Shakespeare Festival St. Louis just wrapped its 11th season, with director Sean Graney’s 1950s twist on The Taming of the Shrew. To get the inside scoop, we turned to executive director Rick Dildine, who says next year’s free production in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen will be (drum roll, please!) Othello, under the leadership of returning director Bruce Longworth.

LN: How has the audience responded to The Taming of the Shrew?

RD: The response has been incredible! We have had wonderful audiences laughing for two hours straight at this beautiful comedy, and our attendance numbers have been solid. The biggest compliment I’ve received from people is when they say, I laughed all night long. People have really connected with the humor in this play. I’ve also been very impressed with the number of young people who tell me that the festival has become a tradition for them.

LN: What do people think of the idea of setting it in the ’50s?

RD: My experience so far is that people go in skeptical and come out saying, Wow it really worked. We set this up not to rewrite the story, but to put it in the lens of the 1950s, and people have responded to that in positive ways. At every show we’ve been doing something new called post-show talkbacks—a chance for people to get together after the show and share their experience. People have been relating the play to their experience of growing up in the ’50s, or they say I grew up in that house!  The talks have also gone into what it meant to be a woman in the ’50s and how it has changed now. The real goal of theater is to create a conversation. If we just let it come at us, it’s not art. We’re supposed to talk about it and respond to it.

LN: Is the modern setting a departure from what Shakespeare Festival has done in the past?

RD: We have done two other productions set in a more modern time period: Much Ado About Nothing had a Western concept and The Merry Wives of  Windsor was post-World War II. Shakespeare was writing in the moment for his audience. He didn’t say, How would they have done it 400 years ago? So we were taking that same cue from him. Classic period productions are important as well: We did Hamlet last year, and you would call it a classic period Hamlet. It proves that Shakespeare’s stories are timeless and universal. There’s no other playwright whose work has stood the test of time like his.

LN: Shakespeare Festival does educational theater with kids year-round; how do you keep Shakespeare fresh and relatable for them?

RD: With the educational program, we reach more than 22,000 students per year. We send a 50-minute version of the play into more than 125 different school and community venues. Our first goal is to tell a clear story. We’ve built another impressive program around bullying. We take excerpts from the plays that deal with bullying and put them into a 50-minute play, followed by a workshop. Relevancy only supports the conversation and gets the conversation started. This is the first time our education tour sold out and we’ll be able to almost double it next year because of this bullying program.

LN: Having come from Arkansas initially, what do you think of the arts scene here in St. Louis?

RD: The arts scene here continues to surprise and excite me. I’m so committed to making theater and art here. It’s such a rich palette! Every day I’m inspired by a new person, a new artist, a new institution. We’re looking to other arts groups and how we can partner with them to continue to make the city great. I love being the outsider; I’m always telling people who have been here forever that I love being the pied piper. And I’m having a blast!

    I think what’s exciting for me right now is through this production people are seeing how accessible Shakespeare is. He’s not speaking a foreign language; it’s not a mysterious story. We don’t want to do something that’s foreign to people or have them be intimidated. We want them to see themselves on stage.  LN