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The Return of the Porterfield Ensemble
The insults fly across the stage like foam daggers. They go from glib, modern jest to something more elegant, more Shakespearian – the kind of affront that almost makes one want to say “thank you, kind sir, for such utterances.” And when these words stop, both Radford University theatre majors, Zak Bacon (senior from Richmond) and Amanda Barr (sophomore from Purcellville) look smug and the audience is more enlightened to the phrasing of Renaissance English.
Both actors are part of the Porterfield Ensemble, a traveling Radford University Department of Theatre and Cinema program. The play is an adaptation of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” by Tina Turley. It is a silly but informative look at the work and times of the great writer. Pop culture references and hokey jokes abound in this fast-paced presentation.
The ensemble is a project of Wesley Young, professor of theatre. It originated from the former Department of Theatre and Cinema chair Dr. Roberto Pomo. Young believes the first production was an adaptation of Aristophanes’ “The Birds.”
When Young first arrived at the university in 2000, he was asked to take on the Porterfield Ensemble and have a show ready to travel in fall 2001.
“Originally, the Ensemble class was structured to rehearse for an entire semester and then tour the next,” said Young, “Being young and naïve, perhaps even a bit fool hardy, I thought since a whole semester seemed like a long time to rehearse that we should do two shows.”
They did. They mounted his adaptation of “Spoon River Anthology” to take to secondary schools. The second show was a play for younger audiences focusing on the prevalence of the Cinderella story in various cultures, called “The Oldest Story Ever Told.”
“We had two very strong productions and a busy touring season that following spring, going to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and as far north as Lexington, Virginia,” he said.
Young did this for one more year and then the ensemble came to a halt. Due to a curriculum revamping for the department, his faculty hours were needed for upper-level performance classes instead.
Now in 2015, other faculty meets these needs, and Young found himself having discussions with Carl Lefko, chair of the department, about bringing back the ensemble.
“We had some room in our class schedule and decided to bring back the Porterfield Ensemble in an effort to expand our community outreach,” Lefko said. “It provides an excellent experiential opportunity for our majors to engage the community with their art beyond the walls of Porterfield Hall and Radford University. We are also able to demonstrate to area high school students the high quality of our theatre-training program.”
This was recently experienced during a performance for Appalachian Arts and Studies in the Schools (AASIS) scholars, who visited the campus Nov. 4. AASIS provides these students with an opportunity to learn more about the culture of the Appalachian region and encourages promising young Southwest Virginia students to pursue higher education.
“The ensemble Shakespeare performance was well received by the AASIS scholars as was evidenced by their attentiveness, their onstage participation, and the wealth of questions they posed in the talkback,” said Ruth Derrick, AASIS coordinator. “Further confirmation of their positive response showed up in the scholar evaluations of the day's events. The play received the No. 1 mention as their favorite part of the RU visit.”
After the AASIS watched a live performance by the Porterfield Ensemble, a talkback with the cast was offered. The ensemble members sat on the edge of the stage and answered many questions from potential students. They addressed issues such as what it is like to live away from or close to parental units during the college experience; what their theatre background is; and most significantly why did they chose to come to Radford University.
In addition to Bacon and Barr, the remaining ensemble members are all sophomores from Virginia and include Rebecca Haas from Manassas, Kyle North from Charlottesville, and Becca Redifer from Virginia Beach. The stage manager is senior Kyle Gillikin from Chesapeake, Virginia. Their class, which meets for three hours two days a week, helps the ensemble with their professionalism. The class focuses on examining rehearsal habits and practices.
“It occurred to me that is something we don’t talk about much,” said Young. “Folks just start doing theatre, usually in high school, and they ‘go with the flow.’” His goal is to have his students look at what they need and how they work to make rehearsal as productive and creative as possible. They discuss concepts such as etiquette and memorization.
In addition, each member of the ensemble journals their experiences and is responsible for creating props and other needs of the production. Then, each has certain duties when they tour. With this they have become a true ensemble.
In past years, students were required to audition for a spot in the class. This was not the case for this year’s group, though they auditioned for specific roles in the production. And this year’s ensemble class is only for one semester.
The unofficial opening of the Porterfield Ensemble happened Oct. 14 in the Pridemore Playhouse with a show for 60 Christiansburg High School students.
“Due to renovations at the high school, they requested to come to campus instead of cancel their booking with us,” Young said. “We were supposed to go to them later but when this problem arose we didn’t want to lose the opportunity for them, or us.”
This was two days earlier than their official opening.
After finishing their season in early 2016, the department plans to continue the Porterfield Ensemble tradition of providing a touring company to regional schools.