Prior to directing a production of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," theater-generalist-turned-artistic-director Ian Gallanar wasn't sure that the Bard was for him. He thought the language would be dense, that the show would be dry. But then a line or two started to make him laugh.
"It seemed a little bit like magic to me," he says, enchanted by the idea that jokes from the 16th century could still have a place in today's world.
Two decades later, Gallanar's Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is in the middle of its 15th season. This year, the company is focusing on education: about life, death, love, and Shakespeare.
"People need different doorways, different entryways, into the material," Gallanar says, because—and here's the kicker—Shakespeare's writing is just as complex as people think it is.
William Shakespeare was, arguably, a genius (or multiple geniuses, according to some scholars), so sometimes his plays get unnecessarily convoluted (I'm looking at you, "Midsummer"). And iambic pentameter comes with its own set of challenges. It's not surprising that some people fear this kind of theater.
The trick to teaching Shakespeare, Gallanar says, is to get kids to appreciate the Bard before academia turns him into a question on a test or an answer on a quiz—before they know they're supposed to be afraid of the material.
Last year, the company reached 7,000 middle and high school students with matinee performances of "Romeo and Juliet," the 400-something-year-old fan-favorite that epitomizes teen angst and tragic romance. It's a story that's easy to understand and easier to relate to, a good first step into Shakespeare's drama. Once the show gets started, even young audiences know they're supposed to laugh when biting one's thumb becomes an insult. They know to cry when (centuries-old spoiler warning) our tragic (and frankly, kind of stupid) lovers wind up dead.
On the other hand, most of these kids won't be able to catch the abundant, blatant references to sex and debauchery as the words fly overhead.
This year, CSC hopes to reach 9,000 students with "Romeo and Juliet," in addition to giving emerging adult artists (who probably will catch every raunchy reference) a boost.
Last year, CSC launched Blood & Courage, originally called the Under-30 Company, an ensemble production group for up-and-coming artists in their 20s. Blood & Courage members are responsible for handling all aspects of their chosen performances, from costuming and performing to marketing and fundraising, under the watchful eyes of CSC staff.
Associate Artistic Director Lizzi Albert directed Blood & Courage's first production, of "All's Well That Ends Well," in addition to working as a mentor to the students in the CSC High School Corps, a program for young artists that formed in 2011. The troupe, comprised of local high school students, designs, performs, and orchestrates 90-minute versions of Shakespeare shows under the advisement of CSC professionals.
"Our education program is not really about training young classical actors, it's about helping students to feel a connection to Shakespeare. I think it's really empowering to them, and I feel like I've met so many adults who are intimidated by Shakespeare or think that it's elitist," Albert said. "They think of it as something really unpleasant. And I see with students that if you just sort of give them a way into the language, that they can really plunge into it."
Unlike Gallanar, Albert has been living in the language of Shakespeare since she was a child. As an adolescent, she took classes at a kids' Shakespeare company based in Takoma Park, where she returned to work after college. Albert studied at NYU Tisch and the Stella Adler studio in New York before finding her way to CSC.
"I was introduced to Shakespeare in performance pretty young, and so I think I always felt an affinity for it," she said.
Despite her knack for the language, Albert said that she struggled with teaching younger students about Shakespeare early on.
"I think that going through the teaching training at CSC and watching the teachers there really helped me to understand how that process works," Albert said. "They do some exercises to break the language down and make it seem less intimidating. And then once the students return year after year, we can ask them to do more and more advanced work, because they've already been through the 'Shakespeare's not scary stage,' and they can get into the 'How can we really make the most out of this?'"
In its early days, CSC split its time between the ruins of Ellicott City's Patapsco Female Institute and a medley of rented spaces in Howard County, bouncing around depending on weather and season, before eventually settling into its home on Calvert Street in 2014. Nestled comfortably within the former Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company Building, the bank-turned-theater seats 260 people in three tiers around three quarters of a center stage. The fourth section is defined by a wooden wall that doubles as a neutral backdrop and additional entrance space for performers.
The indoor area comes with its own challenges, Gallanar says, but he prefers to think of them as opportunities. Actors can enter from virtually anywhere, and there's room for expansion.
The company is currently working on inching its way around the corner of Redwood Street and into the building next door, which will house a new hands-on educational workshop and performance space called "The Studio." Construction on the expansion began in August and could be completed as soon as early 2017. The multi-use area will allow CSC contributors to work on individual growth as well as group collaboration and alternative or smaller-scale productions. It will also house rehearsal facilities and classrooms—"Spaces for students to come to us," Gallanar says.
CSC's current season began in September with a production of "Othello," a play rife with racial tension after the titular character, a black Moor, marries a white Venetian woman. It's a story of strife not all that unfamiliar to a city like Baltimore. "We like to do plays with big ideas and big themes," Gallanar says.
The season continues with performances of "Anne of the Thousand Days," a play not by Shakespeare but by the American playwright Maxwell Anderson (most but not all CSC productions are penned by the Bard), about Henry VIII's pursuit of Anne Boleyn and her role in shaping a country. The production, which runs through Nov. 13, was developed by an all-female design team, and in keeping with CSC's focus on education, the company is hosting workshops and community conversation events aimed at inspiring thoughtful discussion throughout the season.
Albert, who stars as Anne Boleyn, says that her character is complex, torn between acting on her own behalf and being influenced by the political and social climate that surrounds her.
"Anne is such a strong character, and she's so interested in being treated like a person and controlling her own destiny," Albert said. "I think the playwright allowed her to be that way, but he also shows how stacked the deck is against her and how patriarchal the society she's existing in is, so I think that that tension is really interesting."
After "Anne" come productions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," "Richard III," and "The Taming of the Shrew." In April, CSC will debut its first full musical production, "The Fantasticks," a Shakespeare-esque tale about neighboring fathers who attempt to orchestrate a marriage between their children by pretending to feud, while "The Tempest" opens in June at PFI.
"The Tempest" marks Albert's CSC main stage directorial debut.
"I definitely think there's been a wonderful payoff in terms of the way that we got to sort of play in the sandbox," she says, "and now we get to play with the big kids."