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‘Shakespeare for everyone’: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Jason King Jones takes The Bard from Center Valley to the Lehigh Valley

In the movie comedy, “Back to School” (1986), Rodney Dangerfield (1936-2004) as Thornton Melon, a millionaire who enrolls in college to eavesdrop on his college student son, famously and hilariously exclaims at the student bookstore checkout counter after offering to pay for purchases by students while he is shopping there: “Hey, folks, it’s on me. Shakespeare for everyone!”

“Shakespeare for everyone” could be a byword for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) Artistic Director Jason King Jones, who is putting a new spin on the venerable Festival founded by Gerard J. Schubert in 1992 at DeSales University, Center Valley.

PSF opens its 2023 season with its “Extreme Shakespeare” production of “Henry IV, Part 2,” May 31 - June 11, Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University.

In years past, PSF often concluded a season with “Extreme Shakespeare,” whereby there’s no director of a play and actors choose costumes, props and sets, a practice said typical for the plays of William Shakespeare (circa 1585 - 1613).

PSF presents its annual “Luminosity Gala” fundraiser, June 3, University Center, DeSales University.

New this year is “Play On” Community Tour, a PSF production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” June 2 - 18, performed by the PSF Young Company” and presented free to the public at venues throughout the Lehigh Valley, funded by Sponsors Air Products and Crayola and Co-sponsor Joanne Hartshorne.

PSF holds “Community Day,” 10 a.m. - 10:30 p.m. July 1 on the DeSales campus. It’s billed as “a celebration of the arts as well as the many local organizations that provide invaluable services to this community.” There will be family-friendly activities and a free performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 3 p.m. July 1, Outdoor Trexler Library Stage.

Outdoor performances, presented during the PSF 2021 season when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was still in effect, are a feature of the 2023 season. The PSF 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic.

On the Outdoor Trexler Library Stage will be “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] [again],” June 28 - July 16, directed by PSF veteran Matt Pfeiffer.

The Main Stage launches with the hit Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegri´a Hudes, June 14 - July 2. The show is directed by Valeria Cossu, with music direction by Walter McCoy and choreography by Michael Anthony Sylvester.

The season continues on the Main Stage with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” in repertory.

Jones makes his PSF directorial debut with “The Tempest,” July 12 - Aug. 6. PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze was to direct but is on medical leave.

Says Jones in a PSF press release: “This summer, we’ll be centering our season on the theme ‘Brave New Worlds.’ Not only does the phrase come directly from ‘The Tempest,’ which we’ll be producing in July, but it also perfectly encapsulates the sheer variety of stories we will tell and the communities with whom we’ll be telling them.”

Jessica Bedford directs “Sense and Sensibility” from Olivier Award-winning writer Jessica Swale, July 20 - Aug. 5.

For children, there’s “James and the Giant Peach,” July 7 - Aug 5, and “Shakespeare for Kids,” July 26 - Aug. 5.

PSF concludes the 2023 season in the Schubert Theatre, July 19 - Aug. 6, with “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” by Lanie Robertson with music arrangements by Danny Holgate and directed by Amina Robinson. Ebony Pullum is Billie Holiday and Cedric D. Lyles, music director, is Jimmy Powers.

Beginning this season, Jones is teamed with PSF Managing Director Casey William Gallagher.

Jones succeeds PSF Producing Artistic Director (2003-2022) Patrick Mulcahy, Head of Acting, Professor, DeSales University, who stepped down after the 2022 season. PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze retires after the 2023 season.

Jones says his awareness of PSF preceded his arrival.

“As a theater professional for 20-plus years and someone who has done Shakespeare, I knew it [PSF] had a strong reputation. I knew about the festival. I knew about the quality of work,” Jones says in a May 9 phone interview with a reporter for Lehigh Valley Press.

“When I heard about Patrick [Mulcahy] stepping down, it was on my radar. I talked with actors who had worked here.”

Jones applied for the position in Spring 2022. Interviews followed in April, June and July 2022. Jones was invited to be the next PSF artistic director in mid-July 2022. Jones saw the PSF 2022 season productions of “A Chorus Line” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Prior to PSF, Jones was at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center for 10 years, where he was Senior Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of National Players, America’s longest-running touring theater company.

