An idea thrown out at a meeting to offer a free performance of Shakespeare, a budget of $500 and a stage at Reservoir Park—a simple recipe that has held for 25 years (with some budget changes thrown into the mix).
Gamut Theatre Group’s Melissa and Clark Nicholson introduced Harrisburg to their version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1994. This June, “Free Shakespeare in the Park” will feature “Midsummer” once again to celebrate the series’ 25th anniversary.
“Free Shakespeare in the Park” resulted from the Harrisburg Parks Partnership. In 1994, the city was looking for ways to bring arts and culture to the park. The initial idea offered up by Clark, Gamut’s artistic director, was to do a scaled-down version of “Midsummer.” The show quickly went from the original idea with a cast of seven to a full production with a complete cast. Even with the support of the city government behind them, success was never guaranteed.
“People started coming up to us saying, ‘Shakespeare’s not going to go in Harrisburg,’” said Melissa, Gamut’s executive director. “Apparently, a group had tried to start a Shakespeare company in the ‘70s, and it failed miserably. We had no idea what was going to happen. That first night the cars just kept coming and coming. It was this huge crowd, and we thought ‘I guess Harrisburg does like Shakespeare.’”
“Free Shakespeare in the Park” has been offered continuously since that first performance in 1994, despite the challenges of weather, budgets and changing city administrations. A stage was added in front of the bandshell in 1998. In 2003, plumbing, sound and lighting upgrades were put into place. While other groups using the park fell away over the years, Gamut remained.
“‘Free Shakespeare in the Park’ is very important to our mission,” said Melissa. “Before we did Shakespeare indoors, we were doing the ‘Park’ show. It’s an important touchstone and part of the heart of the company.”
Melissa credits the success of “Shakespeare in the Park” to both the city administration and the community at large. Her husband, Clark, agrees.
“Over and over, we see the community come and be a part of this,” Clark said. “The community accepts the show is not just a passive thing shown to them. It is a part of who they are.”
This year’s production of “Midsummer” will pay homage to the city that has been so supportive of the series. Director Thomas Weaver is staging the play in modern times, adding in a local twist.
“I decided to set the play in Harrisburg,” Weaver said. “Throughout the play, there are references to the city itself. Our scenic design will look very familiar. In a lot of ways, it’s a love letter to the city. The city has supported this endeavor for 25 years, so it’s a way to honor that relationship and this great place where we live.”
Community involvement with the show has taken many forms. Over the years, the staff has seen families with adults who have been coming since they were children or children who are now growing up with “Shakespeare in the Park.” The interest of local children is often one of the highlights for all involved in putting on the show.
“We came out to rehearsal one day and saw the kids on the stage doing their own version of the show,” said Clark. “We see that over and over again.”
This year, residents of the city will be able to contribute to the show in a new way. The production will feature a backdrop of the Harrisburg skyline. There will be opportunities for the community to come in and help with painting, including during Artsfest. Additionally, pop-up auditions were held to encourage anyone interested to stop by and read scenes, reaching out to a broader group of actors, including some who have never done a “Park “show before.
“It brings so many people together from so many different backgrounds,” said Weaver. “That’s what’s special to me about the event every year. It goes beyond just doing a play. It’s such a special event, and the way that I always describe it to people is, if you love Shakespeare, it’s great. And even if Shakespeare is not your thing, the event has something to offer you.”
“Free Shakespeare in the Park” runs June 1 to 16 at Reservoir Park, Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.gamuttheatre.org.