Southeastern Theatre stages innovative production of 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Contact: Christina Chapple
STAGING SHAKESPEARE – Director James Winter and Stage Manager Lydia Caballero of Slidell take notes as the cast of the Southeastern Louisiana University Theatre’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” does a run-through. The show be on stage April 24-28 at Vonnie Borden Theatre in D Vickers Hall.
HAMMOND – Moving a Shakespeare play out of an Elizabethan setting is nothing new. Theater companies do it all the time.
So there’s nothing that radical about James Winter’s idea of placing the Southeastern Louisiana University Theatre’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1920s New York.
And it’s certainly not a new concept for men to play the women’s roles in Shakespeare. That, after all, is how it was done in the Bard’s day, when only male actors trod the board.
But, Winter has gone one step further – a giant one. In his April 24-28 production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, not only will men play women on the Vonnie Borden Theater stage, but women will also play men.
“My students say I can’t do anything normal,” said Winter with a grin.
In his second year on the faculty of Southeastern’s Department of Music and Dramatic Arts, Winter already has innovative productions to his credit such as “Waiting for Godot,” “[sic],” and “4.48 Psychosis.” He has always wanted to stage “Much Ado About Nothing” in the colorful “flapper” era of the 1920s New York.
“Almost none of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Elizabethan England anyway,” he said. “So I never quite understood that purist philosophy that we have to dress according to Elizabethan England. There have been 50 million productions about ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ The challenge is to keep it fresh and interesting. What can we bring to it that’s different while still remaining true to his work?”
But, he admitted, he did not originally intend this production to quite this different. “I certainly intended to cast this play as it’s written in terms of the gender breakdown,” he laughed.
“When auditions rolled around we just didn’t have the male turnout,” Winter said. “I looked at my assistant director, and I looked at my stage manager and I said, ‘There’s only one way to go here. We’ll swap.”
Although his inspiration was spawned by necessity, Winter is finding a number of positives in the lemonade-out-of-lemons casting decision.
“We have a tremendous amount of female talent at this school,” he said. “This is a chance to get more of them on stage.”
And, “Shakespeare crossed gender,” he pointed out. “This play above any of his plays is really about how one sex views the opposite sex. So, it is kind of a fun take on it.”
How does he think the public will react to his 1920s New York, cross-gender version of “Much Ado About Nothing”?
“The public is going to find this play funny no matter how we split the cast,” Winter said, confidently. “It’s just a funny, silly play. I chose it because I wanted to do a Shakespeare comedy and I believe that of all of his plays, this one has the most prose as opposed to verse, which makes it a little bit more accessible.
“And as popular as it is,” he added, “’Much Ado About Nothing’ is not done to death like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or even ‘Richard III.’”
Winter stresses that while the casting may be unusual, the intention is not at all to spoof Shakespeare. “This isn’t guys in drag,” he said. “We are staying true to Shakespeare’s story and true to the plot.” He instructed his cast, “You’re going to be male actors playing women, and female actors playing men, and that’s it. You’re going to play it as true as you can.”
Pulling off the cross-gender acting has been plain hard work for the cast, requiring a tremendous amount of vocal and physical training. “And that’s all that on top of the demands of a five act Shakespearean play, set in the 20s in New York dialect,” said Winter. “It’s a lot of work for them. They rose to the challenge, which seems to be par for the course around here.”
This unique production has also been a challenge for its stage manager, Lydia Caballero of Slidell. In her third semester at Southeastern, Caballero has been running the demanding back stage operations of Winters’ plays since her first days on campus.
Originally intending to major in mass communication with an eye toward one day becoming a theater critic, her experience with Southeastern Theatre has redirected Caballero’s goals toward a professional stage management career. She is getting plenty of experience in “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is larger in both scope and cast size than her previous three plays.
“I started doing theater in high school and absolutely loved it,” said Caballero, who had small parts in plays such as “Music Man” and “The Wiz.” “I took Jim’s introduction to theater class because I needed an art elective and thought it would be fun. One day he stood up and said he needed a stage manager and I agreed to do it, not knowing what I had gotten myself into.
“I loved it,” she said. “It’s an entirely different experience than it is being on stage.”
Caballero has proven to be a natural at what Winter calls “the most thankless job in theater.” Stage managers, he explained, “are responsible for keeping the communication lines open between everybody, from directors and designers all the way down the line to the actors and to actually running the show. Once this play opens, the director’s job is done and the stage manager is the boss. She’s got to know the show better than anybody, every aspect of it.”
“I’m really proud of her work,” Winter said. “She has the tools and the ability to go out there and do this professionally.”
“What I’m asking the cast and crew of this show to do is above and beyond the usual college level work and I’ve been on them pretty hard,” Winter said. “But, if they stick with me and they trust in what I know they are capable of, I think they’re going to do some neat work on this show.”
“One of my biggest kicks here at Southeastern is that I keep raising the bar and the students keep meeting it. I think I’ll just keep on doing it until it can’t get any higher,” Winter said.
Curtain time for “Much Ado About Nothing” is 7:30 p.m. Tickets -- $10, adults, and $6, senior citizens, faculty, staff, and non-Southeastern students -- are available at the theater box office in D Vickers Hall. Southeastern students are admitted free with their university I.D.
For additional information, contact Winter at (985) 549-3546 or James.Winter@selu.edu.