I just got back from a production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was set in or around the 1920s, with the men in uniform and the women in flapper-esque gowns. The masquerade ball scene was a hit with the fun, period dance moves. The actors had brilliant comic timing as well as a phenomenally clear understanding and communication of the text. They were fantastic. But what was most noticeable about this particular production was the audience. The 400-seat house was PACKED. Standing room only. Each scene received roaring applause, complete with foot-stomping and an almost deafening level of cheering. It was also a smart audience. They understood every joke, every double meaning that Shakespeare wrote. It was one of the few times in my life when I could feel the interplay between the actors and the audience. The characters joked with us, and confided in us- I truly believed that they NEEDED us.
I guess I should mention that this production was performed by high school students. But this wasn’t just any high school production of a Shakespearean comedy. This was one of ten plays performing over the course of four days in Shakespeare & Company’s 22nd annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare. The Festival is what made my high school experience not only bearable, but wonderful. As a teenager, the Festival, and by extension Shakespeare & Company, became my second home. The teaching artists and friends I encountered in my three years as a Festival participant played a huge part in shaping who I am today.
Many actors identify those crystallizing moments, usually in high school, in which they decided that this is what they want to do with their lives. Even though I participated in this program as an actor, Fall Festival is really the reason I became a teaching artist. This program gave me so much: a love of Shakespeare and language, a means of self-expression, a strong work ethic, self-confidence, and an outlet for the emotionally-charged, adolescent energy. I remember having this moment during my senior year Fall Festival, when I realized how incredible everything that was going on around me really was, and I felt compelled to pay it all forward. This moment has held true over the years and is at the heart of why I do what I do. I want to be a part of helping young people make similar discoveries about what they are truly capable of.
All of this came back to me as I sat in Founders Theatre, with a former Fall Festival director of mine who had also come into town just for this event. Director of Education, Kevin Coleman introduced the performance and he reminded us all that this Festival is not a competition. It’s a celebration. And it’s one of a kind. Nine weeks of hard work culminating in four days of celebrating life, learning and humanity that is fueled by the creativity and passion of 400 Shakespeare-loving young people.
This was my first time going back to see a Festival show in four years. But every time I am back in the Founders Theatre, I am flooded with nostalgia and love for the people and the place that make this possible.