Move over, Joseph Papp. Free Shakespeare in the park is coming to Washington. And the first to hit the boards will be last spring's acclaimed production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" from the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger.
"I hope this will become a real annual event," said Michael Kahn, the theater's artistic director, who, with The Washington Post, yesterday announced the creation of a two-week summer season at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
Kahn began looking for a way to bring Shakespeare to a larger part of the community when he came to the Folger five years ago. His theater seats only 240 people, and its last three productions -- "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Richard III" and "Othello" -- have sold out.
"People have talked about how they can't get into our shows," said Kahn yesterday from New York. "We've turned thousands of people away. For me it's a way to repay the community for the support it's given us for the last five years."
The folks at the Folger, where tickets cost from $19 to $39, are hopeful that the opportunity to see a Shakespeare play for nothing at all will make the Bard accessible to people who might never be able to afford an ordinary ticket.
"This creates a live experience," said Jessica L. Andrews, the Folger's managing director. "It's very important to broaden the appreciation of classical theater. This will enable us to get a wider audience in a way that we are now limited and cannot extend any farther because we have a small house."
The entire program, "Shakespeare Free for All," will include two weeks of live theater (June 4-16) for 1,000 people a night as well as a series of ancillary programs: workshops, demonstrations and classes that will take place on afternoons and weekends at Carter Barron.
According to Kahn, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" will be presented with almost its entire original cast, including actress Pat Carroll as Falstaff. "All our plays are nontraditionally cast," said Kahn.
The Folger enterprise will not be the first time Washington has seen free outdoor summer Shakespeare. In the '60s and '70s, the Sylvan Theater on the south slope of the Washington Monument grounds was the site of the Shakespeare Summer Festival, courtesy of the D.C. Recreation Department and the National Park Service.
Open-air Shakespeare has a long tradition, in this country with Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, and in England as far back as Shakespeare himself.
Papp, who has put on more than 100 Shakespearean productions in New York since 1956, and who years ago hired Kahn to stage "Measure for Measure" in Central Park, yesterday was enthusiastic about the Washington project. "Naturally I think it's wonderful," he said. "The atmosphere is different out of doors. There's more freedom. And it's much more related to Shakespeare because for a time he had no roof over his head."
Papp also pointed out that outdoor Shakespeare has a chance of at least beginning to reach the kind of audience that usually does not come to the theater, where patrons are mostly white and mostly middle-class. "The only way to avoid that is to go out into the community," he said.
The sponsors of "Shakespeare Free for All" are The Washington Post and the Philip L. Graham Fund, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. Additional support will be provided by the AT&T Foundation and the Elizabeth D. Heller Fund.