Not of an Age: Remembering 10 years of Shakespeare in Clark Park

With THE WINTER’S TALE, Shakespeare in Clark Park marks its tenth consecutive year of performing high-quality productions of Shakespeare plays for FREE in one of Philadelphia’s most welcoming parks. To celebrate this milestone, Phindie asked SCP performers past and present to share their thoughts and memories on a decade of the Bard in the West Philly summer. [Clark Park, 43rd Street and Chester Avenue] July 29-August 2, 2015; shakespeareincarkpark.org.

Conrad Ricamora and Marla Burkholder in SCP's second-ever production, Romeo & Juliet, in 2007. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Conrad Ricamora and Marla Burkholder in SCP’s second-ever production, Romeo & Juliet, in 2007. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Beginnings

In 2005 Maria Moller and I were talking about the lack of performing opportunities in the summermost theater seasons ended in May and nothing happened again until the Fringe Festival in Septemberand how Philadelphia was one of the only major cities in the U.S. that didn’t have outdoor summer Shakespeare. So we decided to put on a show. As a West Philly resident, Clark Park seemed an obvious choice—it’s one of the most vibrant, community-supported green spaces in the city. We coerced our actor friends to perform for free, put together a really good show, and hoped that a few people might come. Over the course of four nights, 1,500 people showed up. So we realized maybe this was a thing.
Marla Burkholder :: Viola,Twelfth Night (2006); Juliet, Romeo & Juliet (2007); Adriana, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Hero, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Kate/Mistress Quickly/Lady Mortimer, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

Twelfth Night, 2006

Twelfth Night, 2006

It’s the epicenter of summer. I always know that the performance will be a blast, but what seems like silly people frolicking about in the sunshine reciting verse is actually a herculean effort: Trucks and supplies must be organized. Weather and surly neighbors must be dealt with. I’ve witnessed stray dogs pooping on stage during performances and actors nearly blacking out from heat exhaustion, but SCP has unlocked the four elemental secrets to good live performance: a glass of wine, outdoors, a beautiful park, and a wonderful caring committee. I hope that the neighborhood appreciates what they have and realizes that Marla Burkholder is a saint for undertaking this awesome endeavor.
Bradley K. Wrenn :: Malvolio, Twelfth Night (2006); Tybalt, Romeo & Juliet (2007); Antipholus of Ephesus, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010); set designer, The Tempest (2013)

The audience at The Comedy of Errors, 2009. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

The audience at The Comedy of Errors, 2009. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

What Makes It Special 

It’s always had a fun, relaxing picnicy feel—it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And I love the community vibe that surrounds it. Every time I’m at a performance I’m struck by how Shakespeare in Clark Park pulls together folks not just from the normal theater-going community, but from all walks of life, infusing them with a desire to explore the greater Philadelphia theater scene.
Jered McLenigan :: Tybalt/Apothecary, Romeo & Juliet (2007)

Romeo & Juliet, 2007

Romeo & Juliet, 2007

They incorporate the larger community of West Philadelphia. It adds something extra special to every show.
Langston Darby :: Don Pedro, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

More than any other theatrical event in the city these shows have felt like a communion. That community exchange is the most exciting to me as I direct this year’s production..
Kittson O’Neill :: director, The Winter’s Tale (2015)

I like the immediacy of it. What a great experience to perform, outdoors, with 1,500+ people watching. I brought my then-four-year-old daughter to see a show a few years back and we were completely enthralled with the music, dancing and acting! I also like the diversity of casting. Sadly, not all theaters have embraced the idea/fact that artists of color can handle the complexity of the language.
Brian Anthony Wilson :: King Henry IV, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

As You Like It, 2008

As You Like It, 2008

Performing outside shatters the traditional proscenium in the best way. That battle scene last year [for Henry IV] realized a goal that we’ve been talking about for YEARS—how to honor the scope and scale of the park, to stage something panoramically engaging, to bring to life a moment that could only be created in the park. It was such a logistical challenge, and I think SCP and Team Sunshine really pulled that off. I felt like I LEARNED what it FELT like to be part of a battle that size from watching that scene, and you could never pull off that feeling in a traditional theater space.
Jess Conda :: Phebe, As You Like It (2008); Angelo/Courtesan, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Fairy/Snout, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010); Conrade/Ursula, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Ford, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

