“Acting Shakespeare” an Ideal Intro to the Bard

Matthew Swarthout rehearses for Acting Shakespeare
Matthew Swarthout ’22 will present “Acting Shakespeare,” his own play
adapted from Sir Ian McKellen’s production of the same name, this
Thursday–Sunday at the Dungeon Theatre, 139 Thompson St.

If you desire an appreciation for the works of William Shakespeare yet find his plays challenging, you’ll want to attend a show coming this week to Kalamazoo College. Matthew Swarthout ’22 will present his self-written senior integrated project (SIP), a play titled Acting Shakespeare, adapted from Sir Ian McKellen’s production of the same name, this Thursday–Sunday at the Dungeon Theatre, 139 Thompson St.

The original production featured McKellen alone on stage with no props or scenery, performing monologues from Shakespeare’s work, and discussing some of his plays. McKellen first performed it in 1980, and a 1984 Broadway engagement earned him the Drama Desk Award for an Outstanding One-Person Show and a Tony Award nomination.

This version will encompass both Swarthout’s and McKellen’s insight into Shakespeare’s plays, featuring monologues and scenes from plays such as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry the Fourth Part One and Henry the Fifth.

“This is the kind of Shakespeare show for people who don’t know Shakespeare,” Swarthout said. “I can talk in my 2022 language, which everyone can understand, and then I can shift into Shakespearean language and say, ‘This is what Shakespeare meant by this.’ It’s like a sampler of plays. You’ve got a comedy, a tragedy, a history and you can decide for yourself if you enjoy Shakespeare enough to see more of his plays.”

Matthew Swarthout rehearsing for Acting Shakespeare
Matthew Swarthout ’22 offers his insights into William Shakespeare’s plays
in “Acting Shakespeare,” coming this week to the Dungeon Theatre at
Kalamazoo College.

Swarthout first developed his appreciation for Shakespeare as a young child when he saw As You Like It at the Stratford Festival in Canada. He later was drawn to K as he found the liberal arts could empower him to double major in biology and theatre. Since, Swarthout has performed in several Festival Playhouse shows with roles including the comical character Sir Andrew in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Buzz Windrip, a politician who unexpectedly wins the U.S. presidency in It Can’t Happen Here, a play based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satire of what could happen if Fascism spreads to the United States.

“I’ve had a lot of freedom at K with directors who really like to see some big, expressive characters, and that’s the kind of role I’m often cast into,” Swarthout said. “Even for Acting Shakespeare, I change things around one day and try something completely different the next day to see what works. It’s nice to see what goes wrong in order to see what’s going to go right.”

Acting Shakespeare production poster
“Acting Shakespeare” will encompass plays such as “Romeo
and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet,”
“Macbeth,” “Henry the Fourth Part One” and “Henry the Fifth.”

That freedom takes on more complexity in preparing for Acting Shakespeare as Swarthout serves as both actor and director. He listens to recordings of himself reciting the play while snowboarding for memorization purposes in addition to maintaining regular rehearsals.

“There’s a challenge in looking at yourself with such a critical eye,” he said. “Usually as an actor, you’re doing your best and then it’s up to the director to say, ‘You could improve upon this.’ But since I’m directing myself, I’ve had rehearsals where I go over about three lines in 45 minutes. It’s hard to separate the director from the actor.”

In additional theatre pursuits, Swarthout participated in the New York Arts Program, a study away opportunity that places students from Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) affiliated schools in Broadway and off-Broadway theatre organizations, opera houses, dance companies, publishing houses, literary agencies and music performance venues. Swarthout worked at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, finishing just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city. An adviser told him not to expect an opportunity to act on stage while there, as most of the acting opportunities go to New York University students. However, his talents enabled him to accept the role of Underling in a production of The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of American musical comedies of the 1920s.

“That was probably the best experience I had in New York just because I felt like I was living there as a working actor,” Swarthout said. “I had my classes, I had my job and then I had the gig, which was really fantastic.”

Swarthout is sending out audition tapes to adapt to theatre’s current virtual landscape in the hopes of one day returning to the East Coast and eventually New York after graduation. In the meantime, he’s excited to think of how his audiences could develop an interest in Shakespeare as a result of his performances. Tickets for Acting Shakespeare, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, are available online. Kalamazoo College students, faculty and staff are admitted free. Tickets for the general public are $5. Please note that proof of vaccination and masks are required for admittance to the theatre.

“People should enjoy Shakespeare and keep Shakespeare alive, not for the history of it, but what we can do with it,” Swarthout said. “We can change its meaning and interpret it in so many ways to get a point across. If you’re trying to have a theatre season that’s focused on anti-racism or has some themes around homophobia, for example, you can use a Shakespeare show to bridge gaps of understanding. Shakespeare becomes a powerful tool.”