All the world's a stage
New Houston Shakespeare Festival Conservatory puts young Texas actors in thespotlight
Seasoned theater, television and film star Seth Gilliam, the 2011 Houston Shakespeare Festival’s Othello, stands at the center of the University of Houston’s Jose Quintero Lab Theatre grimacing and waving his hands in the air in his portrayal of a giant space bug. More accurately, Gilliam is doing a hilarious imitation of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven on the set of Starship Troopers, motivating his actors into authentic reactions to the charging alien insect hordes. Gilliam’s only audience for this bit of acting prowess: Fifteen Texas high school students attending the inaugural year of the Houston Shakespeare Festival Conservatory.
The Conservatory is the creation of Steven Wallace, director of the UH School of Theatre and Dance, and it is being significantly shaped by Kathy Powdrell, the Conservatory’s coordinator. It is an attempt to bring the HSF in line with other prestigious American Shakespeare Festivals that have educational outreach programs attached to them.
The program is self-funded, with students paying their own tuition, so Powdrell says, “We need to get scholarships. We need to make it affordable, and bring the price down. . .We got to keep working it. I’m not going to stay satisfied, will keep trying to make it better.”
“What we wanted to do, Steve and I, was to take it a step further, and that’s why we’re calling it a conservatory and not a camp," he said. "What we wanted to do is attach it and run in concurrently with the Shakespeare Festival, giving these Texas students the opportunity to get some pre-professional training.”
The Conservatory aspires to inspire Texas high school drama students, bringing them to Houston for theater training and to participate in the Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre. There are plenty of drama and music camps around the state, many affiliated with Texas colleges and universities, but Powdrell wants the two-week-long Conservatory to be different.
An important aspect of that training is letting the students learn from, question and work alongside many of the cast and crew of this season's HSF Othello and Taming of the Shrew productions. This brings us back to Gilliam, waving a large red broom in the air, yelling in a Dutch accent, while he “directs” the high school students to shoot their imaginary guns at the imaginary marauding giant, bug aliens. (Gilliam appeared in Starship Troopers as Private Sugar Watkins.)
This fun actually comes at the end of a nearly two hour Q&A session where the students ask thoughtful, smart questions about process, training, and different acting approaches for television, film and theater. Gilliam responds with entertaining but very forthright stories of his own acting experiences and techniques. He treats the students, (the youngest, Daniel Miniot, only turned 15 last Saturday) as intelligent adults and their questions and responses indicate that’s what they deserve.
Gilliam covers a lot of his acting career in a short time, from performing onstage with Denzel Washington in Richard III to the distraction of Parisian women when filming Jefferson in Paris to the sometimes frustrating experience of not always knowing his character’s future arc in The Wire.
The students become still and contemplative when Gilliam answers a question about the one thing he wished he knew as a young actor. He tells them, “When it is my turn, I have the right to take all the time that I need,” stressing the importance of knowing their own worth and knowing they deserve to take their own time when acting.
Immediately after their session with Gilliam, Obie winning Leah Gardiner, the director of Othello, who also happens to be married to Gilliam, comes in for a much quieter, though just as candid talk with the students. Like Gilliam she stresses both the rewards given and hard work required for a drama and theatre career.
While the Q&A sessions with Gilliam and Gardiner might seem like the ultimate treat for any young drama student, they’re really only small highlights of two very full weeks. This second week of the Conservatory, the students spend their days in workshops and master classes taught by some of the HSF cast and crew. They’ve had stage combat training, scene studies, and technical classes. In the evening, they perform for thousands at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
For the HSF, the students were asked to compose two shows themselves with Powdrell’s help. During the first days of the Conservatory, both Gardiner and Taming of the Shrew director Jack Young met with the students and devised ways to integrate them into the two productions. They open Othello running onto the stage, brandishing large, red banners and banging drums. In Shrew, they do an umbrella dance for the other characters.
In both plays they are costumed and come onstage between scenes to reset scenery and props. Every night they take their bows with the rest of the cast.
The other main focus of the first week was to create two pre-performance Green Shows which they perform on the hill at Miller and on the paved area between the concession building and theatre entrance 30 minutes before the plays begin. Many Shakespeare festivals have some type of music, comedy, or Elizabethan era entertainment pre-show before their main productions.
In keeping with the '80s comedy theme in Young’s production of Shrew, the students created a game show skit with famous sitcom characters like the Fonz, Kramer, Gilligan and Marcia Brady as contestants. For Gardiner’s traditionally-set Othello, Powdrell has revived the medieval and Renaissance tradition of the show. The students perform a five-minute pantomime of Othello that becomes a kind of beautiful, tragic dance as they move through the main actions to the beat of a lone drum that drives them to the play’s inevitable conclusion. Gardiner has seen the show and said she was “amazed.”
There is hope that the Conservatory will become an integral part of the HSF for years to come. Powdrell will work “to get enough money to bring students from all over the city. To bring more diversity to the program, so we can expose all types of students and teach Shakespeare through performance.”
Powdrell would like to build up the program, foreseeing a time when 75 students from all around Texas — while keeping a commitment to the Houston area — with a wide range of academic ability and interests might come to the Conservatory. The program is self-funded, with students paying their own tuition, so Powdrell says, “We need to get scholarships. We need to make it affordable, and bring the price down. . .We got to keep working it. I’m not going to stay satisfied, will keep trying to make it better.”
Even though this is the first summer, the program is already the only one in the state that immediately puts its students into a professional production. Powdrell says “It’s almost too good to be true,” as she discusses the students “working side by side in an equity house under equity rules with professionals, like Seth and Leah. It’s just a wonderful opportunity. I just can’t believe that we got a professional Shakespeare company willing to work with the kids like this. There’s nothing like this in Texas.”