Shakespeare Carolinas plays on

Shakespeare Carolinas kicked off its annual Queen City Shakespeare Festival last week at Theatre Charlotte with “Twelfth Night.” “Richard III” opens Thursday and the two classics – one comedy, one drama – will play on alternating days between then and the festival's July 26th finale. The Observer recently spoke to directors John Hartness (“Twelfth Night”) and Chris O'Neill (“Richard III”).

Q. What makes Shakespeare's work relevant after centuries?

O'Neill: For me it's the language. It's the actual depth of these characters that he wrote 500 years ago. You may not understand everything they're saying, but you can empathize with them.

Hartness: He deals with universal themes. The plays may be hundreds of years old, but people are still falling in love, falling out of love, falling in love with the wrong person. He's also the best writer in the history of the English language. It's also the character development. The characters in Shakespeare's plays are so rich and fully developed. From an actor's standpoint it's unlike working from a contemporary script where the playwright feels it's necessary to give you every emotion and stage direction. Shakespeare left that open. It's all in the dialogue.

Q. What did you want to accomplish with the festival this year?

Hartness: My goal in “Twelfth Night” is for people to laugh until they pee.

O'Neill: I would like for (Charlotte) to be known for good classic theater. I think we've been building a reputation for good new theater, edgy stuff. I felt like people weren't paying that much attention to the classics.

Q. What do you do to make Shakespeare appeal to a modern audience?

O'Neill: I like to make Shakespeare's work relevant, so I don't necessarily ever do men-in-tights versions of Shakespeare. I put them in modern dress and put it in a modern context so people can relate more.

Hartness: We have used some contemporary comic techniques to make the play more appealing. But what a lot of people don't understand today is Shakespeare was a raunchy man. His plays are full of dirty jokes and sexual innuendos. We've worked diligently to make sure none of those are missed.

Q. What is the biggest challenge of doing this in Charlotte?

O'Neill: Putting bodies into seats.

Hartness: The challenge of doing anything in Charlotte is convincing people to pry themselves away from their television sets. It's not just Charlotte. We're competing with cheaper entertainment and the arts don't have the marketing budget of movies and concerts.

Q. What do you do to overcome those challenges?

O'Neill: You do some of the more famous, accessible pieces first. We did “Taming of the Shrew” and “Hamlet” last year. Everybody knows those. We've done a lot of Internet marketing and instead of putting up posters we do glossy 4-x-6 postcards similar to what people hand out for nightclub events.