SANTA FE, N.M. — A decision by classmates at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to keep working together after graduation has turned out to be Santa Fe’s gain.
The Ducdame Ensemble, based in New York, consists of 19 of those graduates. It is sending eight of its players here to present the International Shakespeare Center’s first repertory season, with “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice” being performed in two different locations between Aug. 22 and Sept. 3.
There’s a personal connection that also helped.
ISC President Caryl Farkas was acquainted with LAMDA graduate and Ducdame actor Ariana Karp, who previously directed a play with Farkas and performed with Farkas’ two daughters as part of the Young Shakespeare Players in Madison, Wis.
“I just love it out here,” Karp said of Santa Fe and the willingness of its people to make things happen. If you propose an idea in New York, she said, you’re likely to get a “yeah, but” response in which people tell you why it won’t work. If you mention something to the ISC and others in Santa Fe, she said, the response is “yes, and” with proposals of how to make something happen and make it even more exciting than first envisioned.
And one of the exciting things that developed in this first repertory season was to have “Twelfth Night,” which Karp directs, as the first immersive theater experience in Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.
“When I went there for the first time, I was completely blown away by the craftsmanship, the imagination and the ability to do something so important in art: to make it accessible, but deeply personal,” she said. “It was like a veil lifted from your subconscious. It was so stimulating in a creative way.”
And it’s the perfect magical setting for “Twelfth Night,” in which the twins Viola and Sebastian are washed ashore from a shipwreck into a strange land, with ensuing disguises into the opposite gender, mistaken identities, misplaced infatuations and general mayhem so dear to Shakespeare’s heart.
Some of the scenes will take place in the usual concert stage portion of the arts complex, but others will move into and out of some of the bigger spaces in the exhibition itself, such as the forest and a seascape. Farkas and Karp said they estimate it would be able to accommodate an audience of about 100 people following the actors.
Asked what time period the play would be set in, Karp quipped, “It’s in Meow Wolf time.” With the elaborate design of the set, though, she said the costumes would be a little simpler. “You want to be the human element in that space,” she said.
Ensemble members voted on which plays they wanted to present in Santa Fe, she said, and leaned toward somewhat lighter fare because their past productions have been pretty dark and intense. But, while classified as comedies, Karp said both plays have a melancholy edge.
The second production, “The Merchant of Venice,” will be performed in modern clothing and take place in the Performing Arts Center at Santa Fe High School.
“It’s a beautiful space. It’s a gem,” Karp said of the three-quarters thrust stage in the theater that many community members may never have seen. Reed Meschefske, head of the Santa Fe High theater program, hosted a LAMDA acting workshop there in February, when many Shakespeare events were held in conjunction with an exhibit of a First Folio of the bard’s plays at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Ducdame actors also came here around that time to present a sold-out performance of “Dames of Thrones: Women of Shakespeare’s Histories” at the Adobe Rose Theatre.
For years, people avoided presenting “Merchant of Venice” because it was seen as anti-Semitic, Farkas said. Indeed, the play seems to condemn the money-lender Shylock (a Jew) for demanding his pound of flesh from Antonio for being in arrears of his debt. But as people examined the script more closely, they began to see it as more complex than that.
“Shylock has bad behavior, but you can see why,” Farkas said of the many circumstances included in the play. And it gives a rounded portrait, showing how much he cares for his daughter and still loves his dead wife, she said.
“One of my favorite things about Shakespeare is that he’s coming out of the time of morality plays, but he breaks all that down,” Karp said. He doesn’t deify or demonize any character in his works, she said. “Every character is human.”
Karp added that there weren’t many Jews in England at the time Shakespeare wrote the play and that Puritans tended to be the more common moneylenders that people despised. By moving the action to Venice, Farkas added, Shakespeare made it easier for people to absorb and talk about these situations.
Those kinds of insights and more will be available in half-hour talks Robin Williams, a Shakespeare scholar and ISC board member, will give before each performance. Also, on Aug. 29 and Sept. 2, the actors will hold a talk-back with audience members after the show.
Community education and outreach also are key to ISC and Ducdame. As part of the repertory season, Ducdame actors will present a workshop for young people at the Meow Wolf Arts Complex. Also, Karp will return in the fall to play a small part in the Santa Fe High production of “Macbeth” and work with the students.
“It’s a lot of fun passing along the training I received in London,” she said. The American and British acting traditions are different, she said, as far as she could tell from her own experience. Americans tend to put the focus on the individual actors plumbing the depths of their characters and coming up with a back story, she said, while LAMDA focused on actors working together as an ensemble.
“You have to learn how to work with people,” she said. “The focus is on your scene partner and not yourself. If your scene partner gives you something you’re not expecting, you have to react in a way that makes sense.”
Half of the 14 classes she took at LAMDA also emphasized movement and the physical aspects of acting – “things that take you out of your head and into your body,” Karp said.
This fall, students from the New Mexico School for the Arts, Santa Fe Indian School, Academy for Technology and the Classics, Santa Fe Prep and St. Michael’s High School will be working with Karp and other pros on short scenes from Shakespeare’s plays that they will present Dec. 3 at the Scottish Rite Center.