Monday, October 17, 2016

Bard Fest '16: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

October is a special time of year in Indianapolis, offering something for everyone: apple and pumpkin picking, corn mazes, the Covered Bridge Festival in Parke County, the Feast of the Hunters Moon in West Lafayette, the Headless Horseman festival at Connor Prairie, the Irvington Halloween festival, tours of the Indianapolis catacombs, various haunted houses, scary old movies on the big screen, and lots of theme-inspired live theater, such as Cabaret Poe and The Rocky Horror Show. Since 2015, Indy residents can also add Shakespeare Festival to that list of October offerings.

Bard Fest Indy was founded by local theater companies First Folio Productions, Catalyst Repertory Theater, and The Garfield Shakespeare Company to bring the community a professional quality, yet intimate, Shakespeare festival experience.

Bard Fest '16 is offering a fantastically diverse festival this year. First Folio Productions presents the heartbreaking family tragedy King Lear, directed by Carey Shea; Catalyst Repertory Theater presents the unflinching political brutality of Coriolanus, directed by Casey Ross; and Garfield Shakespeare Company presents a musical adaptation of Twelfth Night, directed by Chris Burton.

Perfect Strangers recently caught up with several key players of this year's festival as well as a patron of Bard Fest to get their take on performing Shakespeare for modern audiences.

First up is Glenn Dobbs, executive director and founding member of Bard Fest. Dobbs is an area physician who was born and raised in San Diego, CA, but has lived in Indiana for the past twenty years. Dobbs had long lamented that despite its rich theatrical offerings and being the fifteenth largest city in the country, Indy did not host an annual Shakespeare festival. 

A few years back, he shared his vision of a Shakespeare festival with some local directors and patrons and set out to fill that gap with Bard Fest.  Now in its second year. Bard Fest is quickly earning a reputation for bringing solid performances and a party atmosphere to celebrate whom Dobbs calls "The greatest playwright who ever lived." 

Acknowledging that many people see Shakespeare as off-putting and inaccessible, Dobbs hopes that through the intimate yet powerful performances in Bard Fest, locals will have the chance to see Shakespeare with a new sense of appreciation.  

"These are the greatest stories ever told, and not producing them deprives a city of education, history, beauty, and pageantry. Shakespeare can be compared to the worthiness of opera. Why offer opera when it's such a narrow slice? Because to not have it makes the world a smaller place," says Dobbs. "Poetry, love, beauty--these are things we stay alive for, and Shakespeare offers all of it in spades."

Bard Fest has enjoyed its stint with the Carmel Theater Company, but next year will move operations to the IndyFringe theater, which will offer more visibility and flexibility. (Unfortunately the theater that currently houses Bard Fest will be razed to put in additional parking for Woody's Bar. Cue Joanie Mitchell.) Dobbs hopes that within five to ten years, Bard Fest will rival any Shakespeare festival of any bigger city by continuing to expand its offerings. 

When he's not reading, performing, directing, or producing Shakespeare around Indy, Dobbs is a big fan of the local farmer's markets. Until recently, he and his wife owned Three Days in Paris Creperie in the City Market. He also loves local breweries. 

Bard Fest executive director, Glenn Dobbs, left, and artistic director, Casey Ross, right, wear many hats during the festival to ensure its success.  

Next we caught up with Carey Shea, who is directing King Lear, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. "I chose Lear because it was my favorite Shakespeare play in college and because it's so rarely produced." Shea too voiced concerns that the works of William Shakespeare could be lost in modern times. "It's very removed from what we see in today's entertainment, and I'm not in a position to convince people that they need to see Shakespeare to live fulfilled lives. I have come to a point where all I can do is hope that my love of the language and themes can shine through. I simply trust audience members to see the value of the art for themselves."

To help audiences relax into the sometimes daunting language, his first step was to find the right length for the play. King Lear ran over four hours during Shakespeare's time. Shea has adapted the play to reduce it by a third, painstakingly discerning which scenes were crucial. 

