Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare in the streets’

Blow, Winds
Written by Nancy Bell, Music and Lyrics by Lamar Harris, Additonal Material by Mariah L. Richardson
Directed by Tom Martin
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Shakespeare In the Streets
June 16, 2018

Reginald Pierre, Erika Flowers Roberts, Joneal Joplin, Adam Flores, Michelle Hand
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis


Shakespeare in the Streets is back again, after a postponement, with an important, challenging message for St. Louis. Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Blow, Winds departs from previous SITS productions–which each featured a particular neighbhorhood–and focuses on the St. Louis metro area as a whole. In many ways, this production–presented on the steps of the Central Library downtown–is the most polished of the SITS productions, as well as the most visually spectacular and the most directly challenging to the “status quo” of the St. Louis area.

Blow, Winds was originally scheduled to be performed in September 2017, but was canceled due to unrest following the verdict for police officer Jason Stockley, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, and subsequently and controversially acquitted. The original program for the scheduled production is included in the program for the 2018 presentation, in fact. The 2018 version, however, isn’t the same production as was previously planned. Now it’s been revised, with additions by SFSTL Playwriting Fellow Mariah L. Richardson, to more accurately reflect the state of St. Louis after, and because of, that controversial and troubling verdict. Based on King Lear but modified to reflect modern-day St. Louis, the show also makes a tonal change from the straight tragedy of Lear to a more comedy-drama approach, certainly with tragic elements but with a more hopeful twist at the end. The Shakespeare characters have also been modified, with some composite characters representing two or more original Lear characters, and one instance where one original character has been split into two. Also, as musical as the previous SITS efforts have been, this one is even more so, with an original score by music director Lamar Harris and significant contributions from the Central Baptist Church Choir, the Genisis Jazz Project, and the Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

In this story, King Lear becomes King Louis (Joneal Joplin), an aging king who decides to divide his kingdom–the St. Louis metro area west of the Mississippi River, represented by a large map hanging up on the face of the Central Library building–among his four children, his daughters Goneril, (Jeanitta Perkins), Regan (Katy Keating), and Cordelia (Erika Flowers Roberts) and his “illegitimate” son Edmund (Reginald Pierre). While Regan and Goneril are focused on their own advancement and flatter their father insincerely, Cordelia refuses to flatter and asks only for justice, and is banished from St. Louis while her greedy sisters are rewarded, and Edmund is given the “less desirable” North section of the map and essentially exiled there by his father. Cordelia flees to the Kingdom of Illinois, welcomed by its king (Jaz Tucker), who gladly marries her and supports her cause. Also exiled is the king’s faithful counselor Kent (Michelle Hand), who criticizes his treatment of Cordelia and Edmund. Through the course of the play, Louis slowly but definitively learns the error of his ways, as the shallowness of his elder daughters and the truth of Cordelia’s and Edmund’s causes is brought to light for him. All the while, the action is narrated by the Fool (Adam Flores), who serves as something of a Greek Chorus and occasional translator of the Shakespearean language into more modern speech. The Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team also contribute memorably to the production, with the dance and movement elements among the highlights of the production.

The technical elements here are the strongest and most striking yet for a SITS production. The distinctive Central Library building makes an ideal backrop for the action, aided by some truly stunning projections by scenic designers Marjery and Peter Spack, as well as excellent lighting by John Wylie and memorable costumes by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek. The steps make an ideal stage, setting off the performance well, and the cast is excellent, led by Flores as a particularly earnest Fool, Joplin as the conflicted and self-deceived King Louis, Perkins and Keating as the unapologetically greedy sisters Goneril and Regan, Hand as the devoted Kent, Pierre as the rejected but determined Edmund, and Roberts as the also determined, justice-minded Cordelia. They are supported by an excellent ensemble, as well, including the truly impressive performances from the aforementioned Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

The story is compelling and challenging, adapting the Lear story to focus on St. Louis in some specific, sometimes funny and often serious ways, with references to the oft-asked “high school” question as well as neighborhood and city landmarks, as well as serious questions about the need for racial and economic justice and equality in the area. Occasionally there are tendencies to “tell” rather than “show” in terms of the play’s message, but overall, this is an important work, showcasing the strengths of the Shakespeare In the Streets concept. There were only two performances of this production, and I’m glad I was able to see one of them. It’s a remarkable production.

