Monday, August 01, 2011 • 11:12 AM Comments ()

Two Star-Crossed Lovers Capture A Community's Heart

posted by Richard Pickering

There are few things as lovely as a garden picnic on a temperate August day. Plymouth’s One Play, One Community: Romeo & Juliet first sprouted in an Olmsted bower reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, a green world filled with faeries, rude mechanicals and young lovers fleeing danger. And like an Elizabethan wildflower, our idea took a while to blossom.

Last summer, in an effort to give guests a taste of the world that the Pilgrims left in England, Plimoth Plantation created an all-male Shakespeare repertory company called the Plimoth Players. One afternoon I received a call from a friend who said, “Richard, my daughter has been assigned to read Romeo & Juliet this summer. She’s struggling with the language and I’m afraid that she’s going to end up hating Shakespeare for the rest of her life.”

“Would it help if she had a picnic with Romeo?” I asked. (One should never underestimate the bewitching educational power of a magnetic performer with an MFA in Drama and the looks of a matinee idol.) As I sat under a cedar tree sipping iced tea and eating sugar cookies, I watched actor Brian Sheppard draw a fourteen-year-old girl into the wonders of Shakespeare’s tragic romance. At first as shy as Laura Wingfield with her Gentleman Caller, the teenager was soon matching her mother and me question for question about the star-crossed lovers. The next evening, my friend’s family attended the Plimoth Players’ performance of Romeo & Juliet. During the curtain call, I watched their daughter beam with delight, and hers was the first hand raised during the Talk Back that followed the show.

I suspected that we were onto something life changing, but how to take it to the next level?

I spent much of the fall thinking about that magical afternoon with Brian and pondering, “How can I use all six of the Plimoth Players to multiply the ‘picnic effect?’ These actors could change young lives as both educators and performers.” As Shakespeare might have said, “Collaboration is all.” We needed partners. We found them. The result was larger and fuller and more rewarding than anything I could have envisioned.

Plymouth is blessed with a vibrant public library that under Dinah O’Brien’s direction has become one of the town’s vital centers. Her staff is deeply engaged with the community and passionate in their devotion to learning and creativity. They’re a joy to be around. (A special shout out to Jessica Connelly, Jennifer Jones and Jean Anino for their contributions to the One Play experience.) The town also features one of the country’s finest cable access stations. PAC TV’s lively public education programs are creating a region of accomplished citizen broadcasters, and thanks to Dan and Donna Rodrigues’ breathtaking skills their productions are innovative, eye catching and employ cutting edge technology. Guided by Executive Director Nancy Richards, every element in the PAC roster of services and programs is polished.

The One Play, One Community: Romeo & Juliet project was created in a meeting room at the Plymouth Public Library, shortly before Christmas, on a brutally cold, stormy day that should have dampened our spirits. Instead, inspired by the Bard of Avon, we created a community-wide collaboration and series of events that we jokingly called, “a reading and discussion program on steroids.” Jennifer Harris the library’s captivating Assistant Director, Jacob Janssen the Artistic Director of the Plimoth Players, the Museum’s gifted grant writer Kate LaPrad, and I created a four-month long program--seemingly in the blink of an eye. Our conversation felt like a rush of, “We could do this. And we could that. And then we could do… What about television?” We were deeply grateful that PAC TV loved the idea and joined us on the journey. An Engaging New Audiences grant from Mass Humanities helped make our ambitions a reality.

It’s wonderful to live the examined life. We all know that something unusual and special is happening—an innovative collaboration of library, museum and cable access. One Play, One Community: Romeo & Juliet involves lectures by some of the country’s most important Shakespeare scholars, creative writing and performance challenges, discussion series, a nine-episode talk show called “Love is On the Air”, a summer reading support picnic for teens and tweens called the Bard B-Q and A, and a free August performance of Romeo & Juliet on the library lawn. At summer’s end the Plimoth Players’ production of Romeo & Juliet will be recorded in the PAC TV studio, and after broadcast, will be available to classrooms, students and leisure time learners online.

Balcony Slam winners at the Plymouth Public Library

There are times that the One Play team feels like we’re Florenz Ziegfeld simultaneously producing six Follies, yet whenever our energies flag something touching, funny or encouraging happens that makes it all worthwhile and reinvigorates us – an ESL student who wants his own copy of Romeo & Juliet after reading an adaptation of the play in language class, kind words from Stephen Greenblatt about our efforts, the rich sound of the Balcony Scene being read in unison by thirty Juliets and thirty Romeos at the library’s Balcony Slam, or the eight-year-old child asking Romeo after a Plimoth Players’ performance, “Is there really lead on your shoes?”

In the inaugural One Play June lecture at the library, Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University (and author of the best selling Will in the World) underscored the adaptability of Shakespeare’s verse, and in many ways, his comments encapsulated the entire series. That night he said we were discussing Shakespeare as an author, but through our programs and the layers of meaning we are adding to the play for one another, we are continuing to author Romeo & Juliet as a community. Could there be anything better than becoming one literary household in fair Plymouth where we lay our scene? No. Follow all of the Shakespeare events at the Plimoth Plantation Calendar.

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