As she started working on Utah Shakespeare Festival’s educational touring show, “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shelly Gaza knew a few things from experience.
Gaza, an assistant professor of theater at the University of Northern Colorado, knew what it is like to perform for 25,000 students over the course of a 13-week tour. She remembers how much heavier set pieces felt on the third week on the road than they did back in rehearsals in Cedar City.
And she was well-versed in the script. In streamlining the play for a 75-minute run time, Gaza wasn’t afraid to make cuts in an Elizabethean-era-script that doesn’t always play well to contemporary audiences, thanks to terming its lead female character a “shrew,” and two slaves among the characters.
She brought an informed, female perspective to a story that’s considered one of Shakepeare’s problem plays, says her boss, Michael Bahr, who directed Gaza when she played the lead role of the headstrong Kate in USF’s 2004 touring version of “Shrew.” Gaza went on to perform as a member of USF’s summer company before she moved on to directing and teaching.
This year, Bahr hired her to come full circle and direct this year’s “Shrew.” It’s the 20th edition of the company’s tour, which is set to play Wasatch Front audiences in the next few weeks.
The “Shrew” that Gaza directed, drawing upon Italian commedia dell’arte influences, features vibrantly colored costumes, footlights and two strings of carnival lights. She credits her collaborators — Christina Leinicke’s costumes, Ben Hohman’s sets and Scott Palfreyman’s lighting and sound— for the streamlined staging, which includes a gypsy curtain backdrop, three trunks and a couple of ladders.
The high-energy show includes four musical interludes, beginning with an opening dance/acrobatic number set to hip-hop and electronic music. “It has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s script, but sets up the performers,” she said.
The show was designed to be easy to load in and strike, as well as adaptable to any school or auditorium space. “The magic of simplicity allows us to be theatrical,” Bahr says.
One of the aims of the educational tour is to offer a professional model for the kind of dramatic magic schools can create for themselves. That’s why actors who play multiple characters are likely to make simple costume changes, such as donning glasses or a new hat or apron, in front of the audience.
Hiring for the touring show requires a different kind of triple-threat skills, Bahr says. Actors have to be able to connect with a variety of audiences, including students who might be uneducated or uninterested in the Bard’s work. Bahr considers tour audiences living groundlings, just as hungry for entertainment as the working-class penny-a-ticket theatergoers who flooded the stage to watch Shakespeare’s original productions.
That comparison prompts Bahr to remember the time a student, several tours ago, walked on set and jokingly asked if he could eat a biscuit that was part of the show’s props.
In addition, the cast has to have the kind of undivalike personalities that makes it easy to get along with tourmates. Plus, they have to have the skills to teach stage combat, improv and Shakepearean text workshops that are offered along with the play.
That’s another mission of the tour — giving students the chance to talk with people who are making art, Gaza says.
In talkbacks after performances, students are likely to ask the actors who perform the play’s two couples — Kate and Petruchio, and Bianca and Lucentio — if they are married to each other. They’re often disappointed to find out that the actors were, well, acting. “But it seems so real to us,” student theatergoers are likely to say.
“After we get done with those questions, then we ask the audience: ‘What does it mean to be tamed?’ And: ‘Who are the shrews in the play?’ ” Bahr says. “And then all of a sudden, we’ve got a dialogue going.”
‘The Taming of the Shrew’
The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s touring show kicked off its run in Cedar City on Jan. 21 and will play through April 18, ending with a public performance in Gunnison. Along the way, the Shakespeare-in-the-Schools production, part of a national initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, will perform for more than 25,000 students in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
Info • 435-865-8333
Upcoming Wasatch Front shows
March 18, 9 a.m. • Wasatch Youth Center, Salt Lake City
March 19, 12:45 p.m. • Cyprus High School, Magna
March 20, 9:45 a.m. • Pleasant Grove High School
March 21, 9:15 a.m. and 7 p.m. • Clearfield High School
March 24, 8:30 a.m. • Syracuse Junior High School
March 25, 9 a.m. • Bonneville Junior High School, Holladay
March 26-27, 11 a.m. • Salt Lake Community College
March 28, TBA • Wasatch High School, Heber City
April 1, TBA • Brigham Young University, Provo
April 2, 7 p.m. • Stansbury High School, Stansbury Park
April 3, 11 a.m. • McGillis School, Salt Lake City
April 4, 9:30 a.m. • American Heritage of South Jordan
April 7, 7 p.m. and April 8, 10 a.m. • Utah Cultural Celebration Center, West Valley
April 9, 6 p.m. • Roy High School
April 15, 9 a.m. • North Cache Center, Smithfield
April 16, TBA • Box Elder High School, Brigham City
April 17, TBA • Spanish Fork High School