Much Ado about Shakespeare

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

It can be tough to grab a spot in a popular class. When Paul Rathburn and Katherine Pogue teach “Shakespeare in Performance” this summer, students soon will discover that it’s going to require skill and talent both to get in the class and to survive the course requirements. The end result, however, will be far more than intellectual growth and a grade.

Students who pass the acting or technical auditions and enroll in the class will spend the next six weeks on the study and performance of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly The Taming of the Shrew. To complete their course work, the students will join both professional and local actors and a professional production staff in the August production of Shrew.

And, if another bonus is needed, admitted students also will be granted full tuition scholarships for the six-credit hour course.

For posterity, they also will be among the first to be involved in the Summer Shakespeare Festival, just one part of a grand plan called the Shakespeare Initiative to make Shakespeare and his works a continuing presence on the Notre Dame campus.

The Summer Shakespeare Festival was the brainchild of Paul Rathburn, who has taught Shakespeare classes for 35 years. The idea took root more than a decade ago, when Rathburn had a chance to teach a Shakespeare class to Notre Dame students in London. Rathburn recalls Robert Burns, then dean of Arts and Letters, telling him to “teach a course that takes advantage of the fact that you’re in London.”

With a Lilly Endowment Grant, Rathburn developed Shakespeare in Performance, a class that combined a literary study of the plays with their theatrical performance. He team-taught the class with Carol MacLeod, a former Broadway actress and member of Notre Dame’s drama department, who handled the performance aspect, while Rathburn dealt with the literary aspect of the plays.

But his vision went farther than that. Taking Burns’ words to heart, Rathburn managed to get Anthony Hopkins to lecture to the students. “He spent one-and-a-half hours with the students in London,” says Rathburn. That was in 1989, before Silence of the Lambs, when Hopkins was celebrated mostly for his distinguished work on the bard’s plays.

From that class came Rathburn’s idea for a continuing Summer Shakespeare Festival at Notre Dame. As with getting Anthony Hopkins, he did not think small. The meticulous planning began — with an advisory board, a budget and its attendant fund raising campaign.

“This is going to work and it’s going to work on a grand scale,” said Chris Fox, acting dean of the College of Arts and Letters, at a December board meeting of the newly organized Friends of Shakespeare.

The work itself has continued apace. A professional staff, including director Katherine Pogue, who has worked for the University of Houston Shakespeare Festival, has been hired; the production of Shrew has been cast based on auditions held on campus for Notre Dame students and local actors and in Chicago for professional actors; funds continued to be raised; a web site has been built at and all the myriad details of a big event are slowly being crossed off Rathburn’s to-do list.

“One play does not a festival make,” notes Rathburn in his only negative assessment of the summer festival. “But we’ll grow it.”

In fact, the summer festival has already grown, with the addition of the Notre Dame Shake Fest camp. When she heard about the festival, Jewel Abram-Copenhaver proposed the summer camp to add to a festival atmosphere. “This is bringing the community into the arts,” she said.

The July 17 to August 6 camp is open students in ninth through 12th grade. On the days when Taming of the Shrew is performed, August 2 through 6, camp members will add to the festival atmosphere by putting on puppet shows, 10-minute audience participation shows and by staffing booths that offer bead-making, face painting and costumed pictures. A variety of campers will take on the roles of Shakespearean characters and walk around campus talking to visitors.

“The camp gives a place for student actors to be who don’t sing,” says Abram-Copenhaver, who will direct the camp and its related outdoor activities.

The Alumni Association also has joined the summer festival, putting together a three-day dinner-theater offer for alumni. Alumni signing on for the event will stay at the Morris Inn, where a pre-theater dinner will take place. A reception at the Eck Center will follow the August 4 or 5 evening performance of Taming of the Shrew. “This lets the alumni see behind the scenes, meet the people,” says Karen Anthony, director of marketing and travel for the Alumni Association.

