Upstate Shakespeare ‘family’ celebrates 25 years with ‘Romeo’ and ‘Tempest’

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Upstate Shakespeare Festival
Photo by Will Crooks.

John Fagan’s worst memory as director of the Upstate Shakespeare Festival is also his best memory.

In 2003, a torrential downpour devastated the festival’s outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “King John.”

“The Reedy River flooded the area and we lost the entire set,” said Fagan, the festival’s producing artistic director.

But then the Greenville community sprang into action.

“As soon as the story went out on the noon news broadcast,” Fagan said, “my phone started ringing off the hook with people saying, ‘We want to help. This is too important to us. How can we help?’

“Soon there were two dozen people down there, dragging stuff out of the mud, recovering as much as we could,” Fagan added. “Around 5 p.m., a woman called and said, ‘I can’t work in the mud, but I want you to tell me how many people you have down there and I’ll send drinks and pizza for everyone.”

Upstate Shakespeare Festival
John Fagan is the producing artistic director for the Upstate Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Will Crooks.

Community volunteers rebuilt the set in Piazza Bergamo in downtown Greenville and the show, against all odds, went on.

Fagan recognized how much Greenville treasured the Upstate Shakespeare Festival, this summer celebrating 25 years of admission-free outdoor performances.

“In the same day, I went from despair, from seeing our entire set, all our hard work, go down the river to suddenly realizing how important we were to this community,” Fagan said.

“I feel like that’s a trust we have to live up to because our audiences are part of the festival,” he added. “They’re part of our family.”

‘Romeo’ and ‘Tempest’

This year’s festival, already underway in Falls Park, features Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (through June 16) and “The Tempest” (July 11-Aug. 4). Plus, the festival will offer a staged reading of “Measure for Measure” (in June and July) indoors at the Hughes Main Library.

Juliet - Upstate Shakespeare Festival
Jaimie Malphrus as Juliet. Photo by Will Crooks.

For the festival’s 25th anniversary season, Fagan wanted something special, thus the ever-popular (perhaps the most popular) Shakespeare play of them all: “Romeo and Juliet.” Adam Jones and Jaimie Malphrus are featured as the star-crossed lovers.

“People love ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” said Fagan, who has led the festival for two decades. “We could perform it every season and the audiences would come out.”

Plus, Fagan, who directs all of Upstate Shakespeare Festival’s plays, loves to revisit a classic after a few years, bringing new and relevant ideas to his staging.

Lately, he’s been thinking about “Romeo and Juliet” as a tragedy not only about passionate young love but also about how tribal hatred can wreak havoc.

“At the end, you have three families devastated,” Fagan said. “You have the Montagues with no heirs, the Capulets with no heirs, the prince with no heirs. You have a community ruined by the ancient feud between these two families. That is what we’re after this time, looking at the destruction of a community as well as these families.”

The fundamentals of an Upstate Shakespeare Festival performance have remained the same throughout its history. The play is briskly delivered in two hours by about two dozen actors dressed in contemporary costumes to emphasize the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes.

Modern clothes also are cooler for the actors on a hot Greenville night.

“Back in the day, Shakespeare’s actors wore their own clothing,” Fagan said. “If they were going to be a lawyer, they’d put on a hat. We re-establish that shorthand. If someone puts on a lab coat, they’re a doctor. I think it’s also among the best ways to tell the story.”

This year, however, for the first time, some Elizabethan costumes will appear in an Upstate Shakespeare production.

“The Capulets’ party is a costume party, an Elizabethan party,” Fagan said. “So, for the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet will still be in their Elizabethan clothing.”

‘Family’ of actors

Romeo - Upstate Shakespeare Festival
Adam Jones as Romeo. Photo by Will Crooks.

The festival’s actors, many of them veterans of past productions, are a uniquely dedicated and tight-knit group, Fagan said. Everyone pitches in, building sets, loading in equipment and tearing it all down in the end.

“We have created a family down here, working in the mud, building things, covered in sawdust and bug spray, but we’re laughing together, enjoying each other’s company, having a great time,” he said.

How does Fagan feel to be celebrating 20 years with the festival?

He laughs: “Exhausted every day, and old! Honestly, though, I’m very, very proud. I would never have believed that we would be here when we started this. I’ve seen people come every year, and children grow up who now are taking part in the shows. That, to me, is just amazing. We know this is sometimes people’s first exposure to live theater and live Shakespeare. I hope they walk away having enjoyed it. And to be a part of the success of Greenville is really exciting. This is Falls Park’s 15th year. We were the first performance at Falls Park.”

Sponsors: The festival is presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina. In addition, the event is funded in part by The Metropolitan Arts Council, which receives support from the city of Greenville, BMW Manufacturing Co., Michelin North America Inc., SEW Eurodrive, and the South Carolina Arts Commission.

What can you bring? Patrons can bring lawn chairs, a blanket, and a picnic. They also can bring alcohol, but they must purchase a wrist band on site to verify patrons are old enough to drink.

Arrive early for “Romeo and Juliet.” The play should be a popular one.

A good place to park: Behind County Square. The festival is a short walk away. Anyone with mobility concerns may call the festival at 864-787-4016.

What if your dog loves Shakespeare? “You’re not supposed to bring dogs,” Fagan said, “but if your dog behaves, you can bring your dog.”

Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Greenville Journal. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

If you go

  • What: “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Tempest,” presented by the Upstate Shakespeare Festival
  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 16 (“Romeo and Juliet”); 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, July 11-Aug. 4 (“The Tempest”)
  • Where: Falls Park, Greenville
  • Tickets: Admission is free
  • Info: 864-787-4016

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If you go

  • What: “Measure for Measure,” presented by the Upstate Shakespeare Festival
  • When: 7 p.m. June 25-27, July 23-24
  • Where: Greenville Public Library (main branch), downtown Greenville
  • Info: 864-787-4016
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