Will on Art Hill

The Shakespeare Festival turns five

Since its debut in 2001, the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis has gone all-out to establish itself on the local arts scene. It garners reams of publicity, ensuring that even those who don't attend the annual summer productions at least know they're happening. The festival is happening, all right. But after five years, how is it faring?

Quite well, apparently -- if you're staging Shakespeare by the numbers. With the clocklike efficiency of an annual corporate earnings report, every July a new press release touts increased audience figures over the preceding summer. This year The Tempest played to a "record attendance of 47,500"; in 2004 the "record attendance" for As You Like It was 40,000, an improvement over Macbeth's record attendance of 36,000 in 2003.

This would be super if we were all stockholders and the festival was paying dividends. But how relevant (not to mention accurate) are attendance figures at a free theater? Does anyone believe that the bigger the crowd, the better the production? To the contrary, some actors will tell you that their least-satisfying performances are those in front of the largest audiences. There is such a thing as staging a play for too many people. We already have one theater in Forest Park that's trapped by the size of its audience. Do we need another?

It should go without saying that increased attendance does not correlate to improved quality. Yet quality was never a part of the festival's imprimatur. In its oft-printed mission statement -- "To produce professional Shakespeare theatre outdoors in a city park, free and for a diverse audience, and to provide education through schools and community outreach" -- the word quality does not appear.

Nevertheless, the quality has improved over the past five years. Some folks don't want to hear that; in the blithe spirit of myopic parochialism, they prefer to believe that the festival hit the ground running and has been offering brilliant Bard-talk ever since. But to experience Shakespeare at theaters in Ashland, Oregon, or Stratford, Ontario, or any of a half-dozen other more seasoned venues, is to be all too aware that in the early going our local productions weren't "there" yet.

This summer's staging of The Tempest provided moments of visual splendor on a par with anything you might see elsewhere. But though The Tempest appeared to be an important step forward in the festival's maturation, it was also disturbingly uneven. The deftly acted plot involving Prospero, Ariel and Miranda was thrown out of kilter by the seemingly endless buffoonery of Trinculo and Stephano. It's a given that Shakespeare created many enduring clowns (Bottom, Dogberry, Falstaff), but Trinculo and Stephano aren't on the list. Yet in Forest Park they were accorded heaping hunks of stage time that slowed the play's momentum.

A suspicious mind might conclude that among festival management there's the sense that although the quality of the productions is improving, the quality of the audience is not. Thus the emphasis on physical comedy, which even the uninitiated can enjoy. But a minority opinion would suggest that to hear iambic pentameter spoken with clarity and intelligence is worth a dozen pratfalls.

Perhaps audiences would require a little help if the festival had a monopoly on Shakespeare. But St. Louisans can't get away from the guy. Since its inception in 1984, St. Louis Shakespeare has tackled three-fourths of the entire canon. And not just the crowd pleasers: In their sixth season, they took on Titus Andronicus; the year after that St. Louisans got the seldom-seen King John. Then there's the Rep. In its inaugural season eighteen years ago, it staged both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night; there've been another sixteen Shakespeare productions since. High schools and colleges do it. Touring Shakespeare regularly visits the Touhill and the Edison. Professional, amateur, uncut, sheared, clear, confusing -- we get it all. But no other recent offering has spoon-fed its audience the way the Shakespeare Festival regularly does.

Is there a difference in approach between Shakespeare for a paying audience and Shakespeare for free? In St. Louis, you bet there is. Consider the Scottish Play. The Black Rep's recent Macbeth was moody, somber, reflective; it demanded (and received) concentration from viewers. But in Forest Park Macbeth was portrayed as an errant schoolboy; character development took a back seat to swordplay, and the Porter scene -- the play's sole opportunity for low comedy -- dragged on forever.

Staging Shakespeare is a sober responsibility, and never more so than right now. We live in a world where Shakespeare is being dumbed down daily. New, maddeningly well-intentioned textbooks are replacing lines like Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" with "And you too, Brutus?" "Beware the Ides of March" is now "Beware of March 15." It used to be that a fundamental part of a young person's education was to have to come to terms with lines like "To be or not to be," yet today do-gooders deprive students of the possibilities of thought, insisting upon telling students what that sentence should mean. The festival has certainly taken seriously its charge to "provide education at schools" by taking cut-down texts into classrooms. But when it comes to theater under the stars in Forest Park, there seems to be an implicit attitude that audiences are not to be taxed.

Which raises another question: What's so great about Forest Park? The festival's mission statement requires that Shakespeare be performed "outdoors in a city park," but it doesn't specify where. The festival's location on the east side of Art Hill offers limited sight lines and limited parking. For those sitting on the ground, the rutty hill is hardly comfortable. Might not any of a dozen other city parks offer a comparable setting? (Hydeware Theater will be staging A Midsummer Night's Dream in Tower Grove Park next week.)

Because Forest Park is the city's cynosure, it may be that our festival is modeled after the free summer Shakespeare in New York City's Central Park. But there is a profound difference between the two setups: Central Park contains a bona fide theater. Those who attend free Shakespeare at the Delacorte first must go to the effort of obtaining a ticket. A ticket, even to a free play, separates the serious theatergoer from the dilettante who's simply there because it's the thing to do.

Perhaps the mission statement's reference to "community outreach" also was modeled after the New York City operation; if not, perhaps it should have been. For it's worth remembering that when producer Joseph Papp introduced free Shakespeare to the Big Apple in 1956, he didn't wait for audiences to come to him. Concurrent with Papp's move into the Delacorte, he also dispatched spare, mobile productions of Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Macbeth to city parks in all of New York's boroughs.

It's one thing to go to Forest Park and be diverted by the pre-show panoply of jugglers, belly dancers and sword swallowers. But that so-called "festival" aura also can be a distraction. As the Bard knew best, "the play's the thing" the evening must be judged by. At some point the festival might want to consider the possibility of becoming less festive and more mobile. Rather than playing to 2,000 people a night in Forest Park, why not try to reach out to the mission statement's "diverse audience" in some of the city parks that have never known Shakespeare?

This more egalitarian approach probably is not going to occur in the immediate future. Already it has been announced that next year Julius Caesar will be staged in Forest Park for four weeks in late May and early June. That play, all by itself, is going to provide challenge enough for the festival: There aren't a lot of clowns in Julius Caesar.

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