FREELANCE BABY…

19 May

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SHAKESPEARE IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN – A free-lance piece for the Arizona Magazine

(The surprising popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in a desert landscape.) 

An investigation into the popularity and influence of Shakespeare’s writings in 21st century Phoenix.

By Colin James 

            Margery fusses with her wig and quickly applies another coating of grease-paint. She can feel the swell of voices beyond the curtain — sense their expectation. An audience that’s wined and dined and who now expect to be entertained; after all they’ve paid their $15!
            The Pebble Creek Players have rehearsed for months, in fact the best part of a year. If they haven’t got it down by now they never will. They’re word perfect, and perfectly practiced. It wasn’t easy; a passage of trial and tribulation — long afternoons fortified with iced whatever’s. But tonight’s the night, the moment her amateur thespians will eke out their lives as shadows and poor players as they pace the boards of the Pebble Creek community center.
            Margery adjusts the prosthesis underneath her shirt, looks across the void, and smiles nervously at one of her fellow cast members hidden in the shadows. Slowly she ambles to center stage; difficult to do with one leg in Plaster of Paris however, assisted by crutches she does her best. Suddenly there’s a hush, the only voice that of the compere. “Ladies and Gentleman welcome to this evenings performance.” The voice is a mumble, the words barely audible through the thick curtain that separates the performers from the audience, or rather the Christians from the lions. “Ladies and Gentleman I give you The Greys, Pebble Creek’s answer to Shaftsbury Avenue and Broadway.” Applause. The curtain is lifted.

*

            Arizona sunshine beats down on black top as Snow-birds and visitors from colder states caper nimbly in newly acquired tennis sneakers defending their own side of the net. The laughter and mirth generated by an afternoon of tennis is palpable in contrast to the intensity of a small but dedicated “band of brothers” that while away the hours in rehearsal and recitation of a Shakespeare play in a private home across the street. Pebble creek, a Robson Retirement community on the west side of Phoenix, caters to those lucky enough to have left the work place far behind; an active adult retirement resort where no matter your flavor of distraction, it can be found behind it’s secure stucco walls. 

          Wendy Jackson, 65, a native of Madison Wisconsin and grandmother to six, holds a copy of Spark’s Notes “No fear Shakespeare” in her hand and reads aloud to the assembled mixture of silver haired ladies and gents who sit comfortably in a semi-circle around her. The text is Henry the V, the notebook a study guide for those introducing themselves to the works of Shakespeare. The Greys, the Pebble Creek Players is an erudite bunch who intend to perform the play later this year. The “happy few”, with drinks in hand, listen intently to Mrs. Jackson as she enunciates; sipping gratefully from freshly made iced-tea. 

            “Theater has always been in our blood,” explained Wendy, “My mother was a dancer and my father, during his military service, worked for a glee-platoon that put on productions for the troops. Although my father was often a little embarrassed of his service, he often spoke of his wonderful-war, entertaining front line soldiers. My father had been a painter and decorator before the war, so when they came looking for volunteers he was a shoe-in, as they needed someone to paint and construct the sets. I guess you might say that the grease paint and limelight was spooned into me as a child. Shakespeare came later for me, probably around the time I went to college.” 

            Wendy looks wistful as she relates her amateur dramatic experience. “Of course it all started in high school with the Christmas show and the annual production the drama society would perform for the parents and students. Once bitten by the bug, I never really lost touch with the stage, and the discovery of a deeper more thoughtful production developed in me with my first taste of Shakespeare. I remember it was Twelfth Night and I was lucky enough to get the part of the maid. Quite an undertaking however, clearly my director saw something in me that, looking back now, was probably a turning point. I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics, and in particular Shakespearian productions, even when pregnant with my two boys ever since. There is something in the language that is so enduring and meaningful. As my old director would say there is ‘cadence on the tongue and music in the ears’ when his plays are performed.” 

            But how much enthusiasm can there be for the Bard in a retirement community on the far edge of Phoenix? Is there really a market for a 16th century play-wright in the Valley of the Sun? 

            Wendy laughs, “You’d be surprised. Of course there’s always enthusiasm for the golden oldies,” as she calls the more popular Broadway productions, “but there’s always a lot of interest in Shakespeare. You’d be surprised how many people have made it to retirement, who only now are listening to, and enjoying his plays. She shakes her head and smiles, “Seems like a waste to me, but better late than never.” 

