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Under the sky, reveling in Bard’s timelessness

Armed with lawn chairs, blankets, bug spray and – in some instances – feasts fit for a Shakespearian king, more than 40,000 people gather on a hill near Hoyt Lake each summer.

It’s not called Shakespeare Hill for nothing.

Shakespeare in Delaware Park is one of the oldest and largest free Shakespeare festivals in the country. The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer met with founder Saul Elkin to talk about the popular summer ritual, which continues through Aug. 17 with a unique production of “The Comedy of Errors” that is staged with modern elements borrowed from several “alternative worlds.”

Here is a summary of some of the topics covered in an interview that is part of the “In Focus” series. Watch the full 6-minute interview.

Brian Meyer: How has this festival changed since its debut in 1976?

Saul Elkin: We were a very tiny, little festival in 1976, with a stage that is about a third the size of the stage that you can see behind me. Three standing microphones in front of the stage, where as now, all of our actors are equipped with body mics. …

Meyer: Your longevity is very impressive. You’re the second-oldest free Shakespeare festival in the country. You’re one of the largest. Has that length and stature made it easier to navigate what many have called the annual hustle for money?

Elkin: It’s helped a little bit. I think we’ve become something that this community expects to see every summer. Because they expect to see it, they’re helpful and they’re generous. And the generosity extends year-round. … The hustle as you say goes on constantly. Local businesses, banks – M&T Bank especially – has been very, very generous to us. It helps, I think. The older we get, the more established we are in the community, it becomes a part of people’s giving. …

Meyer: But let’s be candid. There are a lot of people who hear the word Shakespeare and think “boring.” How do you deal with that?

Shakespeare in the Park's first play of 2014 was "Henry V." (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News file photo)

Shakespeare in the Park's first play of 2014 was "Henry V." (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News file photo)

Elkin: Shakespeare is meant to be performed as well as read. What happens in the schools is that it’s read, and it’s read slowly. And that’s tough on a ninth- and 10th-grader. We have lots of young people out here to the park who stick with it and love it and come back. We have developed Shakespeare fans. What happens is that when it’s live, it’s very real. The emotions are real.

One of the reasons why Shakespeare has survived for 450 years is that he’s dealing with human interaction that we recognize – love and hate and anxiety and all of those feelings that we recognize. And when we see them on the stage, the difficulty of the language sort of is to one side, I think.

Meyer: And you take these emotions, these common emotions, and you try to make them almost mirrors of the times in many of your productions. You do some creative reimaginings. You take them into different eras with costumes and music. Do you have any favorite re-creations?

Elkin: We’ve done a variety of those, and the point is not so much to rewrite Shakespeare, but to create a moment of relevance – a moment of immediacy. This is not to say that Shakespeare done in a traditional style is not also immediate and relevant. We did a space age “Tempest” years ago, which I liked. Early on in the festival, we did a very rock ’n’ roll “Hamlet,” which was a favorite of mine. … I think those are a way of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century.

Meyer: Let’s do reimagining here. What do you think the Bard would say if he suddenly materialized here on the hill at Delaware Park and saw one of these productions?

Elkin: When these plays were written, they were very forward-thinking. We live in an age now of electronic devices. I think Shakespeare would have been using one. They might have appeared in his plays. I think he would have liked what we do here.

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