Sat., Aug. 17, 4 - 8 pm, the grounds of the American Shakespeare Theatre, Elm Street, Stratford.Tickets are $75.
Event includes Javier Colon, beer, food and other live entertainment. With vendors as well. Ticket cost covers food and a beer cup to sample the brews. Additional food will be sold.
Some things never go out of style. In one form or another, beer and the works of William Shakespeare have remained popular for centuries. Which is understandable since both are certifiably excellent. That doesn't mean that quality and public devotion hasn't dipped over that time. Michelob, after all, was once considered semi-sophisticated swill by some. And there are those who don't go in for iambic pentameter. But, as it happens, a few brews have always gone nicely with the works of the bard, which is something that many of the original attendants in the cheap seats at The Globe theater probably knew pretty well. The two great tastes will come together again this week in Stratford (not on Avon) for the first annual Shakesbeer Festival, a Connecticut-centric beer and theatrical event with the lofty two-pronged goal of bringing more attention to the state's breweries and also raising funding for Stratford's long-shuttered American Shakespeare Theatre, also known as the American Festival Theatre. (The theater has had a number of different names, as well as a variety of owners. The state deeded the property to the town of Stratford in 2005.)
The festival will feature the beers of many of Connecticut's craft brewers, including Stratford's own Two Roads Brewing Co. There will also be food supplied by local eateries and live music b y Javier Colon, winner of the first season of TV's "The Voice" and a local resident. We spoke with Steven Bilodeau, the beer manager at Wines Unlimited and one of the organizers of the festival. Bilodeau's ambition is to get something like 1500 people to attend the event, which will then allow for the purchase of those all-important theater fixtures, seats. (A portion of the profits from the festival will be donated to the Stratford Arts Council, which will help oversee any renovations at the theater.)
"We're trying to raise money for the theater so they can reopen, and at the same time we're trying to create the first beer festival of this kind for Connecticut," says Bilodeau.
Reopening the American Shakespeare Theater is something that many have hoped to pull off, and many have failed at the noble effort, though they've come pretty close (see sidebar.) In its day the theater was a launching pad for some great national theatrical talent, and it served as a destination where many in the region caught their first taste of Shakespeare the way it was supposed to be experienced — on stage, performed by actors.
"It used to be a central point for up-and-coming actors," says Bilodeau. "That's kind of a piece of history that's been lost because the theater's been closed for so long. We're hoping that with the help of fundraisers like this we can help restore the theater and get that acting scene back in the area."
"Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety."
— King Henry V, Act 3, Scene 2
Verily, the Stratford Festival Theater hath had more merry upticks and thunderous downturns than Macbeth, Malvolio or Titania the Fairy Queen.
From 1955 through the early '70s, when it was known as the American Shakespeare Festival, this was one of the best-known regional theaters in the country, and one of the biggest tourist attractions of any kind in Connecticut. It began in 1951, as its founding artistic director John Houseman wrote in his memoir Unfinished Business, after...
"...money in substantial amounts had been raised from major foundations and a bill had been passed by the Connecticut state legislature establishing the American Shakespeare Festival and Academy as a non-profit educational corporation in that state. Four years later the theater had been constructed and opened — amid speeches and congratulatory telegrams from President Eisenhower and Winston Churchill who hailed this newest of the Shakespeare Festivals as 'completing the three sides of the triangle with the Stratfords in Warwickshire and in Ontario, Canada.'"
Over half a million people saw a show at the American Shakespeare Festival in its opening summer, which began with a production of Julius Caesar featuring Hurd Hatfield, Roddy MacDowall, Christopher Plummer, Jerry Stiller, Jack Palance, Fritz Weaver and Earle Hyman. Countless schoolchildren were first introduced to Shakespeare through ASF productions, which continued to lure major talent, from Katherine Hepburn and Nancy Marchand to Chris Noth (as Hamlet) and Kelsey Grammer. Young talents who interned there as actors before becoming famous for other skills include talk show host Dick Cavett and directors Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Peter Bogdanovich.
The American Shakespeare Festival eventually became a year-round enterprise, doing Shakespeare but modern works as well. (The Michael Bennett musical Ballroom had a tryout there.) But like the third or fourth act of many an Elizabethan drama, the theater fell on hard times. Its major financial benefactor, Joseph Verner Reed, died in the mid-'70s. The theater couldn't afford to fund a 1977 season, changed its name to the American Shakespeare Theatre/Connecticut Center for the Performing Arts, and started bringing in more outside productions. The last full season was in 1982, and the last show of any kind on the American Shakespeare Theatre stage was Fred Curchack's one-man rendition of The Tempest in 1989.
State funding for the building ceased in 1988. The building was renovated and nearly reopened in the 1990s, but deals fell apart. The town of Stratford took over the property in 2005, and continued to entertain proposals from a succession of developers and theater organizations.
But the combination of that playwright and that town name (the original William Shakespeare lived in Stratford-on-Avon, England) remains magical. For the past 25 years, there have been continual attempts to revive the festival, or at least some form of regular, professional live theater in Stratford. There were signs of life in 2010, when the Arts Consulting Group Inc. was hired to do a feasibility study. That same year Timex donated a new sundial to replace the now-rusted one they'd given to the theater in 1956. In the past couple of years, major stars such as Christopher Walken and Ed Asner have visited Stratford to reminisce about their experiences there and help raise funds for the theater's rebirth.
The closest thing to a lasting testament to the town's love of the bard is the Stratford Festival, an annual town fair that has been happening since 2005. The 2013 edition was held July 1-4, and included tours of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre building, music concerts, yoga demonstrations, an arts marketplace, and a Connecticut Free Shakespeare performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The company behind Connecticut Free Shakespeare, Dandelion Productions, was one of several local theater groups vying to reopen the shuttered SFT in the 1990s. (A Midsummer Night's Dream shifted to Bridgeport's McLevy Park for performances August 7-11).
The grand old American Shakespeare Festival theater building itself is a constant reminder of Stratford' s former role as a nationally known destination for top-flight, star-studded Shakespeare shows. Holding community festivals, and now a beer bash (which has promised that "all profits will go to the American Shakespeare Theatre for their long overdue opening"), on its hallowed grounds is a step in the right direction. As Domitius Enobarbus says in Antony and Cleopatra, "Drink thou! Increase the reels!"
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