Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The bard in Arkansas

It's not always appreciated but certainly true that writing--like other artistic endeavors--doesn't usually occur in a cultural vacuum.  The fine arts tend to flourish together--with a singular, unstoppable energy--in certain places and certain eras; feeding each other, challenging each other, and even collaborating with each other.  I feel like I am living through such a time right now in the place where I live and the university where I work.  When I first started teaching at UCA, the creative writers were a small band of spirited artists, eager to try out new courses, engage our students, and see how far this writing thing could go.  Several years later we had in place an undegraduate degree in creative writing--with an unprecedented variety of classes, I might add--and now we've added a masters degree.  Over the same period of time, our university's film program codified an undergraduate degree in digital film and then a MFA degree of the same.  Our music department, already exemplary when I arrived in central Arkansas, has only gotten bettter, regularly attracting world-class faculty and students from around the globe.  (Yes, to Arkansas!)  And the students in our studio art program have never failed to stun me with their semester end shows in the Baum Gallery, as fine a museum space as I have seen at any of the universities at which I've taught or been in a student.  Meanwhile, seven years ago, our theatre department presented an inspired idea to UCA's College of Fine Arts and Communication: to create a professional summer theater company dedicated to performing the works of Shakespeare.  Following the model of other summer Shakespeare companies, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre would recruit from everywhere, combining actors with national stage and screen experience with experienced local performers.

Well, it worked.  The support was there; the enthusiasm was there; the artistic energy of this place and time was palpable.   Seven years later, AST--the only professional Shakespeare company in Arkansas-- has been an amazing success.  And by that I simply mean that they put on great performances.  I'll never forget their rendition of A Comedy of Errors from a few summers ago.  An early Shakespeare work, the play is considered one of the rougher and simpler in his oeuvre.  But the AST actors took on their roles with such energy, and the show was directed with such smarts and such whimsy, that it ranks as the best production of a Shakespeare comedy I have ever seen.  Anywhere.  No kidding, I was howling.  Last summer, AST did a haunting rendition of Richard III that surpassed a rendition I saw some years ago put on by the eminent Folger Shakespeare company of Washington, DC (and starring Stacy Keach, no less).  AST's show was better.   And it's not just Shakespeare they do.  Each years they take on one non-Shakespeare play and a children's play.  A couple years ago they did Dracula--the original Dracula--a production that featured an incredibly inventive, almost illusory, set; really smart staging; and some inspired performances.  The play was literally chilling.  I took my younger son to the show, and he decided to dress up as a vampire.  These days, post-Twilight, it's hard to see vampires as anything but foolish fun and games.  That's what my son expected.  But he spent most of the show with his head hidden behind his cape.  It was reminder to me how even in this era of Hollywood blockbuster special effects, live theatre can still be incredibly affecting.  (More affecting than Hollywood if you ask me.)

This season is off to a roaring start with Much Ado About Nothing and Oliver both currently running.  King Lear opens on Thursday, and I have my ticket.  Two years ago, AST tried a new innovation by taking one of their shows on the road and into the open air.  Thus, since 2011 Love's Labours Lost, Twelfth Night, and, this season, Much Ado have been performed on the lawn at Hendrix Village, next to Hendrix College in Conway.  Outdoors in summer is just such a natural setting for the bard.  Few people know it, but I grew up in the southern Maryland woods, part of a community of eccentric refugees who in the 1960s and 70s decided to escape Washington, DC and its suburbs and hole up in the country.  Back in the 1930s, the original eccentric, a woman named Alice Ferguson, built a small concrete stage in the woods on her property so that she and her Washingtonian friends who visited on the weekends could have a proper space to recite Shakespeare and perform skits.   By the time I lived in the area, Alice Ferguson had died, but a longer, deeper wooden stage had been built beside the original one.  And other members of the community had decided to carry on Alice Ferguson's ambition to perform works of the bard.  So it was on that wooden stage, in the heart of the humid, summer-heavy southern Maryland woods that I first experienced Shakespeare, both as a participant (they always needed kids to fill out the cast) and as an observer.  Thus, the smell of bug spray, the feeling of wooden benches and lawn chairs, the odor of relaxing evening heat, and the sounds of insects and light animals in the woods have always seemed to me like perfect accompaniment to Shakespeare.  (Midsummer Night's Dream was the perfect show for that space.)  When later I confronted Shakespeare in my high school English class it was okay--it's impossible not to like Shakespeare--but studying the plays felt entirely inorganic.  Something was missing.  How great that AST has brought back the excitement and enthusiasm and energy of seeing the bard performed outdoors.  Unfortunately, the reality of outdoor performances is that sometimes you get weather.  The other night, we caught exactly one half of Much Ado before lightning began to flash and rain to fall.   Such a shame for both the actors and the audience, both of which were just starting to really warm up and appreciate each other.

No rain, though, inside Reynolds Performance Hall at UCA for King Lear and for Oliver.  We hope to see both before our trip across the pond for the UK's Great Writing Conference.  (More thoughts on that next week.)  Meanwhile, Much Ado heads this weekend to the Argenta Arts District in North Little Rock, Arkansas.   If you are within earshot of this blog, or central Arkansas, come out and see AST.  You won't be disappointed!


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