Directing ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – Summer Acting Project

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– By Hannah Dorss –

From the time we began studying acting at JPCatholic, Katelyn Slater and I have been developing our sense of truth and our love for experiencing life through the medium of art. Katelyn wrote and starred in a one-woman show called Juliet; the hour-long, one-woman show was based on Romeo and Juliet, telling the story of Juliet’s purgation process after her death. I have branched out in other ways, interning on the Stage Management team of Measure for Measure at The Old Globe Theatre during my senior year.

In addition to our individual creative endeavors, Katelyn Slater and I have discovered that we love experiencing art together. Whether it’s sharing our poetry with each other, showing each other music, or acting in scenes together, there’s something so beautiful about collaborating artistically. This past year, Katelyn and I decided to focus our artistic energies on something big: directing shows together.

At JPCatholic, we have directed two productions, The Winter’s Tale and, most recently, The Merchant of Venice.  We learned a lot about casting, planning, and organization of the rehearsal process when we directed the first show. However, Katelyn and I knew that with our next show, we wanted to forge ahead in a wholly new way. That is why, when we decided to direct The Merchant of Venice, our goal was to bring our actors to a place of complete freedom, childlikeness, and joy.

Katelyn and I poured our hearts out during The Merchant of Venice, shaping the show with a shared vision—a vision adopted from my sister Jojo, who was our artistic director. We set the play in the 1920s, during the prohibition era, basing our story in New York City and the South.  The main idea was to gender-bend the merchant Antonio, changing the character to Antonia, a bootlegger in the Manhattan/Brooklyn area.

Our thematic aim was likewise fearless; the goal was to tell a story that would raise questions in our viewers, not leaving them in their comfort zone. While telling a story of justice, mercy, Christian love, and the Old versus the New Law, Katelyn and I did our best to draw the humanity out of each character, including the villain Shylock. Instead of having JJ Schindler, who played Shylock, portray him as a completely bad man, we instead had JJ play someone who was truly human, while still being the antagonist. Another part of our vision for the show was to challenge Christian audience members to be unsettled at the way the “Christian” characters treated Shylock the Jew.

Katelyn and I felt that the experience of directing a play for our fellow students was nothing short of incredible, though a definite challenge. We did our best to create for our actors a climate of trust and surrender with their fellow actors. In our experience, a tight ensemble is vital to the success of a production, and we did all we could to achieve this from leading improv exercises, to communal Ignatian meditation, and from bringing in treats, to hearing our actors’ thoughts on the themes of the show.

We wanted our actors to be as personally invested as possible in the process, so we did our best to hear their concerns and to  incorporate their specific talents. We had a few actors dance and one sing during the transitions. These moments turned out to be some of the audiences’ favorites.

Katelyn and I learned a good deal as actors and directors throughout the process. We learned that hard work and casting are so important, but that equally important is freeing ourselves from our inhibitions. We discovered that becoming a child is the only way to do art—and, as it turns out, the only way to enter the Kingdom of God.

Now graduated, Hannah Dorss works as a Production Assistant at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Katelyn Slater continues as Teaching Assistant for Professor Lee Eskey at John Paul the Great Catholic University.