The Illinois Shakespeare Festival sets the stage this summer for a one-of-a-kind escape into the forest of Arden with the romantic comedy, “As You Like It.” Young lovers flee a corrupt court, plunging headlong into the forest, where they find love, friendship, and new songs to sing.
Really new songs.
Woven through “As You Like It” are a collection of original songs by actor/composer/musician Jordan Coughtry which highlight the poetry and wisdom of Shakespeare, plus give the audience a sense of time and place. Directed by Robert Quinlan, the production is set in the pre-WWI era.
Quinlan dubbed “As You Like It” a great gateway play for Shakespeare – an appealing introduction to the Bard’s work. It’s a fun comedy, Quinlan declared, but also one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant plays about the human experience.
“It’s not afraid to explore the melancholy of life. I’m really intrigued by the personal transformations in the play. The word conversion is used a lot throughout the play, that people have these epiphanies. By going into the forest, they really find their true selves.”
“The world at the beginning of the play is this kind of toxic world of the court, and through all of these personal transformations that various characters have, there’s a restoration of ethics. And it happens through individuals.”
To help bring his vision of “As You Like It” to life, Quinlan turned to Coughtry, who is also portraying Touchstone in the production, to compose a selection of songs to feature throughout the play. The two had previously teamed up in a similar endeavor for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the ISF. But even in light of the success of that production, Coughtry gulped nervously when Quinlan asked him to compose songs for “As You Like It.”
“I thought ‘Oh, wow! That’s impossible,’” Coughtry laughed as he recalled. “First of all, he came to me and told me the idea of setting the play in the early 20th century, and musically like the old British music hall sound. And I thought, ‘I can’t do that. I write folk songs and that’s about it.’ So, I didn’t think I could do that.”
“Then I sat down and I listened to a bunch of songs, I listened to some Al Jolson, you know, 'Swanee River,' and 'On Moonlight Bay' and a bunch of other songs. And I figured out a few of the chord progressions that I heard coming along and I started writing songs. And after about a couple of weeks it went from ‘This is impossible, and I cannot do it’ to ‘This is going to be something else!’”
The songs Coughtry composed combine his own lyrics with the poetry of Shakespeare, creating a unique musical hybrid. One number, called “The Spider Song,” incorporates one of Coughtry’s favorite lines from Shakespeare.
“There are little ‘ins’ to getting into the songs, into the songwriting for writing with Shakespeare,” explained Coughtry. “Often, it’s a line. I’ll find a line of Shakespeare that speaks to me and tends to lend itself to music.”
“Robert was talking about how in 'As You Like It' there are all these storylines, once we get into the forest, there are people running through the forest – bumping into people, falling in love, just missing each other, rejoicing together, singing together – and that even when a scene is happening on stage, those other stories are continuing, even though you don’t see them. We catch snippets of these strands of these stories.”
“And I started thinking about the threads that link these people together and how sometimes the threads of yarn cross and form this web of storytelling. And it reminded me of this line, one of my favorites from Shakespeare, from 'Alls Well That Ends Well,' ‘The web of our life is a mingled yarn, both good and ill together.’ And so, I thought that sounded like 'As You Like it!' What a great way to start! So, I wrote the song about the side to get you to the web of our life.”
Shakespeare wrote “As You Like It” in 1599. Coughtry wrote the songs for the show in the past year. Still, Quinlan said, the play is not yet set. The actors get to have their say and further influence this production.
“We’re really still developing ideas. It’s wonderful to have this great collection of actors here. We have an amazing company. They are now collaborating on the adaptation with us and bringing all of their experience and their insights about the play to the process.”
"As You Like It" opens June 27 at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival theater at Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington.
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