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Field of ‘Dream’: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival sets 30th anniversary season stage

“If you build it; he will come.”

- Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner)

“Field Of Dreams” (1989)

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF), taking a page from the film fable about baseball’s “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, with perhaps a nod to “Macbeth,” Act 4, Scene 1 (“Until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill”), and looking across the pond to the Globe Theatre in London, heads to the great outdoors for its 30th anniversary season.

To paraphrase “Field Of Dreams,” for PSF, it’s “Build it and they wiil come.”

The outdoor stage, the Air Products Stage, modeled on Shakespeare’s Globe, is the setting for William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” on the tree-lined lawn in the vicinity of Labuda Center for the Performing Arts on the DeSales University campus.

“For the festival, we’re doing productions with live audiences at the outdoor stage and the indoor stage and then we will be video-recording those productions,” says Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy.

The festival returns to the Center Valley campus in Upper Saucon Township after a summer 2020 hiatus because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdown.

The 473-seat Main Stage theater in Labuda will accommodate a limited and socially-distanced audience. Larger-cast productions will be presented outdoors on the Air Products Stage.

PSF states that it “will prioritize the safety and comfort of its patrons, artists, and community and adapt to current and anticipated circumstances with socially-distanced seating, limited capacity performances, upgraded HVAC filtration systems and other safety measures.”

The 2021 season starts later, June 25, and concludes, as usual, Aug. 1. PSF typically opened the last weekend in May with its annual Gala, “Luminosity,” and a children’s show. The Main Stage show, usually a musical, has opened in early June in Labuda.

“There are people who are ready to come back and sit in an indoor theater, an outdoor theater or stay home for now. We just want to make sure people have an access point,” Mulcahy says.

PSF tickets go on sale May 17.

August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned,” stars stage, film and television actor Tony Todd (as August Wilson), June 29-July 11, Main Stage, Labuda. The one-man show is directed by Christopher V. Edwards, PSF’s new Distinguished Artist & Consultant, who is “providing insight and guidance for planning, programming, organizational development, diversity and inclusion,” according to PSF.

The Air Products Stage debuts with William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” July 7-Aug. 1, which was scheduled for PSF’s 2020 summer season. Barrymore Award-winning director Matt Pfeiffer directs, following his critically-acclaimed PSF productions of “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The “Midsummer Night’s Dream” cast is a PSF dream cast of Equity actors Ian Merrill Peakes (Bottom), Luigi Sottile (one lover), Akeem Davis (the other lover), Lindsay Smiling (Oberon) and Eleanor Handley (Titania).

“She’ll be seven-months pregnant,” Mulcahy says of Handley, adding facetiously, “There are themes of fertility [in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’].”

Broadway actress and PSF alum Phoenix Best has a solo, one-night-only concert on the outdoor stage. Best, a PSF Young Company member (2013-2015), was in the original Broadway cast of the Tony, Emmy and Grammy-winning revival of “The Color Purple” soon after graduating in 2015 from the DeSales’ musical theater program. She played Alana Beck on Broadway in “Dear Evan Hansen” and Eponine in the North American Tour of “Les Misérables.”

PSF favorite and veteran Philadelphia actor Greg Wood stars in “An Illiad,” July 20-Aug. 1, Main Stage, Labuda. The Lehigh Valley premiere of the solo piece was scheduled for PSF’s 2020 season.

The children’s show, E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” also was scheduled for the 2020 season, and is June 25-July 31, Air Products Stage, by the PSF Young Company, directed by Jessica Bedford.

PSF will introduce online play readings with playwright Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens.”

The PSF Gala, “Luminosity,” is June 19, under a tent.

Speaking via Zoom from his PSF office on the DeSales campus, Mulcahy is visibly overjoyed about the 30th anniversary season.

“That’s what we’re excited about. There was nothing. Now there is something. Even our peers, nationally, they’re all doing different things. We’re doing more than most,” Mulcahy says.

“It’s a big move for us to move outdoors,” says Mulcahy, adding, “This is something we’ve been contemplating and debating for something like 15 years.