To call attention to the summer fun, Rathburn hired actor Michael York to present his “Will and I: A Personal Discovery” show in April. York, probably better know to today’s film audiences for his role as the British spymaster in Austin Powers; International Man of Mystery and for Cabaret, also is respected for his theatrical Shakespearean work, including Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing.

“We really want to build excitement among the students, the alumni and the community,” says Fox of York’s appearance.

One play it may be for this year’s summer festival, but that’s not all that’s happened in the nascent effort to make Notre Dame a renowned place of celebrating Shakespeare and his works. The Summer Festival is only one of five components designed to make much ado about Shakespeare. Called the Shakespeare Initiative, the series of plans encompass both scholarly and theatrical components. It’s the result of a cooperative effort of the Office of the Provost and the College of Arts and Letters.

“This is a coordinated cross-college, cross-campus initiative,” says Fox. “The idea is to make Shakespeare happen on this campus 12 months a year.”

“The Shakespeare Initiative is something completely unprecedented in its scope and its ambition,” adds Donald Crafton, chair of the Department of Film, Television and Theatre.

In a second initiative, along with the Summer Festival, Shakespearean actors will indeed become a permanent part of Notre Dame. This July, the ACTER (A Center for Theatre Education and Research) organization will move its headquarters from North Carolina to Notre Dame.

The group, founded by Homer Swanden, an English professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, and members of the Royal Shakespearean Company, including Patrick Stewart, brings performers from Great Britain to tour the United States. The “Actors from the London Stage,” as they are called, travel to colleges and universities to put on plays and also to meet and discuss the work with students. Their stated goal is to “change the way Shakespeare is taught in the United States."

In February, the actors offered six performances of All’s Well That Ends Well at Washington Hall. Teaching theater arts is a major part of their mission, so, while in South Bend, the visiting actors participated in about 50 classes at local highs schools, colleges and universities.

One of the London stage actors, Roger May, recently joined a Shakespeare class that focuses on the history plays. “You’ve all studied this from an intellectual point of view,” May told the students, “I’m going to take it from an actor’s point of view.”

As students took on various roles from Henry IV, Part I, May turned the classroom into a theater, encouraging the students to grab various props and continually asking, “what’s going on, what’s really happening?”

During the class, with students sitting on the floor pretending to be patrons in a bar listening in as Falstaff and Prince Hal talk about affairs of state, the scene May had chosen began to make sense to the participants. “He’s showing off for the people in the bar,” a young woman who had taken the role of Falstaff commented.“But he wants Hal on his side.”

“Don’t think of it as Shakespeare’s language,” May kept stressing as the scene began to take on life. “You have to try and make the language yours.”

ACTER’s move to Notre Dame, remarks Washington Hall manager Tom Barkes, means that every tour will start at Notre Dame, before the five actors head off to other campuses. But before their arrival for their tour of the states, the actors will rehearse at Notre Dame’s London Program facilities.

A third part of the initiative involves naming a chair for Shakespeare and the ACTER organization. The person who holds that chair will be the “academic coordinator of everything,” says Donald Crafton, chair of the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. The chosen scholar, he adds, “would emphasize the performance of Shakespeare.” That job likely will be advertised in the fall, he says, after consultation with various international scholars.

The idea of a guest lecturer, welcomed anytime during the year to keep the thought of Shakespeare alive and well, is also part of the initiative. The plan to constantly invite guest lecturers and performers during the academic year could result in some big names coming to campus. Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are some names on the wish list, along with academic who specialize in Shakespearean and Renaissance drama.

Keeping Shakespeare the focus of scholarly studies is the point of the fifth and final initiative, an endowment that will be used to develop Notre Dame’s collection of Shakespearean materials, including anything from videos to original scripts to scholarly papers.

If all ends well, Crafton predicts that in five years, “People will think of Notre Dame when they think of Shakespeare.” For now, he says, “It’s going to be a lively summer.”