One of my number one goals in this blog is to combat the idea that there is nothing to do in Fresno. It’s not true, I tell you! It’s just not true! I hope we’ve done a good job convincing you of that the past couple of years. This week, I’m going to talk about something that’s been around for more than a decade – and yet so many locals still seem unaware of it: The Woodward Shakespeare Festival.
The Woodward Shakespeare Festival is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that puts on free plays several nights a week at Woodward Park every summer. The group has their own space at the Festival Stage in the park. This year, they’ll be doing “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” as well as a performance by a student group they facilitate.
Whether you’re a big Shakespeare fan or not, this is truly one of the most unique and enjoyable theater experiences you can have. For starters, there are no real seats, save for the a few rows of folding chairs near the stage. (You can reserve the first two rows online for $10 a seat, for those of you who want to have an up close experience.)
Most people choose to bring their own blankets and chairs, along with picnics, kids and dogs. There’s a large lawn and shaded hill facing the stage. Additionally, shows don’t start until 8 p.m., and temperatures are quite comfortable by then.
“With our location, pretty much regardless of how warm it gets during the day, it’s a very nice evening where we’re at,” said Greg Taber, Executive Producer of Woodward Shakespeare Festival. “It cools off, and it turns into a very, very nice evening.”
I can attest to this myself, having been to shows in previous seasons. There’s something very special about enjoying iconic plays in such a peaceful setting. Plus, I never turn down a good excuse for a picnic.
Being outside in a public space brings its own set of challenges for the thespians: noise from concerts at the nearby amphitheatre, heckling from random passersby, and even wildlife like rabbits, squirrels and frogs running across the stage.
“It’s fun to watch the new people, and we tell them ahead of time it’s a very challenging venue.” Greg said. “People drive by and yell things at us.”
The actors don’t really mind, though. They’re all volunteers who are doing it for the love of the stage, and help with everything from the actual acting to sets and costumes.
“All of our actors are local community theater actors, students from Fresno State, people who have been acting for 30-plus years,” Greg said. “We’re a community-based theater in that sense. We’re pretty committed to that.”
You don’t even have to have acting experience to participate. Greg told me a story of a passing jogger who stopped several years ago to offer help when the team was building sets. He ended up coming each night to help after performances, and eventually auditioned for a part the next year!
It is because of these dedicated volunteers – along with some corporate sponsors and audience donations – that these shows have remained free of charge. So make sure you bring a little cash to drop into the buckets at the end, wontcha? 😉
“I would say easily 40 to 50 percent of the money we work off of – and almost all of the actual budget that I work off of in terms of making sure the plays actually happen this year – came from last year’s donations,” Greg said. “So we’ve been very fortunate that our audience has been with us so long and keeps us coming back.”
The Woodward Shakespeare Festival also created The YES! Project, a workshop at Fresno Pacific University for high school aged youth, where the students play games together, practice Shakespearean style, learn scenes and explore their creative voices by devising original scenes in response to the play material.
The free program runs from July 11th to August 3rd, the date when the students will present a riff off of a Shakespeare play on the Festival Stage. Interested students can find more information and get an application here.
“[The YES! Project] takes kids who may not necessarily have an inroad into a theater program but may be interested and gives them an opportunity to get involved,” Greg said.
You can start supporting the Woodward Shakespeare Festival right now by going out to see “Hamlet,” which is playing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through July 16th.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” – a tragicomedy based off of two characters from “Hamlet” – will run with the same three-day-a-week schedule from August 11th through September 10th. This play also comes with an extra special add-on. Listen up, those of you who were so excited by my post about the Fresno Underground Supper a few weeks ago! Those culinary geniuses will be offering picnic baskets at the performances. This sure to be delicious dinner for two needs to be reserved online ahead of time. The cost is $40 (plus a $20 refundable deposit for the basket), and a portion of the proceeds will be donated back to the Woodward Shakespeare Festival.
So get yourself over to Woodward Park quick for some Shakespeare! It’s amazing, I promise! More information on everything I’ve talked about can be found on the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s website. To go or not to go? It’s not a question! 🙂
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