by Lorie Lewis Ham
The Woodward Shakespeare Festival in Fresno is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. We took some time to chat with Greg Taber, the Festival’s executive producer, about this summer’s season and their anniversary.
KRL: Tell us about this year’s season.
Greg: Our 10th Anniversary Season will kick off with a new production of one of Shakespeare’s more visceral and powerful tragedies, Macbeth. The show has been stripped of its historical baggage and will focus on the relationships of the central characters and how their world is torn apart by a malevolent force that works its way insidiously into their lives, destroying them from within.
We’ll follow that with an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew highlighting the absurdity of the male/female roles that we all play and that, far too often, keep us from truly connecting to one another.
The season will end with Shakespeare’s “final” play, The Tempest, a magical meditation on the nature of love, forgiveness, and theatre itself.
KRL: Why were these particular shows chosen this year?
Greg: In looking to celebrate our 10th Anniversary Season, we wanted to bring back two of our more popular productions in fresh interpretations and then close with something new and special. Macbeth was first produced in 2006 and directed by WSF founder S. Eric Day who gave the story a dark, and gritty post-apocalyptic feel that included both male and female witches, a blood-drenched Banquo and a gaping hell-mouth that was truly chilling. Shrew first hit the WSF stage the very next season in a production directed by Daniel Moore. Moore, in signature style, created a whirlwind of color and action that kept audiences (and actors) on their toes and smiling. This season’s versions of those two plays, directed by myself, Greg Taber, and Aaron Spjute respectively, will present very different aesthetics and, I think, more personal, more intimate characterizations leading our audience to new experiences of old friends. Julie Ann Keller is taking the helm of our final production, The Tempest. The Tempest, of course, is the last play that Shakespeare is thought to have written on his own, and is considered by many to be his farewell to the stage. We see it as a beautiful story of redemption and, if you wish to stretch the metaphor, a farewell to WSFs first decade and the beginning of our second.
KRL: Will they all be traditional productions or will some be set in more modern day?
Greg: None of the three productions will be modernized in the sense that they will have a modern day setting; at the same time, none of them will be set in medieval Scotland, Renaissance England or Milan. Each will be costumed and set in a way that reflects the psychological, emotional, and thematic elements that each director is focusing on.
KRL: Will we be seeing any familiar actors this year?
Greg: This year’s Ensemble is a wonderful mix of leading veterans, up and coming players, and new talent. I will be making my fifth appearance with WSF, Jay Parks will be back after a fine performance in last season’s Julius Caesar for his fourth production, and perennial WSF performer Hal Bolen will be back for his 10th season. Other veterans include Suzanne Grazyna as Petruchio, Jessica Reedy as both a witch and Baptista, GJ Thelin as Vincentio and Trinculo, Robert Daniels as Duncan and Stephano, Renee Newlove as Lennox and Sly, Bridget Manders as Miranda, Rick Adamson as Prospero, Cat Evangelho, Alissa Cummings, and Kayla Weber. Notable newcomers to WSF are Kate McKnight as Lady Macbeth, Donna Halliburton as a witch and as Katherine, Abbygail Williams as Caliban, and James Gunn (son of longtime Fresno actor, teacher, and director Don “Doc” Gunn) as Macduff and Antonio. Finally, two of our younger actors will be taking on their first major roles for WSF in the Tempest as Joshua Taber plays Ariel and Broderic Beard plays Ferdinand.
KRL: Can you tell us a little about those who will be directing this year’s shows?
Greg: I hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Southern California and has acted locally since 1982. I have produced, directed, and acted in productions for Theatre Ventoux, a company I founded with my wife, Lisa. Directing credits include: This Flattering Glass (an adaptation of Richard II) and King Lear. Acting credits include playing Lord Byron in Childe Byron (Theatre Ventoux), Benedick (WSF), Mercutio (WSF) , Antonio (WSF), and Pistol (WSF). I continue a 30 year fascination with and study of acting, performing, and theatre, and is beyond looking forward to what’s about to happen.
Aaron Spjute studied theatre at FCC, BYU, and at the University of Exeter in England. Currently, he teaches Theatre and English courses at several local colleges. Previous WSF credits include directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2013) and playing the role of Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Julie Ann Keller studied dance/theater at UCSC and UCB while earning her BA in Biology. She is the owner and director of California Arts Academy where she teaches dance and drama, and has directed Shakespeare plays for teenage actors. She is a co-founder of the Artists’ Repertory Theater, where she has produced, acted (All In The Timing, The Rocky Horror Show), and directed (Rabbit Hole). Other credits include sound design for WSF’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Inherit The Wind.
KRL: I understand you will be playing the title roll in MacBeth, what do you do to prepare for such a role?
Greg: The single most important thing that I have been fortunate enough to be able to do in preparation for both directing and acting in Macbeth has been to have the support and input of an amazing production and performance team. Adam Meredith is my Assistant Director; he brings a wealth of education and professional experience to bear. Alissa Cummings is my Stage Manager and she is the best one I’ve worked with since USC. Lisa Taber is invaluable as my “outside eyes,” letting me know how everything looks purely from an audience perspective. Brenna Barks (Costumes), Raquel Busani (Set) Marc Petros (lLights), Dane Oliver (Combat), Joshua Taber & Julie Ann Keller (Sound), and Cat Evangelho (Assistant Stage Manager) are all so tuned into the vision for the show that it’s a little scary. And I can’t say enough about the cast. Their openness, their willingness to go to the edge and to take risks, and their absolute commitment to doing the best work that they can do are inspirational. That, and six months of pre-production, just leaves reading and watching everything I can to get inside this man’s head and find the best way to bring that inner reality out into the open for our audience to share in. Simple. Wow. What have I gotten myself into?
KRL: Are you doing anything special to celebrate your 10th year?
Greg: We batted around a number of ideas for our 10th Season but finally settled on simply crafting three shows that do everything we can to take WSF to a new theatrical edge: provocative and theatrical production concepts, strong and decisive direction, and rich and compelling performances. The best thing that we can do to celebrate 10 years is to give our patrons the finest experience that we can, both to honor what they have already given us in time and support, and to be worthy of the time and support we’ll continue to ask them to give us as we move into our next 10 years.
KRL: Anything else you would like to add?
Greg: As we head into our next decade, we’re looking forward to building a new stage; performances of, amongst many others, Richard III, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Our Town, Titus Andronicus, The Crucible, and Antony and Cleopatra; and continuing to grow and give the gift of free Shakespeare in the park to our friends and fans.
Also, WSFs partnership with Fresno Pacific University will continue with season 2 of the YESProject in which FPU professor, Julia Reimer, and local actress, Brooke Ailello, guide a group of local teens through an exploration of the characters and themes of Macbeth. The YESProject culminates in a performance of their work at the WSF Stage on Wednesday, July 9. Details and an application can be found on the WSF website. We will also be partnering this season with the new Selma Arts Center when The Taming of the Shrew plays a special benefit matinee there on Sunday, August 3. Details will be forthcoming.
You can learn more about all of their shows and programs on their website.
Check out more local arts and entertainment articles in KRL’s A & E section.