“Slow down, people,” director Jonathan Jones implored his young cast during a recent rehearsal in Pless Hall’s Black Box Theatre. The adolescent actors—seventeen 13- to-18-year-olds selected by audition to participate in Steinhardt’s annual Looking for Shakespeare workshop—had just finished a charmingly energetic run-through (off-book) of the second act of Twelfth Night, which they’ll be performing July 24-26.
That’s the play (for those who might not remember from English class) about the pair of twins who, having been separated in a shipwreck, find themselves embroiled in intertwining love plots built around some cases of cross-dressing fueled mistaken identity. Its second act is the source of the often-quoted line: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
In this run there’d been a few hiccups—a dropped line here, a missed cue there, and some confusion over the best method for peering out from behind a piece of scenery—but with more than a week left to polish scenes, the precocious thespians had soldiered on with poise and élan befitting veteran performers. (See moments from the rehearsal in the slideshow above.)
Over the course of this four-week program each summer, an ensemble made of theatrically inclined teenagers from all over the country (and sometimes the world) work with a director and a dramaturg to develop an original Shakespeare production. This year’s Twelfth Night is a musical adaptation with vaudeville-inspired song-and-dance numbers.
When, after giving notes on Act II, Jones and a team of Steinhardt graduate students took some of the cast aside to work on fight choreography, NYU Stories buttonholed a trio of actors enjoying a break to ask about the work that goes into putting up a five-act Elizabethan comedy in just four weeks. Here’s what Liam, 13 (who plays Feste, the clown), Esther, 16 (Maria), and Lauren, 15 (Valentine), had to say about getting into a role—and what real-life teenage romance taught them about Shakespeare.
What was going on in Act II?
Liam: Why are you all looking at me to answer this? [laughs] The most vital thing that happens is that Maria convinces everyone who goes to Olivia’s house to get drunk and write a letter to fool Malvolio into thinking that Olivia loves him. And in the end Malvolio reads the letter and agrees to do all these ridiculous things.
What have you been doing to get into character?
Lauren: First, our grad students let us break down each of our lines from Shakespeare so that we really understand them. Then they want us to put the character in our shoes. We actually had two people from Broadway come in here and they said as humans we all have all these different sides to us. And acting is really just exploring each of those sides.
Liam: For the physicality of the characters, you can’t just walk on stage like a regular person. No one wants to see you; they want to see your character. So we try to think about how this person would walk. What face would they put on? How do they present themselves?
What do you make of all the cross-dressing in Twelfth Night?
Liam: The point is that sometimes you have to change yourself to get what you want. In Viola’s case it didn’t work out at all, but she thought that she would have had to change herself to suit Orsino.
Is it tough to keep Shakespeare’s lines straight in your head?
Esther: Not really—I have a slight obsession with Shakespeare. I really love the language, so I don’t have too much more difficulty with it than I would with a normal text.
Liam: I think the hardest part about Shakespeare is trying to internalize it. My director told me a long time ago when he was prepping me for the audition here that you have to understand what’s going on almost in a cartoony way, and understand that your character is actually speaking what for him is regular language.
Lauren: Yeah, if at first you don’t understand what you’re saying, it’s like, how am I supposed to memorize this if I don’t even know what it means?
So if not the language, what is the toughest part about doing this play?
Lauren: Well, we have full-on musical numbers, which is pretty unusual for Shakespeare—not just at the big happy wedding scenes, but all throughout!
Esther: Right. Doing Shakespeare is a lot of work. Doing a musical is a lot of work. So doing a musical that’s Shakespeare is a TON of work. Trying to incorporate the music for a lot of kids who came into this not really expecting to do music is pretty difficult.
Liam: Yes. Everyone sings!
Is there anything in Twelfth Night that you’ve been able to connect to your own personal experiences?
Lauren: Oh, definitely the drama aspect.
Esther: Yes, there’s a lot of drama.
Lauren: Like with the boys and the girls and the crushes—
Esther: And who likes who, and “tell me what he said, and oh my god go give him this”—
Lauren: And the popular girl is always like “oh, I don’t want anybody”—
Esther: And the guy is like, “Yo, dude, go tell her I like her. But don’t say that I said I like her, but say I maybe like her and see if she responds....”
Liam: Basically, it’s middle school.