s production to keep them hooked so that it’s not Barney-level, or it’s not Baby Mozart. That was my fear with Shakespeare for Kids, that it’s not going to be a wash. And I really like Baby Mozart, Baby Einstein, all those videos, but—

IA: Right. You want to reach a larger age range so you can keep them coming year after year so they can see several plays that way and then start on mainstage.

ECH: Because I want that for them. It’s not just about our business. It’s about creating a community that values the arts and finds nourishment in them.

IA: So—there are lots of other ways that you do that, too.

ECH: Yes. I also do the WillPower Tour that goes to junior high schools and high schools all over the state. And this year, fortunately, we have received the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities grant again—

IA: congratulations!

ECH: Thank you! —which is $25,000.00, which means that we extend the tour by two weeks at the end of the tour, and we can send them out to rural central and western Pennsylvania to schools that wouldn’t be able to afford this programming. And that they don’t even have cultural centers like we do here in the Valley. Even if it’s a more rural area, they don’t even have a theatre to go to, but we can bring Shakespeare to them.

IA: That might be the only Shakespeare play a student sees.

ECH: It is. It is. And the teachers, even, are so grateful to have us come and have this influence the community. So this year is Hamlet, and it will be nine actors and a stage manager that travel with a professionally designed set (Bob Phillips, who does our summer sets here in the Schubert theatre will be designing our set for Hamlet), and costumes. We’ve just casted. I had auditions two weeks ago in New York and here; Philadelphia actors came up. I saw probably about a hundred actors and cast nine of them, and we’ll hit the schools.

IA: And do you bring a day of workshops with that as well?

ECH: Yes. The actors teach workshops that we’ve developed. They’re in stage combat; unpacking and translating Shakespeare’s language—not unlike what we did in Shakespeare for Kids—Shakespeare’s characters, and other experiential types of things. So these workshops are, they’re up on their feet, they’re in groups of no more than thirty with two actor-teachers, and each student gets to participate in two workshops, have lunch, and then see the play. That’s how we usually set it up.

IA: I came to one before; actually it was Hamlet that time as well, and what was great (I traveled around with one group of students, went to workshops with them) and what was great was that there were specific lines or specific scenes that they worked with more than others, and then when I sat with them in the audience, I could feel that electricity when that line came that they had had to paraphrase themselves, or when that moment came—I was in on the stage combat workshop, and the two actors actually walked through a specific fight they were going to do (Hamlet and Laertes) and they did it in slow motion, they sort of unpacked, explained how they did each motion, showed the illusion, who’s actually making a punching sound where the audience can’t see—so that when they saw that fight on stage, the kids were able to connect to. But then of course it was also up to speed and with the performance adrenalin, and it wowed the students, too. So it brought the students in, but it didn’t take away all the magic. You know, we know how it works, and yet, it’s still really impressive.

ECH: That’s my favorite part of having the workshop in the morning, because they also get to know the actors and I think that tunes them into the performance. They’re invested in the performance then. And hearing those lines, like you said, that’s one of my favorite parts, too. We have a special program called The Extended School Partnership, or ESP, that I do with Northeast Middle School in Bethlehem, so that, I go in three days, and I work with a group of maybe 12 students. There are three separate visits before the performance, and then one after. So it’s much more hands-on, in a smaller group, and they get a really intense experience. But, again, we probably only deal with 15 lines of text, but each day that I come back, we’ll deal with something different with that scene. They become experts on a little bit.

IA: Do you know of other theatre companies that are doing something like this? Is this unique, that DeSales/PA Shakespeare has such an extensive educational program?

ECH: No. Ours is mostly modeled after the Utah Shakespearean Festival, who is one of our heroes, one of the “big guys” in the world of Shakespeare festivals. They have a very similar tour. Father Jerry Schubert, when he was founding the Festival, WillPower (although this is only the 11th season, it was part of the master plan back twenty years ago), so Utah has one, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey—I think they only rotate Romeo & Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think they have two shows in rep. We try to mix it up a bit more. I know that Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem also received the NEA grant, and they’re taking their version of The Tempest, which I think is three actors, into the schools. So, a very different approach; theirs is more of an adaptation and a processing, looking at the play through a creative lens of how to do different kinds of storytelling, whereas ours is more about understanding the language and having students find power in language.

IA: I just remembered, too, as you were talking: I grew up in Lenox, Massachusetts, and of course there’s Shakespeare and Company there, and they always—I think they still do it?—have a Fall Festival of Shakespeare. And what they do is they send—I think actors, but it may be specifically directors—but anyway, they send directors into each of the public high schools in the whole county, or in a large area, and they each direct a student production of a Shakespeare play, and then they have a run at their school, or at a facility in their town, for a weekend or so. And then there’s whole festival at the community college in the area.

ECH: So much fun.

