The Ithaca Shakespeare Company is a professional theatre organization in Ithaca, NY, that has gone through several stages of evolution in its history.
The Company's roots lie in the Red Bull Players, which started as a student theatre organization at Cornell University. It was founded by Jeremy Lopez and consisted mainly of English Department graduate students who enjoyed performing works of English Renaissance drama at Risley Theatre. They took their name from one of the most popular (and rowdiest) of the theatres operating during Shakespeare's time, the Red Bull.
Stephen Ponton took over leadership of the group in 2001, and expanded it into a community-wide organization that welcomed both students and members of the larger theatre community in Ithaca. The first production of the expanded organization was Shakespeare's The Tempest in 2002. This indoor production combined lights, sound, and an experimental approach to staging with rapid pacing and overlapping dialogue to create a performance that one audience member called "the most exciting thing I've ever seen in a theatre."
Taking it Outside
At that point, Melanie Uhlir — Caliban in The Tempest and a founding member of the expanded group — came up with the idea of starting an outdoor Shakespeare program at Cornell Plantations. She found a site that could be used as a ready-made playing area, Plantations Director Don Rakow jumped at the idea, and planning began in earnest for the first Shakespeare at the Plantations production.
This would be quite different from the work the group had done on The Tempest: it would be outdoors, during the day, using natural light and live music only, performed at a wooden pavilion surrounded by the trees and gardens of the Plantations. In other ways, however, the approach to performing Shakespeare was unchanged, emphasizing the details of language, rhythm, and character dynamics, with the goal of making Shakespeare both clear and exciting to everyone. This first Plantations production also established the practice of drawing cast and crew members from the widest possible spectrum of theatre enthusiasts in Ithaca: members of the local community, students and staff from Cornell, Ithaca College, and area high schools, and Equity actors working as Resident Professional Teaching Associates at Cornell's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
The show was Antony and Cleopatra, performed in July 2003, and clearly demonstrated the potential of a program like this for the area. Core members David Dietrich, Robert De Luca, and costume designer Lauren Cowdery joined on this production, and additional productions followed each summer after that: Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor in 2004, Richard III in 2005, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in 2006, Hamlet in 2007, and King Lear in 2008.
Many things have changed over the years, but the important things have stayed the same: our overall approach to performing Shakespeare's texts; a staging style that harkened back in technique and spirit to Shakespeare's own theatres; and a belief that this program should provide an opportunity for a wide range of local theatre artists to work on Shakespeare in a professional environment that is serious, collaborative, collegial, and, of course, fun.
We look back very fondly on these early productions, but after King Lear in 2008, it became clear that we were outgrowing our performance site. As beautiful as it was, the Nearing Summerhouse was never intended to be a theatre, and our audiences — which by this time had tripled in size since the program began — were getting too large for the site to accommodate. So the group began making plans to move to a larger performance site, in Jackson Grove in the Newman Arboretum.
The growth of the program away from its original location presented a number of challenges to be overcome: a larger space to fill with action and sound and the lack of a ready-made stage and "set" like we had at the Summerhouse, for example — and these challenges were accentuated by the fact that the program lost all of the funding it had been receiving from Cornell University in previous years.
We chose the very popular A Midsummer Night's Dream for the 2009 production, for its appropriateness to our new location in a magical grove of oaks and yew trees. Midsummer was the first production in the series directed by someone other than Stephen Ponton: stage and screen veteran J.G. Hertzler, a Resident Professional Teaching Associate at Cornell, stepped in to direct, with Ponton acting as producer and artistic director for the group. This Midsummer turned out to be the company's largest, most technically complex, and most successful production up to that point, and again pointed the way forward to further expansions.
A New Organization: The Ithaca Shakespeare Company
The Red Bull Players had been a very informal, loosely organized group, but it became clear after the 2009 season that something more was needed. So in early 2010, a group of people who had been working on these shows for years — since the very beginning, in some cases — got together and formed a new organization, the Ithaca Shakespeare Company. The Company incorporated as a nonprofit and set about the long-term goal of building an Ithaca Shakespeare Festival from the ground up. Each year since has seen a series of steady steps toward this goal:
The coming year promises a great many new challenges and opportunities, and we can't wait to see how it all turns out. We are grateful for the support and enthusiasm that so many people have given this program in the past, and hope we will continue to maintain its high standards and unique spirit as we move ahead into the next stage of its development.
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