In the beginning
The San Diego Shakespeare Society was formed in the summer of 2000 by a group of dedicated individuals with a deep, abiding interest in the Shakespeare canon and a proselytizing zeal to share that interest. The Society’s first Mission Statement explained that it sought to inspire life-long learning by furthering the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare. And the Society’s working motto has always been, “We do Shakespeare all year ‘round!” True to that motto, we have engaged in an amazing variety of activities (an admittedly non-exclusive list follows), with the late, beloved Alexander Sandie, our co-founder and long-time President, leading the way for almost twenty years.
Since 2002, the Society has held an annual sonnets program at the Old Globe Theatre, typically in the fall. (A North County sonnets program had also been held infrequently in Carlsbad.) In the early years, local celebrities appeared, and thus the event was known as the Celebrity Sonnets. Beginning in 2019, a specific theme was chosen, that being Shakespeare’s women, and the program was renamed Sonnets and Speeches. But the sonnets program has always consisted of innovative presentations of the poetry, often incorporating dance or song. Nationally prominent actors and directors, such as Jonathan McMurtry, Dakin Matthews, and Craig Noel, have recited their personal favorites. Sadly, 2020 was the first lapse in this long tradition.
The Student Festival
Each spring beginning in 2006, the Society has organized the Student Shakespeare Festival in Balboa Park. Animated by the governing principle of “Teach a child Shakespeare at an early age, and they can learn anything,” the Festival is designed to bring the works of the Bard to life for students, teachers, and the greater community through study, production, and live performance. Participation over the years has ranged from 15 to 35 schools and associations from all around San Diego County, including a homeschool co-op and the local Shakespeare Academy. In 2013, the Festival achieved a certain international status with a school from Moscow taking part.
On the day of the Festival, highly motivated students have performed discrete scenes on up to five stages. We have seen fifth-graders in togas dispatching Caesar with rubber knives and a high school troupe portraying the Weird Sisters as Goth teens confronting Macbeth as a star quarterback. We have enjoyed Romeo and Juliet as told by life-size puppets and Twelfth Night characters appearing on a Jerry Springer-type show. One of the teachers involved later wrote, “As a long-time theatre person, it was great to see a new generation doing the work of the master, understanding it and bringing to life.” More than one student has expressed the sentiment that the Festival was the best day of their school year.
The Festival has traditionally served as the Society’s flagship event of the year, easily generating the most publicity, quite prominently in newspapers and on local TV news. At the same time, the Festival has been by far its most demanding undertaking, requiring a heavy fundraising and grant writing effort. Due to these administrative challenges, in 2019, the Society entered into a two-year collaboration, subject to renewal, with Write Out Loud, a respected arts organization skilled in staging large public functions such as TwainFest and PoeFest. On account of pandemic restrictions, the 2020 and 2021 Festivals were regrettably forced to consist of abbreviated coaching experiences, with student performances being posted online. Only in 2022, was a Festival held in person at Heritage Park.
Happy Birthday, Bill!
One Society institution that traditionally helped in raising funds for the Festival was the Shakespeare Birthday Party held every April at the La Jolla mansion of a Society supporter, the eminent scientist Walter Munk. With a breathtaking view of the Pacific, the party was a chance for members to socialize, enjoy refreshments, be entertained by youth and adult performers, and bid on various auction items for this good cause. Unfortunately, the 2020 party had to be canceled. The tradition was revived in April 2022, when Society members Jeff and Perla Myers graciously opened their home (with its backyard amphitheater) to this event.
The core events
From its beginning, the Society sponsored informal reading groups at libraries and churches to discuss and enjoy the text and texture of the Bard’s works, but these early groups ebbed and flowed. Only since February 2009, has the Society held regular monthly open readings of Shakespeare plays at different venues, initially led by the dynamic and deeply missed Rupert Essinger of Leicester, England. The monthly open readings have become probably the most consistent public “face” of the Society, welcoming anyone to come forward and perform Shakespeare. Experienced actors and scholars direct these readings and provide special insights. Since April 2020, the readings have gone online. While this Zoom shift was unsettling at first, what we lost in face-to-face contact, we gained in a wider audience, including two regular (and early rising) attendees from the United Kingdom. Kevin Manley coordinates our Central County open readings on the first Tuesday of the month (now in-person at the Coronado Public Library), and Patrick McBride coordinates our North County open readings on the third Sunday of the month. In July 2022, the Society’s Board voted unanimously to rename our monthly series the “Rupert Essinger Open Readings.”
The Society has produced a number of staged readings, most recently in September 2019, with a very successful King Lear at the Westminster Presbyterian Church Theatre, superbly directed by Society co-founder Thomas Haine. Other staged readings have included Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Tempest. (And in Much Ado, Victoria Mature, daughter of Victor Mature, played Beatrice.)
