Through the Forest
Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival will reboot for its 20th anniversary
Paul Rathburn, a beloved Notre Dame English professor who died in February, retired from teaching in 2000 only to step up his efforts to bring William Shakespeare to life on campus.
A fervent believer that Shakespeare can’t be learned on paper alone, Rathburn’s favorite phrase was “page to stage,” meaning that the best way to truly understand the Bard was to experience the poetry of his words in performance as they were meant to be. The works are both literary texts and theatrical scripts.
Rathburn’s core vision was to produce high-quality theatrical productions that bring together professional actors for the major roles but incorporate Notre Dame students in the supporting roles. The unique combination has borne fruit for the students, actors and community.
“It’s my legacy, my gift to Notre Dame,” Rathburn told The Observer in 2005 when he stepped aside after producing the first six shows. “We say we want to be known for more than football. How about Shakespeare?”
Rathburn started his Summer Shakespeare program with one July show at Washington Hall. Over the past 20 years, it has grown dramatically, and not just by moving into the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
Now known as the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival (NDSF), it includes a professionally mounted mainstage production, traveling performances by a touring company, community-oriented local programs, and special events that include guest artists, lectures and presentations.
Notre Dame has also the central hub of separate national programs: a five-actor campus tour called Actors From the London Stage and a Shakespeare in Prisons outreach network. These programs fall under the umbrella of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, headed by Scott Jackson, the Mary Irene Ryan Family Executive Director.
While the coronavirus pandemic has postponed the planned 20th anniversary celebration and this year’s shows until next year, it will speed up a reboot that was scheduled to pause the productions next year.
“The reboot is about looking at the extraordinary achievements we’ve managed so far,” said Peter Holland, the McMeel Family Professor in Shakespeare Studies. “We are now well-known nationally. To do that in only 20 years, that’s really impressive.”
“It’s also about the next stage of expansion for further ideas and more thrilling content. We’re ambitious and Notre Dame is ambitious.”
Grant Mudge, the Ryan Producing Artistic Director for NDSF, recently announced new programs that will enlist NDSF artists, staff and volunteers to create online content in Shakespeare education, training and performance. Patrons can view or participate for free in any of the offerings that start on June 15, another nod to the program’s original vision.
“The through line for Paul [Rathburn] was an opportunity for students to be onstage — acting, designing, lighting, etc. — right along with professional actors and designers and directors,” Mudge said. “I hear the question all the time. Are you a professional or student company? My answer is yes.”
Performing Shakespeare at the University goes all the way back to the school’s origins. By 1847, five years after Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., founded Notre Dame, records have students staging Shakespeare scenes as a part of Washington’s birthday or Commencement celebrations.
The first full production of a Bard play was “Henry IV, Part I” on Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1864. The actors were secondary and elementary students then called minims, and “Henry IV” was so popular it was performed 11 times over the years. An 1876 photo is famous for being the first ever to include a show’s full cast.
The genesis of the NDSF had been percolating in Rathburn since 1983, when he taught a Shakespeare class in the London program that emphasized the importance of performance. The students saw every play they read and spoke to the actors about the experience of performing Shakespeare.
Back on campus, Rathburn expanded the experiment in 1989 with a new course called Shakespeare in Performance, where students put on four plays each semester. He began taking students to see Shakespeare productions in Chicago and to festivals in Ontario.
In modern times, a student company named The Not So Royal Shakespeare Co. (NSR) had performed Shakespeare sporadically over the years until a 1997 restart, and it has run continually since.
Amanda Abdo-Sheahan, a student of Rathburn’s, met her husband Bill while performing in Not So Royal shows. In 1995, she was expecting to spearhead the NSR show as a senior but was in a car accident that left her paralyzed and hospitalized.
“Professor Rathburn stepped in and picked up the reins to cover for me,” Abdo-Sheahan said. “It got his wheels turning and solidified what he’d been looking for in the performance class — how to bring some live Shakespeare on campus.”
Rathburn realized that dream in 2000 when he retired and staged “The Taming of the Shrew.” Abdo-Sheahan’s family helped by endowing the Abdo Family Director position. Amanda and Bill Sheahan became advisory board members at a time when the board organized fundraising and found housing for the pro actors.
“It was really on a shoestring, all hands on deck at first,” Abdo-Sheahan said. “I can’t believe time has gone so quickly and how much the program has grown. To think I had some of these people as classmates, and now they are coming back as professional actors, it’s kind of mind-boggling.”
