A shipwreck, lost twins, true love, and — art bicycles? With a setting inspired by the desert art festival Burning Man, UFV Theatre’s upcoming Twelfth Night won’t be your average Shakespeare production.
The final production of this year’s theatre season, the play features a large cast of almost 20 students, as well as three directors: Bruce Kirkley, Raïna Von Waldenburg, and Rae MacEachern-Eastwood, an upper-level student. This is the third time the university’s theatre department has produced Twelfth Night, which was first performed in 1988 and then in 2002 — but this new performance promises to be the most experimental of the three, both in its theme and its directorial choices.
Twelfth Night is a comedy of mistaken identities about two twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck. Lost and alone, Viola disguises herself as a boy and adopts the name Cesario. She soon falls in love with Duke Orsino, who is himself in love with the beautiful but grieving Countess Olivia — who in turn falls in love with “Cesario,” believing Viola to be a man. Although it’s a comedy, the play also features tragic elements — and, of course, plenty of romance.
“It’s a play about love, but all different kinds of love,” Kirkley says. “Some of the scenes are hilariously funny … they get you, down in the belly. And other scenes are incredibly tender, and even bittersweet.”
But what does Burning Man, which is famed for its radical art installations and open-minded attitudes to sex, nudity, and recreational drug use, have to do with Shakespeare?
“One of the reasons we’re doing Burning Man is that the theme fits Twelfth Night so well,” says Russell Blower, who plays Malvolio. “You already have people who are pretending to be others, and love is a huge part of Burning Man.”
As well, the script provides plenty of opportunities to play with gender and sexuality — which also fits perfectly with the Burning Man theme.
“Twelfth Night is probably the [Shakespeare] play with the most female characters, and particularly good, interesting female characters — lots of possibilities for doing some sort of cross-gender casting, or gender-blind casting,” says Kirkley.
Jessi Fowlis, who plays Maria, explains that all of the costumes and themes in the production are based on the aesthetics and principles of the festival.
“Our set is essentially painted to look like the dry desert landscape, and like Burning Man, all the props are brought in at the beginning of the play, and when the festival is over everything is taken away,” she says, adding that one of Burning Man’s traditions is to leave no trace that anyone was ever there after the festivities are over.
Rather than going all-out with the set and props, the production’s scope was limited to a few select art installations, all of which can be carried on and off stage without difficulty — but that hasn’t put a damper on the show’s artistic vibe.
“They walk around [at Burning Man] with these crazy rigged-up vehicles and pieces like that, and we did the same,” Blower says. Highlights include umbrella fights, flashing lights called “blinkies,” and enormous silver-painted block letters, which actors often clamber over and deliver speeches from.
The production isn’t shying away from Burning Man’s controversial aspects, either. Fowlis describes Burning Man as a festival that is ultimately about freedom of expression.
“No matter how you express yourself, whether positive or negative, it’s something that needs to be accepted … There’s cross-dressing, there’s some gender fluidity, there’s a couple of things to do with the differences between gender and sexuality as well,” she says.
This focus on self-expression is also continued in the costumes, hair, and makeup design; Kirkley says that while the crew had plenty of freedom, they also consulted the actors about creative decisions.
“Hair and makeup [artists] Heather Littlejohn and Ayla Hinds had interviews with each one of the actors to talk about what sort of look they were going for,” he says. “Same with costumes — [there was] that bit of interplay with the actors for what kind of details they wanted.”
Although the setting is a departure from tradition, the script will still be Shakespeare’s words. Most of the original text has been kept, with only two or three pages cut.
“We wouldn’t have had to cut them, either, if it weren’t for the amount of singing and dancing,” Blower says. “We have so much song and dance in this production, it’s almost a musical at this point.”
“It’s definitely cardio,” adds Ashlyn Tegg, who plays Olivia.
To create the songs, music director Emily Eggert-Botkin set lines from the original script to music, many of which are sung by the character of Feste, a mischievous clown, played by Reilly Ellis.
“When he starts singing the songs, it’s sad and sweet — and then he starts torturing Malvolio, and you have no idea what to think about this motherfucker,” Blower says. “I think people are going to love him, and then hate him, and then love him, and then hate him.”
The production’s approach to directing is just as unusual as its theme. The production was originally co-directed by Von Waldenburg and Kirkley, but MacEachern-Eastwood’s involvement as assistant director quickly grew beyond her original remit.
“As the process went on, Rae’s role and contribution was just clearly so integral to everything we were doing,” Kirkley says. “Within the first week or two of rehearsals, it was clear that she was one of us. It just evolved that way.”
While the play’s mistaken identities, dances, songs, and psychedelic themes may give audiences an impression of chaos and revelry, its direction and choreography are carefully structured, much like Burning Man itself.
“When you look at Burning Man, one of the things they have is very specific rules and safety standards,” Blower says. “And then you look at an overhead shot of a Burning Man festival and it is laid out on a very strict grid and pattern. It looks more organized than most actual cities … and that is exactly what we’re doing with the acting.”
One such aspect is the incorporation of viewpoint theatre, an approach to acting that was created in the 1980s by performer and choreographer Mary Overlie. Viewpoint techniques create a middle ground between a strict, structured performance and improvisation.
“It’s an approach to performance where actors are given very clear structures to work with, and then within those structures they create the performance spontaneously within the moment of the performance,” Kirkley explains.
Blower describes it as improvisation within a set structure: “Freedom, but within a very tight space.”
“We can do what we want, but only if we do the three set moves we’ve been given,” Tegg says.
“Which, as an actor, is fantastic,” Blower chimes in, “because generally when the director tells you to just go ahead and do anything, you’ve got all that freedom, and it’s a little too much … But when you take it down to, ‘You have to walk along this line and you can only turn your head,’ suddenly you have the freedom to do anything within that space.”
Delaney Bergstrom, who plays Olivia’s servant and a dancer, agrees. “It’s crazy and terrifying … but it’s really exciting to be on the forefront of these changes and see how we’re changing all together,” she says.
Because the viewpoints techniques allow the actors some freedom to improvise, no two performances will be quite the same.
“Not everything is completely different [from performance to performance], but you’ll definitely notice significant differences and changes in how the actors are working the material,” Kirkley says, adding that the viewpoints structure will allow the comedy of Twelfth Night more room to flourish. “They [the actors] are hilariously funny because they are working so spontaneously with whatever each other is doing.”
This year’s performance of Twelfth Night is also a landmark in UFV’s theatrical history — it will be the last year the department will end the season with a Shakespeare play. While Kirkley says this certainly won’t be the university’s final Shakespeare production, it will be the last year that the department will uphold this tradition.
“Shakespeare is wonderful — it’s wonderful material to work with for actors,” he says. “But we’ve been doing a Shakespeare production every year for the last 37 years now, [so] we’re trying to do something new.”
UFV Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night will run from March 3 to 20 at the Chilliwack North campus theatre. Performances run at 7:30 pm on March 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, and 19. Student matinees run at 12 p.m. on March 8 and 9, and Sunday matinees run at 2 p.m. on March 6, 13, and 20. Tickets are available online at www.ufv.ca/theatre, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (604)-795-2814.