Cincy Shakes Plays its Part in Promoting the Bard

William Shakespeare died four centuries ago in 1616, but his impact on the world of theater seems stronger than ever today.

William Shakespeare died four centuries ago in 1616, but his impact on the world of theater seems stronger than ever today. He’s the most frequently produced playwright on American stages (the annual list of most-produced shows assembled by American Theatre magazine excludes his plays since they are so often presented), and numerous theater companies, from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, assemble multiple productions annually. Our own Cincinnati Shakespeare Company competes in that category. Two years ago it became one of just five U.S. companies to complete the feat of staging all 38 of the Bard’s plays.

In 2003 the National Endowment for the Arts launched its Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, aimed at introducing middle and high school students to the power of live theater and Shakespeare’s plays. More than 100 theaters have taken part in this endeavor, including Cincy Shakes. In total these companies have presented 33 works from Shakespeare’s canon to audiences totaling 2.5 million individuals, including 2.1 million students, who have attended roughly 9,400 live performances and 31,700 educational activities at more than 8,500 schools and 3,600 communities in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands.

During 2015-2016, 40 theaters in 27 states an

d the District of Columbia have been supported with grants of approximately $25,000 each. Each theater is required to present plays to at least 10 schools. Cincy Shakes’ next two productions, Julius Caesar (April 8-May 7) and Antony & Cleopatra (May 13-June 4) benefit from one of these grants.

The NEA funding comes through Arts Midwest, based in Minneapolis. Its vice president, Susan Chandler, says these “outstanding theater companies … will bring Shakespeare’s plays alive for students across the country. Shakespeare in American Communities’ goals of introducing students to the art form of theater and to Shakespeare’s timeless themes of love, ambition, jealousy, courage and betrayal will be brilliantly executed by these theaters.”

Although Shakespeare wrote his Roman history plays roughly eight years apart (Julius Caesar in 1599-1600 and Antony and Cleopatra in 1606-1607), they represent a record of continuous history, with many of the same characters appearing in both. 

In Shakespeare’s first — and more familiar — history play, Julius Caesar is a brilliant general and politician, but his popularity and ambition threaten the democratically conceived Roman republic. In 44 B.C., patriots take matters into their own hands and assassinate Caesar, resulting in civil war as loyalties are tested and collapse.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar’s rarely staged sequel, more than a decade has passed. Mark Antony is part of the ruling Triumvirate, three leaders presiding over the Roman Empire. Ensconced in exotic Egypt, he has been ensnared by Cleopatra, the beautiful queen, despite the fact that he’s married to the sister of the Octavian, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew. The love affair ultimately caused a civil war in 31 B.C. that changed the face of the ancient world.

The two plays offer many rewarding roles for actors including the powerful Julius Caesar; Cassius, the chief conspirator; and Marcus Brutus, the principled senator drawn into the conspiracy. Mark Anthony evolves from a general in the earlier play to a distracted lover in the later. Octavian becomes a decisive leader. Cleopatra is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters, described as a woman of “infinite variety.” Because Cincy Shakes employs a resident ensemble of actors who live and work in Greater Cincinnati, it can feature the same performers in both productions, providing a kind of connective tissue that will add greater depth for audiences that get to see the two closely juxtaposed shows.

In addition to evening performances, Cincy Shakes will present student matinees of the two plays. With the support of the NEA/Arts Midwest grant, the company can provide related educational activities, including workshops, presentations, residencies in selected schools, post-show discussions and a study guide. They anticipate serving 20 schools from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. This program will go a long way in ensuring that another generation of theatergoers will become fans of Shakespeare.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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