A group of just five actors with minimal sets and props will perform the entirety of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at 7:30 tonight in the Schwab Auditorium.
The Actors From the London Stage have embarked on its fall tour and are making another stop at Penn State after several years.
The program was co-founded by Patrick Stewart , a well-known British actor, and the actors’ tours are coordinated and housed at University of Notre Dame . The group visits between 16 and 20 universities each year, according to its website, and they have a fall tour and a spring tour, each presenting a different production.
The Center for the Performing Arts Editorial Manager John Mark Rafacz said The Actors From the London Stage present Shakespeare in a very fundamental way, adding that they are a “wonderful ensemble” for a college campus because the actors provide a great learning opportunity.
Because there are only five of them and there are more than five roles in the play, each actor has to play multiple roles. To differentiate between characters — some minor characters and also lead characters — Rafacz said they might use a certain hat when being a certain character or change their accent.
Hats may be some of the only props they use. Rafacz said there is no set and very minimal use of props. He said the audience will become acclimated quickly to this style, despite how confusing it may seem. This method focuses more on the language, “not so much about the trappings that go along with Shakespeare,” he said.
“They do a lot to demystify Shakespeare,” he said. “For students in particular, but all audiences in general.”
The five actors decide for themselves the direction the production will go, as they do not have a director. Instead, they each play roles apart from their literal roles in the show and do jobs for the production.
Nicola Alexis, who plays the role of Portia in the performance, is also the publicity coordinator for the group.
Alexis has been involved in previous productions through the Actors From the London Stage, including “The Taming of the Shrew” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She said that Portia is the most complex character she has ever played, but also her favorite.
To prepare for such a role, Alexis said it has very much to do with the choices she makes as an actor. She said the group had talked a lot about their characters.
“We talked about the roles a lot, we talked about the choices that they make and the people who they are,” she said. “That informs choices you make, how you portray it. It’s the decisions you make about the particular character.”
The Actors From the London Stage will not just be visiting the stage of Schwab —they are also visiting a variety of classes throughout this week, starting Tuesday, to connect Shakespeare’s words with what students are learning.
“The primary mission of the Actors From the London Stage is to bring Shakespeare alive in college classrooms,” Amy Dupain Vashaw said.
Vashaw, audience and program development director for the CPA, said the group visits not only English and theater classes where the connections would be more obvious, but also psychology and women’s studies classes.
Alexis said a huge part of the program is going to these classes and sharing their knowledge of theater and Shakespeare, and also whatever else students are learning about in the class.
“The thing is, for me, I can’t teach what the professor is teaching in that class, I can only give my perspective, a different way to look at the subject that they’ve been studying,” she said.
Vashaw said they were excited to be able to provide so many classes for the group to visit. They also will be connecting with the law school for the first time, she said.
Not all five of the actors visit classes at once. Instead, they split up and individually visit classes all week. She said they get the students in the class “up and reading.”
“The students gain an understanding of what Shakespeare is trying to say that if you’re just reading it on the page, you can’t really get,” she said.
The actors are also visiting middle schools and State College Area High School and working with the State High Thespians during this week. Students are not the only ones benefiting from their weeklong visit, however. They are also visiting Foxdale Village and The Village at Penn State , two retirement communities they have visited previously, Vashaw said.
All five actors will be present during an Artistic Viewpoint prior to the performance. The show is $16 for students and $32 for adults.