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Bringing Shakespeare’s Words to Life

Sacramento Shakespeare Festival is coming back strong, after pandemic challenges and a venue change, with “Macbeth.”


Kathleen Poe as Macduff and Brandon Lancaster as the title character in Sacramento Shakespeare Festival’s “Macbeth.” Photo by Tyler Mussetter.

Theater co-directors Lori Ann DeLappe-Grondin and Christine Nicholson faced a dilemma. They spent weeks trying to come up with a new treatment of “Macbeth” to be produced by the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival this July. Yes, three witches will inform the Scottish general that he will become king. Will Macbeth be egged on by his wife to kill the king? Yes. And, inevitably, civil war will erupt.


“We don’t really want to theme it anything other than Scottish rise to power and greed,” DeLappe-Grondin says. But, they wondered, could a change in the era in which the tragedy is set bring the story to life in a new way for the audience?


As a festival affliated with City Theatre at Sacramento City College, SSF produces plays people enjoy. “We’re not going to be doing ‘Titus Andronicus’ or ‘Coriolanus.’ People say they’ll come out and see ‘Titus’ and I’m like, yeah, it’s not what you think it is,” DeLappe Grondin says. The company rotates through a series of plays, and like anything done repeatedly, the directors can get a bit tired of doing the same thing. “People always think it’s a sacrilege to say you get tired of Shakespeare, but I get tired of Shakespeare,” says DeLappe-Grondin, who is SSF’s associate festival director with Nicholson.


This fatigue often compels innovation. The local Shakespeare company has found itself in a position of much change and innovation in recent years, not only from the need to enliven cherished works of the greatest playwright in history, but also because of pandemic challenges and SSF’s departure from an outdoor amphitheater in Land Park—its home for decades Nicholson deems this their “coming back” period, regrowing their audience, actors and creativity. “We’ve had to become really flexible, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she says. “I think that’s a really good thing.”


“Love’s Labour’s Lost,” 2016

A SACRAMENTO “INSTITUTION” FACES CHANGE—William A. Carroll Amphitheatre in Land Park will sit empty during the hot evenings this July. The heat is a major reason why. It isn’t safe for Sacramento Shakespeare Festival crews to be out at 4 p.m. in 100-degree weather setting up for evening performances. In 2019, the theater company moved its productions of the comedy “Twelfth Night” and an adaptation of the movie “Shakespeare in Love” to an indoor theater on the City College campus due to this safety concern.


In summer 2017, the heat was so unbearable, Nicholson put ice on her head under her hat one night to get through a performance of “The Comedy of Errors.” “The audience really fell off that year,” she says. “Because normally about 7:30, 8 o’clock, the temperature really dropped. By the time the show would start, it would be pretty pleasant sitting in the bowl, but it didn’t that summer at all. It stayed hot and humid and people were just dropping.” She says moving indoors was “the smart move in the long run, but sad.”


The college had produced Shakespeare plays in the Land Park amphitheater since the late 1960s before returning to campus in the 1970s. In 1985, productions moved back outdoors and the festival took on the name Shakespeare in the Park, the name many people continue to use today, even though it has been named Sacramento Shakespeare Festival since the late 1990s.


In summer 2020, the stage went dark due to the pandemic. The following year, SSF produced a livestream version of “Hamlet” in a courtyard on campus. Director DeLappe-Grondin set the play in a modern-day Danish court threatened by a pandemic. Cast members had to be vaccinated. “I don’t know what the experience was for the community . . . but from our position and our point of view, it kept us hopeful and kept us alive and kept the connection, and I think it kept the festival itself alive and ready to come back,” Nicholson says.


In 2022, SSF produced “Romeo and Juliet,” and a staged reading of longtime festival coordinator Luther Hanson’s original work inspired by “As You Like It,” in person and inside the college’s main auditorium.


The festival coordinators express a desire to return to Land Park someday. For that to happen, the coordinators say they need a cover over the stage for overhead lighting and some heat protection. Misters would also help moderate high temperatures. Additionally, the amphitheater needs ADA bathrooms and improved accessibility.


Developed as a Works Project Administration project between 1935 and 1942, the amphitheater features a semicircular concrete stage and stone-clad backdrop added in 1960, according to the city of Sacramento’s website. There’s bench seating for attendees and a lawn area in front of the stage, where people put lawn chairs and blankets and enjoy picnics brought from home.


The city’s website describes the amphitheater as “primitive,” and plans are underway to make it a regional attraction for outdoor events through facility improvements such as better acoustics, more comfortable seating, better handicap access and other upgrades. Historic and unique landscape features will be preserved, including the stone seat walls and the Italian cypress trees that form a backdrop to the stage. While the city has set aside $750,000 for the first phase of renovation, the project is currently on hold.


“We do want to go back,” DeLappe-Grondin says. “Yes, we absolutely do. We think it is an institution in Sacramento that really needs to go back to the park, and the renovation is a part of it.”


