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Audiences at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival will return to a 'sacred' gathering

Laura Welsh Berg (upper right) and Jeffrey Hawkins (lower right) co-star in Much Ado About Northing, opening Saturday, May 21 at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival
Idaho Shakespeare Festival

For the company of Much Ado About Nothing, the 2022 summer season opener at Idaho Shakespeare and the festival's first full season in three years, returning to the Boise amphitheater is much more than a homecoming.

“It is still incredibly emotional,” said Laura Welsh Berg, portraying Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most fiery femme Fatales. “I’m grateful to be there, grateful to be in the presence of people that I love, grateful to be creating art, and so excited to share it together.”

Berg and Jeffrey Hawkins, who plays Benedick, Beatrice’s counterpart in Much Ado’s “merry war of courtship,” visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to preview the production and share some of their excitement about playing in what Hawkins calls a “home game.”

“There is no substitute for a community gathering. There’s a reason why it is held sacred.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival returns this week. We are reminded that, “Some, cupid kills with arrows… some with traps.” And there you have “Much Ado About Nothing.” Opening a full season in the amphitheater. And this morning, we are joined by the always wonderful Laura Welch Berg. She fills our memories as Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Rosaline in Love Labours Lost, and in a groundbreaking production of Hamlet… as Hamlet. And now she is Beatrice in Much Ado.  And Jeffrey Hawkins is here. He likes to remind us that this is his umpteenth season with Idaho Shakespeare, and we're about to see him in the push-me-pull-you role of Benedick in Much Ado.  And it is a pleasure to welcome them both back to this program. Good morning to you both.

LAURA WELSH BERG: Good morning, George.

JEFFREY HAWKINS: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: I'm going to ask you both to answer this… and maybe Laura, you can go first. As an audience, we see Beatrice and Benedick in this… with delight,in this romantic tug of war. But how do you see your character, especially beneath the skin and in how you see each other?

BERG: I think one of the beautiful things is that on a on a kind of surface level, we do see that very witty back and forth repartee right between these two characters and in their relationship. I think that what's really beautiful about them is the amount of love that they have for each other, which allows them to get under each other's skin in a very special way as the people that we love are truly able to do sometimes. You know, I joke that we are harsher sometimes in what we say to our family members and our loved ones, certainly, than we are to our casual acquaintances. So what we see is this witty repartee and these two people who can really get under each other's skins. But then in a moment of true crisis, what we end up seeing is that their love runs incredibly deep and that they are willing to commit to each other and cling to each other in a moment, when certainly when Beatrice needs a friend and needs, love and support in her life. And I think that that is an incredibly beautiful journey to go on. And it's, I think, surprising, certainly coming from Beatrice's perspective, surprising to her how deep her feelings are for him in some ways. And then it's just such a scary thing. I always say that the scariest thing in the world is to look at another human being and say, I love you when you don't know what their answer will be. And that takes a lot of courage. And it's very beautifully terrifying, I would say.

HAWKINS: Like Laura, I. I love what seems to be the history with these two. We hear that there's always a war of words between them, a merry war of words. And it's sort of the classic will they? Won't they? You know, it's I keep bringing this up and I don't know how much Laura agrees with me on this, but it feels like Sam and Diane from Cheers, you know, it's like, oh, just get together, will you? And they're so evenly matched. They're so witty and so smart. Like most Shakespeare, the ladies are often smarter than the men. And I think that's probably the case in this one as well. But it's pretty great. And I hope the audience has at least a little bit of fun with it, because I know we have a lot of fun with it.

PRENTICE: We know that you've been performing Much Ado at the Great Lakes Festival in Ohio… indoors in a proscenium. Apart from tracking and the physical staging at the amphitheater, how do you see this period of “in-between?” Is it a time of reflection or is it a matter of “No, we shouldn't change anything here.”