Cast of Blow, Winds
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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Good In Everything
by Nancy Bell
Based on As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alec Wild
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis–Shakespeare in the Streets
September 18, 2014


The fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain always makes me happy.  Some of the best plays ever written can be produced by anyone, anywhere, on basically any kind of budget. If I wanted to get some friends together and put on a full-scale production of Hamlet in my backyard, I totally could, and that’s awesome.  Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a similar concept on a larger scale, staged not in a backyard but in a whole neighborhood, with an adapted script that brings the action into that neighborhood and brings the neighborhood into the plot. I love it, and after last year’s great production in the Grove, I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition, which is based on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, As You Like It, and set in the upscale close-in suburb of Clayton.  Closing off an entire section of street and creating a kind of mini street festival is another bonus, adding to the whole neighborhood atmosphere of the production.  This year’s play, Good In Everything, has been  updated with style, wit and humor by Nancy Bell and cast with an enthusiastic group of performers. It’s a highly enjoyable performance that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and it’s even better than last year’s offering.

Playwright Bell has done an excellent job of updating a classic Shakespearean comedy to fit a modern-day Clayton mindset. Focusing on Clayton High School and the Clayton school district’s 30-year-old Voluntary Desegregation program, Bell has created a timely, optimistic piece that manages to be hopeful even while it sheds light on some of the systemic problems in our society, and how those problems are particularly manifested in Clayton.  There’s a lot of more superficial self-referential humor as well, with the frequent jokes about parking and other Clayton-specific issues. Bell skillfully blends Shakespeare’s words with modern language, sometimes quoting original passages verbatim, and sometimes adapting them. The cleverly updated “Seven Ages of Man” speech follows a hypothetical Clayton resident’s life from that of an infant in a Bugaboo stroller to a health-conscious senior citizen working out at the Center of Clayton.  There are jokes about texting, Wash U and SLU, the Art Fair, and more. There’s substance as well, dealing with serious modern issues such as racism, white privilege, equality in education, and the economic disparity between parts of the city and more upscale areas of the county like Clayton.  Bell manages to make a very Clayton-centric play that both celebrates the area’s strengths and points out its problems about as well as they can be covered in a relatively lighthearted one-hour comedy.

Here, Rosalind (Caroline Amos) and many of the characters are Clayton High School Students, mostly upper-middle class, white and politically liberal. Rosalind and her younger sister Celia (Zoey Menard) are the daughters of the school’s drama teacher, Kelly Duke (actual Clayton High School drama teacher Kelley Weber).  Rosalind is a zealous young activist with grand dreams of changing the world, and a belief that romance is stupid and will just get in the way of her causes. Then she meets Orlando (Maalik Shakoor), a new student from North City who is part of the Voluntary Desegregation program, and their attraction is instant and mutual, despite Rosalind’s previous protestations concerning love.  The story follows the basic plot of the source material, with the wrestling match being turned into a Quiz Bowl competition, and with Rosalind, Celia and their classmate Touchstone (Danny Guttas) journeying to Orlando’s neighborhood instead of the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind’s gender-bending disguise consisting of athletic attire and a baseball cap. The play’s cynical itinerant philosopher Jaques is a wandering vagabond called “Jake” here (Gary Feder); and Silvius (Khnemu Menu-Ra) and Phoebe (Wendy Greenwood) are locals from Orlando’s neighborhood.  All the mistaken identity, mixed-up unrequited love stories, and witty verbal sparring are all here, ably played by a wonderful cast led by Amos as the witty, zealous Rosalind and Shakoor as the earnest, charming Orlando.

Visually, the design is simple, as is needed in an extremely temporary outdoor presentation like this.  The backdrop of color-changing branch-like structures framing a screen, on which images of the various locations are projected, effectively evokes the setting.  A small student orchestra adds stirring atmospheric music as well.  I find it especially impressive in how this year’s production has managed to blend so well with the surrounding neighborhood, with the surrounding restaurants providing additional outdoor seating so their customers can watch the show. There’s also a small street fair, with vendors and a festive atmosphere that gets even more festive toward the end of the play, when the proceedings are turned into something of a dance party.

