The Play’s the Thing at the Shakespeare Fest
The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is in high gear right now, producing exciting, accessible summer theatre for its 27th year. With a rotating schedule of King Lear, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Three Musketeers, there is comedy and tragedy and swashbuckling adventure enough to satisfy any taste.
And it’s all right here in Putnam County, under the magnificent 540-seat tent at Boscobel, where it’s had a home for the last 25 of those 27 years.
Maggie Whitlum began by serving on the board of the Festival, but this is her third season as Executive Director of the organization, and we caught up with her in the afternoon of a mid-season day, in between meetings.
One goal the Festival takes very seriously is to attract younger audience members in addition to the current group of devotees. HVSF has “fantastically loyal supporters,” she said, but the question for maintaining the program’s vitality for the long haul, she added, is “How do we engage the ‘Millennials’?…How can we convince them that live theatre is something they should still engage with?”
That effort began with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with which the Festival was able develop last year’s “very young” production of Romeo and Juliet.
Another way is by making the most of the fantastic natural setting in which their stage is situated—on the grass at Boscobel, with the spectacular Hudson River in the background. Costuming is another: the name Shakespeare is virtually synonymous with the Elizabethan costume of doublet and hose, but, Whitlum says, “We don’t do Shakespeare like that.” The costuming has a modern flavor—shorter, less fussy dresses, for instance—but with occasional nods to the 16th century, like a ruffled collar or a puffed sleeve.
Then there is the sword fighting. This year’s production of “Musketeers,” adapted direct from Alexandre Dumas by Ken Ludwig, allows for what Whitlum calls “fabulous sword fighting,” the sort of action theatre that young people tend to adore, or as Whitlum described it, “a glorious, wonderful romantic romp.”
This is the first time in 27 years that the Festival has attempted Lear, which we both agreed is “a lot to bite off.” “You have to have the right director and the right company…and audiences seem ready for it.”
With All’s Well there’s just one woman in the cast, and all the other parts—male and female—are played by men (another nod to Shakespeare’s time, when players switched roles and male actors predominated).
The Festival has incorporated Trivia Nights, a photo booth at which theatregoers can dress up in Shakespearean-themed costumes, and for smaller children, Whitlum said, the Festival is offering two “Fighting Academies.” There were 30 or 40 kids at the first one, on July 7; the second will be held on August 4. “The sense of fun and community is just lovely.”
There’s a series called “Caught in the Act,” where after certain evenings the company comes out and talks about the play with the audience. There are also director interviews at which young actors ask questions before one of the shows and engage the audience in the discussion.
“We’re trying to do a lot more programming so that people get more information about the shows and” more so than ever before, “there’s something for everyone,” Whitlum noted.
The Festival has a year-round education program, holding workshops “up and down the Hudson Valley,” in collaboration with schools. The aim of the workshops is to encourage an appreciation of Shakespeare, both in students and in teachers, who can sometimes be hesitant about covering Shakespeare.
Every spring the company takes a show on the road for 7 or 8 weeks—earlier this year it was Othello. Next spring’s performance will be Much Ado About Nothing. The company will travel anywhere in the tri-state area that does not involve an overnight stay.
A two-week Shakespeare summer camp at Haldane began last year for ages about 8 to 14, Whitlum said, and ran this year for the weeks of July 15 and July 22.
As for the Festival’s relationship with Boscobel, Whitlum says it is healthy. Not only does the Festival do some programming in the house at other times of the year, but it also delivers 34,000 visitors to Boscobel’s grounds annually.
For more information, visit www.hvshakespeare.org.