Entertainment

The bard's not hard - if handled properly

Make good diction top priority. Hire a fight captain if you use metal swords; better yet, don't use metal swords, but hire a fight captain anyway, so nobody gets a real wound from a faux blade. And never wear black Batman underwear beneath light-colored costumes, especially on a windy day.

These and other aphorisms about performing Shakespeare come from the mouths of the experts: Collaborative Arts and Shakespeare Carolina, both of which unveil summer seasons of the Bard this month.

Collaborative kicks off its Charlotte Shakespeare Festival with "The Comedy of Errors" on Thursday on The Green, and Shakespeare Carolina undertakes "Macbeth" up the street at Spirit Square on June 26.

So Elise Wilkinson, executive/artistic director of Collaborative Arts, and Chris O'Neill and Iesha Hoffman, the founder and managing director of Shakespeare Carolina, shared producing wisdom gleaned over the years. Here's some of what they had to say:

Shakespeare was a master of iambic pentameter, the rhythm of the human heart and the basis of everyday speech. His words, spoken properly, sound quite natural.

"There's a connection between the way the verse is written and our heartbeat," says Wilkinson. "The actor has to establish a personal connection with the text, and that's easier to do if the language mirrors the way we speak.

"When Shakespeare disrupts that rhythm, or the stress changes, it's like your heart skips a beat. It feels like a big emotion is striking you."

His characters spend lots of time addressing the audience, an unruly bunch in the 1600s and prone to talking back. If you ask today's audience to listen to two hours of obscure dialogue, you should let them in on the fun, too.

"You shouldn't ignore the audience," says Wilkinson. "With the style we like to perform in, especially at The Green, the audience is a character. They throw things back at us, figuratively; they talk back or boo villains. But they have an innate amount of respect, so it's not heckling."

Physical or slapstick humor is really funny. So are goofy hats.

"In 'Taming of the Shrew,' I turned Jimmy Curtee loose as Hortensio (one of the suitors for Bianca, a supporting role)," O'Neill recalls. "He came out in a Thurston Howell III yachting cap, a pith helmet, a sideways Commodore Perry hat with feathers. Someone else had a fez, and a fez is always funny. The audience ate that up."

Real weapons? Ummm ... no.

"A careless cannon shot burned down the Globe Theatre (in 1613)," says Wilkinson.

"We have never used real weapons, and in every play where there has been violence, we've hired a professional fight director. We had a terrific one for 'Romeo and Juliet,' and (he) helped us tell the story through the use of that violence."

Create an environment where everyone feels safe. Actors can't be afraid to commit to a role.

"There's more of a fear factor in acting Shakespeare," says Hoffman. "This stuff is hard and can be daunting. There are big words. And swords. And sometimes snakes. If you make the actors feel comfortable, the audience can feel comfortable, too. We call that kind of trust 'drinking the Kool-Aid.' "

Turn off mikes when visiting a restroom or talking backstage on cell phones to ex-girlfriends.

"It hasn't happened onstage yet, but there have been near-misses during tech rehearsals," says Wilkinson. laughing. "Somebody has walked offstage and said, 'I can't believe I screwed up that line!' Wireless mikes are tricky all around."

These works do not belong to any one company, actor or director. It's a producer's job to keep the Bard alive for new audiences.

"Every word he wrote 400 years ago is valid today," says O'Neill. "But in high school, I didn't want to know about it. To me, Shakespeare (was) guys in funny pants talking funny.

"To reach people, we have to transcend that historical barrier. We have to break it down and show audiences that these characters are just like them."

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