Shakespeare in the Streets continues to impress me as both a concept and a reality. It’s wonderful to see how this idea has been developed over the years into a more seamless blend of theatre and community celebration.  Good in Everything is an apt title, in that ultimately it’s an exercise in hope and celebrating what’s good its wide variety of characters.  Next year’s production heads to Old North, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Shakespeare in Streets does there and beyond. As for this year’s show, there’s only one more performance left, and I hope it’s the most well-attended of all. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos


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Free Shakespeare is always a wonderful thing as far as I’m concerned, and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis provides this in so many great ways. After seeing the wonderful Shakespeare in the Streets production, Old Hearts Fresh, over the weekend and then hearing the exciting news about their main stage production(s) for next year.  Their latest announcement is very ambitious, to say the least.

Next summer, SFSTL will be presenting a first for them–rather than one play, the Festival will be presenting three!  Over the course of two nights, SFSTL will present Shakespeare’s histories Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.  The plays will be presented in two nights with the same cast and set, repeating throughout the season in Forest Park.  This is amazing news!  These plays are so connected that it makes sense to perform them together, and the idea of being able spend two evenings enjoying free Shakespeare in the park sounds wonderful. It looks like it’s going to be an exciting season.

Now,  let me tell you about the excellent show I saw last weekend:

Old Hearts Fresh

by Nancy Bell

based on The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alex Wild

September 21, 2013


Shakespeare in the Streets in the Grove neighborhood was a resounding success. My only concern is that I wish the audiences could have been bigger. It was a good turnout, as a crowd of a few hundred assembled in folding chairs on the asphalt of the closed-off Manchester Avenue, but I wish more had been able to witness the fun, clever and thought-provoking fusion of classic Shakespeare and modern St. Louis in such a unique presentation.

Old Hearts Fresh only ran for about an hour, but playwright Nancy Bell was able to condense and update the material with surprising thoroughness—not just name-dropping places and events from the neighborhood (although there is plenty of that), but delving into the neighborhood’s history and psychology, all the while telling the story of The Winter’s Tale (with elements of Pericles) in an updated fashion with a mixture of Shakespearean and modern language.

The story is The Winter’s Tale condensed, with Leontes’ (Drew Battles) irrational jealousy and false accusation of his wife Hermione’s (Jacqueline Thompson) supposed infidelity with his childhood friend Polixenes (Antonio Rodriguez), who is gay in this production, which makes Leontes’ jealousy even more irrational. This jealousy leads to tragedy and regret, and leaves a lost daughter Perdita (played as a teenager by Wendy Greenwood) to be raised by a stranger (Don McClendon as Old Shepherd), and cause Leontes’ the dwell in sorrow and regret for sixteen years, only for events to finally resolve in a fantastical manner at the end. In the midst of all of this interaction is the character of Paulina (Marty Casey), a long-time Grove resident and friend of Leontes’ who helps to tell the tale and bring about its uplifting conclusion.

Time and change are big themes here, with Time represented as a larger-than-life character wonderfully played by local drag performer Michael Shreves in character as “Michelle McCausland”. In an array of colorful outfits and with an attitude and presence as big and colorful as the neighborhood itself, Shreves puts in a winning performance and narrates the action of the show that portrays themes of forgiveness, racial and familial reconicilation, and communication as the three main characters represent that passage of time. Paulina represents the neighborhood’s past, Leontes represents the present, and Perdita (along with the rest of the children and teens) represents its future, and all three of these characters are portrayed wonderfully by their actors. I was especially struck by Battles’ ability to make Leontes sympathetic despite some of his highly questionable actions, as well as Casey’s solidly grounding performance as the voice of reason, and Greenwood’s hopeful optimism. The entire cast, including several Grove residents with little to no acting experience, was excellent, and the ensemble chemistry and enthusiasm was readily apparent.

I loved the atmosphere of this show, as well, and the live music directed by Nathan Hershey added to the mood of the piece, as did the use of projections of photos of the neighbhorhood’s past, and the spectacular mural by local artist Grace McCammond.  It was all very distinctly Shakespeare, but also very St. Louis at the same time.  It was an impressive production and I found myself hoping Shakespeare in the Streets will come to my own neighborhood in the near future.


For more information about SFSTL’s 2014 season, check out their website in the sidebar of this blog

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Wendy Greenwood, Marty Casey, Michael Shreves, Drew Battles and cast Photo by Michelle Kenyon

Wendy Greenwood, Marty Casey, Michael Shreves, Drew Battles and cast
Photo by Michelle Kenyon

On a Wednesday night at an elementary school in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis, a group of enthusiastic performers has assembled to rehearse. Tonight, they’re working on incorporating music into their show, provided by members of the Funky Butt Brass Band.  The action is a kind of organized chaos, depicting a crucial scene in the upcoming production, in which local teenage muralist Perdita (or “Perdy” as most people refer to her) is preparing to unveil a large mural she has painted on the side of a building in the community.  There is much dancing and energy by a cast of all ages, as the group chants “Go Perdy! Go Perdy!” The scene, which also includes a pivotal moment for Leontes, Perdy’s long-lost father, is rehearsed several times this evening, in preparation for this week’s debut of the production as Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s second annual Shakespeare In the Streets presentation.

