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Shakespeare in the Park

Text by: Ashley Shelby

Even if you have never been to the theatre and know nothing about it, it is likely that you know of William Shakespeare. It is nearly impossible to get through high school English without reading at least one of his plays, and chances are, you struggled while reading it. The language is old fashioned and extremely difficult to understand. You have to concentrate on deciphering the meaning of the words, and you often miss the underlying emotions of the lines you're trying to comprehend or interpret. While reading, you might have wondered what the point of it was and how it could even be relevant to you. This is because Shakespeare's plays aren't meant to be read but seen. You have to watch his stories unfold to truly grasp how human they can be. His plays cover the entire spectrum from love to hate, from betrayal to revenge. There are even cases of a mistaken identity or two, which never fail to provoke laughter from the crowds! When I read Macbeth my junior year, I didn't appreciate Shakespeare's genius at all. It wasn't until I watched my first Shakespearean play performed live that I understood the power behind it — the reason why nearly four hundred years after his death, people still praise him as one of the greatest playwrights of all time.
"Court" © David Lumb Photography

About two summers ago, my good friend invited me to go see Shakespeare's Othello. It was being performed in Griffith Park, not too far from where I live, and it was free. After my Macbeth experience, I was not completely sure I wanted to go. But as it was going to be attended with a group of friends and within my budget, I was not inclined to say "no" and tagged along. When we arrived at the location, a simple stage had been constructed on a grassy knoll with a few outdoor lights set up around it. We saw groups of people scattered all around the stage, sitting in folding chairs and on blankets. We followed suit, found a comfortable sized spot just off to the right, spread our checkered red blanket on the ground, pulled out our Subway sandwiches purchased on the way, and sat down to eat and add our voices to the buzzing cacophony of chatter. Suddenly, the lights went on, and the chatter muted with only an intermittent cough or "shhh." A man stepped out from behind the curtain on stage, introduced himself as an actor with the Independent Shakespeare Company, and announced the play we were about to see. Then the show began.

"Athenians" © David Lumb Photography

Almost immediately, I was enthralled. The language spoken was the same Shakespearian tongue I had wrestled with before, but by watching the actors' facial expressions and listening to the differing tones and emotions as they delivered their lines, I became in tune with the play. I wasn't caught up in what they were saying, but rather in how they were saying it, and the story they told was powerful. Othello was about love and passion, jealousy and greed, and betrayal — a deep betrayal fueled by deceit and mistrust. I pitied the lovers and hated the one who destroyed their love and happiness by whispering lies and planting seeds of doubt. And when it was all over, I clapped as enthusiastically as everyone else with sincere appreciation. I had fallen in love with Shakespeare, and I finally understood what the praise was about. When actually understood, Shakespeare's plays have the capacity to evoke a multitude of strong emotions from the audience.

"Love" © David Lumb Photography

Although William Shakespeare is many centuries gone, he is more than just a picture in a history text. His plays have survived him, and every year, people reenact his stories around the world, passionately sharing his insight into human nature, which is still remarkably still relevant today.

Melissa Chalsma is an artistic director with the ISC, and when asked about her passion for Shakespeare and the work she does within the program, she said, "As long as I can remember, I have been in love with language. I love the sounds of words, I love the way they feel in my mouth, I love the way the meaning of words can be clear or obscure. When I first acted in a Shakespeare play in college, that was it for me. His language is complex and remarkable. Whole worlds are folded into his plays, and it is a really consuming process to discover and create those worlds with a company of actors and designers. I'm grateful to have so many like-minded artists to work with." Ms. Chalsma is just one of many passionate, talented people who strive to make Shakespeare accessible to all through free or low cost public productions.

"Fae" © David Lumb Photography

I was lucky enough to see Othello, and after that, Henry V. This summer I am hoping to watch The Merry Wives of Windsor, also performed by the Independent Shakespeare Company at the Shakespeare Festival in Griffith Park. I strongly encourage both lovers of Shakespeare and those who aren't such devoted followers to look up local festivals in your area. If you live near Los Angeles and would like to experience Shakespeare through the Independent Shakespeare Company, the information is listed below:

GRIFFITH PARK FREE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL 2011

Griffith Park Old Zoo
nearby 4730 Crystal Springs Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90027

June 30 - August 28
Thursday - Sunday at 7:00 p.m.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Love's Labor's Lost
Hamlet
ALL PERFORMANCES FREE
Call (818) 710-6306 for more information