            The Pebble Creek Players have to date performed 3 sold out productions of William Shakespeare’s plays and alongside their theatrics have created both a reading club and a study group. “A lot of the residents,” explains Wendy, “can’t seem to get enough, and we’re always being approached by new people interested in joining our various groups.” 

            There is no age limit, or statute of limitations that makes the plays popular. When one thinks of Shakespeare penning his prose and performing his plays for the mob in London, clearly it wasn’t sunbaked Arizona that he had in mind. 

            It’s Friday night and a group of around 10 teenagers sit on a stage beneath florescent lighting at Saint Luke’s Church on the corner of 19th Avenue and Camelback road, a location popular on Sunday mornings with a largely Hispanic congregation. The group of young enthusiasts waits eagerly, chatting and browsing on their smart-phones. The teens have volunteered to participate in a Shakespeare workshop run by the Brelby Theater Company on the West side of Phoenix in Glendale. This older, less in vogue area of town, has suffered the effects of economic malaise. During the 16th century, when Shakespeare’s plays were being performed for a half-penny a time for the groundlings in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames in London, The Globe Theater hardly had an address to boast of either. Glendale is now populated by lower income families, with a large Hispanic demographic. At least half of the kids waiting for Geoff Shelby, the organizer of the workshop and one of the principals of the theater, are the children of Latino immigrants and not all of them are legal. 

            Geoff a tall, gangly, salt and peppered veteran of the theater calls the kids to order and hands out copies of this evening’s texts. Romeo and Juliet; the balcony scene. 

            “Something they all know about even if they don’t realize it yet.” Geoff throws me and infectious grin and launches into Romeo, oh Romeo. 

            “Alright then who’s heard that before?” asks Geoff. A couple of hands go up in the air. “Who’s heard of Romeo and Juliet?” Several more hands appear. “You guys have been holding out on me. Seems you’ve have already heard of this Shakespeare character.” Laughter ripples through the small group that’s excited to get down to business. 

            “Shakespeare,” Geoff tells me, “is as relevant today as he ever was. It’s simply a case of getting young people’s attention. With so many distractions and sources of instant gratification one has to bring the plays to the fore, sit the kids down, and show them what they’re missing. It’s amazing to see the transformation from disinterest to over-the-top enthusiasm; their pride in being able to recite and remember tracts of text. You literally see the kids grow as they stand on stage and recite for their parents at the end of the course. 

            The Brelby company has been a feature of the Phoenix theater scene for well over 15 years and was formed by Geoff Shelby and fellow thespian Anita Rodriquez . 

            “At the time,” says Geoff, “there was no real theater. Sure there were movies but it wasn’t the same thing. Live theater grabs an audience by the throat and forces their senses into the action without the distraction of popcorn and product placement. We originally formed the company to perform one play however, since then we’ve done over forty. Shakespeare has always been a main-stay of our revue, an evergreen that audiences don’t seem to grow tired of.” 

            The Brelby, a not-for-profit organization, has benefitted from Arizona for the Arts funding, hence their community give back. “Ticket sales,” says Geoff, “ are unfortunately only half the story, and alongside our theatrical work we all hold regular jobs. Theater is our passion, unfortunately not our profession.” The look on Geoff’s face at the interaction of the kids is worth the million dollars the Brelby Theater Company truly deserves. He believes that keeping Arizona’s kids on the stage and off the streets is money and time well spent.

*

            Arizona is a keenly diversified state where one can ski Flagstaff in the morning and bathe in Phoenix sunshine in the afternoon; a state known more for copper, cattle and cotton than Elizabethan English theater. One can rodeo-ride in Buckeye or sling six-shooters in old-town Tucson, but one can also find the theater in all its diversified forms throughout the state, and surprisingly that of William Shakespeare. There is a ground swell of enthusiasts and over 20 independent theater companies, private individuals and interest groups, who devote their time to either studying his works or performing his plays.

