Heartbeat Shakespeare

A free and professional festival for a great city and its people.

With the Mayor, Sylvester James Jr.As we leave the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival I look across Kansas City to the trees lying beyond the skyscrapers. The Winter’s Tale which we saw in Southmoreland Park feels like it is sending its city beat onto the road in front of us. We are at once driving away from and heading towards Leontes’s fairytale castle with its thrones and glittering gowns, Bohemia’s polar bear and folk dancing. We’re on our way to New Orleans, but my memories of The Winter’s Tale and the people who have made it happen – those twenty-four people we interviewed and the three thousand people who saw it over two evenings – reach beyond Kansas City and into the wider American dream of Shakespeare.

All of the artists and theatrical practitioners we interviewed spoke with passion about their work. Tracy Terstriep (Movement / Choreographer) described the contrast she sought between the steel uprightness of Sicilia and the bending, staccato Vaudeville in Bohemia. Gene Friedman (Scenic Design) had used a translucent effect for the steel-grey of the castle walls which meant they could catch the play’s shifting tones of time and genre. It was a quasi-cathedral space with a rose window and doorways on different levels, appropriately reminiscent of Edward Gordon Craig’s designs since it played host to an Edwardian Sicilia. Mary Tayor (Costume Designer) let us into her secret of placing sequins beneath the women’s costumes so that they caught the light, an effect she had used for the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Greg Mackender’s haunting, slightly Eastern-influenced music (think Peter Gabriel’s score for The Last Temptation of Christ, one of Greg’s favourite pieces) infused the production with its modern, contemporary sounds.

The sheer commitment of the professional cast and their love for the festival is palpable. Bruce Roach (Leontes) was appearing for his tenth consecutive season. Matt Rapport, who has been involved with the festival for twenty-one years and directs the young people’s productions, brought some of his circus skills to his juggling and fire-eating Autolycus. The festival is committed to training young actors, involving them with the life of a professional theatre, and then casting them in the shows as they gain their experience. Nathan Bovos recalls growing up and watching Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing sitting on the wall at the back of the festival’s natural park-scaped ampitheatre. He took part in several of the festival’s Camp Shakespeare productions and is now a fully paid-up, professional cast member.

At The Winter's Tale, Kansas City

We managed to see the last twenty minutes of the young people’s Camp Shakespeare production, a shorter version of the play, shortly after we’d arrived on Saturday morning. We interviewed Camille O’Leary (who had played the Clown) and Olivia Sloan (Leontes). Their stories speak for scores of young people who over the years have benefitted from their growth within this festival’s educational remit. Mark Titus (Videographer) talked to us of the deep satisfaction of seeing through his camera lens the same youngsters coming back year after year for their Shakespeare summer camp and seeing their love for the works deepen and develop. Each evening before the main show, one of the young persons’ programmes, ‘Team Shakespeare’, performs its own ‘Parody’ of the play. Last evening, about a hundred of us stood and watched something akin to a modern version of an Elizabethan jig: fast-paced, irreverent, knowing and very funny. The cast of six had produced their own re-telling The Winter’s Tale based on improvisation work. It was great to see the work of the young people integrated into the main event.

I remember the forked lightning that cracked open the rumbling thunder just before the show started, the cicadas’ humming in the heat of the dry storm (the audience laughing at Mamilius’s line ‘I will tell it softly. Yond cricket shall not hear it’), and then the rain breaking as Hermione pleaded in the name of her father, the Emperor of Russia. The real thunder humorously pre-empted the impact of Rusty Wandall’s (Sound Designer) soundscape which heralded the appearance of the bear. It was very moving listening to Cinnamon Schultz talking about her role as Hermione. Her portrayal sounded the base-notes of both joy and despair and there was no doubt in her mind that the final moments of this remarkable play are all about forgiveness and reconciliation.

We interviewed the inspirational Marilyn Strauss, the Founder of the festival who spoke passionately about the influence Joseph Papp (1921-1991) had had on her (Papp founded Shakespeare in the Park in New York from 1956). ‘You go on, kiddo, and start a Shakespeare festival in Kansas City. There isn’t another one within three states’, he had told her. And Marilyn, like everyone else we interviewed, spoke affectionately of Sidonie Garrett the current Artistic Director. It is Sidonie who we thank most warmly for taking us to the heart of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and helping us to experience the life-blood that makes it beat as it does.

It’s a heartbeat that I suspect we’re going to keep on feeling as our road-trip unfolds, and which I shall no doubt feel as I pitch my blanket under the next patch of a Shakespeare summer sky.

Kansas City to Memphis, 7 July 2014

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