Shakespeare On The Whittier Stage

Monday, November 4, 2013

For aspiring Whittier College actors, it might take some convincing, but in the end, most will reach the conclusion that professor Gil Gonzalez led them to, Shakespeare is still king.

“Students always feel they’d rather do a contemporary play—something they consider more relatable,” explains Gonzalez. “I always insist that if you can do Shakespeare well, really attack a role in a Shakespearean way, you can handle any contemporary role that might come your way.”

The Theater and Communication Arts Department regularly stages one Shakespeare play per season. Recent past dramatizations include Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Comedy of Errors, and Taming of the Shrew.

“Shakespeare will prepare you for any role,” adds Gonzalez, who himself has recently performed in four of the Bard’s plays with Shakespeare Orange County. Whittier students have garnered recognition for such performances. According to Gonzalez, these young thespians are also getting work as a result of what they’ve learned acting on the stage of the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts, where all Whittier plays are staged.

Such was the case for the leads in the fall 2012 production of Taming of the Shrew. Charlotte Bailey ’13 who played Katharina and Daniel Wheeler ’13 who played Baptista, participated in the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship competition at the Region VIII 2013 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) in the spring. Up against 300 fellow thespians, Bailey and Wheeler prepared six-minute auditions—including two scenes and one monologue—for the competition.

As a result of participating in the KCACTF, Bailey received several callbacks from notable companies and landed an apprenticeship with the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, CA. According to Gonzalez, Bailey’s reaction after her experience with the Bard was, “I think you’ve won me over.”

“Whittier College students are fortunate that we expose them to Shakespeare at an early point,” said Gonzalez whose own passion for the subject comes through in his explanation of the playwrights lasting influence on the English language and universal literary themes of love, hate, lust, greed, and power. 

“I teach students not be intimidated by the work,” said Gonzalez. “I work to demystify Shakespeare and show students that he’s not as scary as they think.”

Shakespeare’s’ lessons go beyond the stage of the Shannon Center. Gonzalez teaches a module based on Henry V’s “St. Crispen’s Day Speech” with sociology professor Susan Gotch for the business department’s Liberal Arts of Organizational Leadership Program. The iconic speech is used to teach aspiring leaders how language can be used to inspire others—whether it’s in a boardroom or a classroom.

“I get the students to practice what Henry V was doing when he was rallying his troops,” said Gonzalez who asks students in the course, most of whom are not theatre majors, to get on their feet and recite Shakespeare’s words taking on the role of Henry V. Via this visceral experience, Gonzalez hopes the students can begin to understand the psychology behind the words used by the king while motivating his soldiers to go into battle:

“If we are mark’d to die, we are enow.
To do our country loss; and if to live.
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.”

“Henry V was saying ‘We band of brothers, we are going to accomplish this victory—it is our God given right.’ I want students to understand how he used language to change hearts and rally the troops.”

Thus, infusing Shakespeare into Whittier’s curriculum in creative ways and using performance as a foundation, Gonzalez teaches lessons in the classroom and on the stage that can be carried forth into professional work. “There is so much you can take away from Shakespeare,” adds Gonzalez. “I don’t really think there is a contemporary equivalent.”

-from The Rock, Fall 2013


Shakespeare in Liberal Arts Education
The "Bard of Avon" has earned a prominent place in all levels of academia. Professor Jonathan Burton explores Shakespeare's continuing place in the liberal arts - from the high school training ground to the multi-disciplinary approach found at Whittier.