|Seduced by Shakespeare for 15 years
Michigan’s largest and oldest Shakespeare festival continues to entice new audiences
“I never thought I’d enjoy Shakespeare so much,” is a frequent comment heard from audiences during Grand Valley State University’s annual Shakespeare Festival, now celebrating its 15th season. Each year Grand Valley attracts thousands of patrons to a variety of activities during Michigan’s oldest and largest Shakespeare festival.
Though many people find the language of the Bard daunting, Grand Valley’s modern yet timeless productions have captured the interest and attention of audiences of all ages on campus, across the region, and even in Jamaica and China.
The first performance in fall 1993 consisted of Renaissance music and Shakespeare’s sonnets. They were performed in the brand-new Shakespeare Garden outside Lake Superior Hall — a project that blossomed from ideas generated by students in Rosalind Mayberry’s Liberal Studies class.
“It all started with a class discussion of the many references to plants and flowers found in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” said former professor Mayberry. “A couple of students who were avid gardeners really got involved in the planning and planting, as did many faculty members and staff from various departments. Some of them even donated plants from their own gardens.”
Alongside the Robin Goodfellow (Puck) fountain and bust of the Bard (both designed by Professor Richard Paschke, then teaching in the psychology department) are an assortment of flowers, shrubs and trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, including a rose arbor with benches created by Donald Hall, who taught physics. Then-president Arend D. Lubbers, now president emeritus, challenged the School of Communications to build on that first performance and create a campus-wide celebration centering on Shakespeare.
“In the early 1990s, Shakespeare festivals were beginning to appear on college campuses around the country,” said Professor Emeritus Laura Gardner Salazar, who taught in the School of Communications from 1967-2000, and directed Shakespeare productions for the festival’s first five years. “We all agreed that it would be a marvelous opportunity for our students, so we formed a committee with Roger Ellis as festival director.”
The following year an audience of about 150 people was seated on the stage of Louis Armstrong Theatre for an intimate and unusual production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Music and dance steps varied from the formal ballroom style of royalty, to fairies prancing to punk rock in a forest of neon lights and the rude mechanical line-dancing in cowboy boots to the beat of country-western music.
“We chose a dance theme, since that was quite popular at the time,” said Gardner Salazar. “Using diverse styles of dance for each of the disparate groups of characters, we explored the theme of how they each need to get along with those from outside their world.”
Some of the actors performed on raised platforms shaped like Starship Enterprise. “We didn’t have much of a set that first year and depended heavily on the spectacle of costumes, pools of colored lighting and lots of music, some performed live by a small orchestra,” said Jill Hamilton, who worked on costumes and helped her husband Tom with set and lighting design. She continues today as costume designer for all of Grand Valley’s stage productions.
Shakespeare drew from various time periods and settings for his plays and so does Grand Valley. More recent productions have set “Cymbeline” in Kansas during the Civil War and borrowed the colorful and musical early jazz era in New Orleans for the comic battle of the sexes in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
As the festival evolved, it tried out such events as student competitions, bawdy shows by an improv company, a film festival, a Renaissance Masked Ball sponsored by the Honors Students, a Boarshead Feast, a brunch with the stars, and the Renaissance Faire. Mayberry recalls that she and then-Library Director Lee Lebbin once organized an exhibit in Zumberge Library of Renaissance collectibles on loan from faculty members and others. “It was just one of the many ways we drew in people from other departments,” she said.
Ellis, who served as festival director for the first six years, directed three productions and performed in three others, is among the many faculty members who were part of the original planning committee. “Most of the founding members are still here and remain very active in the festival, because it is so very rewarding,” he said. “It is most gratifying to see that 15 years later, many of the original festival events have stood the test of time and are still vital.”
Visiting scholars, outreach and international exposure
From the beginning renowned Shakespearean acting professionals have been brought in to teach students the discipline of the craft and work on the language and the rhythm of their lines. Each year has also brought a Shakespeare Scholar-in-Residence who spends time with students and gives a public lecture. This year, Stephen Greenblatt from Harvard University will lecture on September 24, in conjunction with Grand Valley’s Fall Arts Celebration.
By the festival’s second year educational outreach efforts included bringing students from area middle and high schools by bus to attend weekday performances. Another program, Bard to Go, takes a touring production to Michigan schools for middle and high school students who might not have a chance to attend a production at Grand Valley. Karen Libman was one of the BTG founders. She produced the first year’s BTG show and has subsequently directed two of the seven tours.
Sending BTG to schools is a major undertaking and an exciting way for the program to grow. The company is comprised of a student stage manager and six GVSU student actors who perform scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most famous works in a 50-minute collage with a common theme. Through its first six years BTG has performed for more than 7,000 students in Michigan.
Libman also implemented the first international tour. The BTG Company traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, in May 2005, as a guest of Edna Manley College, and played to more than 900 students and other audience members throughout Jamaica. In May, Libman led an artistic and educational trip to Shanghai, China, to present several BTG performances as part of a collaboration with a Grand Valley partner institution, East China Normal University.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — Bollywood style
In celebration of its 15th year, Grand Valley’s Shakespeare Festival will repeat the play selected for the very first production in Louis Armstrong Theatre, though in a quite different style. The fall 2008 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Libman, will be a Bollywood style fantasy-laden romp characterized by bright colors, music, and high theatrics.
“It is important to realize that the Shakespeare Festival is very interdisciplinary and not just about Shakespeare’s plays,” she said. “It is a celebration of the Renaissance period and everyone can participate.”
Jo Miller, associate professor of English, has served in many roles during the festival’s 15 years, including dramaturg, producer and scriptwriter for the first few BTG shows. “This is truly a most gratifying enterprise; interdisciplinary, creative, and rigorously professional, the Shakespeare Festival seems to me like the perfect expression of what university life at Grand Valley is supposed to be.”
For a complete list of Grand Valley’s Shakespeare Festival events and details about the student competition, scholarships and production assistantships, contact Festival Director James Bell in the School of Communications, at (616) 331-3668, or visit www.gvsu.edu/shakes.
By Mary Pirkola. Arts Profile published in Grand Valley Magazine, Summer 2008.