ATHENS — For Ginger Boyles, there is much more to Shakespeare than outdated language and iambic pentameter. She said she sees the influence of Shakespeare and his work all around her, every day in movies, TV shows, songs and colloquialisms.
“There’s a lot of things that we use, a lot of the common tropes, that are based off of Shakespeare’s plays,” Boyles said. “Shakespeare is more in our lives than I think a lot of people realize, and I think with a project like this, it allows people to access the source instead of the secondaries.”
Boyles is working as co-director for the Appalachian Shakespeare Project, an organization dedicated to bringing Shakespeare’s words to the stage every summer at Concord University.
On July 21, the Appalachian Shakespeare Project will premiere its production of “King Lear” at Pipestem Resort State Park.
“King Lear” is the eighth production put on by the community group since its premiere of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Concord in 2010.
In its eight years, Boyles, who has been involved since that first show, said she’s watched the program grow immensely as they performed their way through dramas and comedies alike.
That first year, Boyles said, 50 people came out for their productions. Last year, on one night alone, more than 80 people came to watch “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“We’ve been slowly and surely building on this little project, we’re very pleased,” Boyles said. “I think we’ve brought a lot of joy to the community.”
This year marks an expansion for the program, too, as the actors prepare for two performance weekends as opposed to the usual one, with opening weekend shows exclusively at Pipestem, as opposed to the lawn in front of Concord’s Alexander Fine Arts Building, where the group usually performs.
“Pipestem is intimidating — it’s an actual stage with actual seats!” Boyles laughed. “I’m overjoyed, though, to be able to play on that stage and access a whole new group of people who might not have known about us before. That’s kind of the goal — get people more interested so they come back year after year.”
In traditional fashion, the Appalachian Shakespeare Project performs outside, utilizing minimal props and natural light in an attempt to capture snippets of the environment Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in.
Actors consist of Concord students, professors and community members — “People from everywhere,” according to Caitlyn Wendt, a Concord student and stage manager for the production.
“We try to get the community involved as much as we can. [We want] people to know if they’re interested in coming and performing with us, they’re more than welcome,” Boyles said. “We don’t turn anyone away.”
“King Lear” tells the story of an aging king of Britain who divides his kingdom to be split evenly between his three daughters. First, though, he requires them to prove their love to him. While the story of “King Lear” takes place centuries ago, Gabriel Rieger, executive director for the production, believes it speaks on very real things humans today experience.
“The things that motivate Lear are the things that motivate people everywhere. All of us face the anxieties of growing old. All of us face the anxiety of family and love and emotion and trying to understand and trust other people,” Rieger said. “The beauty of Shakespeare and the thing I think is so remarkable about him is that he had the gift to express those transcended emotions in language.”
Shakespeare can be a bit daunting, though, said Rieger, who is an English professor at Concord, and a lot of time is put into talking the actors through their scripts, ensuring they can wade through the antiquated language and understand the meaning of what they are reading and saying.
After two weeks of table readings — on top of one-on-one meetings with Rieger — they begin working on how to incorporate gestures and tone into the script in order to make the sometimes complicated dialogue as accessible as possible for the audience.
It makes it easier, Rieger said, to realize that underneath the 17th century words and settings, Shakespeare’s words — at their most basic — are just illustrating things we all feel everyday.
“It’s the story of human desire and ambition, greed, love — all the things that make us human,” Rieger said. “It falls to the actors to bring this all to life.”
When he was studying Shakespeare in graduate school, Rieger felt surprised as he flipped through the pages of antiquated language and recognized sayings he’d heard as he was growing up in eastern Kentucky.
“Shakespeare is the linguistic heritage of every English speaker — Appalachia included,” Rieger said. “The language in Appalachia didn’t change in the same way it did in the rest of America. I think in that way, people in Appalachia have a special tie, a special relationship with Shakespeare.”
Concerning Shakespearian language, Boyles said she believes the intimidation factor carried with complicated, dated dialogue can seem smaller as people watch sword fights, laugh at jokes and empathize with heroes. By giving hands-on experiences, she believes more people are willing to give Shakespeare’s writings a chance. Because Shakespeare is telling stories based on the human condition, Rieger believes these plays can serve as a tool to help people connect, no matter where they’re from or what they believe. People here, he said, have just as much to relate to Shakespeare as any other human in any era, because it’s all about being human.
“People in Appalachia are like people everywhere — they feel desire, they feel ambition, they feel anxieties, they fall in love. They experience life as people have experienced it for centuries. Shakespeare articulates that with a particular efficiency,” Rieger said. “This is the opportunity for us to experience the essence of the human condition and come and see it live, where you’re sitting, shoulder to shoulder with your fellow audience members, perhaps talking a little bit about the show, and gasping together and laughing together and experiencing the show together. If we can, in some small way, make a contribution to bringing people together I think we would have done a very good thing.”
Attendees for the play are urged to pack picnics, blankets, lawn chairs and anything else they want to enjoy the performances, which are completely free of charge. “King Lear” will premiere at 6 p.m. July 21 at Pipestem Resort State Park, with shows there on July 22 and July 23, as well. Shows will be held at the Alexander Fine Arts Building at Concord University on July 28, 29 and 30.
Reach Caity Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5119 or follow @caitycoyne on Twitter.