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Georgia Shakespeare in 28th year at Oglethorpe University

By Christopher Barker

  Oglethorpe
  Joe Knezevich helps present ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in an outdoor show at Piedmont Park in May. Photo by Greg Mooney

In its 28 years entertaining audiences in Atlanta, Georgia Shakespeare has staged all except nine of the plays the Bard is known to have written, but the theater company has done much, much more.

While William Shakespeare has been its core playwright, the professional theater-in-residence at Oglethorpe University has also presented the works of other notable writers, including this summer’s two shows. And the non-profit repertory company is busy when not on Oglethorpe’s stage, introducing young people to theater arts through such programs as July’s Camp Shakespeare.

Georgia Shakespeare opened its 2013 season with “Much Ado About Nothing” outdoors at Piedmont Park. The season closes with “Hamlet” at Oglethorpe’s Conant Performing Arts Center in October, and the two summer shows are “Metamorphoses” and “Mighty Myths & Legends” on the Oglethorpe stage. Both summer shows are staged around a 3,000-gallon pool of water, providing a unique theater experience.

Written by Mary Zimmerman and directed by Georgia Shakespeare Artistic Director Richard Garner, “Metamorphoses” adapts transformative themes from Ovid’s narrative poem in nine of its 10 stories, exploring greed, ambition and love. The lyrical play explores what it means to be human and in love as an elderly couple wonders if the end of life means the end of love, a greedy father’s wish for everything he touches turns to gold backfires, a fearful wife learns love’s power and a son tries to emulate his father and almost destroys the planet.

Zimmerman developed the stories based on Roman myths with her students, and “the common theme for all was water, with water being directly or indirectly important,” says Garner, who founded Georgia Shakespeare in 1985 with Kirby McLain (Lane) Anderson and Robert Watson.

Georgia Shakespeare’s 2006 production of “Metamorphoses” won more Suzi awards (Atlanta’s version of the Tonys) than any other non-musical production in the history of the Suzi awards, and Garner says it’s the most popular show in the company’s history.

In 2006, “about 8,000 people saw ‘Metamorphoses,’ and the next best-attended show had about 6,500,” he said. “It’s one of the most impactful, profound, powerful shows we’ve done.”

“Metamorphoses” surrounds the pool of water with a boardwalk and back wall with doors June 21 through July 21, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $15, with discounts for seniors, students and the military. Ticket information is at gashakespeare.org or 404-504-1473.

“Mighty Myths & Legends” shares the Oglethorpe stage July 2-20, with performances at 11 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesdays. The show includes three stories from Ovid, as well as tales from Japan, India, Wales and Africa, and should appeal to families.

  Shakespeare- by Sara Lake
  Young actors play a scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a previous Camp Shakespeare at Oglethorpe University. Photo by Sara Lake

Garner and Allen O’Reilly, who directs the show, adapted the children’s version of tales from around the world, which include a Nordic god putting his strength to the test, a magical mermaid wandering too far from home and a young man learning the meaning of trust when his mysterious wife has a secret. Great legends of human history come to life in the action-filled original play, which tells modern stories about love, consequences and transformation.

Since the two shows are running simultaneously, the creators sought stories that would also benefit from staging around the 3,000-gallon pool, said Garner. Part of the company’s Family Classic Series designed to introduce young minds to ancient stories, the 10 deceptively simple myths and legends have never been presented before as a group. The collection of myths includes Echo and Narcissus, Orpheus, Mermaids and Thor.

Tickets start at $13, with discounts for students, seniors and the military.

Students in grades 2-5 can develop appreciation for theater in Camp Shakespeare. Limited to 12-20 students in each, the first session July 8-19 will introduce children to “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night,” and the session July 22 to Aug. 2 will focus on “Hamlet” and “Julius Caesar.” The two-week camps from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays at Oglethorpe will feature theater games, improvisation, acting exercises, arts and crafts and culminate in a production for family and friends. The cost is $500, and reservations can be made at 404-504-3401.

“We teach kids the comprehensive process; how to approach the text, how to approach a play,” said Jennifer Bauer-Lyons, director of company initiatives. “It’s very hands-on and not focused on the production.”

Georgia Shakespeare also offers educational programs for teachers and high school students during the summer. The High School Conservatory in June for grades 7-12 offers two weeks of intensive training in voice, text, movement, monologue and scene work and master classes in stage combat and audition techniques. Students learn a monologue and scene to perform for friends and family on the final day.

Bauer-Lyons says children in past Shakespeare camps have often gone on to study in the High School Conservatory. “We try to create a long-term relationship with people who participate in our education programs,” she said.

Georgia Shakespeare also takes shows into schools and stages its fall production –
“Hamlet” this year – in matinees during the day at Oglethorpe for high school students. The company invites students statewide for its spring acting competition supported by the Junior League of Atlanta, which also sponsors a free day of Shakespeare for elementary students on the Bard’s birthday.  

No Fear Shakespeare Teacher Training in June helps English and drama teachers with classroom techniques in a two-week, 50-hour intensive that provides 2.5 Professional Learning Units for continuing education requirements. After-school residencies, in-school workshops and classes for professionals and the public also help create the active education department that won the 2002 ABBY award for Outstanding Arts Education.

GA Shakes, as the company is sometimes called, began as the dream of Garner and Anderson, who were undergraduate students at Berry College in the 1970s. After college, Garner went to San Francisco to study with American Conservatory Theater and Anderson went to New York’s National Shakespeare Conservatory. They had talked about starting a theater company, and Anderson went to Oglethorpe, which had no drama department at the time, and talked to Oglethorpe’s president about founding a company there. Anderson had known co-founder Watson through theater in North Carolina, and both Anderson and Watson have now gone on to other ventures.

Garner and Anderson had studied Shakespeare extensively and realized that Atlanta didn’t have a Shakespeare company. They visited Shakespeare festivals and Shakespeare companies and decided to use the model of staging Shakespearean plays with mostly professional actors supplemented by student interns. They also decided to have a rotating repertory; sometimes actors will rehearse the next play during the day and perform the current play at night. “It’s a fun challenge to have a couple plays going on at the same time,” Garner said.

Their third goal was to hire and nurture local artists. Garner said that initially the company sought Atlanta’s best actors but that nurturing of actors by GA Shakes and other theater companies has resulted in a wealth of local talent.

“We wanted to commit to local artists in Atlanta, and we made an investment in them,” said Garner. “Now we could recast any of our shows with the talent in Atlanta three or four times over.”

On-campus interns supplement the professional actors. “We have a strong partnership with Oglethorpe,” said Garner. GA Shakes now plans to expand its partnerships and intern program to include Kennesaw State University and the Gainesville Theater Alliance, which includes Brenau and University of North Georgia.

“We’re expanding on the model we’ve had at Oglethorpe,” he said, “working with their faculties and students to develop pieces. Our partnerships will develop new takes on classic stories.”

In addition to Shakespeare, the company has staged “a lot of Moliere and American classics by such playwrights as Arthur Miller. We’ve always included other writers in the mix.”

Shakespeare’s romantic comedies “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night” are popular with local audiences, said Garner, and GA Shakes is staging “Hamlet” for the fourth time this fall. The plays are on the modified thrust stage in the 509-seat theater that replaced the tent used for shows the first 11 years.

GA Shakes has repeated some titles over its 28 years but tries not to restage plays for six or seven seasons. Of 36 plays universally believed to have been written by the Bard—there is disagreement over who wrote “Cardenio”—the company has presented 27 at least once.

 

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