Shakespeare initiative targets Durango
New York company to perform "Richard III" locally next spring

Durango is one of 100 communities in the nation that has been selected for a National Endowment of the Arts initiative entitled “Shakespeare in American Communities.” Players from the New York-based The Acting Company, pictured above, will perform “Richard III” on March 20 at Fort Lewis College./photo by Carol Rosegg.

William Shakespeare may have written about the “winter of our discontent,” but early this spring, Durango audiences will find themselves contented with a special performance of the Bard’s play as presented by the famous New York-based The Acting Company.

On March 20, The Acting Company will make a tour stop at Fort Lewis College to entertain locals with a production of “Richard III,” a historical play that highlights the conflict between good and evil, plotting and betrayal, crime and punishment. The performance is part of the newly created “Shakespeare in American Communities,” a $17-million initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts. The tour presents four plays by six theater companies, which will be performed in only 100 small- and mid-sized communities across the country. Durango is among them.

“This is a great resource,” says Kathryn Moller, associate professor of theatre at Fort Lewis College and director of the Durango Shakespeare Festival. “Shakespeare is a great resource because of the connection to our own history.”

Though there will be only a single performance in Durango, the production will be a brief replacement for Shakespeare lovers, because the Durango Shakespeare Festival will not take place in 2004. Moller says that the festival continues to fall short of adequate funding and remains on hiatus until it can be restored. She welcomes the tour with hopes that it will raise awareness of the local theatrical community and lead to larger audiences.

The NEA, along with its cooperating partner, Arts Midwest, intends to introduce Shakespeare and his literary works some 400-plus years old to a new generation of Americans. To achieve this, the tour will be supplemented with workshops and symposia about the productions, as well as educational programs for local schools. That means Durango school-aged children will be exposed to the life of Shakespeare and his literary influence on England’s theater scene from the late 1500s to the early 1600s.

‘All the world’s a stage’

The Acting Company, founded by John Houseman, joins five other prestigious theater companies in the country to participate in this tour. Other plays that will be presented in other communities include “Othello,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer NightDream.” Other participating companies include the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

The award-winning Acting Company, based in New York, is known for its repertory of classical productions reaching audiences of 70,000 people or more. It boasts such famous alumni as Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and David Ogden Stiers. For years, this company and others have made Shakespeare’s plays part of their seasonal productions, keeping American theaters active in a tradition the Bard started centuries ago. Historians attribute Shakespeare with creating a vibrant theater scene in London, which eventually transcended borders and continents. Ultimately, the playwright became the most celebrated author in Western civilization.

When he died at age 52, Shakespeare’s body of work included 38 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems. He not only wrote the plays that actors performed, he often was on stage with them. Because audiences loyally supported him, Elizabethan theater blossomed into a central theme of the Elizabethan social life, which later paved the way for professional companies to become stable business organizations.

Besides influencing theater companies, historians also believe that themes in Shakespeare’s plays are timeless. Indeed, the playwright’s thoughts, themes and lessons are as easily identifiable in today’s world as they were more than 400 years ago – young love is precious, family is dear, power corrupts, jealousy is fatal, parting is sweet sorrow and all is well that ends well.

According to the NEA’s synopsis, “Richard III” is a drama that historians believe was first performed in 1592 but not printed until 1597. Based on actual historical events from the year 1485, when the Tudor monarchy took hold, the play takes place after a long period of civil unrest in England. Once peace is restored under King Edward IV, his younger brother Richard resents Edward’s power. He schemes to wrest power from his brother and take over as king. When Edward becomes sick, Richard accelerates his poor health and eventually sends him to an early grave. Richard, of course, becomes interim ruler of England – but only until Edward’s sons reach ages when they can rule. Still, Richard continues his conniving behavior; he has his nephews imprisoned and killed. Richard’s personal vendettas do not serve him well. His killing spree ends when the Earl of Richmond, who becomes the new King of England, kills him in an invasion.

‘It’s Greek to me’

Dana Gioia, chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, believes that Shakespeare’s themes remain relevant and his influence as a dramatist is still high, but the language in which his works were written is not in the modern-day vernacular. As a result, the Shakespeare in American Communities tour is helping school teachers fashion lessons about the Elizabethan period.

The NEA is making a teacher’s guide available that includes classroom activities and history lessons, as well as fact sheets and an educational video. Particularly important, Gioia says, is for students to learn how to interpret the dialect of the sonnets, plays and poems. With this understanding, he continues, students might be less turned off by the plays and more turned on to the idea of recognizing the parallel themes between modern-day society and the Elizabethans.

“That’s going to be essential,” Moller says, “because the histories are long and complicated. You need some background education about the period and things like the Tudor monarchy.”

Says Gioia: “One great teacher can change a student’s life.” With teachers helping students understand the Bard’s plays in a modern context, supporters of the tour believe all generations of Americans can expand their knowledge about this time in theatrical history.

“It will inspire young and old to attend subsequent theatrical productions together,” says Gioia.









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