When Tom Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an absurdist comedy about two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he was only 27 years old. Trapped in a nebulous otherworld, courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern debate the nature of freedom and fate from lives pre-scripted to death. Comic dialogue coupled with philosophical themes, including the use of language to uncover and confound reality, helped crystalize the playwright’s style and earned him the 1968 Tony Award for Best Play. Now students at Piedmont Virginia Community College and members of the Charlottesville acting community bring their own youthful energy and seasoned sagacity to a one-weekend performance November 13-17.
Veteran director and theater faculty member at Mary Baldwin College, Clinton Johnson chose Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as PVCC’s winter offering because the show is one of his all-time favorites. “You don’t get many absurdist comedies, but they tend to be very smart and very funny,” Johnson said. “Usually shows about Shakespeare or that re-work Shakespeare end up working against it. Stoppard manages to not be precious with the original material while still maintaining a clear love for it.”
Stoppard’s close readings of the Bard weave throughout the play. Isolated from Hamlet, which presumably runs offstage, the titular courtiers struggle to find meaning in a decontextualized nowhere land. PVCC echoes this strangeness with a sparse set and vomitorium staging, in which two groups of audience members face each other across a strip of stage bracketed by darkness.
As a result, attendees become part of the dramatic experience. “The audience spends a lot of time seeing each other and one another’s responses,” said Brad Stoller, PVCC’s new coordinator of theatrical productions, a choice that underscores the show’s investigation of “human existence and why we’re here.”
With a cast and crew that include both student and community performers, PVCC’s production is part of a new model in community theater. “The idea is that young actors learn best from other actors,” said Stoller, who took helm of the program in 2012. Faced with the reality that many PVCC students juggle children, jobs, and commutes to school and do not have time to rehearse full-length plays, the PVCC drama department decided to open auditions to the public. “As long as we have at least a half and half split with plays,” Stoller said, “I’ve been given the go ahead to let people in the community join the community college. Which makes sense to me.”
PVCC auditions draw local performers of all ages, many of whom have been acting their entire lives. These days, veterans fill many major roles while students learn the ropes, but as time passes and students return to the program, Stoller expects the ratio to shift.
In the meantime, he believes this mentoring process gives students an unprecedented opportunity for a hands-on theater experience. “Traditional programs can be insular,” Stoller said. “I had to wait until my third and fourth years to get any technical experience, and the only reason I got cast in roles is because I was a dancer. Come to PVCC, and you can be part of all aspects of theater right away.”
Stoller approaches each show as a producer, selecting expert directors who choose the shows for which PVCC holds open auditions. “A director knows what they love and want to direct,” he said. “As long as it’s something a community college can do—age and budget-wise—we’ll do it.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is complex, designed to unhinge a viewer’s perspective so insight can pour through the cracks. The quick back-and-forths that delight Stoppard fans also require actors to master specific verbal and physical work while maintaining a grasp of the script’s complex logic. “It’s almost as demanding as farce,” Johnson said of the show’s mind-boggling details. “‘First you flip the coin, and then I say this, and then you catch it, and then I look.’”
For this reason, Johnson appreciates PVCC’s new model. “We’ve been able to pull in some people whom I consider to be heavy hitters for this show,” he said. “I mean, you learn theater by doing it, and you really learn by doing it with people who’ve done more than you. I think it’s good for these students to see how seriously these community members take what they do on stage.”
Courtiers, actors, audience members, we all have questions about the roles we play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may not provide all the answers, but as Johnson said of PVCC’s production, “Two young men in average health can get into a surprising number of sexual positions in three minutes and 33 seconds. I give you that piece of knowledge for free.”