In the summer of 1981, I had the chance to live out a college English teacher’s dream: after 20 years of talking about Shakespeare’s plays in the classroom, I was cast in a production of Twelfth Night, the second play of Wichita’s inaugural Shakespeare-in-the-Park season. Both surprised and pleased, I anticipated a lark, a one-time adventure.
But the Shakespeare-in-the-Park program took off, and my one-time adventure led to a 20-year involvement with what I’ll call “Wichita’s Shakespeare’s Renaissance,” a period in which the city seemed to make this long-dead British playwright one of its own.
Shakespeare’s place in American culture has always been peculiar — and marginal. As a society, we have felt obliged to acknowledge his greatness, but we have not been comfortable in the presence of his work. Most of us experienced him first in high school, where we were force-fed Julius Caesar because, like some variety of intellectual spinach, it was good for us.
This perceived need for cultural nutrition has also been responsible for the occasional school or community theater production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, which have been dutifully attended by friends and relatives of the performers.
While some successful films of the plays have been made — Zeffirelli’s 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet, for example — Shakespeare has mostly reached “elite” audiences who travel to Shakespeare festivals or the professional playhouses in major cities.
Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions, which bring the plays to the citizens of a community, usually for free, developed in venues like New York’s Central Park in the 1960s.
The program that began here was a first-rate example of the community-theater variety of Shakespeare-in-the-Park. Raising a little money from local industries and charitable foundations, Wichita Association for Repertory Arts (the producing organization) designed and constructed a mock-Elizabethan set, employed costume designers interested in building period clothing and engaged local actors who wanted to develop their skills — and learn how to amplify their voices — by performing in the parks of Wichita.
The directors edited scripts of Shakespeare’s more popular plays, cutting out the more “literary” passages and leaving in the comic action so the plays could be performed in 90 minutes, to maximum theatrical effect. The 90-minute limit took into account the assumed attention span of an audience in an outdoor setting, the desirability of getting people out of the parks before dark and, not least, the absence of lavatory facilities.
The actors occasionally objected that these were not productions of full Shakespeare plays, and there was grumbling over the cutting of favorite lines. The response was that we were presenting the essence of the play. If it wasn’t quite the whole play — well, faux Shakespeare was better than no Shakespeare.
The program was a success. On a typical evening, 100 or more (500 at College Hill) would gather while the set was being put up. They would bring lawn chairs, coolers, picnic baskets, strollers (with infants), leashed pets and anything else one might take on an outing.
The mood was convivial — perfect for the reception of a high-spirited production. And there was a special rapport between performers and audience that one imagines might have prevailed in an Elizabethan playhouse. The actors, after all, generally stood only a few feet from the first row of spectators and sometimes made entrances through the crowd.
Sometimes characters of whom the audience disapproved would get heckled or booed in a good-natured way — as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew usually was by women in the audience when she gave her closing speech about the necessity for wives to obey their husbands. At such moments Shakespeare was not simply a dead British playwright but, as embodied in the actors who performed his work, a familiar local presence. One of ours, so to speak
This sense of familiarity with “the Bard” was even more pronounced at the annual Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations held at Botanica during the ’90s. I had the honor of being Shakespeare at those events, which drew 2,000 patrons or more.
The organizers styled me “Bill” (as opposed to “Will”) Shakespeare, making me particularly American. Those who came sang Bill “Happy Birthday” when he appeared on the terrace, and when he strolled around the gardens (one of which is, naturally, a Shakespeare garden), they asked for autographs and had their pictures taken with him. Bill, for that evening at least, was one of them.
Sadly, things have changed in the past few years. These Shakespeare programs have been banished to the suburbs. A decision by the city not to allow the group free access to Wichita parks has caused the current Shakespeare-in-the-Park program to perform in nearby towns.
And the birthday observance has been moved away from Botanica, where it flourished, to Prairie Pines — a nice venue, but not the heart of the city. Does this mean that Wichita’s Shakespeare Renaissance has passed? One hopes not, because in embracing Shakespeare the city participated in the enrichment of its cultural life.