One could be forgiven for assuming Linda Bisesti, head of acting at Cal Poly Pomona’s theatre department, has pored over Shakespeare’s work since she was a little girl, or that her love for his verse was immediate and unquestioned.
Bisesti is the founder of the Southern California Shakespeare Festival – which celebrates its 15th season this week – and a mere question about Shakespeare’s relevance to the modern world can ignite an impassioned defense for his work within her. A short version of her testimony might last only a minute and a half, but it can cover everything from Shakespeare’s seminal imprint on English storytelling to how the skills it takes to perform Shakespeare are a foundation for all successful actors.
“Life itself can be very Shakespearean in a way, too,” she says. “I’ll read about somebody getting in a car accident on their way to pick up a big lottery check, and I’ll think that sounds very Shakespearean in its high stakes and high drama.”
But Bisesti didn’t find Shakespeare in Mr. Lopez’s high school English class with “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet,” or even later when an interest in theatre took root as she studied history at a women’s college. Even when her work on a Master of Fine Arts degree at Boston University blossomed her theatre interest into a lifelong passion, Bisesti’s concern with Shakespeare was a fledgling footnote.
In the early 1980s, however, a mentorship with world-famous voice trainers and Shakespeare instructors Tina Packer and Kristin Linklater showed Bisesti that she had been looking at Shakespeare all wrong. Before her training, Bisesti said her Shakespeare performances were either a yell or a mutter, and both could involve a lot of spit as a matter of course. But Packer and Linklater’s lesson – one that Bisesti passes on through her students – is that understanding and appreciating the language of Shakespeare is key to performing it.
“They changed my life and made me a better actor,” Bisesti says. “Now I can see with Shakespeare the problem for a lot of people is that they either yell it or they mutter it, like I did. To me, now, that’s always a sign that the actor does not fully understand what he or she is saying. They have to understand what the text is saying to understand and effectively convey the emotion behind it.”
In 2003, Bisesti batted the idea of bringing a Shakespeare festival to CPP with friends over backyard drinks, and then thought more seriously about it.
“Summer Shakespeare festivals have been gaining popularity in the past 20 years,” Bisesti says. “So, that was one reason to do it. Another was because I wanted to give students at Cal Poly Pomona a professional credit for their resume as they transitioned into the professional world of the industry of regional theater, television and film.”
Beyond the credit, Bisesti also knew from experience that studying and performing Shakespeare the right way could entirely transform an actor. She brought her idea to then-theatre department chairman Bill Morse, who encouraged her to produce the first Southern California Shakespeare Festival in 2004.
Fifteen years later, the Southern California Shakespeare Festival has molded itself into an institution of its own at CPP. Operating under the auspices of the CPP Department of Theatre and New Dance, SCSF features a company of guest artists and university-level student actors, designers and production crewmembers. Most of whom are overwhelmingly current CPP students or alumni.
For its 15th Season, SCSF brings what Bisesti thinks is one of Shakespeare’s roughest-around-the-edges works to the stage: “Titus Andronicus.”
“It’s really not his best verse,” Bisesti says. “It’s not ‘The Tempest’ and it’s neither ‘King Lear’ nor ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and I can feel the difference when I try to memorize the verse, but now we’re comparing Shakespeare to Shakespeare and it should go without saying that ‘Titus Andronicus’ is still brilliant.”
Titus Andronicus is known for being one of Shakespeare’s most brutal plays. Fourteen deaths driven by hatred and revenge underscore a fictional story about the real-life barbarism that undid the Roman Empire.
In the original script, Roman general Titus Andronicus returns home with the Gothic queen Tamora and her children in chains. The people name Titus as emperor, but he places the late emperor’s eldest son on the throne. In the new emperor Tamora finds new power and means to use it against her own enemies.
SCSF’s production, however, reimagines “Titus Andronicus” as a modern tragedy occurring within a Roman Empire that never fell, yet plagued by the same ever-present and all-consuming media environment we know today.
Many interpretations of “Titus Andronicus” revel in the ceaseless slaughter for slaughter’s sake, but SCSF offers a different understanding of the story. CPP alumnus Robert Shields (‘12, theatre), director of SCSF’s production, says the goal of his show is to satisfy more than viewers’ bloodlust by emphasizing the human impact of such gratuitous violence.
“I want to obfuscate the wanton violence in this play by focusing on the consequences it has on people,” Shields says. “It’s our goal to shift the emphasis of the script toward exploring how this violence affects the psychology of those who commit and survive it.”
Bisesti says she’s pleased with the direction her former student has taken as director of his second SCSF production.
“I admire the fact that Robert has taken a play famous for its bloodshed and murder and done something more positive with it,” says Bisesti, who will portray Tamora. “He has found a really interesting point of view about the political state of Rome and relaying that to the present. There’s a lot of compelling themes in ‘Titus’ about the world we live in now, such as sexism racism, that we can address as well.”
SCSF’s “Titus Andronicus” plays at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30-31 and Sept. 6-7 and at 2 p.m. Sept. 1, 8, at Cal Poly Pomona’s Studio Theatre. The show continues at 7 p.m. on Sept. 13-14 at the School of Arts and Enterprise in Downtown Pomona. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for all students and senior citizens. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.bit.ly/scsf15.