London Actors Bring Merchant of Venice to the Lobero

Five actors working with no sets, no theatrical costumes, and
the words of William Shakespeare — that’s the demanding formula
employed by Actors From a London Stage (AFLS) in its touring
production of The Merchant of Venice, which is at Lobero Theatre
this weekend. Despite the London association, it’s a homecoming of
sorts for the company, which was founded here 25 years ago. At that
time, UC Santa Barbara drama professor Homer Swander found himself
disillusioned with local schools’ stodgy methods of teaching
Shakespeare. “He felt the plays should not merely be read, but seen
and heard,” said Merchant actor Christopher Staines. Joining forces
with his friend Patrick Stewart, a stage actor who would later
become famous on TV’s Star Trek, Swander took matters into his own
hands. AFLS was founded as an educational outreach program, with
company actors touring the world to lead high school and college
drama students in interactive workshops, lectures, and seminars.
Today, the troupe is based in London and domestically at the
University of Notre Dame, with Swander — now a Gaucho
emeritus — and Patrick Stewart as its co-founding directors.
Merchant marks the group’s fifth consecutive annual Lobero

The actors of Merchant — all of whom boast extensive acting
experience on both sides of the pond — particularly enjoy educating
students about the world of Renaissance drama. “Generally,” Staines
said, “we’re in residence at universities. But in Santa Barbara,
we’ll be working with younger kids as well. It’s exciting because
with the young ones, we can really help them understand
Shakespeare.” Jeff Mills, education and community programs
coordinator for the Lobero, added that AFLS is set to host 35
workshops in four days, involving 950 local students, on campus at
Westmont College and Carpinteria High School, among others.
“They’re going to be bringing Shakespeare to life for these kids.
Playing with meter and rhyme, getting it into their heads,” Mills
said. “Plays are meant to be seen and spoken, not read.” Throughout
the years, he’s had a bird’s-eye view of the actors’ effect on
their young charges. “By the end of class, I’ve seen kids up and
excited. They can see that these works are relevant to their lives.
Especially the kissing scenes, like in Romeo and Juliet,” he

For adults, the Lobero performances should be equally
engrossing. The five actors perform on a bare stage, and they don’t
wear special costumes. “It’s exposing and exciting, all our own
creation,” Staines said. “There’s nothing to hide behind. It’s on
us to pull it off … you never know what’s going to be thrown your
way.” Trained at Oxford, Staines is well known in London’s West
End, having performed extensively at the Donmar Warehouse and
National Theatre. But for him, AFLS has proved a new experience,
especially given the intricacies and difficulties of staging
Merchant. Because the five men cover every role, each one plays
more than one character. Sometimes an actor will embody both
characters in a two-person scene, distinguishing each figure with a
unique mannerism or a simple prop — a change in accent, a pair of
sunglasses. “It gives us an extra spurt of energy,” he said. “And
it challenges the audience’s imaginations. We help them see two
people when there’s only one.”

The actors also wear multiple hats behind the scenes. Unlike
most theatrical productions, Merchant does not have an outside
helper. Instead, the five men act as a directorial team. “We help
each other,” Staines explained. “During rehearsals, if all five of
us are in a scene, one actor will keep popping out of formation to
look at the overall staging and see what we need to change.” The
play is thus open to all kinds of interpretation, and the actors
take liberties.

Staines, for example, plays the Prince of Aragon as a flamboyant
Spaniard. (Master Will would no doubt have enjoyed this.) Staines
felt he and his comrades are enlivening Santa Barbara audiences
with a unique, unprecedented retelling of the show. “We bring an
extra element of fun to the play,” he said, pausing. “But how on
earth five people put on Merchant of Venice in its entirety, I
don’t know. It’s just like walking a tightrope, scary and
exhilarating at the same time. By the end, we do feel like we’ve
finished an acrobatic feat.”

4·1·1 Merchant of Venice, presented by Actors
From a London Stage, shows at Lobero Theatre on Friday, March 10 at
7 p.m. and Saturday, March 11 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20-$50. For
more information and to order tickets, see


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