Event Preview: The Merchant of Venice

This week ushers in opening night of the Carleton Players’ The Merchant of Venice, and so the Miscellany decided to reach out to Pierre Hecker, English professor and director of the show. We asked him about his reasons for directing this show, and got a look at the process of putting on such an involved production. The Merchant of Venice runs February 16-18 and 23-25 at 7:30 p.m., and February 19 at 2:00 p.m. in the Weitz Theater. Tickets are available for reservation here: https://apps.carleton.edu/arts/events/tickets/Check out the interview below and then come out to see the show!

 

What made you want to direct The Merchant of Venice? What do you find special about this play that you want to bring to light?

It felt like the play that spoke most directly to a number of issues of particular concern these days. It’s important that a play like this (or any play, for that matter) not be some ancient artifact trapped in amber, but that it serve as a vehicle for things the company wants to say. The play is about many things, not the least of which are the societal constraints put on people because of their sex, race, or religion; unequal access to the instruments of justice; and the corrosive effects of xenophobia. Did I mention it’s a comedy?

This production has roped in many departments across campus–can you talk a little bit about who’s involved and why you think it is important to include so many voices in the process.

It started with me and Stephen Mohring wanting to work together. He’s a brilliant teacher and artist and I thought, “How cool would it be to collaborate on something like this and also incorporate it into our teaching?” Then Roger Bechtel, chair of the Theater department, came on board to play Shylock. So I’m teaching a project course around the play and Stephen is teaching a design course, out of which came the look of the show, the set, etc. At the same time, Victoria Morse in History is teaching a course on women and gender in Europe with Merchant as a central text; her students are creating an exhibition about Christian and Jewish households connected to it. She and I also both have Academic Civic Engagement components to our courses: our students are working with students at the Northfield Middle and High schools who will then come see the production. This was always, for all of us, about creating as rich an experience as possible pedagogically and about having it be meaningful for the community. So many students and faculty being involved has created a tremendous amount of energy and excitement; I hope it’s been a blast for everyone.

How did you approach the problem of making Shakespeare accessible?

My advice if you’re thinking about attending a Shakespeare play is to run away from anyone claiming they’ve made it “accessible.” All they’re telling you is that they trust neither the play nor the audience. I have no doubts about my audience, and Shakespeare has done just fine for over four centuries without my help. The goal for all of us has been to put up the smartest, most truthful, most heartfelt show we can. The rest will take care of itself.

As a member of the English department, and a Shakespeare scholar, how do you think your approach to directing this show differs from what might be expected of someone coming at it from a purely theatrical background? Was there a moment when your theoretical expertise actually complicated your role as a director?

The difficulty in bridging the gap between theory and practice is a perennial frustration in the classroom. I put a lot of effort into bringing students to the theater whenever possible – seeing and hearing Shakespeare live is just a completely different experience. But what you lose is also huge: the ability to consider multivalent meanings and possibilities simultaneously. In class you can explore and argue about the nine different ways in which a particular word or phrase is being deployed. In performance, you have to make a choice. Having to abandon the eight other meanings guts me every time.

Is there anything that has surprised you about this process? Are there things that have shifted in your understanding of the play after staging it?

I spend my life being surprised at how Shakespeare is continuously new. My favorite moments in rehearsal are when an actor puts a little extra pressure on a word, moving the emphasis or meaning of a line in an unexpected direction. The more the cast inhabit their roles and internalize the language, the freer they become in making those micro choices. One thing that Roger in particular has taught me to see is how conflicted Shylock is within himself; this is a character wrestling with his own humanity in a world that has treated him inhumanely. I think I always saw the torture he endures as being external; now I see he’s also torturing himself.

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