The first time I encountered Twelfth Night was as a college sophomore. Home to spend my summer vacation in Little Rock, I got a “job” (unpaid student labor) as the stage manager for the Shakespeare Festival of Arkansas’s production of the comedy, presented outdoors at McArthur Park. While I had been studying Shakespeare as an English major, this was my first experience with bringing his work to life on stage, in front of an audience. I was blown away by the power the words and story had when spoken by talented actors: evoking laughter, gasps, and tears.
Over the succeeding years, I had the opportunity to work on many more productions of Shakespeare, but found myself consistently drawn back to Twelfth Night. The story and its varied cast of colorful characters simply delighted me. In particular, I have always been moved by the romance of the show. There are many different love stories woven throughout the play, and the way the characters feel about each other is always first detected in their language. Long before Orsino discovers that the boy Cesario is actually a girl, he recognizes a kindred in spirit in her, as evidenced by her speech. All the lovers play verbal games of wit with each other, picking up each other’s phrases, taking a word and turning it over in such a way that it has a new meaning. Through this complementary use of language the audience can tell these people are truly meant for each other, and it is so much fun to watch them figure out what we already know.
When it was time to select the play I would direct in my first season Artistic Director of the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, I knew that Twelfth Night was the perfect choice. In some ways, the play itself echoes my own journey. It begins with the twins Viola and Sebastian, having lost their father, setting out for a voyage together, away from their home. Disaster strikes, and they find themselves separated at sea, and both arrive on the strange island of Illyria, where they must learn to survive by any means necessary. They get into all sorts of misadventures, but eventually find their back to each other, and to new lives and loves—they find their way “home.” Like Viola and Sebastian, I lost my father and felt set adrift. He was a vitally important touchstone and inspiration in my life, not to mention the person who first fueled my passion for Shakespeare. I left Little Rock and explored the strange land of Chicago, but all of my work and adventures there set me on this collision course with my past—allowing me too to find my way home.