Bard in the Quad enters its twelfth year

An overview

Garrett Kitamura, News Contributor

For many, the name William Shakespeare can evoke images of Renaissance attire, British accents and choreographed swordplay. So when passing through the Memorial Union Quad on a summer afternoon, one might be surprised to find a Shakespearean performance being rehearsed with cowboy hats, country music and swing dancing. However, this seemingly unconventional scene is routine for the cast and crew of Bard in the Quad. 

An annual summer event sponsored by the University Theatre, Bard in the Quad has been entertaining Oregon State University students and community members alike with performances of Shakespeare’s classic plays for over ten years. For its 2017 performance, the University Theatre chose to produce a Wild West adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s early comedies: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona.’

Mike Stephens, a fifth-year student majoring in theater, is one of the performers who has dedicated his summer to rehearsing classic dialogue while mastering dance steps in cowboy boots. In addition to his love of theater, Stephens considers himself to be a huge fan of western films.

“Out of the four years I’ve done (Bard in the Quad), this is probably the one I’m looking the most forward to,” Stephens said.

According to the University Theatre website, Bard in the Quad began in 2006. As an outdoor event with no assigned seating, attendees have the freedom to create their own viewing experience by picnicking on a blanket, lounging in a lawn chair or simply relaxing on the MU grass.

Bard in the Quad was started by former OSU theater instructor Scott Palmer, according to Elizabeth Helmen, the current production director.

“His vision of bringing outdoor summer theater to the Quad established a wonderful summer tradition for our students and the Corvallis community in general,” Helman said in an email. “I love being involved in Bard in the Quad. It’s hard work, but honestly the most fun way to spend a summer in Corvallis.”

According to Helman, past Bard in the Quad productions have included ‘Julius Caesar,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.’

Dr. Rebecca Olson, an associate professor of literature at OSU, specializes in Shakespeare studies and has attended several Bard in the Quad productions. She considers theater to be a crucial part of the OSU campus and believes that Bard in the Quad in particular holds a special appeal.

“People are drawn to the enthusiasm with which Bard in the Quad is carried out,” Olson said via email. “The people involved—both onstage and off—devote so much time and energy to art. It’s very inspiring and also infectious.”

The inspiring and infectious elements of Bard in the Quad come from the work of staff members like Brian Greer, a fourth-year student majoring in theater arts. Greer has worked with Bard in the Quad since 2015, serving as the stage manager during his first year before becoming the production manager for the 2016 and 2017 performances.

Greer believes that Shakespeare’s lasting appeal is due in part to the universal human elements underlying all of Shakespeare’s works. ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ with its themes of jealousy and newfound love, is no exception, according to Greer.

“One character in particular—her name’s Julia—she disguises herself as a guy later in the show and is more or less a fly on the wall to everything that is happening, and she sees how her possible love interest is interacting when she’s not around,” Greer said. “I think that’s something we would all love to be able to do at some time, is say, ‘You know, I’d like to see how my friend reacts when I’m not there.’”

The task of conveying these themes falls on the shoulders of the cast and crew, who, according to Greer, are often a mix of current and past OSU students as well as high school students and other community members.

Having been involved in past University Theatre mainstage performances, Greer said that Bard in the Quad gave him insight into the technical differences that come with working in an outdoor venue.

“There is basically no offstage space. At any time, an audience member can see you. And so you have to be in-character for long, long periods,” Greer said. “People have to be looking at you and seeing, ‘Oh, that is the character of Proteus,’ not, ‘the actor Kyle.’”

Since stepping into his role as a producer, Greer has been tasked with addressing the logistical challenges of taking what is normally an indoor performance and moving it to the wide open space of the MU Quad.

“It presents a challenge both on the acting side and the technical side,” Greer said. “You have to put mics on people; you have to find the proper way to light everyone.”

For Olson, the outdoor setting is just one of two major factors that draws her to Bard in the Quad.  

“As a Shakespeare professor, I get a special thrill when former or current students star in the productions. I hear them reading speeches in class—stumbling over words as we all do—and then, three years later, they’re centerstage,” Olson said via email. “It never gets old.”

However, according to Olson, in addition to memorizing eloquent and complex dialogue, there is the task of interpreting Shakespeare’s written work and deciding how it will be portrayed as it moves from page to stage.

“Shakespeare’s plays are very flexible: the scripts do not include many stage directions, and the characters are never all good or all bad,” Olson said in an email. “When I see live productions, I really look forward to those ambiguous moments. It’s always interesting to see how different productions go about them.”

According to Helman, this ambiguity allowed Bard in the Quad producers to create an adaptation of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ with a melodramatic American Wild West setting.

“This is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and the characters are so silly and ridiculous. They needed a silly and ridiculous world to play in,” Helman said in an email.

According to Helman, a major aspect of Bard in the Quad’s history is having producers and actors who are open to change, innovation and new ideas.

“Every production has attempted to put a special perspective on these classic plays,” Helman said in an email. “Whether it’s the intense blood, guts and fight choreography we used in ‘Macbeth’ or collaborating with OSU’s Chamber Winds to include Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we’re always trying find new ways to delight our audiences.”

This spirit of innovation and the desire to appeal to audience members is apparent in the ways that actors and producers mix with attendees, according to Greer.

“In a lot of ways, it’s very different than a standard stage play as well because people are allowed to take photographs. They are encouraged to interact with actors in some manner. Actors will go through the crowd, will go through the audience,” Greer said. 

Like the actors, the production team also has a higher-than-normal amount of interaction with audience members. Unlike an indoor performance, where the production crew is hidden from view, Bard in the Quad allows audience members to see the production team at work.

“We’re just right out there, right in the middle of the audience. They can come by and stand a little bit behind us and look at what we’re doing,” Greer said. “So it’s just a great opportunity to see all aspects of theater and of what it takes to put on the show.”

According the Helman, Bard in the Quad is one of the biggest events of the year for the University Theatre, and she attributes a large part of this success to the appeal of the outdoor setting.

“We hear from families that come back year after year because they enjoy the atmosphere as much as the show itself,” Helman said via email. “It’s a unique venue and experience to be able to spread out a picnic and enjoy a little culture on a beautiful August night.”