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New College director's play reimagines Shakespeare as an alchemist’s automaton

Playwright Monica Cross discusses the magical thinking behind “The Wonder of Our Stage.”

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Courtesy photo
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Monica Cross is New College of Florida’s production manager and technical director.

The college’s new black box theater is her home turf. She teaches the “technical” side of theater arts — but to Cross, that’s an arbitrary label. As she sees it, there’s no bright line between the technical and the magical. That’s the theme of her latest play, actually. “The Wonder of Our Stage” imagines that the greatest playwright of all time was an alchemist’s automaton.

Cross’ enchanting play won top honors at The Players Centre for the Performing Arts 2018 New Play Festival. Her magic will come to life in a fully staged performance next summer. In the meantime, here’s a taste of the spellbinding artistry behind it.


What do you do at New College?

I oversee all of the theater produced by students, faculty and staff. I also teach technical theater courses.

What does your typical day look like?

Monica Cross studied Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin University. Courtesy photo
Monica Cross studied Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin University. Courtesy photo

I might be teaching theater students how to use lighting and sound equipment or helping them design and create costumes and sets for upcoming productions. Most of my lessons involve behind-the-scenes creativity. Most students already know what an actor does. They don’t know all the other bits and pieces of theater work — the artistry of set, prop, costume and lighting designers.

So you’re dealing with the submerged portion of the theatrical iceberg.

Yes, I do. As you know that also includes playwriting.

Speaking of which, what happens in your latest play?

“The Wonder of Our Stage” imagines that Shakespeare was actually a wooden automaton who’d been created by the alchemist John Dee for Queen Elizabeth I. She thinks it’s a ploy and immediately walks away. So, in his first moments of awareness, this entity is rejected by the person he’d been created for. Now, he’s struggling with the meaning of his existence. But John Dee doesn’t give up. He built this thing; his reputation is at stake; and he wants Queen Elizabeth to acknowledge his greatness. His goal is to make the automaton more human.

Since the automaton becomes Shakespeare, I’m assuming the process involves the theater.

Exactly. John Dee hires an actor, Richard Burbage, to teach his creation how to act like a man. The automaton takes on the name William Shakespeare, bonds with Richard Burbage and starts going to theaters. He eventually makes the transition from watching plays to writing plays.

As part of Shakespeare’s ongoing research on what it means to be human?

Yes. And for John Dee’s purposes, the research project works all too well. Shakespeare ultimately rejects the path that John Dee laid out for him and finds his true calling in the theater. He begins by trying to act like a man. In the end, he becomes his own man. I think that’s an important distinction.

How did you feel when the Players selected “The Wonder of Our Stage” for a reading at this year’s New Play Festival?

Thrilled and a little surprised, actually. My play’s off the beaten path. It’s a beautiful, (if somewhat bizarre) coming-of-age story. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to it.

Former New College student-turned Asolo Repertory Theatre actor Sara Linares with Monica Cross. Courtesy photo
Former New College student-turned Asolo Repertory Theatre actor Sara Linares with Monica Cross. Courtesy photo

How did they respond?

There was a delightful lack of uniformity. Audience members laughed — but in different places. A line from “The Tempest” would get a laugh from one person. Someone else would chuckle at a quotation from “Romeo and Juliet.” After the play, people asked me, “Did you know it was funny?”

Did you?

Yes and no. I have a weird relationship with humor. My sense of comedy is intermixed with drama.

There’s no bright line between the two in your work?

No. And I think that’s a reflection of my training in Shakespearean literature. People are taught there’s a sharp distinction between comedy and tragedy. We often forget that Shakespeare wrote some really dark comedies. And some of his tragedies have some very funny moments.

Aside from Shakespeare, who are some of your literary influences?

My greatest influence is actually the android Data on “Star Trek,” and to a lesser extent, the “Frankenstein” and “Pinocchio” narratives. Along with the science fiction elements, my play also offers an underlying critique of Shakespearean criticism. Basically, it’s my answer to the anti-Stratfordians who deny that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. I’m saying, “Yes, Shakespeare did write those plays. He just happened to be a wooden automaton!”

Did the live reading help you shape your script?

Absolutely. I came into it with a strong draft. But gauging people’s responses is always helpful. It showed me what works and what could work better in terms of timing. I think some information needs to reach the audience sooner.

Do you anticipate any major rewrites before next year’s performance?

I want to finesse it a bit, but I think the structure is all set.

Your play has good bones.

Yes. That’s always the hard part.

How did it feel when your play was selected for a fully staged production?

Again, I was thrilled and somewhat surprised. I can’t wait to see it on stage. It’s going to be a very long year.

What do you want audiences to get out of your play?

I think it works on different levels with different people. Aside from the fantastic elements, it’s a coming-of-age story. I think many people will simply relate to the character’s personal journey. On the one hand, it’s a science fiction narrative. It involves a self-aware automaton, which had been created by alchemical means. Science fiction fans will appreciate that.

To play robot devil’s advocate, doesn’t alchemy straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy?

Admittedly, yes. On the other hand, the budding awareness of an artificial being is a classic science fiction theme. Aside from that, in the Elizabethan era, there was quite a bit of overlap between magic and science. John Dee was an alchemist, yes, but he practiced in a time when magic wasn’t yet divorced from scientific thought.

And for all we know, what we call “magic” is simply science we don’t understand.

Exactly! That’s Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I think the same principle also applies to live theater. The craft behind it is all very technical. But it becomes pure magic when it comes to life on stage.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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