The Delaware Shakespeare Festival, a professional theater company that has been performing the Bard’s work since 2003, doesn’t disappear after its summer show closes.
“We’ve started adding smaller performances throughout the year so we don’t just pop up for three weeks each summer,” says David Stradley, DSF’s producing artistic director for the last three years.
Around Halloween, for instance, DSF players have presented Shakespeare/Poe: A Night of Readings from ‘The Dark Side,‘ at locations ranging from the New Castle-based Read House & Gardens to the galleries of the Newark Arts Alliance. “We definitely want to do the Shakespeare/Poe night again,” Stradley says. “That really hit a chord with the audiences.”
Caroline Crocker, who has spent three summers with the troupe, says that though she is exhausted after the show’s run ends (this year’s performance of Hamlet took place from July 11-27), she always looks forward to participating in the Shakespeare/Poe night and other DSF-related activities.
Both Crocker, who played Gertrude, and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, a four-year DSF veteran who played Hamlet, said they felt ‘bittersweet’ as the summer show concluded. But other opportunities always seem to materialize.
From July 30 to August 1, DSF is participating in Wilmington’s Summer in the Parks series with “Shakespeare’s Playground.” Produced by The Grand Opera House, this series of free arts performances takes place in parks all over Wilmington. DSF players Clare Mahoney and Johnny Smith are performing scenes from The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. After seeing the scenes once, the audience then gets to re-direct the actors using the landscape of the parks.
The DSF troupe has also been known to assemble around Valentine’s day to create a romantic night for lovers, star-crossed or otherwise, by reading the more passionate and tender passages from Shakespeare’s prose.
Of course, all of the activity builds up to the summer show, which has grown larger and larger over the last 12 years. This year, the DSF beat its previous attendance record by 36 percent, performing in front of more than 3,500 people.
For the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, DSF chose to present the Bard’s longest and most-performed play, Hamlet. Patrons brought their own blankets or chairs to Wilmington’s Rockwood Park, packed their own picnics (wine is encouraged), and spread out in front of the historic Rockwood Mansion, which the company has sometimes utilized to enhance its performances. The mansion’s balcony, for example, served well for a staging of Romeo and Juliet. This year, DSF chose to build its own stage, putting the mansion behind the audience. The stage, parts of which lit up during the performance, was designed lop-sided and askew to reflect the religious and political unrest at the time when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
“We always want the shows to be fun and accessible for the widest possible array of audiences,” says Stradley. “There are some companies that try to do ‘high concept’ Shakespeare. We keep the focus on the story. … Shakespeare’s original intention was to entertain the audience.”
DSF always lends its own vision to the plays. For example, Hamlet required a fight-choreographer to stage duels and a text coach to make sure the actors use all the clues in Shakespeare’s language, but the actors didn’t speak in English accents or dress in traditional Elizabethan costumes, instead donning minimal, though still old-timey, ensembles.
DSF also makes the play its own by introducing mini-skits that begin a half hour before the show. This summer, one could arrive early to participate in an interactive discussion about the play and watch actors perform an original comedy sketch inspired by Hamlet. Before Sunday shows, DSF even hosted various Shakespearean-themed arts and crafts in the children’s activity tent, which remained open during the performance.
The festival delivers a very warm and accommodating experience. Lining the winding path up to the lawn were placards with interesting facts about Shakespeare and Hamlet. Cellist Paul Gianakon accompanied the show with a striking score, also playing gently before the production began, while people chatted and helped themselves at the bug-spray station (additionally, the grounds are treated with chemicals that keep mosquitos away).
Bugs aside, the outdoor setting of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival creates a relaxed and casual atmosphere. “It’s a lot different performing in an outdoor space than an indoor, controlled environment,” says Stradley. “We make sure we at least have four to five rehearsals outdoors, because you have to realize that a plane can fly over at any time, a dog can go running through.” Indeed, though rehearsals began only a month before the show, the actors were well prepared, entirely unruffled as a few planes rumbled in the distance.
Also an important aspect of rehearsals, “we wanted to make sure that the relationship between Hamlet and the audience was very real,” says Stradley. “During the soliloquies when he speaks directly to the audience, we wanted the audience to be right there with the actor.”
Check the Delaware Shakespeare Festivals’ website for updates about off-season events and the announcement of next summer’s show.