Staged readings offer greater access to classic works of the theater

Through access, shared space and a focus on storytelling, The Shakespeare Underground is all about an exploration of the relevance of works of classic theater.

On Monday, Feb. 19, The Shakespeare Underground, an initiative of Actors' Theatre of Columbus, will present a staged reading of Czech playwright Karel Capek's 1920 work “R.U.R.” at Tatoheads Public House. The play (the initials stand for “Rossum's Universal Robots”) is not only the origin of many common science-fiction tropes still in use today — it's well-accepted that this is the first use of the term “robot” to refer to a non-human humanoid — but also a biting commentary on what it means to be human, in particular through the eyes of the working class.

“I think that any time you're dealing with something that has strong social commentary, examining it in a one-night-only kind of venue can be really productive because it gives us something to talk about, and that's the point of theater, to initiate a conversation between people, one that starts with a conversation from the author to the audience,” Artistic Director Philip Hickman said. “Being in a smaller space, it's more intimate. Being able to be right there with the actor as they're reading the words, as they're engaging with the emotional life of the character, you get to see that happen up close. [It becomes] one human being telling a story to another human being.”

“We're putting on works that are historically relevant in some way. We also hope people will see something that maybe breaks down some of the myths of classic theater being boring, or not being relevant to audiences today,” Hickman said.

The Shakespeare Underground will present one staged reading each month in 2018 at Tatoheads, as well as four special events throughout the year. Hickman said the series is an opportunity for actors, directors and audiences to connect with more works of classic theater through the presenting of staged readings as opposed to fully-staged productions, which take much longer to turn around.

“One of the things we were talking about when we decided to do Underground was [being able to offer] that kind of access to the arts, a communal ownership of the art,” Hickman said. “You have a different sense of community when there's no illusion, when you take away some of the things that remove the actors from the audience, when they're living in the same reality as the audience.”

Hickman also said the nontraditional setting and production allows him to be a bit more adventurous when selecting plays to be presented.

“On one hand, there's an ‘underground' aspect that some of these works have been banned or caused controversy,” Hickman said, “but also we hope that by bringing this work into places that are more comfortable for people not used to going to the theater, audiences will be more open to these kinds of works.”