Shakespeare on the Red

Thespians to stage classical theatre along Grand Forks Greenway — with support from UND, community and First Lady Debbie Kennedy

Stephanie Murry

Stephanie Murry, North Dakota Shakespeare Producing Artist Director, is bringing professional theatre to Grand Forks with an outdoor production of “Romeo and Juliet” June 13-18 in Town Square Park. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

If you attended an American high school, chances are you’ve heard, read or recited the following lines:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

It’s one of the most quotable couplets of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and depending on your English class experience, it will make you swoon or squirm.

“There’s this stigma surrounding Shakespeare — that it’s inaccessible, or not for certain groups of people. And I feel like it’s the complete opposite,” said Stephanie Murry, UND assistant professor of theatre arts. “Shakespeare wrote it for the common man, and he charged next to nothing for people to stand on the floor and watch the shows. We want to make Shakespeare something the community feels like is for everybody.”

Murry, along with UND Associate Professor of Threatre Arts Brad Reissig, spun this sentiment into North Dakota Shakespeare—a UND-supported theatre company that seeks to bring quality classical theatre to the banks of the Red River. The team has been working the past several weeks with a mixture of professionally trained actors and crew and student apprentices from around the country to produce a modernized, outdoor rendition of “Romeo and Juliet.” The production will run this week in along the Grand Forks Greenway in the Town Square Park, free of charge.

Murry says the goal of the project is twofold—to create a learning opportunity for students and to enrich the community.

“The arts are so vital to development as children, but also as adults. The more we’re exposed to art, the more empathetic we are,” Murry said. “Seeing characters living different lives in different communities than their own opens up their eyes to something that they might not get to see here in North Dakota.”

The theatre company wouldn’t be possible without funding, so Murry and Reissig sought support from the UND College of Arts & Sciences Fine Arts & Humanities Scholarship Initiative—a competitive internal grant offered by the UND Provost and President each year.

“It provides faculty with support to engage in important creative work and scholarship that impacts their teaching, contributes to the disciplines and contributes to the community,” said Debbie Storrs, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and UND senior vice provost.

Actors took advantage of a sunny day to practice a fighting scene from "Romeo and Juliet." Front left to right: Luke Harger (Romeo), Matthew Murry (Mercutio) being stabbed by Nick Munson (Tybalt) as Lauren Hugh (Benvolia) watches from behind. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Actors took advantage of a sunny day to practice a fighting scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Front left to right: Luke Harger (Romeo), Matthew Murry (Mercutio) being stabbed by Nick Munson (Tybalt) as Lauren Hugh (Benvolia) watches from behind. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

A hands-on role

UND technical theatre junior Ryan Zako has been spending his summer on the main stage of the Burtness Theatre. But he’s not acting—he’s building.

“Juliet’s going to be up on this balcony, holding onto those railings,” the Cottage Grove, Minn. native explained, motioning to his recent handiwork.

Zako is “Romeo and Juliet’s” technical apprentice, working alongside UND technical director Loren Liepold to build a vibrant, portable set that can be taken from campus to Town Square. Zako will also handle the audio system on performance nights.

“This is direct, hands-on experience, getting wisdom from people like Loren or Brad [Reissig], who have had years of experience doing this,” he said. “Being able to do all this—it’s something you don’t get in a classroom.”

This experiential learning feeds the first goal of UND’s Strategic Plan—providing a strong undergraduate liberal arts foundation, ripe with high impact opportunities like research and internships.

“They’re in the rehearsal space or the scene shop or costume shop, learning hands-on from designers, directors and different people who have more expertise in their fields,” Murry said. “And a lot of the professionals aren’t from here, so they’re learning from people who they can network with who might be able to help them get jobs down the line.”

Kennedy’s costumes

“These are my ideas for what the show should look like,” said UND First Lady and Costume Designer Debbie Kennedy as she pointed to colorful sketches tacked to the walls of the Burtness costume shop. “This isn’t typical Verona, Italy. The words [the director] used were ‘Game of Thrones,’ high-fashion New York runway, and graffiti.”

Kennedy, who holds an MFA in costume design, has been working with students to craft the wearable art that the “Romeo and Juliet” audience will see onstage.

“Because this is educational theatre, I really want the students to have a hand in the creativity, so I’ve really given them free rein,” Kennedy said. “Their personalities are just so full of potential and so much hope and optimism and enthusiasm for the show and for their lives in general.”

The First Lady says the UND community’s enthusiasm for theatre has been evident in the year she’s been on campus, adding that it’s important for all students—not just those dreaming of the stage—to get involved.

“It helps them transfer the skills they learn in theatre to the rest of their world—interview skills, dressing skills, confidence skills. It’s just so applicable across your whole life,” she said.

UND First Lady Debbie Kennedy

UND First Lady Debbie Kennedy, who holds an MFA in costume design, has been working with students to craft the wearable art that the “Romeo and Juliet” audience will see onstage. Photo by Stephanie Murry.

Support from the wings

Murry has worked closely with the City of Grand Forks to bring her idea to the public stage, and has found additional support from community sponsors like the Grand Forks Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, Grand Forks Subaru Kia, The Loft Bar & Grill, The Ember, and more. The Buddha Belly food truck will be on hand for performance grub, and local food blog star Molly Yeh will be selling cookies.

“We’re trying to make it a community event that benefits downtown, not just us,” Murry said.

Performances will run in Town Square June 13-18 starting at 7 p.m. with a 6:30 p.m. variety pre-show. Admission is free—just bring your own chair or a blanket and arrive early for the best spots.

“Expect to have a lot of fun, but also to be really moved, because it is a romance and it is tragic,” Murry said. “It’s sort of a lesson for all of us that differences can either divide us or they can bring us together, and hopefully it brings us together.”

 

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