William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this year, but the worlds he created and the language he used are still integral parts of modern life.
Plays such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” have been performed, adapted and used as inspirations for acclaimed artistic creations. His influence helped shape generations of legendary writers, from Charles Dickens to Henry Melville.
We still use terms such as “swag,” “full circle” and “strange bedfellows,” thanks to his works.
For those who still seek out the bard’s unique brand of humor, tragedy and drama, a local theater troupe is bringing the famous playwright to life.
The Garfield Shakespeare Co. has been staging Shakespearean theater — and other plays written in the same style — on the southside since 2008. Now in its eighth season, the company is preparing for its most expansive slate of plays yet, kicking off with a version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
With more shows and unique performance spaces lined up, the group is relishing its growing opportunity to bring classic community theater to the public.
“A lot of our audience members are people who don’t normally get to see live theater, because tickets are so expensive,” said Sam Brandys, assistant director and stage manager for the show. “We get to give them quality theater without charging admission.”
The frilly frocks, dapper suits and outlandish headgear turned the practice space inside the Garfield Park Arts Center into tea time in 1880s London.
Dressed in their Victorian-era finery, the cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest” walked through a rough rehearsal of their scenes. The play debuted in 1895, a farcical comedy which sees the main characters escaping the oppressive societal norms by adapting false personas.
By venturing outside the Shakespearean template, the performance offers a new kind of challenge, said David Santangelo, who plays lead character Algernon Moncrieff.
“Wilde is very, very particular with his word choices, and you have to get it exactly right, word-for-word, because if you don’t, it sounds off,” Santangelo said. “One of the differences is that Shakespeare is in verse, so you have that meter to guide you as you say your lines. Wilde is in prose, so you don’t have that safety net to memorize.”
After becoming used to the wordplay of the bard, this play forced actors to wrap their tongues and their minds around something different.
“We typically do Shakespeare, so we have that Renaissance style and dialog,” said Chris Burton, director of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” “Here, we get to play with ideas and costumes we don’t normally have available.”
Burton had been involved in theater as a student at DePauw University. After he graduated in 2009 with a degree in theater, he was looking for opportunities around central Indiana.
His first role came as a technical adviser on “Twelfth Night,” then he had his first starring role in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” His background both onstage and backstage has given him the chance to see performances from all perspectives.
“Community theater lets you have that possibility to see all sides of a theater, and gives you the opportunity for those who don’t necessarily get to see what goes on to create a performance,” he said.
The Garfield Shakespeare Co. formed under the direction of Joe Cook. The Indianapolis resident had more than 30 years of community theater experience when he moved near Garfield Park on the city’s southside.
He had started two theater companies in the past, and his area of interest was Shakespeare and the classics of theater.
Garfield Park’s own history is intertwined with outdoor Elizabethan theater. In the 1980s, it hosted an annual Shakespeare in the Park program, but it had faded away.
So when Cook moved near the park, and learned more about its connection to community theater, he started working out a plan to reignite a Shakespeare performance.
“I had been pondering for some time how Indiana is one of the few states in the nation that does not have a permanent, ongoing Shakespeare Festival,” he said. “Since Garfield Park was already associated with Shakespeare, it seemed like the appropriate place to start a company that might in time grow to fill this need for Indiana.”
Greenwood formerly hosted a Shakespeare theater program, but it ceased productions in 2009.
Cook approached Garfield Park and Indy Parks and Recreation officials about his idea to start a theater program. They were given permission to use the park’s amphitheater and art center for performances, and after doing a out-of-town practice run in Franklin, finally opened its first full-scale show with “Taming of the Shrew.”
Since then, the troupe has staged Shakespearean classics such as “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The company also has ventured outside of Elizabethan productions, such as the Sophoclean adaptation “Antigone” and its first musical, “Camelot.”
One of the troupe’s greatest asset is being able to perform outdoors in the summer. The Garfield Park Amphitheater seats about 2,000 people, and has hosted concerts, musicals and live theater. Partially shaded by trees, theatergoers can choose between chairs, bleachers or a grassy berm to watch the plays unfold.
“It’s absolutely a theater experience. You’re not missing out on anything by not paying $20 for a ticket,” Brandys said.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is the company’s first show of what is expected to be a busy 2016. While in the past the troupe has staged only two plays each year, organizers have lined up four separate showings displaying the troupe’s versatility, Brandys said.
The company will perform “Romeo and Juliet” at Garfield Park’s outdoor amphitheater, and take part in the Carmel-based Bard Fest as a celebration of Shakespeare in October.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Garfield Park Arts Center, the group is planning a November performance of “The Waverly Gallery.”
The company is a nonprofit organization, and doesn’t charge for tickets to its performances. Guests’ donations are the only way it can pay for scenery, costumes, props and other related costs.
“We love theater, and we like the idea of bringing it to people who don’t normally get to see it,” Brandys said.
“The Importance of Being Earnest”
Who: Garfield Shakespeare Co.
Where: Garfield Park Arts Center, 2432 Conservatory Drive, Indianapolis
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, March 17 through 19
- 3 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Free and open to the public, though donations are accepted.