The brainchild of SFSTL Executive Director Rick Dildine, Shakespeare In the Streets is an annual project in which the Festival works with residents of a particular St. Louis neighborhood to construct a play based on a work of Shakespeare, adapted to fit the area, and then shuts down a street in that neighborhood for three nights to perform the resulting production.  Last year’s show on Cherokee Street was a big success, so this year, the project has been brought to another city neighborhood, the Grove, otherwise known as Forest Park Southeast.  This year’s play is called Old Hearts Fresh, a modern take on The Winter’s Tale by playwright Nancy Bell, who also wrote last year’s play. During the rehearsal, I was given the chance to speak to several cast members, including professional performers Wendy Greenwood (Perdita), Jacqueline Thompson (Hermione), Marty Casey (Paulina), Drew Battles (Leontes) and Antonio Rodriguez (Polixenes), as well as professional drag performer and Grove resident Michael Shreves (Time).  I also spoke with local residents and ensemble members Karla Boresi and Sara Figueroa, as well as the production’s director, Alec Wild.

The Winter’s Tale as Shakespeare wrote it tells the story of King Leontes, who becomes enraged with jealousy upon suspecting (falsely) that his faithful wife Hermione has been having an affair with his friend Polixenes, who is the king of another country.  His jealousy sets in motion a series of events that leads to the abandonment of his infant daughter Perdita, the death (or perceived death, depending on the production) of his wife and other broken relationships and unrest in his kingdom.  It’s all eventually resolved in a fantastical, Shakespearean way, but not until after sixteen years have passed and Perdita has grown into a young adult raised by a shepherd in another kingdom.  Old Hearts Fresh is an updated version of the story that has elements of other Shakespearean plays (most notably Pericles) and has been set in the Grove, with many elements of the neighborhood such as Grove Fest and local businesses. landmarks and stories incorporated into the tale, with a mixture of Shakespearean and modern language.  There’s also the mural, painted at 4226 Manchester by local artist Grace McCammond, which will serve as a lasting community souvenir from the production.

The characters have also been given a Grove-style makeover.  Leontes is now a community organizer, Hermione runs a charter school, and Polixenes owns a bar in the Grove.  Also, Leontes’ jealousy, which is already irrational in Shakespeare, is made even more ridiculous in this production.  According to Rodriguez, “In our production it makes it a little bit more absurd that he’s accusing me, because Polixenes is gay, so obviously that puts a little wrench in [Leontes’s] idea of cheating.”  Also, unlike the source material, there is no love interest for Perdita in this production.  She is portrayed as an optimistic young muralist who is curious about her background.  This version is “not about a [romantic] relationship for Perdita,” says Greenwood.  “It’s about reuniting with the family.  So that’s a big difference .”

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriquez,  Jacqueline Thompson  Photo by David Levy

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriguez, Jacqueline Thompson
Photo by David Levy

At the rehearsal, most of the participants stress the uniqueness of this project. Many of them had never been involved in something like this before, and they were excited about its potential.  At the first rehearsal for this year’s production, Dildine gathered the cast members together and told them his vision: upon moving to St. Louis from Chicago, Dildine was struck by the amount of closed-off and barricaded streets in the city, which seemed to communication an air of exclusivity and exclusion.  According to Battles, Dildine wanted to put this concept to an inclusionary use.  He decided that “he wanted to do that [too]–shut down a street, [but] for the sake of the arts”.  Dildine had also pitched the idea to Wild when asking him to direct this year’s show.  “He said ‘look, we’ve got this interesting project where we go into a community for four months and meet people and make a story—are you interested?’” says Wild. “I think that was the side of it that really interested me.”

The idea to bring a show into a neighborhood and the neighborhood into the show was an exciting one for the participants, particularly Wild, who, along with playwright Bell and Production Designer Justin Barisonek, spent some time visiting the neighborhood, going to shops and businesses, and interviewing residents.  Many of those residents’ stories are used to some degree in the finished play.

