Lin Manuel Miranda has been called “this generation’s Shakespeare” for his ability to take the language of the people — rap — and elevate it to the level of a masterpiece. However, as amazing as this gift is, it is a much rarer skill to be able to take an old masterpiece and make it continually relevant and appealing to young generations, to inject it with new energy while remaining faithful to the author’s original intent. This amazing feat has been repeated over and over and over again with increasing success by my hometown’s own Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival.
Flagstaff, Arizona is a quirky little town: about 70,000 people situated 7,000 feet high in the mountains of northern Arizona, tightly knit into a community that supports, engages, participates in, and consumes art with an enthusiasm that would be remarkable even for a cultural center as vibrant as New York City. Yet this community, with its amazing abundance of people who actually bother to show up to artistic events and its ever-growing wealth of citizens who are genuinely talented and eager to contribute to its cultural vitality, has historically not been blessed with the artistic institutions its people deserve. Its handful of community theaters, though they have talented people to fill their stages, fall short by attempting to mount full productions with tech, scenery, and special effects as ambitious as a full-blown off-Broadway theater, but with a fraction of the budget and little to none of the behind-the-scenes know-how required to pull it off. Growing up in Flagstaff, I was always impressed with the people's talent and passion, yet disappointed by the finished product delivered.
Until 2014, and the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival’s first production, Twelfth Night. Starting with exactly nothing, director Jesse James Kamps mounted a production with no set, no lights, minimal props, and a few costumes.
And it was perhaps the best show I’ve ever seen.
They didn’t fool around with bloated production values and they didn’t rely on anything but Shakespeare’s words and their actors’ almost terrifying levels of talent and intuition to help their show succeed. That first year, they had nothing and were accepting donations; now, in their third season, their budget is up to $10,000.
This impressive meteoric rise to success is largely due to the visionary leadership of executive director Dawn Tucker. Within the first five minutes of sitting down with her, it was easy to see why their shows succeed and why they always will: “We will never spend as much on production — sets, lights, costumes — as we do on our actors. They are what sells the show, and nothing else matters if they don't hold up,” she explained passionately. “And on every season, our budget is exactly what we made on ticket sales from the previous season, minus the actors' cut.”
This is community theater as it should be: not impeded by their lack of a multimillion dollar budget, but in fact made stronger by its productions’ profound humbleness. This year’s Merry Wives of Windsor was staged as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time: a simple bare platform with the audience situated in the round, encircling the playing area. And, to make the show quintessentially Flagstaff, all this was in the middle of a pine forest, underneath a large tent, with the stage and audience lit by some simple string lights. This intimate setting, combined with the fact that the actors frequently address the audience and share in their reactions to the play, simply not caring to ever establish any invisible “fourth wall” between the audience and the stage, created a uniquely inclusive experience that embodies everything a community theater production should stand for: creating a sense of community.
And it has obviously worked: perhaps the most impressive feat of all is that the show was The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of the lesser-known Shakespeare plays, and yet that large tent was completely full, and every audience member was obviously enjoying themselves. This would not have been nearly as successful if the show had been staged in a traditional proscenium.
Of course it’s not an easy thing to pull off: the actors of FlagShakes don’t get to hide behind impressive sets, dazzling lights, fancy sound effects, or falling chandeliers; each and every one of them simply has to learn their Shakespearean verse and understand how to make it funny, make it understandable, make people feel for their characters, there’s just no getting around it.
But in that tent, there were children completely engrossed and laughing at iambic pentameter for two-and-a-half hours. There was an Army vet and his family, all enjoying themselves, sitting next to a PhD-holding English professor, sitting next to an older couple stopping through on their way to Utah.
To welcome in with open arms people from any walk of life, of any political persuasion, any level of education, any gender, sexuality, race, religion, or creed, and to be relatable to every single one of them, to make all of them genuinely forget themselves, laugh out loud together, and become one unified, happy group of people not preoccupied with their differences for a few hours is a lofty goal seldom reached by Broadway productions with practically unlimited resources. To do it in a tent in a forest, through Shakespeare, right on schedule summer after summer after summer is simply amazing.
When I asked Ms. Tucker what she would like to say to a reader who might not ever get to see a FlagShakes show or even come anywhere near Flagstaff, she said this: “…I decided to start the festival because I didn’t want to spend my life auditioning for things. I wanted to spend my life acting. If you’re an artist, just go for it: go make some art, and see how people react.”
Ben Vining is a theater writer and director from Flagstaff, Arizona and a student at Arizona State University.