Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

By Mary Beth Schwartz

As a writer, there are memories that I will always treasure. Top on my list is a 10-day trip to England, where I visited the historical sites of some of the greatest writers. One day was set aside just for Will, as my friend and I called him, at his birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon. Another fond memory is seeing Kenneth Branagh’s epic Hamlet at the Ritz in Philadelphia. And most recently, attending the amazing Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University.

Their story begins in 1969, when Fr. Gerard J. Schubert, OSFS, founded the DeSales University Performing and Fine Arts Department. In 1971, he traveled on a Royal Observership to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he studied directorial techniques used in Royal Shakespeare Company productions. He worked on The Duchess of Malfi that starred acclaimed actress Judi Dench. The experience inspired Fr. Schubert to create the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in 1991.

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University is a professional theatre company and the Official Shakespeare Festival of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Its mission is to enrich, inspire, engage and entertain the widest possible audience through first-rate professional productions of classical and contemporary plays, with a core commitment to the works of Shakespeare and other master dramatists, and through an array of educational outreach and mentorship programs. Core values include Quality—the revelation of beauty through transformative artistry; Shakespeare—producing plays of the greatest playwright in the English language; Education—illuminating Shakespeare, the power of language, and the professional theatre; and Relationships—cultivating and mobilizing enduring collaborative alliances.

2011 was a record- breaking year for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. The 20th-anniversary season attracted an audience of 34,000, and finished in the black for its sixth consecutive season. For the first time ever, according to Lisa Higgins, Director of Marketing & Public Relations, a fifth major production was added to the line-up, two plays were produced in repertory (two performances at the same time on alternating nights), and a Shakespeare play, The Two Noble Kinsmen, was rehearsed as Shakespeare’s company would have—without a director. “The actors arrived with their lines learned, developed their own staging in a brief rehearsal period, wore what they found in storage and their own closets, and opened in a matter of days. We call it Extreme Shakespeare. It had the feeling of spontaneity and adrenaline. The Two Noble Kinsmen not only enchanted audiences, it attracted national media coverage,” Higgins says.

There also were some casting firsts for the Festival in 2011. “Steve Burns, the original host of the children’s television series Blue’s Clues appeared in The Comedy of Errors. He was an acting intern at PSF and a DeSales University theatre student in the early 90s. In South Pacific, William Michals played Emile de Becque directly after performing the same role at Lincoln Center. Former intern Marnie Schulenburg returned to the PSF stage since earning a Daytime Emmy nomination. She played opposite Michals as Nellie Forbush,” Higgins says.

2011 also marked the launch of Vision 2030 for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. By the year 2030, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival will be a world-class Shakespeare festival, celebrated regionally and recognized nationally for a level of artistry consistent with leading regional theatres. Major goals for the Vision include an expanded summer festival—doubling the current duration and running mid-May through late August; doubling attendance by becoming a destination theatre as well as a regional attraction; featuring six major productions, three of which are Shakespeare plays; running in repertory so that destination travelers can see five or six plays in a single visit; hiring an industry-leading actor or two each season; featuring productions that would start here and have a future life on tour or on Broadway; opening a Shakespeare Café; and building a third performance venue to help make it all possible.

The 2012 season of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival kicks off with William Michals in the title role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The musical runs June 13-July 1 on The Main Stage. Shakespeare’s The Tempest will be in the Schubert Theater June 20-July 15. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will be performed in repertory with the same cast on The Main Stage, July 11-August 5. Extreme Shakespeare returns with King John, July 25-August 5 in the Schubert Theater. Family theatre offerings include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, June 1-August 4, and Shakespeare for Kids, July 25-August 4. The Main Stage and Schubert Theater are located at The Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University.

This year, Actor Greg Wood celebrates his 18th season with the Festival. He has been in such title roles as Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Richard III. Wood also has a list of film and television credits, including The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening, The Lovely Bones, Law & Order, Ed, Hack, and Homicide.

“I am playing Prospero in The Tempest this season. It is a role I have thought of for a very long time. It is one of Shakespeare’s later plays. This means there is a level of complexity to it. I also will be in King John, playing King John. Using the Elizabethan acting method, it will be a lot of fun to do—you never know how it is going to work out. The Lehigh Valley is so fortunate to have one of the best Shakespeare festivals situated right here. There are only a few pockets of them in the United States,” Wood says.

Costume designer Lisa Zinni has been with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival for over 14 years. She has designed on Broadway for HAIR, as well as RENT. This season, according to Lisa Higgins, she will be designing for the productions Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweeney Todd.

Major set designer Bob Phillips returns to the Festival this year. According to Higgins, he has designed the sets for the children’s shows and other productions for the last 15 years. Phillips also is the Resident Designer for Orlando Shakespeare Theater. His television designs include Another World, Search for Tomorrow and Sesame Street.

-Patrick Mulcahy has been Producing Artistic Director of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival since 2003. He has a longer history with the Festival as actor and director. Mulcahy has casted a company of artists to the destination Festival, including winners and nominees of the Tony, Obie, Emmy, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Jefferson, and Barrymore awards. Actors are cast in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. His credits include Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, television, and radio.

“People ask me about my job. I choose the plays. I oversee the selection of the artists: casting, directors, scenic designers, costume designers, lighting designers. There are 90 or so roles to cast in an average summer. I also oversee the design processes for the Festival. Great art requires great content and great artists.  There is a lot of magic here. It is something our audience expects. We are here to bring a little beauty to people’s lives,” Mulcahy says.

Cyrano de Bergerac was one of Mulcahy’s favorite plays at the Festival. “It was a beautiful and moving production. In 2007, The Winter’s Tale was perfect—it was just the right play, with just the right designers, and just the right cast.”

Managing Director Casey William Gallagher is partial to Tennessee Williams, and looks forward to this year’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gallagher started with the Festival as a box office intern back in 1994. Gallagher recalls one of those special moments in theater: “In 2006, we were doing a production of My Fair Lady. A storm blew in and we lost power, with a half hour left in the show. The staff banded together and found several flashlights. The last 20 minutes of the production were performed by flashlight. I am in theater for the communal aspect—this instance spoke to me well.”

“The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is a wonderful organization for Lehigh Valley residents and visitors to take advantage of and enjoy. And, it runs for the length of the summer. There are so many opportunities to see different performances,” Gallagher says.

Everyone at the Festival works hard for its annual fundraiser, Gala Luminosity. Held June 2 at DeSales University, the event includes live and silent auctions, previews of upcoming summer productions, and a sit-down dinner. Another important program is the Annual WillPower Tour. “Started in 2000, the WillPower Tour is a six-week tour designed for middle and high school students. It runs in October and November, and is performed for over 100,000 students in the state. The performance is designed to fit in an assembly period. The set is designed to fit in a truck. It receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is set to state education standards,” Higgins says.

And as for Lisa Higgins, she has been with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival for 15 years. “I enjoy seeing the audience grow each year, and the diversity of the audience increase over time. Families now come to the Festival every summer. We are providing high-caliber entertainment that is produced right here for Lehigh Valley audiences. There are more than 140 performances in nine weeks in two spaces. And with this year’s season, the Festival performs the 25th Shakespeare play out of 38 in the canon.”

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
On the Campus of DeSales University
2755 Station Avenue
Center Valley, PA 18034

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