Happy Birthday, Bard

Thespians and audiences around the state celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th

May 2014 Travel Feature
Over the River
Happy Birthday Bard

Antony and Cleopatra // Image by Don Dixon

When William Shakespeare was writing his plays in Jolly Olde England, little did he dream that hundreds of years later, people in a mitten-shaped part of the New World would flock to see them again and again.

But flock they do, especially during the summer, when the weather makes it enjoyable to take in a comedy or tragedy in the open air, just like Shakespeare’s contemporaries did at his famed Globe Theatre.

“There’s a totally different experience you have when you see Shakespeare outdoors,” says Samantha White, founder and artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit. “I love all theater, but when you tear down those four walls, they [the audience] become a part of the experience.”

With 2014 the year of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, there’s no better time to take stock of Michigan’s eight summer venues offering the Bard’s plays, and of course, the Stratford Festival, in Ontario. After all, Americans fill up to one-third of the seats during their season.

Here are some opportunities to see some Shakespeare. The only remaining question: To be or not to be there when the actors take the stage?

Photographs left to right: Macbeth (Interlochen), Merchant on the Run (Stratford), Merry Wives (U-M The Arb), Romeo & Juliet (Water Works Theatre Co.), Love’s Labour’s Lost (MI Shakespeare Fest), Merchant on the Run (Stratford) // Left photograph courtesy of Interlochen; middle photograph by David Hou ; right photograph by Kent McCormick

Act 1: BIG RAPIDS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL /// The inaugural production in 2012 of The Big Rapids Shakespeare Festival was As You Like It, presented in, coincidentally, Hemlock Park. The poison is referred to in at least three of Shakespeare’s plays: Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet.

The park is part of a river walk along the Muskegon River, and performances take place in its band shell.

“The first season, our last show, there was a torrential downpour,” says Zachary Krebs, president of the festival’s executive board. The cast invited the audience under the band shell’s protective cover and finished the performance.

“It was the best show because it was so intimate,” Krebs says.

Krebs started the group after moving to his wife’s hometown of Big Rapids from Los Angeles in order to give their son a Midwestern childhood and be near his in-laws. The festival collaborates with Stage M, a local community theater group.

Krebs will be directing this year’s production of The Taming of the Shrew in mid-August. Admission is free, but the Big Rapids group accepts donations. brshakespeare.org

Act 2: LAKESIDE SHAKESPEARE THEATRE /// Thank Elizabeth Laidlaw’s northern Michigan roots for more than 10 years of annual productions in Frankfort, where she returns every year with her Chicago acting buddies to present one comedy, one tragedy, and workshops for kids.

Admission is free, but the group solicits donations. Their venue is a city park, but may best be described as a forest clearing. The company has a multilevel stage, complete with trap doors, and often uses the surrounding, rugged terrain as part of their stage setting. July 15–25. lakesideshakespeare.org

Act 3: INTERLOCHEN SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL /// The Inertlochen Shakespeare Festival doubled its capacity in 2012, from 175 to 350, when productions moved from an indoor venue to the outdoor Upton-Morley Pavilion.

The festival, which began in 2008, outfits the actors with headset microphones powered by wireless belt packs, making every word they say crystal clear. This year’s pick, The Tempest, runs from June 26–July 5.

It was Shakespeare’s last play and was written just a few years before his death in 1616 at age 52 — coincidentally on his birthday, April 23.

“I think a production of The Tempest that features so much of the natural world and spirits of the material world outdoors in the middle of summer is an exciting experience,” says Laura Mittelstaedt, who’s directing the play and is the festival’s artistic associate. interlochen.org/shakespeare

Act 4: MICHIGAN SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL /// Visitors flock to Jackson in July and August for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, which claims to be the state’s largest such fest. That explains why they outgrew its outdoor home in Ella Sharp Park, where it staged plays until 2003.

Since 2004, the festival has been in the 403-seat Baughman Theatre, in Jackson’s Potter Center, and it’s right-sized for the Bard.

“The furthest seat is still 30 feet away [from the stage] at most,” says Janice L. Blixt, the festival’s artistic director.

The festival draws its audience from the Jackson area, but 80 percent of them drive at least 25 miles and come from metro Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Toledo.

This year’s season includes Hamlet and Cymbeline as well as one non-Shakespeare offering, The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde.

Playgoers may note there’s a Shakespeare’s Pub in nearby Kalamazoo, but it’s named after the fishing gear company, not Will. michiganshakespearefestival.com

Act 5: PIGEON CREEK SHAKESPEARE COMPANY /// Billed as Michigan’s only year-round touring company performing the works of William S., the Grand Haven-based Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company won a Wilde Award for Best Performance — The Bard in 2012 and 2013 from EncoreMichigan.com, a Web-based publication focused on Michigan’s professional theater industry.

Undergraduate students at Grand Valley State University along with Frank Farrell, Chicago native actor and director, founded the company in 1998.

“We sort of belong to the tradition of Shakespeare companies that are founded by the actors,” says Katherine Mayberry, executive director. “That goes way back to Shakespeare’s time period.”

Pigeon Creek mounts productions of Shakespeare’s work on the western side of the state, preferably in nontraditional venues such as outdoors, bookstores, restaurants, and others, just like theaters in Shakespeare’s time and beyond.

“We really like to be in contact with our audiences,” says Mayberry.

