World premiere kicks off Davidson arts events

The world-premiere cast of “What You Will” at Davidson College, from left: Riley Sloan, Callan Gies, Colin Bye, Deyanira Bowers, Bridget Lavender, Matt Hunter.
The world-premiere cast of “What You Will” at Davidson College, from left: Riley Sloan, Callan Gies, Colin Bye, Deyanira Bowers, Bridget Lavender, Matt Hunter. BILL GIDUZ

The full title of Shakespeare’s gender-confusion comedy is “Twelfth Night, or What You Will.” Davidson College produced “Twelfth Night” in 2013. Aptly enough, it’s tackling “What You Will” now.

The difference? An updating of 400 years and royalties for the playwright.

For the first time, the college commissioned a play and got Steve Umberger, former artistic director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre, to stage it. He contacted old friend Wendy Hammond, who wrote a romantic comedy set at an international faith conference. Like “Twelfth Night,” it plays with our ideas of identity, culture and love.

“What You Will” hits the Barber Theatre boards this week, kicking off an artistic burst at Davidson.

The college has launched a symposium of Jewish culture, culminating with the production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Duke Family Performance Hall March 20-29. Six upcoming events range from a March 9 panel discussion titled “Dad’s Jewish, Mom’s Catholic ...What Am I? Interfaith Families in the 21st Century” to a March 15 community festival dubbed “Tradition: Celebrating Jewish Community and Culture.”

Meanwhile, Ali Selim, writer-director of the film “Sweet Land,” has dropped in from Los Angeles this semester. The visiting McGee Professor of English will teach two classes and lecture March 12 at Chambers Building as part of the college’s literary series.

But the biggest news is the world premiere, which extends Umberger’s relationship with Davidson’s drama department.

“The educational setting isn’t what I usually do,” says Umberger, artistic director of the professional Festival Stage of Winston-Salem. “The actors don’t have much experience, so they’re very open. There’s an eagerness to learn, and that’s (a good) tradeoff.”

Umberger knew Davidson theater professors Ann Marie Costa and Joseph Gardner from his Rep days. He directed “Communicating Doors” at the college in 2008, then “Twelfth Night.”

“New plays are my favorite thing to do,” he says. (Festival Stage has a New Plays for a New Age component.) So when Davidson had a commission ready, he thought of Hammond. They labored from May to December 2014 on “What You Will,” which takes place at the First World Interfaith Conference for Peace in “the immediate future.”

The six characters – all interns at the conference – are a Mormon (the faith in which Hammond was raised), a Muslim, a Jew, a mainstream Christian, an agnostic and a person who doesn’t accept any religious definition. Like “Twelfth Night,” there’s gender uncertainty in this comedy about belief and diversity.

The students have had to think on their feet: They received a new script the second week of rehearsal, but Hammond kept tweaking it. Umberger has held performance classes and audition workshops at Davidson, but he’s treating this as a directing assignment.

“These young actors are extremely dedicated and resourceful,” he says. “They can solve their own problems with their own emotional equipment. My way of doing it might not be the best way for them.

“It’s a collaboration: I ask a lot of questions to lead them. And I either get what I want in rehearsal, or I want what I get.”

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‘What You Will’

Wendy Hammond’s loose riff on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is set during an international faith conference. Its world premiere takes place at Davidson College.

WHEN: Through Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Barber Theatre, Davidson College, Davidson.

TICKETS: $10 ($8 seniors, $7 faculty/staff, $5 students).

DETAILS: davidson.edu.