Losing Our Heads Over Shakespeare, Part 2: Pittsburgh Shakespeareans Admit Lifelong Attraction

shakespeare_2699766kWhen we left Part 1 of this mini-series on why Pittsburgh artists lose their heads over Shakespeare’s works, I took the liberty of supposing that his wife Anne might have held the clue to the reportedly missing skull from the playwright’s 400-year-old grave. Now, the continuing story of Shakespeare in Pittsburgh. Read Part 1 here.

On April 23, 2016, it will be four centuries since William Shakespeare “shuffled off this mortal coil”, but his works are very much alive and very well in Pittsburgh. Thanks to theater companies, individual artists, and what seems to be an endless stream of new troupes, you will never be far from a Shakespeare play or event if you live in or pass through our region.

We asked some leading actors and producers of Will’s works to share their initial attraction to the plays, sonnets, and more. Most have been drawn to Shakespeare for about as long as they can remember and they still can’t get enough and perhaps more so when they have some “time off”. Don’t miss the impressive list of upcoming Shakespearean events and links at the end of this story!

Karla Boos, founder, Quantum Theatre:  “I played Portia in Merchant of Venice in (gulp) 1979… I remember the marvel of her speeches… well, all of them, but these were my favorite lines: ‘O love, be moderate, allay thy ecstasy, I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less for fear I surfeit.’ The tuwinterrning inside out of her head, words exposing these complex thoughts, maybe HAVING the complex thoughts only because there were words for them… hooked for life. Greatest experience? Adapting The Winter’s Tale [Quantum Theatre, 2015] to match great Baroque music, trying to preserve it, meld these two very different but equally great forms with my collaborators, musical experts writing the recitative (Chatham Baroque.) Next, I’ll work on a project that intersects with Shakespeare (cryptic, I know) over a three-month sabbatical in London this May 1 – August 1.”

Jennifer Tober, actor and director; founder and artistic director, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks: “I was in college at Temple University, reading Coriolanus…I remember that aha! moment when the characters seemed to be suddenly talking off the page – and it no longer seemed boring or arduous, but the language began to flow.  Then I saw Helen Mirren play Imogen in Cymbeline on one of those BBC taped versions – and I thought – “That’s it.  That’s what I want to do. Shakespeare.” I was also lucky enough to get an internship at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival while I was in grad school psip-leaf-logo-borderat West Virginia University.  I got to play the Third Witch in Macbeth— the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.  I got to be tied up with leather straps with the title character (played by Byron Jennings) and get chocolate syrup smeared all over me and then poured into my mouth (witches’ potion). Yummy. But I remember it was a touring production of Midsummer that I saw that semester abroad in London – a French company that came into the London International Theatre Festival and did the play, circus-style, under a big tent. Everyone loved it, and I thought, ‘Wow. Shakespeare is a blast–physical, funny, energetic, and everyone in the audience seemed to understand and relish every moment.’ Now I get to do Shakespeare in Pittsburgh. Outdoors, in parks. What could be better?”

Charles Beikert, actor and director, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks: “I was first drawn to The Comedy Of Errors in the 80’s when the Flying Karamazov Brothers produced the play and PBS aired it. In college, I took a grueling Shakespeare as Literature course. We read and were quizzed on three plays per week; it was not this experience that made me love it. It was playing the parts and making friendships with the companies that do this work and meeting audiences that still find Shakespeare’s poetry moving and vital. I’ve done lots of plays, but I do Shakespeare EVERY year.”

Ken Bolden, actor with many theater companies in Pittsburgh and beyond: “My first Shakespeare encounter was in the second grade when a wise teacher decided it was time we had the experience of his works. It was the ’60’s. While I wasn’t an actor, I clearly remember being in the audience and literally thrilling to Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Taming of the Shrew. The entire school was entranced. And I believe that first and early encounter is why I’ve never had a problem understanding Shakespeare’s language–because it was introduced to me so early, before I had an prejudices in place. It was presented to us as something fun, exciting and thrilling. And I am so thankful for that teacher, because that’s just what Shakespeare remains to me to this day.”

Alan Irvine, storyteller and director/actor with Brawling Bard Theatre and Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks:  “I can’t really say what first attracted1517699_1475313232686798_1392782969368201658_n me to Shakespeare because I can’t remember when I wasn’t interested in Shakespeare. I remember reading the witches scene from Macbeth in a collection of ghost stories, probably back in elementary school. I remember reading famous selections of poetry from the plays. The first live play that I can remember seeing was when my Dad took me to see a production of King Lear.

