Today@Sam Article

Theatre Prof Brings Reimagined Shakespeare Classic To UTC Following Prague Experience

Feb. 6, 2017
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

Prior directing Shakespeare
Theatre professor Thomas Prior directs students rehearsing for the upcoming production of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Following his experiences in Prague, where he produced, directed and starred in a reimagined version of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," Prior will present a creative twist on the classic romantic comedy when it opens Feb. 22. —Photos by Michael Ray

Story by Tammy Parrett. 

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

In this excerpt from one of William Shakespeare’s popular plays, “The Merchant of Venice,” the villain, Shylock, explains that although he and Salarino live different lives, they are more similar than they realize. 

It was this idea that inspired Thomas Prior, professor of theatre at Sam Houston State University, to direct and produce the play for the Prague Shakespeare Company’s PSC400, a year-long program dedicated to celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

“We wanted to help introduce these new characters and concepts to a generation of young people who have never been introduced to the story,” Prior said.

Prior got involved with PSC400 after speaking with its artistic director Guy Roberts, who suggested that Prior come to Prague to produce a play for the celebration. After receiving permission to take the trip as faculty development leave, Prior began making plans to spend three months in Prague, where he was given free rein to choose the play he wanted to direct.

(Above) Prior (left) with his costars in the PSC400 production of "Merchant of Venice," set in Auschwitz during World War II. (Below) Tyn Cathedral in Old Town Square in Prague. —Submitted photos

“That was fantastic for me, because it opened up a lot of artistic possibilities,” Prior said. “I’d done a particular concept of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with the Classical Theatre Company in Houston that set the play with two prisoners in Auschwitz and a Nazi guard.”

The adaptation follows two Jewish prisoners who are working in the sorting room at Auschwitz and are forced by their Nazi captors to present the play. Performing all of the parts, the two prisoners explore their own identities and tribulations through the characters’ eyes. 

As plans progressed, Prior not only directed the production for the PSC400, but he also ended up producing it and playing Shylock.

“It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun,” he said. “As a director, I had to guide the process and make sure everything was running smoothly. As a producer, I was responsible for securing costumes, talking with the artistic director at Classical Theatre Company to make sure we could do his adaptation, making sure the actors were paid, that we had enough rehearsal time, or that we had a location to rehearse. Sometimes, because of the PSC400 schedule, we ended up having to rehearse in the living room of my apartment.” 

To prepare for their roles, Prior accompanied fellow actors Barbora Vacková and Jared Doreck to the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to get a better feel for their characters’ experiences.  

“There are no words to describe being at Auschwitz,” Prior said. “Nothing prepares you for actually walking in their footsteps and touching the walls of the gas chambers and barracks where all those people died. It was a life-changing experience, and one that I’ll never forget. 

“As an actor and a director of the piece, it opened my eyes to the importance of telling the story of the play and the prisoners’ story,” he said. “Walking on the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I had a sense of the dread and entrapment they must have felt. Yet, the prisoners there must have found seeds of hope and joy somewhere, whether it was conversations with their fellow prisoners or finding simple joys to escape the brutality.” 

Prior believes the part of the adaptation’s success in Prague is due to the proximity of the concentration camps and the city.

“The reactions to the play were visceral,” he said. “After Poland, Czechoslovakia was the second country to be invaded during World War II; a lot of these people still have very close connections to the horrors that went on. Many of them probably have grandparents who were alive during this time, so it really hit close to home.” 

It was because of his experience in Prague that Prior decided to direct Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at SHSU.

Like “Merchant of Venice,” the production—presented Feb. 22-25 in the University Theatre Center’s Erica Starr Theatre—will offer a more modern twist on a Shakespeare classic.

“It is about a group of actors during the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, in which the people of the Czechoslovakia were led by Vaclav Havel (playwright, dissident and future Czech president) against the Communist regime,” Prior said. “(In the production) They decide to ‘take over’ a theatre and perform ‘As You Like It,’ because what Mr. Havel stands for is freedom: ‘As We Like It.’”

"As You Like It" was chosen for the spring 2017 semester in celebration of the UTC's 40th anniversary, which was the last time the Shakespeare classic was produced at SHSU. —Photo by Michael Ray

While Shakespeare’s original production was more than 400 years ago, the play still has cultural application, according to Prior.

“The play is a pastoral comedy and I think it’s important for an audience to experience it. With the current political climate in our country, this play resonates on many levels,” he said. “‘As You Like It’ is a timeless piece about the power of love, the corruption of the court versus the freedom of the forest, compassion, inclusion and many other thematic elements relevant today.”

The presentation of this particular play also has relevance to SHSU; it was selected because 2017 represents the 40th year anniversary of the UTC and the last time that “As You Like It” was produced.   

Aside from the influence Prior’s time in Prague has had in bringing Shakespeare back to the UTC stage and the ideas he brought back to integrate into his acting classes at SHSU, Prior also hopes to take students to Prague to give them opportunities to work as interns for the Prague Shakespeare Company. 

“My big hope was to foster these types of educational opportunities for students, especially students who have never been out of Texas or out of the country,” Prior said. “I want them to have more of a world view. Sometimes we have a myopic view of the world because of how big the U.S. is and how far we are from Europe. We’re so far away from everything. There, you can travel two hours and be in another country. 

“I believe it’s very important for students to experience the culture in different parts of the world because it helps them understand that there are an infinite number of experiences happening in the world all around us,” he said.

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