Saturday, April 23 marked Shakespeare’s 447th birthday (scholars are unsure of his actual birthdate, but it is traditionally celebrated on the date of his death fifty-two years later) but his New York City fans threw him a party a day early. Friday, April 22nd witnessed the first annual Sonnet Slam in Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell.
The project was produced by Melinda Hall of Willful Pictures, director of the upcoming documentary How Shakespeare Changed My Life, a film exploring Shakespeare's influence on major figures in the arts and elsewhere. “The Sonnet Slam was inspired by a friend in Austin who mentioned something about a Sonnet Marathon to me and I thought, New York City needs a Shakespeare Sonnet Slam!” Hall said.
The slam was funded completely using donations via Kickstarter, a site devoted to crowdfunding creative endeavors. Over the course of three hours, all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets were read by over seventy performers from The Dramatist Guild, Screen Actors Guild, Actors' Equity, Mortal Folly Theatre, The Tempest Ladies, WorkShop Theater Company and Devon Glover (The Sonnet Man), NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and other City of New York Parks Department staff, among other guests. The readers ranged in age from seven (some of the more adorable participants looked even younger) to eighty, from all sorts of backgrounds. Some were actors, some not. Some recited from memory, some from books, some from printouts, and some, it seems, from PlayShakespeare’s Complete Works iPhone app. One man even read Sonnet 66 off the back of a photo cutout of Cher’s head.
The diversity of readers reflected the event’s ethos. “The thing I wanted most for the Sonnet Slam [was for it] to be inclusive for readers of all ages since Shakespeare is for all. Ideally, I would have a different reader for each sonnet, but we had some last-minute drop-outs and no-shows, so some readers had to read more than one” Hall said.
Central Park, no stranger to free performances of Shakespeare, served as a fitting location for the day’s event. According to Hall: “The Bandshell is just a short walk from the statue of William Shakespeare by John Quincy Adams Ward that was unveiled in 1872.” The open location permitted crowds to wander by, ask questions, and stop to watch and listen to the readers before moving on.
And the best part? It is coming back next year. The New York City Parks Department asked the Sonnet Slam to return for Shakespeare's next birthday, thanks to this year's success. Updates and footage of the Sonnet Slam will be available on the Willful Pictures homepage, in addition to information on the documentary How Shakespeare Changed My Life. “I interview people who share a pivotal moment when Shakespeare literally changed their lives. I've been fortunate to have some wonderful interviews by Sir Ben Kingsley, Earle Hyman, Richard Thomas, Stacy Keach, Robert Brustein, F. Murray Abraham and Ray Bradbury among others” Hall said.