TCU Theatre’s Trinity Shakespeare Festival, which paired acting pros with student up-and-comers, played to packed houses in June and drew critical praise for the department’s theatrical talent and the school’s cozy performance venues.
by Rick Waters '95
David Fluitt ’04 plays the preening Malvolio, strutting before Emily Gray, playing Maria, and Trisha Miller Smith as Olivia in Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night.”
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Topics: College of Fine Arts
by Rick Waters '95
Actors call it the moment — the instant when a creative choice seals a scene or makes a character — and junior theatre major Justin Rapp was enjoying watching David Fluitt ’04 have his.
It was early in the four-week race to put up two plays for the inaugural Trinity Shakespeare Festival. A week of build for sets and costumes had already passed, and the cast, working eight-hour rehearsals, was blocking Act III, a turning point in the comedy “Twelfth Night.”
Scene IV: A smiling Fluitt jaunts into the action as the normally dour, folly-hating Malvolio, steward to the rich countess Olivia, whom he mistakenly believes has finally and surprisingly become smitten with him. But poor Malvolio is the unwitting subject of a prank and is not yet wise to the mischief.
On show nights, Fluitt donned the yellow stockings and cross-garters called for in the script, but in rehearsal, weeks before curtain time, he has the physical comedy down pat. Preening confidently, he thrusts out his chest, shoulders back, chin up, testing out a new tweak each time through the scene — an eyebrow raise here, a hop-skip in his gait there.
“We’d watch it one time and it’s funny,” said Rapp, who played attendant to Orsino. “Then he does it again with a subtle change, and it’s hilarious. It was amazing to see the character evolve right before our eyes.”
The scene was playing out just as theatre professor T.J. Walsh had hoped. As director, he had the 33-year-old Fluitt, one of his former students turned local theatre professional, in mind for the role and knew he could bring a younger, but still mature sensibility to the character, normally played by a man in his 50s. But the other drama — the festival’s mixed company of professional and student actors studying one another, performing side by side and trading insights — was making his midsummer dream a bona fide reality.
“It was an immediate boost of purpose for our students,” Walsh said. “They found out, ‘Yes, I can act with a David Coffee ’79 (MFA ’82) and a Trisha Miller Smith. I do know what I’m doing.’ It’s equally true of the technical crew. This was immersion theatre with some of the best regional equity actors in the area, and it was on deadline, not the leisurely pace of the semester.”
Yet Shakespeare in the Park did not lack in support, as fans of the Bard crowded in by the thousands each six-week run until the company folded in 2002.
So with its absence, Parker and Walsh sensed there was a market for summertime Shakespeare in Fort Worth again.
“We actually started talking a couple of years ago about doing a summer-stock experience for our students here,” said Parker, the festival’s managing director. “Shakespeare had all the elements we wanted: great literature for audiences, attractive to local actors, professional training for students to learn stagecraft. Ultimately, it was a chance to prove we’re not just a college drama department.”
Parker and Walsh applied for a transformational grant through TCU’s Vision In Action campaign, selling the fact that the festival would meet educational and university outreach objectives. “We felt like it would have tremendous value to TCU and the community,” Walsh said.
Last August, they got their seed funding, announced their plans to the students and began figuring out how to put on a professional operation.
They would make it professional in every sense of the word, starting with the hiring of 28-year-old rising star Alex Burns, a fellow at the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C. to guest direct one of the plays so students would get a wider range of coaching. Parker and Walsh even let him choose his play and venue. Burns wanted the classic “Romeo and Juliet” and embraced the traditional telling Walsh prescribed. His version, like Walsh’s “Twelfth,” scored critical praise for “authenticity” and “flow.”
“We knew he was a young talent,” said Kelsey Milbourn, a sophomore from Overland Park, Kan., who played Juliet. “But he was better than advertised. He was perfect to direct a cast of young and veteran. He’s an expert in the Elizabethan language and really helped bring the poetry out of the text.”
“We’d sit with a page and talk about what [a passage] means,” said May graduate Daniel Fredrick ’09, who played Romeo. “There are so many layers and so much to learn from the language. We talked about the harsher tone for consonants and dove below the dialogue to what the subtext was. I’d never done that with a script.”
Next, Walsh turned his attention to who would be on stage. Familiar with the top talent in the area, he worked with the Actors Equity Association union to create cast openings that would allow professionals to earn equity credit. Ultimately, he and Burns auditioned and hired six actors, stage and company managers and some technical crew.
“Students were hired, too,” Parker said. “They did not get academic credit. They got paid, and we considered it one professional company. For most of them, it was their first professional experience.”
The festival gave students a taste of the rigors of summer-stock, which required far more intense preparation, with actors playing multiple roles on the same day in repertory. By contrast, the department typically takes seven weeks for set building and costuming and six weeks to rehearse for a single production that may last four or five shows during the semester.
“They had to learn to work fast, which was a whole new set of acting muscles for them,” Parker said. “As a professional actor, you have to be able to work fast and well. They’re both skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.”
