Woodward Shakespeare Festival turns 10; its revels play on

The Fresno BeeJune 19, 2014 

It turned out to be Much Ado About Something.

The Woodward Shakespeare Festival debuted July 14, 2005, in the Rotary Amphitheatre at Woodward Park with a high-concept production of "Much Ado About Nothing." Ten years later, with a new "Macbeth" in its opening weekend, the company is going strong at a different (and much cooler!) location in the park.

We take a look back at some of the notable events in Woodward Shakespeare's history -- and look forward to its intense, pared-down "Macbeth" and the rest of the 10th season.

2005: Grand Plans

The company's inaugural production of "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Christien Sweeney, was set in a 1944 Italy teetering at the end of World War II. During the first two seasons, Sweeney shared the duties of artistic director with co-founder S. Eric Day, who directed the season's second production, "Romeo and Juliet," also set in Fascist Italy. Initial plans were grand: The pair hoped to have a professional theater company running in five years.

2006: Always Free

The second season featured "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Macbeth." One of the founding principles of the company was that admission should be free, a philosophy embraced to this day by the current board of directors (Thornton Davidson, Hal H. Bolen II and Christopher L. Campbell, all around since the beginning). Free seats could be reserved the second season online. In the future, the online reservations would became "premium seating" for a fee, but to this day, there are always free general seats available.

2007: Memorable 'Shrew'

Director Daniel Moore delivered a "Taming of the Shrew" so gaudy and fluorescent that if you took the Circus Circus casino and crossed it with the last frantic hours of a Walmart Easter-trimmings sale, you'd have come close to the production design. Over the years, the festival has offered a striking variety of directorial visions, some traditional and others on the wild side. Also on the bill that year: "Othello," directed by J.J. Cobb.

2008: Big Move

After three years at the cavernous amphitheatre, the festival picked up its bags and moved to the group activities area near the Japanese Garden at Woodward Park. The move certainly helped out temperature-wise: the concrete of the amphitheater would soak up the sun during broiling days and then radiate it back in the evening. Seating capacity was cut from about 1,200 to 600 at what was dubbed the Theatre in the Glen, but the trade-off was a more intimate setting. Lars Thorson directed "Twelfth Night," and Arlene Schulman directed a controversial "Hamlet" with a revisionist emphasis on Ophelia and Gertrude and a terrific performance in the title role by Adam Meredith.

2009: New Leadership

After several years without an artistic director, Heather Parish assumed the role. The season's lineup featured a wacky interpretation of "As You Like It," directed by Michael Peterson, in which the Bard got a surfer-dude makeover, and "Richard III," directed by Parish.

2010: Another Move

The festival once again picked up and moved a little farther down the road in the park to what it now calls the Festival Stage. This solved a big problem: sound from events at the amphitheatre (most notably a Mixed Martial Arts cage event in 2008) was disrupting performances. The festival signed a 25-year lease with the city for the new space, which catches an evening breeze off the San Joaquin River, making even the hottest nights pleasant -- and is far enough away from the amphitheatre to defuse any noise issues. Heather Parish directed a fine production of "The Merchant of Venice," and Brian Sivesind directed "King Lear."

2011: Three's a Charm

In a notable expansion, the festival opted for the first time to stage three productions in a summer instead of two, and to make the middle title a non-Shakespeare play. Greg Taber took over leadership duties as the company's executive producer, a new title. The lineup: A notable "The Comedy of Errors," directed by Brad Myers; "All My Sons," directed by Michael Oldham; and "Romeo and Juliet," directed by Daniel Moore.

2012: Steamy Summer

Gabriela Lawson had a big Woodward Shakespeare year: She directed "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and then starred in a steamy and memorable "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Maggie McClellan. Adam Meredith added a risky "Henry V."

2013: Dream Act

A highlight of the season was a rambunctious, funny and thoughtful production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Aaron Spjute, featuring standout performances by Brooke Aiello as a libidinous Titania and Mohammad Shehata as a menacing Puck. Gabriela Lawson directed "Inherit the Wind," and Erica Riggs directed "Julius Caesar."

2014: Looking Ahead

The 2014 season kicks off with "Macbeth," now in its opening weekend. Also on the lineup: "The Taming of the Shrew" (with an all-female cast), directed by Aaron Spjute; and "The Tempest," directed by Julie Ann Keller. (In honor of the 10th anniversary, all three titles are Shakespeare.) Interesting fact: This season's $60,000 budget is about the same as the first year. Over time, the advantages and disadvantages of the free-admission policy become clear: Audiences loved the "price," but the festival would likely not be able to achieve its initial goal of becoming professional. There just wasn't the cash flow. Instead, the company has settled into a contented state as a vibrant community theater.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com or @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service