Professor Mixes Political Humor & Shakespeare for Washington D.C. Benefit
Dr. Peter Byrne, Kent State University at Trumbull Assistant Professor of English, wrote the script for “Heavy Lies the Head,” which was recently performed in Washington D.C. for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Will on the Hill” benefit.
Each year, volunteers from the government (mostly members of Congress, both the House and the Senate) as well as from local and national media, lobbyists and corporate sponsors perform an original one-performance play based on Shakespeare and infused with comedic references to contemporary politics. This year’s performance raised over $500,000 for artistic, education and community outreach programs to bring Shakespeare to in-need schools in the area.
Byrne’s work with the Shakespeare Theatre Company and “Will on the Hill” benefit began about ten years ago, when a friend approached him to write a 'program essay' for the Company’s in-house publication Asides, which was sent to subscribers in advance of every new production. Management liked that essay so much that they came back to him the following year to write another piece, this one for Ben Jonson's “The Silent Woman.”
Byrne’s work did not go unnoticed. In 2008, he was asked to write a script for “Will on the Hill.”
“I was given very strict instructions (which haven't changed over the years). The script had to be funny and encompass contemporary Washington. It had to involve Shakespeare--every volunteer should be given at least one substantial line of Shakespeare to speak,” Byrne said. “Of course the most important rule is it had to be firmly non-partisan because it is meant to be light-hearted and fun, so the humor could not be generally offensive or one-sided.”
That script, “A Comedy of Errors,” received great praise. It was so well-written, Byrnes became the first playwright to receive a second invitation to write a script for the following year.
“That performance was also a success--more performers volunteered, more money was raised, so they asked me back again, and again, and so on up to the present,” said Byrne.
Like all comedy, it is about timing. And that creates one of Byrne’s greatest challenges.
“I start writing the script in January. Many or most of the jokes will not be current by the time the play is performed in May or June. The script has to be constantly revised to hit upon the most recent political developments. This was a great challenge during this year’s Presidential race.”
Byrne began teaching at Kent State University at Trumbull in 2008. He earned a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine. He also holds a master’s degree in English and a bachelor’s degree in theatre.
For more information about the Shakespeare Theatre Company and “Will on the Hill,” visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
Read a review from DC Theatre Scene