The mention of Shakespeare usually brings to mind drama, death, and lurid romance -- not fun family outings.
This year, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is hoping to change that perception. In addition to alternating performances of the romantic comedy As You Like It and the historical drama Henry V, the company will offer activities designed to introduce children to The Bard.
Performances of As You Like It begin the season this weekend at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. Artistic Director Ian Gallanar says that he hopes to further incorporate his background in children's theater into this year's productions. "My primary priority [is] connecting to the community and making Shakespeare accessible to kids," he said.
Anyone familiar with the inquisitive and active nature of toddlers and small children might think that Gallanar's plan spells disaster. However, he says that, generally, the reaction of the smallest audience members is "phenomenal: many are completely engaged throughout the entire two-hour performance." He adds with a laugh, "But it's OK for kids to whisper too loud, to get up and wander around -- moms don't need to be embarrassed, it's a no-stress atmosphere."
While children are welcome to attend the Friday and Saturday performances, Sunday performances, with their 5 p.m. showtime, are billed as "family friendly."
Before the show, children are welcome to join an actor for "story time" in which he explains the plot and characters to increase the youngsters' comprehension. During intermission, the company invites kids onstage to participate in a Maypole, games and arts and crafts.
After the curtain call, actors will mingle with audience members, providing an opportunity to ask questions and further connect with the performance. Repeat attendees might notice that the same actors appear in As You Like It and Henry V.
"Appearing in two roles [at one time] is fabulous and exciting," says Managing Director Leslie Malin. "It's an old theatrical challenge -- it's something Shakespeare would have done himself -- that has fallen by the wayside. It's a lot of fun for all the actors."
On any evening, guests who arrive early to picnic at the picturesque Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park have the opportunity to see the-Show-Before-the-Show that features musicians, jugglers and variety acts.
Pitney Bowes Group 1 Software will provide free admission to any performance for every youngster younger than 18 who is accompanied by a paying adult.
"Pitney Bowes understands that literacy and education are the building blocks of communication," said Christopher Baker, President of Group 1 Software. "We're proud to support this exciting opportunity to give area children the opportunity to have such a wonderful theatrical experience."
Ticket prices are $25 for adults and $22 for senior citizens. However, the Father's Day performance of Henry V will be free to fathers who take their children to the show.
New this year is Fun Formal Fridays, designed to be a great date for adults. Couples looking for a romantic experience can order private candlelit tables and prepared meals for an additional cost.
Another addition this year is James Ricks, who will direct Henry V. Though Ricks is new to the company, Gallanar says, "he has an ethos and approach similar to ours. He also brings a unique perspective from his previous experiences. ... He's a terrific addition."
This summer's run will be particularly exciting for the company because it is its first show since its involvement with the Shakespeare in Washington Festival. According to Malin, the six-month festival was a "collection of various talented arts organizations" that have been inspired by Shakespeare's work. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company was the only Baltimore-area organization to participate in the festival, though it was joined by the Kirov Ballet, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Shakespeare Company and nearly 60 other organizations worldwide.
"It already has brought a lot of publicity to this summer's program," Malin says. "We started selling tickets in January, and that has never happened before."
Gallanar adds, "We're expecting a much bigger crowd, people from not just Maryland, but Washington, Virginia, all over."
Tickets can be purchased at www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com, at 866-811-4111, or before the performance at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarahs Lane, Ellicott City. Shows begin at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 5 p.m. Sundays. Gates open 90 minutes before the show.