IA: Yes. And then all the schools come, and there are like three plays a day for a week. Pretty intense. You can imagine the set-up and tear-down in between each play. They did some pretty impressive ones, too; they did the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet; they did Measure for Measure; they didn’t shy away; let’s explore everything.

ECH: I’m a department of one here, in the education department! So I did start a program here a few years ago, called PlayPower, where I went in after I finished directing the WillPower tour, and I took that set, and those costumes, into—first we piloted it at Southern Lehigh High School, and then I did it at William Allen High School, and so I directed the same cutting of the play with their students, and then we put it on at their school. And we got to donate the set to them, as well. That’s a program I’m fond of, for the same reasons. The high school students are just electric, and something about Shakespeare just sets them free. In these situations, the characters have language for these huge feelings that they’re feeling, and they can borrow the language. That’s a program I’m very fond of and that I haven’t gotten to do for a year or two now.

IA: Is that something you’d like to bring back?

ECH: Most definitely.

IA: What are some other dreams you have?

ECH: I’d love to take Shakespeare for Kids as an elementary tour. One dream we’ve been making come true is the Shakespeare Competition. We had our their season of that. In March high school students compete for DeSales scholarship with monologues and scenes—again, borrowed from Utah who’s been doing it for thirty years! But in the Shakespeare circuit, we’re very generous and we use the term “steal and implement” frequently in terms of programming! If we’ve figured out a great way to involve a way to involve our community and to provide services, take it, run! We’d love to do teacher-training for continuing education credits in the summer. A festival where teachers can come up and see the plays and get some of their requirements through the university, graduate school credits.

IA: That would be excellent.

ECH: I have a whole file on that, too, it’s just a matter of waiting for us to grow. We’re aware that we want to continue providing quality programs and not such a buffet of programs that the quality suffers.

IA: Right. Is your department going to grow? Are you going to get a staff?

ECH: Hopefully! I’d love to! But—we are doing strategic planning for the next twenty years. We’re looking forward in five year segments as a Shakespeare festival. We had a big strategic planning retreat last year. And hopefully for our twentieth anniversary season coming up next year, we’ll be able to share those plans with our patrons, which is exciting! About where we see PSF going in the future and opportunities for everyone.

IA: OK! Maybe we can have a follow-up then, talk again! I have another, broader question if we can keep going. So, you talked about the focus on language and the power of Shakespeare’s language. A lot of the productions here, I guess all the productions I’ve seen, have been pretty much traditional. Now, they’ll take twists in the time period in which the Shakespearean plays are set, the costuming, but it’s all the original language, and they’re not very far-out interpretations; they’re not really startling, you know, shocking interpretations. Is that pretty standard across Shakespeare festivals and companies? Have we kind of, we went through our experimental phase where we were doing really wacky interpretations and now we’re back to, you know, this generation needs to see some Elizabethan costuming and they need to see the plays sort of more historically accurate?

ECH: I think smaller theatre companies that perhaps aren’t hiring professional designers or actors still take risks like that, or explore creativity in that way with the plays—which I think is great. I think Shakespeare himself was continually experimenting with form. Even with Hamlet; we think of it as a classic tragedy, but it’s really not; he was inventing a new form. And especially later with The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale; he was exploring poetry and… So, I think that’s great, that some companies still do that. But we allow our designers to, you know, we don’t come in and say, OK, Merry Wives is going to be set in traditional costume. When the director and the designer all come into the room for the first production meeting, they get to talk about what’s important to them in this play and what do you need to tell this story? And in that case [Merry Wives], those costumes became central to how we were going to tell the story.

Romeo & Juliet, this season, it didn’t. The time period fell away as not being what they were going to focus on. But to answer your question! I think that our work is quite comparable to what’s happening on the major stages in the country. The focus is on actors speaking Shakespeare’s text and sounding like human beings. Patrons came up to me after Merry Wives of Windsor and said, “Now, who did the translation? Someone must have interpreted that text!” I said, “No! Thank you.” That’s my favorite complement to get, because I know we’re doing something right when the actors sound like people and these words are their words for the first time coming out of their mouths and they’re what they need to use to express what’s happening in their lives. So, that’s our main goal, also, is that the art is good, and that it is engaging, and that it is truthful; as Shakespeare says, to hold the mirror up to nature. There’s no good in putting them in a situation that’s going to separate them from the audience. So everything we do has an eye on engagement. And sometimes that does mean jeans. And sometimes that does mean pumpkin pants!

IA: Great! Anything else? Well, we haven’t talked about the Green Show, we haven’t talked about your Prologues, we haven’t talked about your own acting career, [your teaching]—we could cover that, but we’ve covered a lot of ground!

ECH: That’s OK! I like to wear many hats. I’m never bored. Working with the DeSales interns is just very inspiring. It keeps me very young. I think I’ve found the fountain of youth here.

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