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Summer isn’t just for sunburns and swimming pools. It’s also a chance to add some fantastic outdoor theater to your life. Thanks to the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, Fresno offers high-quality Shakespeare performances for FREE in a park setting.
You can catch Othello this Thurs-Sat, July 5-7, at 8 p.m. at Woodward Park. It’s the last weekend for this show, which is directed by Arlene Schulman. But don’t fret too much if you can’t make it this weekend. On Aug. 2, Much Ado About Nothing will kick off at 8 p.m.
Speaking of tragedies, it would be one if you miss checking out Woodward Shakespeare Festival (WSF) show this summer. Whether you’re a seasoned patron or wanting to see a play for the first time, it’s always nice to get to know the people who make the production possible.
Renée Newlove has been involved with WSF since its first year and was nice enough to give me a behind-the-scenes scoop complete with pro tips for enjoying a performance.
FresYes: Tell us a little about yourself. It’s always fun to learn about the people of FresYes!
Renée Newlove: I am a teacher by day, bartender by weekend, and actor by hobby. I teach 8th grade English in Selma. I am currently teaching English 3 credit recovery for summer school. I work at House of Pendragon in Clovis on the weekends. And I have been an actor for the last 14 years. I read a lot and I have a passion for Educational Technology. I completed my Master’s degree a year ago and focused on EduTech; I am currently in a Digital Innovator’s Certificate program at Fresno Pacific University.
FY: How did you get involved with the Woodward Shakespeare Festival?
RN: I have been involved with the WSF, either as an actor or audience member, since year one. I met S. Eric Day and he introduced me to Christein Sweeney—they were starting a Shakespeare Festival in Fresno. I thought I knew a lot about Shakespeare back then. I had been a Junior Summer Seminar student with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in high school and I was very passionate about reading the plays. I initially signed on with the Festival as their dramaturg (play historian) and decided to audition for the shows. We were performing Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo & Juliet.
I was cast in both shows and that started my acting career in Fresno. I was not back on stage for them until 2008 in Twelfth Night. I returned, again, to the stage for their 10th season and have performed in most of the shows since then. Last year our Executive Producer, Greg Taber, was stepping down and there was a question of whether or not the Festival would continue. We also had two board members step down as well. I was asked if I was willing to take on a role and continue the Festival. I joined the board and have been doing a lot of different things this past year for the Festival. Way back in 2004, I joined the Rogue Festival and ended up producing it with Jayne Day. We ran the Rogue Festival for four years together. It was this experience that I fall back on now as I deal with publicity, promotions, fundraising, production necessities, and all sorts of odds and ends that pop up throughout the process of rehearsing and putting on a show. I wear many hats for the Festival, but it is the team we have built that made this season possible. We have a growing board and production team of dedicated people who show up and get the work done as it needs to get done.
FY: What do you enjoy about being in the WSF productions?
RN: I love the interaction with the audience. It is amazing to be a part of working on building a show that will entertain people. There is something drastically unique about performing outdoors and it is a challenge to get a group of actors together to perform well. I love being a part of the director’s vision for the show, whether that be in a leading role, or as an ensemble member. There is a community that forms when putting on a show, and I love the friends I gather with each new production.
FY: What’s been your favorite experience so far?
RN: I have three favorite experiences with WSF, the first being my experience with The Taming of the Shrew. We did this show in our 10th season and I got the chance to perform as Christopher Sly, a drunk, heckling man. It wasn’t the first time I was cast as a man, but it was my most memorable. I loved playing Sly because I was able to interact with the audience the whole show. I was out in the audience pre-show, during intermission, and even afterwards. I never really got out of character with Sly. One night I had a gaggle of children chasing me around because they thought it was funny. I know they will remember that performance and that’s worth the heat, bugs, and everything else that comes with performing outdoors.
The second experience was with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged, Revised. I was blessed to work with Samantha Hyde and Kia Vassiliades. Those two ladies were dynamite actresses from Fresno State and I was blown away by their talent. The show was hilarious and we got to make up a lot of the jokes. The rehearsal process was one that always ended up with us all laughing until we were crying because of what we were doing on stage. It was awesome.
My third favorite experience would be when I had the privilege of playing Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. My stage partner was Karina Rodriguez, another Fresno State actress, and it may have been the greatest role I have ever performed. I was super challenged by the role and worked really hard. Karina and I would get together outside of rehearsal to work on memorizing lines. I still have my vest from that show as a reminder of how hard work pays off, and theater magic is real.
FY: Do you have any tips for someone who hasn’t been to a Shakespeare performance in the park yet?
RN: For anyone that has not been to a WSF production, there are a few things to know:
1. The heat isn’t that bad. Once the sun sets, which usually happens around the beginning of the show, it really gets nice out on our stage.
2. Bring a snack or water, this definitely helps the experience. I love seeing people bring out a picnic.
3. You can bring your own chairs, or we have chairs for you to sit on. A lot of people like to sit on the hill near the stage, that’s fun too. It just depends on what you can handle.
4. You don’t necessarily have to read the synopsis of the show beforehand, but you can do that too. Some people bring out their copies of the play and read along with our performances (this gets tricky because we cut the play for time’s sake).
5. Our productions will take anywhere from 90 minutes to 2-and-a-half hours— it depends on the production and the cut. We try to keep it as close to 2 hours as possible, but sometimes that’s impossible. The time of show will be noted in the program.
6. The show is FREE! We perform for the love of the Bard, and also donations. The Festival is sustained off donations and fundraisers, so we will gladly accept donations of any kind. There is a $5 car entrance fee to the park.
7. We are located near the Friant and Fort Washington entrance at the park, we are not in the amphitheater. If you park in the parking lot at that entrance, you can walk down the Eaton trail and get to our stage.
8. It’s not that hot!
FY: What do you think of Othello? Do you have a favorite play?
RN: Othello has been a beast. It is the only Shakespeare play that does not have a subplot, which makes it difficult to cut. This production has been amazing to work on, though. Arlene Schulman has directed this show and the performances she has been able to get out of a very young cast has been really spectacular to watch. Many of the actors have either never performed Shakespeare before, or never performed for WSF before. It really has been a lot of work, but I’ve grown to really love this play and the production.
I love all of Shakespeare’s works, but my two favorite shows are Measure for Measure and Hamlet. I am actually putting together a production of Measure for Measure that will be a fundraiser for WSF in September/October. I love the drama and timelessness of the plays. I started reading Shakespeare my freshman year of high school and had read everything by the time I was a junior. I am working on putting together all of his plays cut down to a two-hour performance. I love the Bard, to the point of obsession, his works are a way of life.
Summer is fading fast and talent is afoot, so get to Woodward Park while the fun lasts!
You can find out more about the Woodward Shakespeare Festival by visiting their website here, which includes cast bios, opportunities to get involved, and ways to support this organization. You can also follow them on Facebook here.