All the world's a Shakespeare stage
The playwright's popularity soars as audiences flock to summer festivals, and the Royal Shakespeare Company plans a marathon.
Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra are not the only boys of summer. For vacationing theatergoers at Shakespeare festivals around the United States, the lineup includes Romeo and Petruchio, Benedick and Othello.Skip to next paragraph
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Shakespeare may not attract the stadium-size throngs that visit ballparks, but the Elizabethan playwright's work continues to be celebrated in an ever-growing number of theaters, and audiences are on the rise.
Despite hand-wringing by educators over a lack of interest in the spoken word among a generation raised on electronic entertainment, Shakespeare's influence with young people is being strengthened by companies that offer workshops in schools.
Another important factor is that performance styles have changed, as have teaching methods, with the aim of presenting Shakespeare's language as everyday speech and reclaiming the playwright's innate humanity and sense of humor.
"There's a real appetite for Shakespeare," says Tina Packer, founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company here. "I think that old thing about the United States being afraid of Shakespeare is over."
Friday night, Shakespeare plays will be performed on stages from Ashland, Ore., to Chicago to Lenox, Mass., not to mention in Stratford, Ontario, where the largest of the North American festivals takes place. The number of companies belonging to the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America has increased from 37 in 1991 when the association was formed to nearly 90 members today.
This rise in the playwright's stock has occurred partly because of what Libby Appel, director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), calls the vacation factor. "We've made Shakespeare into a summer delight," she says. "People bring picnics; they can come for five days and see nine plays. It engenders a good time."
Popular films such as those by Kenneth Branagh ("Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing) and Baz Lurhman ("Romeo and Juliet"), and the fictionalized "Shakespeare in Love" have brought a broader sweep of audiences to the live performances, according to Barbara Gaines, director and founder of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST).
Shakespeare & Company, like OSF, benefits from its location in a vacation spot, in the midst of the Berkshire hills. Visitors can stay in one of the charming bed-and-breakfast inns, take in a concert at Tanglewood (the summer home of Boston Symphony Orchestra), and attend the plays there and at other theaters in the area, not to mention hike and shop for antiques.
Ashland, Lenox, and Chicago have much in common, despite their geographic differences. Each festival is headed by a gifted, feisty woman who also directs several productions a year. OSF presents 11 productions during its 10-month season; Shakespeare & Company mounts five from May to October; while CST presents 620 year-around performances of seven productions, two by visiting companies. In the spring, CST will produce "Henry IV, Parts I and II" in Chicago, then take the plays to Stratford, England, as part of a marathon by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).