Stephen Thorne has been acting and directing Shakespeare for more than 25 years, so he knows how challenging it can be — particularly the old-style language. Thorne’s latest directorial effort, “Twelfth Night,” opens in the Michelson Theater on Friday, and one of Thorne’s main goals has been to make the play more digestible for both actors and audience.
The comedy focuses on Viola, who, after getting shipwrecked with her twin brother (and believing him to be dead), assumes the identity of a man in order to survive. She gets a job working for Duke Orsino, and falls in love with him — but he is in love with someone else. As the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust puts it: “Viola thinks her brother is dead. He thinks that she is dead. Everyone thinks that she is her brother. Everyone thinks that her brother is her. Shenanigans ensue.”
For some, the Renaissance-era language of Shakespeare — “Twelfth Night” was written in 1602 — is difficult to understand. To make the play more accessible to those unfamiliar with Shakespeare, Thorne has incorporated an additional character, dubbed casually as the “Shakespeare fan,” who helps lead the audience through the poetry of the show.
Thorne also worked with his cast of actors to make “Twelfth Night” fit better with contemporary times. For example, to empower characters who were written as servants, they brainstormed new occupations — Fabian, who was a servant in the original text, is now the curious neighbor.
“Plays are impressionable,” Thorne says. “We want to make characters feel confident, strengthening the story world for the audiences.”
These amendments help continue the tradition of Shakespeare and the importance it has in the theater world, as well as in everyday life. Shakespeare is the best teacher for someone studying theater, Thorne says, whether as an actor or as a member of the production crew. Shakespeare allows students to expand their preconceptions of theater — technical, emotional, and spiritual awareness is key to producing a Shakespearean play.
“Poetry is an incredible expression of humanity,” Thorne says. Audiences also grow from the experience of seeing one of Shakespeare’s plays, which include epic tales that evoke a range of feelings that may leave viewers with a deepened understanding of themselves — and possibly humanity itself.
“‘Twelfth Night’ is one of the best comedies ever written,” Thorne says. “It’s funny, has amazing characters, and incredible depth, including the unpredictable force of love.”
While death frames the play, at the center of “Twelfth Night” there’s joy, Thorne adds. Recognizing what the student actors have been through over the past few years with COVID and other challenges, he wanted to work with a play that didn’t focus on sorrow. Part of the process was “relearning joy and full-heartedly embracing the arts and theater,” he says.
“Twelfth Night” will be performed in the Michelson Theater in Little Center on April 21 at 7:30 p.m.; April 22 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and April 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free with a Clark ID, and $5 for the general public. Reserve your tickets now »