Theater with a Mission artistic director Ben Gunter firmly believes in a thespian’s ability to open up dialogue around society’s most pressing topics. As a native Tallahasseean, he’s constantly inspired by Florida’s medley of cultural influences that encompass Hispanic, African, and American Indian heritage and backgrounds.
“Botanists talk about Tallahassee as being ideally subtropical as we get animals and plants that grow here because the climate mixes,” says Gunter. “I think the culture mixes right here, too.”
With Florida approaching its 200th anniversary of statehood in 1819, Gunter sees the coming year as a prime time to build a bridge for audiences to the past, which for him, all starts with a stage. Theater with a Mission began in close affiliation with Mission San Luis and it has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade while giving multicultural performances around Florida and Georgia.
“I think one of the great gifts of being able to work on plays that come from our past is the perspective that they give us,” says Gunter, who started Theater with a Mission in 2008 as a way of combining his training in all aspects of theater with his love of Florida’s Spanish history. “A historical work can give you a window for seeing the present and envisioning the future more clearly.”
In tandem with his team of actors and collaborators, Gunter adapts plays written when Florida belonged to the Spanish empire and translates them into contemporary English, shortening them to make them easy to pack up and transport. Gunter describes how the company functions as stock theater companies did hundreds of years ago during William Shakespeare’s and Miguel de Cervantes’ time: everyone is a volunteer and lends their talents “for the love of it.”
In fact, it’s Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ who are thrown in the center ring of the company’s upcoming Loco for Love Festival, which will take place Thursday to Sunday at Railroad Square. The festival will feature excerpts from golden age plays and lecture demonstrations in dining, dueling, dancing, and drama from the 15th century.
“[The festival] started in 2016 when we realized that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and Cervantes deaths were with us,” explains Gunter. “Two great authors died on the same day, and we found there was one character who connected them both, so we put them in the wrestling ring to have them compete for the title of world champion storyteller. We thought it was a great way for people to wrestle with great ideas.”
Grappling between his own dueling hats of playwright, translator, and actor, Gunter first fell in love with golden age Spain in his Spanish language classes at Leon High School. Every Friday the class would celebrate music and theater works of the past by putting the plays on their feet.
One week, Gunter became totally engrossed with “Don Juan Tenorio,” a play by José Zorilla, which set him on his path toward studying Spanish playwrights in college. At Florida State University, he pored over the meters, rhyme schemes, and highly crafted symbolisms of golden age Spanish works—often giving them legs and putting them in action.
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