Tina Packer: Spark Plug Behind Shakespeare & Co.

Earlier this summer, a group of acting students gathered just before midnight in the Stables Theater at The Mount to talk with Tina Packer. The subject was Part 1 of "Women of Will," her trilogy about Shakespeare's views on women, which Ms. Packer performed that night.

Packer, the actress, appeared in all three segments of her trilogy during July weekends while she was also rehearsing the professional company in "Measure for Measure" for the company's "Bare Bard Series." After "Measure for Measure" opened, she staged "The Merry Wives of Windsor" for the outdoor Mainstage. "Measure for Measure" runs through Aug. 25. "Merry Wives" will continue until Sept. 1.

Packer is the founder, spark plug, and visionary behind Shakespeare & Company, now in its 19th summer season in Lenox. From a tiny troupe of actors and students presenting two productions in 1978, SS & Co. has grown into an extensive organization that is as much a fixture in the Berkshire cultural scene as the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow in nearby Lee. With her cheery smile, broad British accent, and bright blue eyes, Packer is the most visible presence among the company of actors and master teachers she has nurtured.

Landing in the United States in 1972 with the dream of starting a Shakespeare company, Packer attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation, which funded her early efforts. She was born in England into a "risen working-class family," as she has called it, raised in Nottingham, and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She was on contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company when she realized that she wanted more than an acting career. Her goal was nothing less than a Shakespearean theater where she could produce and direct the master's plays.

The company she gathered around her - master teachers, students who have matured into notable actors, friends, and patrons - have stayed by her throughout the triumphs and trials that have become the stuff of her theater's history. The awards have come in droves, including a 1994 Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, as well as the 1992 prize for outstanding director at Boston's Elliot Norton Awards ceremony. This fall, Packer will lead the company into Boston for a winter residency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After nearly 20 years leading Shakespeare & Co., Packer has no plans to scale back. "We've always been an ambitious company," she says. "We've always said we want to be the leading Shakespeare theater in the country. We're about halfway there."

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