Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, founded in 2001, can be spotted in the schools, in the streets, and in the parks of St. Louis, Missouri. Through a variety of educational workshops and tours, community involvement, and the production of a full-scale Shakespearean play, the Festival connects with over 85,000 community members a year.
The core values of the Festival–Community, Conversation, and Collaboration–have led them to develop two community-focused programs: Shakespeare in the Streets and Shake 38. These programs encourage community members to connect with Shakespeare’s works by being part of the adaptation and performance on a new play or by reading plays in unusual spaces.
Shakespeare in the Streets, sponsored by PNC Arts Alive & the National Endowment for the Arts, engages an entire neighborhood in the process of adapting and performing a Shakespearean work addressing the unique community identity of the residents. The Festival hopes that this program will energize residents and allow them to share their neighborhoods character with the Greater St. Louis community.
Local Benton Park/Gravois Park/Cherokee Street business owners and residents created the inaugural play, The New World, in collaboration with a creative team from the Festival. Throughout the year the creative team attended neighborhood events and meetings, engaging residents and community leaders in discussion about the history and current concerns of the neighborhood. The playwright, Nancy Bell, then combined the stories from residents, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and her own impressions of the neighborhood to create the script.
The cast was full of diverse community members. Kids and local business owners shared the stage with professional actors. Following one month of intense rehearsals the cast presented three free performances of The New World at the intersection of Cherokee Street & California Avenue April 27-29, 2012. The audience of over 350 was comprised of Shakespeare lovers, neighborhood kids, and people who just happened upon the stage blocking the street.
This program is one that illustrates the idea that community ownership in the creative process can go a long way to opening doors for honest dialogue around community concerns and successes.
Shake 38 is a marathon of Shakespeare readings that lead up to the opening performance of the annual Shakespeare performance in Forest Park. For the 2012 season all 38 plays will be read over 5 days leading up to the full-scale production of Othello in Forest Park. This marathon creates a buzz in the community as it prepares St. Louis for the main event: free Shakespeare in the Park!
In collaboration with other non-profits throughout St. Louis The Festival hosts multiple Shake 38 events and encourages readings at hospitals, nursing home, community gardens, or any other place imaginable. The Festival also offers “Blind Shakes,” which are similar to blind dates for Shakespeare enthusiasts. These “Blind Shakes” are readings of a play by whomever shows up at the time and place indicated on the schedule.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has taken their core values to heart and created two programs that not only immerse the community in theater but also fully engage them in dialogue about their own neighborhood.