Every year in late summer the Nashville Shakespeare Festival puts on one of The Bard’s plays, and every year I plan to volunteer. Although I’ve been to several of their productions over the years, starting with their first when they put on The Merry Wives Of Windsor in an unused corner of Centennial Park behind the building that houses the ice skating rink, I’m not sure what a volunteer would do. The productions are always free but there are people who wander around with baskets of programs asking for donations, so it would probably be that, and I’m okay with hitting up strangers for money. Once in college a friend and I collected a dollar by asking various people around the campus for change, and we set a rule for ourselves that we couldn’t accept anything larger than a dime. The truth is we were going to buy a pack of cigarettes–he was an actor so of course he smoked, and he got me hooked on it–but I think we were trying to discourage our tobacco habit in the guise of a weird performance art project, but that’s another story.
Anyway I’ve always made plans to volunteer to help out with Shakespeare In The Park and for some reason those plans have always fallen through. The car breaks down, someone–sometimes me–gets sick,or there’s some other crisis. This year, well, the performance itself is not to be. And I’m okay with that. Well, I’m not really okay with that, but under the circumstances I think a bunch of people gathering together, even if it is in an open air park, just isn’t a great idea. The plays have always been free and open to everyone but limited by the fact that actors can only project so much. Any live theater, but especially live theater outside, requires that the audience and actors be close to each other–sometimes really close. During a production of Much Ado About Nothing ,when Benedick is supposed to be hiding in the garden, the actor playing him wandered through the audience. He put on one person’s hat and another person’s sunglasses, and helped himself to food from picnic baskets. Then an ambulance went by with its sirens blaring and all the actors stopped and stared in the direction of the road. When it was gone they shrugged and went on.
And that got me thinking about how theater is an ephemeral art form. That’s why no theater critic should ever review an opening night. Every actor I’ve ever known told me the third night is the earliest you want to go. Sure, people have been putting on Shakespeare’s plays for more than four hundred years now, and we’d all be in a heap of trouble if he suddenly rose up from the grave and demanded royalties, and Shakespeare In The Park has been a tradition that started in New York in 1954. The current pandemic shall pass too, and people are finding creative ways to carry on the tradition. A four-part radio version of Richard II is being broadcast by WNYC starting July 13th and PBS will rebroadcast its 2019 recording of Much Ado About Nothing on August 14th.
So Shakespeare goes on, and maybe next year I’ll actually get to volunteer, or maybe I’ll just wander through the crowd hitting people up for money. I won’t be buying cigarettes, though–I quit smoking.