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History Comes to Life with The Book of Will

Book of Will poster illustration

What does it take to preserve a legacy? Find out at West Virginia University's School of Theatre and Dance production of The Book of Will, premiering February 29 at the Canady Creative Arts Center.

William Shakespeare wrote his famous plays in pieces, only putting them together when all the actors were on stage, in fear that someone would steal his work. When a botched version of Hamlet takes the stage after his death, the remaining King's Men decide to take matters into their own hands. Their efforts lead them on a comedic chase to gather the puzzle pieces needed to create the First Folio – the first printed version of the stories we know today.

Director Brianne Taylor said she is thrilled to bring the play to the Gladys G. Davis Theatre.

"The Book of Will is a beautifully crafted show that offers the power of community during periods of darkness. The broad dream of two men drinking in a pub late at night unravels into the intricate web of support that we all so desperately need in life," Taylor said.

"William Shakespeare has been dead for three years at the start of the play and most of the original King's Men have also passed on. John Heminges and Henry Condell wallow in their grief for a bit, but then make it an active process as they decide to build the legacy of their friend. We witness determination, creative development, the power of support systems, and a beautiful ode to theatre."

The play is a fictionalized expansion of the First Folio's creation. Taylor said playwright Lauren Gunderson took what historians know about the famous book and brought life to the people behind it.

"We know that two of the King's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, produced the First Folio in 1623. We know that the playwright Ben Jonson was the poet laureate at the time and penned a prologue for the First Folio. We know that William Jaggard printed the folio and that he was dubious in his previous printing endeavors.

Gunderson examines the relationships of these individuals to William Shakespeare. Essentially, she did what Shakespeare has been so revered for: she portrayed the humanity of these characters."

The modern playwright also ensured her story included the strong, often-overlooked women involved in the folio's creation.

"Lauren Gunderson is one of the most produced playwrights in history - and for good reason! She has given us a fictional historical account that does not avoid the female voice since they were left out of the history books. She gives us Rebecca Heminges, who pushes and urges her husband to stay true to his artistry in life while raising their 14 children. Elizabeth Condell is the business-savvy, highly intelligent, well-read firecracker who brings life to every room she enters. Alice Heminges is the oldest daughter of John and runs the King's Men's taphouse. These are women who are integral to this history, not just a footnote."

While there are plenty of Shakesperean references for fans, Taylor said audiences don't have to know the works to enjoy the show.

"Shakespeare fans will love this show! There is an array of details for those who might know a few of his works to those who have made it their life's work to study him. However, the story is about the humans involved in creating this work, so folks hearing of William Shakespeare for the first time will walk away fulfilled."

While The Book of Will is a comedy, it also explores themes of loss, family, and legacy.

"Grief is a process that differs from individual to individual, day to day. How we navigate the process depends greatly on those we surround ourselves with. Often this results in creation – of a memory, of an altar, of a legacy. What we leave behind is our greatest gift.

William Shakespeare left words behind that let us live the full range of human experience. His two friends felt so strongly about giving future generations an opportunity to experience these words that they surmounted all odds. They created a new piece of technology, using his work to bring humanity into a new world. And 400 years later he is still relevant. May we all have friends and family that cherish us in this way."

Like the King’s Men, the Theatre and Dance students involved have been on their own journey throughout the production process.

"There is a range of undergraduate and graduate acting students in this production, so there were varying levels of comprehending Shakespeare. We spent a great deal of time working out the references and quotes that Gunderson included in the play."

The Book of Will allows the students to express and grow their skills on-stage and behind the scenes.

"The greatest challenge has been the passage of time. Scene One begins in 1619, and we end up in 1623. It is not a steady passage. Act One seems to cover a few months, while Act Two covers the span of three years. In making this work, the cast spent a great deal of time detailing the historical timeline and then building their own individual arcs.

Several movement sequences were added into the script to transition from scene to scene, and there is an entire movement sequence for the construction of the folio. The cast worked together to lay the groundwork and finesse the physical storytelling."

Taylor said the play's production is an excellent introduction to what the cast and crew can expect in their upcoming careers. However, it also allowed the students to delve into the First Folio, and the Bard who continues to inspire the theatre world.

"One of the most exciting rehearsals was taking the cast to the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the downtown library to view the First Folio (1623) and the subsequent three editions. This included the rare 3rd edition that most were lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Many of the students were moved to see such history in front of them. Stewart Plein was a gracious host and shared with us details of each edition and how the printing and binding process was employed in the 17th century."

Taylor said the play – geared toward adult audiences– takes its visitors on an adventure and is an excellent way to support the up-and-coming artists.

"It's a play about community and the love of theatre. It's our gift to the community and all of our support systems. In this two-hour show, the audience will be taken on a whirlwind journey of laughter, grief, and anticipation as they are challenged to acknowledge the legacies (theirs and others) that have led them to where they are today.

When you attend this show, you support artists, students, women's voices, and the community of Morgantown. As the great playwright and poet laureate of London, Ben Jonson, says in the show, it's going to be "bloody brilliant!"

You can see The Book of Will February 29-March 2 at 7:30 p.m., March 3 at 2:00 p.m., and March 5-8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Canady Creative Arts Center. The show on March 8 will have ASL interpretation.

Tickets are available at https://wvucca.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?SeriesID=18.