On Connecticut’s (Mostly Free) Shakespeare Trail

Ian Eaton as Bottom, Saluda Camp as Titania and Fairies in Connecticut Free Shakespeare's  A Midsummer Night's Dream  five years ago .  Judith Barbosa Photo.

Ian Eaton as Bottom, Saluda Camp as Titania and Fairies in Connecticut Free Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream five years agoJudith Barbosa Photo.

One company will take a fresh look at Shakespeare as storyteller, losing itself on a majestic and remote island that somehow landed in Bridgeport. Another will celebrate the Bard as wordsmith, jumping into the high-spirited follies of Ferdinand and his three best buds. A third will trust Shakespeare’s ability to transcend time, placing a traditional Hamlet and Ophelia on a quintessentially New England backdrop.

For the price of a picnic—or a drive—you can create your own season subscription and see them all, following the Bard from town to town.

This summer, theater companies across Connecticut are presenting classical theater in iconic outdoor spaces, free of charge. Starting with Greater Hartford Shakespeare Festival’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre on July 12, they sprawl across the state, filling mid July through late August to the brim with the best of the Bard. Performances include the Valley Shakespeare Festival, Connecticut Free Shakespeare in Bridgeport, Curtain Call in Stamford, Flock Theatre in New London, the Shakespeare Academy in Stratford, Shakespeare on the Shoreline, and Elm Shakespeare Company in New Haven.     

In Bridgeport, Connecticut Free Shakespeare’s retelling of The Tempest takes liberties with the language, so that it is more accessible to audience members who may have less experience with Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, the role of the sorcerer Prospero has become Prospera, played by female actor Channie Waites. In an increasingly embattled climate, the production highlights themes of revenge and forgiveness.

“We’re taking a classic and putting a twist on it to give it more contemporary relevance,” said Katrina Foy, director of administration for the Bridgeport-based company. She added that it’s baked into the mission of Dandelion Productions, which produces Connecticut Free Shakespeare among its other free education programs. The company seeks to make cultural experiences, including Shakespeare, extremely accessible without jeopardizing their artistic integrity.

“People say ‘I can’t understand. It’s separate from me. I’m not from that time,’” Foy said. “We want to break down barriers and create entry points for everyone.”

The company tries to find signature ways to break them down. This summer, it returns to its tradition of “living intermissions,” during which actors come out to the audience in character to sing songs and interact with theater-goers, giving people a chance to connect with the artists.

There are company members like Ian Eaton (pictured at top), who is returning for his 16th summer to play Sebastian and Stephano. Or another actor, “a little girl who has seen us since she was three is now an intern,” said Foy.

“You’ll see the same actors—year after year, some of them—because they make the time each summer for Connecticut Free Shakespeare,” she added. “They come from all over the country and audience members can see the same faces and make a bond with them.”

If Connecticut Free Shakespeare is updating the Bard’s letters to make the spirit of the play more accessible to modern audiences, New Haven’s Elm Shakespeare Company is taking the opposite tack: relishing every rhyme and savoring every turn of phrase in its production of Loves Labours Lost

In some ways, it’s a romp: a romantic comedy featuring a battle of the sexes and a host of zany characters, told through some of the Bard’s most lyrical poetry. There’s magic in the rhetoric of the play, which Producing Artistic Director Rebecca Goodheart defined as playing with word order to give sentences more meaning, to be more clever.

“It’s a way of crafting your speech with a twinkle in the eye, so that your language has sparkle and flourish,” she said in a recent interview.

“There will be a tremendous amount of music and quite a bit of dancing in our production,” she added. Most cast members are professional musicians as well as actors, and each evening’s performance will start 30 minutes early with an appetizer of live music.

The themes of Loves Labors Lost  are meant to go deeper, highlighted in this staging by an early 20th century setting. Come mid-August, we will meet characters in the midst of the women’s suffrage movement and the dawning of the jazz age—a setting that Goodheart says holds echoes of today’s political environment. The play itself doesn’t wrap up as tidily as some of Shakespeare’s other titles, and that’s okay with the company.

“We’re not afraid of tricky endings and complexity,” Goodheart said.

“Our mission is to bring people together through Shakespeare,” she continued. “Even if you never speak to the person on the blanket next to you, you’re sharing an experience that speaks to your humanity, that speaks to who we are as humans. And that strengthens our community. That’s why we do Shakespeare: because it’s the largest expression of our shared humanity. It’s not petty.”

