The National Catholic Review
John A. Coleman
A survey of America's many festivals honoring the Bard
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This year the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., which for 25 years has given pleasure to some 2.5 million theatergoers, won the Tony Award for regional theater. In holding that honor the company joins two earlier winners: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. Shakespeare is much appreciated, read and performed in the United States.

“We keep returning to Shakespeare because we need him,” said Harold Bloom. “No one else gives us so much of the world most of us take to be fact.” Shakespeare, who was a great vitalist, helps us celebrate life and at the same time “let it be” as we face our little lives, which are “rounded with a sleep” (“The Tempest”). His plays engage us with their drama and rich language, their intrigue, humor and fantasy.

For 35 years I have trekked from my home in California to Ashland, Oregon, for an annual Shakespeare infusion. Summertime is Shakespeare time. I keep returning year after year because Shakespeare’s universal characters (Coriolanus, Hamlet, Malvolio and Othello, for example) echo persons I have known or traits in myself; his plays help me limn their characteristics and qualities in greater depth. I agree with the critic Samuel Johnson, who attributed Shakespeare’s eminence to his stunning diversity of persons. No one before or after, noted Johnson, created so many separate selves and gave them depth.

Perhaps we can best fathom life and accept its vitalities and vagaries when relaxing under a summer sky of stars or in a leafy grove listening to Shakespeare.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, currently in its 76th year, is the Grand Daddy of U.S. Shakespeare festivals. Most of the nation’s 150 or so other Shakespeare festivals are 15 to 25 years old. Ashland draws some 400,000 playgoers each season to its 11 plays (four of them always Shakespeare). While it boasts a longish season (from late February to the end of October), its Elizabethan outdoor theater only gets up and running in June. A professional equity company, Ashland’s productions rival anything I have ever seen on Broadway. Like several other festivals (the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, for example), Ashland is committed to performing the entire Shakespeare canon over the years. This summer, besides “Henry V,” “As You Like It” and “Romeo and Juliet,” they will present “Troilus and Cressida.”

Similar to Ashland in scope, age and reliance on professional equity actors are festivals in Alabama, Utah, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Alabama festival draws some 300,000 playgoers a year; Utah’s 140,000, and Colorado’s 40,000.

Shakespeare festivals tend to show plays for free or for a set ticket price and use one of three venues. The first venue (modeled on the New York’s Public Theater tradition in Central Park) presents Shakespeare plays in a park or parklike setting. San Francisco’s Shakespeare in the Park performs at Golden Gate National Park and travels to nearby Pleasanton, Cupertino and Redwood City. (You can find this kind of venue in Fort Worth, Seattle, Buffalo, Richmond, Nashville, Saint Louis, Louisville, Omaha, as well as Lake Tahoe, Nevada and Pella, Iowa.) Other outdoor settings include vineyards, waterways, valleys and green commons.

The second venue is a university campus. Santa Cruz Shakespeare, noted for its somewhat daring takes, is staged indoors at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Universities like Brown, De Sales, Tulane, William and Mary, Dominican and Xavier also host Shakespeare festivals; some offer summer camps for pre-teens and teenagers.

An amiptheater or freestanding theater is the third venue. Maryland Shakespeare uses the Annapolis Summer Garden. California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda (north of Berkeley) performs four plays each summer in a large outdoor amphitheatre under the direction of Jonathon Moscone, who is also a playwright.

While some festivals produce only one Shakespeare play each summer, others may present three or four. Some companies (like Arizona’s Southwest Shakespeare Company) mount non-Shakespeare plays, too, including classics by Chekov or Ibsen and musicals and comedies. Ashland has a long history of presenting world premieres, such as “Equivocation” by the Jesuit Bill Cain, which takes “Macbeth” as its background.

Shakespeare festivals sometimes include extensive educational outreach. Southern Oregon University, near Ashland, offers summer workshops and courses on the plays, plus “park talks” four times a week: midday, hourlong conversations with actors, directors, choreographers and set designers about the plays. Alabama’s Camp Shakespeare reaches some 36,000 schoolchildren each year through special student performances and school outreach. Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre, which has run two summer camps since 1992, sponsors an annual bard-a-thon in which, over a 24-hour period for about eight days straight, volunteers read aloud every word of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. All of this is broadcast on the Internet.

Online, under “Shakespeare Festivals and Theatres,” you will find links to festivals around the country. Except for West Virginia, every state has at least one. Texas, Florida, New York, Massachusetts and California have abundant choices. If you’ve already made plans for this summer, check out next summer’s listings.

Most Shakespeare festivals, if not free, are relatively affordable theater, with $20 or $30 seats. And many festivals are staged near other attractions. Utah’s festival is not far from two national parks, Zion and Bryce; Tahoe, a gorgeous lake, is the backdrop to its festival; Ashland is near Crater Lake National Park, the Rogue River for white-water rafting trips, and Oregon wine country.

This year, I intend to take in the play, “King John,” in July at Marin Shakespeare; attend Ashland in late-August, and the San Francisco Shakespeare in September, allowing me to compare different productions of the same play.

Shakespeare festivals are an extraordinary feature of our nation’s summer culture. As the bard himself once noted: “Shall I compare you to a summer day? Summer’s lease has all too short a date.” Yet, in the same sonnet, he utters what can be truly said of his own works: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to me.”

Pictured above right: the outdoor Elizabethean stage at the Oregan Shakespeare Festival (photo by T. Charles Erickson). Pictured above center: Daniel José Molina and Alejandra Escalante in the festival's production of "Romeo and Juliet" (photo by Jenny Graham).

John A. Coleman, S.J., is an associate pastor at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco. For many years he was the Casassa Professor of Social Values at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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