This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

THESPIAN TROUPE 6896 from J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, returns to the International Thespian Festival main stage with the high school edition of Shakespeare in Love. In 2017, the school premiered the first high school production of Heathers.

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Jaren Lewison as William Shakespeare in J.J. Pearce High School's production of Shakespeare in Love.

Jaren Lewison as William Shakespeare in J.J. Pearce High School’s production of Shakespeare in Love.

Shakespeare in Love is a fictional account of playwright William Shakespeare’s early London years and of the forbidden love affair that inspired one of his most popular plays.

It’s 1593, and Shakespeare has reached a career low. He’s penniless, heavily indebted to two demanding producers, and suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. But he’s not without fans, and Viola de Lesseps is his biggest. The beautiful daughter of a rich merchant, Viola longs to be an actor. Although a queen sits on the throne, women have yet to conquer England’s stages. Viola must disguise herself as Thomas Kent to enter Shakespeare’s world.

Once he discovers her secret, Shakespeare finds both a muse and sweetheart in Viola, so he’s heartbroken when her father arranges her marriage to the wealthy Lord Wessex. As Will and Viola’s secret love blossoms, the story of their romance finds its way into Shakespeare’s quill, serving as the basis for his new script, Romeo and Juliet.

Background

Shakespeare in Love is based on the 1998 movie starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow as Will and Viola. The film earned seven Academy Awards, including best picture. Playwright Lee Hall adapted the stage version from the original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The play debuted in 2014 in London’s West End and made its North American premiere two years later at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. It has since become a popular addition to regional theatre seasons across the United States.

Shakespeare in Love features the Bard’s familiar play-within-a-play concept — repurposing entire passages from Romeo and Juliet — as well as numerous allusions to his other works, including Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and Twelfth Night. Several historical figures also make appearances in the fictional tale, from Christopher Marlowe to Richard Burbage to Queen Elizabeth I.

TROUPE 6896’S PRODUCTION

Heather Biddle, head director for J.J. Pearce High School’s theatre program, didn’t exactly choose Shakespeare in Love but rather was delighted to be chosen by Disney Theatrical Productions as one of a handful of programs across the country to pilot the high school version of the show.

“I jumped at the chance because it was one of my favorite movies,” Biddle said. “Plus, we’re kind of known at Pearce as being a musical program. We do amazing plays, too, but not as many people come to see them because they are not on as large a scale as the musicals. I wanted the opportunity to show our community what phenomenal actors we had.”

Biddle is an alumna of Pearce’s theatre program with a history of shepherding similar pilots for Tuck Everlasting and Heathers. She admits there are unique challenges to directing pilot productions compared to shows with established track records. “One of the hardest things is that you need to have a program in which you can take risks,” Biddle said. “Some shows have material that isn’t completely PG. You have to be able to discover that with your students, with your community, and with the licensing company. And you have to know you have a strong community, and in our case a strong administration, willing to support the students, to understand that they’re working in the safety of the theatre.”

The scale of Shakespeare in Love also required a significant commitment. Biddle and her designers opted for a set that references the Globe Theatre, with modular pieces frequently reconfigured for numerous scene changes. For their production, women are clothed in traditional Elizabethan styles, while Shakespeare’s status as “the cool guy” offered a chance to play with his aesthetic, mixing textiles and incorporating a generous amount of pleather. Onstage musicians and a dog round out the company.

Though students read Romeo and Juliet and Othello and even work on Shakespeare scenes in their acting classes, Pearce doesn’t have a history of producing the playwright’s works, which made Shakespeare in Love an exciting learning opportunity. Students spent considerable time researching the world of the play and even started a contest to see who could identify the most lines inserted from Shakespeare’s scripts.

