Ryan Underbakke knows very well that there is one name that sends shivers down the spines of actors and audiences alike: Shakespeare.
Still, he’s launching his semester as guest director at Rochester Community & Technical College with a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” opening today and running through Feb. 18.
“It’s like trigonometry: When you hear the word, you say, ‘I couldn’t do that,’” Underbakke said. “I know actors who have been at the Guthrie for 15 years and are still terrified of Shakespeare.”
If professional actors are that fearful, what could Underbakke expect from his students at RCTC?
“We all have this thing I’ve encountered all my life: Shakespeare phobia,” he said. It’s an elitist attitude, he said, that helps drive potential talents and audiences away from the theater. “I’ve never found that’s a way to help people help you create a community, “ he said.
The secret for young actors, Underbakke said, is to let them see that “Macbeth” is not necessarily about the legend or the language. “It’s about emotion and intention and power and corruption and wanting things,” he said. Once they realized that, they were freed from their fears.
So the actors are now on board. Whether audiences will follow is another question. That old Shakespeare fear still exists, after all.
“Every time you do ‘Oklahoma,’ it’s sold out,” Underbakke said. “But you could do the best production of ‘Coriolanus’ and you’d get 20 people in the audience. It’s in the culture: ‘You wouldn’t understand Shakespeare, you’re too stupid.’”
But Underbakke said he’s not interested in turning off audiences. “I try to make a play for someone who hasn’t seen a play before,” he said.
Underbakke is filling in this semester for Jerry Casper, the RCTC theater director, who is on sabbatical. In addition to “Macbeth,” Underbakke will direct “Perry Gynt” in April. Underbakke graduated from John Marshall High School in 2001, majored in theater at the University of Minnesota, and completed a master of fine arts in London. He has also worked and studied in Los Angeles and New York.
What’s it like to be back in Rochester? “It’s weird,” he said. “I’m a grownup person and I’m staying with my parents during the week. I go back to the Cities on weekends.”