As the community struggles to create some sense of normalcy during the current pandemic, the South Dakota Shakespeare Festival is working on plans of its own.
In a recent Zoom meeting of the Vermillion Rotary Club, founding and artistic director of the festival, Chaya Gordon-Bland, spoke of the disappointing turn of events.
“We were very excited but like everybody everywhere we had to take a big hit and make a difficult decision,” Gordon-Bland said. “So we did decide to cancel our face to face programming for this year in the best interest of our community’s health and well being. And it will make it so much sweeter when we get back in the park and get back together face to face.”
Though disappointed, Gordon-Bland said the organization is far from defeated.
“We are not idle!” Gordon-Bland said. “We are not going dark! No, no! We have some plans. We want to stay active and engaged and be able to continue to offer community members positive and healthy and joyful outlets.”
Gordon-Blande presented the Rotary Club with the sketch of the initiative meant to take the place of the festival this year, dubbed “Shakespeare-in-place.”
“We were talking, the staff and the board about what to do,” Gordon-Bland said. “One of the things about our current situation is it’s amazing the outpour of digital content that’s happening. I imagine this is happening in every field. Professionals are offering ways to share content online and digitally and it’s the same in the theatre.”
With the overwhelming amount of online experiences, Gordon-Bland said the South Dakota Shakespeare Festival is going to use both its own digital content and help the public take advantage of the content already online through other sources.
“We’re going to set ourselves up as a hub,” Gordon-Bland said. “We can be an informational hub connecting our audience members and patrons to all these virtual Shakespeare offerings that are already happening from around the globe.”
Gordon-Bland shared the festival’s plans to livestream two of their own productions.
“We happen to have really great videos,” Gordon-Bland said. “We have great multi-camera professional shoots of the Taming of the Shrew from 2014 and our last summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
According to Gordon-Bland the streaming will be free and hopefully give the community a festival experience and “a little more Shakespeare action” despite the social distancing and stay-at-home measures.
“Just to reaffirm we are working towards our summer 2021 and being back in the park hopefully in all of the ways we recognize and bringing all our audience members back together to enjoy the community experience of live professional Shakespeare,” Gordon-Bland said.
Hope is what will get us through this tough time according to Gordon-Bland.
“‘True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings,” Gordon-Bland said, quoting Shakespeare’s Richard III. “Kings it makes gods and meaner creatures kings.’ I hope we can keep moving forward with hope in our hearts and light in our hearts and being strong and resilient and joyful together.”
The South Dakota Shakespeare Festival has been bringing joy to the community since 2011 when it was founded as a collaboration between Gordon-Bland, theatre professor Scott Mollman and Greg Huckabee.
The organization first partnered with Coyoteopoly, a service-learning experience and student run business organization housed in the Academic School of Business.
According to Gordon-Bland, Coyoteopoly served as the producing organization and Board of Directors for the festival for the first five years before incorporating into its own company in 2017.
For the company’s inaugural season in 2012, their production of “As You Like it” was honored as the ‘Best Local Production’ in the Siouxland, Sioux City Journal.
According to Gordon-Bland, the Mission of the South Dakota Shakespeare Festival is, “To engage, connect, and inspire communities by exploring our shared human experiences through inclusive, professional Shakespeare productions and theatre arts education.”
Official values of the company include access, inclusion, integrity, artistic excellence.
“We’re really working to create theatre and build audiences that reflect and nourish the diversity of our community,” Gordon-Bland said. “These values that you see here really drive and impact everything we do from our venue which of course is Prentis Park, a place where we can be in an outdoor public community space, our ticket cost which is free will, our performance style which is intentionally lively and clear in dynamic, our education and outreach programs and partnerships which aim to really spread the wealth in terms of including all of our community members in the positive impact of the arts.”
The high-quality annual performances are a result of tireless effort to bring together top-notch actors and directors.
“We do an audition tour and that looks a little bit different each year depending on what production we’re doing and who’s directing it and what the needs are of the show,” Gordon-Bland said. “We generally have three audition sites. We do a local round of auditions here in Vermillion and then we will often do a Sioux Falls audition or an audition at the American College Theatre festival in our region wherever that’s hosted, it rotates.”
Audition sites also have included the Twin Cities and New York City.
“It’s a big process,” Gordon-Bland said. “It’s a lot of travel in the winter and it’s a lot of vetting pictures and resumes. We end up seeing hundreds of actors audition for 12 or 13 spots so it’s very competitive but it’s also really fun and rewarding to put the pieces together and bring the right company together, not just in terms of their talent onstage but in terms of who they are as people and what they’ll bring to our company and to our community.”
In an effort to be considerate to the actors themselves, Gordon-Bland said the production is intentionally scheduled fairly early in the summer to provide the freelance artists time to participate in other productions during the summer.
The annual productions are accompanied by education and outreach programming throughout the region.
These include workshops, scholars and conversation events, post show talk backs among other programs.
The company also brings plays into facilities as part of outreach programs through Sanford Care Center, SESDAC and the Minnehaha Juvenile Detention Center, bringing theatre to those who are not able to come themselves.
The highlight, of course, is the production itself.
“The productions are really the centerpiece of our work with our world class Shakespeare in the park every June in Vermillion’s Prentis Park, “ Gordon-Bland said. “We bring together a company of artists hired from highly competitive national, regional and local markets and we combine seasoned artists from around the country with both seasoned and green artists drawn from the USD student body and the USD faculty.”
Gordon-Bland said the board is looking forward to the coming years, especially with a brand new Director of Operations and Productions, Brian Smallwood.
“He’s got an incredible bio and resume,” Gordon-Bland said. “He’s a very experienced technical director, production manager, teacher and educator. He is based at James Madison University so he will be working remotely during the academic year and then come into Vermillion for the weeks around our production process.”
Gordon-Bland said Smallwood was very excited to come and see the community in person which, of course, has been delayed.
“We were planning on bringing Brian in this summer to meet all of you and meet the community and see our spaces and get to know the board and get to know everybody but of course under current circumstances we decided not to.” Gordon-Bland said.
If future seasons will be any reflection on past years, Smallwood has a lot to look forward to.
“We engage approximately 1000 audience members in the park every summer over the course of four days which sounds amazing right now,” Gordon-Bland said. “I’d love to be in a space with 250 people at a time. We can’t wait to get back.”
In the meantime, the community can look forward to the digital Shakespeare-In-Place information hub.
For updates and more information, visit https://www.sdshakespearefestival.org/.