Goodheart added that such an outlook drives Elm Shakespeare to cultivate diversity in its casts. She said that the company has “worked very hard to make sure that who’s on stage reflects who’s in New Haven, so that when you come to the park and experience this shared humanity, we are telling the story of our whole community.”

Across the state, the Shakespeare landscape keeps going. Each summer, Shoreline Arts Alliance invites a different Connecticut theater company to the Guilford Town Green for its Shakespeare on the Shoreline program. Both Connecticut Free Shakespeare and Elm Shakespeare Company have been guests in the past. This year, Branford-based Legacy Theatre joins the ranks with Hamlet, running Aug. 1-5.

It’s a traditional production, said Artistic Director Keely Baisden Knudsen—attendees can expect plenty of swordplay and period costumes. She said the company wants theme to prevail over the limits of time—for a teenager in 2018 to be able to relate to Hamlet’s experiences between 1100 and 1400. To see the commonalities in his yearning and challenges, despite the archaic language and span of centuries that separates them.

“It’s going to be a phenomenal spectacle and truly a well-acted piece,” said Knudsen. “For this particular audience and this particular moment, I wanted audiences to recognize how similar all humans are.”

“We’re putting everything under the microscope in terms of relationships,” she added. “How parental relationships influence the child. How romantic relationships are impacted when a parent tells you no. We are all human, no matter how old you are or in what time period you were born.”

She’s also added something for shorter attention spans— Legacy Theatre’s original Hamlet Abridged!, a free, 40-minute retelling of Hamlet that runs July 26 through Aug. 3.

Eric Dillner, executive director of Shoreline Arts Alliance, added that the Alliance prides itself on producing high-quality shows that also have a family bent to them, so that people of any age can come and enjoy themselves. He said the Alliance offers a host of accessibility features for its shows, including American Sign Language interpretation, large print and braille programs, assisted listening devices, and volunteer escorts for assistance getting on and off the green. Once settled there, families can spread out. Kids are allowed to get fidgety. No one has to pay a thing. And people come back every year.

“It’s like old home week and I love it,” said Dillner of returning faces each year. Despite the fact the show is free, he said that the 6,000 people that gather on the green over five nights help churn the local economy. He emphasized that the reach of Shakespeare on the Shoreline extends far beyond the Connecticut coast. Last year’s post-performance surveys revealed attendees from eight different states. Now, he said that the Alliance is “looking now at what are the Connecticut towns we don’t have people coming from” and doing outreach to encourage those residents to attend.

In Stamford July 12-22, Curtain Call’s Shakespeare on the Green is showing another traditional staging of Hamlet. Then just a week later there’s Shakespeare Academy at Stratford’s dual presentations of Romeo and Juliet and Pericles, alternating nights from July 28-Aug. 5.

Though the performances are outdoors, you can leave your blanket at home, said Artistic Director Brian McManamon. The Academy, which draws actors from around the country and the world, has “the luxury of putting on our productions in a found spot on the grounds of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater.”

Romeo and Juliet, for example, is set in 17th century Connecticut on the actual site of an early Stratford settlement. “We build the theater around the environment, including seating provided for the audience,” McManamon said.

“There is an incredible amount of art going on and everyone is serving their community,” said Goodheart. “Because it’s free, it’s for the whole community, not just the segment of the community that can afford it.”

“When we see a show and laugh together, we grow as a community,” added Dillner. “I believe art is a great healer. It gives people an opportunity to exercise their mind and leave feeling better about the world and the place we live in. We can all turn on our TV and watch something at home by ourselves, but we don’t get that communal growth that we get together.”

Connecticut Free Shakespeare’s The Tempest runs July 19-22 at the University of Bridgeport. Shakespeare Academy’s Pericles and Romeo and Juliet run alternating nights between July 28 and Aug. 5. Shakespeare on the Shoreline’s Hamlet runs Aug. 1-5 on the Guilford Green. Elm Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labors Lost runs Aug. 16 through Sept. 2 in Edgerton Park. Both Middletowns ARTFARM and Waterburys Shakesperience regularly offer free, outdoor Shakespeare in the summers, but are on hiatus in 2018. For more on the companies, click on the link in the article.