*

            In the heart of downtown Mesa a very different atmosphere can be found from that at Saint Luke’s, although their intent is the same. The Desert Rose Theater, “The best theater you’ve never seen,” as they advertise themselves, are in the throes of final preparation. Unlike the Pebble Creek Players who were surrounded by garden furniture and cooling beverages there is a sense of urgency, a heated atmosphere of needs-to-be-done; a group in excess of 30 people, swarm around the theater building preparing for an opening night that is only a week away. The posters are printed, the blurb gone to the local press, and ticket sales haven’t been too shabby either. They intend to perform William Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream and Kathryn Stewart, the director of the theater, is in no mood for half-measures, and even less time for anybody not directly related to the play. 

            With tousled brown hair and eye-glasses pushed up on her fore head, Kathryn is the epitome of efficiency. She continuously shuffles papers through her hands while we talk, and despite the interview, is keen to engage several people in conversation at any one time. In between her directions for stage management and interjections between actors, I discover her passion for the plays. 

            “I finished college in Washington, and joined a theater group directly afterward. With a liberal arts education and a passion for the stage, much to the disappointment of my parents, I took to the road. For me it’s always been Shakespeare. I’ve worked with other companies in the past, but it’s always a welcome return home when I go back to doing what I love best.” 

            Kathryn has trod the boards for the past 30 years and is clearly a devotee to her art. But why Phoenix? Why Arizona? 

            “The Rose Theater first came to Phoenix in ‘92.  At the time we performed mainly for schools and colleges. Now, much to my distress, the study of Shakespeare and his works has nearly disappeared from the curriculum and so we’ve had to make ourselves more affable to the public. This has meant more elaborate stage craft and a sense of utter professionalism in order to attract paying audiences. Although we’re a volunteer organization we do employ several professionals and very often contract actors for our leading roles. This allows us to take our plays on the road, and during any given year we cover most of Arizona. Our season is generally made up of four plays two of which are always Shakespearian in nature whether Shakespeare, Marlow or Johnson for example.” 

            Judging by the amount of people involved and the projected two weeks of four performance plus matinees, Kathryn has her hands full. I leave her to her work and head for my final Shakespearian experience.

*

            My destination is the aluminum and glass edifice of the Mesa Arts Center, An opulent, outwardly expensive monument to the theater and performance art. The center features art, dance and music, and is home to the Southwest Shakespeare Company, the most auspicious of all the Shakespearian players within Phoenix’s city-limits. I step into a polished steel elevator and wend my way to the office of Margaret Monroe, the current publicity director for the company. As expected Ms. Monroe is dressed in impeccable business attire and exudes and air of supreme confidence. A total contrast from Geoff Shelby and his make shift accommodation in Glendale. 

            “You have to understand that Shakespeare can be performed in many different ways,” she explains, “and have been on many different occasions. The fact that we’ve this beautiful facility and the ability to hire top notch actors doesn’t detract from the work being performed by others. You have to remember that during Elizabethan times there was also a differentiation between those who paid pennies to stand and watch performances in the rain, and those who sat on cushions in the balconies. Shakespeare is for everybody and in order to proliferate his works we offer a first class location with a first class experience.” 

            Although the company does receive some arts-council funding, it is a self-sufficient organization and turns a profit. When not performing in Phoenix, they take their plays on the road and even internationally. “Phoenix is a great base for us,” explains Margaret, “as everybody here is from somewhere else. Many residents have come from larger cities where they’ve enjoyed quality theater and so expect the same.” A classic case of the market will provide.

*

            Mrs. Menendez watches her teenage son as he leaves the house, walks down the garden path, turns, waves, and disappears into inky blackness. Menendez crosses herself; not in fear for her son but in thanks for a certain individual who’s come to town — a voice that will take her beloved boy off the street and keep him safe from harm. She knows exactly where Jose will be for the next two hours; in fact she knows where he’ll be every Tuesday and Thursday for the next two months. Secure and surrounded in the caring environment of the Brelby Theatre and Geoff Shelby; free from the scum who pollute the streets.
            So who is this masked man, the caped-crusader that has arrived to save the youth of Glendale? No man of steel, rather a man of words; a warrior poet whose plays and sonnets have brightened the planet for over 400 years; a writer who has chased away the shadows and illuminated the lives of millions. Parents of Glendale and Phoenix take heart. William Shakespeare abides in Arizona.

 

The End

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