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UNCC actors tweak ‘Twelfth Night’ to captivate high school audiences

When UNC Charlotte theatre professor Lon Bumgarner set out to direct his advanced acting students in a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” for high-school audiences, he knew a few measures would need to be taken.

First, don’t cut the battle scenes. Teens love action. Next, prepare your actors in advance for all the lip-smacking sound effects they’ll hear from the audience after each onstage kiss. And finally, keep to a time limit. A ringing bell can incite just as strong a reaction in students as it did in Pavlov’s dogs 100 years ago.

What he came up with, judging from the audience’s spellbound trance during each of the last eight performances, is an adaption that should be used again and again.

“This is not your mother’s Shakespeare,” said Bumgarner, who sat discreetly in the audience, watching his students during a recent performance at Central Cabarrus High School in Concord. “It’s been unbelievably, wildly received.”

From the opening scene – a shipwreck riddled with the shouts and screams of its survivors – teenagers’ backs snap up straight in their seats.

For those who strain to understand Shakespeare or struggle wading through the complicated language of the 400 year-old genius, this adaption makes sense.

Sure, there are many high schoolers who admire and follow Shakespeare right from the beginning, but there are plenty of others who need a little persuasion.

If you were born before 1980, think back to your own first encounter with Shakespeare. It probably started your freshman year when the teacher wheeled in the television cart for your introduction to “Romeo and Juliet.”

Back then, the 1968 film version of the play was shown regularly, and somehow each year the rumor of brief nudity would spread among students like a brushfire on a dry and breezy summer day.

Even then, to captivate the attention of high schoolers with Shakespeare took finesse, and maybe a little trickery.

Bumgarner is no stranger to Shakespeare. For years he ran a successful Shakespeare company in Charlotte.

He’s no stranger to young people, either. Most of his oldest students are barely into their 20s. “They’ll tell you that they really didn’t like Shakespeare when they were in high school,” he said.

But often, they, too, become turned on to Shakespeare’s brilliance.

“The language is different, but everything is still there that we deal with now,” said Nathalie Mendez, 22, a theater major who performs as Olivia in the play. “It’s crazy how timeless it is.”

Many of the characters Shakespeare conjured up centuries ago have modern-day relatives. To prepare for his role as Anthony, Sammy Harley, 21, watched episodes of “Jersey Shore” night after night.

“My character is the fool,” he said, with a grin.

For the last three months, Harley and the troupe of nine others who perform in the play have traveled from high school to high school, taking in the teenagers’ reactions.

Mendez said an adaptation like this probably would have eased her own intimidation as a teen with the playwright.

“When I was a high school student, I always stayed far away from Shakespeare,” she said. “Although it always intrigued me, I was too scared to try it.”

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