HAWKINS: Okay. So, we go from the intimacy of the indoor theater there in Cleveland, which was, I thought, quite nice, quite lovely. And I thought we had a nice production there. So, okay, we come out here, come out west. It's sort of a home game because the audiences here are so great traditionally. But now there's a lot more of you. You know, there's more wine bottles, there's more snack packs and peacocks. So it's there's the challenge of outdoors all of a sudden. But as far as the play itself and the text itself, this time in between is always a great time, particularly with Shakespeare, for diving in a little deeper. Shakespeare, of course, is so infinitely deep. There's so much more to work on. Even yesterday, after rehearsal after rehearsal, Laura and I are sitting there puzzling over an exchange between us. Does the stress want to be in this word or does it want to be on this word? What makes sense if her response is this maybe I should say it like this. So it's constantly being tuned and worked on. And I think Shakespeare just invites that. It just it's so, so deep. It's emotionally deep. It's verbally, so deep. So the opportunity to revisit retool is great in that sense. On the other hand, we've got this nice soup that we've been working on for a while. Let's not burn this soup over because we don't know what's going to taste like if we spend too much time in the kitchen. It's a fine balance. But the bottom line is, is that when the audience gets there and we get there with the audience, the event is happening right there every night in a totally new way. And the job then is not to repeat what we did the night before, but to recreate each night. So it's very fun.

BERG: Yeah, I completely agree. It's a gift to be able to reexamine and dive back in and have a pause. I think a lot of people look at our acting partners as the people on stage, but the audience, we are so aware of you and your energy and the way that you are responding feeds how we tell the story. And it's a kind of a soft focus, attention to the energy that is coming at us. And I know I've been, you know, both Jeffrey and I, I won't give away ages, but we've been doing this for a while. Right? And then when we come out, we know I can tell when the audience is with me and when they aren't and I can tell, oh, we lost them a little there. How do we how do we serve this up in a way that gets them back on board or helps them understand this moment? And so one of the challenges, I think, especially with a comedy, is getting to do it for an audience and then coming back into the rehearsal room where we're suddenly one of your acting partners is gone. And so it's interesting to revisit it, kind of taking away that element. And I think I know I'm really excited to get back in front of an audience and just get that energy back because it's such a beautiful, beautiful experience. And in a comedy, it's so it's so necessary. It is. You know.

PRENTICE: Laura, can you talk about this moment when we are spending time in one another's company and returning to the amphitheater, physically and even spiritually… in each other's presence?

BERG: It is still incredibly emotional. We were lucky to be performing last summer. Most of our industry shut down for a full two years and we are still having shows shut down due to COVID in theaters all over the country. And I think that was deeply isolating and difficult for a lot of reasons. We are an incredibly tight knit community and Boise is home. Boise has always felt like home. We are so lucky to be back on stage in each other's presence. We are lucky to be in a rehearsal room. There is a sense of gratitude. I know that in the past I had absolutely taken my taken my work for granted, taken the opportunities that I received for granted. And I have to say that every day I go to that rehearsal room grateful. Grateful to be there, grateful to be in the presence of people that I love, grateful to be creating art and so excited to share it together. Know there are so many you know, there's so much science behind the human communal experience. Right? Heartbeats sinking up together, whole audiences breathing together. There is no substitute for a community gathering. There's a reason why it is held sacred in religious circles and scientifically considered to be healthy for us right there. There is this agreement that we as human beings need each other. We need to be in a space together. And stories are how we as humans make sense of our human experience. And to do that together in an amphitheater I truly believe is beautiful and sacred and important and vital. And it's so wonderful to be able to return to that.

HAWKINS: Yeah, it was very emotional in March of 2020 when we all sat in a circle and said, “That's it, friends, the world is getting crazy.” And we were shut down. And not knowing when or if they would ever come back was hard. It's still sensitive. And look, just to be honest, because of our union and the way we work as actors so closely, intimately, if we get COVID, it's a real danger of shutting down completely. So when you see us wearing our masks still in the in the grocery store is because we're fighting for our jobs and we're fighting for the opportunity to have this communal experience the Lord is talking about. If we want to come do plays, then we got to stay safe. It's you know, I'm sure that's not unusual to everyone's job, but some people don't just work at home. We can't do that. We have to be close with each other and we have to be close with each other, with you, the audience. But aside from all of that, this is just a great group of people on this one. This has been I don't know how often people say this, but like, oh, the cast gets along so well together, we just love each other. Well, this time we really do. Like, this is a great group of people top to bottom. This is just a fun, kind, generous group of people that I personally really enjoy spending time with. To be in a room with these goofballs every day is wonderful and people are really interested in working, which is wonderful, and I hope that that shows up for the audience in some manner because I really enjoy it.

PRENTICE: I'll leave you with this. Act five, scene one: “For men is a giddy thing. And this my conclusion.” The sun goes down and the lights come up at Idaho Shakespeare Friday. And they are the wonderful Laura Welsh Berg and Jeffrey Hawkins. Great good luck to you. and thanks for giving us some time this morning.

BERG: Thank you, George. Thank you. Thank you.

HAWKINS: Thank you, George.