Tourists and local residents cram the courtyard of Cafe Mundo, sitting on chairs, on the ground, or even in the bay trees in the middle of the patio. They all have turned out to see the Teatro Mundo presentation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Edward “Van” Van Aelstyn.
There’s a reason for the community’s enthusiasm for Van’s productions. A critical part of his directing and acting style emphasizes speaking naturally and from the heart, instead of memorizing prose and speaking in pentameter.
For Van, the key to a successful production is ensuring that language sounds natural, instead of poetic. “When actors know the language,” he says, “it becomes speech and it’s real people simply talking to each other.”
To him, acting is the expression of becoming a character and expressing that character’s feelings. His argument is that writing is not meant to be read and digested as prose, but to be heard. “Shakespeare is not meant for the eye,” he explains, “it’s meant for the ear.”
Van has been teaching, acting, and directing for more than 50 years, but he believes interest in theater and learning go beyond simply teaching people. Behind his work is a passion for self-discovery, critical thought and the importance of community dialogue.
A founding member of three theater groups, including New- port’s Red Octopus Theater Company and more recently Teatro Mundo, Van began performing at the University of Portland before pursuing his master and doctoral degrees at the University of Oregon.
While teaching Shakespeare at San Francisco State University, he set up an extracurricular Shakespeare reading group for students interested in learning to speak the language, instead of reading it. Several years later, that Shakespeare group would become his first theater company, Burnamwood, in San Francisco.
At the end of the 1970s, he and three other members of Burnamwood moved to Newport and set up the Red Octopus Company, where he continued his trademarks of live music featured through the show and an emphasis on making the language sound natural instead of poetic.
According to colleague Ron Miller, the group’s emphasis on natural sounding language earned them a reputation. “Other companies that were doing shows would come see ours to get an idea for the language and the script,” said Miller.
Having worked in theater for almost as long as he has taught, Van has acted in and directed hundreds of performances. When casting for his productions, he never auditions. Instead, he looks at people in his life and tries to incorporate them into fitting roles — such was the case with Anneke Wisner and his first Teatro Mundo performance, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
“That’s how it really started,” he explains, “was my inspiration saying Anneke could play Viola.”
Van considered returning to theater after his youngest daughter’s high school graduation, but he couldn’t find a good reason until he met Wisner. In her, he saw the potential as an actress for Viola in Twelfth Night. “I built the rest of the cast around her and put it on [at Café Mundo].”
Picking and choosing actors to play parts has been part of Van’s style, according to Matt Weaver, who acts exclusively in Van’s community plays. Weaver’s first role was a Russian colonel — according to him, a “loudmouth, drunk, womanizer.” All that his son’s mother could say when he told her of his part was “can you pretend to be Russian?”
Weaver says that one of Van’s greatest talents is finding a role for someone and choosing them “so appropriately that the role causes the player to reflect on their life and the way they live it.”
Miller attests that this comes from his time with Burnamwood and Red Octopus. “He had a theory that you could take anybody off the street and find a place in Shakespeare that they could do the part,” he said.
To Van, theater is much more than assembling the production. “Theater is fundamentally how people behave to other people,” he explains. “The medium of relationships is through language.”