For the 10 Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) acting apprentices, the weeks leading up to the end of the festival mark the beginning of their entrance into the spotlight as full-fledged actors after months of hard work behind the scenes and in less glamorous positions.
Photo by Kathy
. John Micheal Verrall, Jessica Shoemaker, Emily Hawkins, Isaac Spooner in the Great River Shakespeare Festival apprentice production of “Troilus and Cressida.”
The acting apprentices, many of whom might look familiar to GRSF audiences because of their work as ushers or concession stand attendants, are currently in the midst of performing this year’s apprentice play, “Troilus and Cressida” (TC), Shakespeare’s tragedy of love and conflict set during the Trojan War. “It’s actually a kaleidoscope of different genres; at times it is a comedy, a tragedy, a romance and a satire,” explained Jess Shoemaker, text coach for TC. “At its core it is a play about characters exploring the nature and value of love and war, [which we learned] has a shocking amount of overlap.”
TC is known as being one of the Shakespeare’s most complex and difficult to perform plays due to its overlapping genres and its challenging and intense language. Although it might seem a little strange to have the apprentices involved in one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, for Shoemaker, whose job is essentially to break down the text to help actors understand every part of the language and what Shakespeare was trying to convey, the selection of TC as the apprentice play is key in helping not only the young actors, but also in showing the prestige of the GRSF company.
“The apprentice project was created with the idea that it is an actor-driven project,” Shoemaker explained. “This play does a great job of creating a world for actors to live and perform in. The incredible part of what makes GRSF so great is that there is a huge focus to the commitment of training young actors.”
The program has an acceptance rate of exactly seven percent. “[We] joke that it is easier to get into Harvard Law School than it is to become an acting apprentice for GRSF,” Shoemaker said. Young actors work from early morning to late into the evening, starting with classes in vocal training and Shakespearean language, moving into rehearsal and helping with the production of the professional plays. Shoemaker, who was part of the GRSF apprentice program five years ago, likened the bonding process of the apprentices to a summer camp experience. “You get together this group of hungry, talented young artists who come together and really own what they’ve learned,” she said. “I’m still friends with half of [my apprentice group].”
TC director Rick Barbour agreed with Shoemaker and said that the bonding process between the apprentice actors is driven by their youthful energy and hard work over the summer. “There is something kind of fun and idealistic about not sleeping long and working really hard, up until a point, of course,” Barbour explained. “But it’s something that [GRSF] thought was important, to have an apprentice company and shape it in a way that is keeps these young actors busy, but is not like a meat grinder, so to speak.”
The final production
For the production of TC, the apprentice actors will be performing in the black box theater, which, according to Barbour, is the type of theater or performance everyone should experience. “You are literally two feet from the action,” he enthused. “You are going through the greatest moment in a character’s life or witnessing a character’s heart breaking in half — you can’t help but be involved in a way that is deeper and more immediate than someone watching [a play] from 40 feet away.”
As a former acting apprentice and as someone who currently helps to oversee the young actors, Shoemaker explained her love of watching the transformation of each apprentice actor over the course of the summer. “They start out as nervous, not knowing a lot about Shakespeare,” she explained. “But in the end — they just blow me away. You watch these young actors who were nervous just tackle long rhetoric and language that is so difficult, and they do it so professionally.”
For more information and dates and times of “Troilus and Cressida,” visit http://grsf.org/.