For Avra Sullivan and Chris Rogers, Shakespeare is a lifelong love. They each encountered and were changed by “the Bard” (as Shakespeare is affectionately referred to) when they were in elementary school, and for the past seven years, they have made it their mission to bring Shakespeare to the Eastern Shore.
“The first Shakespeare I ever memorized was Macbeth’s tomorrow speech, when I was in fifth grade,” Rogers said. “I didn’t understand what it meant, but it was really cool. And all the way through school, all the way through college, Shakespeare was one of my lodestones.”
Sullivan found her connection to Shakespeare while living with her grandparents as a child in Earleville.
“I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t have anything to do, as an eight year old, so I grabbed an old Shakespeare book and I climbed a tree and I read Hamlet,” she said. “And there was something even at eight that I connected with — his questioning, his wonderings, because I was at an extremely questioning time of my life. Even though the language was difficult, there was something that I could connect to.”
Rogers and Sullivan met when they were both cast in a Church Hill Theatre production of “Ravenscroft.” They found they both had the same question: where were the Shakespeare plays on the Shore? The answer: there weren’t any. Various theater companies had similar answers—there is no audience, there aren’t enough actors who would want to do Shakespeare, there wasn’t enough talent from which to cast a production. Rogers and Sullivan disagreed with the assessment.
“At any given moment, somewhere in the world, Shakespeare is being performed,” Rogers said. “What do you mean it’s too hard? What do you mean no one understands it? He has been translated into every language including Hamlet being translated into Klingon from “Star Trek.” It is because Shakespeare’s plays speak to all of us across the world and the centuries. He is timeless and universal. His plays present us to us. We need him now more than ever.”
So they decided to do it themselves.
“We realized it would never happen if we didn’t do it,” Sullivan said. “We thought at first we’d need a building, but then said no, how about a park? And the Eastern Shore has all kinds of great parks, and being outside gives audiences an experience they can’t get in a theater — birds singing are a part of the pre-show music. The park becomes part of the play.”
They picked the play “Twelfth Night” and found Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely willing to be their first venue. The first performance drew 250 people who had never been to the arboretum.
Rogers and Sullivan hadn’t thought about doing more shows, but later decided to stage the play again at Wilmer Park in Chestertown. Again, they met with a great and enthusiastic audience.
“Twelfth Night” isn’t one of Shakespeare’s better known plays. So for the next show, Sullivan wanted to go for a big name, and they went all in for “Romeo and Juliet.” And the crowds were bigger and the show even more successful.
They realized they wanted to keep doing Shakespeare and that there was an audience, so in 2014, they incorporated Shore Shakespeare under the Midshore Community Foundation’s nonprofit umbrella, and it has been a perfect organizational fit for both groups.
Shore Shakespeare has gone on to produce “A Comedy of Errors,” “Macbeth,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “As You Like It,” doing roughly one show each spring and summer. They have staged the show in venues in Cambridge, Oxford, and Queen Anne’s County, in addition to returning to Adkins Arboretum and Wilmer Park.
While one production is being staged, the next one is in its formative stages — choosing a play, working with a director, auditioning and casting — it can take a full year to get everything ready for a show.
Sometimes a director proposes a play with a plan for his or her vision, and sometimes Shore Shakespeare’s creative committee chooses a play and looks for a director. They consider the size of the cast, the type of play — comedy or tragedy — based on recent shows they’ve done, how they would have to adapt the script, what kind of set they’d need to build, and other factors, such as fighting, singing, dancing, or choreography.
“This is a community undertaking. We are all amateurs insofar as we don’t get paid,” Rogers said. “At the same time, we want to bring a sense of professionalism into what we do. Both Avra and I have some professional acting experience. Some of the other folks do too. And what we have found is that having that professional discipline makes all of us better actors, we do better shows.”
Educational outreach is a big part of why the company exists. They take programs into middle and high schools from South Dorchester to Gaithersburg and into adult learning programs at both Washington College and Chesapeake College. The idea is that students of all ages will come to appreciate and understand Shakespeare better if they get to see and hear him, rather than just read him.
So what happens when it all comes together on stage? What’s in it for the director and the actors? And why Shakespeare?
“Well, it cut my therapy bill big time!” Sullivan said. “Theater quickly became a kind of therapy for me when I was young because I wasn’t sure how to express the emotions that I was feeling, but theater let me express them through the characters. And in doing that, I was able to find my own voice. It is very therapeutic, very powerful; it really is human nature. And Shakespeare brings it out more so than maybe any other writer in the way that he holds a mirror up to humanity and says, ‘look.’”
Shore Shakespeare is currently working on the show “The Merchant of Venice.” They are considering how to bring out some of the play’s difficulties and controversies in a modern context and possibly spark conversation.
“Our goal is to do these shows as well as they can possibly be done,” Rogers said. “And ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a difficult show, and it’s a controversial show. So we decided to pull back and explore the idea of a little bit deeper dive into it, which might include a series of lectures, readings and talk-back kinds of programs, to address some of the controversies prior to actually presenting it.”
They were told there wasn’t an audience and that Shakespeare was too difficult. But Rogers, Sullivan, and Shore Shakespeare have brought the Bard to thousands of people on the Eastern Shore over the course of seven years. The play goes on, to the delight of the actors and the audience.