Michigan Shakespeare Festival – 25 Years!

 July 26, 2019

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival is celebrating 25 years in existence.  I’ve been attending the Festival (formerly the Jackson Shakespeare Festival) for the past 23 years, missing only one year in that time. In celebration of 25 years, I’m sharing some of my memories of those early days.

Jackson Shakespeare Festival, 1996

It was the quintessential day. One of those days that are few and far between and need to be treasured when they come. Not a day you could plan. It just happened. A day when everything came together, everyone cooperated and everything was, well, perfect!

Such was the first day I attended the then Jackson Shakespeare festival 23 years ago, three kids in tow. My son, ten years old, twin daughters, nine years old. The previous year I had read about the Festival in the paper. They had done Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, romping through the woods at Ella Sharp Park, here in Jackson, Michigan. It had sounded wonderful. The last time I had seen a Shakespearean production had been fifteen/sixteen years ago when I had watched an outdoor production at Michigan State University. This sounded like the perfect setting and lots of fun.

Introduction to Shakespeare

The past school year, my son, Dan, had read a version of Romeo and Juliet in modern day English in his English class and decided to act it out with some of his classmates. When I saw that one of the plays this summer would be Romeo and Juliet I thought, maybe, just maybe, Dan would enjoy seeing it. Then that late July Saturday came. It was a beautiful day, sun shining but not oppressively hot as it can be in Michigan in late July. I decided to take a chance, take the kids to the Shakespeare Festival. The cost wasn’t much, four dollars for a show, and the kids were willing so it was worth a try.

We piled into the car. I brought along some sunscreen and a blanket for sitting, but nothing else thinking we’d only be there for the afternoon. When I arrived, I found out that for the cost of seven dollars each we could get a band that would give us entrance to the festival as well as all of the plays that day. I decided to take the chance and paid for the whole day, not a small step as I am notoriously frugal. I wondered whether my daughters would be bored and cranky forcing us to leave early.

Three Shows plus lots of Activities

The first show was A Comedy of Errors. Since it involved two sets of twins and my daughters were twins, I thought they would enjoy it. I don’t know how much of it they actually understood but at least they didn’t fidget non-stop throughout the play and laughed at some of the jokes. One play down, I decided we could hang out for the next—a comedy:  The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Unabridged.

Between shows we toured the booths, watched Crazy Richard–a juggler, watched a puppet show and saw some other displays. The girls participated in children’s games for $1.00 each. The games had a loose renaissance/mid-evil theme, one being find the rat. They proudly came back with their stuffed rats.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Unabridged had all four of us laughing and included getting squirted with water, a welcome relief from the hot sun. When I asked about staying for Romeo and Juliet, my kids said, “Of course,” as if there had never been any doubt in their minds. We watched Romeo and Juliet under star-studded skies once the sun set. We shivered but stayed till the end. I took home three tired, happy kids but I was happier. I had found something I loved that I could share with my children—Shakespeare in the park!

Following Seasons

The summer of 1998 my children auditioned to be in the festival and all three got parts, the girls as fairies in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Dan in As You Like It. The girls danced around Falstaff with other children, trying to frighten him. Dan filled in various capacities. The following year Dan and I attended Hamlet and Twelfth Night while his sisters were at Girl Scout camp.

The summer of 2000 all three were at Interlochen during the festival and so I attended Richard the Third and A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream with friends. The summer of 2001 brought Macbeth and A Comedy of Errors. Dan played one of the three pigs in the children’s show, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. I remember sitting in the audience and hearing the parents of one of the actors who was a student at U of M, comment, “So this is where our tuition dollars are going.”

After that Dan was part of the festival each year until he graduated from high school and won the high school monologue contest in 2003.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival – A Family Tradition

What started that wonderful summer day in 1996 became a tradition for my children and me. When not in the show, they enjoyed sitting on a blanket in the front. We would wait in line for an hour before the show in order to get the seats we wanted. Through hot sun, mosquitoes, downpours, thunder and lightening, and closing night of The Taming of the Shrew one year in a tent while the rain poured down around us, we enjoyed the performances.

When I first saw shows set in different times than Shakespeare’s time, I had a problem with it. But over time I’ve come to look forward to seeing what the director will do each year. With the move from the outdoor setting to the campus of Jackson College we lost the fun of being outdoors, but also the dangers and unpredictability that were part of that venue. The Festival continues to put on excellent productions and I continue my involvement through ushering.

The Magic of Shakespeare

Whether local actors or members of the Actor’s Equity Guild, whether traditional Shakespearean settings and costumes or modernized, whether indoor or outdoors, Shakespeare’s words work magic each year.

If you haven’t been to the Michigan Shakespeare Festival yet, there’s still time. Go to Michigan Shakespeare Festival for ticket information. This year features an exceptional production of King Lear. Look for me among the ushers! If you don’t live close by, then visit one of the many the festivals in the US, Canada, throughout the world. Shakespeare’s works continue to transcend time and place.

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