WT students forced 'to keep up' when acting opposite professor Royal Brantley in 'Much Ado about Nothing'
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
At their first rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing, West Texas A&M University student actors found one cast member "already 10 steps ahead of us on stage."
And it's a learning experience they're treasuring, because that's not just a fellow actor: It's one of their professors.
Royal R. Brantley, who's the school's regents professor of theater, co-stars in the William Shakespeare comedy as Leonato, the governor of Messina whose home is the battleground in a war of hearts for two couples: His niece Beatrice (Kallie Scott) and her scrapping partner Benedick (Angel Garcia), and his daughter Hero (Cheyenne Haynes) and her lovestruck suitor Claudio (Sean Evan Jones).
Acting opposite his students isn't too rare a treat for Brantley, who last played the murderous King Claudius in Hamlet in 2015, but it never gets old.
"I enjoy it so much," Brantley said. "At the beginning they're always apprehensive about it, but we get to work. I focus in on my character and my character's relationship with their characters ... and before too long, they realize I'm just like they are — an actor responsible for bringing Shakespeare's text to life."
It takes a bit to get to that point, though.
"I'll admit that there are a couple of times where I've been totally distracted by what he's doing and drop character for a second," Garcia said. "It's so great seeing someone who has done this forever — please don't tell him that I said 'forever' — and still seeing that person find freshness in (acting)."
And to hear his younger castmates tell it, Brantley's work ethic is top-notch.
"(Brantley) forces all of us to keep up," Scott said, describing that initial rehearsal. "He's already 10 steps ahead of us on stage. He taks this role very seriously and encourages us to step up to the plate.
"He has a process that, as young actors, I don't know if we're too embarrassedto do it, but he sits off by himself, (head) in his script the entire time. He takes very meticulous notes — anything (director Stephen Crandall) says, he writes down."
"He's never more than five feet away from his script when he's backstage," Garcia said.
And it pays off.
"Leonato has a very beautiful speech in the second act, and (Brantley) came out the first time after blocking, at the first rehearsal, and blew us all away," Scott said. "He has put as much effort in the first rehearsal as he has in the later rehearsals. ... We better keep up with him so we don't look like trash."
Crandall said he's always excited to see his students get to work alongside Brantley.
"I really relish the opportunity," Crandall said. "It elevates their game. I think Royal has such a steadiness ... and he really studies the character quite marvelously.
"This, in particular, is fun because they also get to experience the goofy Brantley, the silly Brantley," Crandall continued. "Leonato is a character that is full of life and kindness, but also passion and anger. (Brantley) just gets to show such a wide range, and I think it's great to see the students get to experience someone of his caliber manage that."
In Much Ado, Claudio is determined to marry Hero, despite his friend Benedick's proud protestations against faith and romance — but, thanks to the machinations of the men's companion, Don Pedro (Chad Promise), and his friends, he's soon on track to a love affair with Beatrice. Meanwhile, Don Pedro's brother, Don John (Cody Johnson), interferes with Claudio and Hero's wedding, convincing the prospective groom and all of those gathered that Hero is unfaithful.
Though the characters engage in duels to heal their wounded sense of honor, Crandall is staging the comedy in a modern-day Messina — "a challenge, but quite rewarding to find ways to have moments reflecting ourselves today," Crandall said.
"Love is such a universal concept in human beings that so much of the story centers around what love means and how we try to find it and what sometimes gets in the way of it — I think that's why this play still works," he continued. "We get to see young love and more mature, wise love — even cynical love. We see a father's love. ... That allows us to see that in ourselves today."
Much Ado opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Happy State Bank Studio Theatre in the Sybil B. Harrington Fine Arts Complex. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 16 to 18, plus 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 19.
Tickets are $16 for adults, $12 for students, and free for WT students, faculty and staff. Call 806-651-2804.