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Shortly after 6 pm on a recent weeknight, a dozen students gathered in a rough circle in a cavernous rehearsal room at 700 Beacon Street (the former Art Institute of Boston building) in Kenmore Square, reciting in unison: “One hen, two ducks, three squawking geese, four limerick oysters…” No, they’re not reading from a children’s counting book. Rather, it’s the opening exercise at a Boston University Shakespeare Society (BUSS) rehearsal.
Like many performance groups, members kick off every rehearsal with a quick round of warm-ups to loosen up and energize the actors. “It’s always super-important to have everyone at high energy during rehearsals because otherwise the atmosphere completely changes,” says frequent warm-up leader Rabiah Rowther (COM’18), the club’s vice president.
The night’s exercise, an 80-plus word tongue twister known as the radio test, originally designed for prospective radio announcers, was adapted to help actors practice their enunciation and projection.
Following the exercise, Rowther led the group in the more physical “organic energy warm-up,” which requires the actors to move around and improvise.
The student-run theater troupe was preparing for its final mainstage show of the semester, a production of Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning existentialist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, about the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For this production, BUSS collaborated with the student theater group Wandering Minds. The two groups previously worked together on The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in fall 2015.
At first glance, it might seem odd for a theater group dedicated to the works of the 16th century’s most famous playwright to be putting on a play by one of the 21st century’s most celebrated. But as the Shakespeare Society website makes clear, the group also stages plays inspired by Shakespeare’s works, as well as scene festivals (scenes directed and performed by undergraduates), staged readings, and more recently, parodies of well-known works by the Bard.
The troupe produced its first Shakespeare parody last year, when Rowther directed Hamlet II: Better Than the Original, a comedic adaptation by Sam Bobrick of the Bard’s most renowned tragedy. It presents the moody Danish prince as a petulant teenage-like 30-year-old, and his mother, Gertrude, as a lusty cougar mom. BUSS members think the modern-day English parodies make Shakespeare’s works more accessible to those intimidated by the period language. Rowther says that although people know that Shakespeare is acknowledged as the world’s greatest dramatist, “people still get very scared by the language.”
The strategy seems to be working. The spoofs have yielded record-breaking ticket sales for BUSS, including last year’s sold-out performance of Hamlet II. The audience members at the recent Romeo, You Idiot were so enthusiastic that after the shows they came up to Rowther and BUSS president Alexia Chiclana (ENG’18) to ask how they could get involved.
The attention these shows bring to the club is a huge step forward for BU’s newest theater troupe, launched in 2003. At one point, BUSS lost its status as an official student club because it couldn’t put together a full e-board. Rowther, Chiclana, and their immediate predecessors have been working tirelessly to rebuild the organization, and its growing ranks are evidence that their efforts are paying off.
The troupe emphasizes the importance of community; no matter what your role is—leading lady, costume designer, or stagehand—everyone is valued. “It’s an incredible experience to be able to create with people who genuinely care about each other,” says member Claire Doire (COM’20). “I always look forward to rehearsals. Everyone actually wants to be there and no matter what kind of day I’ve had, everyone has lots of laughs and I always come out feeling better than when I came in.”
BUSS is open to all students interested in acting, directing, or working on one of the technical crews. Current members represent nearly every school at BU. And best of all, no previous Shakespeare experience is required.
Two mainstage shows are on the docket for next semester: Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, directed by Chiclana, and another parody, A Midsummer Vacation’s Nightmare, directed by Rowther.
“We’re trying to engage the community, to bring people together,” Chiclana says, “and we’re sharing Shakespeare with the world because Shakespeare shows are not as hard to relate to as people think.”
Learn more about BUSS here.
Madeleine O’Keefe can be reached at email@example.com.