Reimagining a classic: 'Much Ado' in the #metoo era

With a sold-out audience nearly every performance, UVU’s Much Ado About Nothing was a rousing success. With its closing, I interviewed director and script adapter Dr. John Newman to tell us a little bit about the process of the show. Read below to be a part of our conversation, and keep following UVU’s School of the Arts for more innovative performances and projects!

1. What inspired the decision to set Much Ado About Nothing in 1945?

It was a time when the roles of men and women were being renegotiated, just as they are in Much Ado About Nothing. Men had become the warriors, women had become the workers, and how would they adjust to their post-war roles? Which couple will become the norm in the post-war culture: the more traditional relationship of Hero and Claudio or the more egalitarian relationship of Beatrice and Benedick? It’s all up for grabs and the stake are high.

2. Why do you think this show is relevant today?

In 2018, at the peak of the “Me Too” movement, this play examines how, when an individual is accused of sexual misconduct, men tend to trust the word of men and women tend to trust the word of women until one individual (such as Benedick) steps across gender lines and defends someone of the opposite gender. We actually gave Benedick the Friar’s line and made him Hero’s most ardent defender.

3. What were the main questions you wanted your audience to be considering?

I would like to think about what we think we know versus what is true. Characters in this play eavesdrop and note what they hear, and it often ends up to be false or incomplete information. I also want the audience to think about forgiveness of ourselves and others when we act on false information and have to make restitution.

4. How did the show change for you from original concept development to execution? Did it turn out as you expected?

There were many concepts that I proposed that I could not have realized without these talented students. I had the idea of combining Balthasar’s lyrics with contemporary music and having a “bard” sing at points in the story but it took sound designer Kevin Criman and actor/singer Rilyn Gardner to realize that vision onstage. I had the idea of an anti-war flyer distributed in the audience but dramaturg Laura Dexter found the approach that worked without offending veterans in our audience. I edited the text of the masquerade ball to fit dialogue between the verses of Balthasar’s song, and the idea of a subtractive dance/curtain call at the end of the show, but it took choreographer Kailey Azure Green to make those scenes magic.

5. What do/did you enjoy most about directing, in general and/or this project specifically?

With this show, I have been blessed with a very talented cast and I have enjoyed being able to collaborate with them in the direction of the show. I have tried to build on ideas that they have generated about their characters and have been able to give them some latitude in playing moments slightly differently each run and allowing them to respond to what their acting partner gives them that time around. I have enjoyed directing a cast who work as creative artists and not just as obedient performers.

6. Is there anything else about the process you'd like to share with the readers?

I should also add that we have an all student tech/design “dream team” with this production. Melissa Bonilla has kept all the moving parts in motion and kept the production progressing forward smoothly at every point in the process. We have wonderful set and prop designs by Alicia Freeman, lighting design by Emma Belnap, costumes by Chris Lancaster, and hair and makeup design by Shelby Gist. They are the unsung heroes of this production that make it all look natural and easy.