For most Minnesotans, summer means basking in the long awaited sunshine, eating watermelons and popsicles, and relaxing at one of the Twin Cities’ luscious green parks. Now add a free Shakespeare play to that treat and you’ve got the perfect ice cream sundae.
Shakespeare in the Park is exactly what it sounds like: free Shakespeare plays open to the public of all ages. It is the perfect opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare classics with family and friends while relaxing in a Minneapolis or Saint Paul park (see sidebar for list).
“The wonderful thing about Shakespeare in the Park is that no matter how high quality the production is, the atmosphere is always very casual. People always bring picnics and blankets and sit out, and there’s something about that that’s just plain fun,” explained Helen Donnay. Donnay is an actress who will be playing a traditionally male role in The Tempest, brought to the Twin Cities by Cromulent Shakespeare Company.
The Tempest, directed by Bethany Ford, is a play about a sorcerer who uses magic to strand his enemies on an enchanted island after his foes’ ship gets wrecked. Cromulent will also perform a second play, geared specifically toward younger audiences. Shakespeare Soup is an original script adaptation of various Shakespearean plays, directed by Mitchell Bucky Fay and featuring a combination of favorite characters like Puck and Rosalind.
Also bringing Shakespeare outdoors this summer will be Bedlam Theatre, with its Shakespeare in the Parking Lot production of Comedy of Errors. The story is about the comical confusion that ensues after Antipholus and his slave Dromio unknowingly visit the city where both of their long lost identical twins live, each incidentally with the same name as his familial counterpart. Directed by Jason Ballweber, the play will run throughout the Minnesota Fringe Festival from July 31-August 10 , in the Bedlam Theatre parking lot, another unconventional location that makes a fun atmosphere and dynamic audience very likely.
“The planes go by, ambulances go by, and that’s normal. You just have to have the vocal ability to overcome it,” explained Bethany Ford, talking about outdoor performances. After nine years of work with Shakespeare in the Park, she has many amusing stories.
One time, “somebody’s cell phone went off and the woman playing Puck just kept on doing her monologue as she walked right up into the crowd. She picked up the guy’s phone, continued her monologue into it, and then hung up his phone after she finished!”
Ford also remembered an incident during last year’s production of Love Labor’s Lost. “In the play, the character of the clown gets put in jail. A homeless person had been sitting in the back of the audience watching the play, and when the character was put in jail, [the homeless person] walked up to the clown, gave him some change and said, ‘Here’s your bail, man.’”
Maren Ward, co-artistic director at Bedlam Theatre, also said that when Bedlam did theatre outdoors in the parking lot two summers ago, they had “a lot of people who just got off the light rail or people who were just walking by come over. Apart from the main audience we attract[ed] a lot of passersby too.”
Accessibility of theatre to the public seems to be the key reason for the success of both Shakespeare in the Park and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.
“Our mission is to make classical theater accessible, and that means financially acceptable,” said Donnay. “That’s a huge part of what we’re doing with Shakespeare in the Park. What we’re hoping is that we can reach those who can’t normally afford our shows at the theater.”
Although Bedlam’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot requires a ticket purchase for the Fringe Festival, Ward still believes that an outdoor play will draw in a large crowd and be very accessible to the public, especially to those who usually may not be able or willing to watch Shakespeare in the theatre.
“In our neighborhood – the Cedar Riverside – there’s a lot of people who may not know what goes on in our building,” she said. “The neighborhood has a large percentage of Somali immigrants and I think that it’s not a regular part of their routine or culture to attend theatre.” She thinks that may be starting to change, and she acknowledges that there already is a history of theatre and story-telling in Somali culture, but said it’s a “little different.”
Bedlam Theatre’s bar may also be off-putting to some Muslim immigrants, who may not want to enter the building for religious reasons. “For some people [the bar] may be a barrier. So when we’re performing outdoors, we don’t have those barriers…the theatre we do – the element of spectacle – draws all the attention.”
As charming as Shakespeare in the Park can be, there is a downside to performing outside without proper stage equipment. “Sometimes you can’t be heard over the wind. You have to be extremely aware of your position on stage to make sure that whatever you’re saying is heard by the majority of the audience,” explained Donnay. “You can’t do stage whispers.”
The audience already faces a challenge when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare’s complex language, so the actors have to work harder by using expression and volume.
Another challenge Cromulent faces is working with a low budget. About 90 percent of the company’s funding comes from passing the hat at the entrance of each performance, according to Fay, director of Shakespeare Soup. Cromulent may also occasionally be paid by a park to perform at a specific location, but that’s rare.
Cromulent has been working with the Minneapolis Park and Board Recreation for 12 years and the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation for six. This summer the company has expanded to Stillwater Park, Caponi Art Park, and Plymouth Park.
Cromulent has been devoted to “Embiggen the Bard” since its founding in 1996. Up to 300 people have attended some of its past performances, which include Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Nine out of twenty of Cromulent’s plays were free to the public last year. For more information on Cromulent’s Shakespeare in the Park schedule, please see the side bar or the Cromulent website.
Bedlam’s previous Shakespeare in the Parking Lot was accomplished in partnership with Barebones Productions. It drew in crowds of up to 700. Barebones does an annual show outside in the park, but its website has not yet announced information for this season. Bedlam will be doing a Fire show in the parking lot in July. Visit Bedlam’s website for more information and tickets.
Other Shakespeare in the Park productions have been performed (some as far back as the 1980s) by companies such as Minnesota Shakespeare Company, Luminous Theatre, and Swearing Jack. At least two have dissolved.
Do you know of more theater in the parks this summer — in St. Paul or Minneapolis? Do you know of other summer theater — anywhere in the area?
Lolla Mohammed Nur is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.
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