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Behind the Curtain: Working with The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

Hi, I’m Steven Schwall, and I am playing the Constable of France and a couple of English extras in Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s upcoming production of Henry V. I have worked with Pigeon Creek in several productions over the last several years, as both an actor and fight director. There are two things about working with this dedicated group that never cease to impress me.

The first is scholarship. Granted there are a couple of Masters of Letters holders on the board, but many of the actors who regularly play have a great deal of knowledge, not only about Shakespearean text, but about history, customs and etiquette. One of the great problems in absorbing Shakespeare is that we of the 21st century are not schooled in the lifestyle of Elizabethan England. Many of the metaphors that Shakespeare employs, which would have been common knowledge to a 16th century Englishman, are completely lost to us.

Our current directors in Henry V were so kind as to greet us all with a Dramaturgy packet, that included not only a glossary, but chronicles from the Battle of Agincourt, genealogies of the Royal families, and translations of the French, with interpretations. As an actor playing a character from a particular time and place, it is helpful to be able to know the context of the words, not just the words themselves.

Moreover, if you must speak another language, as a few characters in this production must, having not only meaning but context is important to a more natural delivery. French was a secondary language to many English in the Renaissance, but not as much so today. The wealth of knowledge in the Shakespearean cannon amongst cast and directors is staggering. How often have you heard of a director or an actor who has a copy of the First Folio on hand in rehearsal? It is a common occurrence at PCS.

The second element is humor. You wouldn’t think that humor was such a big deal, but when approaching Shakespeare, far too many people approach it with a sort of reverence, probably due to the heightened language. But Shakespeare littered his plays with jokes. Knowing the context helps discover them, but the other side of the coin is discovering how the characters would have reacted to what they hear.

The amount of delightful laugh moments, even in scenes which are primarily serious, makes for a more enjoyable evening for both players and audience. And, in the end, these works were created as entertainments. They are literary triumphs, absolutely, but also, they are meant to entertain. So many modern companies approach these works, the history plays especially, as primarily educational, and they can lose the pure entertainment value in the work. One of the things I love about working with Pigeon Creek is that they constantly strive to fund the fun side of the story as well.

The current production of Henry V, which is a particular favorite of mine, is a very interesting adaptation, which endeavors to tie together the history before and after it, giving both backstory that motivates the characters, as well as hints at the forward consequences of their actions. I encourage you to come out and witness this offering. It is not the Henry V to which you might be accustomed, and newcomers to Shakespeare will not find it difficult to absorb.

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