The Ithaca Shakespeare Company is a regional 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. consisting mainly of English Department students who enjoyed performing works of English Renaissance drama. 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."
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, the Nearing Summerhouse on Comstock Knoll, that could be used as a ready-made playing area, Plantations Director Don Rakow enthusiastically supported the idea, and planning began in earnest for the first Shakespeare production at Cornell Plantations.
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 changed over the years, but the important things 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 and non-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.
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.
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:
For a number of reasons, it became necessary for ISC to leave our long-time home in the Cornell Arboretum in 2016. As wonderful as that location was, the needs of our growing festival could no longer co-exist with the needs of the Cornell Botanical Gardens. Fortunately, the New York State Parks system stepped in and we were able to relocate our 2016 performances to Allan H. Treman State Marine Park, on the lake near the Hangar Theater and Cass Park. We performed there from 2016-2018, finishing our cycle of English history plays in 2017.
In 2019, we were forced to relocate again, this time due to construction on a new trail system at the Marine Park. Again, NYS Parks stepped up and found a gorgeous new location for ISC's summer performances at Robert H. Treman State Park, near the Upper Entrance. Robert Treman is one of the jewels of the region, with its trails and waterfalls, and audiences were extremely enthusiastic about the site. ISC will return there in 2020 and hopes we might have found a new home for the foreseeable future.
As always, the coming year promises a great many new challenges and opportunities, and we can't wait to see how it all turns out. In the meantime, we are grateful for the support and enthusiasm that so many people have shown us over the years, and we hope to continue to maintain the high standards, unique spirit, and constant search for improvement that have marked our history up to this point.