When you meet Jeffrey Chips, artistic director for the Steel City Shakespeare Center, you’re immediately struck by his indisputable kindness and genuineness. The mission of the Steel City Shakespeare Center is to use classical theater to engage and inspire audiences. Jeffrey manifests the theatre company’s vision to bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds to share a common creative experience and develop a greater sense of empathy in their everyday lives. Or as Jeffrey more colloquially puts it, to look for more opportunities to bring theatre to places that do not traditionally have access. He is explicit about wanting to break down the perception that theatre, particularly Shakespeare, is only for people of a certain income, class or education.
Bringing theatre to the underserved could easily be a platform soundbite, but it’s never just a talk track for Chips and the Steel City Shakespeare Center. The group started in 2014 with a single production of Twelfth Night. Since 2016, they have limited their annual seasonal run to three plays, thereby progressively building their base and focusing on quality over quantity.
The Steel City Shakespeare Center’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (June 9th to the 24th) is directed by Jeffrey Chips and will take place primarily at Troy Hill Citizens Park. The park provides a fitting venue for a play that’s set outdoors in the forest of Arden. Troy Hill is a struggling area of the North Side that not been historically served with theatre. This is where the center connects to the community with its commitment to diversity and inclusion. When I attended a rehearsal at the park, there was a steady stream of passersby, mostly dog walkers, who paused to casually observe snippets of the rehearsal.
While growing up in neighboring Butler County, Chips went to high school down the street from Citizens Park at North Catholic. The space is now a charter school, but his own history with the area is part of the reason he was drawn to the Troy Hill venue. In watching the rehearsal, Chips took a very collaborative approach, by posing his directorial feedback in playful metaphors while also actively seeking collective feedback from the actors. As You Like It is particularly meaningful for Jeffrey. In his senior year as a theatre major at Allegheny College, he performed in As You Like It. In fact, that role awakened his passion for Shakespeare. He realized this was something he wanted to keep doing, so this production is about connecting with his roots in more than one way.
With a compact cast of only five actors, where each plays multiple roles, As You Like It was planned to travel well. By staying true to the center’s vision, Chips has partnered with the Schuman Juvenile Detention Center in Highland Park. There will be one performance of As You Like It onsite at the center as a pilot program. The Schuman Center annually serves 3,500 kids a year from the juvenile justice system, a demographic that’s a far cry from the typical Shakespearean theatre-going audience. But, these are precisely the audiences who can benefit most from Shakespeare in Chips’ view. This audience is at the heart of bringing theatre to the underserved. Seeing the arts come to life in the form of theatre provides an escape, at least temporarily, and may even provide long-term inspiration to a Schuman attendee.
In keeping with their core values, Steel City Shakespeare is also partnering with Hello Neighbor for another performance of As You Like It. Hello Neighbor is a local non-profit that pairs new refugee and immigrant families with local Pittsburgh mentor families to help them acclimate and feel more at home as they transition to life in a new place. Once again, theatre provides a bridge and a connection to those who may not have access. While Chips sees the show as being about sharing the stories we love, he is being creatively mindful about how to adapt it for varying language needs for the refugee audience. He is also thinking beyond the play itself and working with the non-profit team to consider other factors, such as transportation needs. That performance on June 23rd will still be open to the public, but it will take place at Fineview Overlook on the North Side.
In their ongoing quest for diversity, the Steel City Shakespeare Center typically showcases a play by a female author or a non-Western writer for their fall show. Last fall, Chips was one of three playwrights who adapted The Voyages of Sinbad for the center’s performance. In 2016, they performed Pride and Prejudice. This fall, they are sticking with their Shakespearean roots and will perform Hamlet starting October 6. The third and final show of the season will be A Christmas Carol, which Chips adapted with two other members of the Steel City Shakespeare Center.
Whatever the future holds for the Steel City Shakespeare Center, it will always include the search for more creative opportunities to offer theatre to places that do not have access. Their mission to engage communities is truly inspiring, and Chips’ passion is infectious. We all have the opportunity to be more forward-thinking and become better global citizens. Become part of their community, find a new community, and stretch out on the lawn to get lost in the forest of Arden at Troy Hill Citizens Park for As You Like It (June 9th to the 24th).