Smile Politely

Illinois Shakespeare Festival re-welcomes C-U thespians

For the first time since beginning to write for SP, it seems as though I don’t have to arm-wrestle my boss in order to do a full article about the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Usually it’s this big harangue, all about how people from here make the trip all the time, it’s a huge draw, it’s probably the most significant theatrical happening over the summer…

But this year, none of that had to happen, because two actual C-U talents are sharing the stage in Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline. Nisi Sturgis, best known for her work on TV’s Boardwalk Empire, and her husband Jordan Coughtry, most recently seen in the titular role of Iago’s Plot at Krannert, will be taking on 1/3 of the roles in this unusual adaptation. Yes, that’s an impossible oversimplification – not only because 1/3 of 40 leaves a portion of a person – but I’ll let them explain in more detail a little later. 

 Nisi Sturgis as Imogen and Jordan Coughtry as Cloten; photo by Pete Guither

First, though, let’s look a little more closely at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s full lineup. Celebrating its 40th year, the six-week run offers three regular plays, a special run of Shakespearean improv, free performances for youth, food trucks and picnics on the lawn, and an overall atmosphere of community and cultural experience. It’s an evening that is always well worth the trip, regardless of what performance you attend.

Tonight, and for the next two Tuesdays only, The Improvised Shakespeare Company will open the festival week. Entirely prompted by audience participation, each Elizabethan-style performance is completely unique.

And while the production of Midsummer Night’s Dream is scripted, unique definitely comes to mind when I read the descriptors “family-friendly” and “musical” in conjunction with this play. The last production I saw featured the subtitle “It’s a Bacchanal”, so it’s good to know that director Robert Quinlan has consciously chosen to make it appropriate for all ages.

If children are part of your theatergoing plans, Wednesday and Saturday mornings feature a free experience for youth. This adaptation of Sleeping Beauty begins as a traditional storytelling experience and is interrupted by the villain who insists on telling her own side of the story.

Harkening back to my first year at SP Arts, The Q Brothers return to Ewing Manor with another premiere: I Heart Juliet. Last time, they were two men playing four main characters and a handful of supporting roles. This year, they have a ten-actor troupe to help bring ol’Shakey forward into modern times via hip-hop, which still allows them to reinforce the Bard’s rhyme and meter. Not to mention, they are pretty outrageously hilarious.

Which brings us back to Cymbeline. In the past, it was the Q Brothers who ripped on and off simple costumes and wigs to help the audience know who was who. This year, director Andy Park is directing playwright Chris Coleman’s six-person adaptation of a complicated, epic tale of a monarch and his concerns about succession.

 Jordan Coughtry as Cloten and Patrick Toon as Guiderius; photo by Pete Guither.

Knowing Ms. Sturgis’ impressive body of work, not just on television but at prestigious theatres like Chicago’s Goodman, it’s no surprise she’d be drawn to the challenge of this play. Mr. Coughtry’s compelling creepiness as Iago has stayed with me in the months since April, and I cannot wait to see what he does in these roles. Having missed my chance to see them together previously at the Shakespeare Fest in 2013, in Failure, a Love Story, I am glad this year will offer me a second chance. I knew when I was offered the chance for an interview, I wanted to ask them both a few things as a team. Find their answers below. 

Smile Politely: From the news articles I’ve gathered, it seems as though you each pursue plenty of individual opportunities, but always seem to come back to working together, often in Shakespearean productions. What is your favorite part of working together, and why Shakespeare?

Nisi Sturgis and Jordan Coughtry: It’s been a real gift to have had so many opportunities to work together for a lot of practical and personal reasons. I think our favorite part of working together is actually just getting to be together. We work at theaters across the country, and occasionally there’s some real long-distance that has to happen, so getting to see each other every day is a big deal. In a relatively swift rehearsal process, it’s a boon to come in with a developed shorthand and direct, honest communication right off the bat. We don’t spend much time pussyfooting through the process. Also, the life of an actor is a unique one. For any artist, the creative process can be a 24-hour-a-day one, and it’s wonderful to share the experience with someone who understands it and lives it too. That being said, it isn’t always easy to work with someone who knows you so completely, knows all your tricks, and we are both working to find a healthy work/life balance. But ultimately, this work that we love is such a fundamental part of who we are, and there’s nothing better than to share that with each other.

Shakespeare has felt like a wonderful companion on the journey of our careers. His exploration of humanity is unsurpassed, in my experience. His characters have a directness and a size about them that is thrilling to inhabit, and the poetic nature of his writing allows for a seemingly infinite number of ways to approach the plays. Shakespeare’s writing is such a gift to our lives, and we want to share that love with as many people as possible.

SP: Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline spreads over 40 roles among 6 actors – what has been your biggest challenge in performing this adaptation? The best part? 

Coughtry and Sturgis: The main challenge in this adaptation is remembering which character you’re playing next!  That means quick-changing costumes throughout the show as well as getting ready to speak in a new dialect from scene to scene. From Britain, to Wales, to Rome – the actors are bouncing about and have worked consistently with the Voice and Speech coach, Susan Schuld, to specify the accents based on the many locations in the story. It’s impressive.

Another thing our ensemble strives to keep in mind is to balance the needs of the play itself with the adaptation and the director’s concept. Shakespeare’s play is complex and packs a great deal into an epic story which contains the themes of love, betrayal, war, and what it takes to gain perspective through experience. We all learn from mistakes, and Shakespeare was no stranger to that deep understanding. Chris Coleman’s adaptation seeks to streamline the story without losing any of the heart or scope of the experience. By having a six person cast play 40 roles, our adaptor has somehow created the opportunity to be aware of the great feat of acting. By his addition of the narrator, he encourages audiences to openly examine the process of storytelling as the story is being lived before their eyes. The result of our production – because of our director Andy Park’s leadership and our brilliant design team – is to offer surprise and delight at every turn. It’s a lot of work for the actors, but it’s a lot of fun. We have discovered it’s possible to give the audience a hilarious show and to keep the keep the integrity of Shakespeare’s story intact.

SP: Your roles seem to have taken you all over this country – California, Arkansas, New York, Chicago, Cleveland – but you’ve been residents of Champaign for…two years(?) now. What has been the draw to this area, and what have you enjoyed the most about being here? 

Sturgis and Coughtry: Yes, we’ve lived in Urbana for two years now, and it’s a beautiful community. We love walking along tree-lined streets past garden after garden, waving to our neighbors. Being a University town, there’s a great intellectual, social, cultural awareness here. There’s great food and great music. As parents to an almost three-year-old, we love the parks and schools. People are friendly and civically-minded. New York has been a fantastic place to live, but here we find that everything we need is still so accessible. The rapid heartbeat of NYC is exciting, but it’s nice to have space in our lives to take our time. 

So consider taking some of that good-old-Urbana time to head out on 74W and spend an evening at Ewing Manor to see your neighbors celebrate Shakespeare. Speaking of time, give yourself a little extra, because there’s a bit of construction between our towns, but you can still leave after work and make it there in plenty of time to have dinner before the 7:30 p.m. start time. Head to the official website for the complete schedule and ticket pricing structure. Since all performances are held outdoors, they also keep track of the weather on their facebook page.

Photographs courtesy of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. 

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