Improving on Shakespeare

By Charles Buchanan

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Douglas O’Neil (at left in both photos) and members of ETC portray Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals at Sloss Furnaces. Photos by Sharon Creel; courtesy of Muse of Fire

Douglas O’Neil Jr. is an information systems specialist in the UAB Office of Technology and Information Services. But for a few nights last summer he transformed into Peter Quince, one of the comic “rude mechanicals” staging a play within the play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by Muse of Fire at Sloss Furnaces.

The UAB theatre alumnus got involved with the community theatre group by auditioning for another Shakespearean character—in character as Daffy Duck. He was hired, and he was hooked. “I’ve done every Muse of Fire show I’ve been able to do since then,” he says.

O’Neil found it easy to get into character. “Peter Quince is a carpenter by day, but at night he’s a theatrical director,” he says. “He’s parallel to where I am—I’m sort of the tradesman by day, but I also run an improvisational comedy company.” (O’Neil’s troupe, Extemporaneous Theatre Company—or ETC—performs short-form improv shows in the style of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and long-form “improvised plays” in Birmingham, and portrayed the other rude mechanicals in Dream.) “So it’s tuning into my own excitement. I can really identify with his feelings of ‘This is going to be a great show . . . I hope.’”

Improv has proven to be good preparation for Shakespeare, O’Neil explains. “Shakespeare doesn’t have stage directions or cues to the actor; it’s just the dialogue. So there are so many different ways to interpret these lines that it’s fun to seek out new ways to say these things and different actions to play with them. Doing improv every week forces us to make bolder choices. It helps us get into a land where we’re not afraid to be Daffy Duck in Shakespeare.”

O’Neil and ETC rehearsed three or four nights a week for several months, but even with that amount of practice, the play’s industrial venue can spring some surprises. “It’s an adventure every time,” he says. “We always get to a point when we start rehearsing at Sloss, and we’ll find out that somebody has to exit on one side of Sloss and come in on the other side in 20 seconds—so we’ll be sprinting down and around the blast furnace with swords. It’s a little bit madcap, and sometimes you’re glad you’ve had a tetanus shot, but it’s also what makes these shows unique. Many of the challenges turn out to be bonuses we never expected.”

O’Neil says that performing at Sloss Furnaces with Muse of Fire is “distinctly Birmingham,” offering UAB students and the community an opportunity and an experience that aren’t available anywhere else. “It’s really gratifying and exciting for any theatre person to be involved with a project like that, which seems to have a magical buzz around it and draws in new people. It’s just a whole lot of fun.”

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