By Julia Waldow
Three years ago, inside of a Kenyon drama classroom, a verse-acting class set the stage for something new. Using a troupe of six actors, a freestanding curtain and six chairs, Kevin Rich, former Kenyon professor of drama, introduced his idea for “Billy Shakes,” an acting exercise that took place within the real-life William Shakespeare’s world and involved Rich’s abridged scripts of Shakespeare plays.
“My introduction to Shakespeare was reading [his work] in an English class and it didn’t really click for me,” Will Quam ’14, a student in Rich’s class, said. “And I just wish I’d been able to see it performed on its feet [and] see how vibrant and funny it could be. Doing Billy Shakes in the class is what made me like Shakespeare. It was a very eye-opening experience.”
The troupe, which met once a week outside of class to rehearse, performed Rich’s abridged versions of As You Like It, Measure For Measure and Macbeth at the end of that semester in local schools and at craft fairs. Ultimately, the class served as a template for Kenyon’s Billy Shakes Project, which Quam founded with Kenny Fedorko ’13 and Verity Allen ’13 after Rich left to become the artistic director at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in 2012. The group, which has expanded to include 10 actors, a president and a stage manager, visits elderly care facilities, libraries and schools in the area and performed in Toledo, Ohio last year.
Tristan Biber ’17 sees Billy Shakes as trying to “make Shakespeare the most widely available [as] possible” and “interest kids as much as they can while making it still accessible for them.” He added that “there’s not a lot of kindergarten or elementary school kids who are going to sit through a two-and-a-half-, three-, four-hour play, but we still give them the language and sort of the general gist of the plays in 30- to 40-minute chunks.”
The plays operate within a Billy Shakes “universe,” where a character named Billy and his five friends — all named after real people in Shakespeare’s life — put on short plays for the audience. Each play has six actors from the 10-member cast who embody a character within this world and within a traditional work such as As You Like It.
“These people [in the world] are a group of six friends coming together to create a play with whatever they can find.” Club President Emilia Pazniokas ’15 said. “And I think one of the goals of Billy Shakes is to invite our audiences to — for 40 minutes — play along too.”
At the start of each season, the current company works to cast the newest members. Then they cast the first of the three shows. The group next sets up regular meeting times based on members’ schedules. In years past, rehearsals have been six hours per week. For the first two rehearsals, the cast does a read-through and then a talk-through to really grasp Shakespeare’s language. The troupe spends time blocking out scenes and then rehearses up until the first performance, which this year will be Macbeth over Parents’ Weekend. After this period, which normally takes six weeks, the group repeats the process with two other plays before offering out all three to schools, libraries and facilities around the area. The plays can be performed at any time in the community for the rest of the year.
For Biber, it’s “all about the audience … That’s why I love Billy Shakes so much,” he said. “Because you meet all of these different people [with] all of these different feelings and ideas of how Shakespeare should be. After we finished performing As You Like It, this little girl went outside, picked some flowers and then gave them to me, Phoebe [an As You Like It character]. And that melted my heart.”
Biber explained that the children are also fans of Thompson, a paper mache sheep Rich created for As You Like It and who was “one of the real founding members of Billy Shakes.”
“He’s just always nice to have around, always cute and cuddly,” Biber said. “And a hell of an actor. Really amazing … The kids always want to come up and pet Thompson. Thompson loves the attention. He’s a bit of a diva.”
The adults have been more receptive to the human performers.
“We had one woman come up [to us] and say she was an English teacher for 29 years and she’d only just retired,” Biber said. “She said, ‘I wish I had you guys to show Shakespeare because you guys made it so much better than I ever did.’”
Similarly, the troupe finds the experience meaningful from an educational standpoint. Some members, like Quam, have used skills gained from the program outside of the Hill.
“Working on Billy Shakes within the classroom setting was really my introduction to theater education and really demonstrated to me that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” Quam, who now teaches theater to middle- and grade-schoolers, said. “It taught me how to organize [and how to] visualize things in my head and then figure out the best ways to make them happen with the actors in front of me. Billy Shakes is just a lot of fun, and it’s definitely a spirit that’s followed me.”