Paul Rathburn brings Shakespearean theater into the mainstream of Michiana and Notre Dame culture with the Summer Shakespeare Festival 2000.
By JEAN McCUE
Culture, at Notre Dame? Enthusiasm for the fine arts might seem laughable at a university better known for its football team than its drama program, where "WWF Smackdown" has a larger following than "Masterpiece Theatre." But Paul Rathburn, an award-winning faculty member in the English department, has been working with a dedicated team of administrators, professors, theater professionals, alumni, students and community volunteers to change this campus culture phobia.
Have you ever wondered what goes on at Notre Dame after students leave in May? You might picture dark, deserted dorms; silent DeBartolo lecture halls; two fanatical chemists in Stepan who have not yet realized that school ended for the summer; and … a major Shakespeare festival in Washington Hall?
Has Notre Dame entered an alternate universe? Hardly! The Shakespeare Festival 2000 is actually the result of an energetic movement to bring live Shakespearean theater annually to Notre Dame and the greater South Bend community. At the heart of this summer's inaugural festival are six performances of "The Taming of the Shrew," opening Aug. 2 through Aug. 6.
The primary goal of the summer Shakespeare Festival is to merge literary Shakespearean scholarship with dramatic performance, or, as Rathburn defines it, "the marriage of `Shakespeare in the study' to `Shakespeare on the stage.'" Rathburn challenges the long-standing "war" between academics and theater professionals as absurd, convinced that the two approaches were meant to be united. In order to fully appreciate the complexity of Shakespeare's work, his plays must be both studied as literary texts and seen in dramatic performance.
Rathburn has long advocated this combined approach to studying Shakespeare. He has taught the playwright twice for the Notre Dame London program, where students were privileged to study thoroughly several plays over the semester, attend various stage productions and even to speak with actors following the performances. But Rathburn felt these experiences should not be limited to London. Back in South Bend, he thought about creating a course that incorporated both the academic and theatrical approaches to Shakespearean studies.
In 1989, thanks to a Lily Endowment Grant for the development of new courses, Rathburn designed an experimental class entitled "Shakespeare in Performance." Founded on the idea that Shakespeare's works are theatrical scripts as well as literary texts, the course required students to perform four times each semester.
Convinced that the class ought to be team-taught by a Shakespearean scholar and a theater veteran to fully explore the material, Rathburn enlisted the help of professional drama coach Carol MacLeod, a retired Broadway actress who also claimed television and film credits. The incredibly popular course soon required a student audition to participate.
The success of "Shakespeare in Performance" inspired Rathburn to think bigger, and he began dreaming of a project that could bring Shakespeare to an even greater number of people. Wondering why Washington Hall sat empty and unused all summer, Rathburn seized upon the possibility of using the stage for a summer theater program, and the seeds of the Shakespeare Festival 2000 started to germinate.
Rathburn enthuses, and his energy is contagious: "This is the most exciting moment in the history of Notre Dame theater!"
Through the Shakespeare Initiative, six dynamic theatrical events are converging upon the normally staid Notre Dame campus. Not only is the University constructing a new performing arts center, but the initiative intends to insure that Shakespeare becomes an integral part of university life, enriching both the undergraduate education and the community's cultural resources.
In addition to building the center for performing arts, the Shakespeare Initiative includes five major components. In July of 2000, the renowned professional repertory company ACTER (A Center for Theatre Education and Research) will change its operational home from the University of North Carolina to Notre Dame.
The 25-year-old organization, co-founded by Patrick Stewart and members of the Royal Shakespearean Company, embodies the combined literary/theatrical approach to Shakespeare. The group annually sponsors performers from Great Britain who travel the U.S. as "Actors from the London Stage," performing and teaching in university classrooms. Notre Dame will host 10 actors in residence each year — five per semester — and Notre Dame will serve as the home base for ACTER's national tour.
Secondly, the Initiative is developing a named Chair in Shakespeare/ACTER for performance and dramatic literature, who will function as ACTER's artistic director. The Chair will research, publish and teach in the field and participate in the direction of Notre Dame productions of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Third, the initiative provides for an endowed Summer Shakespeare Festival at Notre Dame, which is currently being developed by Rathburn. The summer festival intends to apprentice students from Notre Dame and other national universities to professional actors.
The endowed fund for guest lecturers and performers comprises the initiative's fourth leg, and would enable the University to attract prominent speakers from the theater community, such as Sir Derek Jacobi, the mentor and acting instructor of Kenneth Branagh, or the incomparable Dame Judi Dench to perform and interact with students.
The fund would also allow Notre Dame to host noted Shakespearean scholars to give lectures and seminars, and would provide an invaluable opportunity to hear the field's leading critics and experts. Finally, the $1 million Library Endowment would be used to enhance the University's collection of Shakespeare-related documents and scholarship, and funds would permit Notre Dame faculty to take a more prominent role in the international world of Shakespearean scholarship.
One might assume this project could simply continue to elevate the level of the moat separating Notre Dame from South Bend, but don't dismiss it as another elitist academic event. Part of the program's mission is to make live Shakespearean performance accessible to as many people as possible throughout Michiana.
"We're building something at Notre Dame of lasting value, for the good of the entire community," Rathburn said.
Clearly, Notre Dame has discovered a project to break down the barriers between itself and the community at large. Summer Shakespeare at Notre Dame will invite the surrounding community's involvement with the University as audience members, performers and students.
The project includes a three-week Shakespeare camp from July 17 through Aug. 6 for 48 to 64 local and national high school students. After auditioning in early June, students accepted to the program will begin an intensive two-week rehearsal period in July, spending the final week in performance.
Local directors will direct the shows, which will include a one-hour version of "The Taming of the Shrew." Seeking to make this a family affair, the festival has even planned various activities to involve children and parents of all ages, such as puppet shows, costume contests and game booths.
So exactly where do the University students fit into this grand project? Entertainment is only half of the Summer Shakespeare Festival's crusade; its other mission is to educate.
"Aspiring university-level student performers and technicians will be given the opportunity to gain practical theatrical experience by working and performing alongside established professional actors, directors and a professional production staff," Rathburn said.
Students will only be accepted by audition to participate in the unique course, a comprehensive six-credit hour class titled — you guessed it — "Shakespeare in Performance."
Those selected for the class will receive a full tuition scholarship, and will have access to an on-campus living plan.
"The class will be team-taught by experts in Shakespeare Studies and in Performance Approaches to the plays," Rathburn added, and accordingly "will be cross-listed in [the] Theatre and in [the] English [departments]."
This summer's professors will be Rathburn and the play's director, Katherine Pogue, who has directed several Shakespearean productions for the acclaimed University of Houston Shakespeare Festival. Open auditions will be held Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Center for Social Concerns auditorium. Auditions will be held on a first-come, first-serve basis. Students will be allotted a four-minute time slot, and are asked to prepare a two-minute tragic and a two-minute comic selection.
Although the festival's premiere season will produce just one mainstage play, the program's coordinators are hopeful that it will expand enough to accommodate the production of as many as three different Shakespearean works over the summer.
Summer Shakes-peare's founding board is committed to expanding and improving the program every year. Numerous coordinators and volunteers have devoted countless hours to making the program a permanent part of the university. The Summer Shakespeare Festival's legacy is the gift of all those who have so generously contributed to the project to enrich Notre Dame.
"It means so much to so many people," said Rathburn. So why are so many people still afraid to ignore the TV and dust off their copy of "Hamlet"? You can always tape "Ally McBeal," but you won't be able to catch the Shakespeare Festival as a summer repeat.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, February 10, 2000