The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death will take place in 2016—yet despite centuries that have passed, his plays still resonate with millions of people worldwide. “The themes are so universal,” explains Rick Dildine, artistic and executive director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. “Throughout different times in our lives, we can continue to discover something about love through Romeo & Juliet...It’s boiling something down to its human essence. We all remember the first time we fell obsessively in love with someone, and it was anything but boring.”
And Shakespeare’s innovations in the field have changed theater forever, Dildine continues. Although during his time, plays were largely for the aristocracy, Shakespeare wrote about people from all levels of society. “All people have a voice. The groundlings all of a sudden saw a duke talking to a chambermaid; a gravedigger talking to a king. It sounds so simple, but to his audiences, it would have been shocking.”
Perhaps it’s the Bard’s universality that explains why Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has grown so quickly in its 15 years. Starting out as an all-volunteer organization in the ’90s, the first season drew 33,000 people to its 10 performances in Forest Park. Today, the nonprofit has a full-time staff of six, in addition to some 500 volunteers, and performs 250 times a year to reach 100,000 audience members annually. In addition to a month-long season in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen, plays are performed in schools across the St. Louis metro area and in rural communities throughout the state. The nonprofit also ventures into local neighborhoods for year-long ‘In the Streets’ projects that create new versions of Shakespeare’s plays to tell the neighborhood’s stories.
“Theater is a powerful tool for social change,” Dildine says. “We practice that when people sit blanket-to-blanket in Forest Park and break bread, and when we go into the street to tell a story about a neighborhood.” While it may not have always been this way, for at least the past 50 years in America, Shakespeare has come to represent equality, he says. “There’s the famous Shakespeare in the Park in New York, and we have them to thank for that,” Dildine says, adding that it’s no accident that Shakespeare Festival provides professional-quality theater free of charge, with no turnstiles. “Everyone should have a seat at the table. The only way we can move forward and be better is if all people can come together and break bread.”
Dildine credits the organization’s founding board for setting the artistic bar high from the very beginning. “They spent three years raising money for the first year’s performances,” he says. Though the fundraising was done entirely by volunteers, the play was directed and performed by top-tier professionals. “They had no clue if people would come, and thousands came.” His hope is that the organization will stay true to those artistic standards in the future, while making steps to further increase its community impact. “If we think of theater only as aesthetic, then we’re missing a huge piece of the iceberg,” he says. “A playwright sees conflict in society and wants to trigger change. The really good ones stand the test of time.”
And the very best theater companies do the same.
Jessica Holzer, Volunteer
When Jessica Holzer first became involved with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in 2002, she admits it wasn’t because she knew a lot about the Bard—but she loved Forest Park. “I live in the Central West End and I use Forest Park all the time—it’s an incredible resource,” she says. “I love the Art Museum, the History Museum and the Science Museum; for the past 40 years, my family and I have used Forest Park. So I thought the idea of having Shakespeare in the Park was incredible.”
When Holzer, managing director at Citi, got to experience a Shakespeare Festival performance for the first time, she saw how right that first impression was. “It’s wonderful to see 3,000 to 5,000 people sitting in Shakespeare Glen with their friends and family, having picnics and having a wonderful time, and they all share in this experience from a playwright who first started delivering his plays in that type of environment. These plays were made for the common people; it wasn’t for the aristocracy, and the topics are about the entire spectrum of emotions that we all share as human beings.”
Serving first as a board member, then as a vice-chair and later as board chair, Holzer has attended virtually every Forest Park performance for the past several years. Now the immediate past chair, she enjoys walking through the crowd and seeing the same groups of people—with their picnic on a table topped by candles, or with a 30-person cocktail party—year after year. “There are all these traditions associated with the audience, which is great.”
While serving as chair, Holzer says her top priority was to review the nonprofit’s strategic plan and ensure the organization would be able to continue its growth and success. “When I became vice-chair, it was Rick Dildine’s second year here, and he’s an extraordinary executive and artistic director for us. It’s been a magnificent fit,” she says. “It was critically important that we be able to support all of his wonderful ideas and the innovation that he brought to us and leverage all of that so we could keep moving the organization in a commensurate manner.”