People don’t just come for the show, but for the locale, to sit in an audience of hundreds picnicking together on a summer evening, and even for the flame throwers or the kids on bicycles riding in the background. Some stumble upon it, some have been coming for years, but it’s communal in the biggest sense of the word.
Jenna Horton :: Margaret/Verges, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Quickly, The Merry Wives of Windsor (2012); as herself, pre-show pub experience, Henry IV (2014)

It seems as though more people turn out for their show than any other piece of theater throughout the year. The event is always such an inviting, high quality, imaginative production, and the audience is allowed to eat a sandwich. That is, without a doubt, a perfect way to spend a summer evening.
Emilie Krause :: Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010)

Brian Anthony Wilson and Brian Ratcliffe in Henry IV, 2014. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Brian Anthony Wilson and Daniel Frederick in Henry IV, 2014. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Magical Mishaps

The first season was fraught with a hundred small misadventures. We experienced all of the surprises of performing outdoors—including a dog peeing in the middle of the performance area during the first scene of the first show.
Marla Burkholder :: Viola,Twelfth Night (2006); Juliet, Romeo & Juliet (2007); Adriana, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Hero, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Kate/Mistress Quickly/Lady Mortimer, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

The Comedy of Errots, 2009

The Comedy of Errors, 2009

Being part of a 100 person battle scene is one of the most memorable things I have ever done onstage. EPIC. But we moved to an indoor venue one night due to rain—a hockey arena. Dan Perelstein managed to engineer the sound so that the audience in the center section could hear every single word perfectly, no easy feat in a giant echo chamber. The cast, however, could hear nothing; every sound that came back to my ear was a jumbled cacophony. We all just tried to speak as clearly and deliberately as possible and read each other’s lips.
Adam Altman :: Worcester, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

I’ll never forget how it felt to have the sunset time up so perfectly with the end of the play. There was something alarmingly beautiful about the rhythm of the sun syncing up with the denouement of the entertainment. But one night, several rather nutty men tried to sabotage our production, one went after the speakers while another tried to dismantle our power source. It added a comically intense sense of drama to our Shakespearean romp.
Emilie Krause :: Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010)

For Merry Wives, Becky Wright directed us to keep our characters present on the peripheries of the audience view. Every night Isa St. Clair and I would write and recite terrible love poetry to each other under a tree near 45th street—and often passersby would come up to us and ask what was going on. We had to do a dance of being friendly and welcoming to these potential audience members and invite them to watch while still making it look like we were Shakespearean lovers whispering sweet nothings to each other.
Ben Grinberg :: Pistol/Fenton/Simple, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

We were doing the show while the park drummers were doing their thing and maybe it’s because of some tribal trigger in my ancestry but the rhythm of the drums got in my head and messed with my concentration and I bobbled my lines. A true lesson in FOCUS, performing Shakespeare in a vibrant park, with loud trolleys passing by and kids/dogs running on “our stage”.
Brian Anthony Wilson :: King Henry IV, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2010

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2010

I saw a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream that was rained out and hastily moved into the Sanctuary at Calvary Center, the home of Curio Theatre. It was spectacular to see the energy of that huge audience packed into an indoor space, and how easily the cast adapted. Ryan Walter’s Bottom and Kristen Schier’s Thisbe were gut-bustingly wonderful. Kristen had to deal with a broken prop sword, but nailed her death scene and brought the house down.
Liam Castellan :: Antonio/Town Watch/Judge, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

Kristen Schier was playing Thisbe in the play within a play. We had this knife prop made out of cardboard that ripped in half during the course of the scene. We got to the part where Thisbe has to kill herself. The audience had that feeling of “something’s going wrong, the magic is ruined, what will the actor do with this?” And in the moment, Kristen, like a brilliant art warrior, took both ends of the broken sword and put them on either end of her stomach. It was the funniest, most amazing thinking on your feet moment and the audience absolutely freaked out with joy.
Jess Conda :: Phebe, As You Like It (2008); Angelo/Courtesan, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Fairy/Snout, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010); Conrade/Ursula, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Ford, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

