10 years ago, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts banded together to form an organization that enhanced the cultural life of this city. The Woodward Shakespeare Festival has had three different homes at Woodward Park, given 276 performances and played to more than 70,000 audience members.
In my story in today’s 7 section, I write about some of the significant milestones of the festival — and give a rundown on “Macbeth,” the opening production in the 10th season. Here’s a video I made about “Macbeth”:
Thinking back on the festival’s 10th anniversary, I admire how it’s adapted. Organizers had grand plans when it first started, including a theater space downtown and a gradual transition to professional status. That didn’t happen. But the festival kept going, and that’s really something. It’s remarkable for a theater company to offer regular, consistent performances for 10 years. In artistic terms, some of the shows have been terrific. (Among my favorites: the first-season “Romeo and Juliet,” the sixth-season “Merchant of Venice,” the seventh-season “Comedy of Errors” and the eighth-season “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) Some haven’t been stellar. But that’s part of the territory with community theater.
I’ve seen all (nearly all? I might have missed one) 21 productions over the last nine years, and I’ve written my share of negative reviews — along with some very positive ones. I’ve always held the festival to a high standard, and it makes me happy when it rises to that standard. Interestingly, my reviews of shows in the festival have received more comments than almost any of the hundreds of pieces of theater criticism I’ve written over the years. People are passionate about Shakespeare, that’s for sure.
Something else I admire: A founding principle of the company was that performances should be free. (Donations are welcome, and $10 reserved tickets are available.) That free philosophy has remained to this day — and while it may have made it harder for the festival to morph into something bigger, it’s also guaranteed an egalitarian feel to the performances.
While I was out at the festival stage last week gathering information about “Macbeth,” I had a chance to talk with one of the company’s stalwarts, Hal Bolen. (He, along with Thornton Davidson and Christopher Campbell, make up the festival’s board of directors, and the three of them have been working hard for the company since the beginning.) It’s clear that Bolen — who has a small role in “Macbeth” — has relished his time with the festival and his opportunity to explore his creative side on stage. (It’s kind of cool that you can be an attorney by day and King Lear by night.) Bolen looks at his participation over the years as a way to give back to the community. A city Fresno’s size deserves a Shakespeare festival, he says. I think that the thousands of patrons who have enjoyed productions over the years would agree.
One last thing: If you haven’t been out to the park for a performance because you’re worried it’ll be too hot, even at 8 p.m., never fear. The festival’s third home at Woodward Park is the charm. No matter how hot it is during the day, the breezes off the San Joaquin River cool the stage area down to a comfortable temperature. (In fact, I encourage people to bring a sweater — sometimes it can get downright chilly by 10 p.m.) And you can’t beat the Woodward Park sunset. (Photo by Julie Ann Keller, another festival stalwart, via Facebook.)