Highlights from the history of Washington’s Shakespeare Free for All

August 15, 2013

There’s a little secret about the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s summer Free for All plays. The directors and actors say that the free productions, which are remounts with relatively minuscule rehearsal time, are decidedly better the second or third time around. In other words — a lot of bang for no bucks.

“When we repeat a play a couple of years later, it’s always better for some reason,” says STC artistic director Michael Kahn. “It’s sort of enriched itself, and the actors have somehow left behind the nervousness of the original production. They’re quite settled and are easy with it, and yet it’s infused with new energy by new actors coming in.”

It has been 23 years since Kahn and STC founding chairman R. Robert Linowes staged the first Free for All play at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park. Things have changed over the years (the shows moved indoors to Sidney Harman Hall in 2009), but the quality of the productions, not to mention the popularity, has remained constant.

With this year’s play just around the corner — “Much Ado About Nothing” opens Tuesday — we take a look back at some of the past Free for All shows, sharing facts, figures and anecdotes from cast members and others.

1991: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

“The first time we did one at Carter Barron, I thought this was going to be like Chinese theater, where people get up and leave and have their lunch and come back,” says veteran actor Ted van Griethuysen. “But no. They were extremely respectful, they listened, no fooling around. It’s just interesting how much this appeals to the best in people.”

1992: “As You Like It”

The actors had to use microphones to reach the 4,000-plus audience members at Carter Barron, which is why they overheard van Griethuysen, who played Jacques in this production, quietly gripe about Orlando’s tardy entrance. “Rosalind’s first line is ‘Where hast thou been all this while?’ and I, who had just hopped offstage, said very quietly, ‘That’s what I want to know,’ ” Van Griethuysen recalls with a chuckle. “I got my biggest laugh as Jacques.”

1994: “Comedy of Errors”

“I remember that one, more than any of them, worked better, much better out there [at Carter Barron] than it did in the theater,” says actor Floyd King, Shakespeare Theatre’s most reliable jester. During this production, King, playing the Dromio twins, would be hit by a gush of water. “We didn’t have to worry about where the water went, so it would knock me across the stage, and the audience loved it,” he says. “And the heat would dry it up in seconds.”

1997: “Henry V”

Shakespeare Theatre Company receives a public humanities award for the Free for All from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.

1999: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

More than 40,000 people attend the 13-night run at Carter Barron.

2000: “The Merchant of Venice”

“I was doing Shylock. . . . God, it was hot,” Van Griethuysen recalls. “It was a hot costume, and I remember just slogging myself across the backstage to go onstage. All that perspiration — it was muggy, oh, God, it was so humid.”

2002: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”

“There was a dog in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’; I can’t begin to tell you what he did onstage,” King says. “He actually took a bath, if you know what I’m saying — he washed all his private parts with his tongue while I was talking. The audience went insane watching him do that; it was hysterical. My next line was: ‘Have you ever seen me do such a thing?’ I mean, it was perfect.”

2004: “Much Ado About Nothing”

Washingtonians may remember this as a cicada-filled summer. At the time, STC spokeswoman Liza Holtmeier said that, thankfully, the chirping bugs quieted down before the shows. “We’ve had a few lone bugs make their way onstage during the performance,” she said, “but so far, they’ve just clung to the set and haven’t upstaged the actors.”

2005: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

The production is taken to Colorado for the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival.

2007: “Love’s Labor’s Lost”

Kahn’s adaptation of this comedy was set in 1960s India, following a Beatles-esque rock group. “This play, for so many reasons, seemed like such a perfect play for the park. It makes you feel like you’re at a rock concert,” Stephen Fried, then the company’s resident assistant director, said at the time. “It’s this sort of celebration of a production — such a wonderful thing to watch out there.”

2009: “The Taming of the Shrew”

The festival moves indoors to the gleaming Sidney Harman Hall with a longer run to compensate for the smaller capacity. Some worried about the less magical setting, but Kahn was more practical. “I think everybody has now realized that there’s great benefit to doing the play indoors during the hot and rainy days,” he says. “We’ve never had to cancel a performance.”

2012: “All’s Well That Ends Well”

“Oftentimes, [audience members] don’t know the plot in advance,” says Jenny Lord, who directed this production. In one show, as heroine Helena read aloud a cruel letter from her husband, a woman in the audience cried out, “Oh no!” “It was clear as day, right in the pause,” Lord says. “And it was so great, because she didn’t know what was going to happen next, and it was this news, and I love, love, love that.”

2013: “Much Ado About Nothing”

“I always say on the first day [of rehearsal] that the Free for All has to be fun. It’s this gift from the Shakespeare Theatre to the city of D.C., and it should be fun for all of us to do it,” says Lord, who is directing this Cuba-set take on Shakespeare’s beloved comedy. “And ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ I think particularly, is an extremely joyful play, and that kind of infects the whole rehearsal process.”

2014: ????

“ ‘The Winter’s Tale’ seems to be the leading candidate,” Kahn says, noting that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” also is in the running: “I would love to offer it to an audience that doesn’t know the play.”

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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