Shakespeare Free for All Will Move Indoors

Free for All shows such as 2007's "Love's Labor's Lost" drew crowds at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, but the company saw less success in luring those fans into its theaters.
Free for All shows such as 2007's "Love's Labor's Lost" drew crowds at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, but the company saw less success in luring those fans into its theaters. (By Kevin Allen)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 27, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, Shakespeare has left the park.

After 18 years of providing free summertime Shakespeare at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is moving the much-admired program indoors. Come next summer's revival of the company's popular "Taming of the Shrew," the new Free for All venue will be the troupe's 774-seat headquarters at Sidney Harman Hall.

In addition, the run will increase from 10 shows to 22, and performance dates will shift to Sept. 3-22 from the traditional May-June slot.

Michael Kahn, the theater's artistic director, says a number of factors went into the decision, from lack of Metro accessibility at Carter Barron to occasional rainouts and, lately, an overtaxed staff. When "Hamlet" played Carter Barron last summer, the company already had "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra" running in rep at Harman Hall, and Molière's "The Imaginary Invalid" was nearly open at the company's 451-seat Lansburgh space around the corner on Seventh Street NW.

"We hired three crews, and we had actor housing all over town," Kahn says. "It was getting very difficult to manage."

Had the acclaimed classical company grown to the point of competing against itself for audiences? "That was probably in the mix," says General Manager Chris Jennings, who notes that Washington theater in general continues to become "a much larger market, and a more competitive market."

Still, Jennings says the choice was driven less by logistics than by a need to consolidate the fan base at the recently expanded facilities downtown. When Kahn started the Free for All in 1991, he did so partly to make the shows accessible to audiences who couldn't get into the 240-seat Folger Theatre. Now that it's producing seven shows this year (not including the freebie) on two sizable downtown stages, the company hopes the Free for All will help bring new people through the doors.

The event hasn't accomplished that very well over the years, despite being a beloved feature of the cultural landscape; few of the half-million-plus people who have seen Shakespeare at Carter Barron have migrated south to become regular patrons.

"You have to make sure your investment is making those connections," says Jennings, particularly in a difficult economy. Audience recruitment was always part of the effort at Carter Barron, he says, "but we just didn't get the return."

Kahn emphasizes that the troupe's commitment to free Shakespeare remains strong. The Free for All will be one of the beneficiaries of the company's lavish gala tonight at Harman Hall and the National Building Museum, where the change will be formally announced.

"It's very important for us to keep it going at a time of diminishing resources, believe me," says Kahn of the $650,000 program, which is co-sponsored by The Washington Post. "We never considered canceling it."

Kahn intends to retain the populist spirit of outdoor Shakespeare with festival-style programming, ranging from family events to a late-night jazz club on Fridays and Saturdays. Last week, the company sealed a partnership that will allow patrons to picnic on the west lawn of the nearby Building Museum.

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