As Summer Shakespeare grew and proved itself, Abdo-Sheahan said its success persuaded the University to step up its financial support. A new community company was started called ShakeScenes, which features family-friendly shows by local youth groups and performers.
Summer Shakespeare moved to the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center in 2005 for “Henry V” and hired a full-time producing artistic director after Rathburn’s departure. Major changes began in 2008, when it changed names to NDSF and became part of the larger Shakespeare at Notre Dame program. Mudge took over for Jay Skelton in 2012.
New programs were added, such as the Touring Company, a troupe that allows the student apprentices on the mainstage shows to star in parks and stages across the Michiana region. The community company added Shakespeare After Hours to feature local adult productions of Shakespeare “at his bawdy, boozy, bloody best.”
Separately, Jackson expanded Actors From the London Stage. Co-founded by British actor Patrick Stewart, this one-week residency program visits 16-20 college campuses each year. Shakespeare at Notre Dame now coordinates these academic tours, which include visits from the five professional actors to multiple classrooms.
“Their work in classrooms is crucial,” Holland said. “And they’re not just in theater classes and English classes.” He said the actors visit architecture classes to talk about how space works, law classes about using voice in a court room, and business classes about giving presentations.
Jackson and Holland in 2013 also helped found the Shakespeare in Prisons Network that brings Shakespeare study and performance to the nearby Westville Correctional Facility. Holland said the recidivism rate of the inmates in the national program is about 6 percent, compared to more than 70 percent for other inmates. “Something happens when they work with Shakespeare, and it changes them,” he said.
Jackson’s wife, Christy Burgess, runs a Shakespeare program at the Robinson Community Learning Center that brought a group of local students to London in 2017. Last August, a two-year exhibit titled “Full Circle: Shakespearean Culture at Notre Dame” opened at the History Museum in South Bend.
Holland emphasized that the program’s growth expands on Rathburn’s plan. Teaching students and bringing Shakespeare to the community are still the focus points. Except now, some students audition from around the country.
The teaching impact can perhaps be best seen through the experience of a single student. Abbey Schnell came to Notre Dame in 2014 intending to study psychology. The Chicago suburbs native “was not interested in Shakespeare at all” until she got involved as a freshman in a Not So Royal production desperate for willing students.
She enjoyed performing in a horror version of Shakespeare scenes so much that she tried out for the NDSF show, which included a terrifying audition before Mudge and a professional director.
“I didn’t even know I love Shakespeare until I was in our incredible program,” she said. “I always wanted to learn about people and how they function. I wasn’t getting it out of psychology but I did from history and literature and acting. It was the right choice for me.”
Her first role was the Princess of France in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which included learning a French Canadian accent and working with a voice coach to learn how to project outdoors. She loved playing Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” and wrote her senior thesis on the character. But the key, she said, was working alongside real equity actors.
“Just watching professional actors do what they are best at is the best training,” she said. “Being in rehearsal next to them and seeing their focus and the questions they ask the director, the requests they make. It’s its own education.”
After Schnell became a leader in NSR, she directed “Hamlet” as a junior and even had to make cuts for senior productions. She graduated in 2018 and did a half-year internship at Mudlark Children’s Theater in Evanston, Illinois. She is now applying to MFA programs and wants to start her own theater company someday.
“My dream theater company is basically the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival but all year around,” she said.
Plans for the 20th anniversary celebration have moved to 2021. The productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” will move to equivalent dates next summer. The chosen theme — “through the forest have we gone” — takes on another layer of meaning, like many Shakespearean metaphors.
A reunion of former staff and performers will take place next August and will also celebrate Rathburn’s life. The online workshops may become a permanent part of the future.
Running from June 16 to Aug. 5, the workshops include performances of music or scenes in the works, training sessions on movement and stage scenery, and education about iambic pentameter and enduring plagues in the plays.
Holland hopes the reboot effort will bring NDSF to another level. He thinks that staging two different shows in repertory could attract tourism to the community, as a multi-show festival has for a tiny Virginia town that built a recreation of the Elizabethan-era Blackfriars Playhouse.
“Imagine you’re in Chicago and you think about going all the way to South Bend for one Shakespeare play,” Holland said. “It’s a long way, but you might go for a couple of Shakespeare plays over a couple of nights.”
Mudge said his dreams include an outdoor structure that students can’t miss, because some students don’t know much about the University’s Shakespeare programs. The arts district being created on the south end of campus offers potential.
“We’re rethinking what we’ll be,” he said, “and reinventing ourselves for the next 20 years.”