By Rachel Crumpler
It’s 31 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. Nine college students are bundled up in hats and gloves. They’re gathered at an outdoor theater, speaking 500-year-old words.
They are the Forest Theatre Players, the only group at UNC-Chapel Hill that delves exclusively into the work of William Shakespeare.
One by one, they take turns ascending five stone steps to center stage to rehearse their eloquent and metaphor-rich lines. Some are off-book. Others read from a printed script or from their phone.
The rest of the group, seated on the front two rows, focuses on every word, facial expression and movement performed by their peers. Each performance is followed by applause and friendly notes.
“Think about using your eyes as a tool of expression,” one person suggests.
“Build into the pace of your words,” another adds.
It’s less than two weeks until showtime, and they are working to hone the pronunciation, context and flow of every sonnet, monologue and scene. After all, they are an acting troupe composed of self-described Shakespeare nerds with an ambition to make his words come alive.
How the Forest Theatre Players came to be
Elizabeth Wheless, a founding member of the Forest Theatre Players, thought Shakespeare was overrated in high school. She didn’t understand why teachers focused on his work so much, and believed there were plenty of other playwrights who deserved attention.
But her views changed after she took Shakespeare Acting last spring semester with Dramatic Arts Teaching Professor Jeff Cornell. She connected with the imagery, flow of iambic pentameter and universal themes in Shakespeare’s writing.
Although the class was online due to COVID-19, it did meet outdoors on a few occasions at the Forest Theatre, an amphitheater on campus. Those days left a lasting impression on Wheless.
“The more that I was in the space listening to my friends speak this extremely gorgeous, heightened language, I just kept thinking to myself, ‘I need to see more of this,’” she said.
As the semester ended, Wheless emailed her classmates with an idea. She asked if they were interested in forming an acting troupe — one focused entirely on a single playwright.
“I rarely see Shakespeare plays being performed by undergrads and I believe we should take that risk,” she wrote to them.
Responses came back and everyone was on board, including Cornell, who became the group’s sponsor.
They named themselves the Forest Theatre Players, after the outdoor amphitheater where the group holds all its rehearsals and shows. Located on the eastern edge of UNC’s campus, the venue fittingly echoes the outside settings where Shakespeare’s works were first performed in the late 1500s.
Obstacles faced by the troupe
However, launching a new acting troupe has also comes with challenges.
Last October, the group had to cancel its planned Halloween production of famous Shakespearean death scenes. The performance was intended to be a warm-up for the group before jumping into “King Lear,” a five act tragedy.
Adding to their disappointment, the troupe did not have all the lines to “King Lear” memorized for the November production and needed to pivot to a staged reading. They also only had seven cast members for what should have been a 15-person show.
After that show, the Forest Theatre Players realized they needed to expand in order to put on a more well-rounded show that was less stressful for all involved. The group held auditions and six more members joined this January.
Gwyneth Benetiz-Graham, a senior majoring in dramatic art, is a recent addition to the group. She had no prior experience performing Shakespeare’s work. In her audition, she was asked to cold read Shakespeare lines, where she encountered many words that she had not seen before.
“It just takes a lot of work to dissect Shakespeare, but it’s amazing once you figure out what you’re saying because it’s usually something that everyone can relate to,” Benetiz-Graham said.
Josh Wahab, a troupe member majoring in dramatic art and political science, said he doesn’t find Shakespeare’s words any more daunting to memorize than contemporary ones, as long as he understands the context.
“If you know what you’re saying, you can just put the emotion behind the words even if you don’t use those words in your daily life,” he said.
Cornell said audience members, who can attend all performances for free, shouldn’t be intimidated by Shakespeare’s complex language either.
“After the first 10 minutes, the audience’s ears start to tune in a little bit more,” Cornell said. “They’ll get used to maybe having the verb first and the subject second. They’ll pick up on the syntax.”
Looking to the future
Even in the chilly temperatures with hand warmers circulating amongst group members, there is a shared passion propelling the group to improve ahead of their Feb. 19 performance of famous Shakespeare love scenes. They are all focused on working out any kinks, such as scene partners having mismatched scripts and what body positioning works best in the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene.
While the performances are not full-blown productions with costumes and lighting, much time is spent preparing. For the two weeks leading up to a show, the Forest Theatre Players rehearse three times a week for about three hours.
The four remaining performances this spring are expected to be fully memorized. This way the audience can have a more intimate experience, basking in the eloquence of Shakespeare’s words delivered via the voice and physicality of student actors.
Focusing on one playwright may seem limiting, but the group finds it exciting. They have 37 plays spanning tragedy, comedy and historical works to pull from, as well as hundreds of sonnets and other poems.
“We spend as much time as we can with him and learning about him,” Wheless said. “We find something new and exciting every time that we rehearse, every time that we put on a show, every time that we’re in class.”
All you need to join is a love of Shakespeare.
“It’s fun to see the students get excited in this way, excited to the point that they want to do this on their own, and it takes a lot of work,” Cornell said. “The fact that a 500-year-old playwright can get us excited is pretty cool.”
Edited by Layna Hong and Emily Thoreson.