O wonder how many goodly creatures come to Richmond each summer (o’er the last five years) to create a stage, a production, and ultimately, their own brave new world.
They entertain, they inspire, they challenge, they mystify, they outrage.
Legions of their kind transform the hollowed-out former piano factory in the Whitewater Gorge into an ancient setting for the annual tribute to William Shakespeare.
How appropriate that this troupe of actors, designers, directors and volunteers perform their magic in this temple of industry past!
It is the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, in its fifth year of creating all forms of life, drama, comedy, battling the wind and rain and heat of summer in Indiana.
But this creation, this life is thriving. In a fortnight they stage “Hamlet” and “The Tempest,” the former perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous work, the latter the true starting point of this festival.
Professional actors, designers and directors descend upon our Midwest community to explore and create, to make merry and sad, to show us love, loss, grief, lust, anguish and the desire for revenge.
The seed for this creation was a byproduct of a 2013 Richmond Civic Theatre production of “The Tempest,” the brainchild of Joshua Robinson, a Richmond man set on a path to professional theater by support and encouragement of many in his hometown.
That production, successful as a fundraiser for local theater, fueled speculation, which fueled exploration.
Why not a festival? Why not in Richmond?
A two-play festival with performances over a four-week period each summer? Was that possible?
That began a gargantuan effort to find financial support, players, technicians, stage and artistic directors and then stage the plays in Richmond.
“We wanted to be out in the community as much as possible,” said Ray Ontko, the festival board’s president.
“We decided that we have a community that is very supportive of the arts…” Ontko said. “So we gathered up some folks from RCT, from Earlham and IU East. We added some people from the business community and said ‘Let’s see if we can do this.’”
And so began what turned into hundreds of hours of work by hundreds of people, finding sponsors, recruiting actors, designers, technicians and volunteers with business and stage acumen.
Organizers also joined the Shakespeare Theatre Association, a national member service organization that provides support, membership and share best practices for productions throughout the U.S. and the world.
Soon people came from Ball State and Indiana University, from Oxford and Cincinnati, and others from around the country. The Shakespeare Theatre Association connection brought Patrick Flick, the association’s executive director, to Richmond to serve as festival artistic director.
That, too, has been a key to their success since Flick brings the kind of pluck, energy and savvy needed to mount and sustain such an effort.
“No, I’m not surprised by the festival’s success,” Flick said. “Richmond is a smart, sophisticated community, and we have had lots and lots of support.”
Each year, 50 to 75 people gather to stage two plays over six weeks. Over 1,000 people from a five-hour radius of Richmond come to see the shows.
“Things have evolved quite a bit,” Ontko said. “We’ve learned to deal with wind and rain and heat, got a sense of the size of the audience and how much intimacy we would need.”
Organizers have also learned how to maintain relationships with the many donors and patrons, the theater programs at area colleges and universities, how to collaborate with other theater companies in the region and how to apply for arts grant funding.
They have also met four initial goals of artistic achievement, educational outreach, community engagement and economic development.
“We would like to say we are up and running but we have to admit that there’s lots of runway ahead of us,” Ontko said. “My vision is that 50 years from now somebody will be looking back and saying ‘We’re glad this got started, and it’s had a huge impact on the community.’”
Five years up and running and the future is ahead. The community can be proud, even those not a fan of Shakespeare. It’s live theater. It is, as Ontko says, “Shakespeare done well.”
The Festival runs June 21 through July 6 in the Starr-Gennett Pavilion. More information is available at richmondshakespearefestival.org.