The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 25th season as “Cleveland’s Most Accessible Theatre”

CLEVELAND, Ohio — “We aspire to return to the spirit in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed,” Cleveland Shakespeare Festival founder Tim Perfect told The Plain in a story ahead of the group’s first-ever performance on June 12, 1998 dealers

Cut to the summer of 2022 and the traveling theater company created by Perfect and several of his fellow drama students at Case Western Reserve University is still going strong. Cleveland’s version of “Shakespeare in the Park” begins its 25th season this weekend with three performances in Cleveland Heights, Bentleyville and Berea. The original mission remains intact: to harness the power of Shakespeare’s plays to enlighten and inspire, and make them accessible to all.

“That trifecta of being free, bringing the theater right to the people, and playing outdoors so not just families but passers-by can experience a bit of art in the midst of everyday life is what we’re really about,” said Cleveland Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Dusten Welch.

In fact, the group aims to break down the barriers of traditional theater. The first is the cost. All performances are free. The second is location. The festival will play in 14 different cities from Lakeside to Mentor and many places in between over the course of its six-week season. The third is the venue. Instead of a quiet, enclosed theatre, plays are performed outdoors in a public park, allowing people to come and go as they please and as they please, absorbing as much or as little of the performance as they like.

“The audience comes in with their picnic blankets or lawn chairs, nestles in a seat, and then sits back and enjoys the show under the night sky,” Welch said.

The touring festival operates like a well-oiled machine, allowing the nimble cast and crew to get in and out of cities quickly. The performances last about two hours. Shows are performed to a minimal set with a few lights for sunset. The actors are dressed in classic costumes adorned with modern touches. The performers, from veteran professionals to aspiring young actors, are all either from Northeast Ohio or have ties to the area, and even mingle with the audience after each show.

“We strive to be as local as possible,” Welch said.

The hardest entry point might be the material itself. Shakespeare’s prose takes time to get used to, especially if you haven’t read it since high school or maybe never read it at all.

“The lyrics are sometimes a hindrance, but when they’re done right and the actors are expressing the meaning of the lyrics, the words are just a conduit,” Welch said. “If the audience can’t quite understand some of the words themselves, at least they can look at the actors and see the feelings they’re expressing or the relationships they have with one another and get a sense of what the play is about.”

In his opinion, the experience is worth the extra hurdle. Wel believes that Shakespeare’s words magically touch our souls, something he realized at a certain performance a few years ago.

“There were three little kids, the oldest was probably 14 and the youngest maybe six or seven, who would stop and watch the show for like 15 minutes and then go off to do what they were doing,” he recalled. “I thought nothing of it, but then they came back 10 minutes later with popcorn, sat down and watched the rest of the show.”

The festival is showing two productions in its 25th season. First up is Hamlet, directed by Welch, which is showing in nine cities through July 10. This tragedy of revenge is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous work, in which the melancholic Prince Hamlet contemplates ‘to be or not’ and engages in a dramatic duel with Laertes.

“It is one of the most complicated battle scenes Shakespeare created. It was a fun little challenge to work it into our play,” said Welch, who was inspired by productions with Richard Burton and Kenneth Branagh. “I thought let’s make it our own, but let’s see how we can honor those great ones who’ve done it before.”

The second show is The Learned Ladies, which opens July 22nd and runs in nine cities through August 7th. Directed by Keira McDonald, the play, written by Molière in 1672 and recently adapted by Timothy Mooney, is a comedy about forbidden love. It is also one of the few times that the festival has deviated from showcasing the bard’s work.

“It’s a fun satire with lots of movement, live music, and the kind of antics that Molière was famous for,” Welch said. “Molière was pretty much the French equivalent of Shakespeare.”

So, come one, come all, he invites. The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival offers something for everyone, a night of theater unmatched in the city for 25 years.

“We really strive to be Cleveland’s most accessible theater,” Welch said. “I encourage everyone to experience our festive celebration and enjoy a wonderful play in all of Cleveland’s beautiful parks.”

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival brings live theater to the beautiful parks of Northeast Ohio this summer with “Hamlet” and “The Learned Ladies.”

Schedule for the 2022 Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

All shows start at 7pm and are normally performed rain or shine as most venues have an alternate space in case of rain.

“Hamlet”

June 24: Cleveland Heights, Coventry PEACE PARK, 2843 Washington Blvd.

25th June: Bentleyville, Bentleyville, Community Park, 36020 Solon Rd.

June 26: Berea, Coe Lake Park, 105 S. Rocky River Dr.

July 1: South Euclid, Notre Dame College, 4545 College Rd.

2nd July: Mentor, James A. Garfield Historic Site, 8095 Mentor Ave.

3rd of July: Shaker Heights, Van Aken County, 3441 Tuttle Rd.

8th of July: Tremont, Lincoln Park, 1200 Starkweather Avenue, Cleveland

July 9: Lorain, Black River Landing, 421 Black River Ln.

10th of July: Bay Village, BAYarts, 28795 Lake Rd.

“The Learned Ladies”

22nd of July: Cleveland Heights, Coventry PEACE PARK, 2843 Washington Blvd.

July 23: Lakewood, Lakewood Park, 14532 Lake Ave.

24th July: Berea, Coe Lake Park, 105 S. Rocky River Dr.

29th of July: Cleveland, public square

30th July: Mentor, James A. Garfield Historic Site, 8095 Mentor Ave.

July 31: Lorain, Black River Landing, 421 Black River Ln.

5th of August: Euclid, Sims Park, 23131 Lakeshore Blvd.

6th of August: Tremont, Lincoln Park, 1200 Starkweather Avenue, Cleveland

August 7th: Lakeside, Lakeside Chautauqua, 236 Walnut Ave.

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