Few theaters around the world offer productions of obscure plays like Shakespeare’s, “Henry VIII” and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s, “Nathan the Wise.” A group of Hillsdale College students and faculty, however, had the rare opportunity to watch professional productions of both of these plays at the Stratford Musical Festival in Ontario, Canada this past weekend.
Chairman and Professor of Theatre and Dance James Brandon said groups from Hillsdale College have attended the festival for the last 30 or 40 years. After 15 years of attending with Hillsdale, Brandon said Stratford offers students an opportunity to learn from professionals actors at the highest level.
“Our theatre department aspires to be like the Stratford Festival, in that we both produce a lot of classical works with an emphasis on Shakespeare. But we’re also not afraid to do newer, more experimental works,” Brandon said. “In our educational aspirations, we look to emulate the things that Stratford does. And we’re not slavishly following them, but we do take a great deal of inspiration from them.”
The Stratford Theatre Festival originally began as a Shakespeare festival and has evolved into North America’s largest theatre festival. The company produces and runs shows through its regular season, beginning in April and ending in October.
Assistant Professor of Theatre Christopher Matsos said the town of Stratford is centered around the festival.
“Pretty much everything in the town is geared toward it,” Matsos said. “All of the restaurants know to get your food out on time because they know you have to get to a show.”
This year, students had the opportunity to watch six performances over the course of four days. Brandon said that the festival experience is unique because it helps students naturally compare all of the performances they watch. When students watch a play on its own, they generally have a positive experience. But when students watch several shows in a row, they get a better idea of what they truly liked or didn’t like about specific performances.
“It’s great to see students react to both good and what they perceive as bad theatre,” Brandon said. “Your festival experience can really alter the way you see a certain play, and I try to teach that as much as possible.”
Senior theatre and art major Emma Trist said she enjoyed the performance of Nöel Coward’s “Private Lives,” but her favorite script came from “Nathan the Wise.” Trist also attended the festival last year and said she’s never seen a better opportunity for college students to watch several professional shows in a limited number of days.
“It’s nice to see a high-caliber of acting from a company that has so many resources to put toward their shows and then be able to gauge and to see what you can live up to,” Trist said. “That’s what we’re striving for in our own productions.”
Trist said she will be working in the scene shop and also designing Hillsdale College’s upcoming production of “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare. Designing a play, she added, involves working with all of the directors and other designers to come up with the set of the play.
“You decide what goes on stage that the actors get to interact with,” Trist said. “For the scene shop, once the designer gives this stuff to the director, the technical director makes the shop drawings, and that’s what the scene shop receives, and that’s what they build from.”
Matsos echoed Trist and said he enjoyed the festival’s adaptation of “Nathan the Wise” because the play is rarely produced.
“It was beautiful,” Matsos said. “It’s a drama about the convergence of three major world religions upon Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. And it’s interesting to see the profound connections that it has to the world today.”
Brandon said he was most impressed by “Private Lives.”
“It was absolutely delightful,” Brandon said. “There was not a flaw in that production. It’s a straightforward comedy, and they did it that way.”
The group also watched Shakespeare’s, “Merry Wives of Windsor” which Brandon said took a different approach by setting it in Stratford in the 1950s.
Junior theatre major Trenton Olds attended the festival last year and said the trip gives theatre students an opportunity to step outside of the “Hillsdale bubble” and receive inspiration from professional actors. His favorite performance this year was “Little Shop of Horrors,” the musical.
“The spectacle and the energy that the cast gave to the audience was incredible,” Olds said.
Olds said he will be playing the role of Teddy Brewster in Hillsdale College’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and hopes to be a theatre teacher in the future.
Upon reflecting on the trip, Matsos added that he was most surprised by the festival’s production of Shakespeare’s “Othello” due to the play’s set.
“There were these projections on the background, it was just a plain wall. But they projected all of the backgrounds, and they were animated, so when they needed to be entering a house, for example, you would see pencil lines materialize on the wall in an animated fashion.”
After attending the festival, Matsos said he enjoys being present with students when they expand their perspectives on the world through theatrical performances. He said his experience in Stratford gave him inspiration and renewal as a professor to come back to Hillsdale and teach students more about plays.
“A lot of the values that Hillsdale espouses are represented in the trip and in this festival,” Matsos said. “It’s a very edifying experience.”