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Creating Shakespeare's Garden in the Cube

Meaghan Dee

A new production opening next month in the Cube Theater in Blacksburg will give audiences the feeling they’re walking through a garden. And not just any garden: Shakespeare’s 17th century garden scenes, as he depicted them in his plays and sonnets. 

It’s a production that can exist only in a theatrical space like this.  The Cube at Virginia Tech's Moss Center for the Arts, with its floor to ceiling speakers, and endless interchangeability, has captured the imagination of artists and scientists here, eager to exploit its potential and create first of their kind productions.

Tanner Upthegrove is Media Engineer here. “What’s really special about this project,"he says,"is the immersive social aspect.  As you walk into the Cube, the whole room is transformed."

"Right now we’re in here under generic, work lighting and it’s kind of grey," Upthegrove explains during a tour. "But when you walk in here for ‘Shakespeare’s Garden,’ you’ll be surrounded by gigantic productions of color and text, as well as lighting and sound elements that transport you to a different place.”

Charles Nichols composed the sound for Shakespeare’s garden. He pushes a button on his laptop and we hear Nichols’ computer music composition. “This is a mixture of a brook that’s been filtered to bring out harmonies, wind with creaking trees and a Woodpecker with other bird calls behind the Woodpecker.”

Nichols says he sees the installation as a combination of a walk through a garden and an amusement park. You meander, stop to look at something, and move at your own pace. “It’s using new tools to do the same intent that Shakespeare had, to make theater immersive and we’re making it now immersive with visuals and environmental sounds and both direct and processed spoken word.”

Instead of being seated and watching a single performance together, audiences will move through The Cube, lured to each space.

Amanda Nelson, who teaches theater at Virginia Tech, conceived of what she calls ‘this crazy idea.’ She is co-director of Shakespeare’s Garden.  She says one of the things they’re exploring what they call the ‘first ten minutes’ effect. “When we perform Shakespeare in the theater, we have the actor’s entire body. So, we have facial expression, movement, to tell a story," Nelson explains. "In this experiment we only have the voice. When people go to the theater, particularly when they see a Shakespeare production, there’s something they call, ‘The first 10 minutes.’   As directors we’re aware that it takes people about 10 minutes to get their ‘Shakespeare ear.’ So we were wondering if we isolated just the sounds, just the texts of Shakespeare, if the audience would pick up the language more quickly.”

Sharp ears might notice some of the lines from two different Shakespeare sonnets.  It started as an exercise in rehearsal to help acting students Catherine McMullan & Mary Pat Gilliam create a dialogue together, not just a recitation of Shakespeare’s lines.  The mashup worked so well that it made it into the show that way. "I think the whole time everyone in the process was like, ‘Wow, this is working!'" Gilliam says.

It’s the kind of discovery you make when you break apart a previous art form and put it back together in new ways. Graphic Designer Meaghan Dee created large diaphanous scrims with garden imagery, that separate the performance spaces. "This production is really a proof of concept," she says, "not just for what can be done with Shakespeare, but what can be done for bringing these disparate disciplines together in one place but also the future of performing arts."

Natasha Staley directs most of the Shakespeare plays at the School of the Performing Arts. So, she has a deep understanding not only of his words, but perhaps also insight into what he might think if he could see his works performed in this space and in this way. “I like to think ‘Shakey' would be all for it. He was all about innovation,” she says. "He was all about involving the audience, imagination, fun…play.”

In the 17th century Shakespeare had his Globe Theater, state of the art in its time. And Virginia Tech has its Cube Theater in Blacksburg, a new state of the art, in ours.

Shakespeare's Garden
March 22, 2018 at 1:00pm - 9:30pm 
March 23, 2018 at 10:00am - 9:30pm 
March 24, 2018 at 10:00am - 9:30pm 

Visitors are invited to come any time during open hours to enjoy this installation. Free admission; no tickets required.

Garden Gatherings- A Series of Short Talks

Meet us in the Moss Arts Center lobby by the mural wall for short talks and interesting conversations.

Thursday, March 22, 5:30pm - Stephanie Huckestein, Hahn Horticulture Garden

Magical, Mystical, Romantic:  Plants of Shakespeare’s Garden

“A rose by any other name….,” it is apparent that William Shakespeare was fascinated by plants as many are noted in his work. Stephanie Huckestein, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Hahn Horticulture Garden, will talk about plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s work, particularly those which Shakespeare considered magical, mystical, and romantic.


Saturday, March 24, 12noon - Amanda Kellogg, Ph.D.

What can we do with Shakespeare?

For over 400 years, scholars and poetry enthusiasts have reacted to the uncertainty caused by Shakespeare’s sonnets in diverse and imaginative ways. In “What can we do with Shakespeare?” Dr. Kellogg will describe some of the characteristics that invest Shakespeare’s sonnets with a sense of ambiguity and, perhaps, mystery. Highlighting famous historical examples and discussing the innovations of Virginia Tech’s Shakespeare’s Garden project, she will argue that responses to Shakespeare’s sonnets have been prompted by the spirit of collaborative meaning making the poems promote.


Saturday, March 24, 5:30pm- Mike Roan, Ph.D.

Spatial Audio from Measurement to Reproduction

Immersive audio or 3D sound is seeing a rush of interest due to the broad release of VR devices such as the Oculus Rift.  To enhance the audio experience in VR, producers are beginning to settle on a technique known as ambisonics to record and reproduce 3D audio.  Ambisonics is a full sphere surround sound technique that relies on four simultaneously recorded channels using a special sound field microphone.   This talk will cover the basics of ambisonic recording and reproduction including the necessary hardware and software.


Click here for more information

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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