By Bob Hall
I run the Flatwater Shakespeare Festival in Lincoln Neb., and while I have thus been asked to write about the state of Shakespeare on the Plains, I find myself dealing more with how to convince a wary audience that, without teaching or training, they already possess all the tools necessary to give the bard a tumble. There's certainly plenty of Shakespeare for them to try.
There is a festival in Omaha and a festival in Lincoln. In Lincoln, we play in a 19th-century stables complex in lovely, tree-lined Wyuka Cemetery. We hold up to 150 patrons maximum. In Omaha, the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival plays every summer to 3,000 people a night, give or take 500, for a total of about 30,000 souls. In Lincoln, we play to somewhere between 850 minimum to 1,100 maximum.
Both festivals use professional union and nonunion actors. The Nebraska Shakespeare Festival in Omaha is concentrated in July and performs two plays in rotating repertory. The Flatwater Festival in Lincoln is spaced throughout the spring and summer and usually does three plays between April and September. Tentatively scheduled for this year are Moliere's "The Misanthrope" indoors at the Haymarket Theatre, with "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Richard III" being performed in the open-air Swan Theatre at Wyuka.
The Omaha festival is by far the older of the two, having just marked its 20th anniversary. I won't go into great detail about either festival; both have Web sites, so a Google search will get you all the information you need.
There are a couple of big differences between the two, making it a treat to attend and compare both, especially if they happen to be doing the same play. The biggest difference is price: Omaha is free and Lincoln has to charge. But the Lincoln tickets are affordable and Omaha solicits donations, so I like to think it evens out.
Omaha's Nebraska Shakespeare inhabits a delightful meadow about the size of a football field in Elmwood Park. Bring a folding chair and some food. The meadow is perfect for picnics on a summer night, breezes cooling you as Renaissance pageantry unfolds in an idyllic setting. Don't worry about hearing; the festival uses a unique sound system perfectly tuned for Shakespeare. The scenery and costumes are beautiful and the acting grand. Artistic Director Cindy Phaneuf has a variety of events scheduled throughout the year, and this summer for their main events they will produce "Much Ado About Nothing" and "King Lear." They have also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to underwrite a tour of "Romeo and Juliet," a worthy step toward bringing Shakespeare to the whole state.
In Lincoln, the setting is less spectacular but more cozy. The Swan Theatre at Wyuka Cemetery, with its historic horse barn and stable, has a courtyard performance space similar to the inn yards where Shakespeare's players supposedly toured when the plague struck London. It is picturesque, rough-hewn and unamplified, with the audience never being more than five rows from the action or the occasional dive-bombing barn swallow. You can hear a pin drop, and the productions are for the most part performed in natural light, as in Shakespeare's day. The cemetery is one of the most beautiful spots in Lincoln, and the theatre is in an area designated as a park—no graves. Also, there is a lovely pond with swans and a romantic bridge, hence the theater's name. Wyuka has just received a generous grant to renovate The Swan, so it will only get better.
Both theaters have auxiliary programs: workshops, youth productions, etc. This year Flatwater established a relationship with Midlands Lutheran College in Fremont and is negotiating to be a resident winter presence at Lincoln's Haymarket Theatre. Nebraska Shakespeare holds a sonnet contest. Check the Web sites for more information.
One more major Shakespearean event occurs when Lincoln's Lied Center for the Performing Arts hosts the British stage company, Aquila, which usually performs one innovative Shakespearean production and one alternate classic. This March they will be doing "Julius Caesar" and an adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22." Productions of Shakespeare are also produced around the state in colleges, high schools and even community theaters, but as far as I know, not on a regular basis. I could not find any listed to include in this article, which I hope means that I have overlooked some events and Prairie Fire
will be swamped with Shakespearean listings.
So why the festivals? Is there really a need for regular access to Shakespeare? Of course, my answer is yes; and I should say I was inspired to pursue a career in Shakespeare right here in Nebraska, when I was a kid and the University of Nebraska Theater Department, as a matter a principle, produced one Shakespearean production a year. I discovered these productions when I was in high school and got hooked. Part of my reason for founding Flatwater was to make sure young people in Lincoln have the same opportunity to see Shakespeare's work.
