TURLOCK — At the heart of every student production is the creed that it must be a learning experience.
And if that weren't the case, then why bother?
But in the California State University, Stanislaus, production of "Macbeth," which runs in the university amphitheater Tuesday through May 5, you might be hard-pressed to determine which of the cast and crew is learning more.
Of course, you have the Stanislaus students, who make up the majority of the cast and crew. It's a given that they will take much away from this experience.
But the same is true for the more experienced members.
For instance, the director theater professor Jere O'Donnell has been at the university for 27 years and is staging "Macbeth" for the eighth time.
He's used this opportunity to create a new setting for Shakespeare's 400-year-old work, placing the action in a date-nonspecific, post-industrial, quasi-apocalyptic world.
It means that every day, he's learning about how the characters and words fit in such a setting, about once again the timelessness and remarkable flexibility of Shakespeare's words.
And the lead also is in a give-and-take position of teaching and learning.
In this case, Chicago resident Daniel Gately, who directed "A Comedy of Errors" and "Romeo and Juliet" in past Shakespeare Under the Stars efforts, returns to Turlock, this time as an actor.
"He's a wonderful speaker of the language," O'Donnell said of his Macbeth. "It's wonderful for the kids to see how you not only say what the character says, but how you present it really elucidating the language, to bring it to life."
So in that way, Gately is not only the lead actor, but another professor in the production, allowing the students to learn simply by observing how a professional in the business approaches the craft.
"He does it without having to play the coach, just do what you do,"O'Donnell said.
"The students watch his preparation and his focus and see the concentration needed to do this stuff, ultimately to speak the language as the playwright meant for it to be spoken. I can see the light bulbs going off in the students' heads."
Gately certainly understands how his presence in the cast, especially in this role of a man who would murder to become king, can facilitate the learning process within the cast.
Yet he contends he is learning just as much in his month on campus as are the cast's neophytes.
"There's an element of teaching, but it is pure collaboration," Gately said. "My fellow actors in this production are at every level of proficiency. There are graduate students to underage actors, and while some of them have had a great deal of experience, some are new to the stage.
"That creates an opportunity for all of us to learn from each other. I don't look at it as teaching them how to act. it's a pure give and take, and I'm certain I get as much out of watching their process as they do from watching me."
In the end, despite the wide range of experience within the cast, through the staging, it remains "Macbeth," and O'Donnell is certain nothing is getting in the way of the story.
"This is a very down-to-earth production and the audience won't have any problem following the story," O'Donnell said. "It's a play with a lot of suspense, a lot of horror. It's a play about blood, whether talking about blood that's shed or in the terms of the blood of royal lineage.
"Shakespeare is talking about all of the things the people of the day were talking about witches and the such. But 'Macbeth' does have its place in today's world."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150, or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek.
WHAT: "Macbeth," Shakespeare Under the Stars
WHEN: April 30-May 5, gates open 6:30 p.m., pre-play entertainment 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: CSU Stanislaus Amphitheatre, 1 University Circle, Turlock.
CALL: (209) 667-3959
MORE INFO: Blankets and low-back chairs only, no alcohol or glass containers allowed. Maps and directions: csustan.edu/maps.