When scholars refer to William Shakespeare’s canon — his “complete works” — they typically count 38 plays, written between 1590 and 1612. Only six modern theater companies have staged them all, a feat called “completing the canon.” But this week Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will do just that when it opens the rarely staged The Two Noble Kinsmen on Friday. Joining the ranks of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the U.K., “Cincy Shakes,” as its supporters call it, is certainly the smallest organization to check off the entire list. And our local Shakespeare company did so in a phenomenally short period, accomplishing the task in conjunction with its 20th anniversary.
If you’ve been paying attention since it began performing at Gabriel’s Corner in Over-the-Rhine as Fahrenheit Theatre Company back in 1994, you might be personally eligible to join a rare club of theatergoers who have seen every one of Shakespeare’s known plays. “The entire body of Shakespeare’s work has been available to Cincinnati audiences over the last 20 years,” says artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips, “including audience favorites like A Midsummer Night’s Dream to obscure titles like The Life and Death of King John and Timon of Athens.”
Counting The Two Noble Kinsmen, CSC has mounted 78 mainstage productions of Shakespeare’s works, offering numerous opportunities to see the better-known shows. More than one-third of them have received three or four stagings since the summer of 1994 when The Taming of the Shrew got things going for Fahrenheit; the Shrew returned in 1999, 2003 and 2009. Other works presented four times are Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seven more have been staged three times: Julius Caesar, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and The Comedy of Errors.
On the other hand, The Two Noble Kinsmen is so rarely staged that it’s drawing theatergoers from great distances.
“I have a life goal of seeing every Shakespeare play in either play or movie form,” says Kjersten Hayes of Bellingham, Wash. “The Two Noble Kinsmen is the only one I have left to see. Every six months or so for the last several years I’ve Googled the title to see if it will be playing. This year, when I saw it was playing in Cincinnati, I decided to just take the plunge and make a trip of it. It will be the last Shakespeare play in the canon that I haven’t seen and my first time to Cincinnati!”
David and Amy Secord are coming from Vancouver, Canada with friends from Seattle to see the show. “We’ve been searching for this title across the United States for the past two years. We even set up a news alert to tell us if it is being done.”
MANY ELEMENTS IN THE EQUATION
Just how did Cincinnati Shakespeare add up to 38 separate works and 78 productions in 20 years? There are many more numbers in this equation, starting with three: the head count of drama grads from James Madison University in Virginia who fanned out post-graduation in 1992-1993 to find a city ripe for a classical theater. Nick Rose spent time in Atlanta, Marni Penning in Washington, D.C. and Jasson Minadakis came to Cincinnati as an intern at Ensemble Theatre.
They decided southwest Ohio was the place and launched Fahrenheit Theatre Company on a shoestring budget in mid-1994. Minadakis was the energetic artistic director; Penning and Rose were the heart and soul of its acting company.
The first productions were at Gabriel’s Corner, an Over-the-Rhine church basement at Sycamore and Liberty streets. Their nomadic existence took them to Corryville’s Dance Hall and Covington’s then-dilapidated Carnegie Center.
In 1996, Fahrenheit moved to the flexible Fifth Third Bank Theater at downtown’s new Aronoff Center. In 1997, Fahrenheit changed its name to Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and expanded the number of actors in its company to 11. In March 1998, they found a more permanent home at 719 Race Street, once the home of The Movies Repertory Cinema. There was stall-styled seating onstage, budgets were tight, actors doubled as administrators and stagehands, and everything was rough and ready. Today it’s a smoother, more professional space and operation bursting at the seams (it has less than 200 seats) and talking openly about finding a new home.
Growth came with numerous challenges. Minadakis had a broader vision of the fare he wanted to produce, which encompassed works by contemporary writers. His June 2001 premiere of A Chance of Lightning by Cincinnati playwright Joe McDonough was a local award winner, and in June 2002 he staged another fine new script, Mia McCullough’s Chagrin Falls, winner of Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Citation for Best New Work as well as the Osborn Award for an emerging playwright from the American Theatre Critics Association.
