London plays 'Tempest' at UNCC

Things that can make a Shakespearean actor better: Crisp diction. Stamina. Inquisitive intelligence. A feel for the flow of poetry. The ability to race three times around a quadrangle, crunching over orange maple leaves under an azure sky, and climb onstage to do a scene from "Twelfth Night" while giggling and gasping for breath.

Most of us wouldn't have guessed the last one. Yet when the touring Actors From the London Stage descended on UNC Charlotte, it turned out to be true.

The quintet came in Monday night, fatigued by flight delays in frozen Poughkeepsie, N.Y.,. and Philadelphia, and will depart Sunday after three unconventional performances of "The Tempest" at the black-box Lab Theatre in UNCC's Robinson Hall.

They'll play every role of that masterpiece in casual clothes, on a stage denuded of props and backdrops. For these actors, the text is everything, and that's the lesson they've preached this week to English and theater classes.

Dale Rapley did it with the Socratic method Tuesday afternoon, asking performers endless questions. Richard Neale did it with word-by-word analysis: "What does 'surfeit' mean? Google it." Adam Smethurst encouraged speakers to explore multiple ways of delivering lines. And Jen Kidd sent her "Twelfth Night" duo running in circles - and ran with them - to free up tongues and minds by taking them out of any comfort zones. (Laurence Pears was off briefing an English class.)

"Our main job is to give every student confidence that they can speak Shakespeare," says Smethurst. "Though they're using this heightened poetic language, these characters are human beings. The things driving them are the same as they would be in a Mamet or Miller play.

"I've been impressed with students' intellectual grasp of the texts: They can put these speeches into their own words. Their weakest area is vocal delivery, because they haven't had the training. Sometimes I'll tell them to do a speech like Tony Soprano or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, anything to make the dynamics of the phrases come out."

Americans' lack of classical training inspired the pre-"Star Trek" Patrick Stewart to start this program 35 years ago, on the strength of a conversation in a theater bar with a college professor. Longtime Charlotteans will remember its first visit in 1984, when five veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company came to UNCC and ended a residency with their terrific "Twelfth Night" at Spirit Square.

Since then, the company has found American headquarters at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and tours every year. The teacher-actors train for five weeks in England before setting out.

"The last time they were here (in 2006), the buzz didn't die down for weeks," said Lon Bumgarner, whose work with UNCC's theater department and its Shakespeare in Action Center qualified him to coordinate this visit. "The directing class burst into spontaneous applause today when they were finished, and college students never do that.

"Sometimes (the Londoners) plant seeds that grow later. Sometimes students have epiphanies; they may hear something we've taught them in a different way, and now they understand it. The main thing is for them to realize the actors doing this brilliant work aren't just theorizing."

When senior Nathalie Mendez caught her breath after lapping the quad, she confirmed what her prof had been saying. She'll be playing Olivia in the cut version of "Twelfth Night" Bumgarner has prepared to tour public high schools next semester.

"My high school teacher told me to avoid Shakespeare, because it's the hardest thing you can perform," says Mendez, who plans to seek acting work in Chicago after graduating. "But this experience boosts your confidence.

"You look at that beautiful writing and really analyze the character and see all the ways she can be played. When you've done that, and you look at a contemporary play, you're not afraid anymore."