MANCHESTER — Katharine Maness is right: The Bard would probably be quite at home at Shakespeare in the Woods, a three-week event being billed as “an unconventional outdoor classical theater festival in the heart of Southern Vermont.” For here, on a gently rolling lawn behind Riley Rink at Hunter Park, three of William Shakespeare’s works are being brought to life, starting with the tragedy “Coriolanus” beginning Aug. 24.
“Say ‘Shakespeare’ to the average person and the image in their head will be close to original,” says Maness, the festival’s founding artistic director. “I’m more interested in the way I like to think Shakespeare would want it. If he knew his work was being done 500 years later, he would want it to be relevant to contemporary times. And we are also a company that is largely queer, largely women, femme, non-binary.
"'Coriolanus' is a great example. It’s such a masculine play, and it’s not done a lot so it’s not really a problem, but I don’t need to see a cis man play Coriolanus ever again. I’m much more interested in what relevancies, what conversations, can be pulled from these texts that are so pressing in our here and now that may be looked over because there’s this formula people think they need to follow with Shakespeare.”
“Coriolanus” is scheduled to run through Aug. 28. It will be followed by a comedy, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, and then a tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” Sept. 7 to 11. Why these three plays?
“The theme this year is the exploration of the word ‘war’ and all the intricacies of that,” Maness explains. “So having these two, ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘Titus Andronicus,’ which are very physical war-heavy epic stories but also have a lot of interpersonal warrings, whether it’s Coriolanus internally or the political side of warring with the citizens and the nobles. ‘Midsummer’ — relationships, nature and humans. ‘Titus Andronicus’ is a lot of family drama. So, moving beyond what we as a society tend — when we hear the word ‘war’ we tend to think of the battle act but what happens when we really hold that word open and how does it relate to our daily lives.”
“All of our stagings are contemporary or, in certain cases, maybe even a little step into the future,” Maness adds. “I tend to look in shaping a season at what feels urgent right now. I think there is so much urgency where we are, in American society especially, of class disparity, global wars that we are very much involved with even if our soldiers aren’t on the ground somewhere, the climate crisis that we are in. And I think there is very much something coming out of and being in a pandemic when we are all trying to figure out how to reconnect with each other and interact with each other.”
Shakespearean English, which Maness concedes can be considered almost a foreign language by many, can come into focus when an audience sees the action in a contemporary setting. You don’t need “Elizabethan pagentry” to understand that citizens are starving while politicians quarrel, Maness says.
The Shakespeare in the Woods company had its first season here in 2019. The plays featured were “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” The overall theme then, in Maness’ words: “How society, Western societies, do or do not listen to women’s voices.” The COVID pandemic wiped out any plans for 2020, Maness said, and in 2021 the decision was made to replace live performances with a full-length film adaptation of “As You Like It” shot in various local locales. The finished film will be available for streaming on Vimeo by the end of September.
The 2022 company is made up of 15 actors, two stage managers and three directors. They hail from points as far away as California, Georgia, Colorado and Illinois. All are housed in town. They’ve been rehearsing all three plays every weekday in three-hour blocks from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Why did Maness, who is based in New York City, choose Vermont for Shakespeare in the Woods? Well, Maness grew up in Pawlet.
“For a very long time I had the idea that one day I would come home and build a theater in the woods and we’ll do Shakespeare and won’t that be great,” Maness recalled. “In 2017, I was thinking about the next steps of my career. I wanted to focus on Shakespeare and I wanted to make art that had a purpose and reached audiences that didn’t have easy access to it. I wanted to bring my art home. It seemed the perfect place. Theater outside is an incredible thing and Vermont has no shortage of nature.”
Maness also thought the community would be supportive of the effort.
“The idea of doing unconventional Shakespeare out here in stagings people will find familiarity in, when a lot of people think of Shakespeare as something very inaccessible to them or they were forced to read ‘Hamlet’ in their junior year and hated it, doing that level of theater here wasn’t a wild idea to me,” Maness said. “Good Shakespeare, good theater, should be accessible to everyone regardless of geographical or socio-economic standing.”
Maness first acted in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at age 11, and still remembers how the work fired the imagination.
“Shakespeare always makes more sense to me,” Maness says. “And everything about humanity is in all these texts, for better and for worse. Like, it’s a wonderful thing there are so many relevancies in them, but it’s always an incredibly sad thing we as a society have not progressed past certain things.”
Maness hopes the works presented over the next few weeks will spark conversations that might not have otherwise happened among the audience. Maness hopes the audience will feel “connected” to the theater and Shakespeare and see the plays as “relevant to the here and now.”
Tickets for Shakespeare in the Woods are $20 per person and $12 for children age 12 and under for performances Thursday through Sunday at 7 p.m., rain or shine. Wednesday preview performances, also at 7 p.m., are $18 per person, $10 for children 12 and under. (There will also be matinees for students at noon on Fridays. Tickets are $15 per student and chaperones. School bookings should email email@example.com.)
For tickets or more information, go to shakespeareinthewoods.com.