Theater

Students Chat With Shakespeare Theatre Actors

Courtesy of Liz LaurenT.R. Knight (left) stars as Nick Bottom who’s transformed into a donkey after fairy queen Titania (Alexandra Silber, right) cast a spell.

Loyola honors students discussed Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with two of its leading actors.  

Acclaimed actors T.R. Knight, known for his lengthy Broadway career and his role in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Tyrone Phillips, a Chicago theater veteran, sat down with Loyola honors students on Jan. 23 following their performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, part of an annual event for the honors program. 

Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is known for its metatheatre or “the play within the play” — Shakespeare’s own commentary on the sometimes ridiculous occupation of show business. 

The play takes place in Athens, where four young lovers find themselves lost in the woods and at the mercy of mischievous and vengeful fairies. Over the course of the night, the lovers and an unfortunate fairy queen become confused due to the misplacement of a love potion. All the while, a troop of local actors rehearse their play for the Duke’s wedding day, becoming entrapped in the fairy shenanigans. 

Knight played the notoriously narcissistic Nick Bottom in the production and said Bottom’s outlandish behavior and overbearing attitudes likely derived from a lack of attention. He added he tried to portray Bottom as a person who is insecure but comes alive on stage.  

Phillips played the adoring Lysander. He said the audience played its own part within the drama, acting as an impetus for the comedy. 

One of the topics to arise from the student Q&A was the relevancy of Shakespeare’s work in today’s world. 

Erla Dervishi, a first year honors student, brought up the concept of Shakespeare’s personified “Wall” in relation to the current political standoff over immigration reform. Knight said while the action of placing a brick wall in between the characters Pyramus and Thisbe was unintentional in terms of the political message, it could be interpreted as a representation of the cultural clash involved in the proposed wall along the southern border with Mexico. 

The #MeToo movement was also addressed in terms of the nature of the relationships portrayed. The students discussed Hippolyta’s silence throughout the play. The conquered amazon queen betrothed to Theseus, duke of Athens, forgoed Shakespeare’s written lines in favor of deliberate actions to portray her resistance to the marriage and her sympathy towards the plight of the young lovers. 

Virginia Strain, associate professor of English at Loyola Chicago and coordinator of the event, commented on the depth of the discussion between the actors and students, ranging from stage performance to current events. 

“A number of students and faculty members were really grappling with the political ramifications of producing this play at this time in American culture and politics,” Strain said. “How does the play’s representation of sexual threats and violence jar with current morals? How can you represent a wall — there is a character in the play who must perform the part of a wall in a play — and not think about the southern border? At the very least we can say that, even in a play about fairies, politics and political questions are unavoidable.”

Knight and Phillips reflected on their experiences on stage and behind the screen, emphasizing the amount of work it takes to be successful in such a competitive field. They also said there are learning opportunities presented through failures. 

Both actors also said Shakespeare’s plays were more difficult to develop when it came to capturing the essence of Shakespeare and remaining relatable to modern audiences. Strain said she wasn’t surprised by the students’ questions and she wants to continue exposing students to Shakespeare’s works and the theater. 

“Many students, as well as the actors, really enjoy these interactions. For many of the students, their trip to Navy Pier is the first time they’ve ever attended a Shakespeare play or attended the theater,” Strain said. “That experience is made immersive through the interaction with the play’s cast. It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare, to theater, and to the theater world.”

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through  Feb 3. at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (800 E. Grand Ave.)

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