In April, the steps of Old Main will be used as more than an entrance into Penn State’s administrative home. The School of Theatre will stage a production of “Julius Caesar” on the steps, with three performances April 15–17 at 7:30 p.m. On April 17, Penn State’s Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” prior to “Julius Caesar.” Both the April 17 concert and “Julius Caesar” performance will be livestreamed by College of Communications students. All performances—which precede the annual Blue-White Game on April 18—are free and open to the public.
“I was always interested in doing something on the steps of Old Main,” said Travis DeCastro, associate director for production for the School of Theatre. “Including the Philharmonic Orchestra is one of those serendipitous things—it was just an idea, and then things all came together.”
“Lincoln Portrait,” which includes spoken parts that will be performed by Penn State graduate acting students, was chosen because the dates of the “Julius Caesar” presentation include the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination (April 15, 1865). “With these performances, we will address themes such as protecting the union, winning the peace and misuse of power. In these days and times, despotism and tyranny are clearly evident in our political makeup,” said DeCastro. “However, healing is possible. Lincoln demonstrated this during his presidency and we honor that by pairing the two pieces together.”
In addition to DeCastro, key players in this effort—along with nearly 400 students, staff and faculty—are William Kelly, professor of theatre and director of “Julius Caesar”; Gerardo Edelstein, director of orchestral studies in the School of Music; and Maria Cabrera-Baukus, senior lecturer in telecommunications in the College of Communications.
According to DeCastro, this collaborative undertaking is an opportunity for people across campus “to play in the same sandbox.” Kelly agreed, noting an effort such as this is exciting. “We have people with different skills from all over the University coming together to create something,” he said. “One of the things that is really wonderful is that at a university, we are able to experiment and do things that students are unlikely to do in a professional setting.”
The schools of Music and Theatre have collaborated on a number of projects recently, including the Leonard Bernstein “MASS,” which was a highlight of the College of Arts and Architecture’s 50th anniversary celebration in April 2013. Staged in Eisenhower Auditorium, the production involved about 175–200 music and theatre students.
“Julius Caesar” will be a production on an even bigger scale—with all the challenges that come with staging a huge piece outside, in mid-April, when State College weather could range from 65 with sunny skies to 35 with snow flurries. In the case of extremely bad weather, the production will be moved to the Playhouse Theatre.
An outdoor production is unique no matter what, but this production of “Julius Caesar” will be unusual in another way—it will be set in a contemporary African nation to draw parallels between modern African dictatorships and Shakespeare’s Roman Republic of 44 B.C. under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. According to Kelly, the storyline of the play is common throughout history. “My assumption is that most people don’t know the historical details of Julius Caesar’s time, so they look at the play as something that happened ‘then.’ Setting the play in modern Africa, where the rise and fall of dictatorships is repeated over and over, gives audiences an anchor to help them better understand the play.”
With the steps of Old Main as the stage, the performers have a big space to “fill,” according to DeCastro. “An actor has to rise to the volume of the space he is trying to fill—in this case, you could put 10,000 people on the Old Main lawn. This experience of filling such a large space, through their acting, is not one students would normally get,” he said, noting that this is also a unique—and challenging—opportunity for the students responsible for lighting and sound.
In addition to the College of Arts and Architecture, the “Julius Caesar” performances and Philharmonic Orchestra concert are supported, in part, by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, McCourtney Institute for Democracy, University Development, World Campus and Penn State Alumni Association.