The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource

The Maiden Voyage of the DSF’s Community Tour Hot

Jennifer Kramer
Written by Jennifer Kramer     November 02, 2016    
0   11   0   0   0
The Maiden Voyage of the DSF’s Community Tour

Photos: Alessandra Nicole

This November, the Delaware Shakespeare Festival launches their Community Tour: a brand-new program targeted at underserved audiences that takes eight celebrated actors, live music, portable set-pieces, and Shakespeare’s Pericles throughout Delaware.

Based on the model of the Ten Thousand Things Theater in Minneapolis, the DSF’s free performances won't be staged in theaters, but in community centers, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities—adapting to each venue’s space and lighting, and putting their audiences literally in the middle of the action with their in-the-round setup. The production also incorporates the work of other Delaware artists. Local musician Joe Trainor (of The Joe Trainor Trio) will provide the music, while local Art and Design professor David Meyer (of the University of Delaware) will provide the adaptable steel sculptural set-pieces. It’s an ambitious undertaking with a simple goal: bring Shakespeare to the audience he wrote for—i.e., everyone.

At first glance, Pericles, Prince of Tyre does not seem like an obvious choice for widespread appeal. Most likely a writing collaboration with dramatist George Wilkins, today it is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s more obscure works. Its characters are almost better known for the plot twists they endure than the soliloquies they make; the action bounces across time and all over the Mediterranean, on land and sea, in brothels and in palaces. Shakespeare’s colleague Ben Jonson memorialized it in poetry as “some mouldy tale.” After two hundred years of theatrical neglect, directors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries staged it only after censoring the references to incest and prostitution.

But despite these disadvantages, Pericles seems to have a knack for firing the public’s imagination. When a troupe of players was arrested in Yorkshire in 1609 for promoting allegedly non-Protestant religions, Pericles is believed to have been among their repertory. The English theaters, after being shut down under Cromwell, reopened in 1660 with Pericles as the first Shakespearean play performed. The 1854 revival was by all accounts a remarkable spectacle, despite its bowdlerization, and became one of its theater’s greatest financial successes. Marina’s determination and virtue have made a significant impression on critical analyses of both the play and Shakespeare’s work in general. Productions of Pericles provide some of the earliest examples of directors veering away from a traditional Elizabethan, modern, or textually accurate setting, in favor of setting the production in cultures and time periods that comment on the themes of the play (or at least create striking aesthetics). More recently, directors have used Pericles to showcase multiculturalism, discuss the impact of socioeconomic status, and even, in 1969, reportedly reference humanity’s own epic journey to the moon.

Fortunately, Delaware is much easier to navigate than the Sea of Tranquility, and the Delaware Shakespeare Festival is determined to prove that small steps through the community will provide a giant leap for their audiences’ enjoyment of Shakespeare. In the following interviews, actors Bi Jean Ngo and Jamal Douglas as well as director David Stradley discuss their thoughts on their mission.

Interview with Actors Bi Jean Ngo and Jamal Douglas

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: First, some background info on you and your career—inspiration, training, work in related fields that's important to you—anything you want to share?

NGO: I studied Film and Television at Boston University—screenwriting was my initial creative joy. However, I loved theatre in high school and was acting a lot on the side during my undergraduate studies. So, I studied acting formally at The Actors' Studio Drama School in New York City. That's where I got my MFA. Then I moved to Philly where I've developed my craft and my career. But the training doesn't stop. This summer, I studied physical theatre at Dell'Arte in California. And this January, I'm studying at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts. I also just received the Barrymore F. Otto Haas Emerging Artist Award last night.

DOUGLAS: I started doing theatre while in high school in Maryland where I studied at a performing arts school. Growing up in a predominately black community with limited resources, [I and my] classmates quickly became passionate about creating work that spoke to our community and gave voice to our experiences. Community outreach is what inspired me to become an actor. It's how I found my passion for theatre-making. I went on to college and studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, where I studied Theatre in Education and toured a show to schools in different communities there. I recently graduated with my MFA in Acting from the University of San Diego/Old Globe Theatre, where I studied Shakespeare and performed in their Globe For All outreach tour last fall in Much Ado About Nothing. This work is important to me because without it, I would have never been exposed to the arts and I can't imagine another life in which I am not doing this.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: Have you worked with the Delaware Shakespeare Festival before? If so, how does this experience compare to previous productions? What made you decide to pursue a role in this production?

