May 02--Even before its founders gave GoShakes Theatre its name, they referred to it by that moniker in abbreviating Goshen Shakespeare Theatre on their calendars.
But, Lindsay Nance says, the name points toward part of the new theater company's mission, too. "It's GoShakes, meaning Shakespeare," she says, "but it's also shaking your view of how (plays are) experienced and created."
That applies to both seasoned theatergoers and novices, especially students and people in their 20s -- the next generation of theater patrons and creators.
As such, an educational component comprised of pre- and post-performance talks and workshops from visiting theater professionals is a core tenet of GoShakes' philosophy, as is making classic plays, particularly Shakespeare's works, accessible to contemporary audiences.
For "Romeo and Juliet," the company's inaugural production that opens Friday at The Goshen Theater in downtown, for instance, director Michelle Milne and her design team plan to put part of the audience on the stage and to use the theater's seating area for some of the action.
In addition, Nance and Milne cut the the script from more than three hours to 90 minutes, without an intermission.
"It would be wonderful if we could all sit back for three hours to watch 'Romeo and Juliet,' but I don't think that's possible with this generation," GoShakes co-founder Carrie Lee Bland-Kendall says. "I think we're respecting Shakespeare, but we're getting straight to the story and straight to the emotions, and I think the audience will feel that immediacy around them."
"It's the same gritty show Shakespeare wrote," actor Philip Weaver-Stoesz says about the production, in which he plays Romeo. "It's just pulled into our modern context. ... It doesn't feel as if Shakespeare is far away. It's something that's right in your face and graspable and gritty."
Even as they cut about half of the play, Milne says, she and Nance kept in some things that normally get trimmed from "Romeo and Juliet" because they wanted to place the young lovers' romance in relief against the context of the world around them -- the gaiety of the young people at the beginning contrasted with how they are the ones who die, for example, and the long-standing and possibly misunderstood feud between the Capulets and Montagues.
"All of that openness at the beginning crashes down at the end, and part of that is pacing," Milne says. "We want the audience to feel it's spinning out of control. Can that happen to our families and in our cities as we hold onto violence? Some of it is miscommunication. Things shattering and things falling apart, but unnecessarily, and that's the tragedy."
Nance plays Juliet in GoShakes' production, and the character surprised her as she reread the play. "She is a fighter," she says. "I think that was one of the things -- I always thought she was the sappy, lovesick, whimsy of a girl. But what I've realized is that she's a rebel. She goes against everything that she's told. She allows herself to be disowned because she wants to make different choices with her life than the ones she sees around her, and I find that incredibly fascinating and inspiring."
Weaver-Stoesz describes Romeo as a lover, but a fickle one when the play begins.
"He jumps from crush to crush pretty quickly, and when the action begins, he's deep in love with a girl named Rosalind," he says. "We realized that Juliet has a lot of family but no close friends and Romeo has a lot of close friends and little family."
Those friendships mean a lot to Romeo, Weaver-Stoesz says, but he loses sight of that.
"As he starts to love Juliet, he begins to close off the people he has known and live in a much smaller world that is Juliet," he says. "He decides he has all of these stories before and that Juliet is the last chapter. Nothing else can happen after Juliet, and when Juliet dies, he decides he has to kill himself."
But as excited as Nance and Bland-Kendall are about this production, they didn't imagine they would pick "Romeo and Juliet" as the theater's first play -- nor did they expect to found a theater this year, either.
GoShakes started as a collaboration between them when the two actresses began to meet to practice scenes together to keep their acting skills sharp after both had moved to Goshen from Chicago.
Although neither Nance nor Bland-Kendall is a native of Goshen, each one has ties to the town: Nance graduated from Goshen College with a bachelor's degree in theater performance and Bland-Kendall's husband, David Kendall, is a native who now teaches visual and media arts at Goshen High School.
Nance and Bland-Kendall met in Chicago and worked together and separately there in professional theater, film and television.
They reunited when Nance returned to Goshen in 2012 to prepare to enter graduate school in theater at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, this fall.
As part of that preparation, she set out to read all of Shakespeare's plays.
"When I got to 'Romeo and Juliet,' I was not super-excited about it," Nance says. "I thought that I knew the story. ... I was surprised at how personal and how tragic and sexy and violent and full of life it was. It was so much more than I remembered."
When they decided to give a full production a try, they called Milne, whom they had both known and worked with in Chicago, to direct "Romeo and Juliet."
The artistic director of New World Arts in Goshen from 2006 to 2008 and a former theater professor at Goshen College, Milne teaches at Columbia College in Chicago and has split her time each week for the last two months between Chicago and Goshen, with rehearsals taking place Thursdays through Saturdays.
"It's an opportunity to reconnect with those people (she worked with in Goshen), and part of my heart will always be in Goshen," Milne says. "I think Goshen is this place that's ready for new approaches to theater. Carrie and Lindsay talk about stepping up the professionalism of it and taking risks. ... I think there's an audience that wants to see theater that surprises them or makes them sit forward as opposed to, 'I know this and I'm going to sit back.' "
Right now, GoShakes' possibilities remain wide open. The theater already has staged one sold-out cabaret show at Kelly Jay's Next Door in Goshen and likely will do more such shows. Staging two full-scale productions each year seems to be the direction GoShakes will take, possibly with one being Shakespearean and the other a classic by another playwright.
"It almost feels like a science experiment," Nance says. "Carrie and I have a hypothesis that it's something Goshen can support, and 'Romeo and Juliet' is testing that hypothesis."
GoShakes Theatre presents "Romeo and Juliet" at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Monday and May 9-11, and at 3 p.m. Sunday and May 11 at The Goshen Theater, 216 S. Main St., Goshen. Tickets are $15 and available at Better World Books, 118 E. Washington St., Goshen. For more information, visit goshakes.org.
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