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Art teacher Nathan Stromberg works on a costume for the play. Photo by Emma Melling.

Pushing boundaries

Minnehaha spring play brings Shakespeare to life through “living paintings”

Minnehaha’s theater program has never attempted a show concept similar to this year’s.

“We want to try to push the boundaries of what we have done, and we have never done anything like this before,” said art teacher Nathan Stromberg.

The play is William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a story of comedy, confusion and love that the Minnehaha Players will present on April 20, 21 and 22. However, instead of dressing characters in traditional Renaissance era costumes, actors’ clothing and skin will be entirely covered in paint: shades of blue, green, purple, brown and a variety of other colors.

A very unique concept, the paint will be a central part to the entire production, which will be staged in a black box setting, meaning that audience members will be sitting on stage in the space the actors perform in. All characters, sets and props will be meant to look like living paintings.

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy centered around a town in Italy called Messina and is riddled with elements of trickery and romance. The play begins as the noble Don Pedro (senior Matthew Humason), Claudio (junior Seth Retzlaff) and humorous Benedick (senior Eli Aronson) return from war to spend some time at the home of Leonato (junior Lily Kline), the governor of Messina, where a large party of friends and relatives are staying, including the sassy Beatrice (junior Greta Hallberg) and villainous Don John (junior Tea McLawhorn). As the story unfolds, characters fall in love and are deceived, leading to a tangle of emotions and humor.

As the plot of the play is often confusing enough, director Nicholas Freeman discussed why he thought that experimenting with color and paint would be a good fit for the show.

“I love the idea of telling a story through color,” said Freeman. “How do all these different colors of the characters [play a role?] How do they wear those emotions, those thoughts, those desires, those hopes on their sleeves? How are they open and honest with people and when do they mask it? When do they step out of that picture frame, and when do they step back into that picture frame? I think [the concept] is a really fun fit for the show.”

The idea of a “living painting” is one central to the works of Washington D.C. artist and photographer Alexa Meade, whose art inspired the concept for the show.

Meade takes three dimensional objects and people, and she paints them in a way to make them look two dimensional, taking photographs of her completed work. Freeman explained how he was inspired by Meade’s work.

“It dawned on me that the whole idea of [Meade’s] artwork, or what she does as an artist is that she messes with the idea of what’s real and what’s perceived,” he said. “In doing so, she paints her subjects to mesh into the background of their environment. So, when do these characters [in Much Ado] step out of what is expected in their environment and when don’t they? I love that idea and I thought, ‘this is going to work.’”

Stromberg, who had seen some of Meade’s work before the show, explained a basic overview of Meade’s process.

“What Alexa Meade does is pose somebody in a chair and paints their clothes, paints their face, paints the background, paints the floor, paints the chair, and then takes a photo from one specific angle to make it look like a painting,” he said.

For Minnehaha’s production, actors and actresses brought in a set of base clothing which will be covered in strokes of paint by Stromberg, student artist sophomore Helen Baxter and a team of other volunteers. The paint is not styled after a certain era or artist, but is simply meant to make the actors look like paintings. Though each character will not be painted in as much intricate detail as the projects done by Meade, the concept is inspired by her work and is aimed to make the show unique and intriguing.

Stromberg, who plays an essential role in helping plan and paint actors’ costumes and faces, explained that the goal of the paint is not simply to create a visually appealing production, but to provide insight into the symbolism and meaningful communication in Much Ado About Nothing.

“We’re always looking for ways visually to give the audience clues into the plot,” said Stromberg. “One of the things I was worried about right away is that everyone is covered in paint,” meaning that it’s hard for the audience to distinguish between characters and know who is who.

To solve this issue, characters from the same rank or family will be painted in similar colors, while stand alone characters or lead roles may be covered in paint of a brighter hue to make them stand out more.

“The characters that are more significant to the plot, their costumes will be brighter,” said Stromberg. “We are thinking about ways to reflect [characters’ roles] with the color, and hopefully that will help clear up audience confusion.”

Alongside giving the audience clues into characters’ roles, the color will also hopefully bring an added level of depth to the show.

“I think that Much Ado is often played as a frivolous comedy,” said Freeman, “and I think there is some depth to it that we are still discovering.”

Freeman recognized that not everyone may understand the deeper meaning to the paint, but as a whole it will have a large impact on the production.

“All of that color is going to tell a whole different story than what I think the audience is going to be prepared for,” he said.

Not only will the color tell an unexpected version of Much Ado About Nothing, smaller elements will also add flair to the show.

The production will also include freshman Patrick Cullinan playing piano pieces on stage like “I Need a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler and “The Stranger” by Billy Joel.

Though there are many layers to the concept that will take center stage in the Minnehaha Player’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, Stromberg expressed his simple take on what he thinks the paint really means.

“I think the fact that everybody’s painted and everybody is a work of art is kind of acknowledging the fact that this isn’t reality. This is a play. This is a world we are transporting you to.”

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About Emma Melling

Emma is a senior staff writer who is interested in English and literature, and is also passionate about French language and culture. She enjoys writing features on arts and human interest topics and loves listening to people's stories. Her hobbies include reading, hiking and spending time with family.

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