“This is just the situation where COVID necessity is the mother of invention,” Mulcahy says.

“It’s really helpful for us to be doing things adjacent to the theater if not in the theater,” says Mulcahy.

“We had considered a number of possibilities, from a big tent to a Globe-like theater,” says Mulcahy.

“This becomes like an R&D [Research and Development] season, We kind of have to do this. Because outdoors is the new indoors. But what if we like it?” Muicahy muses.

“I think our audience will like it,” says Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, speaking during the Zoom conference from his Coopersburg area residence.

“There’s something about Shakespeare and outdoors that just goes together. It’s like a marriage made in heaven,” Razze says.

“In Shakespeare’s time, people crossed the River Thames and sat in the outdoors in the afternoon and saw some of the greatest plays ever written,” says Razze.

“It certainly references the Renaissance in-yard. It certainly references that type of experience,” Mulcahy says of the outdoor stage.

At 44-feet wide, the Air Products Stage is about the same width as the Main Stage in Labuda.

“You know why it got big? Because Dennis got involved,” Mulcahy jokes.

“We know the actual size of the Globe,” Razze says matter-of-factly, not missing a beat.

“It was a large stage. The theater, seated, held upwards of 2,000 people. It was a very democratic type of entertainment. We hope to be the same. We hope to have people from all parts of the Lehigh Valley to experience theater.”

It’s recommended that theater-goers bringing their own folding chairs for shows on the outdoor stage.

“These are 90-minute performances. No intermission. It reduces the density, reduces the mingling,” says Mulcahy.

Alas, there will be no opening-night champagne toasts in the lobby of Labuda.

Prologues, curtain talks, talk-backs, outdoor dinners, outdoor concession stand and the “Gift Shoppe” are under discussion.

There will be no lavish PSF playbill. It will be one sheet and available electronically.

“There are going to be nights when it rains. We’re going to have to reschedule things,“ says Mulcahy.

The Air Products Stage is on a lawn area, known as the mall, west of Labuda.

“It’s just down the hill toward the sunset,” Mulcahy teases.

“It’s in the shadow of Jesus,” Razze says, referring to “Jesus the Teacher,” an 18-foot-tall bronze statue by Ben Fortunado Marcune, commissioned by DeSales University in honor of its 50th anniversary.

“It’s a robust season,” says Mulcahy, adding, “It’s certainly distilled. One of the changes that we will have will be fewer large-cast productions and more smaller productions. And the seating is limited.”

In the Main Stage theater of Labuda, 106 seats of 473 seats will be sold. Merv-13 filters are being installed indoors.

PSF will employ 100 rather than the typical 200 for the summer season.

Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, United Scene Artists, Equity, CDC and John Hopkins COVID-19 protocol is being adhered to by PSF.

“A lot of what we’re requiring is what the union is requiring. You can’t get your shows approved until you follow certain protocols, including the audience wearing masks,” says Mulcahy.

“We have the benefit of all the experiences that DeSales University has had. There really haven’t been any classroom transmissions of COVID,” Mulcahy says, adding, “We can draw from some of the same protocols that have kept people safe.”

Digital Feast will film the PSF shows.

“We used Digital Feast all year long,” says Razze, adding, “They’ve been absolutely terrific. PSF used them to do the virtual Gala [in 2020]. Anne Lewis, theater division head, suggested them.

“We have successfully streamed our theater productions, our dance productions and our TV-Film productions, beginning in fall 2020,” Razze says.

“For Act One and WIllPower, we took multiple days, multiple angles and run-throughs and then an intensive editing process,” says Mulcahy.

“For PSF, we’ll just shoot a performances with three or four cameras, which is exciting. It will be more like live theater,” Mulcahy says.

“One of the unique features of the season will be the reduced revenue and the increased expenses,” says Mulcahy with a chuckle.

Pausing a beat, Mulcahy says, “But this is what we do. We just need to figure that out. A lot of people have helped out.”

