The only constant in life, it is often said, is change. And the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival has changed considerably since its creation in 2014.
There’s never been a permanent company of actors, for example. A fluid formation of professionals, part-timers and people who just wanted to act have performed Shakespeare plays and other Bard-related events around town.
The word “festival” has always been a bit of a misnomer, too – shows just seemed to “pop up” in the spring and the fall.
“The company stared off, before my time, doing staged readings whenever they could find a place,” explains G.J. Thompson, a company veteran and its newly-appointed Producing Artistic Director and CEO. “And doing fuller productions, but basically in two weekends, mostly around the USF campus.”
Three years in, company founder Veronica Leone Matthews, recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, took the non-profit into city-owned Williams Park, through a deal with the Parks and Recreation Department.
The organization’s miniscule budget, combined with a dedicated team who nevertheless had day jobs to attend to, ensured the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival had a seriously low profile amongst bay area theater groups.
And the pandemic only made things worse, Thompson says. “People didn’t know for sure when things were going to happen. They didn’t know to look for it in advance.”
Today, Thompson and his team are laser-focused on the future. Matthews, who moved with her husband to North Carolina two years ago, at the height of the pandemic, resigned on good terms, as did artist, designer and actor Chad Jacobs, a longtime collaborator.
Thompson says the goal is simple: Create a real theater company. And make it sustainable.
That entails purposefully raising St. Pete Shakes’ profile. “The changes,” explains Thompson, a veteran actor and writer, “are largely around a clearer focus on what we want to do – on creating ‘product,’ if you will – and on getting a mobile unit together, so that we can begin to take shows to parks in St. Petersburg, or really anywhere in the bay area. Set it up and do a show.
“And a strong focus on performing Shakespeare well. Focusing on the language. Not only helping teach actors to speak the language, but if they’re speaking the language more clearly and effectively the audience is going to hear it more clearly and effectively. Language is a very important part of our focus moving forward.”
By “product,” Thompson means festivals – real festivals – in the fall and the spring, annotated by full-length shows and “Shakespeare Short Presentations,” abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays running 35-40 minutes in length, and “Bite-Sized Shakespeare,” collections of speeches, scenes and sonnets tied together with a theme and guided by a narrator. “Ultimately, we’d like to hire Equity actors, to bring that quality of actors into the company eventually.”
There’s a new administration team in place. “For the first time,” Thompson says, “I think it’s fair to say, we’ve got someone with a strong business background, three people with strong theater backgrounds – and me, with a strong desire to make it a sustainable company-slash-business moving forward.”
They intend, he adds, to “build a monthly presence” in the area.
Fundraising, naturally, will be one of the first priorities.
The 2022 spring event will take the form of “Shakespeare’s Birthday Bash,” a street festival April 23 and 24 in and around Studio Grand Central, on 1st Avenue South. The fall production – venue TBA – will be Twelfth Night.
Expanding on its recently-begun Shakespeare Acting Class for Adults at Studio Grand Central, the company intends creating educational programs for middle and high school students focused on Shakespeare in performance.
“Shakespeare is still very much relevant to us,” Thompson insists. “Everybody is reading Shakespeare in schools. So students are coming out of high school with knowledge of Romeo and Juliet, probably Julius Caesar and maybe one more – sometimes I hear Othello, sometimes I hear Hamlet – but they’re often coming out of those without ever having seen a live production of it. We’re going to provide live productions.”