Summer Shakes, Inc., began its life at the 24th Street Stage with Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and I Hate Hamlet, and the next year became a traveling Shakespeare troupe, performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at various venues throughout the city in the hopes of providing a much-needed classical voice to a region which had traditionally favored musicals and modern plays. Formed by the artistic vision of Ann “Russ” Taylor, our mission was not merely to entertain, but also to provide a place where artists and technicians are actually paid for their work, and its mainstage productions grew into the annual Hampton Roads Shakespeare Festival. Funded by grants and sponsorships, the company has strived to help build a true local market for the performing arts; despite a wealth of talent and training in the area, most serious professionals are forced out to other states in order to earn a living, and have to be imported back in again as traveling shows and guest artists. Building a viable talent market is a difficult feat to accomplish in a state that ranks among the lowest in the nation in arts funding, but it is an important goal, since the arts are so important to a region’s economic development and prestige, and to the intellectual development of children.
Our mission has carried us from those early days, performing in scattered theaters and schools and at the Oceanfront, where we performed in the midst of passing car stereos and tour groups, to the Francis Land House, where we often worked on rain-flooded ground, to Seatack Neighborhood Park, where the trees are lovely but the fighter jets loud. Art must struggle to stay alive, but with help from generous city officials and enthusiastic audiences, we have always managed to turn obstacles into opportunity and have great fun doing it.
Over the years, we have evolved into more than just an outdoor theater; our Festival provided the regional premieres of The Compleat Wks of Wllm Shakspr (Abridged) and The Complete History of America (Abridged) and has nurtured creative and unusual stagings, from As You Like It set in Sandbridge to Romeo and Juliet in the war-torn Middle East. Our educational programs have emerged as a centerpiece of our work, and our “Shakespeare Goes Elementary” program, begun several years ago to teach young students in intensive rehearsals to perform actual Shakespeare plays for their own schools, has expanded steadily with the strong funding support of Geico and now serves four schools, with hopes of adding even more. Our traveling Muse of Fire performance introduced thousands of students to Shakespeare, while our First Folio workshops serve the professional acting community and “Theater for Kids/Teens!” continues to provide training for kids year-round.
By doing all of this, while keeping our Festival free and open to the public, we have found ourselves becoming a kind of cultural community service, not only providing a rare affordable alternative for audiences to TV, movies, and expensive stage shows, but also providing a complete apprenticeship and training environment for young people in the region. Many of our elementary-school participants have gone on to be castmembers in the mainstage Festival shows (including this year), and some of them have grown up and become paid company and crew members and even gone on to college scholarships.
We are glad to welcome you to our productions and hope you will continue to support us for many years to come!