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A UW-Inspired Shakespearean Romp

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Using a water bottle as a makeshift microphone, Drama MFA student Maura Tang (far right) rehearses a musical number from A U-Dubber Night's Dream with other cast members.

Using a water bottle as a makeshift microphone, Drama MFA student Maura Tang (far right) rehearses a musical number from A U-Dubber Night's Dream with other cast members.  Media credit: Karen Orders

Try to describe the “typical” UW student and you’re sure to miss the mark. Some are too young for a driver’s license. Others have grown children of their own. Some are the first in their family to enter college. Others are third-generation Huskies. Along the way, they juggle their academic responsibilities with a host of other interests, from sports to sororities to ROTC. In May, the School of Drama is celebrating the rich diversity of UW students through an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream titled A U-Dubber Night’s Dream

The production has been years in the making. Geoff Korf, associate professor of drama, first broached the idea four years ago, having been involved in similar projects as a member of the community-based Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone adapts classic plays to reflect a specific community’s interests, with community members involved in all aspects of planning and production. 

Korf envisioned a Shakespeare adaptation that would speak to the diversity of students at the University of Washington. He invited members of Cornerstone to present a weekend workshop about their methodology, with 35 UW faculty and students attending. Then a faculty-student committee was formed to plan the project—dubbed the Campus-wide Collaborative Theatre Project—with Korf and Drama Professor Shanga Parker serving as co-leaders. Sponsors of the project include the School of Drama, College of Arts and Sciences, Office of Student Life, Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity.

The first challenge was deciding which campus communities to include in the production. “We began by making lists of campus communities that we wanted to learn more about,” says Korf. “We wanted to challenge preconceptions about who is on campus—who is mainstream, who is noticed, and who goes largely unnoticed or ignored.” After much discussion, the committee selected five communities: student athletes, ROTC students, first-generation students, young scholars entering the UW at an early age, and returning students enrolling later in life. 

Undergraduates William Li and Jonathan Woldaub rehearse a choreographed fight sequence.

Undergraduates William Li and Jonathan Woldaub rehearse a choreographed fight sequence. Media credit: Karen Orders

The next step was a series of story circles—conversations with students in these five groups—to learn more about their lives and their experiences at the University. There were two or three story circles per group, with an average of 6 to 12 students in each. “We created a list of questions to ask of all five communities, and then more specific questions for each community,” says Korf.

Some consistent themes emerged across groups. “When we’d ask students to describe their ideal university, so many people would say, ‘University of Washington,’” recalls Korf. “It was remarkable, really.” He also found that students in every group worked exceptionally hard. “It was interesting to see how universal that was across campus,” says Korf. “Everybody is working very hard, very long hours—just deep degrees of dedication—and at the same time really happy and energized to do so.”

In fact, the students’ overwhelmingly positive comments about life at the UW led Korf and Parker to rethink the play they were going to adapt. The initial plan was to go with a Shakespearean tragedy with comedic elements added, but the adaptation wasn’t jelling. So Korf asked Alison Carey , a Cornerstone co-founder now working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to take over the writing. Reviewing students’ story circle comments, she quickly realized that a comedy would be more appropriate and chose to adapt A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It took an outsider to the UW to provide that objective perspective,” says Korf. “With Alison on board, everything started flowing again.” 

Goeff Korf, director of A U-Dubber Night's Dream.

Goeff Korf, director of A U-Dubber Night's Dream.  Media credit: Karen Orders

Casting began with auditions in February. Korf, director of the production, was worried that few non-actors would audition, but turnout was so robust that the cast was increased from 18 to 22 actors. Consistent with Cornerstone’s approach, only about half the cast had any previous acting experience. Most of those with previous experience also identified with one of the five groups represented in the play. 

The production, to be held at the Jones Playhouse, is set on the UW campus, right before graduation. For those familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Korf reveals that one aspect of that play has been changed substantially. “Shakespeare’s original play has fairies who do magical things, like make people fall in love,” says Korf. “We didn’t think that would work, so we replaced the fairies with postdocs in a campus lab who are doing research in the biology of love. Ironically, one of the returning students we cast in the play works as a lab technician in the Biology Department.”

That student, Wanda Moats, is thrilled to be part of the production. “When I was young, I was interested in drama, but a nattering voice in my head said I should do something practical,” says Moats. “Now, as an older student, I’m thinking, ‘If not now, when?’” 

Moats hopes that audiences will enjoy this production as much as she has. “I love the concept, showing that there are so many different people on this campus,” she says. “We tend to get isolated, aware of our own department. But it’s an amazing community. We need to tell those stories and hear those voices together.” 

Korf concurs. “I hope that a lot of students come to the play and have a sense that something in their lives is presented on the stage,” he says. “But I also hope they learn about parts of campus that they’re not aware of.”