Victoria Frings and Allen Radway in Much Ado About Nothing, 2011. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Victoria Frings and Allen Radway in the heat of Much Ado About Nothing, 2011. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

 Summer Heat

 In the dressing room after The Comedy of Errors, Luigi Sotielle was in utter awe of the heat, completely soaked head to toe form sweat. He joked how this ain’t no gig for weak, fancy actors and coined the phrase, “it’s ‘wring out your underwear’ hot tonight,” which we still say to each other.
Jess Conda :: Phebe, As You Like It (2008); Angelo/Courtesan, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Fairy/Snout, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010); Conrade/Ursula, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Ford, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

Much Ado About Nothing, 2011.

Much Ado About Nothing, 2011.

The first Shakespeare in Clark Park production I ever saw was Much Ado About Nothing. I loved the live music that was so much a part of the show and I was so very impressed with Allen Radway’s portrayal of Benedick—I learned things watching his performance. Also, I remember that it was 105 degrees, David Blatt actually sweat through the lapels of his jacket.  At the time I was playing Camillo in The Winter’s Tale with Delaware Shakespeare Festival; our show was cancelled due to extreme heat but Clark Park soldiered on.
Adam Altman :: Worcester, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

I won’t soon forget the heat wave of 2011. We unanimously decided to go on for opening night despite a 113° heat index—and cancellations throughout the region. I drank twenty bottles of water and sweat all of it back out, but was fed strawberries, a wonderful assortment of cheeses, and sparkling cider while I hid in the audience during the eavesdropping scene. That’s what made it so easy. The audience came out in droves to support us.
Allen Radway :: Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

The heat wave perfectly aligned with our dress rehearsals and performances, over 100 all week. It peaked at 103, but even at our 7pm showtimes it was over 90. We would change in a classroom building bordering the park, and one evening the SCP board members gave us a cooler filled with those slushy stick things (they’re in clear plastic, you tear off the end and suck all the ice, sugar, and chemical flavors out). After the show, they were mostly melted, but I was so overheated and dehydrated I didn’t care. Maria Moller took a photo of me slurping these things down, shirt off, hunched like an incredibly pale Gollum over a water fountain to catch drips.
Liam Castellan :: Antonio/Town Watch/Judge, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

Merry Wives of Windsor, 2012.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2012.

One night, when it was over 100 degrees, SCP was the only company who didn’t cancel. It was ridiculously hot. I’ll never forget the soldiers’ costumes changing color within the first five minutes of the show that whole run. As Margaret, I sat in the back as the soldiers marched in and watched a line form across all their uniforms because they were instantly drenched in sweat.
Jenna Horton :: Margaret/Verges, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Quickly, The Merry Wives of Windsor (2012); as herself, pre-show pub experience, Henry IV (2014)

I had six quick changes in 115 degree heat. I went back and forth from a full crinoline petticoat to a full soldier’s uniform, in a tent with three dressers ripping my clothes off, spraying me down with water, cleaning my wireless mic and throwing more clothes on me.
Jess Conda :: Phebe, As You Like It (2008); Angelo/Courtesan, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Fairy/Snout, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010); Conrade/Ursula, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Ford, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

I could be romanticizing, but I remember after the weeklong heatwave we performed the entire last show under the threat of a downpour. We made it to the end and it started to rain just as we finished out bows.
Langston Darby :: Don Pedro, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

Robert Daponte with Reuben Mitchell in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2012.

Robert Daponte with Reuben Mitchell in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2012.

