Culture feature - Stage An encore for men in tights

A homegrown Shakespeare in the Park returns to SA

1990 was an important year for theater in San Antonio. The San Antonio Little Theatre (now San Pedro Playhouse) made history - even though Managing Artistic Director Wayne Elkins lost a three-year battle with AIDS that March - by becoming the first American community theater to tour the Soviet Union. Ronald "Ronnie" Ibbs, who established the theater program at Incarnate Word College (now the University of the Incarnate Word) with his wife Maureen Halligan, died at 74. And a family event taken for granted in most cities of comparable size finally came to San Antonio: free, outdoor, summer Shakespeare.

Lee Marshall (front), as Oberon, and Dave Cortez as Puck, are part of the cast of The Magik Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which will be presented as Shakespeare in the Park at the Botanical Garden. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

After a two-year hiatus due largely to funding shortfalls, Shakespeare will return, this time to the San Antonio Botanical Garden. The new incarnation will begin its run on June 29 with A Midsummer Night's Dream, the quintessential Shakespeare-in-the-park play that was also the inaugural 1990 production. The support of H-E-B and the Botanical Society were crucial to resurrecting the event, but a partnership between two of San Antonio's leading arts organizations was key. Arts San Antonio had an Arts in the Community program grant through the City's Office of Cultural Affairs to produce Shakespeare in the Park in District 9, and Magik Theatre had a similar District 10 grant to provide a public performance and associated educational outreach. They asked OCA and Councilmen Carroll Schubert and Chip Haass to let them team up and use Magik's theater resources to produce Shakespeare in the Park and provide public outreach.

This year's production of Midsummer will be the fourth in the event's 15-year history. Scholars estimate that the play, one of Shakespeare's most popular, was first produced in 1595, which would make the whimsical farce 410 years old. With two Twelfth Night and two Romeo and Juliet under the local event's belt, three of Shakespeare's plays account for eight of the 13 productions seen here. According to the show's director, Magik Theatre's Tony Ciaravino, Midsummer was chosen as a nod to the original 1990 offering, and because he could cast it primarily from within the full-time, resident company, making it possible to hold daytime rehearsals.

The result is an exciting stretch, say company regulars, several of whom play double roles as both mortal characters and fairies, the latter whom Ciaravino's production conceptualizes as the forces of nature that work on human beings.

The first San Antonio Shakespeare Festival, organized by local theater impresario Jake Beasley, debuted in June 1990 at the Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park. Sponsored by the San Antonio Parks Foundation and largely underwritten by H-E-B, Midsummer played to 18,000 people over 10 evenings on the strength of $80,000 raised through private and corporate donations. Beasley became a local superstar, garnering praise in the society columns and receiving a Special Achievement award from the Business Committee for the Arts.

From left: Leonard Navarro, Lee Marshall, Dave Cortez, Careen Jackson, Adam Mason, and Emily Debias rehearse a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

1991's The Taming of the Shrew followed the same model, playing for 12 performances at Sunken Garden and relying largely on local talent (set and lighting design by faculty from Trinity and 13 local cast members, including students from Trinity and Incarnate Word) while importing the director, costume designer, and six Equity actors from around the state. Some 20,000 people saw the show; the reviews, again, were stellar. But problems were developing behind the scenes.

Despite its impressive name, the San Antonio Shakespeare Festival was largely a one-man operation. In early 1992, Beasley was forming a board and filing for independent non-profit status while fighting rumors of fiscal mismanagement when H-E-B, which had contributed $46,000 to Shrew, transferred its funding to the San Antonio Festival, an organization founded in 1982 for the specific purpose of staging an annual performing-arts festival.

Thus H-E-B Shakespeare in the Park became part of the 10th (and last) San Antonio Festival, with a production of Romeo and Juliet lasting eight nights and using mostly local actors. However, the festival sent to New York for the director, for two of the prominent male roles, and for Juliet, beginning a pattern of moving farther and farther afield in order to staff the event. This practice ended in 2002 with the importation of England's Royal Shakespeare Company to perform The Shakespeare Revue at Sunset Station.

It was a pattern that bothered Magik Theatre's Executive Director Richard Rosen and Frank Villani, operations director of the San Antonio Festival and managing director of Arts San Antonio. The latter was a new organization formed when the Festival merged with the San Antonio Performing Arts Association in October 1992.

As a member of the local theater community, Rosen had been privy to the complaints of local actors who argued that daytime rehearsals limited the ability of talented-but-otherwise-employed performers to participate, and who agreed with Express-News critic Dan Goddard that the San Antonio cast members in each production were equal or superior to the Equity imports.

Villani, who oversaw the continuation of the Shakespeare in the Park event through ArtsSA, noted that his organization's commitment to quality resulted in "a tremendous amount of money we were spending, and it was all leaving the city." Hiring high-priced, name directors and groups such as the National Shakespeare Co., Montreal's Repercussion Theater Canada, and the RSC was expensive, and logistical problems such as the deterioration of the City-owned Sunken Garden theater and lack of storage space were also straining the event's finances.

OCA Director Felix Padrón says that two factors in particular convinced his office to support ArtsSA and Magik's collaboration. "In years past," he says, "we would import the talent. Now we're supporting local talent and the resources stay within the community."

The organizations' commitment to build an audience - particularly a young one - for the program was also persuasive. In the past, ArtsSA contracted with Jump-Start Performance Co. to take a version of their existing "Shake Hands with Shakespeare" program into the schools in the weeks prior to Shakespeare in the Park performances. "It's a myth that young people don't like Shakespeare," says Steve Bailey, Jump-Start's education director. "When I taught high-school English, the kids were thrilled to do Shakespeare, they were looking forward to it."

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Jun 29-Jul 2

The Botanical Garden Amphitheater
555 Funston

Magik will put the annual Shakespeare performances in context for this summer's Camp Showbiz participants, who will study Midsummer and perform an abbreviated version. Some hard-working campers may even end up involved in the show. The bulk of the money from the combined Arts in the Community grants is being used to purchase equipment that will enable the company to stage the outdoor production and tour workshops and related performances to area schools.

"We couldn't do this without Tony," says Rosen. Rosen anticipates casting more roles from the larger community next year when the schedule is not so tight, but he adds that he hopes Ciaravino will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future. "There's no one else in town who can direct Shakespeare on this scale."

For his part, Ciaravino, who played Romeo in the first of the park productions of Romeo & Juliet, hopes simply to impart some of his love for the language of Shakespeare to the audience, to surprise them with how contemporary 400-year-old poetry can feel. And Villani stresses that, poetry aside, the venue and experience make for a great family night out. "You don't have to necessarily understand Shakespeare to enjoy the evening you're going to have there."

By Laurie Dietrich

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