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Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival explores inclusion, diversity

| Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Shakespeare at Notre Dame, the University’s professional theater company, is ringing in the start of the school year with a continuation of its Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival (NDSF). Their production of “Othello,” directed by Cameron Knight, runs through this Sunday. The festival has also concluded its run of “The Merchant of Venice.”

Grant Mudge, the Ryan Producing Artistic Director, said he chose the productions of this season — including “Othello” — to highlight the way Shakespeare’s work handled inclusion.

“The whole focus of the season was Shakespeare’s treatment of the stranger, or the excluded or the marginalized. … We looked at others throughout the course of the summer and we wanted to kind of examine the notion of a continual effort of inclusion and ensuring that a diverse and welcoming world is one that we promote,” Mudge said. “I think even Shakespeare was about opening that door and not excluding people because of their unfamiliarity or religion.”

Recent tragedies in the news also impacted the company’s choice in productions this season, Mudge said.

“Just as we were opening last year’s show in 2017, Charlottesville happened, and the staff and artists and I sat down and said that we had not only an opportunity, but an artistic responsibility as well,” Mudge said. “It’s an aspect of our world that we needed to examine as artists, and of course we discovered that Shakespeare did, too.”

Mudge said this production of “Othello” strikes a balance between feeling staged and modern, in part due to the company’s training from the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

“We have a very contemporary staging of ‘Othello’ set essentially in a kind of analogous U.S. Navy — not quite the United States Navy, but it kind of feels like it. It’s just enough distance from our world that it feels a little fictional,” Mudge said. “We were very grateful to the Notre Dame Naval ROTC program here who advised us and put us through some basic training.”

Eric Ways, a 2018 Notre Dame graduate, is in the ensemble for “Othello” and said this production is particularly unique because it is the first NDSF production involving African-Americans in prominent positions.

“It’s really great because this is the first production we’ve had a black lead and black director doing the show, which is about a lot of issues that are still very timely today,” Ways said. “That’s one of the reasons I was inspired to audition and be a part of the Shakespeare Festival.”

Shakespeare at Notre Dame aims for its festival to bridge the gap between the professional and undergraduate world with their two companies, a touring and professional company. Mudge said there is a combination of actors that have done Broadway-caliber work and are members of the Actors Equity Association and actors that are current undergraduate or graduate students, and even local actors.

“Because it’s Notre Dame, people come here and recognize that this is the way Shakespeare’s company — and theater in general — brought up new artists,” he said. “We bridge that gap between the university and undergraduate world and the world of the professional theater.”

Tyrel London, a Notre Dame senior in the ensemble for “Othello,” said in an email he agreed with Mudge’s assessment of the value of this connection between the professional actors and students.

“[It’s priceless] to see the skill honed by years on and off stage, the passion of talented hearts, the kind hearts of generous people who want to share the wisdom they have earned. And above all, it’s been fun to be able to interact, work and talk with the type of people I aspire to be,” he said.

This production of “Othello,” London said, is a “timely piece to be a part of” due to its subject matter.

“At its core, ‘Othello’ is about misplayed love and loyalty,” he said. “With the rest of the NDSF season, ‘Othello’ shows us that racial animosity, undying loyalty, misplaced love and unbridled passion can be the doom of everything we hold dear, especially if we let ourselves get swept away with the power all those things hold.”

“Othello” runs through Sunday, Aug. 26. Student discounted tickets are available.

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