At Olney, Jones directed more than 20 productions, mentored more than 200 early-career theater-makers, and established in-school and summer education programs.

Jones has worked at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. He is an Acting Company alumnus. Jones received a BFA in Theatre Performance from Missouri State and an MFA in Directing from Boston University.

In his role at PSF, Jones talks about the “festival experience” and “putting the festive in Festival.”

“You have to balance the stories you want to tell onstage and people to participate in the festival experience,” Jones says.

“If that’s one of the tools to get people to come be a part of the Festival ... Tour, Community Day, ‘In the Heights,’ Billie Holiday musical ... These are ways to get people to return to the Festival or check it out.

“What I really want to do is get people to experience the whole quality,” says Jones.

Of the innovative programming for the PSF 2023 season, Jones says, “It’s an opportunity for us to expand our audience and grow our audience, and make inroads into audiences that maybe didn’t think of themselves as a PSF audience ... To reach out and connect with the community.”

The pandemic shutdown had its impact on PSF, as with other theater companies, arts nonprofits and stage venues. Says Jones:

“During the really rough years that PSF had and other festivals had, PSF was supported by grants. We were able to weather that storm.

“The real challenge is now. We’re having to help reinvest and bring the audience back.

“Last year, we [PSF] were looking at 60 percent [of attendance capacity]. We expect it to be higher. We’re not going to get back to the full 100 percent that we had.”

According to PSF Director of Marketing and Public Relations Tina Louise Slak, PSF typically produces 150 performances during 10 weeks from late May to early June.

PSF attracts patrons each summer from 30-plus states. In 30 years, PSF has presented 200-plus productions, including 82 by William Shakespeare, and attracted 1,000,000-plus attendees from 50 states.

PSF attendance averages 34,000 - 40,000 during the summer season, and an additional 13,000 students annually in the “WillPower Tour” to schools.

PSF is the only professional Equity theater of its scope and scale within a 50-mile radius of the Lehigh Valley.

There are opening night champagne receptions following performances, actor talk-backs, prologues before a Shakespeare performance, live music on the green before shows, and dining. PSF has American Sign Language interpretation, open-captioning, audio description and relaxed performances.

“The major Shakespeare festivals experienced similar kinds of support that we did,” says Jones. “Many are having to rebuilt their model. Oregon [Shakespeare Festival] is an example that is struggling ... the pandemic and the wildfires.

“I’m really grateful that part of the metric of success for me, for this job ... is how well we are at creating a diverse place for all artists.

“If diversity is going to be important then it has to be a metric. We’re looking at continuing those practices and expanding those practices.

“I want to make the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival an experience ... to have a place where they do their best work and be celebrated for the work they do regardless of their background. I want to make sure everyone has that experience.

“To meet our mission, it behooves us to have a diversity of artists on stage and behind the stage. We all live in a more exciting world when we have all the voices to be part of that experience. It’s important to me because I want the world to be exciting. There are incredible artists of all backgrounds that we are able to bring in and celebrate.

“Our production of ‘In the Heights’ will celebrate artists from three different continents.

“The leadership is being shared between me and Casey Gallagher. We have a lot of institutional knowledge of what works and a lot of mindfulness in budget. It feels like a really balanced leadership.

“My job is to focus on the festival. It frees me up not just for the festival but year round and into the future.

“We’re really interested in focusing on the success of the 2023 season. And after this, we’re going to look at some strategic planning.

“We’re incredibly grateful for the support we get from DeSales [University]. The future will shape out in harmony with them.”

Jones, his wife and their two children, a freshman in high school and a second-grader, relocated to the Lehigh Valley in time for the 2022-23 school year.

“We settled here in Center Valley. It really is a beautiful place. We’re excited about the connections we are making, and our neighbors,” Jones said.

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival ticket information: box office, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University; 610-.282-WILL [9455]; https://pashakespeare.org

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Jason King Jones begins his new role for the 2023 season.