Several Grove residents were eager to be involved in the project, and Shreves, who performs as “Michelle McCausland” at Meyer’s Grove in the neighborhood every weekend, was recruited for the production. “The director came to my show” he tells me, “and he said ‘you would be perfect for this part!” The character of Time, which Shreves will perform as the Michelle McCausland character, serves as the show’s narrator. It’s Shreves’s first Shakesepearean performance after many years performing in various musical theatre roles.  Boresi, an Adminstrative Law Judge and Zumba instructor, hasn’t performed in a show since high school, but loves theatre and volunteered “for neighborhood reasons, for theatre reasons, and to kind of check something off my bucket list”. Figueroa, who works as a Disaster Response Coodinator for the city, is excited about the show as a potential unifying force for the neighborhood. “There’s a big disconnect in the neighborhood between the strip on Manchester—it’s kind of the bar, nightclub scene, and then there’s the residents who live here”, she says. “There’s a big disconnect and I think this is going to be a really cool way to kind of bring those [together].”

Figueroa knows a lot about the history of the neighborhood, and she likes that some of that history has been incorporated into the show as a result of the various personal stories collected by the project’s creative team.  The character of Paulina is the show’s embodiment of a lot of those stories.  Paulina is portrayed in this production as a long-time Grove resident who grew up in the neighborhood and witnessed many of its ups and downs.  Casey has gained more of a personal connection to the neighborhood through playing this character. “I’ve learned a lot about the Tower Grove area just being in this show and working with everyone, and I just love it!” she says. “And the experience that Paulina goes through just really shows how we’ve evolved as a people. I love the fact that I’m bringing that element to the show.”

All of the players are excited about the mixture of professional actors and community residents in this production.  According to Rodriguez, “it has created a nice sense of community within the show. So it’s been really stress-free. This has been one of the easiest [rehearsal] processes I’ve ever had”. Battles describes the experience as “awesome” and adds that he thinks “some of the community people are doing better work than we are—the professionals–because they’re so real. And this neighborhood means so much to them. For them to do a play about their neighborhood, in their neighborhood—it’s really great. “

The production also includes several local children and teens, who play various roles and have been universally praised by their adult co-stars. Both Battles and Rodriguez think the children will “steal the show”, and praise their talent and work ethic.  Thompson refers to the children as “phenomenal”.  This is a production where people of all ages, and from all walks of life, have come together to celebrate the arts, the city and a city neighborhood.

Overall, this cast and this production is full of energy, optimism and community spirit.  This promises to be an entertaining production, and after speaking with the cast, I’m looking forward to seeing it even more than I already was.  It’s Shakespeare for the community, in a uniquely St. Louis way.

Antonio Rodriquez, Marty Casey, Nathan Bush (Camillo), Drew Battles Photo by David Levy

Antonio Rodriquez, Marty Casey, Nathan Bush (Camillo), Drew Battles
Photo by David Levy

Shakespeare In the Streets, Old Hearts Fresh, will run from Thursday, September 19th through Saturday, September 21st, at 8pm at 4225 Manchester Avenue in the Grove.  For more information, see SFSTL’s website (linked in the sidebar of this blog).

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I recently had the honor of interviewing Rick Dildine, the Executive Director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and one of the most influential figures in the current St. Louis theatre scene.  SFSTL will be concluding its current production of Twelfth Night this weekend. We talked about how his views on Shakespeare, theatre in general, St. Louis as a cultural center, and more.  Here are the highlights:

Michelle: How did you get into theatre and, more specifically, how did you discover Shakespeare?

Rick Dildine: That’s kind of a timely question because I just was talking about this with someone the other day—actually, a teacher. It started with my 8th Grade English teacher, who suggested that over the holiday break, that I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then she said “I’ll give you bonus points if you put together the play with all the kids in the class. And I did it, and she said “you know, maybe you should consider doing this as a career someday”. And I’d never thought about that, but from that moment on I started doing theatre. So, it started with a teacher for me.

M: So you started doing theatre with Shakespeare?

RD: I did, and then I slowly went into mostly musical theatre and went to college, got an Acting degree and then got my Master’s in Acting from Brown. And then I kept getting pulled into doing large-scale theatre outdoors. I ran a large outdoor theatre in Kentucky for five years, and then I also did a lot of new plays in Chicago and Providence, but my real interest is really in big outdoor events. So that’s how I got pulled into coming to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

M: What are some things about Shakespeare that you like?

