Hillsdale stu­dents went to Stratford, Canada last week to compare six theatre pro­duc­tions. Courtesy | Emma Trist

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.”