Although the two other shows being performed in Bard Fest have each been adapted to a more modern telling, Shea has opted for a strictly traditional telling of King Lear. "This was a play written in medieval times about medieval people, and this adaptation stays true to that version. Its themes are love, hatred, betrayal, and jealousy--universal themes that are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago." 

Shea considers himself a Shakespeare connoisseur rather than a Shakespeare academic. (It turns out, however, that Indy is home to a premier Shakespeare academic--Terri Borrous, Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama at IUPUI, is the Director/Editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare Project.)  As a child he felt as though he liked movies and theater more than his peers, but by age thirteen, he knew he wanted to pursue theater for the rest of his life. The turning point came when his parents took him to a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Navy Pier in Chicago, and he found himself interested not just in the characters, but also in the lives of the actors playing those characters. 

Shea thinks it's important for other connoisseurs of Shakespeare to admit some of their struggles in comprehending Shakespeare, which he believes will help those who find it overwhelming to relax. "It takes a while before I get into the language. When I first see a Shakespeare production I admit that I don't understand every word they're saying. When that happens, I take note of the beautiful rhythms and cadence of the words. I listen to the voices, watch the body language, interpret the emotions. It's like a song that you love. You might not know every lyric, but you know exactly what the singer is saying just by how it is being sung." 

He hopes that King Lear will leave audiences somewhat in awe of how little humans seem to change through the ages. "Our basic instincts and how we treat each other never changes, and no one captures that better than Shakespeare. I am proud to present some incredible actors who bring this language to life and who will make audiences laugh and cry. Lear is a terrible tragedy in which people act foolishly and learn in a drastic way the cost of their mistakes."

Shea says he hopes audiences approach watching Shakespeare with the same patience and diligence they would when reading a book. "When you read, you necessarily slow down, take in every word, allowing yourself to get lost in a new world. Maybe the book is not exciting 100% of the time, but when you are finished, you typically feel as if you've made a worthwhile investment; and if the book moved you, it will stay with you forever."   

Carey Shea, director of King Lear, programs the light and sound board.

Next up, we talked with Doug Powers, who portrays Earl of Kent in King Lear.

Doug grew up in Marion, IN, attended Wabash College, and has called Indianapolis home for all his adult life. A popular local actor in all types of theater, King Lear marks his fifth Shakespeare play. 

When asked why many people feel disjointed from the works of Shakespeare, Powers offered, "They were taught Shakespeare poorly. They were taught in a classroom, sitting in desks, reading from a book. Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard by actors who can bring it to life. Most of the people who saw Shakespeare plays in Shakespeare's days were illiterate!" He noted some of Shakespeare's conventions that would help audiences discern the plot and motivations. Typically characters depicting royalty spoke in heightened, florid language, while those depicting the lower class often had not only the funniest lines, but also the deepest insight into human nature. 

Powers is a recent graduate of the Meisner Technique acting class, a two-year intensive study program, which he says he was sometimes tempted to quit. "The Meisner technique is about finding the truth of the emotional situation of each moment on stage. It's learning how to react truthfully in imaginary circumstances," Powers explained.

When asked why an amateur actor would want to put the time and effort into such a demanding class, Powers responded, "Theater is not my career, and I don't want to try to make it my career. I love theater, and I love acting. It's a passion. As with any passion, I want to learn to do it as well as I can. The training was difficult, and during those two years I went through incredible highs and lows in regards to my confidence as an actor. At times I felt inept. At times I did not think I had the strength to allow myself to be as emotionally raw as possible. At times I thought I was not up for that risk."

Powers continued: "But then there were those moments of passion--those times when I would be doing a scene with a partner, and I could feel the reality of the scene. When you're on stage, and suddenly you're no longer aware of being watched by a roomful people, but you feel a warm energy coming from the audience--a wave of electricity that helps fuel what is happening on stage. Only theater provides this level of immediacy to both the actors and the audiences." 

