After an April fund-raiser for Shakespeare West was nearly rained out, artistic director Barton Bund did what any imaginative risk-taker might. He announced an impromptu “Shakes Scramble” the following week at the band shell in West Park. He assembled eight actors but didn’t tell them what play they’d be doing until an hour before showtime–when he handed out scripts for The Merchant of Venice and had them draw parts from a hat. As the staged reading progressed, a jogger ran between the audience and the stage, a police car showed up (and left after the officers saw the event was under control), and darkness fell. Since electricity wasn’t yet available for stage lights, the actors used cell phones to illuminate their scripts for the last hour. Shakespeare in the park had become, Bund quipped, “Shakespeare in the dark.”
Shakespeare West is Bund’s brainchild, but the idea of bringing theater to West Park originated with Bob Dascola, the barber and civic booster who was instrumental in plans to revitalize the park. The city wanted the renewal to improve drainage–$1 million in federal funds created trenches to capture water during storms–and to turn the park into a livelier place. The Ann Arbor Civic Band would resume concerts in June at what Dascola has dubbed “Central Park West,” but Dascola wanted more. Knowing Bund’s Blackbird Theatre has a summer youth academy, Dascola asked Bund to do a weekend of theater for teens at the refurbished band shell. Bund had a bigger idea.
In 2010, he had directed The Two Gentleman of Verona for the Water Works Theatre, which performs in a Royal Oak park. Here was an opportunity to play Shakespeare outdoors, not for a weekend but for a whole summer season–just the way they do it in Central Park East.
The summer productions, Bund says, will be “hip and accessible.” He’s reimagining the Illyria of Twelfth Night, which opens August 19, as a 1960s rock ‘n’ roll circus, with Viola dressed like Bob Dylan. “Our approach for the first year is to keep the focus on the creativity of the actors, do less elaborate sets, and embrace the environment,” he says. He’s cast just four actors in the first production, The Tempest (see Events, June 10). Each will play multiple roles, and they’ll use not just the stage but the surrounding landscape as well.
Shakespeare West will continue through September with Much Ado About Nothing starting July 8 and Othello starting September 9. Tickets are $25, less for seniors and students and for “pay what you wilt” previews. The Blackbird Theatre is raising $7,568 to cover the city’s park rental and electrical costs for the season. “The strategy is to keep production expenses low and to cover our biggest expense, our actors, through ticket sales,” says Bund. He’s worked out a monthly payment plan with the city to give the theater time to seek more donations for the project.
As Bund and his spouse and associate director, Dana Sutton, moved ahead on Shakespeare West, the Penny Seats Theatre Company was gearing up its own Shakespeare-themed play. Helmed by Lauren London, a lawyer with Dykema, Penny Seats plans to produce dramas, comedies, and musicals, including some original works. There will also be cabaret shows, acting classes, and improv evenings. But the group decided to test the waters with just one production this summer: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1988 comedy Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), about an American theater prof who reimagines a pair of Shakespearean tragedies as comedies.
And where did Penny Seats want to do this? “In a relaxed environment, outdoors, in a park at dusk, with a picnic basket and a bottle of wine,” says London, who had enjoyed shows at Wisconsin’s American Players outdoor venue when she was in law school. And so it happened that a park with no theater suddenly had two theaters vying for its band shell from August 4 to 13.
Neither theater had done the city paperwork to apply for use of the West Park band shell. Each assumed nobody else was interested. Happily, no swordplay resulted.
“The Blackbird was extremely magnanimous and said, ‘If you want the first two weeks of August, that’s OK,'” says London. “That means the world to us. It would have been devastating not to have that space the first time out.”
“We’ve got an absolutely beautiful facility in West Park, and we’ll be having the time of our lives out there,” Bund says. “We’re excited that another group got interested in the park, too. It’s a fantastic new venue for the community.” The project Dascola had envisioned for the park, Blackbird’s youth academy production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, will still be held outdoors in August–but in the Kerrytown area instead of West Park.
Penny Seats tickets are just $10 for adults, $7 for kids. “We want to start a company that will be accessible to everyone,” says London, explaining that the performances should cost no more than a movie ticket–the modern equivalent of the penny seats available to Elizabethans who wanted to see a show at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Boxed dinners can be ordered in advance, and the city has given permission for patrons to bring their own wine.
Since it won’t earn much ticket income, the troupe had to raise funds in advance. Putting business before show, the new company formed a board of directors; set a budget for rent, royalties, and sets; incorporated as a Michigan nonprofit; and obtained federal tax-exempt status. “The willingness of folks to help you out increases amazingly when you can tell them you’re a 501(c)3 organization and they can take a tax exemption for money they donate to you,” says London. (Blackbird also has tax-exempt status.) “We’ve reached out to friends and friends of friends and family. Eventually, we’ll look for corporate donors.”
The theater set out to raise $4,000 and came up with $8,000 in five weeks, twice what Goodnight Desdemona requires. “We were extremely worried that the community would be hesitant to support a new arts-focused nonprofit,” says London. “We were wrong and are absolutely floored at the positive response we got.” Donors’ generosity means that “we can spend a little extra money on sustainability and buy materials that can be reused–sets, cabling, lumber, things that can move with us.” Between shows, London and her husband, Zach, will store the supplies in their northwest-side home. “We don’t have a budget line item for storage,” she says.
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival performed in a Jackson park from 1995 until 2004, when it moved indoors after losing an ongoing struggle with the elements–rain or heat that stopped shows and ruined sets and costumes, ambient noise, and bugs. London says she thought about weather problems during a spring tornado watch, but decided to focus on issues the group could do something about, like the band shell’s acoustics. “It is uniquely formed for its original purpose, civic band concerts,” London says. “Its shape is ideal for sound projection off the back wall … I don’t believe that shape necessarily helps a theater performer in the same way as a singer.”
The troupe couldn’t research the acoustics when the park was buried under snow, but, as soon as spring came, the Londons brought a microphone, amplifier, cable, and speakers to the park for a sound check. After heaving the gear to the stage and setting it up, they plugged it in. “Nothing, of course,” says London. “Parks & Rec doesn’t run electricity to the band shell in the winter … It was a long two-mile trip home.”
As the Observer went to press, Blackbird was rehearsing The Tempest and Penny Seats had just cast Goodnight Desdemona. “We’re using four of our own actors, and [auditioned] for two more, Desdemona and Juliet,” says Russ Schwartz, a playwright and actor who will do Iago and a ghost in the Penny Seats show. The group, he says, wants its “auditions to be welcoming, a process through which we can meet actors as well as see them. It’s a chance to build our team. We’ve also been delving into equipment needs. We’re still experimenting with various sound setups, and lighting will require further experimentation as well.”
“During this phase, some of the best support we’re getting comes from conversations with other organizations and other actors,” adds Schwartz. “For the Penny Seats to grow, we need to work with the community, learn from it, and let the group be changed by it. Watching Blackbird and working with them this summer is going to be a crucial part of that process.”
See Events for more West Park activities and outdoor theater: The Ann Arbor Civic Band’s Wednesday night concerts begin June 22, and Shakespeare in the Arb’s production of The Winter’s Tale begins June 9.