The following article appeared in the
Detroit Free Press on Sunday, July 14, 2002.
As we like it, Bard is everywhere
Shakespeare festivals reach new generation of enthusiastic fans
July 14, 2002
BY MARTIN F. KOHN
FREE PRESS THEATER CRITIC
John Neville-Andrews met William Shakespeare at a matinee in London. His high school class had been reading "Richard III," and young John already didn't care for it. Furthermore, he couldn't understand a word the lead actor was saying. Nevertheless, from his seat in the balcony, Neville-Andrews found a way to enjoy the show.
Michigan Shakespeare Festival
'Othello,' 7:30 p.m. Tue. (preview), 8 p.m. Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. July 21, 8 p.m. July 26, 2 p.m. July 27, 8 p.m. July 28, 8 p.m. Aug. 1, 8 p.m. Aug. 3, 2 p.m. Aug. 4
'Romeo and Juliet,' 7:30 p.m. Wed. (preview), 8 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. Sat., 8 p.m. July 21, 8 p.m. July 25, 8 p.m. July 27, 2 p.m. July 28, 8 p.m. Aug. 2, 2 p.m. Aug. 3, 8 p.m. Aug. 4
Ella Sharp Park
Park Road between Stonewell (Fourth Street) and Horton roads, Jackson
Box office opens 90 minutes before each show
Water Works Theatre Company
'The Taming of the Shrew,' July 25-Aug. 4
8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 3 & 7 p.m. Sun.
Starr Jaycee Park
13 Mile between Crooks and Main, Royal Oak
$20; $10 under age 18
Box office opens an hour before each show
"I threw farthings on the stage," he recalls with a mischievous grin. "They're the smallest coins. You can't see them coming."
Turns out there's a lot you can't see coming. Despite his initial misgivings, Neville-Andrews developed a taste for Shakespeare and theater. Conveniently, so has America, where Neville-Andrews has lived and worked for the past 30 years. A theater professor at the University of Michigan, Neville-Andrews is also artistic director of the outdoor Michigan Shakespeare Festival, which launches its eighth season this week in Jackson's Ella Sharp Park, with three weeks' worth of "Othello" and "Romeo and Juliet."
The festival drew a total audience of about 5,500 last year. Founded in 1995 as the Jackson Shakespeare Festival, it's far from being the oldest outdoor Shakespeare theater in the nation, but neither is it the newest.
A contender for the latter title may be Water Works Theatre Company in Royal Oak. Established last year by lawyer and actor Ed Nahhat, Water Works drew an audience of about 900 over four days to its inaugural production, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Water Works begins its second season July 25 in Royal Oak's Starr Jaycee Park, with an 8-day run, over two weekends, of "The Taming of the Shrew."
Water Works and the Michigan Shakespeare Festival aren't alone. One Web site devoted to the bard lists 61 Shakespeare companies in the United States and Canada, without even mentioning the Stratford Festival of Canada, which started in 1953, or New York's Public Theater, which staged its first Shakespeare production in Central Park in 1954.
Like the Shakespeare theaters in Michigan, many companies started in the 1990s or after. Why the Shakespearean surge?
"It must be the playwright," Neville-Andrews says succinctly. That sound you hear is a nationwide chorus of concurrence.
"Shakespeare is coming back. Audiences are starting to realize there's more to theater than flashy lights and songs," says Kelly Elliott, general manager of the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. Shakespeare, she says, "is more about acting and the language and richness of theater."
The desire to explore those elements prompted some Case Western Reserve University theater students, Elliott among them, to work up scenes from Shakespeare and perform them around campus in 1997.
"If people wanted to stop and see them, that would be great," Elliott said, and people stopped. That was the genesis of the Cleveland festival. Today, with a company of professional and student actors, it performs at two outdoor sites and attracts 3,000 to 4,000 people (admission is free, so it's hard to know for sure, Elliott says). This summer's productions are "As You Like It" and the two "Henry IV" plays condensed into one.
Tim Holcomb, founding director of the Hampshire Shakespeare Company in Hadley, Mass., attributes some of the current enthusiasm for Shakespeare to similarities between our time and the playwright's.
In the late 16th Century, Spain had been beaten back, so England faced no threat from a major foreign power. But "the future was very uncertain, underneath a level of 'everything is going our way,' " he points out. "Puritanism and fundamentalism were on the rise, and people were questioning what they wanted from their leaders."
We don't get the depth of Shakespeare "from any other place in our entertainment," Holcomb suggests. And there aren't many performance sites where "the moon rises over the mountains and the sun sets behind the audience," either. "We get magnificent natural lighting and the best 2 1/2-hour cross fade in the business."
"There's got to be places for people to go who aren't interested in car chases and bombs," says Helen Borgers, executive and artistic director of the Long Beach Shakespeare Company in southern California. Not that Borgers is knocking movies. She credits the films "Shakespeare in Love" and Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V," "Hamlet" and "Much Ado About Nothing" with fueling the current interest in Shakespeare.
This year, Borgers is doing "Othello" and "Love's Labour's Lost."
"I try and choose one that's really well-known and one not so well-known," she says.
Water Works hasn't quite reached that stage.
"Leonard Leonetold me, if you intend to start a Shakespeare company, you have to do 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Taming of the Shrew,' " says Nahhat of his former professor, now retired, who founded Wayne State University's theater training program. "They're Shakespeare's most famous comedies."
Water Works did "Dream" last year. This year it's "Shrew."
After all, Nahhat says, "we're in the audience-building business."
Toward that end, and with an eye on its future, Water Works is offering a 3-day Shakespeare camp July 29-31 for youngsters 6-18. Called KidShakespeare, the program will impart such skills as how to deliver a soliloquy, stage a sword fight and dance Elizabethan-style. On the last day, participants will put on a show. The fee for KidShakespeare is $50; call 248-544-4166 (the Boys and Girls Club of South Oakland County).
Similarly intent on reaching another generation of playgoers, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival does a family show each season. This year it's "Alice Through the Looking Glass," to be performed at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 4, beginning next week. It's $6 for adults and free for children.
The festival introduces students to Shakespeare during the school year, too, through "Playaround Shakespeare." During the last school year, 5,000 middle and high school students saw the show, Neville-Andrews says.
"If we were doing Playaround David Mamet," he adds, "it wouldn't be quite so popular."