In addition to the received plays and sonnets, the Society has also produced derived content. In 2003 and 2004, Alas, Poor Yorick and Much Ado About A Do-Nothing, both by the late playwright Gary Seger, were respectively staged. We were honored to have long-time Society Board member and esteemed drama teacher Jack Winans direct both of these plays (as he had done for several of the aforementioned staged readings). In 2008, Romeo & Juliet Deconstructed, a whimsical what-if exercise was staged. And in 2015, Romeo and Juliet was further mined in the behind-the-scenes Mercutio, “King of Cats,” written and directed by Christopher R and presented at the Upstart Crow Bookstore.
The Society has also hosted a lecture series, off and on, addressing a variety of topics, including Shakespeare’s Theatre, Shakespeare and law, panel discussions on acting Shakespeare, medieval chivalry in Shakespeare’s works, Shakespeare in film (talkies and silent), the authorship question (the June 2022 Shakespeare Authorship Forum garnered over 1,700 views on YouTube), efforts to diversify Shakespeare, Shakespeare prison projects, and Shakespeare in the American Civil War (Lincoln was a big fan). According to a recent survey of the membership, the lecture series is the Society’s most popular offering.
Getting into the acting game
As a matter of support for and enhancement of the local performing arts, the Society has sponsored “Acting Shakespeare” workshops with such distinguished instructors as Gideon Rappaport, San Diego’s premier Shakespearean dramaturge, and Ray Chambers, Head of Acting, Old Globe Theatre/USD. And in a similar vein, as initiated by former Society President Darryl Woodson, we maintain a thriving collaboration with the San Diego Museum of Art that began with the seasonal Art Stops project (now renamed the Books and Letters program), which combines performances by local actors with the appreciation of selected art works. This project provides acting opportunities for our members, as does the Online Shakespeare Showcase, an exciting new forum necessitated by the pandemic that was created by our Director of Programming Patricia Elmore Costa. Both the Art Stops project and the Online Shakespeare Showcase have been jointly produced and directed by Patricia and our long-time Artistic Director John Tessmer. Further, in October of 2021, “The Seasons of Shakespeare” was staged at the outdoor amphitheater at Westminster Presbyterian Church, with 18 actors presenting sonnets, monologues, and scenes. John Tessmer was the director and emcee.
A number of programs have concentrated on musical interpretations, most notably “Shakespeare Goes To The Opera,” in 2009, with accomplished singers performing selections from Verdi, Prokofiev, and Gounod. Likewise, the Society has sponsored several musicales (one in tribute to veterans) that gave outlet to the talents of middle and high school students in pairing Shakespeare’s wisdom with contemporary songs.
The Society has even gone to the movies. In 2007, KPBS film critic Beth Accomando curated a Shakespeare Film Festival at the Museum of Photographic Art, which led to occasional film offerings in the following years. More recently, in the name of outreach, the Society has shown free Shakespeare-themed movies at local libraries. And it is our intent for the future to expand these showings to underserved communities and to highlight Shakespeare films from non-English-speaking cultures, particularly Japan and India. (The acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa based his Throne of Blood on Macbeth and his Ran on King Lear. And the only feature film adaptations of The Comedy of Errors are Bollywood productions.)
And the Society has ended up in court. Since 2016, we have periodically convened scripted mock trials of such protagonists as Prince Hamlet, Duke Prospero, Richard Plantagenet, and Marcus Brutus, casting real-life attorneys as prosecutors and defense counsel to examine and cross-examine actors in the roles of relevant characters (witnesses) from the plays. The audience serves as the jury and, after closing arguments, decides the fate of the defendant in the dock. Retired attorney Gordon Gidlund serves as our Playwright of Mock Trials.
The Roaring ’20s
In 2020, the Society revised its Mission Statement to include the specific goals of promoting inclusivity and diversity through our efforts and of serving as an online gateway for the greater Shakespeare community by advocating relevant activities. Toward these laudable ends and under the savvy guidance of our Director of Technology and Marketing Nathan Agin, the Society has seriously worked to improve its promotional efforts via a revitalized website and a robust social media presence. We frequently receive kudos as to the website and as to our dissemination of news about not only our own activities but also other local Shakespeare events, especially those at area schools. This elevated profile has been critical during the pandemic.
Since its founding, the Society and individual members in their official capacities have frequently received recognition from both public and private institutions for contributions to the community. Examples include the Bravissimo Award of Excellence in Theatre Education (to Alexander Sandie as Artistic Director), the CATE Award of Merit from the Greater San Diego Council of Teachers of English, and the Stages Award from Korbett Kompany Productions. Both the City and County of San Diego have issued proclamations honoring the Society. And the San Diego Performing Arts League has presented its prestigious Star Award to several Society members for outstanding volunteer efforts. Those honorees include Alexander Sandie, Darryl Woodson, Marvin Spira, Mike Auer, Kim Keeline, Quinn Lozar, Susan Abernethy, Tara Pool, Gordon Gidlund, and Nathan Agin.
But all these deserved acknowledgements hardly begin to measure the full extent of time and energy expended over time by all those volunteers too numerous to mention who nonetheless have kept the Bard alive. Special appreciation, though, must be accorded to the Sandie family for their long-lasting and unswerving devotion to the Society.