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A Screenwriter-Turned-Playwright Tells Shakespeare's Story Onstage

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Eric Sheffer-Stevens - COURTESY OF VERMONT SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
  • Courtesy of Vermont Shakespeare Company
  • Eric Sheffer-Stevens

Everyone likes to be read to, right? Parents know this, and so do thespians. In the theater world, the staged reading is a popular way to present a new play. Readings have another huge advantage: They're way cheaper than a full production. Plus, actors don't have to memorize lines that might go changin'. With a steadily growing community of local actors and writers, it's no wonder more staged readings have cropped up in Vermont — including Seth Jarvis' monthly Playmakers series in Burlington and Waterbury-based Moxie Productions' recent presentation of a work-in-progress by a New York playwright.

John Nagle points out another advantage of the format: audience feedback, before it's too late. That is, playwrights who are still shaping their work can find out what resonates, or not, with its listeners, what words might make actors stumble, and what concepts, characters or storylines are not adequately fleshed out. It's a unique interplay of artist and audience, and an opportunity to see just how a theatrical work takes form.

All of this is exactly why Nagle, the cofounder and executive director of Vermont Shakespeare Company, is directing a staged reading of Will this Saturday, December 6, at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts. Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. That's because the play, about William Shakespeare at a critical juncture in his life, is brand new. Vermonters who attend can listen and then give their two cents during a reception following the play with writer Jon Glascoe.

Glascoe, a Middlebury College graduate who went on to a career in film and television, originally wrote Will as a screenplay. But it was around the time, Nagle says, that Shakespeare in Love came out. That movie was an unexpected hit, and Glascoe decided that was not the time to pitch his idea. Will went dormant for more than a decade.

When Nagle met Glascoe last year, after a production of VSC's The Winter's Tale, the two bonded over their shared interest in the Bard. Long story short, the screenwriter turned his piece into a play, Nagle assembled a cast, including New York actor Eric Sheffer-Stevens to play Shakespeare, and the work will finally be realized in the cozy confines of Off Center.

Will is described as "a partially fictionalized chronicle of Shakespeare's experiences during the period in his life when he was about to write Hamlet." The historic context is the Essex Rebellion of 1601, in which factions attempted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare, in fact, was accused of helping to incite the conflict.

Nagle applauds Glascoe's "exhaustingly researched" story — the screenwriter "wrote it with an Oxford don, a Shakespeare scholar," he says. That said, many details of Shakespeare's life remain mysterious. After all, "he didn't know he was going to become immortal," as Nagle puts it. Why keep notes?

"Jon has taken everything we know for sure and connected the dots," Nagle says. But he's quick to note that Will is "not a museum piece."

With feedback from their Vermont audience, Glascoe and Nagle aim to produce a fully mounted play at some point, both here and in New York. Meantime, a local cast alongside Sheffer-Stevens — who recently performed with John Lithgow in King Lear in Manhattan — will put Glascoe's words to the test.

Side note: After his own considerable career with Shakespeare's plays, Nagle will appear in a contemporary work — Or, by Liz Duffy Adams — in Vermont Stage Company's production beginning January 28. "When Cristina [Alicea] cast me, she told me it's a little risqué," says Nagle. "It's basically a sex farce." Surely the Bard would approve.

INFO

Will by Jon Glascoe, staged reading directed by John Nagle. Saturday, December 6, 7 p.m., at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington. $15 (benefit for Vermont Shakespeare Company). vermontshakespeare.org

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