RD: It’s not ordinary. I mean, he didn’t write just like, a day at the mall.  [He wrote about] extraordinary moments that call for extraordinary language. And that’s what I love about it.  His language and stories are universal, and they’re timely. At almost any moment in our lives, we can find some type of moment or character or piece of the story that we can relate to as human beings.

M: What do you think about modernized Shakespeare vs. more traditional stagings? Do you think it helps make Shakespeare more accessible to the general public, to do modern dress?

RD: I have a pretty firm stance on this. I believe that you should always start with story, and then from story a director can layer in concepts or, perhaps framing it in a different time period, as long as it’s supporting the story—Shakespeare’s story. That’s what I like. As far as modernizing it or changing the story, we have an initiative called Shake38 where we encourage people to take Shakespeare’s text and perform it and live in it anyway they see fit. So, I’m all for good storytelling. As a director, I land in a place of wanting to take Shakespeare’s text and make as lively and as crackling as possible. I’m always a proponent of having Shakespeare evolve—having his stories mean something different for a new generation, because we’re in a generation now where young people get their information and create in an instant. They can create photography, video, music in an instant, text in an instant. So I’m all for letting him evolve.

M: What’s the most unusual full-length concept for a Shakespeare production you’ve seen?

RD: I did see a production of the Scottish Play [Macbeth] done entirely in Japanese, as a Japanese action film, with subtitles and the actors performing in Japanese, but someone was speaking English over it.

M: Where was that?

It was at a regional theatre in Oregon. It was pretty stunning. I mean, it totally made the play… you really listened to the language and you really listened to the story. So that’s definitely a memorable one. I’m trying to think of any other ones that have really blown my mind.  I saw a six person Comedy of Errors that I thought was going to impossible to perform, but was the best production of The Comedy of Errors I have ever seen. That was at the Court Theatre in Chicago.

M: What made you decide to take the job at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis?

RD: The experience. I initially did not think I wanted the job, and so I snuck down here one night from Chicago. I bought a ticket on my own and got on a train and came down and I saw 4,000 people watching The Merry Wives of Windsor for free, and from that moment I was sold. The high quality of the work and the accessibility was what sold me on it.

M: About Twelfth Night specifically—it’s the first SFSTL production you’re directing.  Did you decide to direct because of the play that was chosen, or did you choose the play because you wanted to direct?  

RD: As the leader of the institution, I’m also the one picking the shows and planning them out. I had initially not planned on directing, but when the slot came open and looking at the availability of directors that we use and other directors that I want to use, it just became apparent at one moment, I think about this time a year ago, that this was the best moment for me to direct. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play.  I love how music can help tell stories, and Twelfth Night uses music more than any other Shakespeare play. So with all these things lining up, it seemed like the best moment, and my staff and board were incredibly encouraging, so I jumped into it and did it. I won’t be directing every year, though (laughs).

M: It does seem like it takes a whole year to put together a production, and I was wondering about the process. How do you pick the plays, and what is the timeline like for getting a show ready to do?

RD: Well, I’m fairly certain of the plays that I’m going to be doing for the next three years, so that’s about as far out as I’ll schedule. And what it takes is, it’s like you’re putting together a really big dinner party, and you’ve got to make sure that all the people that you want at that party are available when you need them. So it takes a long time to get the director—the director is always the first thing that I start with, and then from there working on the design team that he or she wants to work with, and then actors. Shakespeare is a pretty demanding type of performance, and demands an experienced director who can handle text. Our audiences love really high quality text performances.  So, getting all those things lined up takes a few years. We’re working about two to three years out at a time.

As far as selecting them, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, so not all of them are A+ plays. There are A plays, there are B-level plays and there are some C-level plays. So what I try to do is make sure that we’re doing plays that are going to attract people, interest people, but also give them the full scope of Shakespeare’s writing, from comedy to tragedy to history to romance—from his incredibly well-written plays like Twefth Night to some of his B-level plays. I’m trying to give a full breadth and scope of his work.

M: Are you still alternating? You were doing a tragedy or history one year, and then a comedy the next year…?

RD: I describe it as light and dark. Shakespeare wrote many more darker plays than he did lighter plays, so we do tend to do that—light, dark [alternating]. Doing comedy, tragedy—I’m eventually going to run out of comedies because he wrote a lot more tragedy and history. So yeah—light, dark is what I try to do.

