No Lights. No Set. Just a Trunkful of Props.

By Annie Sears

Shakespeare. He’s a staple in English literature classes, and many of us might even be able to quote one of his plays or sonnets offhand. “But there’s a big difference between reading Shakespeare on a page and seeing him performed,” says second-year M.F.A. Program actor LeRoy S. Graham III.

“Shakespeare can be really intimidating on the page,” adds actor Jeff Wittekiend. “Especially when students are introduced to it in an academic and dry environment. But seeing it brought to life can help us realize that these are living, breathing words—not just fancy sounds in weird columns on paper.”

A.C.T.’s Will on Wheels program bridges that gap. Since 2007, the Will on Wheels tour has brought Shakespeare productions into Bay Area public and continuation high schools, community-based organizations, and senior citizen centers. As the capstone to their classical theater studies, M.F.A. students mount a Shakespeare adaptation, pack their props and costume pieces in a trunk, and perform in all sorts of spaces—from 1,000-seat auditoriums to 100-seat cafeterias to 50-seat classrooms. “One of the cornerstones of our program is flexibility,” says Conservatory Director Melissa Smith. “All those different kinds of audiences, size of audiences, and qualities of space teach the actors about adapting on their feet. They also perform this show more times than any other, except for A Christmas Carol. This tour prepares them for the stamina it takes to do professional theater.”

M.F.A. students Katherine Romans and Afua Busia perform Twelfth Night at Galileo High School during last year's Will on Wheels tour.

Working in a variety of spaces is not the actors’ only challenge; they’ve also been working in a variety of roles. Trying something new this year, Dawn Monique Williams is directing the same adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with two different casts. Each actor is in both casts, but playing different roles. “It’s really cool to see the character pairings in the two different casts,” says actor Kim Hollkamp. “You get to watch the relationships between characters play out so differently, based on the pocketful of characters we’ve individually created. Juggling four characters who are in vastly different situations and statuses, and who want vastly different things—it’s challenging, but it’s a really good time!”

“No matter which role I’m playing,” says Graham, “one of my goals is to make the words clear for the audience, so they can hear it and relate to it. I don’t want them to feel intimidated by the language, but to see people living their lives onstage. It’s great that these schools are partnering with A.C.T. because, when you’re studying Shakespeare, it’s an opportune time for you to see it. It gives you a clear picture.”

This year’s tour commences on March 11. To find out how to bring next year’s Will on Wheels to your school, email us at education@act-sf.org. Spaces fill quickly, so contact us “swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow”!

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