Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Theater / May 12, 2010

A Shakespearean journey: arriving near you

Eleven feet above the concrete, senior Samantha Newport called down.

“There’s nothing really to be afraid of. It wobbles, but it’s a big structure. It’s not going anywhere,” she said.

After all, Newport has more or less built the structure from the ground up.

“I put the entire roof on from beginning from nothing; putting this first plank on and sitting on this one plank as I put it in place, expanding my workspace.”

With $2,000 in Richter scholarship money, 600 bolts and over 100 individual 2-inch-by-6-inch planks of treated decking lumber, Newport constructed a performance wagon. This weekend, The Compleat Wks of Willm Shkspr (Abridged), directed by Newport, will christen the theatre department’s newest performance space.

The inspiration for the wagon came from two main sources, the first of which was a similar structure in Newport’s hometown, Grinnell, Iowa.

“I more or less stole the idea from them,” said Newport. “I talked to them about it.”

In fact, Grinnell literally provided the foundation for the wagon. A farmer and friend of Newport’s father donated an unused grain wagon base to the project.

“This thing is meant to hold four or five thousand pounds. So that was a plus,” she said. “We have the power of an axle which means we have much better maneuverability.”

Increased maneuverability is sure to be a plus for the cast and crew of the upcoming show.

“We’re actually going to be moving it manually,” said Newport. She had originally planned to transport the wagon with her pickup truck, but after a frantic phone call from her parents expressing concern for the truck’s bumper, Newport decided that the 700-plus pound wagon would be pushed to its storage space near the college’s warehouse.

Nothing like a pickup truck would have been available to those who provided Newport’s second major influence for the wagon. Medieval “pageant wagons” or “wagon stages” constructed and filled by gild members traveled from place to place entertaining stationary audiences. These wagons were in motion as the actors performed like a parade float. Newport’s wagon, she assures, will be stationary for the entire performance.

The thin historical documentation of the performance wagon form has pushed Newport to create something unique.

“There’s like two pictures of things kind of like this. It’s just sort of a conglomeration of a bunch of different kinds of traditions,” she said.

All of these traditions provide a particular atmosphere for actors and audience members, according to Newport.

“I really like the idea of kind of olden time, Comedia, sort of travelling theater troupe mentality,” she said. “It’s a great way of bringing theatre to people, it’s a great way of doing outdoor theatre, comedy; more audience interactive sort of things than what we would normally see in Studio [Theatre] or Harbach [Theatre].”

Audience members wary of interacting with the show’s players should find seating a comfortable distance from the stage, according to Newport.

“It’s very interactive. People will sit on you, pull you on stage, or just pick you up and put you on stage. If [audience members] are sitting in the first three rows, they will have been warned,” said Newport, adding that the show’s opening monologue has been altered to include a warning to individuals in the first three rows.

According to Newport, the show is open to actor interpretation.

“We’ve tried our best to make it as relevant as possible to, not only today’s culture, but specifically Knox,” she said. “We’ve got like Knox jokes… Some more appropriate than others.”

The recent bout of cold weather has Newport more concerned for the show’s audience than for her actors. The energy of the show, she said, will keep the performers warm.

“Their base costumes consist of their comfiest tennis shoes, black tuxedo t shirts and gray biking shorts,” she said. “They each have a different color tight that they’re wearing, so they’re pretty silly looking.”

Clothing racks and prop shelves built into the wagon will hold the array of costumes the actors will use.

One would think that it would be dangerous to stage such a spirited show on a moveable structure, but Newport is not worried.

“It’s made of two inch iron steel, 3/16 inch thickness with two by six decking lumber so it’s pretty damn solid,” said Newport.

According to Newport, she has spent four to five hours a day on the wagon this term and countless hours previous since her independent study was approved winter term last year. Newport learned to weld and began work on the rig fall term.

“Everything but the carriage is homemade,” she said.

The process has not been without its challenges. Last week, the front portion of the structure came unlatched and crashed to the ground.

“All of the hinges held, but were so terribly bent out of shape that we had to replace them all,” she said. An employee at the local Lowes’ Hardware knows her name and phone number.

Many passersby have expressed interest in the structure, she said, and those individuals will have an opportunity to explore the wagon and ask questions after each performance of the show.

After the show, Newport will continue to work on the wagon. After graduation, she hopes to pursue theater education in Chicago. However, she does have a backup plan.

“I figure if worst comes to worst, I can always just sell myself out to community theaters as a pageant wagon builder,” she said.

The Compleat Wks of Willm Shkspr (Abridged) will be performed on Old Main Lawn on Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m.

A Shakespeare wagon at a glance

600 bolts

110+ two-by-six planks

Eight homemade sawhorses

Two ladders (one detachable)

One trapdoor

Lighting: 500-watt flood lights

Sound: “We’ve been rehearsing outside primarily so they can get used to the idea of filling everything with sound.”

Curtains: Attached to the proscentium and bottom of the stage by grommets

Injuries: 12 ruined drill bits

Uses: “It’s a fun toy, if nothing else.”

Sarah Colangelo

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