Why this play? Why here and now?
The 2019 CSF directors weigh in on what makes this season’s classics befitting a modern audience
Audiences from across the country are once again convening in Boulder for the 62nd Colorado Shakespeare Festival. June kicked off a season of some of Shakespeare’s most recognizable works: “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
For many, this year’s lineup comes with at least one well-seasoned or familiar story. Just as likely, you’ve seen a version right here on the Rippon or in the University Theatre in previous summers.
In fact, at CSF alone, “Twelfth Night” has been performed eight times prior to this season. “As You Like It?” Seven times, not including the many productions performed before the founding of the festival. (The earliest recorded performance of “As You Like It” on campus dates back to 1897.) And this summer marks our ninth production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
But other than their status in the classical theatre lexicon, what makes these tales worth exploring time and time again? It’s a question we ask ourselves every year. Literally. During the season planning process, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival team frames its play selection around the inquiry: Why this play? Why here and now?
Speaking to Westword, Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr said: “If there are not at least 15 good answers to that question, we shouldn’t do it. We need to be excited about new ideas. If we’re not, the audience won’t be, either … We resist being something elitist, dusty or antique.”
The 2019 season opener is somewhat of a fated production. It’s Orr’s favorite of the Shakespeare plays; he’s always known he wanted to personally direct a production. But this particular interpretation has been weaving its way towards the Rippon for several years.
Orr and composer Rinde Eckert have an extensive working relationship. And in 2016, when Eckert was traveling through Boulder, Orr hosted a concert of Eckert’s in his own home. As Eckert played “Dry Land,” the festival’s AD had a moment of artistic inspiration.
“It was at that moment I had the idea that ‘Dry Land’ would be the perfect song to open a production of ‘Twelfth Night’ (that I would certainly like to see).”
From there, many things went right, says Orr. Eckert, remarkably, was going to have an entire summer free in 2019. Between 2016 and 2019, CSF collaborated with several artists that Orr knew could take on various roles in the play, like Amber Scales, Rodney Lizcano and Robert Sicular.
“I could see all of these pieces floating together quite nicely. All these stars I’d started seeing in 2016 finally aligned. And I thought, ‘Let’s jump on it.’”
As You Like It
“As You Like It” is about the curative nature of love, says director Carolyn Howarth.
“I think it’s a play about love—as a lot of Shakespeare plays are! But this one, for me, is about how people can change. Even the so-called ‘bad people’ put themselves on a quest for a better life, through being shown mercy and through being shown love.”
What’s more, the story focuses on the power of foregoing societal norms in favor of a more modest life. It’s an evocative message for any of today’s audiences.
“In Elizabethan terms, ‘As You Like It’ is about leaving the court for the country,” says Howarth. “We don’t have that in a modern sense, but I’m thinking about it is as a simple life: less structured, less stressed, less running to meetings, less ballet lessons/soccer practice/PTA.
“A simple life—I don’t want to say makes us better—but it is restorative.”
Romeo and Juliet
Perhaps you read “Romeo and Juliet” in a high school English class. Or you’ve watched one of its many film adaptations or listened to the original “West Side Story” cast recording. With its heart rending love story, exquisite language and wild spectacle (who doesn’t love a sword fight!), it ticks quite a few boxes for what makes a “good” story. There’s a reason it is one of Shakespeare’s most widely performed plays in modern history.
For CSF director Christopher DuVal, the romance is key to understanding what makes the play relevant across the ages: “The purity of a true love connection between Romeo and Juliet is, in effect, a victim of this world which they live. It is an example of purity, goodness and truth that is untainted by societal acceptances and an example of how that level of innocence and beauty—regardless of age—needs to be protected and honored, both in this play and in the world in which we live.”
But, of course, with love comes loss. DuVal says the plot’s divided families and the inevitable destruction caused by their feud is just as striking.
“For me, this play is a real mirror into our current world. We seem to be more polarized than ever. We live in a time in which violence is rampant throughout the world, and we all are inundated with examples of extremities of fear, racism, prejudice, hatred—‘polarization’ in all its manifestations—pervading our everyday life. We see countless modern examples of sacrifice that ultimately pays a high cost.
“What better time to do this play?”
King Charles III
Though it’s not one by the Bard, Mike Bartlett’s 2014 play “King Charles III” is certainly of the Bard. With notes of “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “Lear,” the future history play—which imagines what might take place in the U.K. when Queen Elizabeth II dies—uses language and themes that will feel right at home in the festival’s indoor venue.
The play is a perfect fit for director Kevin Rich. He has a particular interest in new work that can be described as Shakespearean, and as he puts it: there aren’t many plays that fit the bill better than this one. Plus, it’s in line with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s mission to preserve the classics of the past, while also pursuing the classics of the future.
“Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights were writing new plays that were in conversation with, or re-imaginings of, their classical and historical narratives,” says Rich. “It’s very much in the spirit of Shakespeare to nurture our own contemporary playwrights who are doing the same thing.”
Rich is also set to direct this summer’s sold-out Original Practices event, “King John.” A less-frequently produced Shakespeare play, “King John” was last on CSF’s stages in 1976. Even so, and even through the lens of an OP performance, Rich says it will land.
“There’s so much to mine in this play that feels quite relevant today: political fickleness and scheming, questions about what makes a good leader, and the gap between a nation’s view of itself and the world’s view of it.
“A lot of the problems in today’s world can tend to feel unique to our time, given the newness of our technology and globalism, but Shakespearean histories, like ‘King John,’ are here to remind us that people have been people all this time.”
For tickets to one of the 2019 Colorado Shakespeare Festival productions, visit one of the events below or here at coloradoshakes.org.