Putting on plays in the park created a tangible connection to the community that has suffered with the move indoors, Hanson says. “In addition to those who attended the festival, there are hundreds of folks who drive by that venue all day long, so that during the day they would see our signs, and at night they would see that something exciting is happening right in their very own park.”


Christine Nicholson and Lori Ann DeLappe-Grondin. Photo by Tyler Mussetter.

Michael Sicilia has been an audience member of SSF for about 20 years and a member of the acting company. He played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” and Cardinal Richelieu in “Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers,” both about a decade ago. He says brutal heat spells in both seasons caused the cancellation of some rehearsals and performances. And while Sicilia says he understands the need to move indoors, as an audience member he misses the outdoor atmosphere.


“I’ve been once or twice, but it lacks the magic of a summer evening, as the lights take effect and the crickets merge with the actors and audience, who’ve been picnicking and drinking wine, enjoying a classic story in a relaxed park setting,” Sicilia says. “There’s simply nothing like it when the moon rises over the set, or when a wandering raccoon upstages a dramatic scene.”


Even on campus, SSF is located in an accessible part of town in the middle of several neighborhoods. And Hanson says when they resume Shakespeare Lite (their traveling 45 minute performances), that will once again connect the theater company to people in other communities who may not normally see a Shakespeare performance. Still, Nicholson says, in her “heart of hearts” she hopes they one day return to Land Park.


BRINGING NEW EYES TO OLD WORKS—Despite the discomfort of that hot and humid summer of 2017, Nicholson looks back at the production of “The Comedy of Errors” with fondness. She and actress Kathleen Poe played twins: two women performing traditionally masculine roles. “It was pretty exciting to be able to do that,” she says.


Two of DeLappe-Grondin’s favorite memories involve “Romeo and Juliet.” First there was the 2006 production, in which the connection between the star-crossed lovers was “just magical,” she says. (She played the nurse.) The other was in 2015, when she and Nicholson struggled to come up with a new treatment to spark a big interest. They decided to do an all-male cast for “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Nicholson, and an all-female cast for “As You Like It,” which DeLappe-Grondin directed.


“That is an epic moment in my life,” DeLappe-Grondon says. “Totally changed the direction of where I was heading, and my passion for Shakespeare just really reignited again.” It led her to launch the Wildflower Women’s Ensemble, which gives women the chance to perform traditionally male roles.


For this summer’s “Macbeth,” the co-directors considered the 11th or 12th century as the time period, marking the early centuries of Scotland’s formation. “I think this will be my fifth ‘Mac,’ ” Nicholson says. “The ‘Twelfth Night’ I just did was my seventh . . . and I’ve done 10 ‘Midsummers.’ So that comes up: How do you bring new eyes to it? I’m also hoping that the very act of having two of us is going to bring a new snap to it, but the themes still resonate—this idea of power and ambition and corruption, and gullibility and betrayal.”


“The Three Musketeers,” 2014.

According to Hanson, one advantage of running a theater program attached to a community college is it gives them the flexibility to cast anyone from current students and alumni to local professional actors.


“That practice has always been one of the things we are most proud of, because it allows us to do excellent work with experienced actors in larger roles, and folks of all levels of experience to fill in the rest of the cast,” Hanson says. “Besides the fact that this works artistically, it creates an excellent environment for our theater students, because they get to work with actors who really know what they’re doing.”


Poe developed a liking for Shakespeare in ninth grade when her English teacher had students memorize the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” “I loved the sound of the language, and how poetic, rhythmic and lovely it was coming out of my mouth.” Sophomore year, she became “slightly obsessed” with “Macbeth.” Then about 13 years ago, a life experience prompted her to try some things she had always wanted to, like Shakespeare.


Poe has now been in eight SSF productions. (Her day job is music professor at City College.) Her first role was the abbess in “The Comedy of Errors” in 2012, and her most recent was Lady Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” in 2022. Her favorite role was Jaques in “As You Like It.”


“Even though they were written 500 years ago, the themes are universal and can appeal to everyone,” Poe says. “And even if not everyone speaks Elizabethan English, it’s such a thrilling challenge as an actor to speak the language in such a way that makes it accessible and understandable to all audiences.”


Hanson says the theater company is good at bringing in a modern audience by setting the Bard’s works in modern situations and locations. Through the decades, it seems to have worked. Typically, SSF in the park would get 20 to 300 attendees most nights. On a really good night, 400 folks might show up, filling up the bowl. One night, they had 845 people in attendance. “We still don’t know how that happened, but I will never forget it,” says Hanson, describing it as one of his fondest memories.


“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 2016.

“We set it in modern-day New Orleans,” Hanson says. “And because we had one of those lucky times when the set and lighting and set painting all came together perfectly, and we had a brilliant solo saxophone player onstage between scenes, and the sun goes down halfway through the play, it was beautiful.”


SACRAMENTO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL’S “MACBETH”

July 7–23 Art Court Theatre, Sacramento City College campus Tickets $10–$18 https://www.sacramentoshakespeare.net/

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