Grassroots Shakespeare Company 

Grassroots Shakespeare takes an old-school approach to producing the Bard

On a Saturday afternoon just six weeks before opening night, some 35 actors auditioned for some of the most famous stage roles in the history of theater. In addition to monologues, the audition involved questions about scheduling, musical abilities and—of course—cross-dressing. When one man responded, “I love playing a woman,” he was quickly listed for callbacks. The same happened when a woman said she could get her hands on some finger-cymbals.

While the finger-cymbals may be a bit anachronistic, both cross-dressing and live music were integral parts of Shakespeare’s original productions, and Grassroots Shakespeare Company is dedicated to producing shows the way 16th-century companies might have done them. Using a method called “original practice,” Grassroots imposes Renaissance-style conditions on its shows: minimal rehearsal time, no director, no sets, homemade costumes, live music, loads of cross-dressing and constant audience interaction. And though stripping away most of the conventional elements of modern theater might seem like a recipe for disaster, Grassroots’ productions have been drawing increasing crowds since the company launched in 2009.

Callbacks for this year’s productions, to be performed in parks across Utah this summer, took place at Utah Valley University a week after auditions and upped the ante on the already quirky process.

First, the 16 hopefuls were divided into groups to choreograph and perform a jig. To show how seriously Grassroots takes jigs, those who showed up late were ordered to perform their own personal jigs on the spot. After jigging, each actor performed a monologue and asked the group for suggestions. After hearing three suggestions, the actor would incorporate at least one of them and perform the monologue again. Finally, the auditioning actors themselves voted to decide the cast.

Once the ballots were in, the eight cast members still had to be assigned roles. This was also done democratically, but in a process that felt more like jury duty than a best-of-Shakespeare competition. Cast members sequestered themselves in the UVU library and performed scenes from As You Like It at the request of the rest of the group. Then, heads went down and hands went up in favor of the various candidates, and an attending board member took count. The process was repeated for each role. In the event of a tie, closing arguments and rebuttals were made, all for the goal of reaching a place where everyone had faith in the cohesion of the cast. It was a grueling three hours before the jury reached unanimity.

Rehearsals for As You Like It started just nine days before opening night. The first six nights were dedicated to blocking one-third of the play per night. On the first night, the cast choreographed a jig to be performed at the close of each show. On the fourth night, the company’s musicians hashed out where to use mandolin, guitar, clarinet, gong, etc. The final three nights were dress rehearsals, though props and costumes showed up piecemeal before the producer’s preview on night eight.

The entirety of each four-hour rehearsal was collaborative, as actors ran through the same scene time and again, asking for suggestions in between. In keeping with original practice, actors aimed to ground suggestions in Shakespeare’s original intent. As blocking one scene got particularly contentious, Daniel Fenton Anderson (who plays Silvius)  reminded the crew, “What we’re blocking should come from the text rather than putting things on the text.”

 Two nights before the opening performance, the Grassroots board attended a rehearsal and gave feedback that encapsulated the philosophy behind Grassroots. Board member Davey Morrison Dillard emphasized that the action should be nonstop: “When I don’t hear something happening, it feels like a mistake,” he said. The company also aims to make Shakespeare easy for audiences to understand, while still respecting their comprehension. As Bianca Morrison Dillard says, “Whenever you [want] to ask something of the audience, trust them to give it to you.” And Daniel Whiting insisted that the production should remain thematically pure: “That’s a sex joke,” he points out again and again throughout the night. “It’s all about sex.”

When the play opened two nights later at Orem’s Scera Park, the cast and crew had taken every suggestion to heart. In addition to setting a light-hearted mood before curtain call, the musicians accentuated the action beautifully, drawing laughter, emphasizing romance and building suspense. The actors milked the humor from Shakespeare’s text and built upon it with fast-paced staging and audience interaction. The audience was drawn into the action, so the evening was punctuated with them cheering on heroes, booing villains, shouting out answers and laughing all the while.

GRASSROOTS SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: AS YOU LIKE IT
Margaret Wines Park
600 N. Center St., Lehi
May 23, 7:30 p.m.
Additional performances of As You Like It and Henry V in Utah locations through July 12
Free with suggested donation of $3 per person
GrassrootsShakespeare.com

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Julia Shumway

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