NGO: I love Shakespeare and am just beginning to do more Shakespeare productions. I wanted to do this community tour of Pericles because we're performing Shakespeare for audiences that don't normally get the opportunity to go to the theatre. That's really important to me.

DOUGLAS: I performed in Delaware Shakespeare Festival's A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years ago at Rockwood Mansion under David Stradley's direction. This experience will be different for many reasons. We will be performing before audiences where for many this will be their first time seeing a play or being exposed to Shakespeare. We are meeting our guests where they are with this one, essentially going into their space and putting on a show without lights [or] much tech. This will be a much more intimate experience. The summer festival is also a blast and unique in itself, outside with nature, but many of our guests with this tour are unable to make it to Rockwood Park to see a show. It warms my spirit to be able to bring Shakespeare to them.

I was ecstatic to hear that Del Shakes was doing this tour this year and when David emailed me in LA to see if I was interested in auditioning, I said "yes" quickly. Everything worked out and here I am.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: Have you been influenced by productions like this one (or influenced by a lack of productions like this one)?

NGO: When I was young, my parents didn't have a lot of money. So, the only access I had to art was through school field trips or from artistic organizations bringing their work to my church. I think it's important to create art that's accessible to everyone.

Two summers ago, I did Shakespeare in Clark Park in Philly. That project was one of my favorite productions, because we made a play in the community and for the community. Thousands of people came out, picnicked in the park, brought their families, and enjoyed free theatre. I love making plays that [are] free to audiences that wouldn't necessarily seek out theatre. But it's projects like Shakespeare in the Park and this community tour that help create new, engaged audiences.

DOUGLAS: I've been performing before subscriber-based audiences for a long time and it always alarms me when I see few faces that look like mine in the audience. That lets me know that there is a certain demographic that [is] not exposed to the arts. It's not accessible for everyone and the theatre is an expensive night out. That has always inspired me, since I was a kid, to create art that is accessible and to work with companies that makes that a priority within their programming.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: What is your role in Pericles?

NGO: My primary role is Thaisa, and I also play a number of other roles. I always love playing royalty!

DOUGLAS: I am playing Pericles in this production. I can't say that I've played similar roles to Pericles before, but he possess characteristics of different characters I've played. It'll be fun to combine those characteristics to create this complex man. This play travels to many locations, so the biggest challenge is creating each world as specific and clearly as possible without the help of special effects that we would have access to in a theatre. We address that by having a great sense of play, imagination, and teamwork.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: What is most important to you in this production?

NGO: I think clarity of story and purity of intention is the most important part of doing a project like this one. Every person involved in this project is a stellar human being!

DOUGLAS: What's most important to me in this production is that we tell a beautiful story and bring quality, professional theatre to those we encounter. And maybe, just maybe we'll see those faces on a stage or in a theatre in the future.

Interview with Director David Stradley

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: First, some background info on you and your career—inspiration, training, work in related fields that's important to you—anything you want to share?

STRADLEY: My training is as an actor and while my professional career began as an actor, it has since transitioned into directing, education, and producing. Early on in my career, I worked at Creede Repertory Theatre, a seasonal company in a small town in Colorado. I saw there how vital a theatre can be to a community, and made it a goal to develop my career in such a way that I could focus on serving my community through theatre. My first professional job was at a Shakespeare company, and it has been a part of my theatrical life ever since. When I first moved to Delaware, I auditioned for Delaware Shakespeare Festival's second annual summer production and have been associated with the company in various forms for 14 of its 15 years, the last five of which I have served as Producing Artistic Director.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: Have you been influenced by productions like this one (or influenced by a lack of productions like this one)?

STRADLEY: I've always valued productions that are deeply rooted in their communities—whether by subject matter, using community members as artists, or how the productions develop audiences. One of the things I valued most, from the very beginning, about [the] Delaware Shakespeare Festival is that its audiences reflected a broader mix of the community than is seen in theatres that charge higher prices for tickets. That, of course, is what Shakespeare's audiences at the Globe would have been like. If we think theatre is a great way for people to learn about being alive—shouldn't we want all kinds of people to see it? I [get] super excited when that kind of audience is gathered for a production. And I tend to get let down by very homogenous audiences.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: How did you become interested in this project? You've mentioned the Ten Thousand Things Theater in Minneapolis as well as several other companies producing similar projects—how directly do they influence your production?

