What a wonderful day to take a walk around campus and see what we see. The sun is shining on all the small groups of spaced out students in the Pine Grove. A mower hums in the background as we pass Graves Hall. Cesario is casually being shipwrecked on the DeWitt patio. A squirrel steals a potato wedge with questionable intent. A normal day in the life of a Hope College student.
But, as many of us are aware, things are hardly normal. With classes moving largely online and nearly all in-person events being completely reworked, the campus looks very different this year. One department which has had to completely rethink its function is Hope’s theatre department. Before, the DeWitt Theatre space housed hundreds of mesmerized viewers of the world of ancient epics and modern dramas. But when only ten people can enter the cavernous auditorium, the worlds written by Molière and Tennessee Williams become a whole lot trickier to create.
Originally planned for the spring semester of the 2020 school year, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was scheduled to debut on the DeWitt stage. Actors had begun learning their lines, a guest designer was working closely with the production team on exciting plans and a world was being brought to life. However, like all campus activity, it was brought to a screeching halt. Flash forward a handful of months, and between Zoom calls and distanced classes, the team is preparing for round two of “Twelfth.”
As expected, many concessions had to be made in order to adapt. Several locations around campus were considered as possible venues to host the production, with each offering a myriad of benefits and drawbacks. After many meetings (and more than a few experimental rehearsals) the cast ended up running lines on the stone patio to the front of DeWitt. The locale doesn’t offer much: a few benches, some stairs and a concrete planter bordering a ramp. More so, the entire look of the show, as envisioned by guest designer Sarah Pearline, was almost completely scrapped. With the location shift, the period changed. With the period change, the costumes shifted. Shift led to addition, addition to edit, and so on. The show going up in a few weeks is drastically different than the earliest plans imagined, but that by no means implies a worse production.
In order to get a better understanding of the technical obstacles involved with moving an entire cast, crew and audience off the traditional stage, I approached the assistant professor of lighting and sound design, Eric Van Tassell, to do an interview. While being a relatively recent addition to the theatre’s dedicated staff, he has already served as both a lighting designer and sound designer for several productions. So if you have seen a show in the last year or so, it is very likely that Van Tassell chose that colored-gel-packed 500-watt Fresnel fixture you didn’t ever think about once in your entire existence. But, in many ways, that is the signature of a good designer: to elevate the cast and play through the atmosphere, bringing the audience into an otherwise unconventional world. “My goal is to make a nice ‘stage picture,’” Van Tassel noted, not just “lighting.” But when that world was forced from the proscenium stage, Van Tassell and every member involved in “Twelfth Night” saw a shift in roles. He remarked on how it meant stepping in to help design elements for light, sound, scenic and even props. The conventional roles for the entire crew were stretched thin since each new problem needed input from every angle. In a theatre, he wouldn’t have to worry about the natural fading of light, or the lack of appropriate power sources. Different fixtures are now needed, and a whole new plot to go with them.
However, despite all the kinks needing to be ironed, things that came up were really “not a series of problems…but opportunities,” Van Tassell remarked. And the same goes for every person involved. The actors can make exciting new choices, and the director can build scenes in ways not seen before. The entire conceit of being outside also allows for the exploration of space and location in the context of the play. “It harkens back to Shakespeare’s time,” Van Tassel joked, referencing the outdoor theatre that “Twelfth Night” would have been written for.
That is not to say that the performance will be a stale imitation. What does it mean for the old words to be recited on campus steps? How does Orsino enter when wearing modern garb and brushing through spinning doors? It’s a collision of old and new. A familiar place with a fresh new face. And Van Tassel is right. Each moment can be both a challenge and an opportunity. By bringing theatre outside, it indeed enters the same realm as Shakespeare, but also of Aristophanes, Terence and every play that was ever performed beneath an open sky. It pays homage to the history of theatre, yet simultaneously sets the stage to create its own.