A Method to Our Madness

How a wooden hook kept the audience in stitches.

I’m very proud of the role I played in the creation of UCF’s Orlando Shakespeare Festival, admittedly a very small part, inadvertent and totally self-serving.

I was an English major during the 1970s when UCF was still FTU. An eccentric, energetic English professor — Dr. Stuart Omans — lived to make Shakespeare come alive to students, drawing them into the Bard’s world, swatting away the cobwebs, and showing how the world’s greatest playwright was exciting and relevant.

One day, he asked our class if anyone would participate in a reader’s theater for high school students. The 11 of us who responded should have been tipped off when, as an enticement, he offered to let us forgo one or two research papers. At the time, it seemed like a good deal.

As we began rehearsing, we discovered that just reading the script wasn’t enough. Too much was lost without the accompanying physical movements, so we memorized our parts. The university’s Theatre Department loaned us Elizabethan costumes, and suddenly we were a thrown-together troupe.

Prior to our first performance, one student noticed there wasn’t a prop for her line, “Here’s my dog.” She asked my 4-year-old daughter if she would stand in. My daughter cocked her head and gave a big smile. A photograph of the two of them appeared in the school newspaper.

For our first performance, Omans chose a high school not known for its academics. We had no idea if the students would react to us with boredom or even disdain. When Omans crawled through the audience — climbing over chairs, dressed as a fool in a tricornered hat, colorful tunic and tights — proclaiming, “To thine own self be true,” the students howled in appreciation.

At a middle school, the youngsters were enthusiastically enjoying the second scene when a school administrator informed us that classes had been shortened that day, and the bell would ring before our performance ended, forcing students to leave early.

We huddled backstage; we needed to cut the scene being performed. Omans scooted to the edge of the stage, concealed by the curtain, and gave the onstage actor the “cut” signal, drawing his index finger across his neck. The bewildered actor glanced over, his head wobbling in confusion, and continued on. Omans repeatedly tried to wave him off the stage.

Joanne Griggs plays a role in the creation of UCF’s Orlando Shakespeare Festival

I looked around in desperation and found a pole with a wooden hook, used to pull the stage curtain back. Still behind the curtain, Omans reached out and hooked the actor around the neck. The actor struggled like a big fish refusing to be reeled in, grasping the pole with both hands. The students roared with delight. For them, it was just part of the humor. We had learned to be resilient and solve the problems that popped up when performing live.

The original group later developed a series of scenes from Shakespeare’s history plays. The Simply Shakespeare troupe was born and went on to tour throughout Florida for 10 years. I’ve been told that some students who saw our early performances were inspired to eventually join the troupe.

Years later, Omans grew restless; he wanted more. He convinced the Orlando community to support a Shakespeare festival, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Joanne retired from UCF in 2008 after 25 years as an editor and a writer. She continues to write and edit as a freelancer. You can reconnect with Joanne at joannegriggs1@yahoo.com.

This year, the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Partnership with UCF celebrates its
25th anniversary.