STRADLEY: Over the last two years, [the] Delaware Shakespeare Festival gave a lot of thought to what growth might look like for the organization and how we could really commit to what we feel is our core strength: bringing people from all walks of life together to celebrate and explore their shared humanity through Shakespeare's plays. Because of my interest in community-based work, I've had Ten Thousand Things on my radar for many years. As DSF's strategic planning continued, I proposed to the board a growth plan that would see DSF's producing its own [Ten Thousand Things]-inspired production. The board went for it and we set off on our fundraising journey (this project is not driven by earned income, as we aren't going to ask a homeless shelter to pay us $5,000 to come and do a show for them).

Michelle Hensley, founder of Ten Thousand Things, published a book two years ago called All The Lights On that details her approach to touring theatre (TTT does three plays a year—one classical, one musical, and one new play) to nontraditional audiences. I gobbled up that book and then was able to talk with Michelle on the phone. She invited me out to Minneapolis in October 2015 to see their production of Henry IV, Part One.

One of the things I quickly picked up on is that Michelle has spent a good deal of energy in recent years getting other theatres to pick up and adapt the TTT-model in their communities. In 2010, Oskar Eustis invited Michelle to the Public Theater to direct Measure for Measure for their new Mobile Shakespeare Unit, with the feeling that Michelle knew more about bringing Shakespeare to the people than the Public did. In 2014, California Shakespeare invited Michelle out to direct a tour of Twelfth Night. That same year, when Barry Edelstein left the Public to become artistic director at The Old Globe, he instituted a TTT-inspired tour starting with All's Well That Ends Well.

You can see the footprint of Michelle's work and vision in the tours of all of these companies, and DSF will be no different. They all feature an in-the-round setting with chairs no more than three rows back. The playing space is approximately 14'x14'. They utilize live music and full costumes. They feature small casts of 7-9 actors playing many, many roles. And the only lights that are used are the lights in each gym, cafeteria, or conference room. The most powerful part of Michelle's model is that the performances are not done by college apprentices. They feature experienced, professional actors so that the theatres can bring their highest artistry to the non-traditional audiences. Our production of Pericles will be presented in the same style and with the same commitment to artistry.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: How does this experience compare to previous productions with the Delaware Shakespeare Festival? What are the particular challenges associated with this project?

STRADLEY: In some ways, the production is very similar to how DSF produces our Summer Festival—actor-driven productions with a simple, but evocative, design aesthetic.

[Previously at the DSF: The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona]

We've also really committed to the value of live music in recent years. Our smaller-scale evening of readings, "Shakespeare/Poe," has gotten us used to the idea of performing in different, non-theatrical spaces (in the case of that program, historical homes). One big difference is the power of intimacy. Our summer festival performs outdoors in a large park, so the performance style has to be a little larger than life. In the case of the community tour, the audience will be no more than 10-15 feet away from you. That intimacy is exciting, and terrifying!

The main issues keeping me up at night are definitely more logistical than artistic. We have an amazing group of artists who are doing wonderful work. Figuring out the logistics of taking this performance to thirteen different spaces with various degrees of security concerns is a truly dizzying experience. The biggest surprise has been the regulations of the Delaware correctional facility [where] we are performing. Their restrictions are more confining than that faced by other theatres that have done this work in prisons. For instance, Ten Thousand Things regularly brings metal sculptural set pieces into Minnesota prisons, but those are not allowed in Delaware. We would have gone about the design in a different way if I had realized that before. But, prisons are one of the places we most desperately want to bring this production, so we will adapt to make it work.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: Has this particular production influenced your approach to directing it? I saw some familiar names among the cast and crew, along with several whose work I'm not familiar with—how did you bring them on board?

