"Performing Shakespeare," a seminar regularly taught at Davidson College by Dana Professor of English Cynthia Lewis, has been reimagined for the airwaves.
The title of the course was changed to "Radio Shakespeare," indicating that the class will be presenting the playwright's work on the radio rather than on the stage.
Lewis's students will perform a broadcast of The Merchant of Venice for a live audience at the college's radio station, 89.9 FM WDAV, at 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, April 26. This production of the Elizabethan classic harkens back to the heyday of radio drama, and occurs on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's baptism.
Bracketing the live broadcast on April 26, Lewis's radio Shakespeareans also will present performances before studio audiences at WDAV on Friday, April 25 and Monday, April 28. WDAV engineers will record the three performances in the studio and compile the strongest elements from each into a single podcast, which will be available for download.
The "Radio Shakespeare" students also will present another, non-recorded staged reading of The Merchant of Venice at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 27, at "Pian del Pino," the Italian Renaissance-style villa of Margaret Zimmermann and Price Zimmermann, a former academic dean at Davidson.
The public is invited to all four performances, but space is limited. Contact Radio Shakespeare with reservation or information requests.
An avid fan of National Public Radio, Lewis conceived the idea for "Radio Shakespeare" partly to avoid time-consuming obstacles involved in presenting a performance on stage, such as costuming, blocking and memorizing lines. "With a strictly listening audience, it's easier to double roles more covertly, and for students to practice their lines on their own," she explained.
Lewis pointed out that performing for a radio audience also poses unique challenges.
"Undergraduate actors typically don't think about their voices as much as they should in order to pull this off," she explained. "Unless they have voice training, most support their voices with their throats instead of their diaphragms."
To address that issue, the class has enlisted help from voice coach Laura Dougherty, assistant professor of theatre at Winthrop University.
Lewis is less worried about adapting Shakespeare's lines for a strictly oral presentation. "It's important to remember that in Shakespeare's time, people went to hear a play," she said. "It was a much more aural culture in his day."
Lewis explained that it often surprises her students that Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed, rather than read. "I never get tired of watching my students discover that Shakespeare didn't write his plays for them to study in a college literature course," she said. "He wrote his plays for actors on an early modern stage."
Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Lewis explained, is particularly suited for a vocal performance. "Although it's classified as a comedy, this play is great for the radio because it's not exactly funny," she said. "It's more concerned with passionate love, hatred and racial tension, all of which give the actors a lot to do with their voices."
In the play, the Venetian merchant Antonio finances his friend Bassanio's trip to Belmont by borrowing from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who demands a pound of his flesh as collateral. In Belmont, Bassanio wins the hand of the maiden Portia, but Antonio's bond becomes forfeit and Shylock demands his gruesome payment. Bassanio returns to Venice in hopes of saving Antonio's life, but Portia, disguised as a male judge, becomes his friend's only hope.
Lewis also expressed her excitement about collaborating with WDAV, an opportunity she described as "rather uncharted territory." She said, "Station Manager Frank Dominguez has been a great help, especially considering he's acted Shakespeare and is an expert on incidental music written for Shakespeare's plays."
She added, "‘Radio Shakespeare' is a great joint venture between the academic and cultural, community-outreach arms of the college. This is illustrative of what Davidson can be at its very best."