Imagine a concert outdoors, beneath the moon and the stars, with the sweetest and most melodic sounds wafting on the breeze, clinging to every standing branch and limb like fragrant jasmine vines.
The St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival’s repertory company is in Williams Park April 18 through 28 with a free, nightly bandshell performance of the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.
For those 10 days, let’s call it William’s Park.
“I’m a big believer that Shakespeare works best outside, oftentimes,” says Greg Thomson, who’s directing the show (and playing Leonato). “Especially the comedies like this. The way I’ve structured this play, pretty much every scene takes place outside, in the context of the show.”
The story of Beatrice and Benedick, of Claudio, Hero, Don Pablo and Dogberry, takes place in the town of Messina. The language has not been altered – what would be the point? – but Thompson and company have set it in the modern day, with certain less-than-subtle gender changes. The sets are minimal, the costumes contemporary.
“Shakespeare was working in a space that was enclosed, more often than not, but open to the sky,” Thompson points out. “And he was working in an age before lots of sets and lots of costumes … so it works really well to do minimal things onstage with sets; it works well to do contemporary clothing ideas – because, in his age, the actors wore contemporary clothing. So there are practical things like that.
“But it’s also beautiful. The language is beautiful. He often uses language to create images of nature. So it works really well to do his works in this type of environment.”
Sarah Pullman-Atanacio, who’s playing Beatrice, the headstrong protagonist, was one of the first actors to sign up for the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival when founder Veronica Leone Matthews launched it in 2014.
In the early years, the shows were produced in an outdoor performance space on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus.
“It was a learning curve,” says Pullman-Atanacio. “We discovered things like seaplanes going by, cats wandering onstage and things like that. That’s what the first year was all about.”
Williams Park beckoned in 2017.
For an actor, she adds, outdoor theater is “infectious. And all live theater is exciting, but you add the elements and that’s even more of a challenge.”
What’s important, in the end, is the language. “Shakespeare is always meant to be seen, and not read, so the job we have with the language is to tell the story as clearly as possible through action, and our interactions with each other.
“I think the concept in this production helps with that, because there are very recognizable things like bachelor parties and weddings. We can see what it looks like when people are flirting or fighting, and we can make sense of the language for the audience that way.”
Matthews began the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, because she’s a Shakespeare scholar, a prolific writer and a theater bug (although she doesn’t act). And she sorely missed American Stage’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, which had been discontinued in 2006. “That was something that was instrumental to me growing up here,” she explains, “so I want to bring it back to people here.”
Although the company operates on a shoestring budget – money is generated through periodic fundraisers, special events and a few small sponsorships – she makes it a point to pay every actor a small stipend. There are two outdoor shows annually.
Many of the performers return, year after year, for that unique “park in the dark” experience.
“We started the repertory company because we had so many people who were dedicated to us, and working with us over and over again,” says Matthews. “They’re working professionals who work at other theaters as well.
“And we make sure that in each performance we have people who maybe don’t have as much experience, who are maybe not getting the roles in professional theater they’re auditioning for. And they need more on their resume. So it’s a nice mix.”
The St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival, she explains, has made “huge strides” since leaving its initial home at USF. “It was a great space – actually, we miss it in a lot of ways – because the park is quite large and it’s hard for us to fill it,” Matthews says. “We’re a pretty small company, we don’t have a lot of lights, we don’t have a lot of sound equipment. So it’s a little bit bigger than we are at this moment.
“However, the audiences here are much larger than at the school. So we outgrew that space, and we’re still growing into this space. So we’re kind of in a transition period.”
Williams Park is “magical,” she believes. “You kind of forget you’re in the middle of the city.”
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