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.

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).

The RSC's recently announced plans to present the entire canon - dramas, comedies, histories, and even the sonnets - in one seven-month period beginning April 2006, signal that the playwright continues to be celebrated in his own land.

Americans, however, have come to Shakespeare more gradually, starting on a smaller scale.

The OSF traces its roots to 1935 when the town of Ashland contributed $400 to produce three plays. Although the population of Ashland still numbers only about 21,000, OSF sells nearly 400,000 tickets a year and draws steady audiences from Oregon, California, and Washington, adding visitors from across the country.

Ms. Gaines, who began Chicago Shakespeare Theater 19 years ago with $3,000, recalls, "When I said I was starting a theater for Shakespeare's plays, I was laughed up and down Michigan Avenue. 'Never in Chicago,' they said. Now we regularly sell out." Today, CST is housed in a seven-story building on Chicago's busy Navy Pier, and runs on an annual budget of $13 million.

In 1978, Ms. Packer directed her first production in Lenox, in the overgrown gardens at Edith Wharton's abandoned ruin of a country mansion. The actors had to clean out the debris to make room for their sleeping bags. The company moved from The Mount in 1999 after buying a 63-acre campus down the road for $3.5 million, but recently sold half the property for $3.9 million, to allow it to pay off debts and enhance its building fund.

As a group, these theaters run extensive education programs that have revolutionized the teaching of Shakespeare and primed the next generation to treat the plays as familiar, beloved experiences. Students and teachers in New England, up and down the West Coast, and in the Chicago public schools and others in the greater Midwest are prepared by teams of actors who turn classrooms into stages for vigorous, on-your-feet explorations of the plays. The students then come to the theaters by the busloads to see the professional shows. "Fifty-five thousand kids of the greater Chicago area are served each year, with their teachers. The students say that our theater is their favorite field trip," Gaines says.

Crowd-pleasing productions, vacation-time destinations, and year-round school programs are obvious reasons for the expansion of these theaters, but the final account lies in the plays themselves.

According to Appel, "A work of Shakespeare is something different from any old play. His plays continue to reach to every level of society." Gaines believes, "With the pain and suffering going on in the world, Shakespeare is the only playwright who steps up to the issues. Shakespeare lets the listener into the soul of his characters, and it's the same as your soul. It's basically about you."

Packer says, "As we become more media-driven, Shakespeare will become the counterculture for people who believe in the word. There will come a time when we have to start thinking again. The complexity of thought lies in language."

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