Shoes at the edge of the Burton-Judson basement black box theater stage, second-year Eric Shoemaker is intensely engaged in combat, punching, throwing, and flipping an invisible victim. After a few fight sequences are crafted, he walks over to the windowsill, grabs his bright orange notebook, and scribbles notes in an already full collection of reminders, ideas, and stage directions.
Shoemaker is currently directing his very own adaptation of “Beowulf,” which will be performed as joint production of the Classical Entertainment Society and Dance Council this spring. He has worked with the cast eight to create the script based on Seamus Heaney’s and John McNamara’s translations of “Beowulf” and John Gardner’s novel “Grendel.”
Shoemaker finds there are many benefits of directing and adapting a script simultaneously.
“It’s really fun and helpful to adapt while you’re directing a show,” he said. “Because you can work on it with the actors who help you, you see flaws when things come out.”
Because of his experience as an actor, he also knows the importance of actor-director collaboration in the creation of a show.
“Acting has really heavily impacted the way I direct, because if you don’t understand how to be an actor it’s really hard to understand how to be a director,” he said.
This understanding leads to a very collaborative rehearsal environment. Collaboration is also crucial because the actors are utilizing a number of elements, including dance, music, fire, water, as well as elaborate puppets and props, such as six feet long dragon wings that have to be handled by seven actors in unison or more abstract pieces such as umbrellas which must be handled precisely in order to express the trees they symbolize. The actors often convey the storyline with their bodies and the props rather than the words, which requires the actors to personally determine many of their movements.
“Sometimes if you choreograph something and throw it at [an actor], it doesn’t stick,” he said. “It’s better to tell them the message you are trying to convey and let them interpret it with their movement.”
“Beowulf” is the second show Shoemaker has adapted at UChicago. The first show, a musical dance number titled “Adaptation,” was performed during winter quarter last year for University Theater. Creating a full-length play inspired by the music of Florence + The Machine proved to be a new and exciting challenge for Shoemaker.
“The show itself is called “Adaptation” because it was an attempt to express what it’s like to adapt a show, particularly one from songs. But it is really fun to try to concoct a storyline and even pull characters out of songs,” Shoemaker said. “We found some pretty solid characters, the two leads, out of those songs. We found that relationship somehow.”
According to Shoemaker, UChicago has provided an enriching foundation for the type of professional theater he aspires to do. In particular, he appreciates how his theater classes integrate theory and analysis into practice. Shoemaker said these elements, which are not found at technical acting schools, require a rationale behind the execution.
“[Theory] causes you to think about what you’re doing in a way other than, ‘how do I make this happen in a way that’s technically correct?’ It makes you think about underlying things that you should be thinking about like, ‘why is this even in this play?’ and, ‘why are we even using this design?’”
While his tenure at UT has sophisticated his understanding of drama, Shoemaker’s earlier experiences set the stage for his theatrical aspirations.
In high school, he began as a stage manager and actor before directing his first show his senior year. That summer he founded his own theater troop, The Ta Pyra Ensemble, whose 30-something members have now produced four shows.
“We’re fairly established in whatever you could call the art community of Henderson, Kentucky,” he said. “We do really well.”
After some experience directing, Shoemaker found the short stories and poems he had been writing since sixth grade could be adapted into plays. He also discovered that producing his own shows could serve another purpose.
“When I started directing I wanted to have a show that didn’t have royalties to pay, and so I wrote one. And I enjoyed it,” he said. “Then it started to become writing for the sake of writing.”
After a number of years of participating in theater as an audience member, actor, director, and writer and through exploring the theoretical framework of drama in his coursework, Shoemaker said he has learned valuable lessons for off the stage.
“Theater is about human behavior. Even if you’re watching a show that’s mostly plot, it’s about human behavior. And so is the process.”
This holds true for his experiences with “Beowulf” as well.
“I could go into the specifics of why Beowulf is thematically relevant or why parts of it are so important to us today, but talking about why I do theater is completely different,” he said. “It’s the search for some kind of art in people.”
By Kelsey Reid, Class of 2015
Photo by Emily Lo, Class of 2012