by Lorie Lewis Ham
Another summer of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival begins June 16 in Fresno so we took some time to chat with their executive producer for the past 5 years, Greg Taber, about the 2016 season.
KRL: Can you give us a brief history of how WSF came to be and when for those who may not be familiar with the Festival?
The mission of Woodward Shakespeare Festival is to present live theatre productions for the cultural education, entertainment, and inspiration of our community, and to make our contribution to the arts of California’s Central Valley accessible to everyone.
In pursuit of this mission, we offer free outdoor theater each summer. From June to September, audiences enjoy Shakespeare and other classic works on the Festival Stage in Fresno’s largest city park, Woodward Park.
Shakespeare’s plays endure because they challenge our creativity. They delight us with their rich language and wit. They help us explore our foibles and follies. They give voice to the heights and depths of what human nature is capable. Shakespeare addresses and belongs to us all. At Woodward Shakespeare Festival, we are excited to gather the community together to explore the “infinite variety” of these plays. There is something about the experience of live outdoor theater that fires the imagination, draws us in, and lightens the spirit, bringing people from diverse backgrounds and walks of life together in a common experience. Please join us this summer for some festival theater!
In 2001, local Fresno/Clovis actors S. Eric Day and Brandon Weis imagined a season of Shakespeare plays produced outdoors in a festival environment. The idea simmered for some years until, in 2004, Christien Sweeney added her energy and vision to the enterprise and the Festival was born.
Day and Sweeney produced and directed the first two seasons, presenting Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet (2005), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth (2006). The Festival initially performed in the Rotary Amphitheater of Woodward Park, but in later years moved to the Activities space (near the Japanese Garden) and finally to its current home, the Festival Stage in the northeast corner of the park, overlooking the San Joaquin River valley and bluffs.
KRL: Please tell us about the shows this season?
Greg: This season WSF is excited to present Shakespeare’s Hamlet, paired with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Hamlet is often listed as the greatest play in the English language, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead won the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, and London Theatre Critics awards for best play.
KRL: Why did you pick those particular shows?
Greg: WSF hasn’t produced Hamlet since 2008 and, while The New Ensemble did it in 2012 with Brooke Aiello as Hamlet, and Theatre Ventoux just finished a production of the play in repertory with Romeo and Juliet, we felt it was time for a main stage showing of the play. Knowing that Fresno’s talent pool was more than up to the task and that director Broderic Beard had a fresh and provocative take on the play sealed the deal.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is often paired with Hamlet concerning, as it does, the further adventures of Hamlet’s hapless schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s a bit existential, wildly absurdist, wonderfully fun, and filled with Tom Stoppard’s scintillating language. Since the characters overlap between the two plays, we’ve been fortunate enough to have nearly the same cast for both shows, with some interesting twists. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, and Ophelia are the same in both shows. Hamlet’s director and stage manager are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Hamlet and Gertrude, respectively. Hamlet’s Polonius and Player King swap roles. Add in a few other people to round things out and director Jake Sherwood has his hands full in the best way possible.
KRL: Are there less this year?
Greg: Yes. The decision was made to return to WSFs original production schedule of two plays running for five weekends each.
KRL: Is there anything different this year?
Greg: Other than the new production schedule and the meshing of the two plays, we are making some improvements to the festival space. We’re laying down a new stage deck and are very close to making a major improvement to the backstage and grounds.
KRL: Will we see some familiar faces in the casts?
Greg: Very much so. Broderic Beard, myself, Russel Noland, Kayla Weber, and Thomas Nance will be back, and, in a very exciting turn of events, Casey Ballard and Lisa Taber will be back on the stage this season. Casey played Rosencrantz and the Player Queen in our 2008 Hamlet and Viola in Twelfth Night. Lisa directed last year’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and played the Nurse in our inaugural season’s Romeo and Juliet.
KRL: How has WSF changed over the years since you have been involved?
Greg: Of course, people have come and gone, veterans have moved on to other things or “retired” and new people have come along as happens in any endeavor over time. We miss those who we no longer have but are excited to work with new people. Our design element has become much stronger, and I think our performance capacity has improved over all. Based on the response of our audiences, I think we have continued to improve and grow.
KRL: What are the show dates and times? Location?
Greg: All of our shows perform at 8:00, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on the Festival Stage in the northeast corner of Woodward Park.
Hamlet runs form June 16 – July 16. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead runs from August 11 – September 10.
KRL: Do people need tickets?
Greg: No tickets are needed. As we have for the past 11 years, all of our seats are offered on a Pay What You Will basis: come on out, see the show, pay us what you think your evening was worth.
Premier Seating, guaranteed in the first two rows, will be available for reservation online beginning June 1 at www.woodwardshakespeare.org
KRL: Does WSF have anymore other Shakespeare events/readings coming up yet this year?
Greg: Not this season, no, though we are hoping to continue our partnership with the Fresno County Public Libraries beginning in the fall.
KRL: Anything else you would like to add?
Greg: Unless I’m mistaken, WSF is the only free, outdoor, community-based, Shakespeare company between the bay area and southern California. Frankly, that makes us pretty special. That makes Fresno pretty special and it makes the people of Fresno amazingly special for their continued patronage and support.
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