Good on Paper Article 2018
Friends, Stroudies, countrymen, lend me your ears: the Bard is coming to town this summer.
Stroud Shakespeare Festival is a brand new open-air theatre extravaganza in the beautiful surroundings of Stroud Museum, situated (fittingly enough) in Stratford Park. Over the course of three days, there will be a wide range of events to suit theatre-goers of all ages: not just performances of plays, but also workshops, live music, and opportunities to find out more about Shakespeare’s work.
Festival Director Alan Mandel Butler works at SGS College as part of Five Valleys Productions, a company that gives students a taste of the realities of the theatre industry. For him ‘Shakespeare can sometimes be presented in a very dry way within the school curriculum: it’s very much about how the plays are analysed. Whereas for me the real joy of Shakespeare is being able to live it, breathe it and see it. That’s what it was designed for.’
There are other Shakespeare festivals out there, of course. But part of what will make Stroud’s different is the fact that the events are focused on a particular location, rather than being spread out around a town.
Then there’s the way that Stroud Shakespeare Festival combines many different art forms. ‘Stroud and South Gloucestershire have so much wonderful art – not just performance art, but visual art too,’ says Alan. ‘There’s so much happening, we wanted to bring that all into one location. It’s not just about putting on Shakespeare plays: it’s about connecting with people who do performance poetry, with musicians, and with artists who are creating unique pieces specifically for the festival. It’s playing to Stroud’s strengths: the fact that for a small town, we have so much creative talent here.’ Art installations will include a Sonnet Tree: a full-size tree, with descriptions of how to write a sonnet, and the invitation to have a go yourself – writing couplets on luggage tags that you can tie to the tree.
As well as having ticketed performances of Shakespeare’s plays, there will be a lot at the festival that’s free: people can come along and be a part of it, even if they don’t know anything about Shakespeare. And that includes kids: a major focus of the festival is on younger audiences who may have no connection with Shakespeare as yet – primary school children, and teenagers too. It’s no accident that the festival takes place during half-term.
What Alan Mandel Butler is aiming for is something between a literary festival and music festivals such as Latitude or End of the Road, which have their big stage spaces, but then also have lots of little experiential things that happen around the edges. Another example he gives is Secret Cinema, which provides an immersive film experience, combining screenings with interactive performances in purpose-built sets. ‘As soon as you step into the festival there will be loads of different things, with everything you see being linked in some way. But that’s just as it was for the theatre-goers of Shakespeare’s time. It was an all-round experience: you went to see and be seen, you went to hear music and watch some dancing, or look at the beautifully painted canopy of the Globe. And just as it was in Shakespeare’s day, this is for everyone: it’s not pricey, it’s not elitist.’
Full performances will include Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, while other productions are inspired by Shakespeare plays in a variety of ways, some of them quite unexpected. ‘One of the things that has excited me about the submissions that we’ve had – and that wasn’t in the remit – is how many of the shows are about championing the women in Shakespeare, celebrating the female roles in the plays. Amazing female characters like Lady Macbeth and Desdemona: people are taking scenes or characters as their own inspiration. We also have improvised Shakespeare, which I’ll be very interested in seeing.’
The long-term vision is for Stroud Shakespeare Festival to match the town’s other wonderful festivals. ‘We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,’ says Alan, ‘but we want to form part of the season of festivals that there is in Stroud, including the film festival and the Fringe Festival (which is supporting us). We’re throwing Shakespeare into the mix. Though there are some great Shakespeare-related events around Gloucestershire (open-air performances at Berkeley Castle, for example), there isn’t a Shakespeare festival in this area. But we’re not just putting on traditional Shakespeare, we’re trying to bring in a new audience, trying to bring something interesting and different to the plays. That’s not to discount traditional Shakespeare: we have some wonderful traditional performances, but engaging with something new is really what we want to do. As time goes on, we want to be a place where people can try out something different.’
Though the main performance spaces are now all spoken-for, Five Valleys Productions, the team who are putting the event together, are still open to proposals from emerging and established theatre performers, writing companies, dance companies and artists who produce work for children and families. They’re also looking for volunteers to work in various roles, such as stewarding.
Stroud Shakespeare Festival will take place at the Museum in the Park, Stratford Park, Stroud, from 31 May to 2 June 2018.
Written by Matt Shinn for Good on Paper Issue 38 - May 2018 Image by Mark Levy.
Matt Shinn runs Whole New Chapter Ltd, a Stroud-based editorial and design agency. http://www.wholenewchapter.co.uk
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