PSF’s 2021 Season Sponsor is Douglas Dykhouse. The Associate Season Sponsors are Linda Lapos & Paul Wirth, Kathleen Kund Nolan & Timothy E. Nolan, the Szarko Family, and Harry C. Trexler Trust.

“We did reduce our staffing back in June [2020],” says Mulcahy, adding, “We did that less than a lot of theaters. From 15 full-time to 13. But you really can’t cut more. We still have one of everything we need.

“We’re kind of under the umbrella of the [DeSales] university. The university decided not to furlough and we kind of followed suit with that,” Mulcahy says.

“It’s more like starting a theater than running a theater right now,” says Mulcahy.

Oh, and by the way, there will be no on-stage spit-takes.

“They will be simulated,” Razze jokes.

“Actors will not be masked. The staging will not bring actors closer than normal,’ Mulcahy says.

“There are plays we thought about and can’t do this summer. Because ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is all about kissing and fighting. It’s really about other things, but there is a lot of kissing and fighting,” says Mulcahy.

“Even ‘Midsummer’ is going to have its challenges,” says Razze.

“There’s never been a [PSF] season where neither of us is directing. And this year, neither of us is directing,” notes Mulcahy.

“It’s partly because some of the projects that we’re moving forward with were already cued up,” Mulcahy says.

“But we’re not doing ‘A Chorus Line’ [which was to open the 2020 PSF season]. There’s no way we can put 20 people on a chorus line,” says Mulcahy.

“It would be a COVID line,” quips Razze.

Other 2020 season PSF plays that went by the boards and aren’t being presented in 2021 are “Sense and Sensibility” and “Henry IV, Part 2.”

August Wilson’s “Fences” was to have been staged for the 2020 season. It’s hoped that Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” for the 2021 season will be a “bridge” to a planned PSF 2022 season production of “Fences.”

“That’s keeping that spirit moving forward and it’s connective tissue for what we hope will be ‘Fences’ in 2022,” says Mulcahy.

A big part of the reason the PSF season is starting later is because the DeSales University spring semester is concluding later.

For the 2021 season, curtain time is 6:30 p.m. rather than the usual 8 p.m., with the exception of “Charlotte’s Web,” which is 10 a.m.

It’s because of outdoor lighting considerations.

“If we had to create a whole lighting rig, that would be beyond our means,” says Mulcahy.

“There will be this huge light over on the horizon. It’s got this full spectrum of color,” jokes Mulcahy.

“We do have some of the best sunsets in the Valley,” Razze says about the DeSales’ campus.

“We’ve been determined to have a season this summer,” says Mulcahy.

“As clear as it was for us that there was no way for us to do anything in the theaters last summer, it has been just as clear to us that there are ways to respond to this moment this summer. We’re really excited about offering something for anyone, meeting people where they are, Mulcahy says.”

“We know how Shakespeare and his company struggled with those plagues that hit London and closed his theater occasionally,” says Razze, adding, “This is a testament to how like a phoenix theater is, and will be reborn again.”

PSF 2021 season

Air Products Stage

“Charlotte’s Web,” 10 a.m. June 25 - July 31

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 6:30 p.m. Previews, July 7, July 8; Opens, July 9 - Aug. 1

“In Concert with Phoenix Best,” 6:30 p.m. July 12

Main Stage, Labuda Center

“How I Learned What I Learned,” 6:30 p.m. Previews, June 29, June 30; Opens, July 1 - July 11

“An Iliad,” 6:30 p.m. Previews, July 20, July 21; Opens July 22 - Aug. 1

Online dates, times are to be announced for:

“Charlotte’s Web”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

“Native Gardens”

“An Iliad”

PSF tickets go on sale May 17: www.pashakespeare.org; 610.282.WILL (9455)

CONTRIBUTED IMAGE William Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” will be presented July 7-Aug. 1 on the new outdoor Air Products Stage designed by Steve TenEyck at The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, DeSales University, Center Valley.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Tony Todd (August Wilson), “How I Learned What I Learned,” June 29-July 11, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival