At Red Bank, New Jersey's Two River Theater, Shakespeare's As You Like it comes in all shapes and sizes. The Bard's pastoral comedy, featuring the frequently quoted "All the world's a stage" speech, can currently be seen in the Rechnitz Theater as part of the regular season at Two River. However, beginning February 4 in the intimate Marion Huber Theater, local New Jersey high school students will take their crack at Shakespeare's text in a 75-minute rendition of the play.
Helming the ship of the aptly named A Little Shakespeare: As You Like It is Jason McDowell-Green, who both directs the production and adapts the text to fit the compressed 75-minute time slot. TheaterMania spoke with Jason about the daunting (and sometimes gut-wrenching) task of pruning a Shakespearean masterpiece and the (surprisingly) unchallenging task of teaching Shakespeare to his young students. After all, as Green argues, you can't turn on the television without coming face to face with one of Shakespeare's immortal plots.
How do you even begin to cut a Shakespeare play down to 75 minutes?
It's so heartbreaking. Really it was just about time, [so the question is] how do you still tell the story? The first step was really just cut it to shreds and discover what the essential story of As You Like It is, and that's really the story between Rosalind and Orlando. And [once] you get to a very small nugget of a story, then you can start to add things back that you missed and characters you want to see more. This program [is] not only an educational opportunity for these young actors but also [for] schools [to] come see some Shakespeare without getting stuck in the position of being there for two and a half to three hours, because for most schools, that's just not possible.
Is it a challenge at all getting the students excited about Shakespeare?
Not at all. This is a group of students who are so eager and interested in being involved. They're ready to go. There's definitely no sense of coming into the room and trying to get people excited. They're already there.
How familiar are the students with Shakespeare?
Quite a range, actually. We have some who seem to have been doing Shakespeare as much as I have. (laughs) And we have some [for whom] it's their first time, which is kind of the perfect blend. Those who are new have a lot of opportunities to learn and those who are experienced we can keep pushing forward [so they can] keep learning new things…Just like any play you work on, it's not intellectual. It's about the relationships between [scene partners] and about what's going on in the scene and you use the language to discover what that is. Once you discover [that relationship], it's actually very easy and simple and gives you a lot of permission to let the text be whatever it wants to be and to trust it.
What would you say to convince young kids who might be wary of Shakespeare to give it a fair shot?
I'd say that they'd be surprised about how much Shakespeare they understood, and how much Shakespeare they're already familiar with — Breaking Bad is Shakespeare! Once you begin to understand that this language is not that much further from how we speak in everyday life — just more full of images — you begin to understand that these stories are something that really propel everything that's going on in our lives and propel stories now. These themes of identity and love and revenge [are] all things that people relate to in such a strong way. Not only that — it's exciting!
How old were you when you were first introduced to Shakespeare?
My stepfather was an actor and director in the Bay Area so I grew up with companies like A.C.T. and Shakespeare Santa Cruz. So I, from a very early age, was around Shakespeare and fell in love with Shakespeare. As a young adult, I definitely enjoyed [its] intensity. Shakespeare's plays are always larger than life. The violence and the comedy obviously got me hooked early on and I think as I got older, the more I began to understand the language and the more I began to realize that Shakespeare was really brilliant at the gray areas of life. There is no yes or no — it's always and or but, and that was always exciting to me. But if it wasn't for that entertaining value of Shakespeare when I was younger, I don't think I ever would have been able to get to that point.
What kind of value do you think theater has for kids and young adults?
I think it's the same as the value of theater for adults. I think the whole purpose of storytelling and the purpose of theater in that sense is to give us as many perspectives on life as possible. Only through that can we begin to empathize with the world and with those around us in a really visceral and clear way.