Bringing Shakespeare to the New England woods
MANCHESTER — When Katharine Maness came home to the serenity of her beloved Pawlet from years away in the bright lights of New York City's theater industry, the Vermont landscape gave her a vision she couldn't shake.
So the lifelong actor, arriving home in March, carried her theatrical heartbeat back into the pull of the Green Mountains, to realize a long-held theatrical dream.
Maness is now the founding artistic director of the region's newest Shakespeare festival, Shakespeare in the Woods. It will soon raise the curtain on its inaugural season with three of the Bard's plays at Manchester's Northshire Civic Center.
While Maness works from sun-up to sundown seven days a week in preparation for her company's kickoff, she can still chuckle at just how "Vermonty" a story her final impetus was for moving ahead with the project.
"Leave it to a local farmer to spur me on," Maness said. "I've had this idea for quite some time, and shared it with my farmer friend. The reply? 'That sounds great, when's it happening?'"
She didn't have a good answer at the time. But Maness started thinking about it seriously, which led to diligently working on a project proposal.
Coming into focus
The idea of Shakespeare in the Woods, Maness said, was to stage "classical plays through a modern lens that allows in-depth conversations about current society."
"I've always gravitated towards material that feels like it has something to say, something to contribute in to the collective dialogue, and I've always loved Shakespeare," Maness said. "It's the perfect vehicle for fostering timely dialogue. Not only are the plays relevant, but everyone has had some sort of personal experience with the material at some point in their life."
The inaugural season, which had cast and crews arriving in Vermont in late June, will be held outdoors, as the company's name suggests. The campaign's three shows will consist of "Much Ado About Nothing" (Aug. 22 to 25), "Romeo and Juliet" (Aug. 29 to Sept. 1) and "The Taming of the Shrew" (Sept. 5 to 8). All performances begin at 7 p.m. on the lawn at Northshire Civic Center's Riley Rink at Hunter Park.
"We have a seating capacity of 100 per show," Maness said. "All shows are modern interpretations, as we are defining ourselves as an unconventional, outdoor classical theater festival."
Maness chose plays that shaped the overarching theme she wanted to tackle over the course of the season: How society does and does not listen to woman-identifying voices? In that vein, Maness noted that "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Taming of the Shrew" "almost act as bookends in this regard, as you have opposite ends of how the male characters interact with and, ultimately, listen to the woman characters."
The directors speak
In developing the season slate, Maness also had to consider how to staff her company, right down to the last stagehand. Ever the rural Vermonter, she looked close to home, and her own origins in acting, for one of her directors.
Tracey Wesley, the former longtime theater director at Long Trail School, is producing "The Taming of the Shrew," which will close out the festival. Wesley said when she was asked to direct, she felt honored and proud that the founder of the company is one of her former students.
"I was deeply impressed by Katharine Maness' vision for this company and her plans for its first season," Wesley said. "Being staged outside, rather than in the more familiar indoor theater format, evokes the atmosphere of the roofless Globe Theater that Shakespeare wrote so many plays for."
A central issue of today's society is inequality, Wesley said. She noted that women, as well as many other groups, have been struggling for centuries just to be heard and respected, and have thus felt invisible.
"While it wasn't a prominent topic in Shakespeare's time, his 'Taming of the Shrew' provides an excellent vehicle with which to highlight this feeling for today's audiences," Wesley said.
Kevin Paley, a longtime friend and associate of Maness, will direct "Much Ado About Nothing." Paley was drawn to Shakespeare in the Woods for several reasons, but mostly because in the Playbill listing, Maness noted that she wanted the cast to be comprised of women and non-binary actors.
"As a non-binary director, I delighted at the chance to tell this story with voices we don't often hear from," Paley said during a recent break from the frenetic rehearsal schedule. "This play deals with gender roles in a comedic light. I'm interested in the various power structures established in the story and in society, of gender roles and economic status, and the ways in which these dynamics affect our everyday lives."
Another of Maness' confidantes, Nora Gair, will direct "Romeo and Juliet." Gair said putting on a production of "the most famous romance of all time" presents an exciting challenge because everyone has an idea of "what it looks like in their own head."
"Shakespeare in the Woods has given us the opportunity to crack open that idea and to explore what the Romeo and the Juliet on the page look like without all those preconceptions," Gair said. "To make something old new again is a
necessity with any Shakespearean work. But even more so with the most famous of his canon, a director must find its urgency, its relevance, its call to action for a modern audience."
Gair added that the forbidden romance — which will see both lead roles played by women — will be set in rural New England, "where liberalism holds political power but may not always be reflected in personal practice."
In considering the innovative, fresh approaches to translating the Bard for contemporary audiences, Paley spoke for everyone in the company before heading back to the task of directing.
"Glenda Jackson said recently in an interview that Shakespeare is one of our greatest contemporary playwrights," Paley said with a smile. "Shakespeare's body of work contains characters and moments in time as real and as modern as any. His themes of love, of tyranny, of revenge, resonate today. Through his stories, we're able to see how little humanity has changed despite the world changing around us. As long as we live and breathe, Shakespeare's words will be as relevant as the day he wrote them."
For advance ticket orders of $20, visit shakespeareinthewoodsvt.com, $25 at the box office night of the show, and $12 ages 12 and under.
Reach freelance journalist Telly Halkias at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias
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