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After ‘Much Ado,’ live theater returns to College Hill

First-year students bring live theater back to campus for first time since COVID-19 outbreak with Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

On Wednesday, a group of first-year students performed Shakespeare’s classic comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing,” at the Nightingale-Brown House, where they will perform again Friday. The production was directed by Josephine Miller ’24 and Emily Mayo ’24.

In the intimate garden space outside the Nightingale-Brown House, Shakespeare’s breezy comedy felt like the perfect atmospheric choice. “It feels like a ’20s garden party half the time,” said Marina Benson ’24, who played Beatrice, 

The directors accounted for the summer outdoor setting in their choice, but they also selected the play for its timelessness. “I feel like Much Ado relies on general themes that can resonate with people our age,” Mayo said. The play is also accessible to all audiences, regardless of their familiarity with Shakespeare. The program reads: “Much Ado is fundamentally a rom-com wearing fancier clothes.” The large turn-out and the sustained laughter of the audience, then, was no surprise.

The directors also made the bold — and incredibly successful — creative choice of setting the play in the 1920s. Mayo, who has a strong background and interest in history, said the choice was inspired by the fact that she sees this historical moment as reminiscent of that decade. “The ‘20s were really an expression of this great joy coming out of what was the great war at the time, as well as the 1918 influenza pandemic,” she said. “So I feel like it draws parallels to now as we’re coming out of the COVID pandemic and also a very contentious political environment.” 

Miller and Mayo’s production of “Much Ado” emanates the spirit of joy and immense relief after the long hiatus induced by the pandemic — in part due to the levity of Shakespeare’s play, but also due to the palpable chemistry among the cast members and between the cast and the audience.

“Theater and especially Shakespeare has been such an anchor for me in my life … it’s an enormous part of who I am, and during the pandemic I really felt like there was a piece of myself I was missing not having live theater,” Miller said. 

The cast shared Miller’s sentiments. “I was really just craving a show, honestly,” Benson said. “This is my first show out of quarantine and it was so exciting, the thought of being able to work on a production with a group of like-minded people again.” 

“Doing this is making me remember what I care about,” added JL Zhang ’24, who played Benedick. “To me there is nothing compared to the live theater experience.”  

Perhaps this immense gratitude for live theater’s revival contributed to what the cast members all described as an enriching and collaborative process. “It’s really cool being able to work with student directors who really know their shit,” said Zhang. 

Miller was equally congratulatory of the actors. “Some of our actors are the most talented people I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” she said. Over the six weeks they  worked together, the team got a lot closer, she said, forming connections that translated well onto the stage. Their familiarity and mutual respect for one another was tangible in the performance, as the actors were always completely in sync and incredibly sensitive to each other’s cues, movements and reactions. 

In addition to adapting their process to the COVID-19 regulations on campus, including starting with video auditions and practicing in smaller groups until campus regulations eased, the production had to work on a tight budget. As a result, the group sourced all the costumes and props themselves. 

“I’ve literally spent the last week or so sewing every waking moment,” Zhang said, who did all the costume alterations. After numerous trips to Savers with Miller and a lot of brainstorming on how to turn drapes into dresses, they created something beautiful and meticulously coordinated. “I’ve never done any sewing in this type of time crunch and on this type of budget, so it’s definitely been a test of resourcefulness,” they said.

 The play is the product of six weeks of rehearsals, including six-hour rehearsals on weekends as the show drew closer — with Miller and Mayo putting in as much as 25 hours of work into the play over the last week. The efforts of the entire team are visible in the production, and even the directors were impressed at its grand success: “I’m so happy … it went beyond all our expectations,” Mayo said.



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