Act I, Scene I of “Shakespeare in Delaware Park.”
Scene: The Anchor Bar on Main Street, 1976.
Enter SAUL ELKIN, a young University at Buffalo theater professor and JOSEPH PAPP, legendary founder of New York City’s Public Theater and Elkin’s Ph.D. thesis adviser, along with certain commoners, eating chicken wings.
Papp: “So, who’s doing Shakespeare?”
Elkin: “I don’t know, the colleges are doing it.”
Papp: “Start something!”
OK, so this decidedly drama-free exchange of very un-Shakespearean language across a barroom table in 1976 may not exactly be the stuff of great theater. But it was enough to launch one of Buffalo’s most popular and enduring cultural institutions and one of the most popular free Shakespeare Festivals in North America, which opened that very summer with a student-driven production of “The Winter’s Tale.”
And on Thursday, when Saul Elkin steps onto an outdoor stage near Hoyt Lake to usher in the 40th season of his company with the opening lines of “Romeo and Juliet,” chances are that meeting with his trusted adviser four decades earlier will be on his mind.
After his conversation with Papp, who was in town to see a production of the play he had urged Elkin to produce (Myrna Lamb’s “Apple Pie”), the idea of a Shakespeare festival didn’t take long to germinate.
“Within a couple of weeks, I had called the then-Mayor Stanley Makowski and we had a meeting. And he said, ‘Sure, sure. Can’t give you any money, but we’ll help you.’ ”
From that point on, Shakespeare in Delaware Park has been inextricably linked to the region’s public life and its identity as a haven for summer culture. The company has faced numerous crises, notably in the early ’90s when budget cuts threatened to put the company out of business and forced it to leave the University at Buffalo and reorganize itself as an independent nonprofit.
After that, the City of Buffalo and Erie County started to provide a trickle of public subsidies and finally a semi-reliable stream, which ebbed and flowed throughout the years as the economy vacillated and the whims of legislators shifted away from the arts and back again.
Two constants were the Bard’s words pouring out over Delaware Park and the faithful audience, which grew every year as the festival shed its origins as a classroom project and became an intergenerational tradition.
Elkin said he never expected his efforts to produce a Western New York cultural institution.
“I think what moved me was the number of people who came to the park,” Elkin said. “And I thought, this is a classroom exercise. I can’t and won’t charge admission. And then I realized, I can never charge admission. That’s not what this is about.”
What it was about was a vast, untapped and under-recognized appetite from across the entire region for Shakespearean drama in an outdoor setting. To Elkin’s surprise and that of his early collaborators, that appetite spanned neighborhoods and socioeconomic lines, drawing picnic-toting fans from the toniest suburbs to the toughest city blocks.
“It wasn’t just that people were showing up because it was free,” Elkin said. “They were showing up because it was a particular kind of event. Maybe it was because other similar events were unaffordable. Maybe tickets for a family at Shea’s were unaffordable, but it was more than that too. It was about sharing these wonderful plays. And then I think what people discovered was that the plays weren’t as off-putting as they thought they were.”
For Lisa Ludwig, the company’s managing director and a frequent performer on the SDP stage, the appeal of the outdoor setting is a huge part of its lasting appeal.
“When the sun is setting and the stage lights are just starting to glow, and you see everybody lighting their candles ... As a performer, and in the audience, there’s nothing like it,” she said. “That’s a really amazing moment. Magical is the word.”
The company’s approach to Shakespeare’s plays throughout the years has balanced an abiding respect for the original material with a desire to extend the playwright’s ideas into a new century and toward new conceptual ends.
Switching up gender roles
This season, which features “Romeo and Juliet” and an all-male version of “Twelfth Night,” is an example of that approach. Both productions take a contemporary approach to gender fluidity – a topic on everyone’s mind since Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement – the first by featuring female actors in male roles and the second by harkening back to the Elizabethan practice of producing plays with entirely male casts.
In “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Tom Loughlin and starring Jonas Barranca and Kathlen Denecke, women play crucial roles: Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Marie Costa), Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Mary Beth Lacki), as well as Prince Escalus (Marisa Caruso) and the Capulet servant Gregory (Shelby Ebeling).
“Twelfth Night,” which Elkin will direct, was inspired by recent all-male productions of Shakespeare plays.
“It’s really about discovering what qualities a character has that emerge when they are a young man playing a young woman,” he said. “… It’s really about gender and what it brings to the story.”
In the case of “Romeo and Juliet,” what it brings to the story is a kind of reconfigured machismo embodied by actors like Lacki, who is not soft-pedaling any of Tybalt’s violent tendencies and has embraced the swordplay involved in the role.
“You really see an extreme sense of joy and life and you see love and sexual tension. But then with Tybalt you see the darker side of this human character,” Lacki said.
This will be the fifth production of “Romeo and Juliet” in the company’s history, and chances are there will be plenty of return customers on the hill this time around.
And Elkin, who is reprising his role as Friar Laurence, will be there to greet them as he once again steps in front of the chattering crowd, breathes in the twilight and sets up a tale of star-crossed lovers on the stage he built.
“There’s a lot of people who have a sentimental attachment to this festival. They come with their children, they come when they grow up,” Elkin said. “It’s very moving to me. I hadn’t anticipated it, but I relish it now.”