Peter Holland spread his blanket in front of the Golden Dome.
The Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival was in full swing, and Holland had come to watch The Young Company’s 2008 production of Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, a work associated with Macbeth. It was a play he had never seen before, but when the actors stepped onto the Main Quad, Holland’s eyes drifted over the 300 people who had gathered to see the performance.
There were students and faculty, parents and grandparents. And then there were the children.
“There was this group in front of me, probably between the ages of 6 and 10,” says Holland, the McMeel Family Chair of Shakespeare Studies at Notre Dame. “As soon as the play began they were completely wrapped up in what was going on.”
It was in that instant that Holland, who has long professed that The Bard wasn’t really for grown-ups anyway, knew that momentum for Shakespeare was continuing to build around campus.
In 2000, Paul Rathburn, a professor in Notre Dame’s English department, founded Summer Shakespeare (now known as the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival). The idea was simple enough: Take literary study to the stage and perform a work the way Shakespeare intended; combine a cast of student and professional actors; and perform a classic production. The Taming of the Shrew was first. Others followed.
Suddenly Shakespeare was popping up everywhere. Notre Dame became the American base for Actors From The London Stage, a prestigious traveling troupe of classically trained performers. Guests such as Michael York and Claire Bloom appeared on the University’s stages. There was a residency by Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater and lectures by world-renowned Shakespeare scholars.
To coordinate it all, the University created Shakespeare at Notre Dame, a year-round commitment to all things Shakespeare led by a team that today includes Holland; Scott Jackson, executive director; Jay Paul Skelton, the Ryan producing artistic director; and Aaron Nichols, director of audience development.
“Shakespeare lives in so many different mediums — from literature to film to every performing art,” Nichols says. “We have such a wide-open selection that we can really tap into that. Deciding to build onto existing programs has really been a proactive choice.”
This past summer, for example, the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary by extending the outreach of The Young Company. The troupe, made up of students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College and, this year, Northwestern and Ball State, performed The Deceived, the 1537 play that inspired Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in Saint Joseph, Michigan, 40 miles north of campus, and in Warsaw, Indiana, 50 miles to the south.
The festival added a collection of vignettes that explored Shakespeare’s interest in love and mistaken identity; continued its Mainstage tradition with performances of Twelfth Night; and expanded its local youth program, ShakeScenes, with a record 180 participants performing 20 scenes.
“In the past two years we’ve just seen an exponential growth in these programs,” Nichols says. “We’re really seeing that momentum have some tangible results.”
The most notable growth is in community outreach. Last year Christy Burgess developed a five-week summer camp at the University’s Robinson Community Learning Center, where she is a volunteer coordinator. Robinson kids in grades 3 through 12 produced Macbeth at Notre Dame’s Washington Hall. They’ve since participated in ShakeScenes and staged The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice as well.
With the help of a grant from the Community Foundation of Saint Joseph County’s ArtsEverywhere Initiative, the center has recently formed a 90-member, year-round club called the Robinson Shakespeare Company. In addition to weekly instruction from Burgess, the students may take two classes with the professional London Stage cast members during their on-campus residency. Burgess will also direct two plays at South Bend’s Perley Elementary, one for fourth graders this fall and another for third graders in the spring.
“When we first started this I had a lot of people tell me not to get my hopes up,” Burgess says. “We now have a whole group of second graders who can’t wait to be in third grade just so they can do Shakespeare.”
By next summer, Jackson hopes to have a program in place for older adults. Tentatively titled ShakeSeniors, the program may incorporate staged readings, performances and other activities for senior citizens at ND Downtown.
“It’s a little like a continuing education program around a Shakespeare play,” Jackson says. “We may have seniors do some staged readings or even perform as a precursor to the Mainstage production.”
This spring, the Shakespeare festival will present its first non-summer stage production when Tim Hardy, an actor, director and faculty member of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, directs As You Like It. Hardy, an Actors From The London Stage veteran, will also direct the Film, Television and Theatre Department’s production of Natural Selection. Skelton says the festival is also looking at creating a smaller Shakespeare production that will run in tandem with the Mainstage show next summer.
“We consider it a small but firm step toward embracing the idea that we are indeed a festival that offers a mix of presentations and productions,” he says.
For Holland it’s all moving toward one goal — to make Notre Dame the pre-eminent, year-round capital of Shakespeare between the coasts.
“By this time next year there will have been the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, two Actors From The London Stage tours, staged readings, Tim Hardy’s productions. That’s a lot of Shakespeare for a campus this size,” Holland says. “That would be a lot of Shakespeare for a campus of any size.”
Jeremy D. Bonfiglio is a freelance writer who lives in South Bend. He is the features writer for The Herald-Palladium newspaper in Saint Joseph, Michigan, and a former arts and entertainment reporter for the South Bend Tribune.
Photo of Twelfth Night production by Peter Rigenberg.