Festival Dramaturg Kee-Yoon Nahm spoke with director Bill Jenkins about the upcoming production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kee-Yoon Nahm (KN): This will be the third time that The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) is presented at the ISF, following productions in 2008 and 2011. Would you walk me through the history first? As I understand it, the premise was different each time even though the productions were all based on the same script.

Director Bill Jenkins

Bill Jenkins (BJ): The premise was a little different, but the characters were the same. When we had the first production meeting in 2008, there was a lengthy conversation about the show. I said I loved the play’s comedic and farcical elements, which are genres that I work in a lot. But also, there is a moment where one of the actors steps out and gives this beautiful speech. We are moved by Shakespeare’s words without even realizing their power and resonance until after the fact. I said that moment has to come out of nowhere, a complete surprise. At that point, the scenic designer, Kevin Depinet, asked what if something random happened at the beginning of the show, something none of us would expect—like an RV breaking through the set. Everybody laughed, and after the laughter died down, I said, “Go on.” From that, I thought what if the two main characters—played by Dave Kortemeier and Tom Quinn—were two guys that would seem so antithetical to Shakespeare, and yet they accidentally happened upon a Shakespeare theatre. Comedy ensues because these local yokels have just enough knowledge to be dangerous, but they do not really know as much as they think they do.

I have directed about 60 shows now, and I can count on one hand the number of times where everything came together in a way that was almost magical. That was the case with Complete Works in 2008. The audiences loved it, and so ISF made the decision to do it again in 2011. When I was approached to direct the play again, I said I would only do it if we could say something different. I think we accomplished that in many ways. In the 2011 version, we made the third character someone who had seen the 2008 production. This character opens the other two guys’ minds to new perspectives and how Shakespeare could move many different people. That was a joyful revelation that could still be silly.

I was approached to do the show a third time in 2020. And of course, we all know what happened. It was postponed to this year. So, here we are in 2022, 11 years after the second version. We are faced with the same question: What can we do differently this time? How can we still make it about the joyful comedy and Shakespeare’s brilliance, but also make the play relevant now, seeing how the world has changed a lot since 2011? I am sure this will be our last installment. Dave and Tom have reached a point in their lives where doing the show for more than the two-week run will be hard. It is a very physically demanding show. I am excited to have this “last hurrah” with these gentlemen on the play.

KN: I am interested in the continuity that you have created with these characters and how that will continue into the third production this year. It is a nice touch for the third character in the 2011 production to be someone who says they were in the audience in 2008, since some actual audience members will remember being there as well. Do you think Complete Works in 2022 will be a different experience for people who saw the previous versions than those who are meeting these characters for the first time?

BJ: Ultimately the play has to stand on its own to work. The 2022 show is not a sequel, so to speak. You do not have to have seen the others to get this one. But for those that did see it, I mean, there is something comforting about returning. There is something very Midwestern about this sense of returning home. It is the same thing that happens with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. You return to the theatre in the summer. You see actors that you have seen before, and there is comfort in that familiarity. Dave and Tom have probably played the Festival more than any other actors. Longtime patrons will know that.

We are faced with the same question: What can we do differently this time? How can we still make it about the joyful comedy and Shakespeare’s brilliance, but also make the play relevant now, seeing how the world has changed a lot since 2011?

Bill Jenkins

I have been thinking not only about the continuity in Dave and Tom’s characters, but also how much they have changed. I want to see how they can reflect for us what has happened in the world since the last show. We had a running gag in the 2011 production where they were huge Chicago Cubs fans, but would always make fun of the Cubs. Well, it is going to be a whole different ball game now since the Cubs won the World Series. On a more serious note, I am sure we will be commenting on the pandemic and the social justice movements of the last several years this time around. These are historically significant moments that we have all experienced together. I think that you can acknowledge that in a way that says something while also being really funny.

KN: I like to think about common threads across the plays in the ISF season each year. Recently, I wrote an article that explores the theme of nothingness in Much Ado about Nothing and King Lear. But there could be other themes that connect Complete Works to the two Shakespeare plays. You mentioned that you are thinking about this third installment as a last hurrah for Dave and Tom’s characters. I wonder if the 2022 version of Complete Works could also become a reflection on aging and generational difference, which are central themes in the other two plays. King Lear is arguably the Shakespeare play on growing old. Also, I have spoken with Lisa Dixon, who is directing Much Ado, about the age difference across the two pairs of lovers: the more mature Beatrice and Benedict versus the young and naïve Hero and Claudio. With the continuity that you have created with Dave and Tom over almost 15 years, this production of Complete Works could also address these themes even if it is not necessarily in the play as written.

BJ: I think the play this year will be about getting old. And I think it will have universal appeal for this reason. I certainly am starting to identify with that idea as I approach 50 and as my kids get older. You start to think about your own mortality a little bit at this age. Of course, Dave and Tom are reaching ages higher than 50. But on the whole, I also think that we have aged a lot the last two years. Things have moved so fast that I feel like we have undergone 10 years’ worth of mountains and valleys—enough to last a lifetime.

