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Gretchen Roth ‘06 and her sister began Shake­speare in the Arb after Provost David Whalen’s Great Books II class inspired them to perform “Hamlet.” LinkedIn

When Gretchen Roth ’06 learned that her and her sister’s brain­child, Shake­speare in the Arb, has become a tra­dition at Hillsdale College, she said it delighted her.

“I’m extremely sur­prised,” Roth said. “The sheer genius and fun of Shake­speare are one of many favorite mem­ories from Hillsdale College … Shake­speare is timeless and classic. There’s never a wrong or right way to do it. That they’ve con­tinued on, that makes me very proud.”

This year, Shake­speare in the Arb will present its 13th con­sec­utive pro­duction, “The Taming of the Shrew,” May 6 and 7 at 3 p.m. in Slayton Arboretum. What has become a staple of the spring semester, however, began with some ini­tiative from a group of stu­dents who found a love for “Hamlet” in Provost David Whalen’s class.

“I’m glad to be able to carry on the tra­dition,” said senior Noah Diekemper, director of this year’s pro­duction. “I’m grateful to par­tic­ipate in Shake­speare in a mean­ingful way.”

After her first semester at Hillsdale in 2000, Roth received advice from her oldest sister, Madalyn ’04, to take Whalen’s Great Books II course after she took it herself. Gretchen Roth said she loved reading “Hamlet” so much, she teamed up with her sister to put on a pro­duction of the tragedy inspired by Whalen’s course.

“We decided to do it in the arb, because Dr. Whalen said it was made for that,” Roth said. “It had a stage to do pro­duc­tions outside.”

With prac­ti­cally no budget and about a semester to put the pro­duction together, the Roth sisters worked busily with what they could get. They held audi­tions by spreading the news through word-of-mouth, asked for dona­tions of props and clothing from friends and pro­fessors, and scraped together enough money to print pro­grams and hang white sheets between the trees in the arboretum for a backdrop, which stu­dents still do today.

“For us, it was just about the love of Shake­speare and making it come alive,” Gretchen Roth said. “You don’t have to be a pro­fes­sional actor in theater to appre­ciate his work.”

The cos­tumes and set were simple. Most of the actors wore black pants and white shirts and had swords or other props when needed. The set design con­sisted of a table and some chairs.

Pro­fessor of Classics Joseph Gar­njobst had both of the Roth sisters in his classes and was an early sup­porter of their project. He said he enjoyed the former stu­dents’ ambition and how their min­i­malist approach with a shoe­string budget allowed the audience to focus on the words.

“It’s one of those liberal-arts things: ‘Let’s take this and see it in action,’” Gar­njobst said. “Shake­speare is not just meant to be read. Shake­speare was meant to be heard. It becomes so much more vivid and alive.”

In the fall fol­lowing the first Shake­speare in the Arb pro­duction, the Roth sisters studied abroad in England at Oxford Uni­versity. Of course, they did not miss their chance to see “King Lear” and “The Mer­chant of Venice” in Stratford and to visit the Globe Theatre.

“Nobody does it like the Brits,” Gretchen Roth said. “I mean, what an amazing venue. It kind of inspired us for my last two pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare in the Arb. What an expe­rience to see it at the stage and how it was done in Shakespeare’s day.”

Roth, however, said as her sophomore year ended, she was unsure of what she wanted to do in the future. Having entered college at 17, she said she felt she needed to take some time off and decided to travel through Europe for two years. Shake­speare in the Arb became a memory at Hillsdale.

When she returned to Hillsdale, however, she brought back a love for Shake­speare and the theater that had inspired her freshman year after a four-year hiatus. Having done a tragedy in 2001, she decided that she would direct a comedy in spring 2005: “Twelfth Night.”  Madalyn Roth — who had grad­uated and was working at Cross­roads Farm in Reading, Michigan, at the time — returned to her role as co-director. In addition to directing, Gretchen Roth also played the lead role of Viola.

“We want to bring back appre­ci­ation and make his work acces­sible to people who don’t under­stand it,” Roth told The Col­legian in 2005. “We want to show everyone what it’s all about.”

After grad­u­ating, Roth went to Wash­ington, D.C., and worked in the WilmerHale law library for two-and-a-half years.

“It was about as exciting as it sounds,” she said.

She then traveled to the city that never sleeps to work in restaurant man­agement among the best of the best in New York City. Gar­njobst said that was no sur­prise — most of the mem­ories he had of the Roth sisters cen­tered around food, from their finding a restaurant to attend during the Eta Sigma Phi classics hon­orary con­vention to seeing them help in the kitchen during College Pres­ident Larry Arnn’s inau­gu­ration.

After several years, however, Gretchen Roth said she felt like she needed to do more. She left three years ago to become the director of food service at The Bowery Mission, a Christian non­profit that pro­vides help to the hungry, homeless, addicted, and at-risk youths in skid row.

“I love working with the food and serving, but it was getting a little harder for me,” Roth said. “I saw the homeless pop­u­lation and the waste of food in the restaurant industry. It’s great to now work with food and serve it to those who need it.”

And in New York, Roth is just a subway ride away from the best theater per­for­mances in the country.

“I would just encourage stu­dents that if there are things you want to try but you think are too hard to do or that no one is inter­ested, you’ll be sur­prised how many are,” Roth said. “Don’t be afraid.”