Initially, students worried about the pros’ approachability, Rapp admits. “We didn’t know how they were going to treat us, but that faded quickly,” he said. “They were so humble and generous, sharing practical aspects of professional theatre life, like how they got their [union] card and how to get enough hours to get benefits. They were just great models for us.”
“They were so prepared,” said Milbourn, who performed with older brother Andrew ’09 who just graduated in May. “Harry and T.J. joked with us: ‘Yeah. What did you expect? They’re pros. They do their homework.’ ”
Students also enjoyed working by Equity rules, including an eight-hour cap on the workday and 10-minute breaks every 80 minutes.
By the final Thursday night show of the three-week run, the company’s chemistry was unquestioned. Hours before curtain up, a half-dozen students were crowded around Jeffrey Schmidt’s laptop, ogling at news reports of Michael Jackson’s death.
Coffee and Fluitt, both theatre department alums, were impressed by the students’ talent.
“They’ve recruited well,” said Coffee, who acted with Milbourn’s mother as a Horned Frog undergraduate and hadn’t played Shakespeare since Prospero in a TCU production of “The Tempest” in 1981. “It’s a credit to [Walsh and Parker]. This festival is a crash course for them, but they’ve responded beautifully. It will serve them well down the line. I was honored they wanted me to be a part of the first one.”
Added Fluitt: “The department is really progressing. It says a lot that they put 10 students in a festival geared to draw people in from the community. That’s some big-time confidence in them.”
“Welcome back to life, Trinity Shakespeare Festival. You’re needed; your aspirations and accomplishments are honorable. I’m delighted to see such enthusiastic, engaged audiences. Bring it on!”
— Alexandra Bonifield, Dallas Theatre Examiner
Parker and Walsh admit they did not know what kind of feedback they would hear from the people in the seats, but they knew the department could pull it off.
One university administrator told Parker the festival exceeded some already-high expectations.
“I knew we could do it,” he said. “It just takes money. There’s a reason they say Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived. His work is the confluence of pop culture and high art, and it is great training for our students. If you can play Shakespeare, you can take anything Sophocles can throw at you.”
The local media agreed. Four outlets gave both shows largely positive critical reviews, even touting some of the student performances. For the ticket-buying public, the festival showcased the 175-seat, proscenium-style Buschman Theatre and 199-seat thrust stage of the Hays Theatre, both of which have undergone renovations this decade.
“We had two different groups: some who had never been to the campus before and some who had been at TCU for years but never been inside our venues,” Parker said. “They both remarked about how well-appointed they are. They have great sight lines. The chairs are comfortable. The acoustics are wonderful.”
Walsh added: “I think for some of them they’re having Shakespeare spoken and not yelled for the first time. The acting was subtle, sophisticated. There were no exaggerated gestures. And they’re thrilled to be inside and not dealing with the heat and the bugs and the dog chasing the Frisbee.
It’s intimate. It’s not like going to the movies. There is an energy, an exchange that happens between actors and the audience. They felt it.”
The cast was complimentary as well. Both theatres have their own dressing and green rooms, a perfect setup for repertory.
“Actors are always looking for the next job,” Coffee said. “There’s a cost savings to finding high-quality equity work that’s local.”
Coffee, Fluitt and Emily Gray make their homes in the Metroplex. Chicago’s Trisha Miller Smith and Los Angeles’ C.J. Meeks ’06 flew in for May and June and stayed in the residence halls.
The timing also suited students. “The festival was over by the end of June, so I still had some summer to be a student again,” Rapp said.
But for all the kudos, the Trinity proved a steep learning curve. In addition to lining up housing and ironing out equity contracts, Parker and Walsh spent months wrestling with promoting the show, establishing a “modest, but not too modest” ticket price and setting up a Web site to accept donations and sell tickets electronically, among other first-year challenges.
No doubt the festival will see tweaks next summer. Walsh thinks they’ll do another tragedy and comedy with essentially the same cast size, but they may change the schedule. This summer’s Thursday-through-Sunday format had actors performing six shows in four days, including four shows on Saturdays and Sundays.
“By the end of the weekend, they were worn out,” Walsh said. “We might look at more shows on different weeknights. It will depend on the box office numbers.”
The bulk of the grant pays for actors and crew and buys materials for the sets and costumes, but Parker believes the festival can grow. “We want to continue to market it as best we can. Word of mouth is strong, but we’d like to see more regional coverage,” he said. “Maybe we can add a dinner. Or maybe we add pre-show lectures and talk-backs.”
One thing is certain: With university funding, there will be a next year. After that, no one knows. Despite the packed houses, the festival can’t be sustained through box office receipts alone.
In June, it got its first outside grant — $2,000 from the Fort Worth Arts Council. Parker hopes it is just the start.
“We have to dream big,” he said. “We might be able to have more shows or longer runs. We want it to be an anticipated artistic focus in Fort Worth, and I think it has the potential to be that.”
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