Shakespeare is, without question, the greatest playwright western culture, probably any culture, has produced. It's not just that he could write like a son of a bitch, creating five of the world's greatest tragedies and six or more of the funniest comedies of all time, or that he practically invented modern theater and, in many ways, inspired film as well - to my mind, what sets Shakespeare apart is that for over 400 years he has enthralled more people than any other entertainer: more than Elvis, more than The Beatles, more than Mickey Mouse. Beyond all else, the purpose of theater is, after all, to entertain. It's easy to forget how wonderful that can be when done by someone of true genius - even in 2007, when we are incessantly engaged in entertaining ourselves almost to death.
The first director I worked with used to say it was essential to discover why we "deserved to break the silence of the universe." On some level all theater is show biz, but Shakespeare was an artist who managed to be popular while exploring, in poetry yet, what it means to be a human being. I suspect his major concern was to produce hits for the Globe Theatre, but like all great artists he found it impossible not to create profound insights; and being both a great artist and a popular playwright, he could make those revelations entertaining to nearly everyone. He broke the silence and made the universe listen.
The danger is that the modern swirl of stimuli - video, cinematic, earplugged and amplified - will dilute our ability to sit through entertainment of Shakespearean quality. It has become harder to listen. The essential requirement for a Shakespearean audience is not that they understand every one of his words but that they are able to appreciate the silence against which Shakespeare's word must be played out. If I could, I would convince our audiences to picnic on the prairie on a rare still day and not talk for about an hour prior to the show. Shakespeare demands our attention as he breaks the universal silence, and these days we need practice listening.
We express concern for the ability of our children to read and speak clearly and to concentrate, and we try vainly to accomplish this by simplifying the challenge. Shakespeare is all too often considered too hard - for teachers as well as students. But I promise that a child raised on Shakespeare will, whatever their philosophy, be able to express it with clarity.
Accomplished entertainer that he is, Shakespeare, well done and made clear, will slowly pull the audience in; and when performing his plays, the ultimate joy is seeing an audience gradually forget where they are and the woes which will return to claim them when the play is done. They are watching a play by the best in the world. And yet, as with all art that is truly the very best, his work is for everyone. That's the miracle of the greatest art: The connoisseur and the average Joe will come away equally awed and entertained.
That at least is the message I try to convey at Flatwater Shakespeare.
Sometimes, people I approach as potential butts-in-seats say they just don't think they would understand the language. We have been praised for our clarity, so I try to persuade them that audiences have been understanding Shakespeare for 400 years and, besides, we probably don't have more than 70 percent word-for-word understanding of any play or film we see.
Others have said they don't really believe a local company can do Shakespeare, although local companies do a fine job in Utah, Iowa City, Cincinnati and points between. A few people have said they would be happy to attend a comedy but that local actors could not possibly perform the tragedies. We can, and we do them well.
The most stinging rejection I have had in Lincoln came from a well-known "gentleman of distinction" who told me his wife was a Brit who would never be able to sit through Shakespeare performed by Americans. Thus, in one sentence, he dismissed 300 years of performance, generations of actors from Edwin Booth to John Barrymore to James Earl Jones - as well as my entire career.
On the other hand, one young woman came to our production of "Henry V" five times and the last night of "Romeo and Juliet," when the weather had turned and our dead Juliet was trying not to shiver. I saw this particular fan, bundled as if we were performing on the Russian steppes, sitting enthralled in spite of having attended twice before. Once, for "As You Like It," we seated a group of high school kids who had descended on us at the last minute on the roof of the old stables. And if further proof is needed that we have become an institution in Lincoln, the Lincoln Journal Star
named us "One of the things to do in Lincoln before you die" - especially apt for a festival that performs in a cemetery.
Flatwater is a young company that has not yet reached its potential, but we will keep building. I hope, if we try hard enough, miracles will happen: Lincolnites will realize that Shakespeare can be fun rather than daunting; parents will realize that exposing children to performers who love words might actually encourage kids to read; and some enterprising businessmen will come forth with the foresight that investing in Shakespeare is investing in the future.