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Prose before bros: IU Theatre tries out social media experiment

@LearIU: @GonerilIU @AlbanyIU Listen, you ingrate, you try to father three daughters without mainlining Scotch. #kinglearIU #serpentstongue #hungover
@EarlofKentIU: What have I been doing while in exile? CAT MEMES! (I’m totally not disguised as Caius.) #kentlikescats #kinglearIU
@GonerilIU: @CordeliaIU You better check yourself before you wreck yourself, girl.

Retweeted rap lyrics and parenting advice. Musings on ruling a kingdom. And maybe even a little trash talk.

With an avatar touting the maxim “Prose before bros,” the Twitter feed for King Lear — the main character in IU Theatre’s upcoming production of the Shakespeare tragedy — is rife with such interaction. The fictional king uses the real social media network to chat with daughters Goneril and Cordelia, as well as the Duke of Albany and other characters.

So who’s behind Lear’s avatar? Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance associate professor Amy Cook, whose research areas include the intersection of cognitive science and theories of performance, theater history and contemporary productions of Shakespeare. She worked with third-year doctoral student Eric “C” Heaps on the social media project.

“One of the things I’ve been interested in with teaching theater history is finding ways to appeal to students in their late teens, early 20s, and Eric came up with the idea of tweeting as the characters,” Cook said.

A fight to the death, as Adam St. John, as Edgar, and Drew Jenkins, as Oswald, rehearse the final encounter in IU Theatre's production of "King Lear" where Edgar defends the life of his father Gloucester against Oswald’s attack.

A fight to the death, as Adam St. John, as Edgar, and Drew Jenkins, as Oswald, rehearse the final encounter in IU Theatre’s production of “King Lear” where Edgar defends the life of his father Gloucester against Oswald’s attack.

“Then thinking about what we know about Lear and who he would follow on Twitter became this incredibly fascinating experience. We know he’d be interested in money matters, and retirement information and probably even some parenting advice and the Weather Channel. We found we could create this really great narrative imagining this old man who is retiring but refuses to retire, who’s got children who aren’t giving him what he needs, who’s nearing uselessness but isn’t past it, and who’s engaging in this new social medium. Honestly, I’ve had a ball with it.”

Shakespeare’s plays would’ve served as the social media of their time, she said.

“It certainly wasn’t theater like how we think of theater today,” Cook said. “It wasn’t high culture, wasn’t difficult to understand, wasn’t expensive. It was a place where you went to engage with your peers and share stories. And what I hear in Shakespeare is ‘hashtag’ kinds of things, where he’ll bring up something people would laugh at, which is an inter-textual way to make meaning.”

Heaps said he initially conceived the project as a way to help individual actors dive more deeply into their roles, but said it wound up becoming a much stronger teaching tool. Both he and Cook have used the project in their classes to engage undergraduate students.

“Just like social media, the project has definitely evolved,” he said. “It started out as a performance project, but turned more into a pedagogical tool. With Lear, however hard we work at our acting, the text can be difficult to engage with. But if we’re tweeting certain things that our characters can relate to, perhaps we’re creating another entry point for our audiences or our students to enjoy the production or the text and dive more deeply into it.”

IU Theatre’s production of “King Lear” opens Feb. 28 in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre, and tickets are available online. Directed by associate professor of acting and directing Fontaine Syer, the production stars Henry Woronicz as King Lear. A nationally recognized actor, director and producer Woronicz is head of the MFA Acting Program at Illinois State University.

Interested in following the social media chatter for yourself? Search #kinglearIU.

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