Teacher's Play Heads Off-Off-Broadway

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, AUG. 6 ** Steve Ray, left, portraying William Shakespeare and Seth Panitch, right, portraying Richard Burbage, rehearse a scene for Panitch's play, "Dammit, Shakespeare" Tuesday, July 25, 2006, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Panitch
AP/Porfirio Solorzano, U of Ala.
It's not unusual for educators to dip into their own pockets to buy extra supplies or stay after class to help a bewildered student understand a tricky theory or pesky equation.

So when University of Alabama theater professor Seth Panitch landed a $5,000 grant from the school's Research Advisory Committee, he thought nothing of using the money to help create a priceless opportunity for some aspiring actors, directors and set designers at the school.

Thanks to Panitch, a small group of past and present students will go to New York Aug. 8-13 to perform his play "Dammit, Shakespeare!" at the 74-seat off-off-Broadway Urban Stages near Manhattan's Penn Station.

It's not quite Broadway, but it's a whole lot closer than the school's Allen Bales Theater, where the group recently performed a sneak preview that sold out all three nights, prompting department officials to request an Aug. 29-Sept. 1 encore.

"It immediately looks lovely on a resume, to say that you have worked in New York, since so few people get that opportunity," said actor Chris Hardin, a master's graduate who plays several roles in "Dammit," including a hilarious portrayal of Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn.

Written by Panitch in 1996, "Dammit, Shakespeare!" centers on Shakespeare's relationship with Richard Burbage, the English actor who played many of his friend's major roles, including Richard III, Romeo, Macbeth and Lear. Actors segue into monologues from Shakespeare's works, including passages from "Romeo and Juliet," "Othello" and most notably "Hamlet," which contains the dialogue for the crux of the play — the envy and insecurity Shakespeare and Burbage experience on either side of the pen.

Polly Carl, producing artistic director of The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, said New York experience is a godsend for recent graduates, many of whom still find themselves struggling for their big-city debut several years after finishing school.

While students often perform in New York through showcases or other projects, it's rare for a group to perform a piece written by their professor, rarer still for such a project to come from Alabama or other less theater-heavy places, Carl said.

The Tuscaloosa and New York runs are the sixth and seventh performances of the play, which has been professionally produced in Los Angeles, Whittier, Calif., Seattle, and New York, Panitch said. He's rewritten the script several times, and the current version is only about 90 percent the same as the original, which contained about 70 percent Shakespeare and 30 percent Panitch.

"That was the original composition, but I didn't know how to write at that time, I didn't understand the structure of the story and so the more I became confident with writing, the less I needed the other Shakespeare stuff," he said.

The seven-member cast includes four recent Master of Fine Arts graduates, a current graduate student, one undergraduate and Panitch as Burbage.

Zachary Michael Lawson, a set design student and the lone undergrad in the group, said he was nearly as shocked to find out his meager budget as he was to learn the show was headed to New York. But he welcomed the challenge of using limited resources to put together the high-quality set that had to morph for scenes including a jail, office and saloon. He accomplished the feat thanks to donations and penny-pinching.

"We're thrown into this situation where I've had to pick it up a notch and really bring it up to what a New York audience expects," Lawson said.

Theater professor Thomas Adkins handled the advertising for the show. He sent mailers to about 250 agents and casting directors, and invited critics from major New York newspapers.

Carl, while applauding efforts to offer as much exposure for the students as possible, cautions that those avenues can dole out beatings as well as boosts when it comes to theatrical reviews.

"Sometimes we try to put ourselves in New York too soon. Sometimes it can be great and sometimes it can be damaging," she said. "But I think with these being grad students, they should be ready."

Adkins, while agreeing that thrusting students onto the New York stage could be risky, said he didn't anticipate any negative effects.

"We're not there for long, so ultimately it can only really help us," he said. "I'm expecting glowing (reviews), but we'll take polite and helpful."