After a forced summer off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, free, outdoor Shakespeare performances are returning to the Center for the Arts this week. KHOL News Director Kyle Mackie spoke to co-directors and performers Edgar Landa and Kate Gleason about how they’re updating the romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” for the 21st century—including by making one of the main characters Mexican-American.
The following interview audio and transcript have been edited for clarity and brevity. You can also listen below for a Spanish-language interview with Landa.
KYLE MACKIE: Kate Gleason and Edgar Landa, thank you so much for joining us today on KHOL.
EDGAR LANDA: Thank you.
KATE GLEASON: Thanks so much for having us.
MACKIE: I wanted to just start by asking you, right off the bat, why Shakespeare in 2021? Why do we still need the work of this great artist?
LANDA: Great question. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot over the last year, you know, with everything that’s happened and the discussions around Shakespeare and colonialism and the force feeding of Shakespeare in our educational system. For the record, I love Shakespeare. I don’t think there’s a better writer in the English language. But I’ve been doing some reading and there’s a great book called “Passing Strange.” And she talks about Shakespeare and she really makes a difference between the institution of Shakespeare, the writer Shakespeare and the plays of Shakespeare. And they are three separate things. Shakespeare is very much an institution in this country and in many parts of the world, and the institution of Shakespeare might be problematic.
One of the ways—and one of the things she talks about—and one of the things I’ve been doing even before all of this is a way of taking Shakespeare and taking it apart so that it’s not put up on a pedestal, so that we’re not forcing it down your throat. And sometimes we can do that in big ways and sometimes in small ways, simply by changing some of the words, you know, by putting it in modern dress, by casting it in a way that reflects the way our country looks. So, there are different ways of approaching it that I think decolonizes it and begins to acknowledge what Shakespeare means in small and big ways.GLEASON: I think that’s a great answer, and just to piggyback on that, the last part, the actual language of Shakespeare is still this incredibly living, vibrant art form. And the storytelling is still universal. It’s still about love and war and wit and fire and all of those things, I think, are still universal. And they still ring and have resonance today. So, I still think of the language of Shakespeare as being very much alive, and rehearsing this play, it just brought all of that language back again. And it’s funny. It’s smart. It’s witty. It’s dangerous.
LANDA: It’s sexy.
GLEASON: It’s sexy. It’s alive. It’s all of that stuff. So, I think it rings [as] true today as it did in the 16th century.
MACKIE: I understand that you sometimes put your own twist on these shows that are so beloved and well known. But I wonder, are you making this—how are you making the show your own this year?
LANDA: Well, yeah. One of the ways that I take Shakespeare and break it down is I cut the play. So, that’s both for practical reasons and also for aesthetic and artistic reasons. So, our play is cut down to about two hours. This year we’ve set our play in in a late 1800s southwest world that is not the frontier. It’s not cowboys. It’s an upper class world. There’s leisure. Because the language is so witty and it’s elevated that it fits into that kind of world. And the southwest, part of that [was] I’m always interested in how the play resonates in this community. So, in the past, when we did “As You Like It,” which takes place in the Forest of Arden, we updated it to the National Forest of Arden. And, you know, the shepherds became park rangers and tourists and whatnot. So, I’m always looking for that. It doesn’t always happen, but in this production we were able to do that. And I was able to—because I’m also in the play this year for the first time in my six years or so coming here—and I’m playing Benedick. And Kate is also in the play. She’s playing Doña John—
GLEASON: … [who is] normally played by a man.
LANDA: Normally played by a man. And because my parents are Mexican, I’m a first generation [American]. I speak fluent Spanish. That was my first language, you know, which again, goes back to the whole thing of Shakespeare, the colonization of Shakespeare. And here I am loving Shakespeare. And so I decided that Benedick is a descendant of those Mexicans that that were part of the southwest when it was Mexico, which, interestingly enough, Mexico went all the way up into Wyoming. And so Benedick, you know, speaks Spanish sometimes during this production in another way of tearing apart Shakespeare.
MACKIE: Well, I know everyone is very excited to be seeing live theater, live music again this summer. The free performances of “Much Ado About Nothing” will be taking place at 7:30 p.m. from July 9-11 and July 14-18 at the Center Amphitheater outside of the Center for the Arts right here in downtown Jackson. Thank you so much, Kate and Edgar, for joining us today on KHOL.
LANDA: Thank you.
GLEASON: Thanks so much for having us.