Bread Loaf offers Shakespeare in the summer

RIPTON — Last Wednesday evening around 30 Bread Loaf School of English graduate students, staff, faculty and children gathered here in a small white building — the “Burgess Meredith Little Theater” behind the Bread Loaf Inn — to audition for the handful of supporting roles in this summer’s production of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.” Students and faculty read from Shakespearian monologues, enduring a lengthy audition process that went well into the night, and many community members came simply to watch.
That’s because at the Bread Loaf School of English, all theater is community theater. The annual plays — largely performed by the residential Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble — mark the culmination of a summer’s hard work, and are an integral part of life on the Ripton campus.
Students, faculty, staff and even children are encouraged to audition for supporting roles each summer — last year’s production of “Our Town” starred many students alongside the professional company. And talented community members do sometimes land significant speaking roles. For students, it’s a rare opportunity to share the stage with professionals; for members of the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble, it’s a chance to share their love of the craft.
Composed of professional actors and graduate students of theater, the residential Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble draws on its diverse background and strengths to create, in a little over a month, astounding performances open to the broader public.
The Ensemble rehearses during the day while students attend classes, and at night community members file in for rehearsals that are open to the Bread Loaf community. It is not unusual for professors to join the cast alongside their students. One summer, the then-director of the Bread Loaf School landed a role in that year’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and children as young as nine have had the opportunity to appear on stage, too.
Nestled within Ripton’s mountains and a good 20 minutes by car from downtown Middlebury, the Bread Loaf School of English boasts a small campus of old barns converted into classrooms, among rolling meadows leading to popular swimming holes. And it is a mere mile from Robert Frost’s farmhouse and writing cabin. Around 200 graduate students from across the country and the globe gather for two months every summer to study English under an esteemed faculty drawn from Philadelphia to Middlebury to Oxford.
The students and faculty live in yellow dorms with names like “Maple” and “Tamarack,” and there are regular lectures and movie screenings in “The Barn,” which was once an active farming operation when Joseph Battell first bought the land in the late 19th century. Battell, as Bread Loaf students learn over bonfires and officiating ceremonies, first bought the land and used it as a vacation spot for his friends, building a series of yellow cottages — now dormitories — before eventually bequeathing it to Middlebury College in 1915.
In short, it’s not where you would expect to find a bustling theater scene supported by a dynamic acting company drawing its members from across the country.
Preliminary read-throughs are already under way for what promises to be an intensive rehearsal process of this summer’s production of “Troilus and Cressida.” Considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for its refusal to adhere to a strict tragic or comedic form, “Troilus and Cressida” is often described as modern in its nihilistic portrayal of the characters’ moral decay, and can be a tricky play to work with.
With so many intertwining story lines — Troilus and Cressida’s love story make up only a fraction of the play’s action, which also draws inspiration from “The Iliad” — director Brian McEleny’s initial focus will be on making the play understandable to its actors.
“My main goal will be to make it as clear as possible,” McEleny said during a break from the first table-work, which brought the nearly 30 cast members together to read the play for the first time.
“My experience is always — when the actors really know what they’re saying, when they know what they’re doing, then it’s clear. But you can’t skip over that section. So we’ll spend a good week just going over the text, making sure people get what they’re saying.”
But despite the play’s difficulty, McEleny’s remains optimistic.
“I’m hoping to convince them that it’s really modern, and really funny, and really about character. And if everybody can get who their character is, then it will all come clear.”
Rehearsals are under way for performances in early August at the Bread Loaf Campus in Ripton. Information about tickets will be available later in the summer. 
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series looking at the people behind the annual summer theatrical production staged at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus. 

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