Elizabeth Ruelas, Artistic Director, and Andy Kirtland, Managing Director, co-founders of The New Renaissance Theatre Company and its Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Elizabeth:  “My first experience with Shakespeare was when two brilliant Shakespeare scholars (Dr. Roger Gross & Patricia Relph, who are also married) came to my junior high school and performed scenes from Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew and more.  It was fun, it was dramatic, it pulled me to the edge of my seat and I wanted more. I would see Dr. Gross perform as King Lear at the University of Arkansas, where I was offered a scholarship to study drama, and would be taught more about Shakespeare and directed by him, Dr. Patricia Romanov and Dexter Roger Dixon. That’s when I knew that classical theatre was what I was meant to do for the rest of my life.

img_1452106296Andy:  “My first memory of Shakespeare was in the fifth grade when, for Halloween, we read through the witches mixing the brew in Macbeth. I guess you could say that the first Shakespeare’s lines I ever memorized was ‘nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips.’ My first Shakespearean role was Banquo in Macbeth. In college I performed in Hamlet and Julius Caesar and I studied at the British American Drama Academy … Shakespeare never grabbed me until 2002 when I was in intern with The New England Shakespeare Festival. We performed from the First Folio using cue scripts, and the two-day workshop we had to attend in New Hampshire was a revelation – so much so that it is the basis for all my work with Shakespeare today. I had an experience playing the Gentlewoman during Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene (are we sensing a theme?). We were three men in a sun-lit studio reading the lines from cue scripts, and it left me shaking when we were finished. That had never happened before, and I have never had a visceral reaction since that was not from a scene or a play written by Shakespeare.”

Elizabeth:  “Much like Dr. Gross & Ms. Relph, Andy and I are a married couple of Shakespeare scholars who bring our Unrehearsed Technique Workshops to schools to get students interested in learning about the Bard, why he wrote the way that he did and how much fun and engrossing his plays are!”

Andy [who apparently still has time on his hands?]:  “In May, I will begin rehearsals for Henry IV, Part I which I am directing for Poor Yorick’s Players.”

Helen M. Meade, director/producer, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks: “In the late ‘80s I had the privilege of seeing Richard McMillan’s performance of Richard III at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival. It was truly a revelation – a passionate, nuanced, exciting performance that completely captivated me. I got to see the production multiple times, and it was riveting each and every time. It was the first time I could access Shakespeare as more than an academic exercise. I’ve never gotten over that performance.”

David Crawford, Pittsburgh actor: “My first contact with Shakespeare was through my high school algebra teacher. She had minored in theater and, as an outlet for that interest, coached me in reading famous texts.  Hamlet‘s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy was among them. I loved the richness of it and was awed by the use of a mere auxiliary verb to hold so much meaning. ‘To be.’ No simpler verb, yet in Shakespeare’s hands, it was everything.”


Throughline on first Shakespeare experiences among those interviewed? The Scottish play recurred for many who described Macbeth and the play’s witches as their initial experience as early as elementary school and often as their first roles. I also read a witch’s lines for an audio project in fifth grade; many of us learned curses over a cauldron before digging deeper into the works.

It’s true a “bad teacher” can ruin Shakespeare for life, but that teacher or professor who lights up when sharing the plays can set someone on the lifelong path to performance, production, and scholarship. This week, the playwright is being celebrating around the world. In Pittsburgh, Shakespeare is celebrated all year long, year after year.

Here’s a sampling of events marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and his 452th birthday and in the months ahead:

April 23-19: Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ second annual Week of Will, seven days of Shakespearean events. Details for both online and the following live events and Comedy of Errors t-shirt contest at pittsburghshakespeare.org.

Sat, April 23 Shakespeare Statue Tribute, in front of Carnegie Music Hall, Forbes Ave., Oakland.

1:30 pm Floral Tribute and Recitation with Mrs Shakespeare (Yvonne Hudson)

“Bard Walk” to the Tent in Schenley Plaza.

2 pm Performances of Mrs Shakespeare, Will’s first & last love by Yvonne Hudson, and other Shakespearean favorites by Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks. Cake and surprises!

Monday, April 25  Shakespeare Slam/Bring Your Own Bard on Villains, 7-9 pm, Té Café , Murray Ave, Squirrel Hill (PSIP’s monthly themed gathering through May).

Thurs., April 28  PSIP Franktuary Happy Hour Friendraiser, 5-7 pm, 3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville.


MORE SHAKESPEARE IN 2016: See these companies’ sites for dates, locations, related events, and how to get involved.

Steel City Shakespeare Center: Much Ado About Nothing, June 3-16.

Poor Yorick’s Players:  Henry IV, Part 1 and Julius Caesar, Summer.

Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project of New Renaissance Theatre Company:  A Midsommer Nights Dreame and The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, July.

Opera Theater SummerFest: Kiss Me, Kate (Cole Porter musical inspired by The Taming of the Shrew), July 9-23

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks: The Comedy of Errors, weekends in September.


Watch for these plays in 2016-17:

Twelfth Night at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The Merchant of Venice at PICT Classic Theatre.

Mrs Shakespeare, Will’s first & last love at various venues.

And look for more on the Facebook pages of Brawling Bard Theater, Shakespeare in South Park, and Poets Corner, all of which focus much programming around Will’s works.

What else is happening around Shakespeare? If there is even more, that’s good news! Let us know and we’ll wrap it into future coverage of Shakespeare around Pittsburgh.

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