STRADLEY: The Community Tour has solidified a commitment in my mind to pursuing diversity in casting. We have started taking steps towards this in recent years with our summer festival (The Comedy of Errors featured four actors of color out of fourteen actors, and two women playing traditionally male roles). I knew that our audiences for the community tour would be much more diverse than the audience for our summer festival (which is somewhat diverse). I wanted the reality of our audience to be reflected on the stage, so I aimed for at least 50/50 racial and gender diversity. And we accomplished that. As far as directing approach, we're trying to develop a supercharged focus on clarity. A traditional theatre-going audience will sit there more or less politely if they are confused or not getting the story. There are no guarantees of that happening with the community tour. We're also trying to find as much direct address as possible, and readying ourselves for an audience that hopefully will talk back!

The audition process was part traditional audition, part interview. We obviously wanted really talented actors. But it was just as important to me that the actors really had a heart for this work. If actors were just doing this for "a gig," they would have a rough go. We're lugging sets, costumes, and props along with us. The performance environments will not be ideal. Most of the audiences, I think, will be amazing. But some might be pretty tough. I laid all of those things out for the actors coming in, and tried to gauge whether they really embraced all of that. And the eight who have joined us have totally done that.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: How did you select the venues on the community tour?

STRADLEY: We wanted a mix of all different types of underserved and nontraditional audiences, so we could learn how Shakespeare functions in lots of different environments. Homeless shelters and detention facilities were the first focus and make up half of the venues. We also were drawn by who was most passionate about having us come in. We had a great meeting with the Secretary of Delaware Health and Social Services and so are performing at two DHSS sites. For as long as I've lived in Delaware, I've wanted to do some kind of theatre project at Dover Air Force Base so I was thrilled when the USO expressed interest in hosting us. Delaware is a small state and we are committed to serving all three counties with the program. Three of the venues are downstate.

The other big thing is that this is targeted as a tour for adults. Some people hear about it and think it is a school tour. No, this is a play about adult experiences and we wanted an audience that could most fully relate to those experiences. We are taking it to one youth detention facility, and youth are welcome at performances—but it is not school-focused.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: Why did you choose Pericles?

STRADLEY: Pericles is a play about life's journey. It's about everything life throws at you and how you do or don't keep going. What the other theatres that have toured Shakespeare to non-traditional audiences have found is that the extreme situations faced by characters in Shakespeare's plays do not seem all that extreme to someone in prison or a homeless shelter. We wanted a play that would respect and resonate with the life experiences of the audiences we will be performing for—but also gives hope. Pericles does that. It takes you to the depths, and then brings you back. I think plays like All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure would be really interesting in these settings, but I wanted a hopeful ending this first time around.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: What are the Delaware Shakespeare Festival's plans for the future of this tour? Are there any other community-focused programs returning or being planned?

STRADLEY: With a little more fundraising, we have the funds in place for the first two years. Our hope is that in those two years the area funding community finds the program worth supporting and we can find a way to make it sustainable so that we have two firm pillars of our programming—the summer festival and the community tour. We always do a Community Cornerstone audience engagement project in the spring leading up to our summer production. We have funding from a TCG/Doris Duke Charitable Fund grant to implement a more expanded engagement program with two to three of the community tour’s venue groups in 2017. We do charge for our summer festival production, but I have a hope that we can find funds or a model to get blocks of tickets to underserved audiences for our summer shows. And there's a long-term goal to add week-long residencies with our summer production in the two downstate counties.

PLAYSHAKESPEARE.COM: What is most important to you in this production? What goals do you hope to accomplish?

STRADLEY: I want the same thing I want with any Shakespeare production: I want it to be a thrilling, beautiful production with a thrilling, beautiful audience. Yes, there are a lot "social good" elements to this program. But we're not looking at this as an outreach program or a community sidebar. We're doing it because it's a great way to create exciting, vital Shakespeare productions. Our mission is to make vibrant theatre and learning experiences. That's what we're hoping to do.

Connected to that, I'll leave you with a quote from Michelle's book, All The Lights On:

"Shakespeare wrote plays knowing that everyone would be in his audience. It seems the most pressing Shakespearean work we can do today is to attempt to tell the stories again, clearly and deeply, to an audience that also truly contains everyone. Though to many this may seem daunting, it is an exciting charge, fraught with creative possibility, and I believe necessary for those who keep Shakespeare's work living into the future."

Reviews on this site are subject to this required disclosure.


Use Power Search to search the works

Log in or Register

Forgot username  Forgot password
Get the Shakespeare Pro app