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Reinventing the Bard

Theatre Professor Jonathan Cole remembers falling asleep to Shakespeare in high school. "We'd read Romeo and Juliet to each other and it droned on and on," he recalls.

And so he envisioned Shoebox Shakespeare, which will bring monologues and scenes from the Bard's greatest hits to local high schools. He and Willamette drama students hope to "combat deadly Shakespeare with its pretentiousness and bad British accents." Shakespeare, Cole says, is anything but dull. There's a magic that happens when you move the Bard from the page onto the stage.

"He's earthy, he's vital, he's still relevant," Cole says. "He hits the nail on the head when he talks about the primal elements of the human condition. He throws our behavior back in our face and forces us to see ourselves for who we are. When Shakespeare writes about humankind's all-consuming lust for power and what we give up to achieve that power, he could well be talking about our market-driven, post-9/11 economy.

"And rather than looking at the trauma of 21st century teen infatuation, we're looking at 'Two households, both alike in dignity,'" Cole says.

The collection of scenes from Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Henry IV part I, Hamlet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It are performed with general lighting, an empty space and modular costumes. The design, Cole says, is no design. Student actors literally create everything. Instead of Richard III walking around with a prosthetic hump, the actor creates the impression with his body.

Many fight scenes are explosive. "Elizabethans flocked to see people breaking off teeth with pliers or bear and bull baiting. Their attitude toward blood was, 'Yes, please,'" Cole says. Cole gives modern audiences sword fights that are realistic, in spite of being carefully choreographed. "Shakespeare just says, 'They fight,' so we have to fill in the specifics."

Cole's own life runs rather like a play, with a twist of the plot at age 20. Attending college on a scholarship in music, he had a To Be or Not to Be moment while practicing for a national competition. "I realized I didn't want to spend eight hours a day alone in a practice room," he says.

The saxophone student had been a theatre junkie who unwound after long practice sessions by catching the final scenes of plays on the way home. On a whim, he took a semester off and auditioned for a play. To his surprise, he was cast as the lead, and the stage was set for a shift to acting, and eventually, to directing.

Cole's long interest in the martial arts made him especially interested in how fight scenes are choreographed in plays. "I was the Star Wars kid, who entertained myself by trying to teach myself how to do gymnastics and martial arts in my back yard. Later in life, I trained in aikido, judo, jujitsu and practical shooting." He went on to study Danzan Ryu Jujitsu at the Salem Budokai, where he will test for a black belt in March. He has pursued advanced training with the Society of American Fight Directors, and hopes to become an SAFD Certified Teacher of stage combat in the near future. Cole now teaches stage combat at Willamette, with an emphasis on unarmed combat and sword fighting. Dueling, swordplay, boxing, rolls and falls are covered, and students practice with sticks on the Quad.

In addition to theatre, Cole teaches aikido, a Japanese martial art that focuses on personal integrity and well-being. Classes begin with formal bows, and the harmonious movements build strength, flexibility and balance in students. Off campus, he is an assistant instructor at the Salem Budokai, where he helps with the adult classes in jujitsu, judo, aikido and karate.

Cole and his associates formed Revenge Arts, a company that choreographs combat scenes for theatre groups throughout the Northwest. Clients learn how to use daggers, guns, swords, staplers or even pencils to create the illusion of combat. They can also choose to learn about basic pyrotechnics, blood or gunshots effects.

"It's all about safety," says Cole, who is the first call for many theatre companies after actors have been hurt. "Many actors end up with bruised or broken limbs. Safe violence doesn't have to look bad. It can look realistic."

During rehearsal Cole often arrives home after midnight and returns at nine the next morning. "When we're in production, we're always here," he says. "The production company gets to know each other incredibly well."

His brainchild, Shoebox Shakespeare, kicks off with a Willamette performance, and then it's on to high schools, where theatre students hope to convince Generation Y that all the world's a stage.