But Cincinnati audiences could find contemporary shows at other theaters, including the Playhouse and Ensemble Theatre. When several new titles fell far short of box office projections in the fall of 2002 (a 2000 New York hit, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, had 14 percent attendance), the company’s delicate finances teetered on the brink and Minadakis decided to move on. He landed at Actors Express in Atlanta and subsequently Marin Theatre Company in California, where he remains a respected champion of contemporary playwrights, including Lauren Gunderson and Bill Cain, both winners of the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award.
Co-founder Nick Rose took over artistic leadership in 2003, partnering with Brian Isaac Phillips who spent 1998-1999 as an acting intern at Ensemble Theatre. Rose promised, “We’ll definitely be here. We’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere.”
He was true to his word: Phillips took on the artistic director’s role a year later (Rose returned to his acting career) and the company has spent a decade growing into its position as one of the city’s major theaters. It renamed itself once more to clarify its identity as a year-round performer, becoming Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in 2006. The group has clearly established itself as a “classic stage,” not just presenting plays by Shakespeare but other great scripts by British and American playwrights plus stage adaptations of literary works including Pride and Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath, Oliver Twist and To Kill a Mockingbird. Next season opens with The Great Gatsby.
But Shakespeare remains the company’s middle name, and typically four of his plays are presented each season. This season CSC has presented Twelfth Night and Hamlet (plus Tom Stoppard’s riff on minor characters from the great tragedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) as well as Henry IV, Parts I and II. That recent production is, in fact, the second step in another “completion” project: Another numerical accomplishment that few theaters have accomplished is under way, staging the so-called “History Cycle,” producing Shakespeare’s eight plays based on the kings of England in the chronological order of their reigns. Last season’s Richard II and the just completed Henry IV have been the first steps; Henry V happens next year, to be followed by Henry VI (actually three plays) and Richard III.
ADDING IT ALL UP
Approximately 120 actors and technicians have come to town to be part of the company; 75 have remained here, working in one way or another. Over the years many performed as much for love as money. Early, most actors were paid approximately $300 per week, hardly a living wage — and they handled administrative tasks as well. Co-founder Marni Penning designed posters and delivered them personally all over town. By the fall of 2002, pay had grown to roughly $20,000 annually for a few full-time performers, but budgets remained extremely tight.
Fahrenheit mounted its first season for less than $10,000 and quickly accelerated — perhaps too quickly. By 2002, the budget was initially projected to be $820,000. But that was the season when anticipated audiences for new works didn’t show up. Following administrative changes, a more conservative estimate was established, and by the company’s 10th anniversary in 2004, a balanced budget of $500,000 was in place. Today it’s grown to approximately $1.5 million. Fewer than 50 subscribers signed up for Fahrenheit’s first season of four shows; today it’s more than 1,000 for 11 productions. Attendance for the 20th season has exceeded 25,000.
In 1997, Minadakis spoke of completing
the canon, chuckling at the prospect, more a dream than a realistic
goal. But it’s a dream come true in 2014 and the numbers all add up to
the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the one and only choice for fans of
classical theater in this corner of Ohio — and beyond.
BE A PART OF HISTORY
The Two Noble Kinsmen is rarely produced. Derived from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it’s a fairytale story of two friends, Palamon and Arcite, captured and imprisoned during war, who become impassioned rivals when they fall in love with the same princess. The play dates from late in Shakespeare’s career (around 1613), and he probably co-authored it with John Fletcher (similar to the way multiple writers today cobble together screenplays for movies). It has not always been considered part of the canon.
Everyone who attends The Two Noble Kinsmen will receive a commemorative coin to mark this rare experience. Cincy Shakes is working with the Cincinnati Art Museum to build a participatory arts experience in the lobby that will give audience members a chance to share how many of Shakespeare’s plays they have seen, using marble pieces to vote.
Performances are scheduled from May 2-25 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets ($22-$35) call the box office (513-381-2273 x 1) or go to cincyshakes.com. If seats remain 30 minutes before a performance, student rush tickets can be purchased for $14 with a valid student ID.