Chicago angels boost young actors with gift of training at Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Report: Dorcas Sowunmi is the latest in a line of Chicago actors to be invited to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s elite Birmingham Conservatory training academy. She succeeds E.B. Smith, who is returning to Chicago after two years of ensemble training in the same program.
By Nancy Malitz
The opportunity of a lifetime unfolds this week for Chicago-based actor Dorcas Sowunmi. She joins the new crop of young actors who begin five months of classes at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory in Ontario, to be followed by performances at next summer’s Stratford Festival.
Meanwhile, Chicago-based actor E.B. Smith heads back to Chicago in early October, as he winds up a two-year stint at the Conservatory that has culminated in several Stratford Festival roles.
Smith is now playing Guiderius, the prince raised from infancy as a rustic in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” In Sophocles’ “Electra,” he is Pylades, who helps his friend Orestes avenge the murder of Orestes’ father Agamemnon.
Both actors’ terms have been sponsored by the Chicago Associates of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a group of theater lovers dedicated to Stratford’s cause. “The Associates have been around for almost 30 years,” says Kelli Landes, the group’s communications chair. “We love to see these artists come back. We hope that our efforts help Stratford and in the long run enrich Chicago theater as well.”
The young artists will work with a team led by Martha Henry, one of Canada’s most celebrated actors, directors and teachers. As for the roles to which they’ll be assigned, E.B. Smith advises students to assume nothing: “All through college I was always playing somebody’s dad, and here at Stratford I figured I wouldn’t have to do that anymore, because the cast is made up of older actors.” His surprise came early in the first term, when he was invited for a drink at the local actors’ hangout:
“Martha was there drinking a glass of chardonnay, and she said, ‘How would you like to play Lear?’” Smith recalls, referring to Shakespeare’s elderly and vain despot who divides his kingdom frivolously, with tragic consequences. “And I said, ‘Actually Martha, I’d rather play (secondary characters) Edgar or Edmund, somebody closer to my own age,’ and she looked at me like I was completely insane with three heads. Of course, I immediately recanted. This script goes, ‘I ask you this, and you say yes.’”
The experience that followed was, for Smith, unforgettable: “Martha loves to give post-it notes. Every once in a while, she would come over and post a note on me and walk away. The first one she gave me was, ‘Start with the heath,’” referring to the scene in which the furious Lear goads on a thunderstorm.
“Having her guide me through the process made it so much more accessible,” says Smith. “We had oodles of conversations over dinner and drinks about what this play is, who this person Lear is. One of the most important things she said was, ‘You are Lear. You are. Don’t think about the fact that he is 80 years old as the basis for this character, because that is not going to help you. As an actor you have to come to it as yourself first and allow that character to be found within you.’
“And I think I found something in it,” says Smith. “Certainly it wasn’t the definitive Lear. It was the beta release. I’m only 28 years old. But I want to do it again someday.”
Smith understudied Othello at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Sowunmi (pronounced “show me”) also has some Shakespeare under her belt. At CST in 2011, she played the First Witch in a Short Shakespeare! version of “Macbeth,” and she had a thorough classical grounding at the University of Texas.
For her Stratford audition, Sowunmi took a monologue of Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus in “The Comedy of Errors,” who spends much of this mistaken-identity play convinced that her husband loves another. Dorcas also took monologues from “Richard III” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” along with several contemporary plays including Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room” and Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman.”
Sowunmi says she is looking forward to “9-to-5 intensive training six days a week for three trimesters. We’re going to have company members and guest artists come to work with us and get an understanding of what it is like to work in an ensemble, and with the language and text and world of the Shakespeare canon.
“And we as a class will do some type of performance at the end of the second trimester and perhaps at the end of the third. It’s going to be a great thing to have this natural progression onto the stage. To take the best of all we learn and transfer it, and to be guided through that experience, is such a blessing.”
The Chicago Associates of the Stratford Festival check up on their fellows during a U.S. members weekend that Stratford holds annually for its U.S. donors. “We get to have a hand in selecting the weekend activities,” says Landes, adding that she loves the access behind the scenes that is afforded them.
Stratford actors also visit the Associates in Chicago during the off-season, to talk about acting, Shakespeare and what’s coming up at future festivals. Lucy Peacock and Diane d’Aquila, two festival stars at Stratford for years, have been among the Associates’ guests.
Smith hopes to reunite all the Stratford alumni who have Chicago connections for a production that can be produced in Stratford and then taken to Chicago – “sort of bi-coastal, as in two sides of the Great Lakes,” he says.
As for which Shakespeare to do, Smith says the assembled throng could stage just about anything: “There are 30 years of us, after all, so we’ve got all the ages covered.”
- “Cymbeline” was the most popular Shakespeare play of Stratford’s 2012 festival: Read the review at Chicago On the Aisle
- “42nd Street,” the most popular musical of Stratford’s season, plays until: Read the review at Chicago On the Aisle
- “Much Ado About Nothing,” a Shakespeare comedy: Read the review at Chicago On the Aisle
Captions and credits: Home page and top: Dorcas Sowunmi, the newest Chicago fellow at Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s renowned Birmingham Conservatory. Descending: E.B. Smith as Guiderius in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” at Stratford 2012. (Photo by David Hou) Legendary actress Martha Henry, who is in charge of all conservatory training at Stratford. Dorcas Sowunmi as the First Witch in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2011 Short Shakespeare! version of “Macbeth.” Below, the Chicago Associates of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in one of their Stratford sojourns, maintain yearlong contact with the Stratford Festival and with the Chicago fellows they support. (Photo by Kelli Landes)
Tags: Birmingham Conservatory, Chicago Associates of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Cymbeline, Diane D'Aquila, Dorcas Suwunmi, E.B. Smith, Electra, Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry, Stratford Shakespeare Festival