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.”