Shaking it up at the Southern Shakespeare Festival
by Alexandra Pushkin
William Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” This is true, quite literally, for the participants of the Southern Shakespeare Festival, a part of the outdoor Shakespeare festival circuit held in Cascades Park. The festival breathes life into an age-old subject and gives mostly local actors — with some out-of-town guests — a chance to showcase their talents.
The Southern Shakespeare Festival was modeled after Joseph Papp’s “Free Shakespeare in the Park” concept that was birthed over 20 years ago. Yet the Southern Shakespeare Company — the company behind the festival — does more than simply provide audiences with performances of Shakespeare’s plays.
“People think of Shakespeare as old and dusty, so we sprinkle it with modern themes,” says Laura W. Johnson, Executive Director of the Southern Shakespeare Company.
Johnson explains that inserting the modern themes into the plays allows the company to reach more audiences and get more people involved in theater, whether on the stage or in the audience. Previous performances, Johnson recalls, involved a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that was set in the ’60s and a version of “The Comedy of Errors” that was set at a 1950’s carnival.
The Southern Shakespeare Festival is nothing new to Tallahassee, having started in 1995. “It was a dream of two people, Dick Fallon and Michael Trout, who had the idea of bringing free Shakespeare to our city,” says Johnson.
Kleman Plaza housed the first festival, where, Johnson said, they erected a stage and performed for as many people as could fit in the venue. Over the years, the audience grew, and so did Kleman Plaza. With community buildings starting to pop up, the festival quickly outgrew its space.
“The Festival stopped performing at Kleman Plaza when they reached capacity,” says Johnson. Without adequate space, the festival would go on a 15-year hiatus. But with the opening of the newly renovated Cascades Park, life was breathed into the shows once more. And it was a whole new type of life.
The company saw great potential in the vast new stage. “When we first saw it, we were ecstatic, if not a bit intimated,” Johnson recalls. Accustomed to a much smaller space, bringing the festival to Cascades Park was as much of an advantage as it was a learning experience.
“We’ve grown more and learned how best to maximize that space. We have had Florida A&M University’s (scenic director) Ruben Arana-Downs working with us since the beginning, designing our sets. It has been thrilling.”
Always keeping partnership in mind, the Southern Shakespeare Company seeks to do more than just entertain. As the executive director, Johnson oversees both administrative and programmatic aspects of the company, and she believes in community partnerships and relationships. Of particular note, Johnson said, is the company’s newly established relationship with Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) and their Artists in Bloom Festival, which brought actor and playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb and his one-man show, “American Moor,” to Tallahassee in January. » Merging theatre and education, “American Moor” explores race in America.
In addition, and in partnership with the Foundation for Leon County Schools, the Southern Shakespeare Company has once again invited Devon Glover, the “Sonnet Man,” to Tallahassee. His hip-hop musical performances of Shakespeare’s sonnets at our Leon County Schools and at Word of South and the Southern Shakespeare Festival will help the Southern Shakespeare Company to fulfill its education mission, which is to inspire both the young and the old through education in our area schools and community.
The Southern Shakespeare Company expects to become Tallahassee’s first Equity Theatre Company, affording local students/actors the opportunity to gain professional experience in performance, design, production and management.
“There really is no shortage of theatrical talent in Tallahassee,” Johnson says. “I feel so fortunate to have so much talent and dedication to the arts, here.”