LENOX, Mass. — Celebrating four decades of theater and maintaining relevance for contemporary audiences is the focus of Shakespeare & Company's 2017 season.
With founding Artistic Director Tina Packer at his side, first-year Artistic Director Allyn Burrows Tuesday morning unveiled the venue's lineup for its 40th anniversary season.
Burrows wasted no time establishing that the company cannot program its season in a vacuum and has to recognize the environment beyond its stages.
"Some of us, and Tina as well, were just down at the Shakespeare Association conference in Baltimore," Burrows said. "It was a collection of all the Shakespeare companies around the world, and, you know, there were numerous discussions about what do we do? Where do we find ourselves in this particular atmosphere?
"Regardless of where your politics land or where you find yourself on the social spectrum, these are turbulent times. ... Where do we fall on the compass between escapism and activism? Diversion and really making a statement about the world in general? When we work with this author, in particular, who has spanned so much time, these 400 years, it's important for us to put ourselves in this particular environment but also on Shakespeare's scale.
"How do we want to honor a man who had so much power in his writing that it resonated all these many centuries later? We really have a responsibility to say, 'I acknowledge. I recognize. I want to point this out.' "
To that end, Burrows created a season that includes contemporary, socially relevant works from award-winning playwrights Amy Herzog, Lynn Nottage and Yasmina Reza, two comedies from Gilded Age author Edith Wharton and three Shakespeare plays: "Cymbeline," "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Burrows said "resonance" is important for Shakespeare & Company.
"When you have an incredible occurrence happen in the world, you say, 'Where are we in reflection of this occurrence?' " he said. "If the world takes a shock — in some ways you can't anticipate this stuff, but you have to go through that set on conversations about, ‘Where do we fall?' "
Shakespeare & Company springs into its season Memorial Day weekend with the Obie Award-winning "4,000 Miles," by Herzog.
"We're really excited about this play because it speaks to this generation — essentially the disenfranchised," Burrows said. "These are two generations that are really going to feel the effect in the years to come of the environment — both the elder generation and the future generation, and both are represented in this play."
Likewise, Nottage's "Intimate Apparel," which opens July 20, "speaks to a number of concerns in the country right now," Burrows said. He characterized Reza's "God of Carnage" as, "socially poignant."
Burrows indicated that the venue needs to strike a balance between making a statement and putting customers in the seats.
"When we line up a play, we have to think: How does it speak to us?" he said. "We all read the papers. It has to be topical, and it has to be connected to our history and the history of the world.
"I like comedies. But I'm not in this for strict entertainment value. I'm much more interested in the wider conversation. I want us to stay viable. I want to have enough appeal to people that people say, ‘I just want to buy a ticket and see a show.' That's valid. But it's just not something that speaks to me all the time. I'd rather do something of import."
An important part of any season is, naturally, the Shakespearean works. This year, the company serves up three at four different venues.
The company's Northeast Regional Education Tour production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" will be staged at the Mount, Edith Wharton's summer "cottage," starting July 11. "The Tempest" will be presented in Shakespeare's Garden, a newly utilized outdoor space a few steps from the door of the main stage Tina Packer Playhouse, in August.
That main stage will be home to a production of the rarely staged "Cymbeline," directed by Packer, starting July 4.
"For me, personally, it's a journey because it's my last Shakespeare play," Packer said. "I've completed the canon then. There are a couple of plays I'd like to do over again, but ‘Cymbeline' is a play I've never touched."
And it is the only play slated to be seen on Shakespeare & Company's main stage this summer, a move that Burrows characterized as "belt-tightening" for a company that has been through several years of transition since Packer's successor, Tony Simotes, was let go after five years at the helm in 2014.
Burrows also was quick to point out that the weekends after Cymbeline's one-month run will feature "Storytellers and Songwriters," a series a one-person theatrical performances paired with musical acts: Michi Wiancko on Aug. 12, Kris Delmhorst on Aug. 19.
"It will be all interconnected, the music and the text," Burrows said. "These poets, these songwriters we're bringing in, really have a connection to us in terms of the Shakespeare. That cross-pollination is something we'd like to explore. It allows us to bring a fresh audience onto the property.
"Music is a healing force, and we can always use that."
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