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Shakespeare is Free For All

The following is an excerpt from the book An American Classic: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, by Norman Allen.

Free For All

Patrons at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Photographer unknown.

In 1991, the Shakespeare Theatre Company brought its work to a vast new audience. Michael Kahn, along with Board Chair R. Robert Linowes, inaugurated the Shakespeare Theatre Free For All, offering free performances in the 4,200-seat Carter Barron Amphitheatre on the edge of Rock Creek Park. The staff focused their efforts on reaching new and diverse audiences, fostering a relaxed, picnic-going atmosphere that would attract families and young people. For almost two decades the company made its summer sojourn at Carter Barron, reviving a popular, family-friendly title from recent seasons.

The acting company has especially fond memories of those years outdoors, which included nightly barbeques backstage and the fun of performing to vast crowds. Actor David Sabin remembers the night he lost his pants while playing Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. “You haven’t lived until you’ve stood helplessly in front of 4,000 screaming people in your y-fronts, hoping there are no holes in them!” he claims. “Floyd [King] was supposed to enter with a tray of drinks and get on with the scene. In he came, screaming with laughter, and all was lost.”

Not all memories are fond ones. “OK, I am not your girl here,” confesses Franchelle Stewart Dorn. “I don’t like outside. It’s hot, humid and dirty. Besides, mosquitoes love me. That aside, the audiences were fantastic. I doubt I’ll ever get to perform for so many people again.

From the beginning The Washington Post and the Philip L. Graham Fund were major supporters. Walter Pincus, a journalist at the Post since 1966, remembers, “It became a big picnic, a family affair. Those who couldn’t afford to see Shakespeare or weren’t normally exposed to it, came out to Carter Barron. At the Post, we saw it as a way to reach out to the broader community, to provide something that simply wasn’t there before.”

Free For All

Paul Winfield and Michael Kahn at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Photographer unknown.

For Donald Graham, the Post‘s chief executive officer and board chairman, the program struck a personal note. “I was in seventh grade when I first saw a Shakespeare play,” he remembers. “It opened up a lifetime of pleasure and everything else one gets from seeing Shakespeare. Michael knew how important that experience could be. We used to distribute tickets at the Post offices and people would line up around the block, particularly parents and particularly young people.”

The theatre offered free transportation to thousands of public school students, and special incentives for summer interns, Congressional staff and the employees of the many companies and organizations that provided financial support.

More important, it was just plain fun. Kelly McGillis says, “I love it. I love the atmosphere. I love being outside, incorporating the environment. I love when a thunderstorm comes through and you stop and wait, then you mop up the stage, then you go back to the play. There’s a sense of community. We all do it together, whether you hold a spear or you speak all the lines of the play.”

In August 2009, the Free For All moved indoors to Sidney Harman Hall, providing easy access to public transportation and removing the variable of bad weather. Floyd King misses the old days but recognizes the value of moving the production to a downtown—and indoor—venue. “It was a joy—for a while,” he says. “It was a picnic for us as well as the audience. The downside was the weather—heat and/or rain. We’d go there and not know if we were going to go on or not.”

While the venue has changed, the central mission has not. Kahn explains, “From the start, the goal was to make the works of Shakespeare accessible to everybody. People who have never been to a theatre or can’t afford a babysitter or don’t even know what it’s all about—that’s who we want, and that’s who keeps showing up. They show up and they experience how these plays, written 400 years ago, can still resonate.”

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