Marin Shakespeare Co. keeps life in the boy
Shakespeare would be exceedingly proud. Robert and Lesley Currier have been creatively and enthusiastically overseeing the Marin Shakespeare Festival since its theatrical resurrection 15 years ago (more on that later) at Dominican University in San Rafael. The Curriers, not surprisingly, are rather impressed by William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon. But it’s not just the Bard’s plays or witty and poetic writing that inspires them. The Curriers are also fans of Big Willy’s little-discussed style as a theater-world businessman, a guy with an eye for what audiences want.
“Shakespeare was trying to sell tickets, he was trying to get people in the seats–and that’s what we’re trying to do,” laughs Lesley Currier. For the record, that not just what they are trying to do; it’s what they are succeeding at doing. This summer alone, the Marin Shakespeare Festival was host to tens of thousands of theatergoers. The Curriers secret: they’ve borrowed a few tricks from the S-man himself. “Shakespeare’s writing is so amazing, and so beautiful and rich,” says Lesley, “but we believe that Shakespeare’s shows, when they were being performed for the first time, were also meant to be a lot of fun for their audiences, not dry and important theater, but fun theater. We work hard to make those plays fun when we stage them here.”
Cases in point: the 2004 season included a production of Othello, staged in order to heighten the play’s soap-opera qualities, and the currently running Wild West version of The Taming of the Shrew.
As meaningful and entertaining as the Marin Shakespeare Company is for its numerous festival-goers, the Curriers bring their work to a wider audience, offering weekly classes for the inmates at San Quentin Prison, doing outreach with lower-income kids living in Marin City and spending more time in the classroom than some students do.
The other major impact of the festival is the one experienced by the actors and crew. Equity and non-Equity alike (Equity being the international theatrical union to which most actors aspire to join), the MSF employs over 100 cast and crew members each summer, all joining forces at Dominican’s beautiful Forest Meadows Amphitheater, where they work together to design, build, light, costume and perform the festival’s yearly triple feature of shows. Much like in Shakespeare’s days, they are a varied crew.
“There’s a whole gamut of actors and technical people who work here,” explains Robert. “Older actors, a lot of them non-Equity, are happy as a clam to play any part we need them to play; they just enjoy being a part of these shows. Then we have a lot of young people on their way up, and if they are successful with us, they often can turn Equity. We’ve turned several actors Equity, because we can do that.”
The Shakespeare Festival originally began at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross in 1961, moving in 1967 to Forest Meadows, where Dominican University’s lit-loving nuns were easily persuaded to develop an open-air Shakespearean stage that included–get this–a moat. By 1973, however, the original stage company dissolved, leaving Marin without an annual festival. Luckless it remained for another 17 years. Then, in 1990, while living in Ukiah–where Robert had helped start the Ukiah Playhouse–the Curriers were tapped to take on a new version of the MSF.
“We got a call out of the blue one night, saying, ‘Would you like to come to Marin and restart the Shakespeare Festival?'” says Lesley. “We came down, and the first time we walked this space, we were so charmed. We had a vision of what we could do here, and 15 years later, that vision is still successful.”
The Curriers are especially proud that so many established actors from across the Bay Area and beyond are eager to participate in this rustic, somewhat eccentric festival.
“Shakespeare is more than a living for us,” Lesley says, “It’s a passion. And people want to work here. To have a good reputation as a place that people want to work within the Bay Area means a lot of us.”
That’s something else the Curriers have in common with Mr. Shakespeare.
“We’re actors ourselves, so of course we love actors,” says Robert, who, along with Lesley, understudies every gender-appropriate role every year, ready to step in should an actor become ill.
“And if that’s not enough,” he adds with a laugh, “we also throw great parties.”
Like we said, Shakespeare would be proud.
From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.