Remembering Reuben

Every night before Merry Wives, Reuben Mitchell would warm us up with an amazing vocal warm up that was the essence of him. I think that production is really special for many of us because it was the summer before his accident. [Reuben passed away in a motorcycle accident in Fall 2012, just months after the SCP production.]
Ben Grinberg :: Pistol/Fenton/Simple, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

The Tempest, 2013

The Tempest, 2013

I can’t think about Clark Park without thinking about Reuben, who played Master Ford, my husband in Merry Wives of Windsor. I have never laughed so much in a process with a cast mate EVER. He taught me that I was actually ripping off my tongue twister warm up from a rapper named Big Pun and basically spent that summer schooling me on old school hip hop. On opening night, I remember sitting in my place in the field watching him deliver this hilarious, long, and demanding monologue that he had been  really nervous about and absolutely killing it. I’ve never felt so connected to comedy, to timing, to the essence of an actor who bonds with an audience through performance. The sky was full of these pink clouds, there were maybe 800 people there, and this young actor, this incredible talent, his voice was ringing through the sky, he made us understand and laugh through this monologue in the most amazing way. I’ve never heard such rich applause in my life, and seeing Reuben’s face, the joy and relief as he ran to the next seen, I remember thinking, “this actor has a gift and we are so lucky to see it unfolding at this early stage of his career.” I know that might sound like sappy bullshit because we lost him, but it’s so true, I fully remember every sense memory of that extraordinary moment of performance in every inch of my body and will never forget that tiny but so significant snapshot in time.
Jess Conda :: Phebe, As You Like It (2008); Angelo/Courtesan, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Fairy/Snout, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010); Conrade/Ursula, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Ford, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

Henry IV, 2014

Henry IV, 2014

I’ll never forget Reuben’s monologue: “Fie fie fie, cuckhold cuckhold cuckhold buck buck buck!” flying out of his mouth. I’ll never forget the quality of his voice—an amazing mixture of warm and buttery combined with percussive shrieking—resounding across the park.
Jenna Horton :: Margaret/Verges, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Mistress Quickly, The Merry Wives of Windsor (2012); as herself, pre-show pub experience, Henry IV (2014)

I only had one chance to see Merry Wives of Windsor, and only saw the first hour before an angry monsoon roared out of the Northwest. Reuben’s comic sensibilities and big heart filled the entire park.
Liam Castellan :: Antonio/Town Watch/Judge, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

Kevin Bergen and Bi Jean Ngo in The Winters Tale, 2015

Kevin Bergen and Bi Jean Ngo in The Winters Tale, 2015

This Year and Decades to Come

The most exciting challenge is balancing the large spectacle with the very intimate moments which are crucial to the story. At the same time I’m excited to embrace the size. For The Winter’s Tale, we were inspired by Renaissance landscape paintings which pull your gaze back to a horizon and then focus it forward. A chorus of children will create moments and tableaux far upstage of the action, as a living part of the set. We have had a blast letting our imaginations run wild. There are a lot of wild gestures we could never make in a theater. And a lot of running. My poor actors. Lots of running.
Kittson O’Neill :: director, The Winter’s Tale (2015)

The Winters Tale, 2015

The Winters Tale, 2015

It feels like an amazing coming together, a huge pot luck dinner both for the theater community and the city. Because it happens during the summer at a time when most of the other theaters aren’t live, actors get a chance to work with other actors, designers, and technicians who they might otherwise never get a chance to work with, creating awesome ties throughout the theater community. It’s amazing to be a part of a huge event, to play—for free!—to crowds of 1,000+ people. I imagine it feels a little like the beginnings of the Public Theatre in New York, and I hope it stays free and accessible forever.
Ben Grinberg :: Pistol/Fenton/Simple, Merry Wives of Windsor (2012)

In 2012 we had the misfortune of getting rained out of three of our five shows—a disaster, because we rely on the donations that audience members put in the red buckets at each show for about a quarter of our budget. But supporters organized an online “Red Bucket” campaign that year and raised $7,500 in five days to cover those losses and keep us in business. Things like that always remind me that while this is a professional production, it’s really owned by the community.
Marla Burkholder :: Viola,Twelfth Night (2006); Juliet, Romeo & Juliet (2007); Adriana, The Comedy of Errors (2009); Hero, Much Ado About Nothing (2011); Kate/Mistress Quickly/Lady Mortimer, Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine (2014)

I can’t wait to see this summer’s production.  But then, I say that every year.
Liam Castellan :: Antonio/Town Watch/Judge, Much Ado About Nothing (2011)

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.