Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha
Before you get the idea that the only thing happening this summer in my hometown is the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards and Native Omaha Days, here’s a heads-up for this year’s rendition of the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival. The popular event has been packing them in for performances of the Bard’s plays at Elmwood Park for 25 years. The following story for Omaha Magazine gives a brief primer for how the fest started and what to expect at it. This blog is full of stories about and links to Omaha cultural attractions. It used to be people complained there wasn’t enough to do here, but now it’s quite the opposite – there’s so much to do that it’s hard choosing among the bounty.
Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
When the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival returns this June and July, alternating two professional productions of the Bard’s work, it will mark the 25th season for one of Omaha‘s summer entertainment staples.
Over that time the free outdoor event has played to more than a half-million spectators in a tucked-away nook of Elmwood Park adjacent to the UNO campus.
The play’s certainly the thing at these relaxed evenings on the green and under the stars but the lively pre-show has its own attractions:
•food and souvenir booths
•interactive activities for youths
•live musical performances
•educational seminars to brush up your Shakespeare
•Two-Minute Shakespeare quizzes where the audience tries stumping the actors
•assorted jugglers, jesters and merrymakers.
On select nights Camp Shakespeare performances let school-age kids “speak the speech.” On June 26 Will’s Best Friend Contest invites dog owners to show off their pooches in Shakespearean splendor.
Co-founders Cindy Phaneuf and Alan Klem say the festival found a loyal following right from the start. The come-as-you-are ambience, bucolic site and free shows are hard to beat.
“We really woke up the space,” says Phaneuf. a University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor.. “It’s a gorgeous location — 3.7 acres, naturally slanted, protected by trees, gobs of parking. Once you go down the hill it’s like you’re in a magical little world.”
Whether a brooding tragedy or a lilting comedy an average of 2,000-plus folks flock to each performance. This year’s contrasting shows are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet.
Phaneuf says some favorite memories are “the hushed silence of the crowd, the laughter that ripples from the front to back row and spontaneous standing ovations.” She likes that families make Shakespeare “part of their summer… part of their growing up.” Many fans return year after year to soak up the language, the outdoors and the communal spirit.
“It was always about the highest quality art we could possibly create but we also wanted an event where everyone felt comfortable,” says Phaneuf. “Shakespeare seems somewhat elitist but then we put it in an open environment, in a park, right in the middle of the city and it’s very inviting.
“The other thing that’s made it so lasting is we wanted everyone to feel they owned it — that it didn’t just belong to the board and to the people making the plays. If you cater only to a small faction it will not continue to grow and thrive, it will start to wither and die, and so that was really important to us.”
She says the festival alleviated a paucity of the Bard’s work performed locally and gave theatergoers a fix for for the usually dormant summer stage season.
“There was such a hunger and need for it,” she says. “There’s lots of theater in town but very little Shakespeare.”
While some theaters’ seasons now extend into summer the fest’s among Omaha’s only professional venues. Equity actors from across the nation headline their.
Creighton University professor Alan Klem says the event not only presents good theater but supports and grows the local talent pool by hiring professional actors from the community and “bringing in students from Creighton and UNO who are working towards becoming actors.” Phaneuf says for many students it’s their first professional gig. Some, like Jill Anderson, earn Equity cards in the process.
“It just ups the ante and the expectation,” Phaneuf says. “It’s a great training ground.”
The festival’s only one element of the nonprofit Nebraska Shakespeare. Vincent Carlson-Brown and Sarah Carlson-Brown interned as UNO students, then worked through the ranks and today are associate artistic directors.
Besides being a learning lab and career springboard for emerging talent, thousands of high school students attend the Music Alive! collaboration with the Omaha Symphony. Nebraska Shakespeare also tours a fall production to schools throughout the state, complete with post-show discussions and workshops. Klem says these educational efforts are “as important as doing the plays out in the park,” adding that there are plans to expand the tours.
Klem and Phaneuf, who go back to their undergrad days together at Texas Christian University, say they knew they were onto something big when audiences turned out in droves year one. His experience founding Shakespeare in the Park in Fort Worth, Texas gave Shakespeare on the Green a head start. The Omaha fest has always been a collaboration between UNO and Creighton.
The two theater geeks served as co-artistic directors the first six years. Then Klem went onto other things — returning to act roles. Phaneuf continued in charge until resigning after the 2009 festival, when budget cuts resulted in one show rather than the usual two. The festival’s since rebounded. Klem’s back as artistic director and Phaneuf remains close to the organization.
Volunteers are critical to putting the event on. Phaneuf recalls once when high winds blew the set down during the day the stage crew and volunteers rebuilt it in time for that night’s show. She says that show-must-go-on dedication is what she appreciates most: “It’s people pulling together to make this happen. It’s a cooperative venture.” Klem marvels that the same spirit infusing the event 25 years ago still permeates it today.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: June 23-26, July 6, 8, 10 and Hamlet: June 30, July 1-3, 7, 9
Performances start at 8 p.m. Booths open at 5:30. The pre-show starts at 7.
For more info., visit http://www.nebraskashakespeare.com/home.
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