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Theater amidst a pandemic: A look back at UR's production of Richard III

<p>The cast of Richard III on its stage at the Jenkins Greek theater. <em>Courtesy of</em> <em>Mitzi Avila</em></p>

The cast of Richard III on its stage at the Jenkins Greek theater. Courtesy of Mitzi Avila

“Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman, / of these supposed evils to give me leave, / by circumstance but to acquit myself.”

What does it mean? It means nothing manageable, at least not the first dozen times you shout it into the walls of your dorm room, said sophomore Reide Petty, who played the titular character in the University of Richmond department of theater and dance's rendition of William Shakespeare's "Richard III" this fall. 

The line is from Act 1, Scene 2 of the play. The theater department presented an abridged version of the play in the Jenkins Greek Theater at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 and 14. Performances scheduled for Nov. 11 and 12 were canceled because of rain. The Nov. 14 show was filmed and a copy uploaded to YouTube on Nov. 15.  

After being cast in September, Petty spent hours pacing his dorm room, speaking to walls — his roommates all but certain he’d gone mad, he said. 

Eight hours a week for two months, not including rehearsal — that's what it took to make the character his own, he said. And making the character Petty's own is what Walter Schoen, chair of the theater and dance department and director of Richard III, wanted, Schoen said. A few people who auditioned for the part of Richard just imitated famous actors who had held the role, Schoen said. 

“Once we got all the casting done, I told [the actors] not to look at any videos of other people playing their parts from that point forward, so that the rehearsal could be our own discovery,” Schoen said. “The production was going to be ours.”

But the temptation was there, especially for Petty, whose role had been filled, famously, by actors such as Sir Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier, Petty said. 

Schoen said Petty's sense of humor and willingness to show his dark side set him apart from others who auditioned for the role of Richard. 

"[Richard is] a guy who kills his brother, arranges for his second brother to fall asleep and not wake up, kills two kids, kills his wife," Schoen said. "[I needed] to find someone who was willing to show a little bit of that darkness. And this was a hard thing for a lot of people who came to the audition." 

Reide Petty, left, and India Henderson, right, during Act 1 of "Richard III" in the Jenkins Greek Theater on Nov. 14. Courtesy of Mitzi Avila

To help the actors make the characters their own, the first thing Schoen had them do was rewrite the script in “normal people talk,” Petty said. Schoen also had the actors watch videos on how to read Shakespeare, said senior India Henderson, who played Lady Anne in the production.

“If there’s a line that’s all single syllables, it might mean that you should slow down to really emphasize these words,” Henderson said. “There’s so much meaning in the rhythm of the language, which really helps you make sense of what you’re saying.”

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Before this semester, Henderson had been involved in about ten productions at UR, including “Caroline, or Change” and "The Crucible,” she said. 

“I’ve learned a lot of lines before, but never for something so difficult, where you really have to be so exact,” Henderson said. 

A few weeks before opening night, the cast did an “Italian run” of the play, Petty said. 

“An Italian run is when you say everything as quickly as humanly possible,” he said. “So you’re speeding through monologues and everyone is zooming around the stage and not only did it bring us together as a cast — because that was some of the most fun we had at rehearsal — but it really let us know how much we had accomplished.” 

Petty said he had never acted nor worked in theater before "Richard III." He had, however, taken a Shakespeare class in fall 2019 and spent spring 2020 reading all of Shakespeare’s works while sheltering in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. He developed a passion for the histories and language of the plays, he said, which led him to audition for Richard III this fall. 

“This was the first real performance I had ever done,” Petty said. “But I really think that everybody was in a pretty new position with the COVID-19 thing, so that was sort of an equalizing force. We were all on new ground.”  

Originally, the theater department was going to do a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Schoen said. But after UR announced its physical distancing guidelines this summer, Schoen and other faculty decided that “Our Town” presented too many challenges and a Shakespeare play would be more reasonable, he said.

Schoen began working on the script in August and ended up cutting nearly half of the original version of "Richard III" to ensure that physical distancing guidelines could be followed during the performances, he said. 

Sacrifices had to be made. In fact, Schoen cut his favorite scene, in which the character Clarence is hacked to death after delivering a monologue about what the future might hold, Schoen said. Parts of Richard’s opening monologue, too, were cut, which Petty said was disappointing but understandable. 

“There are a number of deaths that take place in the play that are supposed to take place on stage, not the least of which is killing Richard III,” Schoen said. “And how do you stab someone from six feet away?” 

In rehearsals, the actors and production crew all wore masks and kept six feet apart, Henderson said. And stage managers wiped down props after each scene, she said. 

The cast did not wear masks during the shows. 

“The production relied on so many things to be done well and for people to be extra cautious, especially outside of rehearsal,” she said. “It wasn’t just my health or missing a rehearsal at stake, but the entire production.” 

Henderson had never performed outdoors, she said, and going from rehearsing all semester with a mask on in a small, indoor space to rehearsing outdoors only days before the show required quick adjustments. Both Henderson and Petty said that, without microphones, the actors quickly had to learn how to project their voices in the outdoor theater.

On Nov. 14, the night the show was filmed, the cicadas were incredibly loud, Schoen said. Airplanes flew overhead, car doors slammed and music from cars going around the Westhampton Way bend drifted into the soundscape. But neither Henderson nor Petty were thrown off by this, they said. 

“All of that is part of the joy of doing outdoor theater,” Schoen said. 

You can watch the UR department of theater and dance's production of "Richard III" here.

Contact features editor William Roberts at william.roberts@richmond.edu.

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