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Rich Copley: Writers have fun with Transy's new Shakespeare play

Michael Bigelow Dixon is director of Shakespeare in Mind. He called on some of his old connections to create the 13-writer play. "Nobody said no," he was happy to report.
Michael Bigelow Dixon is director of Shakespeare in Mind. He called on some of his old connections to create the 13-writer play. "Nobody said no," he was happy to report. Herald-Leader

The 21st century is a land of wi-fi, smartphones, YouTube and social media. But somehow, Shakespeare endures.

"All the Shakespeare festivals and Shakespeare in the seasons of professional theaters and courses on Shakespeare, and there are Shakespeare mugs and swag. If you go online and look for Shakespeare inspired music — oh my god,'" says Michael Bigelow Dixon, assistant professor of theater at Transylvania University.

The ubiquity of Shakespeare in culture in general and the millennial generation in particular inspired Dixon to create a new play that opens at Transylvania Thursday: Shakespeare in Mind. The play combines works from a dozen writers ranging from Transylvania University students to several celebrated American playwrights including Richard Dresser and Jon Jory, the former artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville who put the Derby city playhouse on the international theater map.

Attracting those playwrights was not hard for Dixon, as he served as literary manager at Actors Theatre from 1985 to 2000 and then associate artistic director for a year before departing for the acclaimed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he was literary director and director of studio theater programming.

Dixon came to Transylvania in 2012 and says Shakespeare in Mind is the first time he has called on some old connections like Jory for a project.

"Nobody said no, of these writers," Dixon says. "Calling and asking them for free or a pittance to contribute, they all found the assignment exciting, tackled it and totally succeeded in writing really fun, thoughtful material."

The assignment was "write and submit original short plays and revised soliloquies that place Shakespeare in the lives of the millennial generation in ways that speak to the cultural dynamics of the 21st century from the perspective of the millennial generation."

The scripts will ultimately play out on a stage made from salvaged or repurposed materials and designed to echo Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; it is the same set that will be used for all of Transy's other productions this year. These include The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman's documentary play about the 1989 death of Matthew Shepard, the young Wyoming man targeted by his attackers because he was gay.

"It's the odd, curious mix of renaissance and modern and Elizabethan stage ideas and contemporary materials and shapes," Dixon says. "It's just like the material, a riff on Shakespeare through a modern lens."

For Dixon, part of the thrill of the project is the mashup of work by venerable authors in the same script with pieces by current students.

"It's the 21st century," Dixon says. "It's post-modern collage to have one voice butting up against another voice, interwoven with a piece that keeps reoccurring."

One student effort, Starcrossed by Brooke Jennett and Mollie LaFavers, sets Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene on a constellation-watching date.

"It's really sweet and charming, and one of the happiest pieces of the show," says Dixon, who notes other pieces address violence in Shakespeare like Los Angeles-based Elizabeth Wong's Shakespeare's Brainscan (in which Shakespeare tells us how we're reacting to gory scenes in Titus Andronicus) and Dresser's Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Today (which suggests Shakespeare's violence needs updating — "It involves a nail gun," Dixon says).

Transy student Justin Wright's Chivalry "explores the dark ideas of women dying in Shakespeare's plays, and how they tend to die before the men ... and he has a character move in and out of various death scenes of Shakespeare's heroines."

Spanish professor Jeremy Paden contributed several pieces including one that rearranges lines from Shakespeare sonnets to, "sound like Shakespeare though they're not Shakespeare."

It's all part of what makes being at Transylvania great to Dixon.

"That's one of the great things about being on a college campus is seeing how many ideas there are and how interconnected they are on a liberal arts campus," Dixon says. "It's really fun to see the students draw on their knowledge of history or philosophy and get excited with connecting the play project to things they've studied in literature class.

"Then, certainly since the '60s, people have been messing with Shakespeare, putting it in other time periods, translocating it culturally — Romeo and Juliet in the American South, Henry V in The Civil War — and directors and designers and dramaturgs get to have fun with that, but playwrights are always left out. So this project was for playwrights to get to have fun with Shakespeare."

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