Editor’s Note: This story was written by Celeste Russell for COM301 Advanced Newswriting.
The SMU Theatre and Dance Department opens its production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont on Oct. 31 – but for director and theatre professor Walter Elder this isn’t the first time he has worked on the zany and rarely performed British comedy.
In 1999, Elder was touring for his second year with the Virginia-based Shenandoah Shakespeare Express — now the American Shakespeare Center. The company toured about 35 states, performing approximately 250 shows at colleges, civic theaters, performing arts centers, and Shakespeare festivals. Elder played the sing-songy Master Merrythought as well as a right-hand man named George, the Dwarf. Directed by the company’s co-founder and executive director Ralph Cohen, this production of Knight was regarded as one of the first performed by a professional theater company in the United States.
Bringing a lesser-known British piece to U.S. audiences did not come without difficulties. “It lived in obscurity,” explains Elder. “Very few people have even heard of the play.” Despite being a popular playwright for his time, “Beaumont isn’t widely read or taught — almost all of our focus on the dramatic literature from the late 1500s to early 1600s is squarely focused on Shakespeare.” Fortunately, the touring company found audiences were eager to sit in on something they had never seen performed and the show met with great success. Elder himself met with another type of success; while working with the company he met his future wife.
He recalls that during the rehearsal process the company focused a lot on “making the language accessible to a modern American audience.” However, he notes that the same would need to be done for British audiences. “Just because they’re British playwrights doesn’t mean a modern audience is used to 17th-century grammatical structure and references to things we don’t understand anymore.”
A lot of these outdated references can be found in the play’s unique inclusion of about 40 snippets of popular songs from the 1600s that “we have absolutely no association with anymore.” This is dangerous because it can “really easily distance the audience from the play and turn it into a museum piece.” Like Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, Elder has decided to update all of the songs in the SMU production to be “popular songs that our audience will recognize and be able to relate to today.”
One of the challenges Elder anticipates for the SMU actors is learning how to get the audience to engage. “It’s supposed to come across as improvisational. It should be fun, it should be fast, it should be interactive with the audience.”
Audience interaction is something that the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express actors had years of professional experience doing. “They cast the audience as a character — they would talk right at them,” explains Elder. “They would sometimes interact and bring them on stage.” As a director, Elder looks forward to his cast learning how to do this on their feet once an audience is present. “It’s something that you kind of learn because you have to work the audience and not lose control of your play.”
A good production of Knight was once compared to “the feeling you get when you’re in the front row at Sea World where you could get splashed by the whale,” he says. “You’re in it, not distanced from it.”
Ultimately, Elder hopes the audience of this generation will “come to enjoy and have fun at a classical play” just as they did 20 years ago. “It’s not the kind of play where you come to receive a little piece of Western culture. It’s a play that you come to to enjoy yourself, to have a good time, and maybe to experience a little bit of what these plays might have felt like during their day, when they were brand new and popular just like the next movie coming out.”
Elder is aware of most audiences’ expectations. “When we go and see a classical play today, we know we’re seeing something that we were tortured with when we were in high school. That’s not this play,” laughs Elder. “It’s irreverent, it’s bawdy, it’s funny.”
The Knight of the Burning Pestle opens Oct. 31 and runs through Nov. 3.