North Carolina Troupe Brings Experimental Shakespeare to Amherst

North Carolina Troupe Brings Experimental Shakespeare to Amherst

The North Carolina Stage Company, culminated two years of work on Sept. 12, when they performed their rendition of Shakespeare’s “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” for the very last time at Amherst College.

The first performances of “Pericles” took place at the North Carolina Stage Company’s home theater in Asheville, North Carolina during the fall of 2014. After that, the play’s team dispersed and focused on other projects before reconvening in 2015 for a final production run from Sept. 9 to Sept. 11 at Amherst’s Holden Theater.

“Pericles” was a highly experimental, cutting-edge performance, both in terms of process and product. Only five actors, all in plain clothes, appeared on stage, and they used strategic prop and costume changes to alternate between characters. The aesthetic of the show was minimalistic and playful. Actors donned leather jackets as heirloom armor and pool noodles as jousting equipment, and often times invited the audience to put their imagination to work, using billowing blue cloths as water or a knotted cloth as a baby. If the props were sparse, the stage design was even sparser. Besides the gradient purple-to-sienna backdrop adorned with primitive drawings and a partition separating this from the actors and a small platform, the set was never comprised of more than two stools. Technical effects included strategic, colored lighting and a sprinkle of sound effects. The actors opted to fill the empty space with a story, emphasizing stage action and the characters of “Pericles” over inanimate visuals.

Behind the peculiarity of the objects on the stage lies an even less conventional procedure for developing the show.
“The vision for the show was the process,” Director Ron Bashford said, an assistant professor of theater and dance at the college. “Me and the actors got together two years ago with no vision for the play, but our intent was to discover the play together and figure out what we thought of it as a group.” Many of the production decisions were decided in a series of workshops in which the five actors and Bashford brainstormed possibilities for scenes. They improvised during run-throughs, practicing over and over with new changes until the scenes felt right. “It wasn’t mine, it was ours,” Bashford said.

The main developmental hurdle to the show was the self-imposed restriction to only five actors. This led the actors to seek logistic solutions to render the plot in a clear and compelling way without confusing the audience. A gradual approach with no clear goal worked well for the team, according to Bashford, who said that “ha[ving] that overall vision ahead of time … may have conflicted with the pragmatic and creative solutions [they] found together.” Because of this, many transitions within the play reflected not only concerns with the story, but also concerns with the cast. Three actors played Pericles, one in the beginning who played him in his youth, another who straddled intermission and potrayed him as a middle-aged man and a third who played him as an old man. Many watching the show may have assumed that this was to facilitate the audience’s understanding of the passage of time in the play. However, it was mainly because it would have been impossible to do the play with only one person playing Pericles.

“Pericles” is a child of pragmatic improvisation and the collaboration of five longtime friends who sought not to create but to experience creation.

Bashford’s next production to hit Kirby Theater will be “The Cherry Orchard,” which goes up Oct. 29.