The Elgin Shakespeare Project is not your grandfather’s Shakespeare. And that’s OK, says Sean Hargadon, the project’s founder and producer.
Audiences can see for themselves when members perform William Shakespeare’s “Henry V” outdoors at Elgin’s Bowes Creek Forest Preserve this weekend.
Now in its second year, the Elgin Shakespeare Project, sponsored by Elgin’s Palmer Foundation, examines Shakespeare’s plays (and works by his contemporaries) using theatrical techniques developed during the 16th century.
In past ESP productions, that meant actors performed without rehearsal while reading their dialogue from scrolls in hand, said Hargadon, founder and artistic director of Elgin’s Janus Theater. In the case of “Henry V,” actors have fully memorized their roles, but will perform the history play without a director’s guidance and with limited rehearsal.
Hargadon encountered the unrehearsed approach — dubbed “old school Shakespeare” by its devotees — through the work of now retired Western Illinois University theater professor/director Bill Kincaid, who wrote 2018’s “Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed: A Practical Guide to Acting and Producing Spontaneous Shakespeare.”
This year marks the second year of the Elgin Shakespeare Project’s three-year initiative examining and implementing theatrical practices common during William Shakespeare’s era. To that end, ESP’s 2019 production of “Macbeth” was performed without rehearsal. – Courtesy of Lance Lagoni by signing up you agree to our terms of service
In Shakespeare’s time, theater companies didn’t rehearse as ensembles do today, said Hargadon, who was also partly inspired by the Chicago ensembles Back Room Shakespeare Project and Unrehearsed Shakespeare Company.
“Rehearsals didn’t make them money. Doing shows made them money,” he said, explaining that actors perform from scrolls containing line cues and speeches. For stage directions, they relied on textual clues.
In a sense, theater at that time was akin to a sporting event and actors were like athletes, Hargadon said. There was no such thing as a fourth wall. The lights were on. Actors could see and speak directly to the audience, and the audience could respond in kind.
“When you approach the plays that way it opens them up in a direction you couldn’t imagine,” he said.
For the actor, “it’s a very liberating process,” Hargadon said, “quite exciting and terrifying.”
Moreover, it gives actors — most of whom are trained to defer to what a director wants — more power, said Hargadon, who doesn’t direct as much as facilitate.
Amber Cartwright plays the titular role in Elgin Shakespeare Project’s “Henry V.” –
“Come with your pockets full of ideas and share them,” he tells cast members.
“You have agency,” he tells them, “now use it.”
For “Henry V,” the cast read the play together, then actors spoke individually with Hargadon to discuss context. Several rehearsals took place over the pandemic-related shutdown but not many. On Saturday, the production opens.
Hargadon acknowledges this approach asks a lot of actors. It demands energy, bold choices and preparation. Unrehearsed doesn’t mean unprepared or unskilled.
It’s not improv, he said. “You can’t wing it. You have to use the text. You have to listen.”
Members of the Elgin Shakespeare Project perform in 2018’s unrehearsed production of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” – Courtesy of Lance Lagoni
The reward is that the spontaneity, thrill of creation and the magic in the moment that actors experience in the rehearsal room gets shared with audiences as it happens.
Both traditionalists and more adventurous theatergoers have responded positively to the unrehearsed format and the minimalist staging that accompanies it, Hargadon said.
Before the performance, ensemble members lay out the ground rules, encouraging audience members to respond to what they like and what they dislike.
More than anything, Hargadon hopes the Elgin Shakespeare Project can help demystify Shakespeare, make his work less intimidating.
“Bring your energy, your open-mindedness,” he said. “Have fun with it.”
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Elgin Shakespeare Project’s “Henry V”
When: 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 28-29
Where: A Janus Theatre production at Bowes Creek Woods Pavilion, in Bowes Creek Woods Forest Preserve, 9N420 Crawford Road, Elgin
Tickets: Free; donations accepted. Seating is limited and reservations are required. See email@example.com or janusplays.com
COVID-19 precautions: Masks required for unvaccinated patrons