The only professional theater in East Texas returns this summer with a lineup that is certain to entertain audiences.
The Texas Shakespeare Festival will open its 32nd season on June 29. Performances of the season’s six plays will run throughout July. The 2017 lineup will feature performances of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Richard III”; the non-Shakespearean plays “Did You Hear Thunder?” and “Cyrano de Bergerac”; the musical “The Marvelous Wonderettes”; and the children’s play “The Witch of Pickle Patch.”
“We are the only professional theater in East Texas; to see something of this caliber, you would normally have to go to Dallas or Houston, unless, of course, you go to one of the touring shows that occasionally visit the Belcher Center or Cowan Center,” said Raymond Caldwell, founder and artistic director of the Texas Shakespeare Festival. “There’s not a bad seat in our house and all of our actors are very accomplished. We review 2,000 auditions from actors across the country and we pick the best ones we can get.”
Each year, the Texas Shakespeare Festival culls auditions for its cast and its crew from submissions across the country. This year’s company features 93 people; of those, 26 people are actors who will perform all of the roles in all of the plays.
For its play selection, the festival annually performs two Shakespeare plays – one comedy and one history or tragedy. The festival also has two adult plays that are non-Shakespearean, one musical and one children’s play. With the festival in its 32nd season, Caldwell said, it’s rare to find a Shakespeare play that hasn’t been performed there so often the plays are recycled.
Caldwell said the Texas Shakespeare Festival has only performed “Richard III” once and has performed the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” at least twice, but not in many years. Actor Michael C. Hall starred as Claudio in Texas Shakespeare Festival’s 1995 performance of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Hall went on to Hollywood fame and is perhaps best known for having starring roles in the TV series “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter,” for which he won a Golden Globe Award.
“Many of our actors over the years have moved on to very exciting things,” he said. “It’s been nice to be able to say, ‘I knew them before.’”
Because “Much Ado About Nothing” is a popular play and because it had been many years since it was performed, the festival decided to revive it this year. “Richard III,” Caldwell said, seemed timely because the king’s remains were found a few years ago in England and reinterred in 2015.
“It has been in the news fairly recently, and much of what they discovered when they found his remains kind of proved ‘the legend’ that was in Shakespeare’s play,” Caldwell said. “For example, in the play he is hunch-backed; his skeleton showed that he had scoliosis.”
The story of “Richard III”, Caldwell said, is often intriguing to people in a way that other historical plays are perhaps not.
“When people hear the name, ‘Richard III,’ they know there’s something about that character that is interesting,” he said.
This year’s musical, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” is a small-scale musical about a group of four girls who perform popular songs from the 1950s for their high school prom. The second act features the women reuniting for their 10-year high school reunion in the 1960s to perform songs of that decade. Amid the songs, they tell stories about their lives.
“Each of the four girls has a distinct personality and a story to tell,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell’s personal favorite play of all time is among this season’s non-Shakespeare plays, and the other is a play that Caldwell wrote himself.
He described “Cyrano de Bergerac” as his “favorite play of all plays.” He first read the play in French as he was both a French major and a drama major in college. Based on a true story, the play was written in 1897 by Edmund Rostand at a time when romantic plays were not in favor; it was the height of realism.
“It was unexpected to see a play like that at the time; it became an immediate blockbuster sensation similar to what ‘Hamilton’ has done today, though ‘Cyrano’ is not a musical,” Caldwell said. “I like it because it’s an epic story and because it covers virtually a lifetime. It’s about an underdog who is struggling against all odds to win the love he has never had.”
Meanwhile, “Did You Hear Thunder?” is a play Caldwell wrote himself that, after some agonizing, he decided to allow the company to perform this season. The festival annually features one show that has a small cast so that it can utilize what is known as The UpStairs Space. This is an area upstairs in the Anne Dean Turk Fine Arts Center that was renovated into a little black box theater, which is ideal for small productions. The past three years the festival has featured a performance of “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman play about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, but this year the company wanted to do something different, Caldwell said.
Caldwell described “Did You Hear Thunder?” as “a prose-poem about our solitary journey through life — the loneliness of searching for connections when we are young and the aloneness of questioning life’s purpose as we grow old.” The play is philosophical in nature but does feature moments of comedy.
This year’s children’s play, “The Witch of Pickle Patch,” is being written and will be directed by ArtsView Children’s Theatre Artistic Director and General Manager Jason Richards. Caldwell said the play will be similar to children’s fairy tales.
Tickets to the 2017 Texas Shakespeare Festival go on sale in May, and Caldwell encourages the community to come out to see a retelling of a classic play.
“Almost everything we do is something that’s been proven to be an audience favorite for years, and you really can’t beat that,” he said. “If people will come out and take a chance to see Shakespeare performed rather than be forced to read it, they will understand why Shakespeare was such a genius and why his plays still resonate after 500 years.”