M: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play that SFSTL hasn’t already done?

RD: Well, three immediately jump to mind. I really love Cymbeline.

M: I like Cymbeline. It’s a really interesting one.

RD: Yeah, I love the romance in Cymbeline. Henry V because I love the courage and the bravery of the king in that one. And then one that I don’t think we’ll be doing on the main stage anytime soon, but I do love Titus Andronicus, because I love the dynamic of family in that play, and how these people play out through their emotions and their actions and how they destroy each other. I think it’s fascinating. Now I do not plan on doing Titus Andronicus on the main stage anytime soon. I think on average there’s an act of violence something like every fifty lines in Titus Andronicus.

M: Yeah, I guess you have to pick plays based to a certain degree on how accessible they are for the general audience. (RD nods, smiles). How many people do you get every year?  Do you have a projected attendance?

RD: You know, because it’s outdoors and it’s free we don’t do any type of ticket sales or advance tickets, [but] we do count the site. We have a really great counting system. We have been getting over 60,000 people a year. We have been attracting very large audiences. Our average audience size is 3,000 people. Last year at Othello, 66,000 people was our total. So we tend to have about 60,000 + come see the show.

M: What are some of the most interesting comments you’ve heard from audience members at Twelfth Night?

RD: Well, I don’t know if it’s so much interesting as encouraging. [People] love the use of live music to tell the story. They love our appreciation for clarity of language, clarity of story. Like I said, I’m not a director who likes to layer in a lot of directing choices. I like to keep my Shakespeare clear, concise, so that that people can follow the story, not watch my interesting choices (laughs). But the thing that I’m most happy with is that people walk away saying “I understood what was going on. The story is clear. It’s concise”. That’s a huge compliment.

M: What are your impressions of the St. Louis theatre scene in general? Obviously it’s not as big as New York or London or Chicago, but what do you think of what we have in terms of theatre in St. Louis?

RD: The theatrical energy of this town is enviable for a lot of other cities. I mean, there is a breadth of work that’s going on in the dozens of theatres.  I’m so impressed that on any given night you can go see a play, a musical, a Shakespeare play.  You can go see just about anything on any given night, in almost any pocket of the city, too. I was incredibly impressed when I arrived here from Chicago, to see how much theatre was going on.

M: What are some of your favorite things about St. Louis in general?

RD: Well, I love the city in that there are so many accessible things to do. You know, we walk the Botanical Garden every single week. There are a lot of jewels here: Forest Park, the Botanical Garden, the Zoo, the Art Museum. I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and the accessibility of art and culture is top-notch in this city. That’s what I appreciate the most.

M: Now in terms of the future—there are a lot of things that SFSTL does, like Shake38, the main stage play, the school program. Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

RD: Well, next up for us is in September, we’ll be doing Shakespeare in the Streets. We spend a year in a neighborhood creating an original play about that neighborhood, inspired by a Shakespeare play. So September 19th through the 23rd will be Shakespeare in the Streets: Grove Edition. So we’ll be in the Grove, over around the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, and shutting down a city street and doing an original play.  That’s up next.  And looking beyond 2013, we have some ambitious ideas of how we can make Shakespeare accessible to as many people as possible, but to also enrich the cultural and artistic life of our city so that it’s competitive with a Chicago, a San Francisco, a New York, and Austin, Texas, that we can compete on that level with arts and culture.

M:  This is something I’ve heard a lot, and I was wondering how you would answer it. If someone says “Oh, Shakespeare-that’s boring,” what would you say to that?

RD:  Well, I would say Shakespeare didn’t write about the boring moments in our lives. He wrote about moments that we all can relate to. He wrote about first love. He wrote about obsession.  He wrote about revenge.  He wrote about jealousy. All of these things are not boring moments in our lives.  Every single one of us has had an experience in one of those areas. So when I [hear] “Shakespeare is boring”—when you sit in a room and watch and hear good Shakespeare, it will change your life.  It’s like seeing great opera. If you see a great performance of opera, it changes your life.

M: What are some things that you would like people to most remember about SFTSTL?

RD:  I think most importantly what I would like for them to remember is that Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is something that contributes in an incredible way to the quality of life in our city. It is part of the annual cultural calendar, and it contributes to the cultural fabric of who we are as a city.

For more information about Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, please check out their official website, linked in the sidebar of this blog. Thanks so much to Rick Dildine for this interview. 

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