Powers posits that actors who portray Shakespeare characters have an immense responsibility to the audience to bring the language to life, not just to recite the words. Audiences are sometimes partially comprised of people who still remember the torture of being forced to read the plays in high school. "Shakespeare captures the human condition and human psychology. Actors must first convince themselves that they are in a situation before an audience can be convinced of it, which requires a powerful imagination and a vulnerability to let oneself pretend. The key between good Shakespeare and bad Shakespeare is the actor's ability to find truth. A director must take actors to task when they are not being true, even when that task is not pleasant." 

As far as preparing for a Shakespeare role, Powers doesn't find the language--Elizabethan language--to be much of a barrier, partially because he absorbs, feels, and most importantly enjoys the language. "I would much rather insult someone by calling him a cullionly barbermonger than by telling him he is preoccupied with looks," Powers illustrates. 

That being said, Powers also concedes that not every Shakespeare play ever written is entertaining or even good: "Hey, no one can be a genius all the time," Powers jokes. 

Powers cites As You Like It as his favorite Shakespeare play as an actor and a production of Romeo & Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario as his favorite Shakespeare play as a spectator.

Other than theater, Powers says his favorite Indy event by far is GenCon. His current favorite restaurant is Tinker Street. His favorite activity is to walk Mass Ave. with his daughter, Kat, where they inevitably wind up in IndyReads bookstore for hours on end.

When asked what is one thing he wished Indy had, he responded as thus:

"For its size, there are an awful lot of arts organizations and theater companies. I would like to see arts patrons expand their horizons a bit--past the musicals and tried-and-true comedies. I'd ask them to take in an obscure show, to take a chance on different types of shows, to see what else is out there." 

Actor Doug Powers portrays Kent, who remains loyal and selfless in the face of jealousy and danger, in King Lear. 

Following the Saturday 10/15 matinee, we caught up with audience member Ivey Long to get her take on King Lear, Shakespeare, and life in Indy. A longtime resident of Indy, Long currently lives in the Butler Tarkington area. Long says her favorite Shakespeare plays are Hamlet and As You Like It.

"I absolutely love Shakespeare--the language, the history, the storylines," Long offered. This is her first time attending Bard Fest.  "I've seen a lot of Shakepeare, but this is the first time King Lear has been offered around here as far as I know. I found it powerful and tragic. I was both frustrated with and heartbroken for the king for not being able to discern who really loved him and who was just using him. It was such a tearjerker at the end and will stay with me for a long time," Long concluded.

Ivey is what many would call a theater buff. She has been a volunteer at IndyFringe for all eleven years of its existence, and sees plays all over the city throughout the year. She also goes to Broadway twice a year, usually packing five shows into three days. In December, she's headed to Chicago to see Hamilton.

Besides theater, Long loves the live music venues around Indy, especially The Jazz Kitchen. Although she loves everything Indy has to offer, she thinks it is still lacking in walking and biking green spaces throughout the city. She'd love to see something like the High Line park in Manhattan in the many historical neighborhoods around Indy. "I'd like to see more connectivity between neighborhoods, such as Butler Tarkington and Crown Hill."  

Ivey Long is a long-time fan of Shakespeare, and called this production of King Lear "Fantastic, heartbreaking, and horrifying."

Barf Fest '16 continues weekends in October:

King Lear: Sat 10/22 8 pm; Sun 10/23 3 pm; Fri 10/28 8 pm; Sat 10/29 6 pm.

Twelfth Night: Thur 10/20 8 pm; Sat 10/22 3 pm; Sat 10/29 2 pm, Sun 10/30 8 pm.

Coriolanus: Fri 10/21 8 pm; Sun 10/23 3 pm; Thur 10/27 8 pm; Sat 10/29 9 pm; Sun 10/30 3 pm.

Bard Fest Indy would not be possible without the generous support of John & June Clair, Glenn Dobbs, and Andrew & Melody Burnett.

Abby Gilster, L, portrays Viola in Twelfth Night; David Mosedale, C, portrays Lear in King Lear, and Taylor Cox, R, portrays Coriolanus in Coriolanus in Bard Fest '16.

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