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Cultivating a New Generation of Hamlets

November 04, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — The class members ripped into Shakespeare's poetry.

Taking a section of dialogue from "Hamlet," they laid bare the Bard's rhyme and rhythm.

They methodically fractured Shakespeare's poetry into spondees, trochees, Alexandrines and zeugmas.

No, this wasn't an other raiding party of English literature majors pillaging and plundering Shakespeare for new dissertation subjects. The seven young actors analyzing the Bard comprise the first class in a new graduate program jointly sponsored by the University of San Diego and the Old Globe Theatre. The two-year course, which leads to a master of fine arts degree in dramatic arts, combines an intellectual approach with practical theater training.

Old Globe Executive Producer Craig Noel conceived the course as a way to stem the tide of disappearing American classical stage actors. It's a way to provide the Hamlets, Lears, Macbeths and Cleopatras of the next generation.

"I've seen that actors weren't receiving enough classical work, primarily Shakespeare," Noel said in a recent interview. "For audition pieces they are doing (David Mamet's) 'Sexual Perversity in Chicago.' There's nothing wrong with that, but it's limited in its imagination, its scope, its vocabulary. I've found out that, generally speaking, when (actors) attempted classical work--Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw--they weren't able to handle it."

The problem is television and, to a lesser degree, films, Noel said.

"There's so much work for actors in the (television) industry that they've opted to stay in the industry. Or they are terrified that they can't cut it in the theater," he said.

"We're having increasing difficulty in finding the talent" to play Shakespeare, said David Hay, the program's director, who has a doctorate in English and is an associate director for the Globe. He has put together a staff of instructors from the Globe and the university.

Not surprisingly, most of the students want to work in television and films, but they agree about the importance of classical theater.

"Their idea is that a good classical background will allow you to work in any medium," said graduate student Matthew Edwards. Edwards, who graduated from Humboldt State University in Arcata last year, said, "If you can handle Shakespeare, you can handle anything."

More than 100 actors applied for the program and tried out at one of five auditions held in in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Only eight were selected. Eight more will be added for each successive class.

The opportunity to work in a major regional theater was a strong attraction, Edwards and others said. As part of the program, the students will appear in minor roles during the Globe's summer season, as members of the Young Globe Company. They also have their USD tuition fully paid and receive a stipend for living expenses, Hay said.

Because of the way the master's program is set up, the students can earn credit toward membership in Actors Equity, the professional actors' union.

Elizabeth Soukup, 31, of Chicago, Ill., auditioned after a friend told her about the program. Now she spends her days and nights in classes: voice, speech, movement, tai chi, fencing, singing and rehearsing for a production of A.R. Gurney Jr.'s "Scenes From American Life."

The graduate students will perform the Gurney play Nov. 18-21 at Sacred Heart Hall at USD.

Another distinguishing element in the curriculum is a series of classes called "text in context," designed to "fill out the general intellectual background" of American actors.

"If an actor is playing an Egyptian or a Greek, he'd better know something about what society and what politics created that man," Noel said.

Taught by members of the university's English department, the classes provide the students with information about specific periods of history.

"The point of these courses is to take a play the students will be working on and put it in the context of the time in which it was written," said Bart Thurber, English Department chairman.

For a play the students will perform by George Bernard Shaw, Thurber will teach a course that "will look at Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov, Fabian socialism and what 1910 looked like, what people had for breakfast in the morning."

Another key player in developing the master of fine arts program was Sister Sally Furay, USD academic vice president and provost.

Noel approached the school with the idea seven years ago. But the Globe and USD soon found themselves involved in fund-raising projects. The Globe had to raise money to rebuild its theater after an arson fire, and USD embarked on a building program of its own.

Furay, who was asked to join the Old Globe board of directors, was still skeptical about the program.

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