For love of the Bard: ‘Comedy’ director Borba’s theatrical interest steeped in Shakespeare

Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Andrew Borba, director of Chautauqua Theater Company’s The Comedy of Errors, speaks with the CTC sound technicians during rehearsal Aug. 7 at Bratton Theater.

Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom has a deep appreciation of William Shakespeare, identifying the playwright as the inventor of human personality in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

With that, Bloom has been rumored to say that he would much rather read a Shakespeare play than watch one, as the experience is more complete — a theory that Andrew Borba, director of Chautauqua Theater Company’s The Comedy of Errors, ardently disagrees with.

“Don’t get me wrong, reading Shakespeare is an extraordinary thing to do; it’s incredibly rewarding,” Borba said. “But no matter how vivid one’s imagination is, it’s a blueprint, a script for a production. To witness a human being going through that, as opposed to the intellectual idea to it, I think you’re really limiting yourself.”

Borba does agree, however, that Shakespeare has remained relevant for centuries due to the characters he has crafted; in Comedy, his 400-year-old characters struggle with the same issues contemporary audiences face: identity, jealousy, leadership and betrayal.

“He writes people,” Borba said. “It’s really about the things that troubled the cavemen to now. Those things never, ever go away. They are never extracted from what it is to be human and therefore always relevant.”

For Borba, Shakespeare has been a stimulating pastime since his high school days. The director said that he owes his high school English teacher for truly spurning his interest in the playwright. Working on a handful of Shakespearean plays in college, Borba’s theatrical interest was quickly steeped in the playwright.

After college, Borba found himself continuously working on Shakespeare productions, including a stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for four years. Vivienne Benesch, CTC’s artistic director, invited Borba to come to Chautauqua to work as a guest artist and teach courses on Shakespeare.

Now serving his ninth year as CTC’s associate artistic director, Borba has directed two other Shakespeare productions at Chautauqua (Twelfth Night and Macbeth). He also works on the text for all of CTC’s Shakespearean productions.

CTC performs a Shakespearean play each season, partly because of the experience that the playwright’s work gives conservatory actors. Aside from lending themselves to a bigger cast, Shakespeare’s plays are generally the most challenging for conservatory members — and subsequently the most rewarding, Borba said.

“Shakespeare is one of the only playwrights ever — but also the best at it — who requires everything that an actor has,” Borba said. “He will take all of your intellect and more to play a role, he will take all of your physicality and more to play a role, he will take all of your emotions and more to play a role.”

Borba also noted that although this season’s Shakespeare production features guest artists  — in this case, Joel de la Fuente and John Seidman — the leads are usually portrayed by conservatory actors.

Referring to Shakespeare’s text as the highest mountain to climb in the world of theater, Borba said that the playwright’s works are the best training ground for students and audience members alike.

It’s also a great training ground for the production’s crew. For Borba, one of the toughest parts when working on one of Shakespeare’s plays is making sure that he — along with the cast — understands what the playwright was saying, which can be a struggle, as some of the 400-year-old vernacular is no longer used.

Borba said that he and the cast go through every single word within the text so that they know exactly what they’re talking about. From there, the cast works on vocals and dialects. Borba said they have to make the decision on how the cast will speak their lines: Are they using a contemporary British accent, Elizabethan English or another regional variation?

Another struggle of bringing any number of Shakespearean plays to life is adapting them for the stage. Borba said that Shakespeare often wrote his plays with specific venues in mind, such as the Globe Theatre. In terms of set, he often knew what he had to work with, such as a balcony. Today, many theaters have to be creative in order to accommodate his writing.

All of the hard work that goes into a Shakespeare production is done in the hopes of keeping the playwright’s ever-relevant themes alive and appealing to a modern audience.

“Many people treat it like spinach,” Borba said, “because it was forced on them as something they should like, rather than allowing them to revel in the fact that of course they like it — it has to do with them.”