By Christina Chastain
Under Tom Ridgely’s second year tenure as Executive Producer of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, the Festival has announced exciting changes and productions for 2019.
“This is the moment. We’ve been taking stock, asking ourselves, what kind of organization do we want to be? What kind of things do we want to do? And who do we want to serve?” Ridgely said. “And that’s lead to deeper questions about the kinds of work we want to be involved in and the communities we need to be reaching out to and where we want to situate ourselves in the larger picture.”
The answer to the “what” comes in the form of a play never before been produced by the Festival, and only once produced in St. Louis’ 250-year history. That production is the Bard’s Love’s Labors Lost, running May 21 through June 23 in the Shakespeare Glenn in Forest Park.
Belonging to Shakespeare’s “lyrical” period, which also included Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play tells the story of the Princess of France and her ladies who arrive on a diplomatic mission to Navarre only to be met by a young king and his lords who have taken a vow not to see women. Affairs of state give way to affairs of the heart as Shakespeare reveals with great humor and compassion the way our culture sometimes doesn’t fully prepare us for the realities of love and intimacy. A feast of language and theatrical virtuosity, Love’s Labors Lost shimmers with all the passion and promise of a first kiss.
“Love’s Labors Lost is one of Shakespeare’s most dazzling and delightful comedies – and a brilliant study of the ways culture shapes courtship,” Ridgely said. “The Bard’s insights into the different ways men and women love and want to be loved have never felt so contemporary, and the climactic final scene is one of the most moving and masterful in the canon. It’s also the perfect play for Forest Park, with its lovers and clowns cavorting all over the sumptuous royal park of the King of Navarre, and I can’t wait to share it with our audiences.”
The answer to the “where” question is similar to Love’s Labors Lost in that the Festival is tackling new projects through its Shakespeare in the Streets program, a grassroots theatrical experience that invites St. Louis neighborhoods to tell their stories.
“Eleven months out of the year, the Festival could be anywhere and that defines the Festival,” Ridgely said. “That means we have gotten good at how to engage with different communities.”
Shakespeare in the Streets programs has taken the Festival to many places around St. Louis – Old North, Clayton, Maplewood, Cherokee Street, The Grove, Downtown.
“The Festival has always stuck around the main central corridor of St. Louis,” Ridgely said. “We’ve been concentrated in this area and leaving out a large part of our region.”
That is why Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has announced Shakespeare in the Streets will be an urban-rural exchange for 2019.
“A huge divide in America today feels to be this sort of urban versus rule. It’s gotten to the point, at least for me, that it feels unrecognizable as far as the tension and divisiveness that’s cropped up,” Ridgely said. “I feel like there’s responsibility to try to figure out what to do about that.”
The exchange will bring together students from Normandy Schools Collaborative in St. Louis County and students from Brussels in Calhoun County Ill. They will be working together and with Festival artists to create an original production.
“Being together and working together can have to power to transform the way we see a community that otherwise may seem very foreign to us,” Ridgely said. “Not just for the students and artists involved, but also for the audiences who get to experience it.”
Although Shakespeare in the Streets addresses the urban-rule divide, Ridgely feels there’s an even larger separation in our country between communities and cultures, and it shows through productions and their stories.
The bulk of productions have their world premiers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Ridgely wants St. Louis be part of that national and cultural conversation through the Confluence Regional Writers Project.
“The project is a year-long experience for three emerging playwrights who live in the bi-state area. They’re working with Nancy Bell, who is our resident playwright and literary manager, to create new full-length plays the Festival will read in the fall,” Ridgely said.
Ridgely said he hopes the project will create a new pipeline for work throughout the nation, stemming from Midwestern voices and points of view.
The playwrights include Shaulee Cook, who has premiered her works at Chicago’s About Face Theatre, National Queer Theatre in New York, and was the resident playwright at Tesseract Theatre in St. Louis; Kristin Idaszak, a Chicago-based playwright, dramaturg, and the Artistic Director of Cloudgate Theatre; and Maria L. Richardson, who has been a part of the Black Repertory in St. Louis and Metro Theater Company. Her HBO/New Writers Project solo performance show, All That, has toured throughout the country.
The playwrights will be joined by Carter Lewis, who teaches Introduction to Playwriting, Advanced Playwriting and Dramaturgy at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to that, he was Resident Dramaturg & Playwright-in-Residence for The Geva Theatre Center in New York.
The “why” is simple, according to Ridgely.
“The thing that made Shakespeare the greatest playwright who ever lived and what makes him indispensable is that he had this enormous capacity to look into the lived experience of someone utterly different than himself and see the full humanity that’s there,” Ridgely said. “And so that is what we’re hoping to do more deeply here in St. Louis and more expansively within our region, and by extension, all across the country.”
To learn more about Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, go to www.sfstl.com.