IMPRESARIO

The Baltimore Sun

The year isn't half over, but it's already a banner one for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. In January, the small professional theater company received an anonymous $1 million donation. Last month, on Shakespeare's birthday, it chalked up its first National Endowment for the Arts grant.

The $25,000 matching grant from the NEA's Shakespeare for a New Generation Program put the Baltimore festival in good company. Among the 34 other theaters honored with this round of grants were the Tony Award-winning Oregon and Utah Shakespeare festivals as well as Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company.

But though "money is a good soldier," as Falstaff says in The Merry Wives of Windsor, these monetary gifts do not mean that the 13-year-old Hampden-based festival is any less mindful of its overall battle strategy.

Its new season, being announced today, consists of three plays - Macbeth (July 6-22), Sophocles' Antigone (Oct. 19-Nov. 11) and The Winter's Tale (April 4-27): the first production will take place in the Evergreen House meadow; the other two will be at the company's home at St. Mary's Outreach Center, a former Episcopal church.

The lineup has one fewer play than the past two seasons. "We're doing three full productions instead of doing two smaller productions in the middle," explains artistic director James Kinstle. "It's the same size annual budget, right around $600,000."

Or, the festival is heeding the wisdom of Romeo and Juliet's Friar Laurence and moving "wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast."

Like Shakespeare, Kinstle, 39, is an actor. His Baltimore Shakespeare Festival credits have included portraying Shakespeare himself, in a biographical drama called Love for Words, and stepping into the role of Iago midway into rehearsals of Othello when the actor who was originally cast got a role in John Waters' movie Pecker.

Not only has Kinstle played the Bard, but in recent years, he has increasingly come to resemble him. However, the artistic director's choice of footwear - red sneakers - harks back to his early days with a local improv troupe called the Flying Tongues, whose trademark was red Converse hi-tops. Sipping a Coke on the porch of the Rosecroft home he shares with his wife, Joan Weber, and their 8-year-old daughter, Ruby, he spoke about the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's past and future as well as his own. Seven years ago, after working in one of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's education programs, you were invited, somewhat to your surprise, to apply for the artistic director's position. Has your background in improvisation helped you run the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival?

It has helped me as a manager, in board meetings, in coming up with solutions to problems. The cardinal rule of improvisation is: "Yes," comma, and ellipse; "yes, and ... " Meaning that if we're in a scene together and you say something, I confirm what you said and then I further it. So I will not deny you. I will not say "No" to you. I will not deny your reality. I will build on your reality.

It's great for brainstorming, and I think it's really helped me as a leader. Shakespeare festivals have come and gone over the years in Baltimore, and this one has known some uncertain times. Why has the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival been able to hang on?

We have been very fortunate in that we've had a couple of board members that have been very supportive financially as well as giving guidance. But I really think it was the vision the board had when I came in and they interviewed me. I said one of the things I really wanted to do was put the "Baltimore" back in Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

The focus has been on the greater Baltimore community. All the artists, all the actors, all the designers that come in are from the community and that, I think, has spawned great support within the community.

Our education program - the other side of that balance - is focused on Baltimore City, though our programs are statewide. And especially with all the cuts that have gone on in city schools in the arts, we tend to be sometimes the only cultural experience these children get. I never thought I was going to be running a Shakespeare company, but I've really put a big emphasis on making it about Baltimore and embracing the community. You've received some wonderful grants this year, but you're doing one less show in your new season. How expensive is Shakespeare?

This year at the annual Shakespeare Theatre Association of America conference, I was made aware that we are one of maybe 20 Equity [the actors' union] Shakespeare companies across the United States because it's cost-prohibitive due to the size of the cast. We're paying Equity actors' wages and pension and health. Doing Equity Shakespeare is an investment. A majority of the companies are on the East Coast and the rest of them are scattered across America. I hadn't realized that. It was shocking to me.

Theater is not a business to make money in. We've very fortunate to have some people, individuals and foundations who help support us, but we lose money on productions generally. We've only had one show actually that broke even: That was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). The ticket revenue actually paid for the production. But outside of that, the ratio, my first few shows, was probably about 10 percent of the production was paid for by ticket sales, and the last two years we've had almost 50 percent. So we've done that by really keeping our costs down and really selling the product. It's a tough battle. Tell me about your education programs. How do you know if you're having an impact?

We have one-, two- or 15-week artist-in-residence programs. We send someone into the school to collaborate with the teacher. We have a two-week Midsummer Night's Dream residency for middle schools. It culminates in a 20-minute abridged performance. We did this last semester at Lombard Middle School, in the heart of the city, and when you walk in and you tell the teachers what you're planning to do, they look at you like you've lost your mind. "Our children will never do a 20-minute version in two weeks of Midsummer Night's Dream."

Laura Hackman [Baltimore Shakespeare Festival education director] has a great story. She and Marianne Angelella [an actress] were at the school, and after the performance they had several parents come up to them and say, "It was such a pleasure getting a call from the school about my child, to invite me to something rather than to bring me in for a conference or to complain." And they were so proud of their kids. I'm going to play devil's advocate here, but is Shakespeare still relevant for school children?

When I go into a middle school or a high school, especially in the inner city, and I say, "Does anybody know a family where one of the kids has gone away to school or gone away for a while, and when they return, the father's been killed and the uncle is now running the household?" And they go, "Oh, yeah, I know that or I know somebody down the street just like that." I say, "Welcome to the world of Hamlet." When you received the anonymous $1 million donation, which you are using to start an endowment, you hoped it would spur other donations. Has it?

It's still very early on. We have not done a drive or a campaign associated with it yet. We have a couple interested funders in New York, both the Holtsinger and the Shubert foundations. This whole year, between that gift and now the NEA grant, it's really elevated our status to be more of a national player. Where would you like to see the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival in 10 years?

I feel like we're at an important juncture in our process where we've been just over a half-million-dollar company for the last three or four years now, and I've noticed that many companies seem to either stay there or they make the leap. They become million-dollar companies, then they either settle in or they grow from there. My dream is in 10 years, maybe 15 years, that we could be a regional theater, along the lines of Center Stage and Everyman Theatre.

I would also like us to be an incredible education resource. We've been really establishing ourselves with the education community, but I'd like to see that grow exponentially. I'd like our artists to be in the classrooms more often - out of the restaurants and on the streets where they belong.

And I'd like to see us supporting a full season of five or six plays, hopefully with a company of actors. We are at a juncture where we are in strategic planning right now looking at audience development and the facility - two major issues that we need to address.

I had a couple great conversations with Vinnie Lancisi [Everyman Theatre artistic director] over the last couple of weeks. Everyman's moving to the west side and we only have 21 months left on our lease at St. Mary's. We may be able to work something out with the Episcopal diocese so that we can stay in that space, but Vinnie said, "There are plenty of spaces on the west side, why don't you come down and help us create a theater row?" We'd have the Hippodrome and Everyman and Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, and there's not a whole lot of crossover between those three institutions. So that could be a viable possibility.

Or we could end up moving into Station North, since Everyman is vacating it. The city needs some kind of theater to help anchor the arts district. I think it gives a great outlet for the classics, and the classics are classics for a reason. I think a major city deserves a classical theater.

To find out more about the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's 2007-2008 season, call 410-366-8596 or visit baltimoreshakespeare.org.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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