Mainstay venues are in Grand Rapids, Saugatuck, Spring Lake, and Midland since 2008. The group also gives the only public performances offered at the Rose Theater, a small scale replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, in the Manistee National Forest on the west side of the state.

This year’s summer offerings are Coriolanus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. pcshakespeare.com

Left photograph by David Reed; middle photography by Jeromy Hopgood; right photograph by David Hou

Act 6: SHAKESPEARE IN THE ARB /// Savvy playgoers wear sturdy walking shoes for Shakespeare in the Arb because the action during a performance may move up to eight times amid the lush grounds of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor. There are a few golf carts, but not enough for everyone.

“I think what’s special about what I do is there’s no stage,” says artistic director Kate Mendeloff, festival founder and a senior lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. “That really informs the way the play is staged.”

Mendeloff uses the site’s hills, rivers, and trees for scenery, so an actor may burst through some bushes or even roll down a steep hill. “My set is created by nature,” she says. “You get amazing lighting effects at sunset and with rainbows.”

The setting can also lend itself to some impromptu hilarity when the actors throw themselves on the ground from fear or brandish their swords when the nearby Amtrak train rolls by or a medical helicopter roars overhead en route to the University of Michigan Medical Center.

Mendeloff advises those interested in seeing this year’s performances of As You Like It — planned for three weekends in June — to come early and bring a picnic along with a blanket or lawn chair: There are no advance sales and she limits the audience to 200. A word of advice: The grounds attract mosquitoes, too. lsa.umich.edu/rc/currentstudents/shakespeareinthearb

Act 7: SHAKESPEARE IN DETROIT /// Samantha White, a Detroit actress and TechTown entrepreneur, took the plunge in 2013 when she presented Othello for one night at Grand Circus Park.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know how many people would show up,” she says. “I knew my mom would be there.”

The free performance, which was sponsored by the Detroit 300 Conservancy, drew nearly 500 people. It confirmed for White that the Detroit area thirsts for outdoor Shakespeare. So this summer — some time in July — she’s presenting a condensed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Whitney restaurant, and the full version at Grand Circus Park. A date for the Grand Circus performance hadn’t been set at press time, but she’s sure it will be another free performance, thanks to the Detroit 300. shakespeareindetroit.com

Act 8: WATER WORKS THEATRE COMPANY /// Attorney Ed Nahhat was walking by Royal Oak’s Starr-Jaycee Park one winter night when he noticed rows of empty bleachers lit by nearby streetlights. His imagination filled in a stage with actors performing Shakespeare.

Nahhat, who majored in theater prior to law school and has acted professionally, started the Water Works Theater Company soon after.

“Shakespeare in the park is not something everyone can do,” he says. “I thought this would be unique.”

Water Works may be unique in that tickets are good for any performance. Each season includes daytime family shows as well as evening performances. In 2012, Water Works started offering locally made beer and wine, and a candlelit walkway to the parking lot adds to the magic. This year’s shows are July 31–Aug. 10.

The company has yet to break even, but Nahhat dreams of selling enough tickets to get out of the hole. A June fundraiser at the Royal Oak Historical Museum may help. waterworkstheatre.com

Act 9: STRATFORD FESTIVAL /// As anyone familiar with the Stratford Festival might expect, the 61-year-old Ontario-based venue is making much ado about something for the playwright’s milestone birthday this year, with entry for the special events ranging from zero to $40.

Stratford’s “Shakespeare 450: A Celebration of the Bard” offerings are Aug. 16-20, and include a display of the 1623 First Folio of Will’s works.

Other events during the week include an Elizabethan dance workshop and a talk about Sam Wanamaker, the actor-turned-entrepreneur who built Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Stratford has more events sprinkled throughout the summer, including a seminar on how to introduce kids to Shakespeare, feminist and social critic Camille Paglia on Shakespeare and misogyny, an examination of dementia and elder abuse in King Lear by psychiatrists, and a discussion linking Shakespeare to Martin Luther King Jr. Stratford’s 2014 season includes King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, and King John.

And for metro Detroiters not wanting to drive, there’s bus service from either Birmingham/ Bloomfield or Grosse Pointe to Stratford three days a week for only $40 round trip.


Visitors to Kalamazoo may wonder why a local beer joint bears the famous playwright’s name. Shakespeare’s Pub is named after a famous Shakespeare, just not the one from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The pub is in a 1937 limestone and glass block building erected by the William Shakespeare Jr. Co. — a fishing supply firm named after its founder, who started the business in 1897. William Jr., an avid angler, entrepreneur, and Kalamazoo mayor from 1933-35, was elected to the National Sporting Goods Hall of Fame in 1959.

The Shakespeare corporate headquarters moved to Columbia, S.C., in 1970, and the company was rebranded K2 Inc. in 1996.

The 1930s-era building was in ruins when pub co-owners Scott Makohn and Ted Vadella first considered it. Makohn combed through photo negatives of the building at Western Michigan University and had prints made showing workers on strike marching in front of it in the mid-1900s, as well as a bullet hole in one of the glass blocks made during the strike. He went on eBay to find Shakespeare fishing reels and poles that adorn the pub’s walls as well as a World War II-era advertisement about the company’s temporary changeover to war production.

“When you think about it, these are two guys who changed the world,” says Makohn. “One a playwright and one revolutionized the fishing world.”