by Lorie Lewis Ham
As we face another hot summer in the Central Valley, a summer treat will soon be upon us as well; the new season of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival (WSF) begins on June 24 with the Merchant of Venice.The idea to have a Shakespeare Festival in Fresno first began to develop in 2001 when Festival co-founder S. Eric Day saw the potential to have a seasonal Shakespeare festival in one of Fresno’s parks, in the style of the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, said Heather Parish, WSF Artistic Director. Three years later, partnering with Christein Sweeney, they set out to mount two full scale Shakespeare performances in the then unused Rotary Amphitheater in Woodward Park.
In 2005, they welcomed over 7,000 people to their productions of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. By 2006, they were an established non-profit organization in the public trust. Their first three seasons were in the Rotary Amphitheater, then they moved to some grassier, shadier areas of the Park.
Admission to the shows is free, though there is a small entrance fee for the park. Attendance of the two shows they do each season has continued to be excellent according to Heather. “Last year, we greeted over 10,000 people at our gates throughout the summer and audiences tend to build toward the end of a show’s run. Last year, the closing weekend of Richard III had over 600 audience members each night.”
Shakespeare in the Park has become an annual tradition for many, something fun and interesting they can do with family and friends for a very low cost. “Many people say that Shakespeare in the Park is the only theatrical event they attend in Fresno,” continued Heather. “The environment is so informal and accessible to everyone that people love the overall experience as well as the theatre.”Everyone who works with WSF is volunteer, from the board of directors on down to the crew. They do it for the love of Shakespeare and the theatre. Gabriela Lawson is one of a number of actors who have been doing shows with WSF since 2006. Her roles include Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It and Lord Buckingham in Richard III. She will be playing the Fool in King Lear this season.
Gabriela’s father told her about WSF in the beginning and she went to see their first shows in 2005 and was determined to audition for the following season. “I was impressed with the premise of WSF, with the ambition of a fledgling company trying to bring free, quality Shakespeare to the masses. There are fantastic free Shakespeare in the Parks in San Francisco and LA and other cities with thriving theatre communities, but it was a first for the Valley and I loved the idea of getting in on the ground floor of such a potentially monumental addition to our local theatre scene. WSF is about outreach and accessibility to the works of a playwright whom I revere tremendously. I have always genuinely admired and supported the aspirations of WSF and I hope they will continue to grow and solidify their foundation as a company and as an attraction for all manner of theatre-goers — from the well-versed Shakespeare enthusiast to the child out with his family watching his first Shakespearean play under the stars.”
Since her first role with Fresno Children’s Playhouse back in 1986, Gabriella has been busy in the theatre community. She loves her time with WSF, not only because of the principal objective of the company, but also because of the wonderful WSF family of dedicated and intelligent and prodigious people. Gabriella said that it does indeed take a village to put on shows like this with non-profit funding and a constantly shifting venue. “I’ve helped sew costumes, I’ve acted, I’ve hung lights, I’ve built sets, I’ve done whatever it took to get the show up and pursue the company’s ambition of presenting Shakespeare’s wonderful plays intelligibly and for free year after year, and I am confident in the knowledge that the folks that I am working with have done the same, worked as hard or harder and believe avidly in producing these plays just as I do.”
“Auditions are open to anyone, those with experience and those without,” said Heather. “We get all types and all levels of experience. One of the things we pride ourselves on is that we give young or inexperienced actors the support and coaching they need to grow and learn. We are a training ground as much as a performance group. Those with more experience have the opportunity to mentor a new actor or one with less experience in Shakespeare. We’re here for the community — for audience enrichment as well as the enrichment of local actors.”
Another actor, playwright, producer, and promoter in the area since 1993, Jaguar Bennett, has been with WSF since the first season when he played Prince Eskalus in Romeo and Juliet. With WSF, he has also played Friar in Much Ado About Nothing, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III in Richard III. “For this season, I’ll be playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and the Duke of Cornwall in King Lear.”
“What attracted me to the Woodward Shakespeare Festival,” continued Jaguar, “and what I like best about the company, is that they approach Shakespeare very seriously. It’s a very intelligent company. WSF strives to be faithful to Shakespeare’s text and language; they strive to comprehend the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote and, at the same time, put the plays in a context and setting that is fresh and relevant to a modern audience. They respect Shakespeare’s art without falling into sterile classicism and they’re willing to take risks, to play with the material, and to challenge the audience to think and feel in new ways.”
As Artistic Director, it is Heather’s job to decide what shows they will be performing each season. “I look at our current acting pool and see what could be suitable for some of them. I ask potential directors what they are interested in doing. I consider what is interesting to me or what could be of interest to our community. I think about where the company has been recently and where it wants to go. When I’ve put all of that on the table, often a few specific titles will rise to the surface and I look at them very closely.”Heather found this season particularly challenging as she took into account the fact that they have so many wonderful young actresses in the company. “I wanted to give them as many meaty roles as I could. I also wanted to do two shows that could speak to each other thematically in unusual ways. The community who comes out to see Shakespeare loves their comedy, but they are just as open to the challenges of tragedy and issues plays… after Richard III‘s success, it was evident that tough but beautiful material was something they craved. Merchant of Venice and King Lear fit that bill.”
She also believes firmly that local and regional theatre are the “memory keepers” of the theatrical tradition. “It is good for public libraries to carry the latest novels. I love some Dan Brown as much as everyone else. But if communities cannot also check out some Dickens or Austen, or translations of Cervantes or Maupassant, they lack access to something important, something lasting. Companies that do the classics like Shakespeare or Moliere or Calderon, modern classics like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and even Noel Coward, and yes, proven and award winning contemporary work… those companies are the ‘public libraries’ of theatre. We keep these important works in the minds of those who want them, crave them, and who do not have access to New York, LA, Chicago. Classic works speak to the universality of the human instinct and understanding. Experiencing classic theatre in our local communities keeps the memory of where we’ve been as human beings alive. And making it affordable means that people from all walks can partake of it.”
Gabriella is thrilled about her role this summer as the Fool. “It is an absolute stroke of serendipity and good fortune that has me playing the Fool in WSF’s King Lear this summer. I find the role challenging and thrilling; majorly complex and pivotal.”
Jaguar is equally excited about his roles this summer. “I am particularly excited about playing the role of Shylock. I’ve always been fascinated by the way religious and ethical ideas are frequently used for no other purpose but to create insiders and outsiders, and Shylock is very definitely an outsider. In a society where only Christians are considered human beings, Shylock has no rights, and the supposedly ‘good’ characters think nothing of cheating and abusing him. Shylock is a very complex role, which is both attractive and challenging for me. I hope to present that complexity on the stage.”
This summer’s season is:
Merchant of Venice from June 24 through July 24, and King Lear from August 12 to September 11. Shows are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm. Admission to the performances are free (although Woodward Park charges $3-$5 per car). “We also offer premium seating in our first three rows for $10 a seat,” said Heather. There are snacks available for purchase as well. For more information on WSF, you can visit their website.
As someone who has attended several of WSF’s shows, this writer highly recommends them to everyone whether you are a fan of Shakespeare or not. It’s a great night out with great theater, great atmosphere and an even better price.