“We did weeks of dramaturgy,” Biddle said. “My Queen Elizabeth learned everything down to how she wore her nails. The way she stood. The way she moved. The fact that she had a little bit of spunk and spark and fire to her. The actor who played Marlowe undertook a lot of research just trying to figure out who Marlowe was, because it depends on what you read. Was Marlowe a person? Was Marlowe really Shakespeare? The students dedicated themselves to the life of these characters.”

For senior Jaren Lewison that meant reviewing documentaries and articles for historical context, while also trying to make the character William Shakespeare more accessible. “It was really incredible to bring Will to life onstage, mainly because a lot of today’s generation tends not to like Shakespeare as much,” he said. “You think of Shakespeare, and you think of elegant language and analysis from school, but truly Shakespeare is the backbone for so many plays and movies. … It was exciting to step into his world and that history and make that engaging for a modern audience.”

Lewison admits the process required focus and energy. “We were not only putting on Shakespeare in Love, but we were also showcasing a bit of Romeo and Juliet. It was definitely difficult at first, especially in terms of the language. The cast actually translated some of the dialogue from Romeo and Juliet [into modern English] and reread the original scenes so that we would know exactly what was going on.”

Thespian senior Carly Koon, who portrays Viiola, also found research valuable. “Remaining true to the complexities and nuances of history brings the show to life,” she said, “so the research portion was really important to me.” 

Koon says her biggest challenge was switching quickly among multiple roles. “In the show I played Viola, but she played Thomas Kent, Romeo, and Juliet all within two acts and with one-minute quick changes backstage,” Koon said. “As an actor, I really enjoy challenging myself and taking on roles that require raw emotion and tons of dedication.”

Biddle says the close cast is grateful for another chance to revisit the play at the International Thespian Festival. “It’s like the high school Tonys,” Biddle said. “Everyone is there to support everybody. Everybody’s excited. We have a lot of seniors this year who will already have graduated, so it’s a chance to spend that last time together and create memories that will last forever.

“It’s so important we continue to respect all magnitudes of work,” she continued. “I love that there’s something that celebrates high school theatre and applauds what all these kids give up every single day, whether they perform on the national stage or on their high school stages.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. How familiar were you with William Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet before seeing Shakespeare in Love? In what ways did the show make you see Shakespeare or his works differently?
  2. The characters in Shakespeare in Love have different ideas and expectations regarding love and marriage. Which character did you relate to most and why?
  3. While Romeo and Juliet looms largest in Shakespeare in Love, the play also includes references to several of the Bard’s other works. How does the romance between Will and Viola parallel that of Romeo and Juliet? What other character allusions and Shakespearean plot devices were you able to identify in the show?
  4. Queen Elizabeth I, Viola de Lesseps, and Viola’s Nurse represent three very different types of women in 16th century society. What can you learn about options for women in Elizabethan England from their examples?
  5. In addition to its traditional romance between Will and Viola, Shakespeare in Love is a love letter to theatre and the process of creating art. As Thespians, how did this element of the story resonate for you?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Shakespeare in Love mixes fact and fiction in its exploration of how William Shakespeare found his playwriting voice. Create your own timeline of important milestones from Shakespeare’s life and how they intersect with events in the play.
  2. In addition to its fictional characters, Shakespeare in Love features several historical figures important to theatre in Shakepeare’s time. Research one of the following characters from the show, exploring their significance to theatre: Richard Burbage, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Philip Henslowe, Edward “Ned” Alleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, or Edmund Tilney.
  3. Original productions of Shakespeare’s plays were quite different from theatre performances today. Choose one aspect of theatre, for example, acting or design, and explore what audiences of Shakespeare’s time would have experienced.

RESOURCES

Read
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare (full text available via Project Gutenberg)
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website
Shakespeare’s Globe website
Folger Shakespeare Library website

Listen
University of Oxford Romeo and Juliet podcast

Watch
Shakespeare in Love high school edition trailer (featuring pilot schools)
Shakespeare in the Classroom documentary (Miramax)
Shakespeare in Love film (rated R)

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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