Free Shakespeare

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By Bob Hall

Six o’clock, Friday the last week of June, a dented white step van pulls into Irvingdale Park. The road crew, also actors as it turns out, have already arrived and begin unloading the truck. First out is a pile of rubber mats passed on by members of The Lincoln Dog training program who got them as throwaway items from Goodyear. Under the eyes of Stage Manager Michelle Zinke and Tour Coordinator Andy Dillehay, the actors quickly arrange the rubber mats to form the stage, a long alleyway 14 feet wide and 30 feet long.

They’ve been doing this for three weeks now, becoming experienced roadies for Flatwater Shakespeare’s Free Parks Tour of “Twelfth Night.” It’s the second year that we’ve toured, but the first time the company has played Irvingdale Park. Irvingdale was selected in very early spring when the leaves were just buds. Now, with Lincoln, Neb., suffering the hottest summer on record, the exact location of the maximum shade has become critical to the comfort of the audience. The rubber mats, on the other hand, are essential to the comfort of the actors. Given the amount of rough action in most Shakespearean plays, the performers need protection from sore knees, bruised rumps and, most important, chigger infestations.

The audience area, arranged on both sides of the alleyway, is defined by two rows of metal chairs set far enough back from the stage to make room for two rows of patrons on blankets. One end of the “alley” is defined by a semicircle of four columns and the other by a wooden garden table, painted to look like stone, all designed and built by Richard Imig—who also owns the step van. Everybody does double duty here.

When the playing area is in place, the 12 actors and Michelle put up a tent to provide a dressing area. The costumes are hanging in the front of the truck, first to go in, last to come out. This year they’re designed by Janice Stauffer, who has to be sure they can stand rough usage and grass stains. They also have to be light enough that the actors don’t get heat exhaustion.

Meantime, technical coordinator Richard Schroeder has arrived in a pickup truck with free standing light stands for battery operated LEDs. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed in broad daylight, so fortunately a lot of fancy lights are not necessary; however, some light will be needed—the play starts at 7 and runs until 9:30, so twilight will have set in before we are done. He also brings a large sign to place by the entrance to the park so that first timers can be sure, “Yes, indeed, it’s true—there is a professional company performing Shakespeare right here in our neighborhood.”

Finally, Michelle sets up a Sony boombox to play the audience in and provide recorded music between scenes. About the same time Andy Dillehay’s family shows up with our most popular feature besides the show itself. Ice cream. Ivana Cone, Lincoln’s favorite ice creamery, has once again donated a specially created flavor to be given away free. A bribe to see Shakespeare? Well, it’s very effective if you happen to be between 8 and 12, or 12 and 30 or 30 to whenever.

All of this has taken less than a half hour. At 6:30 the audience starts to come in hope of getting the best view. There’s always the worry with a new location as to how many patrons will show up. But Irvingdale turns out to be one of our most successful locations we’ve played. Two hundred people show up, most of them with blankets and folding chairs, and for this project that’s perfect. Unlike the wildly successful Omaha Shakespeare Festival, Flatwater Shakespeare is designed to play to a more limited number—no amplification, for one thing. This forces our scale to be smaller, but it also gives us our particular identity, putting emphasis on the unamplified human voice. Shakespearean language. We love it. It’s magic. It still works.

From the look of it, this audience will be a diverse crowd, perhaps less so than at some other parks, Trago, Bethany, but still satisfying. There are also more dogs leading people this time, and there are people with kids, lots of kids.

Two bikes arrive: a woman and her grandson carrying blankets on the handlebars and a picnic basket. Next a whole family shows up. Of the three kids, one looks to be seven, another 10 and the oldest probably 12. The parents and the sub teen set up chairs while the other kids roam. Wandering is fine; so far no kids have ever ventured on stage during a performance, and if they do, the actors can handle it. Shakespeare wrote for rowdy crowds. Our slogan is “start talking to the audience as soon as possible.” There’s no raised stage and no invisible fourth wall, so it’s pointless not to “use” the crowd, and if you don’t, you lose their trust. Our actors are good; they never lose anyone’s attention unless there’s a fire. Remember, Hamlet isn’t having an internal monologue; he’s sharing his opinions with you. Also remember that we’re only 20 yards from a firehouse.

By 6:50, the park is filling up, and it becomes harder to sort out the demographics. Lots of kids. Lots of people over 60. A number of people with dogs. A few on bikes seemed to have happened upon the event accidentally—some of them stay. This is going to be a successful venue. The neighborhood has embraced the idea, and even before we start, Irvingdale goes on the “come back to this park in 2014 list.”

Just before curtain (there isn’t really a curtain, of course) the ice cream arrives. Michelle, the stage manager, walks on stage to remind the audience about turning off phones, telling them the ice cream will be given out at intermission and asking, if they haven’t thrown a donation in the bucket—$10 is suggested not demanded—that they please consider doing so. The production is free to the audience but not to us … everyone working on the show gets paid. We’re proud of that. Artists getting some dough for doing what they know how to do—this is good.

And then the show starts. “If Music be the food of love, play on.” It does.

There is quite a history of free Shakespeare in this country, but for the most part we owe the idea of professional actors performing at no charge to the great Joe Papp who founded the NY Shakespeare Festival in 1956, eventually moving it to Central Park and using it as the centerpiece of a theatrical empire. Other festivals followed suit, and now you can see The Bard for free in Delaware, Buffalo, Alberta, San Francisco, Omaha, the list goes on.

But why free?

To ensure that the greatest, most moving, most telling drama ever created is available to everyone, in all walks of life and in all sorts of places. We believe passionately that Shakespeare can be a uniquely life-changing experience. Growing up without encountering Shakespeare is like never being aware of Beethoven or Van Gogh or Dickens or … we all have our own list. You could do all right, I suppose. You could exist a lifetime and never know what you’re missing—but one could say the same about so many things that make life worth the struggle. Shakespeare? He reminds us why the struggle is not only worth it, but why the struggle is essential to being human.

It’s easy to go on about how our kids need to study more science, and it’s undoubtedly true. It’s more difficult to understand why kids who have deep contact with art or music or Shakespeare appear to approach science or math or reading or business, or the arts themselves, with increased imagination and creativity—but they do. I don’t know how to verify that statement, but I know beyond any doubt that it’s true. There’s a reason why Einstein needed to play the violin. At a time when some powers-that-be doubt whether the arts are worth the money and effort, the effect of Shakespeare in performance is too important to dismiss lightly. We are, after all, talking about the survival of civilization. Really, we are.

It’s 9:30 now, and the play is ending. The audience has had ice cream and great art. They’ve laughed a lot—the play was, after all, “Twelfth Night,” one of the master laugh getters of all time. As they go, a few stop to compliment an actor or say something nice to whomever sold them their ticket. Most just make their way out into the dark. They seem happy. A few throw some more money in the bucket. Good for them. They’re helping civilization survive.

Flatwater Shakespeare needs more money in the bucket to perform this summer’s free production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” March 13, around the Ides of March, we’ll have our first big fundraising gala at the Rococo Theatre. With luck and lots of phone calls, some folks with big bucks will show up, but we’ve priced the thing so that those who have made the grassroots effort to attend Shakespeare on the grass will be able come and help us out. In return we’ll put on a show for them. We’re good at that. Just go to www.flatwatershakespeare.org. And please remember, it’s about saving civilization.

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