As someone once said, all the world’s a stage. However, we might be bold enough to add: There are some places in the world that are a little more staged than others.
Case in point: The University of Central Arkansas, June 14-24, when UCA’s Reynolds Performance Hall plays host to what those in charge hope will be the first of an annual Arkansas Shakespeare Festival. With 12 performances over two weekends, the festival promises to be an extravaganza for theatergoers, with the fairy dust, greasepaint and tears of joy running in the gutters.
Featured this year will be a perpetual crowd pleaser, Shakespeare’s magical, hilarious and romantic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For a postmodern take on the Sweet Swan of Avon, “Dream” will be paired with performances of the madcap comedy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.” If neither of those fits your taste, you can go tilting at windmills with “Man of La Mancha,” the five-time Tony Award-winning musical based on Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”
The Arkansas Shakespeare Festival and Arkansas Shakespeare Theater — the year-round group of players that will stage the festival — are the brainchildren of producing artistic director and UCA theater professor Matt Chiorini. Born in the Bay area (as in San Francisco, not Fairfield), Chiorini got his master’s in theater at Harvard before a stint at the Moscow Arts Theater. From there, he moved on to Belmont University in Nashville, where he spent the last eight years working as an actor and director, all while running two professional theater companies.
“Of course, I’m now in Conway,” he said. “It makes perfect sense.”
But seriously folks, Chiorini said that UCA officials had been kicking around the idea of a summer festival to be headquartered in their Reynolds Performance Hall for several years. Last spring they did a national search, and Chiorini was hired to make it happen. Having played Shakespearean characters for 15 years, one of the first things he pointed out to UCA after his feet hit the ground in Conway was that — while there are Shakespeare festivals in literally 49 other states — Arkansas doesn’t have one.
Too, everybody loves the Bard.
“Having worked as an actor in several other Shakespeare festivals, I know they always draw a crowd, they’re always a lot of fun (and) family friendly,” he said. “Any preconceived fears that people have about Shakespeare really vanish quickly. It’s fun and it’s easy and as long as we put it alongside some of the great musicals or fun comedies — as we’re doing this year — it really does offer something for everybody.”
Chiorini said “ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was chosen for the inaugural year of the festival just because it’s a fun play. “Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was written specifically for a wedding feast,” he said. “So it’s a party — it’s a play that is literally a big party, onstage. It’s a great way to introduce people to Shakespeare. It’s got some great comedy, some silly romance and some real magic.”
Chiorini said that while “Man of La Mancha” will be staged “pretty traditionally,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be set in France just after World War II. Don’t expect them to hammer home the idea that it’s a semi-modern setting, however. “It’s not explicit,” he said. “It’s just a place, to ground the reality in the world. The play opens at the end of a war and it’s a period of rebirth and rejuvenation and romance. We thought that was a lot of fun, and a good place to do it. Plus, you have all this fantastic French music.”
Though Chiorini will no doubt get a lot of credit if the festival comes off without a hitch, playing Shakespeare isn’t a one-man show. Chiorini has gathered together some of the best local actors, directors and set designers from the region, and has brought in others from across the country.
“We have 10 out-of-town artists with credits from literally New York to L.A. and everywhere in between,” Chiorini said. “They’re joining some local actors who have worked in community arts and for the Rep. Also, we’ve got some excellent student interns from four different colleges.”
One of those that Chiorini called in from out of town is Nashville actor and director Brenda Sparks. A veteran Shakespearan, Sparks will be directing the main selection at this year’s Nashville Shakespeare Festival, “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” For the Conway festival, she’ll direct “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” which she calls “a whirlwind of creativity and fun.” The premise behind the play is that three actresses decide to try and combine scenes from all 37 plays Shakespeare wrote during his lifetime, lending them their own comic, manic twists.
“Their attempts are the kind of things that are born out of great ingenuity and a time limit,” Sparks said. “Everything they tackle is done with just this blind enthusiasm that young people have. It’s not presented in a conventional way — it’s presented in a way their brains have to come up with on the spot” that might mean you see the histories as a football game.
Though “Complete Works” is all about Shakespeare’s plays, Sparks said that it’s also “accessible and fun,” with no prior knowledge of Shakespeare required to have a good time. At the same time, she said, fans of Shakespeare will get a double thrill. “They will recognize all the plays and know how they’re supposed to be done,” she said. “They’ll be able to appreciate the take that these characters have on it. They’ll recognize texts, plot points and be able to appreciate the irony and wit and enthusiasm of the script.”
Asked why Shakespeare’s plays still have such staying power, Sparks said she believes it is because of their resonance with and relevance to human emotion — possibly the one thing that hasn’t changed in the nearly 400 years since Shakespeare bowed his last.
“He tapped into that universal, human experience,” Sparks said. “He was able to illuminate it with wit and humor and poignancy… There’s never been a time when somewhere in the world we weren’t at war. Humor hasn’t changed all that much. The things that make us feel haven’t changed all that much. The basic truths of our existence pretty much stay intact, and he was able to tap into those truths that still resonate with our hearts today.”
“It’s trite to say his work is brilliant,” Chiorini said, “but I think the brilliance of his work is in its universal appeal. In these plays, there really is something for everybody. You’ll have a philosophical argument and then you’ll have some witty wordplay and then you’ll have somebody falling down and making a penis joke. It’s all there, and it’s all blended seamlessly.”
Chiorini said that while the ASF may forgo Shakespeare’s “more esoteric” plays in coming years (rarely seen stuff like “King John” and “Timon of Athens”), don’t expect it to be wine and roses from here on out. Chiorini said that the tragedies are fair game for the festival, though he’ll likely pair them with something lighter. “Something like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Hamlet,’” he said. “They’re just great plays. As long as we balance that with a ‘Taming of the Shrew’ or an ‘As You Like It,’ you can make a really great season.”
While he’s got more than a small stake in the longevity of the ASF and the Arkansas Shakespeare Theater, Chiorini seems genuinely excited about what it could all mean for Arkansas, local theater and the arts. He sees the ASF as not just a benefit for UCA, but for the whole state.
“Arkansas is poised for great things,” he said, “and I think something like this can be a real part of this, not just something to do on a weekend. It could be part of a cultural renaissance.”
For more information about the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival or Arkansas Shakespeare Theater, visit their website at www.arkshakes.com.