The other theme that will resonate with audiences is exhaustion. Whether you are young or old, I think that we all can identify with being just tired. Let me use this analogy. We just had a huge snowstorm in early February. And when the snow became evident, my institution—Ball State University—immediately switched to an online day of learning, as did my kids’ school. I was sitting in a house full of people who are older that day, and we all said, “Remember when we just had a snow day and took the day off?” Everybody could sit in their house and watch TV. They could take a day to regroup. I feel that we have lost that because of technology, because of the feeling that anything is at your fingertips in a moment’s notice. We have lost the opportunity to take a breath and regroup. Our show, on its face, may feel as light as whipped cream. But I am hopeful that it will allow people to take a breath and remember what brings us together, what makes us feel like we are in a community, what brings us joy that ultimately makes the rest worth it. Although this is not necessarily connected to aging, it is something I feel we have all gone through. We have climbed a mountain, and we are ready for a rest at the top.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), Illinois Shakespeare Festival, 2008.

KN: Right. Going back to what you said about technology making everything seem instantly available, I want to ask a different question about the play. In Complete Works, there is a scene where one of the characters talks about being bored by Shakespeare in school. When I teach Shakespeare to first-year students, some of them initially find the plays too difficult and frustrating to read. Talking with these students, I think that part of their frustration comes from the fact that you just have to take Shakespeare a little slow at first until you become familiar with the language. Shakespeare’s characters sometimes indulge in poetry for a while before they get to the point. For students who are used to having all kinds of information streamlined and readily available to them, it can be hard to get in the right mindset to enjoy Shakespeare’s language. I felt that way when I was in school. So, I am a big fan of using study guides and other resources to make Shakespeare easier. I am curious whether Complete Works could serve as an entry point or steppingstone to Shakespeare for someone who is not into his plays.

BJ: I always tell students that Shakespeare was meant to be performed not read. Sometimes a student will read Shakespeare and say, “I do not get it. I am not smart enough to get this.” To that end, I think Complete Works is sort of like CliffsNotes. You are getting enough information about what the plays are about—enough to have a conversation with somebody about Shakespeare. I think that is beneficial. But what makes Complete Works most beneficial is that the play is all about actors performing. There is something to be gained by just watching actors of great skill tackling the genius of Shakespeare’s plays, but doing it in such a way that makes it more applicable and more translatable to a contemporary and younger audience.

I am hopeful that it will allow people to take a breath and remember what brings us together, what makes us feel like we are in a community, what brings us joy that ultimately makes the rest worth it.

Bill Jenkins

KN: You told me before that Shakespeare had an impact on your work as a director of comedy and musical theatre. Will you talk more about your relationship with Shakespeare?

BJ: I went to grad school at Illinois State University 28 years ago with a love of musical theatre, which I still have. At the same time, I was scared about approaching classical work. It was not because I did not like it, but I would constantly ask myself whether I would be able to do this work as well as other genres. I credit the directing program at ISU for giving me the opportunities and the flexibility to focus on musicals, but also to help me find stylistic and structural similarities between a musical and a Shakespeare play. By that I mean there is a level at which you have to suspend disbelief. There is a sense of being larger than life; no one actually stops in the middle of a cafeteria and sings “Fame,” just as no one stops in the middle of a street and has a conversation with themselves about “to be or not to be.” You have to get the audience to believe that what you are doing is real and inherently believable—that you are invested in a pursuit of truth. The genres I have directed the most are musicals, Shakespeare, and farce. These genres are similar in that you have to get your actors to buy that what they are doing could actually happen. That, then, becomes a contract with the audience. For directors who have not done this kind of theatre a lot, it can be challenging to figure out how to draft that contract with your audience and your actors. For me, I love that because that buy-in is what makes creating worlds so interesting.

KN: That is a great point. Speaking of contracts, Complete Works announces at the start that the performers will attempt to fit all of Shakespeare’s plays into a single show. There is a kind of contract there, where the audience has to buy into that ludicrous premise. But even though the play tells you exactly what it is going to do, the performance still manages to sweep you off your feet and surprise you.

BJ: Complete Works has a game mentality where the audience keeps wondering, “Can they do it?” I think that our past versions were successful partly because we added an additional obstacle: can these characters do it? These guys do not know much about Shakespeare. Again, there is that contract with the audience. The minute that the RV came through the set in 2008 and 2011, the contract was clear. Expect the unexpected. This year, we have to figure out how to build that contract again without the RV. I think we can do that, but it is another challenge to figure out.

KN: I had assumed that this production will be relatively easy for you because you worked on the play multiple times and know it very well. But it also seems there is an extra challenge when doing Complete Works again after the success of the two previous versions.

BJ: Tom, Dave, and I said from the beginning that we are not going to do this unless we feel like we can do it as well as the other two times. That standard is a burden. But it is a burden that you take on joyfully because it is far better than the burden of being stuck in your house for the last two years and not being able to create art. In many ways, this production is harder for me than doing something where the idea is brand new, and I am pursuing something for the first time. But I am motivated by it. I am excited by it. I do not think you should do anything that you are not scared by a little.

KN: Words to live by. Thank you for your time.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), Illinois Shakespeare Festival, 2008.